The Great Monetary Debate
When National Public Radio airs a segment on the gold standard, you know that the debate over the quality of money has reached the point where it can no longer be ignored. Another sign came last month when Newt Gingrich, who has never shown the slightest interest in the cause of sound money, suddenly began to talk about restoring the gold standard.
The last time there was talk about this issue was more than 30 years ago, after the devastating inflation of the late 1970s robbed an entire generation of their savings, upended American family life and launched a debt addiction that has destabilized economies all over the world. The Nixon administration promised a rose garden after the paper dollar; the results were very different.
The crisis in our times is not (yet) hyperinflation, but it is just as serious. The problems of the Fed-managed paper dollar system are too many to name, but they can be reduced to three that hit the average person most seriously.
First, it is no longer possible to earn a conventional return on saving money. That reality pretty much undermines the whole practice and ethics that built prosperity as we know it. The reason is directly related to the quality of money: Lacking any independent substance at all, its value and yield is managed by a small group of technocrats in a marble palace. They have used that power to impose the ultimate price control on the relationship between time and money.
Second, the problem of unemployment and the ever-shrinking labor participation rate has hit the young generation in a way that we’ve never seen before. This has terrible economic effects but just as devastating cultural ones. It attacks the core hope that people have for the future. Again, the paper dollar, as the generating force behind the bust and boom, is a cause.
Third, there is a growing movement against the power, secrecy and insider racketeering by the Federal Reserve, which prints and throws around inconceivable volumes of loot to its friends and clients in total disregard for the political process or the fate of the American middle class. This angers people of all political persuasions. The opening up of the records and dealings of the Fed has not calmed people down, but rather has confirmed the worst possible fears.
In the 1970s, writers like Henry Hazlitt struggled mightily to get people to see the connection between monetary policy and the falling value of the dollar. While the Ford and Carter administrations lashed out at business and speculators, Hazlitt and others pointed to the real cause. His message stuck. By 1980, even the Republican platform included a call for a sound dollar. Congress formed a gold commission.
The connection between the Fed’s paper money and our economic plight is even more difficult to make this time around. But the intellectual foundations have been in place for years, and they have been given voice in the relentless hammering away at this issue by Ron Paul in interview after interview. He never misses a chance to talk about this previously unspeakable subject.
A tricky issue for the movement now is dealing with the diverse political coalition coming together against the current monetary system. The biggest critics of the Fed, for example, agree that the current system is a mess but don’t seem to agree about what to do about it.
This week in D.C., I debated Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The setting was fantastic: a speak-easy environment sponsored by the beautifully named Empire Unplugged. Baker is a strong critic of the Fed for reasons both good and bad. On the good side, he is as appalled as Ron Paul at the insider racketeering of the central bank. On the bad side, he would like to see its powers transferred to a body with more political oversight and democratic influence.
This is the exact opposite of what I argued for: the complete depoliticization of the entire system. We went back and forth for an hour on these topics, agreeing on the great evil, but disagreeing on what should replace it. As is typical of progressive critics of the Fed, he raised fears that market control of money and banking would revive the wildcat banking of the 19th century. This camp conveniently forgets that the age of the gold standard (which was never perfectly adhered to) also happened to produce history’s largest and most-positive economic transformation, propelling the creation and entrenchment of what is called the middle class.
Do these debates matter that much? On the level of theory, yes. In practice, not so much. These mirror the kinds of debates in the middle stages of the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe. Recall that the movement against Polish central planning began not as a movement for private ownership of capital, but rather as a labor union protest against power and privilege of state-connected oligarchs.
This tendency made the champions of free markets squeamish, for good reason. Replacing a state monopoly with a state-protected labor monopoly does not necessarily look like improvement. But that’s not what ended up happening in Poland. Solidarity was the major vehicle that wrecked the regime as it stood. At one point, the major labor organization Solidarity had 9.5 million members. That mass movement upended history. Today, Solidarity is a normal union like any other, with membership at half a million and declining and no serious power. The result was not a labor monopoly, but a beautifully prosperous market society.
The lesson here: Sometimes you have to topple the system that exists and see what happens. This is why Ron Paul has been tolerant of a wide divergence of views within the anti-Fed movement. He is right to be so. Writers at The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere wring their hands about the dangers of political control of money in the post-Fed age. But history shows that the reform is not so easily managed. Breaking up the current monopoly is the most-important priority right now.
If the Fed were an Eastern European socialist government, the year would be about 1987. If the economy takes another dive after the fake boomlet that Bernanke’s printing presses have manufactured, he should make sure that the helicopter on the roof is in good working order.