Live It Up, the Dollar Is Dead?

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In a recent LRC blog post, it was suggested that in the midst of our current credit crisis — where the Fed is trying all sorts of tricks to prevent Wall Street traders from looking down and realizing they ran off the cliff months ago — the prudent thing to do is become debt-free. Pay off your credit cards, and don’t even take out a mortgage, if you can avoid it. This will not only help you personally to weather the upcoming storm, but it will also annoy the ruling elites, which is itself something most LRC readers would value at least at $20,000.

I generally endorse this analysis; it is certainly more sensible than the Hank Paulson recommendation, which — as best I can tell — runs something like this: "Hey everyone, go buy some stuff at the mall, stop trying to sell your house, and stop shorting US stocks!"

In particular, in the bust phase of a Fed-induced business cycle, the best thing people can do to alleviate the crisis is to save more. This will render the low rates during the boom phase less fictitious than if people continue with their original saving rate. (Of course, you shouldn’t save more just to "ease the recession." The purpose of the economy is to deploy resources in the way that best satisfies consumer preferences. If you don’t want to save more, then don’t do it out of some sense of duty.) Notice that this analysis is the exact opposite of the Paulson doctrine, especially when discussing the "stimulus" checks.

Having said all this, it does not follow that you should pay down your dollar-denominated debts. I personally just moved some of my credit card debt (partly a remnant from grad school days) onto a card that is giving me 0% through August 2009, with a 3% transfer fee. I have a pretty high income — the vast right-wing propaganda machine pays well, my friends, you should look into it — and so they gave me a large line of credit.

Now let’s say next month my wife and I are responsible and come up with $5,000 with which to pay down credit card balances. As long as I can move my balances to cards rolling over at low rates (like, zero!), even counting the transfer fee I would do much better using that $5,000 to buy some Krugerrands. I personally think it is entirely possible that any of the following will happen within the next twelve months:

  1. Israel and/or the US will bomb Iran, in which case oil shoots to at least $175/barrel and gold shoots to at least $1200/oz.
  2. Year-over-year consumer price inflation (even by the official measures) exceeds 10 percent. Gold rises at least 15 percent during this period.
  3. The Federal Reserve runs out of Treasurys and so can’t "sterilize" the massive loans it has been making to banks (see chart below). Bernanke has to decide whether to discontinue the life support, or start expanding the money supply like crazy. He opts for the latter, and the dollar gets pummeled in the foreign exchanges. Gold soars.

In light of these possibilities, building up a decent position in hard money (i.e. gold) seems pretty smart, especially if the Fed will debase the currency. That’s the beauty of it: Yes, in nominal terms your credit card balances will rise by a certain amount (depending on your credit rating and the deal you can get), but in real terms your debt can actually shrink. Your salary will go up due to the printing press (albeit not as much as milk prices, perhaps) so that it will be easier for you to pay the (slightly higher) balances a year from now, versus paying them down today with your current salary.

For those wishing to read about even more exotic moves, like taking out the equity in your US-based house, and then using the freed up dollars to buy foreign assets, I highly recommend Peter Schiff’s book.

Final warning: Naturally credit cards are the work of a top demon, if not the devil himself. I wish I never started using them. But the point is, if you have strong willpower, it might actually make sense for you to divert your savings to other areas, rather than paying down dollar-denominated debts.

POSTSCRIPT: This is completely unrelated to the above article (or is it?), but I have just watched the documentary Why We Fight, which is a scathing analysis of the military-industrial-Congressional complex. It is very well done, weaving together expert commentary from Chalmers Johnson, LRC’s own Karen Kwiatkowski, and even Gore Vidal, along with "regular guy" commentary from a retired cop whose son died on 9/11, and a mixed-up kid who joins the military. There are also interviews with Richard Perle and William Kristol, and great footage of Don Rumsfeld at press conferences.

Especially for younger viewers (like me) who grew up with a huge standing army and multibillion-dollar "defense" expenditures, I highly recommend it. There’s a little lefty confusion about the nature of capitalism (versus the much ballyhooed democracy), but other than that it’s really well done.

Bob Murphy [send him mail] has a Ph.D. in economics from New York University, and is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism. He has a personal website at ConsultingByRPM.com

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