When Priced in Gold, the US Economy Is at Depression-Era Levels

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by Simon Black Sovereign Man

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As we slide into the end of yet another year in which the nominal price of gold has posted a positive return, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back on history to get a better understanding of where we are today.

It’s obvious that, for many reasons, the size of the global economy is far greater than it was decades ago. We learn in any basic economics course that, over the long run, enhanced productivity and increased technology drive long-term production gains.

Certainly, an economy can produce more widgets if you’re a lean, mean, automated machine… as opposed to a blacksmith with a hammer and forge.

But there are other factors as well. Population growth. Accounting standards. And of course, the continued inflation of the currency. $1 today buys a whole lot less today than it did a century ago, so when comparing, it’s important to find a better standard of measurement.

There are a number of pricing yardsticks we could use… like the cost of a New York City cinema ticket (25 cents in 1935, $20 today). But it would be awkard to calculate GDP in terms of billions of cinema tickets.

Gold is a much more appropriate (though still imperfect) long-term standard of pricing, with its history as a store of value dating back to the ancients.

With this in mind, I collected the appropriate data on gold prices, population, and GDP in the United States since 1791 and plotted GDP per capita denominated in ounces of gold.

This measurement smooths out changes in economic growth due to currency inflation and changes in the population, making it much easier to compares apples to apples.

The results are rather startling. In its earliest days, US GDP per capita was a mere 2.6 ounces of gold per person per year. But this grew quickly, effectively doubling in the 20 year period from 1791 to 1811.

Most of the 19th century proved difficult for growth, as it took another seven decades (over three times as long) for GDP per capita to double again. This makes sense given that the 19th century was marked by several costly wars (War of 1812, Mexican War, Civil War, etc.)

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