Dishonest Scales

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scales are an abomination to the LORD, But a just weight is His
delight.” (Prov. 11:1)

A crooked merchant
can use dishonest scales as a way to steal from the customer. If
the sign says that a pound of Cajun pastrami sells for $9.99 per
pound, you expect to get 16 avoirdupois ounces for ten bucks. But
what if the merchant is clever and rigs the scale to read a full
pound at only 15.5 ounces? That’s not a lot to shave off, but like
the urban legend of the computer programmer that rolls additional
fractions of cents into his own bank account, when multiplied over
thousands of transactions, that’s a lot of money stolen. And what’s
to stop the merchant from lulling people into slowly changing the
scales a little at a time, year after year, so that, say in 50 years,
your “pound” of meat is really only 8 ounces? If it’s done slowly
enough, you won’t even notice.

It seems that
such schemes were around in the days of King Solomon, as Proverbs
11:1 demonstrates. In fact, there are at least two other mentions
of “dishonest scales” in the Book of Proverbs.

For this reason,
weights and measures are standard. The days are long over from when
the tailor sold cloth based on the distance from his nose to his
outstretched hand (which would naturally make one avoid “vertically
challenged” merchants). No more is the standard cubit the measure
of the king’s forearm (which changed every time a new sovereign
was crowned). No, indeed, today weights and measures are standardized.
In fact, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (formerly
the Bureau of Weights and Measures) carefully defines units of measure
that are the legal standards for commerce in the United States.

Retailers are
required to use “honest scales” that are calibrated, checked, and
certified by the appropriate government bureaucracies. So, in all
likelihood, the pound of Cajun pastrami really does have 16 ounces.
The gallon of gasoline is, in all likelihood, really four quarts.
The mile on Googlemaps is truly the same, whether in Texas or Rhode

But back to
the pastrami. The pound is carefully standardized and regulated,
but what about the dollar?

Of course,
a dollar is a dollar, right? Dollars don’t change. Can the “scales”
be dishonest when it comes to currency?

From 1790–1913,
the United States dollar was constant. It was tied to gold and/or
silver. A dollar bought pretty much the same thing for Thomas Jefferson
as it did for Teddy Roosevelt. A careful look at inflation rates
from 1790–1913 shows some minor fluctuation, but for the most part,
a 1913 dollar was the same as an 1850 dollar, and was the same as
a 1790 dollar.

Sure, prices
went up and down due to supply and demand. An orange in Louisiana
was (and still is) cheaper than it will be in Maine. An apple in
Washington was (and still is) cheaper than it will be in Mississippi.
Coffee was more expensive for some reason in New Orleans in 1862
than it was in New York City. Hmmm, I wonder why? Of course, that
market reality led to the inclusion of chicory in the coffee sold
in the occupied Crescent City — especially at the Cafe du Monde
(established in 1862) — where coffee and chicory is still the drink
of choice.

Yet in spite
of market forces, the dollar was still the dollar just as the pound
was still the pound. The scales were honest, and the monetary unit
was likewise fixed and standard. This made investing fair and gave
incentive to save. For why should anyone put money in the bank if
the value of the dollar were to drop over time?

In the collection
of O. Henry tales from the Stories for Young People series, there
is an interesting disclaimer. Most of these short stories take place
a hundred years ago. In the introduction (page 7) there is a “final
note on currency” that reads: “When it comes to matters of money,
the reader should remember how much the value of a specific sum
has changed over the last hundred years in the United States: a
dollar then would be worth over twenty today.”


Of course,
the pound, the mile, the yard, the foot, the pint, and the degree
Fahrenheit, are carefully regulated and kept standard. It would
be preposterous to say that back in 1908, the yard was comprised
of sixty feet, or that a gallon was made up of eighty quarts. And
yet, we accept the degradation and the devaluation of our currency
as normal. We can’t even compare economic data in our own day and
age without saying something like “as measured in 1995 dollars”
— since the dollar as a monetary unit is not standard, but is systematically
devalued every year.

So, why was
there no inflation (devaluation) of the currency until 1913? That’s
the year the United States created a central bank. The Constitution
makes no provision for the Federal government to do any such thing,
and the Constitution even specifies that money must be backed by
gold and silver. But, of course, the folks that tell us the Constitution
is a “living document” will tell us that the dollar simply must
be “flexible” (while the same people would never in a thousand years
propose a “flexible” foot, pound, or gallon to shrink over the course
of time).

Today, the
dollar has no definitional standard — unlike the highly regulated
gallon or inch. Rather, dollars — freed from any tie to gold or
silver — are printed on paper out of nothing. Every year, the government
incurs an ever-increasing debt, and constantly prints more money
to pay its bills (great gig, huh?), which lowers the relative market
value of every dollar in your pocket (or in your money market fund,
in your stock portfolio, or even dollars that you have yet to earn).

Uh, what does
Scripture say about “dishonest scales” again?

is an insightful piece by Pat Buchanan about “paper money” created
out of thin air by the central bank (the Federal Reserve Bank —
which, by the way, is neither truly Federal, has no reserves, and
isn’t really a bank) — and what the ramifications are for us today:
a debt-heavy nation, a culture of borrowing, a people who refuse
to save (and indeed are given disincentive to save by the “dishonest
scales” of fiat currency), a demographic reality of retiring baby-boomers
and a paucity of younger workers to keep the pyramid scheme of entitlement

It’s not good.

You can only
devalue currency for so long before the chickens come home to roost.
I find it utterly amazing that nobody (well, almost nobody) wants
to address this issue. Both the Democrats and the Republicans want
to keep the scam alive, and even try to convince us that we have
more wealth than we really do by playing around with the interest
rates at which the money is created out of nothing. Can you just
imagine if a government agency systematically lowered the pound
by a few tenths of an ounce every year? People would see right through
that scam, and would quickly identify who the “winners” and “losers”
would be in such a racket. But let the government do it with our
so-called dollar, and if you even question it, you’re some kind
of loony extremist (or at least some kind of geeky right-wing economist).

when I spend $9.99 for a pound of Cajun pastrami, I just want it
to really be a pound and really be $9.99. Is that really all that
unreasonable? It hardly seems like rocket science. From my reading
of Scripture, when the Lord spends ten bucks on lunch meat, He also
expects to get His money’s worth. The proof text is right there
in Prov. 11:1 (which, if it were up to the Federal government, would
probably be somewhere back about 1 Samuel after adjusting for inflation).

26, 2008

Larry Beane [send him mail]
serves as associate pastor and teaches junior high Latin and Religion
classes at Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Gretna,
LA. Visit his

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