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Jim Grant Explains the Gold Standard

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The following article by Ryan McMaken was originally published on the Mises Wire and is reprinted with permission

Earlier this month in the Wall Street JournalJames Grant explored the latest academic attack on the gold standard — this time in the form of One Nation Under Gold by financial journalist James Ledbetter.

Not that the establishment economics profession needs another book trashing gold. Among the university- and government-employed PhDs who hand down their wisdom about economics from on high, few have anything but disdain for the yellow metal.

Grant knows this all too well.

As if to clinch the case against gold — and, necessarily, the case for the modern-day status quo — Mr. Ledbetter writes: ‘Of forty economists teaching at America’s most prestigious universities — including many who’ve advised or worked in Republican administrations — exactly zero responded favorably to a gold-standard question asked in 2012.’ Perhaps so, but ‘zero’ or thereabouts likewise describes the number of established economists who in 2005, ’06 and ’07 anticipated the coming of the biggest financial event of their professional lives. The economists mean no harm. But if, in unison, they arrive at the conclusion that tomorrow is Monday, a prudent person would check the calendar.”

Nevertheless, the gold standard has a reputation for being dark and nefarious. It’s backward and limiting, and the sort of thing one ought to associate with crucifixion, as implied in William Jennings Bryan’s famous Cross of Gold speech.

But, as Grant sums things up, it’s not as complicated as all that:

What was the gold standard, exactly — this thing that the professors dismiss so airily today? A self-respecting member of the community of gold-standard nations defined its money as a weight of bullion. It allowed gold to enter and leave the country freely. It exchanged bank notes to gold, and vice versa, at a fixed and inviolable rate. The people, not the authorities, decided which form of money was best.

“The gold standard was a hard task master, all right. You couldn’t devalue your way out of trouble. You couldn’t run up a big domestic budget deficit. The central bank of a gold-standard country (if there was a central bank) was charged with preserving the convertibility of the currency and, in a pinch, serving as lender of last resort to needy commercial banks. Growth, employment and price stability took their own course. And if, in a financial panic or a business-cycle downturn, gold fled the country, it was the duty of the central bank to establish a rate of interest that called the metal home. In the throes of a crisis, interest rates would likely go up, not down.”

The reason gold is so unpleasant then, Grant writes, is that “the modern sensibility quakes at the rigor of such a system.” But, in an age when science and technology can solve all our problems, surely if we try really hard, we can devise an economic system that can create wealth out of thin air!

Thus was the gold standard replaced by another standard:

That system features monetary oversight by former university economics faculty — the Ph.D. standard, let’s call it. The ex-professors buy bonds with money they whistle into existence (“quantitative easing”), tinker with interest rates, and give speeches about their intentions to buy bonds and tinker with interest rates (“forward guidance”).

But why was this new standard adopted? Many economists would have us believe it was due to some rational embrace of more “correct” thinking.

But, as with Keynesian economics in general — which was largely embraced because it tells powerful people what they want to hear — the new monetary system was embraced because governments couldn’t pay their debts:

Addressing a national television audience on Sunday evening, Aug. 15, 1971, President Richard Nixon announced the temporary suspension of the dollar’s convertibility into gold. No more would foreign governments enjoy the right to trade in their greenbacks for bullion at the then standard rate of $35 to the ounce.

It’s not a coincidence that this came at the end of a long period of guns-and-butter policy in which the US government spent freely on new wars and a growing welfare state. But there was a problem. Government’s ability to give itself a raise by inflating the currency was restrained somewhat by the Bretton Woods system, which guaranteed the international value of gold at a fixed number of dollars.

Nixon yearned to be free of this restraint so he could spend dollars more freely, and not have to worry about their value in gold.

Nixon’s move was, in short, the final and total politicization on money itself, and, as Grant notes, “The Ph.D. standard is … a political institution. It is the financial counterpart to the philosophy of statism.”

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