Dishonest Scales

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“Dishonest 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 Island.

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.”

Interesting.

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?

Here 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 going.

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).

Look, 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).

January 26, 2008