Hard Money versus Paper Money

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 17th, 2014

Economics 101

(Originally published April 1st, 2013)

Money would have No Value if People with Talent didn’t Create things of Value

Money is a temporary storage of wealth.  We created it because of the high search costs of the barter system.  It took a lot of time for two people to find each other who each had what the other wanted.  And we started trading things to have things we couldn’t make efficiently for ourselves.  Someone may have been a superb potter but was a horrible farmer.  So, instead, the potter did what he did best.  And traded the pottery he made for the things he wanted that he was not good at making.  Or growing.  Before that we were self-sufficient.  Whatever you wanted you had to provide it yourself.

As we go back in time we learn why money is a temporary storage of wealth.  For it was the final piece in a growing and prosperous economy.  And at the beginning it was people with talent, each creating something of value.  Something of value that they could trade for something else of value.  It’s the creative talent of people that has value.  And we see that value in the goods and/or services they make or provide.  Money temporarily held that value.  So we could carry it with us easier to go to market to trade with other talented and creative people.  Who may not have wanted what we made or did.  But would gladly take our money.

So we took our goods to market.  People that wanted them traded for them.  They traded money for our goods.  Then we took that money and traded for what we wanted elsewhere in the market.  Trade grew.  With some people becoming professional traders.  By trading money for goods from distant lands.  Then trading these goods for money at the local market.  People who didn’t spend time creating anything.  But bought and sold the creative talent of others.  Who were able to do that because of money.  The creative talent came first.  Then the goods.  And then the money.  For money is a temporary storage of wealth.  Which has no value if no one is making anything of value.  Because if you can’t buy anything what good is having money?

There were no more Gold Certificates in Circulation than there was Gold in the Vault to Exchange them For

These early traders used a variety of things for money.  Pigs, tobacco, grain, oil, etc.  What we call commodity money.  Which was valuable by itself.  As people consumed these commodities.  Which is what gave them the ability to store value.  But because we could consume these they did not make the best money.  Also, they weren’t that portable.  And not easy to make change with.  Which is why we turned to specie.  Such as gold and silver.  Hard money.  It was durable.  Portable.  Divisible.  Fungible.  For example, all Spanish dollars were the same while all pigs weren’t.  One pig could weigh 30 pounds more than another.  So pigs weren’t fungible.  Or durable.  Portable.  And, though divisible, making change wasn’t easy.

So in time traders big and small turned to specie as the medium of exchange.  For all the reasons noted above.  If you worked hard to produce fine pottery you trusted in specie.  You would accept specie for your pottery goods.  Because you knew this hard money would hold its value.  And you could use it in the future to buy what you wanted.  No matter how long that may be.  Why?  Because the money supply remained relatively constant.  As it took a lot of work and great expense to mine and refine ore to make specie out of it.  So there was little inflation when using hard money.  Which meant if you saved for a rainy day that hard money would be there for you.

Gold and silver could be heavy to carry around.  Anyone struggling under the weight of their specie were targets for thieves.  Who wanted that money.  Without creating anything of value to bring to market.  So we found a way to improve a little on using gold and silver.  By locking our gold and silver in a vault.  And carrying around receipts for our gold and silver to use as money.  These gold certificates were promises to pay in gold.  People could continue to use them as money.  Or they could take these receipts back to the vault and exchange them for the gold inside.  These gold certificates were as good as gold.  And there were no more gold certificates in circulation than there was gold in the vault to exchange them for.

Governments Today use nothing but Paper Money because it gives them Privilege, Wealth and Power

Some saw advantages of expanding the money supply with paper currency.  Money that isn’t backed by gold or any other asset.  Money easy to print.  And easy to borrow.  Allowing rich people to borrow large sums of money to buy more assets.  And get richer.  Giving them more power.  And if you were the one printing and loaning that money it gave you great wealth and power.  So having a bank charter was a way to wealth and power.  You could make it easy for those who can help you to borrow money.  While making it difficult for those who oppose you to borrow money.  So there were those in business and in government that liked un-backed paper money.  Because a select few could borrow it cheaply and get rich and powerful.

While some liked these banks and that paper money there were others who bitterly opposed them.  Some who didn’t like to see so much power in so few hands.  And the hard money people.  Who wanted a money that held its value.  The common people.  People who couldn’t borrow large sums of cheap money.  But people who had to get by on less as the inflation from printing all those paper dollars raised prices.  Leaving them with less purchasing power.  Making it harder for them to get by.  Often having to turn to the hated banks to borrow money.  Again and again.  Such that the interest on their loans consumed even more of their limited funds.  Making life more tenuous.  And more bitter between the classes.  The rich who benefited from the cheap paper money.  And the common people who paid the price of all that inflation.

Rich people, on the other hand, loved that inflation.  It helped them make money.  When they bought something at a lower price and sold it at a higher price they made a lot of money.  The greater the inflation the greater the selling price.  And the more profit.  Also, the money they owed was easier to pay off with money that was worth less than when they borrowed it.  Allowing rich people to get even richer.  While the common people saw only higher prices.  And the value of their meager savings lose value.  So this cheap paper money fostered great class warfare.  The hard money people hated the paper money people.  Debtors hated creditors.  The middling classes hated the large landowners, merchants, manufacturers and, of course, the bankers.  And those who had talent to create things hated those who just made money with money.  The greater the inflation the greater the divide between the people.  And the greater wealth and power that select few acquired.  This is what paper money gave you.  Privilege.  Which is why most governments today use nothing but paper money.

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Roman Denarius, New World Gold and Silver, American Continental and German Mark

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 25th, 2013

History 101

Money that is not Scarce is a Poor Temporary Storage of Wealth

They say money doesn’t grow on trees.  And it’s a good thing it doesn’t.  For money is a temporary storage of wealth.  It temporarily stores value.  And one if its attributes is that it has to be scarce.  For example, let’s say you are a highly skilled tomato grower.  And you work in your garden 12 hours each day weeding, fertilizing, watering, tying, pruning, etc., your many fields of tomato plants.  Producing beautiful tomatoes that everyone just loves.  You love your tomatoes so much that you actually gave up your day job to grow them full time.  And support your family with the proceeds from selling your tomatoes.  Which you will exchange with others for money.  Provided that money is scarce.  And will hold the value of your tomatoes.  Until you can exchange that money for something you want.

Now let’s assume money grows on trees.  Anyone can plant one in their backyard.  And it grows like a weed.  That is, you don’t have to fertilize it or water it or do anything else for it.  And anytime you want something you just walk to your money tree and pick the bills you need.  We would never have to work again if we all had money trees in our backyard.  Wouldn’t that be great?  Or would it?  What would happen if everyone quit working because they, too, had a money tree in their backyard?  If no one worked then there would be nothing to buy with the money from your money tree.

But there is another problem.  If everyone had a money tree there would be such much money in circulation that it would no longer be scarce.  And if it’s not scarce it isn’t money.  It isn’t a temporary storage of wealth.  It won’t temporarily store value.  Because someone that has something of value, say delicious tomatoes, won’t want to trade them for something that he or she can just pick off of his own money tree.  Instead, he or she would rather trade those tomatoes for something that does have value.  Like, say, mozzarella cheese.  So a skilled cheese-maker and the skilled tomato-grower can meet to trade things of value with each other.  Tomatoes and mozzarella cheese.  And then each can make a delicious Caprese salad.  Which also has value.  Unlike money that grows on trees that anybody can pick whenever they want to.  Filling the world with people with lots of money but nothing to buy.  Because no one works to grow or make anything.

When Spain brought back New World Gold and Silver it unleashed Inflation in the Old World

For anything to be money it must be scarce.  Just think of the laws of supply and demand.  If there are droughts all summer long farmers have smaller harvests.  Which raises the price of what they bring to market.  Because demand is greater than the supply.  If there was a great growing season they have bumper crops.  Which lowers the price of what they bring to market.  Because supply is greater than demand.  So the scarcer something is the more valuable it is.  And so it is with money.

The main Roman coin was the silver denarius.  As the Roman Empire reached its zenith her borders stopped moving out.  The Roman legions stopped conquering new lands.  And without new conquest there were no spoils to send back to Rome.  So the Romans had to raise taxes to pay for the cost of empire.  The administration of it.  The protection of it.  And a growing welfare state to keep the people content.  To help with these great expenditures they began to debase the denarius.  Mixing more and more lead into the coin.  Reducing the silver content.  So they could make more coins with the available silver.  Thus making these coins less scarce.  And less valuable.  Unleashing an inflation so bad that it devalued the denarius so much that no amount of them could buy anything.   Eventually even the Roman government would refuse to accept it in payment of taxes.  Demanding gold instead.  Or payment in kind.

When Spain arrived in the New World they found a lot of gold and silver.  Which Europeans used as money in the Old World.  The Spanish brought so much gold and silver back to the Old World that it greatly expanded the money supply.  Making gold and silver less scarce.  And less valuable.  Requiring more of it to buy the things it once bought.  So prices rose.  Because of the inflation of the money supply.

The War Reparations the Versailles Treaty imposed on Germany led to their Hyperinflation

During the American Revolution there was little specie (i.e., gold and silver coin) in the colonies.  As wars are expensive this made it difficult to finance the war.  The Continental Congress asked for contributions from the states.  And could only hope the states would give them some money.  For they had no taxing powers.  But they never were able to raise enough money.  So they borrowed what they could.  And then started printing paper money.  The continental.  But they printed so many of them that they were far from scarce.  The massive inflation devalued the continental so much that it created the expression “not worth a continental.”  Which meant something was absolutely worthless.  The people would refuse to accept them as legal tender from the Continental Army because they were worthless pieces of paper.  So the army took what they needed from the people.  And gave them IOUs that Congress would settle at some later date.

The Germans paid for World War I by borrowing money.  The increased debt of the nation during the war devalued the currency.  The German mark.  It took more and more of them to exchange for stronger currencies.  Like the U.S. dollar.  The Versailles Treaty that ended the war saddled Germany with the responsibility for the war.  And made them pay enormous amounts of war reparations.  In gold.  Or foreign currency.  So the Germans turned up the printing presses.  And printed marks like there was no tomorrow.  Making them less scarce.  And worth less.  It took more and more of them to exchange for foreign currency to make their reparation payments.  But they didn’t care what the exchange rate was.  For whatever amount of devalued marks they needed to exchange they just turned to their printing presses.  And printed whatever they needed.  This rapid inflation devalued the mark more.  Requiring them to print more.  Which just fed into the inflation.  Eventually bringing on a hyperinflation where it took enormous amounts of marks to buy anything.  For example, it was cheaper and easier to burn marks than it was to buy firewood to burn.

Anytime you make money less scarce you make it worth less.  The inflation of the money supply devalues the currency.  Which raises prices.  Because it takes more of the devalued currency to buy what it once did before the inflation.  So expanding the money supply leads to price inflation.  Good if you’re a rich investor.  But if you’re someone just trying to buy firewood to keep from freezing to death during the winter?  Not so good.  The Romans, the Europeans, the Americans and the Germans all suffered from bad inflation.  Some worse than others.  If the inflation is so bad, such as in the case of hyperinflation, people may lose all confidence in the currency.  And simply stop using it.  Going to a barter system instead.  Like when a tomato-grower trades his tomatoes for a cheese-maker’s mozzarella cheese.

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Hard Money versus Paper Money

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 1st, 2013

Economics 101

Money would have No Value if People with Talent didn’t Create things of Value

Money is a temporary storage of wealth.  We created it because of the high search costs of the barter system.  It took a lot of time for two people to find each other who each had what the other wanted.  And we started trading things to have things we couldn’t make efficiently for ourselves.  Someone may have been a superb potter but was a horrible farmer.  So, instead, the potter did what he did best.  And traded the pottery he made for the things he wanted that he was not good at making.  Or growing.  Before that we were self-sufficient.  Whatever you wanted you had to provide it yourself.

As we go back in time we learn why money is a temporary storage of wealth.  For it was the final piece in a growing and prosperous economy.  And at the beginning it was people with talent, each creating something of value.  Something of value that they could trade for something else of value.  It’s the creative talent of people that has value.  And we see that value in the goods and/or services they make or provide.  Money temporarily held that value.  So we could carry it with us easier to go to market to trade with other talented and creative people.  Who may not have wanted what we made or did.  But would gladly take our money.

So we took our goods to market.  People that wanted them traded for them.  They traded money for our goods.  Then we took that money and traded for what we wanted elsewhere in the market.  Trade grew.  With some people becoming professional traders.  By trading money for goods from distant lands.  Then trading these goods for money at the local market.  People who didn’t spend time creating anything.  But bought and sold the creative talent of others.  Who were able to do that because of money.  The creative talent came first.  Then the goods.  And then the money.  For money is a temporary storage of wealth.  Which has no value if no one is making anything of value.  Because if you can’t buy anything what good is having money?

There were no more Gold Certificates in Circulation than there was Gold in the Vault to Exchange them For

These early traders used a variety of things for money.  Pigs, tobacco, grain, oil, etc.  What we call commodity money.  Which was valuable by itself.  As people consumed these commodities.  Which is what gave them the ability to store value.  But because we could consume these they did not make the best money.  Also, they weren’t that portable.  And not easy to make change with.  Which is why we turned to specie.  Such as gold and silver.  Hard money.  It was durable.  Portable.  Divisible.  Fungible.  For example, all Spanish dollars were the same while all pigs weren’t.  One pig could weigh 30 pounds more than another.  So pigs weren’t fungible.  Or durable.  Portable.  And, though divisible, making change wasn’t easy.

So in time traders big and small turned to specie as the medium of exchange.  For all the reasons noted above.  If you worked hard to produce fine pottery you trusted in specie.  You would accept specie for your pottery goods.  Because you knew this hard money would hold its value.  And you could use it in the future to buy what you wanted.  No matter how long that may be.  Why?  Because the money supply remained relatively constant.  As it took a lot of work and great expense to mine and refine ore to make specie out of it.  So there was little inflation when using hard money.  Which meant if you saved for a rainy day that hard money would be there for you.

Gold and silver could be heavy to carry around.  Anyone struggling under the weight of their specie were targets for thieves.  Who wanted that money.  Without creating anything of value to bring to market.  So we found a way to improve a little on using gold and silver.  By locking our gold and silver in a vault.  And carrying around receipts for our gold and silver to use as money.  These gold certificates were promises to pay in gold.  People could continue to use them as money.  Or they could take these receipts back to the vault and exchange them for the gold inside.  These gold certificates were as good as gold.  And there were no more gold certificates in circulation than there was gold in the vault to exchange them for.

Governments Today use nothing but Paper Money because it gives them Privilege, Wealth and Power

Some saw advantages of expanding the money supply with paper currency.  Money that isn’t backed by gold or any other asset.  Money easy to print.  And easy to borrow.  Allowing rich people to borrow large sums of money to buy more assets.  And get richer.  Giving them more power.  And if you were the one printing and loaning that money it gave you great wealth and power.  So having a bank charter was a way to wealth and power.  You could make it easy for those who can help you to borrow money.  While making it difficult for those who oppose you to borrow money.  So there were those in business and in government that liked un-backed paper money.  Because a select few could borrow it cheaply and get rich and powerful.

While some liked these banks and that paper money there were others who bitterly opposed them.  Some who didn’t like to see so much power in so few hands.  And the hard money people.  Who wanted a money that held its value.  The common people.  People who couldn’t borrow large sums of cheap money.  But people who had to get by on less as the inflation from printing all those paper dollars raised prices.  Leaving them with less purchasing power.  Making it harder for them to get by.  Often having to turn to the hated banks to borrow money.  Again and again.  Such that the interest on their loans consumed even more of their limited funds.  Making life more tenuous.  And more bitter between the classes.  The rich who benefited from the cheap paper money.  And the common people who paid the price of all that inflation.

Rich people, on the other hand, loved that inflation.  It helped them make money.  When they bought something at a lower price and sold it at a higher price they made a lot of money.  The greater the inflation the greater the selling price.  And the more profit.  Also, the money they owed was easier to pay off with money that was worth less than when they borrowed it.  Allowing rich people to get even richer.  While the common people saw only higher prices.  And the value of their meager savings lose value.  So this cheap paper money fostered great class warfare.  The hard money people hated the paper money people.  Debtors hated creditors.  The middling classes hated the large landowners, merchants, manufacturers and, of course, the bankers.  And those who had talent to create things hated those who just made money with money.  The greater the inflation the greater the divide between the people.  And the greater wealth and power that select few acquired.  This is what paper money gave you.  Privilege.  Which is why most governments today use nothing but paper money.

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Government Spending

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 18th, 2012

Economics 101

Money is a Temporary Storage of Wealth used to Reduce the Search Costs in the Barter System

What came first?  Money?  Or the things we buy with money?  Here’s a hint.  Once upon a time there was no money.  Yet we still had things.  We bought things without money, you ask?  Yes.  We did.  And we bought things the only way we could before there was money.  We traded.  We bartered.  We traded things.  Things we built.  Things we grew.  Things we dug out of the ground.  Things.

These things had value.  Value we created with our labors.  Either by digging something valuable out of the ground.  Growing something of value.  Or making something useful that people valued.  And something people were willing to trade something they produced that had value.  These people created value.  They created wealth.  They were wealth creators.  And when they come together to trade the valuable products of their labors they were trading wealth.  After their bartered trade all parties in that trade walked away believing they came out ahead in that trade.  For each walked away with something they valued more.

But the barter system proved to be inefficient.  As the economy became more complex there were so many things to trade for.  And people valued some things more than they valued others.  Which sometimes made it difficult to find someone to trade with.  Search costs increased.  People spent more time looking for people to trade with than they did producing wealth.  Which is why people created money.  A temporary storage of wealth.  Using money greatly reduced search costs.  Instead of finding someone to trade with that also wanted what you had to trade all you had to do was find what you wanted.  Then trade your money for it.  Then the seller could take that money and trade it for something he wanted.  Regardless if the person was interested in anything he produced.

Ultimately People don’t want Money, they want the Things they can Trade Money For

No one likes paying taxes.  They’re one of those necessary evils to live in a civilization.  Because they are the only way to pay for public goods.  Early public goods may have consisted of a granary to store food.  And an army.  To protect your civilization from the hostile environment around it.  Government could tax the grain producers by taking a portion of their crops for the public granary.  And to feed the army.  They could tax the shoemakers and take some shoes for the army to wear.  And so on.  The government would tax the producers by taking a small percentage of what they produced to provide the public goods.   

Money changed this a little.  Instead of shipping a portion of grain from all the grain producers to the public granary the grain producers paid their taxes in money.  For it was easier to collect money from all the grain producers than it was collecting grain.  Then the government would use that tax money to purchase grain to fill the public granary.  Even having the local grain producers compete with each other to fill that large public purchase of grain at the lowest price.  Just like buyers and sellers used money to make their trades easier so did government use money to make public spending easier.  But one thing didn’t change.  Money was only a temporary storage of wealth.  The buyers and sellers created wealth.  And the government took a portion of the wealth they created.

This is a crucial point in understanding government spending.  Money isn’t what’s important.  It’s those things of value the wealth producers create that is important.  Because ultimately people don’t want money.  They want the things they can trade that money for.  Those wonderful things creative wealth producers bring to market.  Things government does NOT produce.  Even though they can print money they cannot produce these things of value.  Other people do.  Other people who incur costs.  Who pay for supplies.  And provide pay and benefits to their employees.  Which is why they don’t like paying taxes.  Because it leaves them less to spend on their business.  Or on themselves.  And they don’t like the government printing money.  Because money is a temporary storage of wealth.  And when you arbitrarily increase the amount of money in circulation for the same amount of wealth in the economy you cause inflation.  More dollars chasing the same amount of goods.  So the dollar is worth less than it was before the inflation.  And because the dollar is worth less it takes more of them to buy what they once did.  Meaning prices increase.  Which is why people don’t like inflation.

A Country never went Bankrupt by Spending too Little

So even though the government has the power to print money responsible governments don’t.  Because inflation causes a lot of economic damage.  So governments rely on taxes to fund their public goods.  But excessive taxation also causes economic damage.  By pulling wealth out of the private sector.  Leaving business owners with less.  And increasing the cost of business.  Making it difficult to hire more people.  Which lowers economic activity.  For the more people who work and earn a paycheck the more people are in the market place buying things.  So it’s important for governments not to tax too much.  Which means they shouldn’t spend too much.

Of course that’s easier said than done.  Because people tend to vote for politicians that give them free stuff.  Which is why politicians love to spend.  And to tax.  Tax and spend.  And during good economic times when government coffers are flush with cash they tend to spend more.  And tax more.  Because they can.  But they all run into the same problem.  Government raises revenue on economic activity.  By applying tax rates on income, sales, value added, property, etc.  The government collects a small percentage on these items based on the tax rate.  When income, sales, value, etc., are large that tax rate generates a lot of revenue.  When income, sales, value, etc., are low that tax rate generates a lower amount of revenue.  And when governments spend too much during the good times they raise their spending obligations.  Based on that robust economic activity.  But when the economic activity becomes less robust there is a problem.  Tax revenues fall.  Because those tax rates are taking a percentage of a smaller income, sales, value, etc.  So tax revenue falls while those spending obligations remain the same.  Leading to a budget shortfall.  Which leaves them with two choices.  Cut spending.  Or borrow money.

Well, people rarely vote for people that take stuff away from them.  So the politicians borrow money.  And they keep borrowing money.  Because their spending obligations were based on the rosiest of projections of economic activity.  Which rarely happens in real life.  So they borrow.  And they borrow more.  Soon they have to borrow to pay the interest on what they’ve borrowed previously.  Soon the debt grows so great that the credit rating agencies lower their credit rating.  Making future borrowing more expensive as they have to pay a higher interest rate.  Some may turn to higher tax rates.  But that also lowers economic activity.  Which reduces overall tax revenue.  Some may turn to printing money. Which also lowers economic activity.  And overall tax revenues.  By causing inflation.  And raising prices.  Which eventually leads a country down the road to bankruptcy.  And on their knees begging for a bailout.  Which is the ultimate destination for all nations with excessive government spending.  To throw themselves on the mercy of those countries who have lived within their means.  Which rarely ends well.  Because they expect the bankrupt country to start living within their means.  Meaning austerity.  Which the people accustomed to generous government spending are not too keen on in the least.  And often reply to austerity demands with a little rioting in the streets.

There is one simple way to avoid all of these troubles, though.  All a nation has to do is NOT spend so much.  If they do then they will never have a financial crisis.  For a country never went bankrupt by spending too little.

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Mercantilism

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 14th, 2012

Economics 101

Wealth is the Stuff we use our Talent and Ability to Make

Mercantilism gave us the United States.  For it was because of these policies that the British established colonies in North America.  And it was those same policies that led to American Independence.  Because those polices pissed off the Americans. 

The mercantile system came into being as nation states arose from feudal estates.  Kings arose and consolidated these estates into larger kingdoms.  Then one king arose to consolidate the kingdoms into a nation.  Creating Spain, France, the Netherlands, England, etc.  Enlightened thinking and better technology created food surpluses.  With food surpluses a middle class of artisans arose.  And manufactured goods.  People met in markets to trade their food and goods.   These markets grew into cities.  All of this economic activity created wealth.  Food.  And manufactured goods.  That we bought with money.  Often silver and gold. 

There was wealth.  And there was money.  Two different things.  Wealth is the stuff we use our talent and ability to make.  Food and manufactured goods, for example.  And the more food and manufactured goods a nation has the wealthier that nation is.  This is a critical point.  And the mercantile policies ultimately failed because those policies mistook money for wealth.  But money is not wealth.  It’s a temporary storage of wealth.  To make our trading of food and manufactured goods easier.  By reducing the search costs to find people to trade with.  Which is why the barter system failed in a complex economy.  It just took too long to find people to trade with.  Money solved that problem.  Because you could trade what you had for money.  Then trade your money for what you wanted.

England used the Positive Flow of Bullion to Finance the Building of the Royal Navy

Mercantilism focused on the money.  And used wealth to accumulate it.  Instead of the other way around.  The way most advanced nations do today.  These European nations accumulated money with international trade.  Beginning in the 15th century they started looking at the balance of trade between nations.  And did everything they could to maintain a positive balance of trade.  Meaning they tried to export more than they imported.  Why?  Well, nations often did trade with each other.  So they owed each other money.  And when you settled your account if other nations owed you more than you owed them there was a net flow of money to you.  Bullion.  Silver and gold.  Which is what they wanted.

To maintain a positive balance of trade the government actively intervened into the economy.  It set up monopolies.  It provided subsidies for manufacturers who exported their goods for bullion.  It placed tariffs on imports.  Or simply blocked the importation of any goods that they produced domestically.  They set up colonies to harvest raw materials to ship back to the mother country.  Which would use those raw materials in their factories to produced higher valued finished goods.  That they would export.  Especially to their colonies.  Which were convenient captive markets for their finished goods.  On the mother country’s ships.  Through the mother country’s ports.  Where they, of course taxed it.  Guaranteeing that at every step of the way they added to the positive bullion flow back to the mother country.

And it worked.  To a certain extent.  England used that positive flow of bullion to finance the building of the Royal Navy.  Which proved invaluable in the wars that followed in the mercantile world.  For mercantilism is a zero-sum game.  For every winner there had to be a loser.  Which is why this era was an era of world war.  To wrest control of those colonies.  And those sea lanes.  Great Britain came out the victor.  Thanks to their Royal Navy.  But it wasn’t all good.  For Spain found gold in the New World.  And they took it.  Shipped it back to the Old World.  Just like a good mercantilist would.  Which caused problems in the Old World.  Because money is not wealth.  It’s a temporary storage of wealth.  And when they inflated their money supply it took more of it to hold the same amount of value it once did.  Because there was so much of it in circulation.  And what happens during inflation?  Prices rise.  Because the money is worth less it takes more of it to buy the same things as it did before.  So by hording bullion to create wealth they actually destroyed wealth.  With wealth-destroying inflation.

With the Boston Tea Party the Americans Renounced Mercantilism and Demanded Free Trade

Spain was one of the greatest mercantile nations of the era.  But they quickly became a shadow of their former self.  Even though they had more bullion than their European neighbors.  For it turned out that those mercantile policies hindered economic growth.  Which is the true source of wealth.  Economic growth.  Where people use their talent and ability to create things.  That’s where the true value lay.  Not the money that held that value temporarily.  All those mercantilist policies did was raise domestic prices.  And allocated scarce resources poorly. 

It turned out free trade was the secret to wealth.  For free trade can increase wealth.  For both nations.  Thanks to something we call comparative advantage.  Instead of both nations manufacturing all of their goods they should only manufacture those goods that they can manufacture best.  And trade for the goods they can’t manufacture best.  This more efficiently allocates those scarce resources.  And produces a greater total amount of wealth.  By allowing people to buy lower cost imports they have more money left over to buy other stuff.  Increasing the overall amount of economic activity.  Which is why when Great Britain adopted free trade in the 19th century the British Empire went on to rule the world for a century or so.  And led the Industrial Revolution.  By creating wealth.  Goods and services people created with their talent and ability.  That changed the world.  And ushered in the modern era.  Something no amount of bullion could do.

But before Britain adopted free trade they were struggling with one of their belligerent colonies.  Their British American colonies.  Who were unhappy over taxation without representation in Parliament.  And the mother country forcing them to buy only British tea shipped on British ships at higher prices than they could get from the Dutch.  The British thought they found a solution to their problem.  By permitting their British East India Company monopoly to ship their tea directly to America without passing through an English port.  The tea was cheaper because of this.  But it also would set a precedent for taxation without representation.  Something the Americans weren’t about to accept.  So they threw that tea into Boston Harbor.  What we affectionately call the Boston Tea Party.  Renouncing mercantilism.  And demanding the right to engage in free trade.  Which they got after winning their independence.  And the mother country would follow suit in a few decades.  Because they, too, would learn that free trade was better than mercantilism.

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LESSONS LEARNED #41: “The want of unearned money is the root of most evil.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 26th, 2010

Money is a Temporary Storage of Wealth that Makes Trade Efficient

People don’t want money.  They want what money can buy.  A dump truck full of money is useless when there is nothing to buy with it.  For money is nothing more than a temporary storage of wealth.

We make or do creative things.  Things or services that people want.  There is a world full of people making goods or providing services other people want.  Some people make cellular phones.  Some people make microwave ovens.  Others provide landscaping services.  And these are the things we want.  Not money.

Money is a tool.  We use it to make trading with each other easier.  People who make cellular phones don’t need to find someone who makes microwave ovens to trade with.  Instead, they receive money for the cellular phones they make.  And the microwave oven makers receive money for the microwaves they make.  Then the cellular phone makers and microwave oven makers can take that money and trade it for what they want.

Our Human Capital Determines the Size of our Paycheck

We call the skills we accrue over time that lets us make or do things that other people want ‘human capital’.  People that have human capital have jobs.  Employers hire them because they have valuable human capital. 

Some people have so much human capital that they start a business.  They’re very good at bringing together an idea, people and resources to make valuable things or services that other people want to buy.

People with human capital are traders.  Just like in ancient Mesopotamia.  Nothing has changed.  Except that we trade more efficiently these days because of money.

It’s Easier to Steal Money than Televisions and Mansions

Not everyone traded.  Some people stole.  Some fought.  When peoples came into contact with each other, they often fought each other.  And the winner took the spoils.

Not much has changed today.  There are people who still steal.  And they are peoples who still conquer.  The only difference really is the efficiency of some theft.  Again, this is due to money.  It is more difficult to steal a 42″ plasma television than it is to steal $750 (which they can use to buy a 42″ plasma television). 

Likewise, it is more difficult for a politician to steal a million dollar mansion than it is to steal money.  Either as bribes from some special interest.  Or from taxpayers.

Unearned – Evil; Earned – Good

Those who steal typically have little human capital.  But because they still want those nice things they steal money.  The problem with theft, though, is that stolen money is transitory.  If you have human capital, you get a recurring paycheck.  Once you spend stolen money, it’s gone.  And you have to steal again.

This want of unearned money is the root of most evil.

People who earn their money with their human capital improve the lives of others.  The more they buy, the more others sell.  And the more jobs these others create.  And these jobs allow other people to use their human capital to buy other things.  Or even make charitable donations.

This want of earned money is the root of most good.

Rockefeller and Carnegie Made and Gave Away Fortunes

John D. Rockefeller made a fortune with Standard Oil.  He was ruthlessly efficient.  No one could refine, transport and sell petroleum products cheaper than he could.  People benefitted from affordable petroleum products.  And after he retired, he gave away vast portions of his wealth to charitable causes.

Andrew Carnegie made a fortune from steel.  Like Rockefeller, he was efficient.  No one could produce quality steel at a lower price than he could.  His steel built the skyscrapers and railroads of America.  He made a fortune.  And gave most of it away to charitable causes.

Most of the politicians that make it to Washington leave Washington as millionaires.  They sell themselves to special interests.  Raise our taxes so they can buy political favor.  And their policies are notorious for the unintended consequences that destroy (e.g., Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) destroyed black families). 

High Taxes and Lottery Tickets Punish the Poor

The federal government has created such an entitlement mentality that some people can’t survive without government assistance.  To fund their destructive policies, they’ve raised taxes on the wealthy.  And impoverished the poor.

With taxes so high, charitable contributions have declined.  Sin taxes (on cigarettes and liquor) have hit the poor especially hard (as they have less disposable income).  Which makes the poor more dependent on government.

But the ultimate insult to the poor has got to be the lottery.  The government entices the poor with illusions of getting rich quick.  And this want of unearned money causes the poor to spend large chunks of their small paychecks or government benefits (that they can’t afford) on lotto tickets.  Hoping to win the big one.  With some of the worse odds in the history of gambling.  (People have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than winning the lotto.  And few people believe that they will ever be hit by lightning.  But they’ll keep buying those lotto tickets.)

But whether a thief, a politician or the poor, the end result is the same.  The want of unearned money makes people make bad choices.  And people suffer because of those choices.

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