Why the Greenbackers Are Wrong (AERC 2013)

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One of Ron Paul’s great accomplishments is that the Federal Reserve faces more opposition today than ever before. Readers of this site will be familiar with the arguments: the Fed enjoys special government privileges; its interference with market interest rates gives rise to the boom-bust business cycle; it has undermined the value of the dollar; it creates moral hazard, since market participants know the money producer can bail them out; and it is unnecessary to and at odds with a free-market economy.

Unfortunately, not all Fed critics, even among Ron Paul supporters, approach the problem in this way. A subset of the end-the-Fed crowd opposes the Fed for peripheral or entirely wrongheaded reasons. For this group, the Fed is not inflating enough. (I have been told by one critic that our problem cannot be that too much money is being created, since he doesn’t know anyone who has too many Federal Reserve Notes.) Their other main complaints are (1) that the Fed is “privately owned” (the Fed’s problem evidently being that it isn’t socialistic enough), (2) that fiat money is just fine as long as it is issued by the people’s trusty representatives instead of by the Fed, and (3) that under the present system we are burdened with what they call “debt-based money”; their key monetary reform, in turn, involves moving to “debt-free money.” These critics have been called Greenbackers, a reference to fiat money used during the Civil War. (A fourth claim is that the Austrian School of economics, which Ron Paul promotes, is composed of shills for the banking system and the status quo; I have exploded this claim already – here, here, and here.)

With so much to cover I don’t intend to get into (1) right now, but it should suffice to note that being created by an act of Congress, having your board’s personnel appointed by the U.S. president, and enjoying government-granted monopoly privileges without which you would be of no significance, are not the typical features of a “private” institution. I’ll address (2) and (3) throughout what follows.

The point of this discussion is to refute the principal falsehoods that circulate among Greenbackers: (a) that a gold standard (either 100 percent reserve or fractional reserve) or the Federal Reserve’s fiat money system yields an outcome in which outstanding loans cannot all be paid because there is “not enough money” to pay both the principal and the interest; (b) that if the banks are allowed to issue loans at interest they will eventually wind up with all the money; and that the only alternative is “debt-free” fiat paper money issued by government.

My answers will be as follows: (1) the claim that there is “not enough money” to pay both principal and interest is false, regardless of which of these monetary systems we are considering; and (2) even if “debt-free” money were the solution, the best producer of such money is the free market, not Nancy Pelosi or John McCain.

To understand what the Greenbackers have in mind with their proposed “debt-free money,” and what they mean by the phrase “money as debt” they use so often, let’s look at the money creation process in the kind of fractional-reserve fiat money system we have. Suppose the Fed engages in one of its “open-market operations” and purchases government securities from one of its primary dealers. The Fed pays for this purchase by writing a check on itself, out of thin air, and handing it to the primary dealer. That primary dealer, in turn, deposits the check into its bank account – at Bank A, let us say.

Bank A doesn’t just sit on this money. The current system practically compels it to use that money as the basis for credit expansion. So if $10,000 was deposited in the bank, some $9,000 or so will be lent out – to Borrower C. So Borrower C now has $9,000 in purchasing power conjured out of thin air, while Person B can still write checks on his $10,000.

This is why the Greenbackers speak of “money as debt.” The $9,000 that Bank A created in our example entered the economy in the form of a loan to Person B. In our system the banks are not allowed to print cash, but they can do what from their point of view is the next best thing: create checking deposits out of thin air. Banks issue loans out of thin air by opening up a checking account for the customer, whose balance is created out of nothing, in the amount of the loan.

The Greenbacker complaint is this: when the fractional-reserve bank creates that $9,000 loan at (for example) ten percent interest, it expects $900 in interest payments at the end of the loan period. But if the bank created only the $9,000 for the loan itself and not the $900 that will eventually be owed in interest, where is that extra $900 supposed to come from?

At first this may seem like no problem. The borrower just needs to come up with an extra $900 by working more or consuming less. But this is no answer at all, according to the Greenbacker. Since all money enters the system in the form of loans to someone – recall how our fractional-reserve bank increased the money supply, by making a loan out of thin air – this solution merely postpones the problem. The whole system consists of loans for which only the principal was created. And since the banks create only the principal amounts of these loans and not the extra money needed to pay the interest, there just isn’t enough money for everyone to pay off their debts all at once.

And so the problem with the current system, according to them, is that our money is “debt based,” entering the economy as a debt owed to a bank. They prefer a system in which money is created “debt free” – i.e., printed by the government and spent directly into the economy, rather than lent into existence via loans by the banks.

In the comments section at my blog I have been told by a critic that even under a 100% gold standard, with no fractional-reserve banking, the charging of interest still involves asking borrowers to do what is literally impossible for them all to do at once, or at the very least will invariably lead to a situation in which the banks wind up with all the money.

All these claims are categorically false.

It is not true that “there is not enough money to pay the interest” under a gold standard or a purely free-market money, and it is not even true under the kind of fractional-reserve fiat paper system we have now. It certainly isn’t true that “the banks will wind up with all the money.” There are plenty of reasons to condemn the present banking system, but this isn’t one of them. The Greenbackers are focused on an irrelevancy, rather like criticizing Barack Obama for his taste in men’s suits.

I want to respond to this claim under both scenarios: (1) a 100% gold standard with no fractional reserves; and (2) our present fractional-reserve, fiat-money system.

In order to do so, let’s recall what money is and where it comes from.

Money emerges from the primitive system of barter, in which people exchange goods directly for one another: cheese for paper, shoes for apples. This is an obviously clumsy system, because (among a great many other reasons I trust readers can conjure for themselves) paper suppliers are not necessarily in the market for cheese, and vice versa.

A money economy, on the other hand, is one in which goods are exchanged indirectly for each other: instead of having to be a hat-wanting basketball owner in the possibly vain search for a basketball-wanting hat owner, the basketball owner instead exchanges his basketball for whatever is functioning as money – gold and silver, for example – and then exchanges the money for the hat he wants.

People dissatisfied with the awkward and ineffective system of barter perceive that if they can acquire a more widely desired and more marketable good than the one they currently possess, they are more likely to find someone willing to exchange with them. That more marketable good will tend to have certain characteristics: durability, divisibility, and relatively high value per unit weight. And the more that good begins to be used as a common medium of exchange, the more people who have no particular desire for it in and of itself will be eager to acquire it anyway, because they know other people will accept it in exchange for goods. In that way, gold and silver (or whatever the money happens to be) evolve into full-fledged media of exchange, and eventually into money (which is defined as the most widely accepted medium of exchange).

Money, therefore, emerges spontaneously as a useful commodity on the market. The fact that people desire it for the services it directly provides contributes to its marketability, which leads people to use it in exchange, which in turn makes it still more marketable, because now it can be used both for direct use as well as indirectly as a medium of exchange.

Note that there is nothing in this process that requires government, its police, or any form of monopoly privilege. The Greenbackers’ preferred system, in which money is created by a monopoly government, is completely foreign and extraneous to the natural evolution of money as we have here described it.

And make no mistake: money has to emerge the way we have described it. It cannot emerge for the first time as government-issued fiat paper. Whenever we think we’ve encountered an example in history of a pure fiat money being imposed by the state, a closer look always turns up some connection between that money and a pre-existing money, which is either itself a commodity or in turn traceable to one.

For one thing, pieces of paper with politicians’ faces on them are not saleable goods. They have no use value, and therefore could not have emerged from barter as the most marketable goods in society.

Second, even if government did try to impose a paper money issued from nothing on the people, it could not be used as a medium of exchange or a tool of economic calculation because no one could know what it was worth. Are three Toms worth one apple or seven fur coats? How could anyone know?

On the other hand, the money chosen by the market can be used as a medium of exchange and a tool of economic calculation. During the process in which it went from being just another commodity into being the money commodity, it was being offered in barter exchange for all or most other goods. As a result, an array of barter prices in terms of that good came into existence. (For simplicity’s sake, in this essay we’ll imagine gold as the commodity that the market chooses as money.) People can recall the gold-price of clocks, the gold-price of butter, etc., from the period of barter. The money commodity isn’t some arbitrary object to which government coerces the public into assigning value. Ordering people to believe that worthless pieces of paper are valuable is a difficult enough job, but then expecting them to use this mysterious, previously unknown item to facilitate exchanges without any pre-existing prices as a basis for economic calculation is absurd.

Of course, fiat moneys exist all over the world today, so it seems at first glance as if what I have just argued must be false. Evidently governments have been able to introduce paper money out of nothing.

This is where Murray Rothbard’s work comes in especially handy. In his classic little book What Has Government Done to Our Money? he builds upon the analysis of Ludwig von Mises and concisely describes the steps by which a commodity chosen by the people through their voluntary market exchanges is transformed into an altogether different monetary system, based on fiat paper.

The steps are roughly as follows. First, society adopts a commodity money, as described above. (As I noted above, for ease of exposition we’ll choose gold, but it could be whatever commodity the market selects.) Government then monopolizes the production and certification of the gold. Paper notes issued by banks or by governments that can be redeemed in a given weight of gold begin to circulate as a convenient substitute for carrying gold coins. These money certificates are given different names in different countries: dollars, pounds, francs, marks, etc. These national names condition the public to think of the dollar (or the pound or whatever) rather than the gold itself as the money. Thus it is less disorienting when the final step is taken and the government confiscates the gold to which the paper certificates entitle their holders, leaving the people with an unbacked paper money.

This is how unbacked paper money comes into existence. It begins as a convertible substitute for a commodity like gold, and then the government takes the gold away. It continues to circulate even without the gold backing because people can recall the exchange ratios that existed between the paper money and other goods in the past, so the paper money is not being imposed on them out of nowhere.

Free-market money, therefore, is commodity money. And commodity money is not “debt-based” money. When a gold miner produces gold and takes that gold to the mint to be transformed into coins, he simply spends the money into the economy. So free-market money does not enter the economy as a loan. It is an example of the “debt-free money” the Greenbackers are supposed to favor. I strongly suspect that many of them have never thought the problem through to quite this extent. If what they favor is “debt-free money,” why do they automatically assume it must be produced by the state? For consistency’s sake, they should support all forms of debt-free money, including money that takes the form of a good voluntarily produced on the market and without any form of monopoly privilege.

The free-market’s form of “debt-free money” also doesn’t require a government monopoly, or rely on the preposterously naive hope that the government production of “interest-free money” will be carried out without corruption or in a non-arbitrary way. (Any “monetary policy” that interferes with or second-guesses the stock of money that the voluntary array of exchanges known as the free market would produce is arbitrary.)

But now what of the Greenbacker claim that interest payments, of their very nature, cannot be paid by all members of society simultaneously?

This is clearly not true of a society in which money production is left to the market. The Greenbacker complaint about interest payments in a fractional-reserve system is that the banks create a loan’s principal out of thin air, and that because they don’t also create the amount of money necessary to pay the interest charges as well, the collective sum of loan payments (principal and interest) cannot be made. Some people, the Greenbackers concede, can pay back their loans with interest, but not everyone.

But this is not what happens in the situation we have been describing, in which the money is chosen spontaneously and voluntarily by the individuals in society, and in which government plays no role. Money in this truly laissez-faire system is spent into the economy once it is produced, not lent into existence out of thin air, so there is no problem of “debt-based money” yielding a situation in which “there is not enough money to pay the interest.” There is no “debt” created at any point in the process of money production on the free market in the first place. The free market gives us “debt-free money,” but the Greenbackers do not want it.

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