The Economic Consequences of the Release (i.e., Brexit)

Much has been written on the recent decision by the UK to leave the European Union. Much of it is emotion-driven. But that is no way to assess such an important turn of events. The actual significance is, in significant degree, economic in nature. This calls for an economic analysis, to which we now turn.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Report published in April 2016, entitled The Economic Consequences of Brexit: A Taxing Decision[1], provides a competent summary of the disadvantages that might follow upon a British departure from the EU. We will use it as a reference for interaction.

Initial objections

The initial objections the Report registers are based on circumstantial evidence.

This holds for “Since EU membership in 1973, UK living standards have risen more than in peers” and “A multipolar world implies that the UK is economically stronger as an EU member, and in turn contributes to the EU strength.” (both on p. 9). Despite the graphs, such arguments, are, at best, suggestive rather than demonstrative. The same holds true for the objection that “Uncertainty has already begun to have a negative impact on the economy” (p. 10).

Exchange rates and the balance of trade

The Report then claims that “Uncertainty about Brexit has led to capital outflows and a weaker exchange rate” (p. 12). For a country running a perennial trade deficit, this is anything but objectionable. The graph below shows the development of the UK’s balance of trade since joining the EU (then the European Economic Community) in 1973.UK balance of trade

 

This shows a downward trend, and since the late 1990s, a persistent trade deficit. As such, a decline in the pound’s exchange rate will only help matters, by encouraging exports and discouraging imports.

This leads directly to the next objection, which is a weighty one. “Trade would be hit when the UK formally exits the EU.” If this is the case, it would be dire indeed. Let’s examine the substance.

“The EU remains the main trade partner of the UK and the financial sector benefits from direct access to the Single Market, which has strengthened the comparative advantage of the City” (p. 14). Absolutely true. And by way of elucidation: “Exports to EU countries account for about 12% of UK GDP and about 45% of total UK exports, and for imports the EU is even a more important partner.” This was already implied in the trade deficit data we looked at above.

The graphs below shows the breakdown. The first shows, by percentage, the UK’s export destinations, the second shows the UK’s imports by country of origin (source: The Observatory of Economic Complexity [http://atlas.media.mit.edu]).

UK exports

UK imports

The data is from 2014. As can be seen visually, Europe accounts for the lion’s share of both imports and exports.

The Report includes the following graph on page 15, showing the trade and current account situation between the UK and the EU:

UK current account2

Now then, all of this indicates mutual dependence. Even more than that, though, it indicates that the EU is more dependent upon the UK as a source of income than the other way around, given the fact that the UK runs a trade deficit with the EU. The EU has every reason to maintain existing trade relations with the UK. It would be to the EU’s disadvantage not to do so.

Renegotiating trade deals

The Report goes on to claim that “Negotiating a new trade agreement with the EU is likely to be complex” (p. 16). The various possibilities are laid out in a table, which we reproduce here:

brexit arrangementsThe claim is that negotiations will be complex and that the UK will be on the outside looking in, with the very real possibility of being relegated to “Most Favored Nation” status, in which trade with the EU will be “subject to the EU’s common external tariff.”

For one thing, negotiations need not be complex at all. The website Lawyers for Britain has put together comprehensive, detailed research papers on this issue, of which we gratefully make use. On Brexit and International Trade Treaties, it summarizes the issue both for the UK and for trading partners generally, with the following points (emphasis added to highlight key issues):

  • “Because of the EU customs union and ‘common commercial policy’, the UK is not able to negotiate its own trade agreements with non-member countries — we can only do so as part of the EU. The UK will be able to participate in new trade agreements with non-member countries from the day after exit.  The process of negotiating new trade deals can be started during the 2-year notice period leading up to Brexit, with a view to bringing them into force on or soon after the date of exit.
  • “The EU has existing free trade agreements which currently apply to the UK as an EU member.  Most of these EU agreements are with micro-States or developing countries and only a small number represent significant export markets for the UK.  Both the EU and the member states (including the UK) are parties to these agreements. The UK could simply continue to apply the substantive terms of these agreements on a reciprocal basis after exit unless the counterparty State were actively to object. We can see no rational reason why the counterparty States would object to this course since that would subject their existing export trade into the UK market, which is currently tariff free, to new tariffs. There will be no need for complicated renegotiation of these existing agreements as was misleadingly claimed by pro-Remain propaganda.
  • “The UK was a founder member of EFTA but withdrew when we joined the EEC in 1973.  We could apply to re-join with effect from the day after Brexit. There is no reason why the four current EFTA countries would not welcome us back, given that the UK is one of EFTA’s largest export markets.  EFTA membership would allow us to continue uninterrupted free trade relations with the four EFTA countries, and also to participate in EFTA’s promotion of free trade deals with non-member countries around the world.
  • “The EU is seriously encumbered in trying to negotiate trade agreements by the large number of vociferous protectionist special interests within its borders.  After Brexit, the UK would be able to negotiate new trade deals unencumbered by these special interests much faster than the EU, and with a higher priority for faciliting access to markets for our own export industries including services.
  • “It is completely untrue that you need to be a member of a large bloc like the EU in order to strike trade deals.  The actual record of the EU compared to that (for example) of the EFTA countries demonstrates the direct opposite.
  • “The baseline of our trade relationship with the remaining EU states would be governed by WTO rules which provide for non-discrimination in tariffs, and outlaw discriminatory non-tariff measures. From this baseline, and as the remaining EU’s largest single export market,  we would be in a strong position to negotiate a mutually beneficial deal providing for the continued free flow of goods and services in both directions.  We explain what such a deal would look like in a later post, Brexit – doing a deal with the EU.”

All of this indicates that it will require no herculean effort for the UK to reestablish itself as an independent trading partner, neither vis-à-vis the EU, nor the world at large. After all, the other countries of the world are not members of the EU, and they are surviving. And it bears repeating that for the EU to impose a tariff on UK imports would make no sense at all, because the same kind of tariff would be imposed reciprocally on exports to the UK: all $420 billion of them (from all of Europe, 2014).

All in all, it would be in the EU’s best interest to simply maintain existing trade relations, as they are eminently in its interest.

Other near-term effects

Further near-term effects discussed in the Report, such as a putative “reduction in UK trade openness,” “imposition of tighter controls on inward migration,” leading to “a large negative shock to the UK economy, which would spillover to other European countries” (all p. 21), are either mere surmises or could serve to argue the exact opposite.

The argument that a decline in the exchange rate would have deleterious effects on the UK economy is an example of an argument that could just as well be used to argue the opposite. As discussed above, a decline in the exchange rate would bolster UK exports and inhibit imports, which would benefit the UK and disadvantage the EU. In other words, the neo-mercantilist export policy of the EU countries like German and the Netherlands would be brought more in line with equity.

Long-term effect on trade

The Report goes on to discuss possible long-term effects.

The first one discussed is the trade situation. “The UK is the most attractive destination for FDI in the EU, partly owing to access to the EU internal market” (p. 24). Foreign direct investment would be restricted by withdrawal from this internal market. But again, as noted above, access to the single market is unlikely to be restricted, as the EU derives more advantage from it than the UK. Furthermore, the major inhibitor to direct investment is currency risk. But it’s not like the UK is withdrawing from the euro; it is only rearranging its relation with the EU, with the relation between the pound and the euro (a free float) not changing at all.

Effect of reduced immigration

Secondly, “Immigrants, particularly from EU countries, have boosted GDP growth significantly in the UK” (p. 26). Apparently, immigrants are more productive than native-born Britons. This is obviously a contentious statement; whether it proves anything is another question. Then there is this contention: “Immigrants from the EU make a positive contribution to the public finances, despite relying on the UK welfare system, which is also the case of UK migrants elsewhere in the EU” (p. 27). This is another statement difficult to rhyme with realities. Even if immigrants are all net contributors in terms of social welfare revenues and payouts, the jobs they take, leave other labor market participants without jobs and thus, at least in part, adds to the social welfare rolls (unemployment and other forms of social assistance). In addition, “immigrants from new EU countries have comparatively lower wages…” (p. 27), which means they depress wages, which may be beneficial to employers, but not to employees, and additionally reduce consumption.

The claim is made that reduced immigration would lead to reduced skills, and “A loss of skills would reduce technical progress.” That may be true in the short term, but where there is demand for skills, there will be training and education to enable workers to acquire those skills, and there is no inherent reason why native-born Britons could not be trained up. It is in fact a curious prejudice and form of reverse discrimination to believe otherwise.

The upshot

As a result of these putative disadvantages, the claim is made for a “central scenario” in which “UK GDP is more than 5% below the baseline by 2030.” Just the opposite is at least as likely.

Objections in favor of withdrawal can also be made, of course, but the Report neglects to mention those. One is the fact that the UK is the second-largest net contributor to the EU’s budget, after Germany. Another is that the UK bears a major part of the costs of the EU’s common defense. Yet another is the costs of an inherently cumbersome and inefficient, far-off, relatively unaccountable bureaucracy regulating so much of the economic life of the nation.

But the biggest problem with the EU is tangential to this particular debate. It has to do with the single currency, the euro, in which the UK, of course, is not a participant. The euro forms a massive net drag on the world economy, and the debt overhang to which it has contributed, by having encouraged irresponsible, indeed unconscionable, North-South lending, is an toxic inheritance that not only stifles current economic growth, but also forms a burden that future generations will be hard-pressed to alleviate.

That, however, is stuff for another discussion. For now, it is enough to re-emphasize that, in line with the position outlined here (with an assist here), it is nations, not empires, that create wealth. And that should be kept uppermost in everyone’s mind.


 

  1. Kierzenkowski,R., et al.  (2016), “The Economic Consequences of Brexit: A Taxing Decision”, OECD Economic Policy Papers, No. 16, OECD Publishing, Paris.

The Mystery of Capital in Context

Given the rancorous debate unleashed by the UK electorate’s decision to depart the European Union – in particular, regarding the damage to the UK economy that independence might bring – it seems wise to re-examine the foundations of economic prosperity and its relationship to political and legal factors. I do so by examining Hernando de Soto’s seminal book, The Mystery of Capital, which goes to the heart of the relationship between political framework, legal framework, and economic development.


The “mystery of capital” is the intriguing title of one of the most important books of the new millennium. Written by the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, it breaks with the tradition of dealing with capitalism as a system established of, by, and for the rich, by looking at it from the bottom up: from the lowest levels of society. De Soto finds capitalism even at that level, albeit in a stage of dormancy, as it were. His treatise is intended to help us understand that capitalism is nothing esoteric – despite its being a “mystery” – but rather something down to earth, active in the lowest levels of society, and only waiting for a proper legal and political framework to become an equitable system, in the service of all, not just the well-to-do.

De Soto first made a name for himself with his path-breaking work in Peru, which culminated in the best-selling book The Other Path. In order to show an alternative route to a better society, De Soto developed a unique investigative method. At the time – the 1980s – the better society was being promised by radical revolutionary groups. In Peru, such a group was El Sendero Luminoso, the “Shining Path” – the path to the enlightened society, the workers’ paradise. Officially, this was the Communist Party of Peru, and throughout the 1980s it engaged in violent revolution. De Soto proposed El Otro Sendero, the “other path,” which would render the revolution irrelevant by integrating the real-world economies of the poor within an all-embracing economic framework that left no one out.

What De Soto and his colleagues at the Institute for Liberty and Democracy had discovered was that, at the poorest and most basic levels of society, a vibrant economy was already in existence. It functioned in spite of, rather than because of, the formal institutional and legal structures provided by the state. For in Third-World countries such as Peru, there was not one economy but two: the formal economy, the economy of the wealthy and middle class, connected with the rest of the world; and the informal economy, the economy of the poor, the “off the books” economy, comprising the residual and peripheral denizens who happened to make up the vast majority of the nation. Essentially, the legal and political institutions functioned within and for the benefit of the formal economy, while the informal economy ran on its own, ignored and neglected by the powers that be, kept by the phalanx of rules and regulations from ever graduating from the shadows into the sunlight of the economy proper.

De Soto’s book highlighted this situation and the potential that it held, if it could be harnessed, both for the benefit of the poor and for the nation as a whole. Mainly, the regime of bloated regulation and official corruption needed to be exchanged for the rule of law, specifically the institutions of property and contract. If this would occur, the chains would come off of the poor and they could become full-fledged participants in a functional rather than dysfunctional social order.

De Soto’s second book, The Mystery of Capital, is the culmination of the work done in the wake of, and building on the foundations laid in, The Other Path. It is the product of the transfer of the method pioneered in Peru into many other Third World countries facing similar problems. De Soto took his show on the road, making the Institute for Liberty and Democracy into a globally active entity.

Unlike The Other Path, however, The Mystery of Capital is more than an exposition of the findings of investigative field work. In fact, it transcends the empirical method altogether: it sets forth a philosophical outworking that is both result and foundation of those empirical findings.

In making this leap from practice to theory, De Soto had penned a most important book on the subject. He was enabled to do this precisely because of the empirical basis: the book went beyond economic theory to the real world in which economic practice is embedded, a world that economic theory studiously ignores; it takes into account the real-world framework within which economies function.

The recognition of the two-tiered economy led De Soto to perceive the crucial importance of the legal system. For in his findings, it was the legal system that made the difference between the two economies. This led him to explore virtually virgin territory: the relationship between the legal system and the economy has been largely ignored, except for certain specialty (and rather idiosyncratic) disciplines such as institutional economics, “new” institutional economics, and law and economics. While these latter disciplines have not been entirely fruitless, they have not helped to rework economic theory the way that De Soto had done in his book.

De Soto’s reworking of economic theory starts from a rather crucial distinction that is well known to legal philosophers, the distinction between possession and property. This is a staple of the Western legal tradition (both civil and common). Essentially, the difference between possession and property is physical versus mental – possession is physical holding, while property is an entitlement that stays in force regardless of whether the owner is in physical possession or not. And this distinction depends on a functioning legal order that enforces its arrangements. With possession, enforcement is essentially left to the possessor; with property, it is maintained by a separate entity charged with law enforcement, and hence is not dependent upon the physical strength of the owner in order to enforce possession.

With property arrangements, then, the relations of people and things are elevated to a higher plane than arrangements of pure possession. And they provide for higher-order exploitation of resources than simple possession does. For one thing, property rights can be split up and farmed out any number of ways. For another, property allows for encumbrance in credit contracts, whereby the property item serves as collateral. Without changing its physical status, the encumbered asset engenders a new set of economic advantages. The owner can borrow money against it; and, as Steuart showed back in the 18th century and Schumpeter in the 20th, this is essentially the way in which, in the modern world, money comes into being. At least, in a banking- as opposed to a coinage- or scrip-based system. Credit and debt are the source of money issue. As any bank balance sheet will show you, all money issued has as its counterpart an encumbered economic asset.

In his book, De Soto never explicitly refers to the legal doctrine of possession vis-à-vis property, but despite that, it underlies his entire exposition. He argues that it is the legal system that enables possessions to become property, thus assets, and assets to become capital – resources capable of generating new productivity and income. “Like electrical energy, capital will not be generated if the single key facility that produces and fixes it is not in place. Just as a lake needs a hydroelectric plant to produce usable energy, assets need a formal property system to produce significant surplus value. Without formal property to extract their economic potential and convert it into a form that can be easily transported and controlled, the assets of developing and former communist countries are like water in a lake high in the Andes – an untapped stock of potential energy.”[1]

De Soto’s argument is crucially important – as far as it goes. But it runs into problems when he goes further and highlights a single aspect of the legal system, to which he attributes excessive importance. This in turn causes him to lose sight of other aspects, and indeed, the bigger picture.

De Soto emphasizes the role of record-keeping as the determining factor in creating a cognitive layer overlaying the physical layer of tangible things. Records, titles, data storage and retrieval, allow the things that otherwise exist in isolation to be integrated together into a collective mind map, by which they become a synergistic whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. For De Soto, this is the crucial element of a system of property rights, which enables it to generate productive economic assets – capital.

But this is to overplay his hand. It is not so much record-keeping within a framework of law, but the framework of law itself that is the important thing. The key is the establishment of common law: a law that is valid across the board across the entire territory, which holds for everyone and which establishes at its core, property rights and freedom of contract, uniformly and equally enforced. Historically, this kind of common law was established early on in England, where the king’s writ came to run everywhere. Which is why England became the common-law country par excellence.[2]

Such an establishment of common law, in turn, depends upon the consolidation of sovereignty.

Sovereignty is the power by which the rule of law is established. It is the prerequisite of a functioning legal order. Sovereignty is the power to establish and confirm shared, social value. It does this through legislation and adjudication, establishing laws as standards by which the social order is ruled – the rule of law. These, then, are values, which are universally valid and binding.[3]

But there is more to the establishment of value than this. Valuation has, of course, an economic dimension as well as a juridical one. But does the legal system generate economic value? Yes it does, through the utilization of property and contract. And here we have the intangible, mental, symbolic dimension of the economy that De Soto intuits, but does not quite elucidate, given his focus on record-keeping. Property and contract generate value by the process of credit and debt. When property is harnessed as collateral in a credit contract, it is valued; and this valuation is expressed in the issuance of a monetary equivalent. A deposit is established at the bank, in the equivalent of the loan. Borrowing a metaphor from the days of minting coinage, Steuart called this the “melting down” of property into “symbolical” money. Hence, the regime of property and contract participate in the process of valuation in a very critical way. And out of this valuation comes capitalization – capital.

Now then, the context of this valuation and process issuing forth ultimately in that mysterious entity, capital, is a common legal order, the product of a consolidated and viable locus of sovereignty. Sovereignty, then, enables this whole process of capitalization to take place. What is the locus of sovereignty? Following the German Calvinist statesman and political philosopher, Johannes Althusius, we can answer unambiguously, the nation.[4]

The Industrial Revolution, the “take-off,” as W.W. Rostow put it, did not come about in a vacuum. It came about in nations in which sovereignty had been consolidated; and those nations in which sovereignty had not been consolidated, did not experience it. Nationhood and sovereignty go together. Like a lens out of focus, sovereignty is weak where it does not shine through the prism of nationhood. And, where sovereignty is weak, there also a domestic economy does not materialize; as a result, conditions are rife for an exploitative, colonial or neo-colonial framework. Wallerstein’s center-periphery framework then looms large. None of that is necessary for economic growth: in fact, it only benefits particular interests, at the expense of broad-based, populace-elevating economic growth.

So then, it is sovereignty refracted through nation-states that has enabled the genesis of the capital which De Soto seeks to demystify. Summarizing this state of affairs, I wrote: “Through the institutions of property and contract, credit and debt, the asset base in man (human capital) and through man (tangible and intangible property) becomes capitalized, generating a money supply which, when properly maintained, is the faithful representation of that asset base, no more and no less. The nations of the world have no need of a Wizard of Oz to grant them prosperity. It is in their hands to do so, if they would only recognize it.”[5] That is the mystery of capital explained. In its fullness, only nations can bring it off. Neither inchoate peoples, nor empires, ever have, or ever will.


[1] Hernando De Soto, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 48.

[2] For more on this point see my book Common Law & Natural Rights (Aalten: WordBridge, 2009), pp. 68ff.

[3] For more on this point see my book Common-Law Conservatism: An Exercise in Paradigm-Shifting (Aalten: WordBridge, 2007), ch. 1.

[4] For more on this point see this previous post.

[5] Follow the Money, p. 190.

Confessions of a Free Trade Advocate

Ever since I can remember I have been a proponent of free trade. It seemed the logical thing: why should the government restrict economic activity which in itself is legal and aboveboard? And when I began exploring economic theory, lo and behold, free trade was at the forefront of most every exposition. It was the natural, the logical position to hold, and arguments against it seemed forced and, in fact, unfair, as if a basic principle of justice was being violated.

My instincts received even more validation from historical, moral theology. Francisco Vitoria, the Spanish theologian who was the first to flesh out a recognizably modern theory of the international community and law of nations, made freedom of trade one of the pillars of such a world order. As I wrote in 1991, “Freedom of trade Vitoria also includes among these rights of natural communication. This is quite noteworthy: remember, these rights belong to the ‘primary’ law of nations and as such may never be denied! National governments may infringe the right of neither their own nor of foreign private citizens and subjects to freely engage in trade, so long as trade and business may be carried on without prejudicing the health and safety of the community.” Free trade seemed to be a categorical imperative.

I continued along these lines in a book I published in 1999 entitled A Common Law. There I articulated a twofold tradition in Western constitutional theory and practice, the common-law tradition and the civil-law tradition. Of these two, the common-law tradition espoused limited sovereignty and the primacy of private law over public law, while the civil-law tradition embraced absolute sovereignty and the subordination of private to public law. As an extension of this, I included freedom of trade versus restriction of trade as a dividing line between the two traditions. With regard to the unification of Germany’s disparate states in the 19th century, I wrote that “The roots of German unification lay firmly in the civil-law tradition. Customs union lay the basis for further political union: free trade was established within the customs union, tariff barriers between it and the rest of the world…. In the civil-law tradition, trade can only be securely established within an area controlled by the sovereign; the domestic economy is the only stable economy. In the common-law tradition, trade binds societies under law, a law which also binds sovereigns and commits them to enforce it. In the civil-law tradition, law is the servant of the sovereign; in the common-law tradition, the sovereign is the servant of law” (pp. 125-126). Here again, I made free trade a categorical imperative and one of the core elements of a “constitution of liberty.”

As a final example, I wrote this in 1992: “Today the world is faced with the choice between two kinds of democracy. One, liberal democracy, is the descendant of the theocratic jus gentium, upholding freedom of trade, open borders, restricted national sovereignty, and the primacy of the private sector, considering that human society at the level of private association basically furthers the harmony of interests of its members, and that coercive authority is necessary only to ensure that violations in this harmony are punished. The other, social democracy, is the descendant of divine right absolutism, championing economic nationalism, closed borders, absolute national sovereignty (unless that sovereignty can be transferred to a supranational body), and the primacy of the public sector to rectify the inherent conflict of interests which exists in human society.”

So my free trade bona fides are fairly impeccable. But what I didn’t realize through all these expositions was something I only later began to uncover. It is a principle that already was elucidated by Friedrich List, one of the first post-classical economists to critique the doctrine of freedom of trade. The principle is this: trade between individuals and private entities is not the same as trade between nations, because it is nations that establish the framework within which trade can even take place. In the words of Karl Polanyi, markets are embedded. And this is of crucial importance. Nations establish currencies, laws, markets; they embody cultures and mores that impinge directly on economic performance; they embrace religions that, as Max Weber among others has shown, likewise are of crucial importance to economic activity. The public interest and the common-wealth are real factors that transcend private economy. They condition all economic activity and they cannot be abstracted away as if irrelevant to economics. This is the besetting sin of the free-trade theories of classical and neo-classical economics.

“How!” questions List. “The wisdom of private economy is then the wisdom of public economy! Is it in the nature of an individual to be preoccupied with the business and the wants of the future, as it is in the nature of a nation and of a government?” Leaving everything to individual action could not possibly ensure that collective interests will be taken care of. “Consider only the building of an American city; each man left to himself would think only of his own wants, or, at the utmost, of those of his immediate descendants; the mass of individuals as united in society are not unmindful of the interests and advantages even of the remotest coming generations; the living generation, with that view, submits calmly to privations and sacrifices which no sensible man could expect from individuals in reference to the interests of the present, or from any other motives than those of patriotism or national considerations” (National System of Political Economy, trans. G.A. Matile, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1856, pp. 245-246).

The absence of an understanding of the role of nations, and the focus on individuals, led classical economics to consider the entire world as one great commonwealth, with no distinctions of nationality and sovereignty. This is what led it astray. Its basic principles are valid within the framework of the nation, in their own sphere; but they run aground when trade between nations is considered. “In representing free competition of producers as the surest means for developing the prosperity of mankind,” List writes on p. 261, “the School is perfectly right, considering the point of view from which it regards the subject. In the hypothesis of universal association, every restriction upon honest trade between different countries would seem unreasonable and injurious. But as long as some nations will persist in regarding their special interests as of greater value to them than the collective interests of humanity, it must be folly to speak of unrestricted competition between individuals of different nations.” List here speaks only of national interests, but elsewhere he discusses the whole range of relevant criteria by which nations are distinguished. And so, “The arguments of the School in favor of such competition are then applicable only to the relations between inhabitants of the same country. A great nation must consequently endeavor to form a complete whole, which may maintain relations with other similar unities within the limits which its particular interest as a society may prescribe.” The social, public interests which obtain between nations are divergent; they differ from private interests and cannot be treated equally with them. “Now these social interests are known to differ immensely from the private interests of all the individuals of a nation, if each individual be taken separately and not as a member of the national association, if, as with Smith and Say, individuals are regarded merely as producers and consumers, and not as citizens of a nation” (p. 261).

So what does List propose as an alternative? Protectionism. This is his great failing. Because of this, his book has been neglected by those who realize the shortcomings of that doctrine, among whom I include myself. As I knew and still know, protectionism has its own set of problems.

Recall that “the School,” as List refers to the classical school of Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say, advocated a commodity-money regime, which in effect harnessed the nations to a single currency. Because of this, if a nation wished to effectuate some sort of insulation of the domestic economy, it could only resort to protectionism as a fall-back.

The United States pursued a protectionist policy throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. The problems to which this led were given powerful expression at the crackup of the commodity-money regime in 1931, by James Harvey Rogers. Rogers placed a good deal of the blame for the bleak situation on the regime of tariffs obstructing trade.

The prominent part played by our high protective tariff in the present disastrous situation is beyond serious question. Aside from the political corruption which it has engendered in our national politics throughout more than a hundred years of our history, and aside, too, from the glaring domestic injustices which, since its inception, it has created and maintained; on it can now be laid the blame for a very important part in the extraordinary maldistribution of the money metal, in the recent drastic and rapid decline of prices, and therefore in the world-wide depression (America Weighs Her Gold, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1931, p. 193).

Of course this would have to be the case. Tariff walls short-circuit the functioning of a commodity-money regime. The attempt to eliminate trade imbalances through what effectively is a single currency run up against the shoals of that irreducible datum, the national economy. Domestic interests, in particular labor interests, simply will not pay the inflation/deflation whipsaw price to be paid to keep that system running. And so came the inevitable resort to trade barriers, and the eventual collapse of the system.

It is unfortunate that List’s exposition is known only for its advocacy of protectionism. Underneath that veneer lies a trenchant critique of the “cosmopolitan” system which is what unrestricted free trade embodies, which is valid now, as it was then. A common-law understanding of economics, which is what underlies List’s work, recognizes that nationhood and national sovereignty entail a framework of laws and institutions that delimit all economic activity and set up “natural” trade barriers that schemes like free trade and commodity money cannot overcome. A truly “natural” economic framework understands that currency is a function of sovereignty, and that floating exchange rates will provide the balancing mechanism that nations need to conduct trade relations with each other.

So how do we save freedom of trade? Not by eliminating nations, national sovereignty, national boundaries, and the like, but by embracing them within a framework that recognizes rather than undermines national sovereignty. Free-floating currencies are one crucial aspect of such a regime; after all, this is nothing else than free trade in currencies. Another is the adoption of domestic fiscal and monetary policies that do not promote the advantage of one nation over another. This is what happens when, for example, countries like Germany and China inflict forced-savings regimes on their own citizenry, punishing consumption and promoting production. What then in fact happens is that other countries are forced to take on board their excess production, as Michael Pettis has demonstrated in his book The Great Rebalancing. It is here that international efforts need to be conducted, not in imposing transnational regimes that undermine and displace national sovereignty altogether, and make a farce of even the pretense of democratic rule.

National Economy?

At first glance the notion of a national economy would seem to be self-evident. After all, the lion’s share of economic data comes in the form of “national accounts,” which treat the nation as a self-contained economic entity, like a business. And the talk, when it comes to the economy, is always of how the nation is doing, or how other nations or countries are doing. Likewise, history revolves around the nations and their economic progress, as with the US and its “manifest destiny.”

But the idea of a national economy does not extend to the level of theoretical category. Economic theory does not take it into consideration. It comes into play because of political, not economic, considerations. The fact of the matter is, because politics is concentrated at the national level, so also is fiscal and monetary policy. And this factual state of affairs determines the subject matter. It is at the national level that both fiscal and monetary policy takes place; it is the level at which results from these policies are expected.

Economic theory, however, is not discussed in terms of the nation but in terms of abstractions: the “market,” “business,” “consumers,” etc. This is, or at least it used to be, referred to as “microeconomics.” Then we have “macroeconomics,” which is essentially the economic role of the state with its aforementioned fiscal and monetary policies; in this way we smuggle the nation in through the back door, as it were.

But the nation never functions as a subject of economic theory in its own right. Economic practice, of course, cannot avoid it – the sovereign democratic state is the way things are, it delimits the subject matter at the “macro” level.

The unexamined presupposition in all of this is, what is the locus of the economy? It is actually a question of the utmost importance, because only in this way can we come to grips with crucially important notions – and realities that, like it or not, we have to deal with – like the “global” economy.

One person who, thankfully, did not leave this presupposition unexamined is Jane Jacobs. In her book Cities and the Wealth of Nations,[1] she puts the notion of a national economy, which she takes to be the reigning doctrine, squarely in the cross-hairs. In her view, such an economy is an artificial imposition: the real economy is city-oriented. Cities, not nations, form the watersheds of an economy. Which is to say, cities are the focus of integrated, mixed economies, involving all major sectors from agriculture to industry to finance. Within the city and its supply regions, a stable and integral economy is maintained.[2]

Therefore exporting and importing takes place between cities, not nations. By extension, cities perform the vital economic function of import-replacing: the replacement of imported goods with goods of their own making. In Jacobs’ model, it is this import-replacing function that is the basic motor of economic growth.[3]

Jacobs adds to this import/export functionality the logical corollary: currencies. Currencies function as feedback mechanisms: they provide economies with information with respect to their productivity vis-a-vis other economies. A rise in an economy’s currency indicates that it is more productive than other economies the currencies of which are falling in relative terms, while a fall indicates the reverse condition.

So then Jacobs draws the obvious conclusion. Since cities are the basic units of import and export, currencies, in order to best perform their function, should be geared to the city economy itself; their rise and fall would thus trigger the appropriate response in the city economy, because this currency fluctuation acts as both tariff barrier and export subsidy (a falling currency acts as an export subsidy, a rising currency as a tariff barrier). Cities should maintain their own currencies.[4]

This also indicates a problem with this entity known as the national economy. A larger political unit such as a nation-state, when it imposes a common currency on a multiplicity of cities, short-circuits this feedback function of currencies. It favors the economies of some cities at the expense of others. Since cities not only import and export to foreign nations but also to sister cities in the same nation,[5] the automatic feedback information provided by the currency does nothing to allow cities within the range of the currency to adjust their economies to each other. They receive none of the feedback information that a city-based currency would provide them. Therefore, the cities whose economic position is favored by the national currency continue to grow, while the others stagnate.[6]

Clearly Jacobs is no friend of the nation-state. “Virtually all national governments, it seems fair to say, and most citizens would sooner decline and decay unified, true to the sacrifices by which their unity was won, than prosper and develop in division.”[7] And she takes classical economics, especially as exemplified in Adam Smith’s tellingly titled Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, to task for this. Smith “accepted without comment the mercantilist tautology that nations are the salient entities for understanding the structure of economic life. As far as one can tell from his writings, he gave that point no thought but took it so much for granted that he used it as his point of departure.”[8] Smith’s unthinking assumption of this assumption was subsequently passed from generation to generation without any further thought on the matter. “Ever since, that same notion has continued to be taken for granted. How strange; surely no other body of scholars or scientists in the modern world has remained as credulous as economists, for so long a time, about the merit of their subject matter’s most formative and venerable assumption.”[9]

So Jacobs agrees with us that the locus of the economy is an unexamined proposition. Nevertheless, her thesis that the nation was the focal point of classical economic theory is debatable. In fact, it is contradicted by an early proponent of “The National System of Political Economy,” Friedrich List.[10] List certainly does not figure as an unthinking follower of Adam Smith. His description of Smith’s school is telling: he calls it “the Cosmopolitical System.” By which he means that, pace Jacobs, it is the antithesis of a “national system” of economics.

In line with the influential vision of “Perpetual Peace” put forward in the late 18th century by the celebrated Abbé St. Pierre, this “cosmopolitical system” of economics presupposes harmony and peace between the nations. In such a situation, nations per se have no interests; the human race is joined together as one; and for this reason, “for the most part the measures of governments for the promotion of public prosperity are useless; and that to raise a State from the lowest degree of barbarism to the highest state of opulence, three things only are necessary, moderate taxation, a good administration of justice, and peace.[11] Free trade is then the norm, and indeed, can only truly be implemented under the auspices of such a universal peace. But, argues List, this is to confuse a hypothetical goal toward which the nations should work, with a standing condition already attained.

The [classical] School has admitted as realized[,] a state of things to come. It presupposes the existence of universal association and perpetual peace, and from it infers the great benefits of free trade. It confounds thus the effect and the cause. A perpetual peace exists among provinces and states already associated; it is from that association that their commercial union is derived : they owe to perpetual peace in the place they occupy, the benefits which it has procured them. History proves that political union always precedes commercial union. It does not furnish an instance where the latter has had the precedence. In the actual state of the world, free trade would bring forth, instead of a community of nations, the universal subjection of nations to the supremacy of the greater powers in manufactures, commerce, and navigation. [12]

While Smith and the other proponents of the classical school did recognize the existence of nations and national interests, List correctly assesses the basic orientation of the system. Much of this was inchoate; Lists’s strictures served to stir up debate, generate criticism, and give rise to critical schools of economic theory, such as the so-called Historical School.

This is evident not only in the advocacy of free trade generally as panacea for all economic ills, but also, importantly, in the advocacy of free trade in the area of currency. As we explored in this earlier post, leaving currency to the free market is a key element in a cosmopolitan system that deemphasizes nations as economic actors and subjugates sovereignty, in order to establish a “center-periphery” system of exploitation. And Adam Smith’s classical system established commodity money as a cornerstone of its economic order. As such, in its essentials List’s construct holds true.

List is correct to point out that mercantilism, the target of the classical school’s vituperation, took the nation to be the focus of economics. The system of commodity money, established to overcome mercantilism, is thus a product of the cosmopolitan system. Indeed, the latter found its justification in the fact that it overcame mercantilism, with its supposed framework of conflict of interests and the struggle between nations.

The system of commodity money came to be embodied in the gold standard. As I have argued elsewhere (Follow the Money, ch. 14: “The Great Transformation”), that system ended up in the shipwreck of two world wars and a great depression. As such, it is forever a thing of the past.

Since then, we have had national currencies; and since 1971, ostensibly free-floating national currencies. Jacobs’ polemic against the current system of national currencies has this to say for it, that it understands the role of currencies as feedback mechanisms. Furthermore, the understanding of economies as things that are city-oriented and city-generated. Where Jacobs goes astray is in her exclusive focus on currencies as the only way imbalances are rectified.

As I outline in the accompanying course, economic regions within national boundaries, which thus share the same currency, adapt to each other and resolve imbalances between each other by changes in wages and prices. These changes trigger flows between the economic regions, which are called factor flows: flows of mobile factors of production. Two such factors are labor and capital. They flow back and forth between economic regions, depending on such things as wage levels, price levels, and interest rates.

In the cosmopolitan system, these flows take place not only within countries but between countries. The world is then viewed as a unified, universal jurisdiction of provinces, with the free flow of mobile factors of production settling up regional imbalances.

The problem with this system is, of course, that it does not take nations into account as inescapable realities with inescapable, differentiated, often conflicting characteristics. Nations have different cultures, languages, religions, mores, values, levels of material development, and certainly different approaches to and attitudes towards getting and spending. This leads to evident differentials in things like rates of economic growth.

There is more. Nations have an unsettling penchant: inner drive to establish sovereignty. This was one of the great insights of the German Calvinist statesman and political philosopher Johannes Althusius (1563-1638). At the time, the doctrine of sovereignty was for the first time being fully developed in its modern form as the power that cannot be gainsaid, the power that stands above all other human institutions and authorities and “speaks the law” to them in a final manner. The Frenchman Jean Bodin (1530-1596), coincidentally one of the forerunners of the theory of commodity money, was also the developer of this new theory of sovereignty, which he located squarely in the ruler, whether king or national assembly of whatever sort.

Althusius accepted Bodin’s doctrine of sovereignty but turned it on its head, as it were. It was not the ruler, but the nation as a whole which was the bearer and locus of sovereignty. The ruler was simply the administrator thereof, who exercised its power in the name of and in trust to the true sovereign, the people or nation.

I have attributed the rights of sovereignty, as they are called, not to the supreme magistrate, but to the commonwealth or universal association. Many jurists and political scientists assign them as proper only to the prince and supreme magistrate to the extent that if these rights are granted and communicated to the people or commonwealth, they thereby perish and are no more. A few others and I hold to the contrary, namely, that they are proper to the symbiotic body of the universal association to such an extent that they give it spirit, soul, and heart. And this body, as I have said, perishes if they are taken away from it. I recognize the prince as the administrator, overseer, and governor of these rights of sovereignty. But the owner and usufructuary of sovereignty is none other than the total people associated in one symbiotic body from many smaller associations. These rights of sovereignty are so proper to this association, in my judgment, that even if it wishes to renounce them, to transfer them to another, and to alienate them, it would by no means be able to do so, any more than a man is able to give the life he enjoys to another. For these rights of sovereignty constitute and conserve the universal association.[13]

This key consideration is something that Jacobs and economists in general overlook. Sovereignty is a legal and political doctrine that fixes economic reality in a determinate and conclusive manner. It transcends economics while also acting as a basic datum that real-world economics must take into consideration. And it is nations that exercise sovereignty. As such, it is nations that establish and maintain a common law, the determiner of economic reality: hence, common-law economics. Currency, for one thing, is a function of this common law. No nations, no sovereignty; and no sovereignty, no common law. As this piece is already long enough, I will spare the reader any further elucidations. But this on-site article can serve to fill the gap.


[1] Jane Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life (New York: Random House, 1984).

[2] Ibid., ch. 2.

[3] “Whenever a city replaces imports with its own production, other settlements, mostly other cities, lose sales accordingly. However, these other settlements – either the same ones which have lost export sales or different ones – gain an equivalent value of new export work. This is because an import-replacing city does not, upon replacing former imports, import less than it otherwise would, but shifts to other purchases in lieu of what it no longer needs from outside. Economic life as a whole has expanded to the extent that the import-replacing city has everything it formerly had, plus its complement of new and different imports. Indeed, as far as I can see, city import-replacing is in this way at the root of all economic expansion.” Ibid., p. 42.

[4] Ibid., ch. 11.

[5] Ibid., p. 43.

[6] Ibid., ch. 11.

[7] ch. 13; the quotes are from pp. 212, 215-16.

[8] Ibid., p. 30.

[9] Ibid., p. 31.

[10] As elaborated in his book The National System of Political Economy,  first published in German in 1841. The English translation was first published in 1856.

[11] National System of Political Economy (1856 ed.), p. 191.

[12] Ibid., p. 200.

[13] Frederick S. Carney (trans. and ed.), The Politics of Johannes Althusius (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1965), p. 10. Emphasis added.

Capitalism and the “Modern World System”

World system analysis was first developed in the early 1970s as an alternative to the traditional nation-state-oriented analysis of the global economy. In its initial form (which has since been expanded – even, significantly, to ancient Mesopotamia[1]) the focus was put on the modern world system, as evidenced by the title of the pioneering work of the genre, by Immanuel Wallerstein: The Modern World-System. According to this version of events, the world system developed in the transition from medieval to modern times, with the key period being the 16th century.

What characterizes a world system is what is called a center-periphery relation. The center determines the flows and the rationale, while the periphery provides the means and materials. The center is the “why,” the periphery is the “how.” The whole thing exists for the benefit of the center; the periphery may derive some advantages from the relationship, but these are adventitious.

Wallerstein argues that such a system was set up by the Western colonial powers. Prior to this, the structure for economically connecting various regions was empire – a political method, not an economic one. In the imperial model, there is likewise a center-periphery relation, but it functions differently. Such empires “guaranteed economic flows from the periphery to the center by force (tribute and taxation) and by monopolistic advantages in trade.”[2] That was the good news; the bad news was that these forced contributions required massive outlays in coercive apparatus in order to be sustained. “The bureaucracy made necessary by the political structure tended to absorb too much of the profit, especially as repression and exploitation bred revolt which increased military expenditures;” the upshot is that empire was only “a primitive means of economic domination.”[3]

As such, the new method of world system was a great improvement exploitation-wise. “It is the social achievement of the modern world, if you will, to have invented the technology that makes it possible to increase the flow of the surplus from the lower strata to the upper strata, from the periphery to the center, from the majority to the minority, by eliminating the ‘waste’ of too cumbersome a political superstructure.”[4]

It was capitalism that enabled this great leap forward. Capitalism does not require political hegemony to realize these economic flows between the center and the periphery; rather, it makes use of political power to attain favorable terms of trade. “The state becomes less the central economic enterprise than the means of assuring certain terms of trade in other economic transactions.” It stacks the deck in favor of the center, to ensure the center’s superiority. Trade is the medium for accomplishing this. Not free trade, to be sure, but managed trade. “The operation of the market (not the free operation but nonetheless its operation) creates incentives to increased productivity and all the consequent accompaniment of modern economic development.”[5]

“The world-economy is the arena within which these processes occur.”[6] And so globalism came into being.

There have been many critiques of this framework. For one thing, was this really the first time such a world system has come about? There is good reason to believe that such a world system was already established in ancient Mesopotamia (at least, a far-reaching center-periphery arrangement based in capitalism and trade rather than conquest).

For another, does capitalism necessarily form such a world system? It can be argued that there are different forms of capitalism. Was it not a form of capitalism that participated in Wallerstein’s empire? It would seem that capitalism of some form was alive and well in, e.g., the Roman Empire. And cannot capitalism function just as well within a domestic economy, under the thumb of sovereignty?

Indeed, if there is a term subject to equivocal use, it is capitalism. Schumpeter referred to capitalism as “that word which good economists always try to avoid,” precisely because of the range of meanings attributed to it. For his part, Schumpeter defined it as “that form of private property economy in which innovations are carried out by means of borrowed money, which in general, though not by logical necessity, implies credit creation.” Those familiar with Schumpeter’s theory of economic development will recognize the emphasis he puts on this function; those who aren’t, might profit from the course in economics available elsewhere on this website, which highlights this functionality. For his part, Schumpeter defends the importance he attaches to it. “It undoubtedly appears strange at a first reading, but a little reflection will satisfy the reader that most of the features which are commonly associated with the concept of capitalism would be absent from the economic and from the cultural process of a society without credit creation.”[7]

Be that as it may, world system analysis is important, not as just another critique of capitalism, but as a critique of the form capitalism can take and the way in which trade, banking, etc., can be used to establish hegemonic exploitative regimes on a transnational basis.

One of the important aspects of world system analysis is the perspective it opens to the way sovereignty can be manipulated, even hijacked. For the center of the system is less a political power center than an amorphous, protean nerve center. Fernand Braudel, not quite a world-system analyst but a kindred spirit nevertheless, depicted this kind of capitalism quite starkly. From early on, he wrote, the great capitalists have seated themselves astride the currents of domestic and international trade; they have been able to make things happen for themselves in a major way.  “This commanding position at the pinnacle of the trading community was probably the major feature of capitalism in view of the benefits it conferred: legal or actual monopoly and the possibility of price manipulation.”[8]

Thus, “active social hierarchies” were constructed atop the market economy, and those at the pinnacles could call the tune in the great national and international markets. The esoteric privileged area of large-scale and international trade represented a “shadowy zone” atop the market economy.  “Certain groups of privileged actors were engaged in circuits and calculations that ordinary people knew nothing of.  Foreign exchange for example, which was tied to distant trade movements and to the complicated arrangements for credit, was a sophisticated art, open only to a few initiates at most.” For Braudel, this transnational perch is the linchpin of the arrangement. “To me, this second shadowy zone, hovering above the sunlit world of the market economy and constituting its upper limit so to speak, represents the favoured domain of capitalism.”[9]

This understanding opens the door to a critique of this world-system analysis. The core-periphery framework with which it works, demands strong states at the core and weak states at the periphery. “The world-economy develops a pattern where state structures are relatively strong in the core areas and relatively weak in the periphery. Which areas play which roles is in many ways accidental. What is necessary is that in some areas the state machinery be far stronger than in others.”[10]

In the early-modern period, according to Wallerstein, it was absolute monarchy which provided the strong state, benefiting the two main power groups, the so-called capitalist bourgeoisie and the feudal aristocracy. “For the former, the strong state in the form of the ‘absolute monarchies’ was a prime customer, a guardian against local and international brigandage, a mode of social legitimation, a preemptive protection against the creation of strong state barriers elsewhere. For the latter, the strong state represented a brake on these same capitalist strata, an upholder of status conventions, a maintainer of order, a promoter of luxury.”[11]

But as I have written elsewhere,[12] it was not any of the absolute monarchies but the Great Exception, the Dutch Republic, that functioned as the core of the budding world system. This was not an absolute monarchy but a country in which the very concept of sovereignty and its location was unclear. It was a country the political power of which was divided between a stadhouder (a viceroy without a king) and a city-oriented gentry which might serve as the poster children of Wallerstein’s capitalist bourgeoisie.

As I explained in a previous post, the Dutch Republic was able to establish its trading network basically by poaching the silver circulation of its neighboring “absolute monarchies,” which is one reason France invaded the country in 1672. In other words, it worked to undermine the sovereign attributes of its neighbors to establish this network. It also e.g. circumvented trade restrictions established by its more powerful neighbors. In other words, the world system functioned by weakening, not strengthening, national sovereignty.

This characteristic is overlooked by Wallerstein’s analysis. It recurs on a regular basis. The entire commodity-money framework which the Dutch Republic and then England worked to establish on a world-wide basis, the monetary framework that fostered the world system such as it was, takes money entirely out of the hands of the state and puts in in the hands of a private capitalist elite.

Del Mar’s scathing denunciation serves to highlight just how opposite to the notion of a “strong core state” this new monetary regime actually was:

From the remotest time to the seventeenth century of our æra, the right to coin money and to regulate its value (by giving it denominations) and by limiting or increasing the quantity of it in circulation was the exclusive prerogative of the State. In 1604, in the celebrated case of the Mixed Moneys, this prerogative was affirmed under such extraordinary circumstances and with such an overwhelming array of judicial and forensic authority as to occasion alarm to the moneyed classes of England, who at once sought the means to overthrow it. These they found in the demands of the East India Company, the corruption of Parliament[,] the profligacy of Charles II., and the influence of Barbara Villiers. The result was the surreptitious mint legislation of 1666-7: and thus a prerogative, which, next to the right of peace or war, is the most powerful instrument by which a State can influence the happiness of its subjects, was surrendered or sold for a song to a class of usurers, in whose hands it has remained ever since.[13]

In a similar vein, the core of John Hobson’s critique of British colonialism (taken over by Lenin in his Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism) is that colonialism serves the interests neither of the mother country nor of the colonies, but only the interests of certain specific parties who profit from the arrangement. It follows that such a world system is not necessarily benefiting the core countries at all – it might even be a serious drain on them. Qui bono? The answer is not so simple as the world system analysis might lead us to believe.

Fast forward to the contemporary situation. The arrangement in which we find ourselves, which has been gestating since the end of World War II and has settled into a familiar pattern since the 1980s, cannot be described in terms of this center-periphery arrangement. In fact, the argument can be made (and forcefully) that it has been the periphery which has taken advantage of the core. This has been accomplished mainly by pegging exchange rates at levels advantageous to exports from the periphery (production) paid for by the core (consumption). In this arrangement, the United States is referred to as the “consumer of last resort,” the place where excess production can be most efficaciously offloaded.

This hollows out the production capacity of the consumption-oriented countries running the trade deficit. Obviously, this is not good for workers in those countries. Nor is it beneficial to the workers in the producing and exporting economies. As Michael Pettis makes clear in his extremely important book The Great Rebalancing, it is by a form of forced “savings” (i.e., expropriation) imposed on households and thus workers that this trade advantage is maintained. Qui bono? Not the workers, neither in the exporting nor in the consuming countries. Rather, it is our familiar friend, Braudel’s “shadowy zone” of behind-the-scenes capitalist power brokers, which benefits from its “commanding position at the pinnacle of the trading community” to steer the profits in its direction and the losses to both ends of the trading network. In this arrangement, there is no core and no periphery – there are only regions of exploitation. The difference is in the form the exploitation takes.

Having covered these arrangements more extensively in the accompanying course, I direct the reader there for further background. In the meantime, it is enough to confirm that the seismic rumblings now being felt among the various electorates in the West have a solid basis in reality. It is only to be hoped that the powers that be take heed of these rumblings and make the appropriate adjustments, before they turn into actual political earthquakes.


 

[1] For example: Barry Gills, Andre Gunder Frank (eds.), The World System: Five Hundred Years Or Five Thousand? (London and New York: Routledge, 2014).

[2] Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, with a New Prologue, vol. 1 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011 [1974]), p. 15.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., pp. 15-16.

[5] Ibid., p. 16.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Joseph Schumpeter, Business Cycles: A Theoretical, Historical, and Statistical Analysis of the Capitalist Process (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1939), vol. 1, pp. 223-224.

[8] Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century: Vol. II, The Wheels of Commerce (New York: Harper & Row, 1984 [1979]), p. 374.

[9] Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century: Vol. I, The Structures of Everyday Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1981 [1979]), p. 24.

[10] Wallerstein, The Modern World-System, p. 355.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See my Follow the Money: The Money Trail Through History (Aalten: WordBridge, 2013), pp. 84ff.

[13] Alexander Del Mar, Barbara Villiers: or, a History of Monetary Crimes (New York: Cambridge Encyclopedia Co, 1899), p. 7.

Isaac Newton and the Alchemy of Finance

Western Christendom experienced a sea change in the late 17th century. On one side of that divide was theological dogmatics, scholastic philosophy, the divine right of kings and priests, and, seemingly in their train, wars of religion; on the other side, there was theological indifference, mechanical philosophy, government by consent of the governed, latitudinarian and sectarian church polity, and the political balance of power. Not that these things came all at once; but the tendencies were clear. The mood and temper of the peoples had swung; religion lost its position of overriding importance, to be replaced by economic and political considerations, reason of state, and the wealth of nations.

A pantheon of figures has been elevated to apostolic status as trailblazers in the transition from the Darkness of the one side of this great divide to the Enlightenment of the other. Hugo Grotius, Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Pierre Bayle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, all figure in enumerations of enlightened progenitors of the new era. Paired with these names was a new theoretical orientation which determined the mindset, the Zeitgeist, the Weltanschauung of this new dawn: a new science putting the categories “nature” and “natural law” on a new footing, providing the essential authoritative basis for the new order.

Thus “nature” was the determining factor. The “imperative of nature” came to dominate all areas of inquiry and practical philosophy. The “state of nature” became the orientating condition; rights in a state of nature came to be the touchstone of all just legal and political order; natural religion, religion in accordance with the dictates of nature, came to be touchstone to judge revelation, or at least to form a stand-alone, autonomous body of knowledge alongside revelation; and a new school of thought, economics, arose from out of the disarray of “mercantilist” controversy, basing itself upon – you guessed it – nature, with the initial iteration provided by Richard Cantillon and François Quesnay, and which issued forth as “physiocracy”: the rule of nature.

Perhaps one figure above all others represented and personified this trend. That would be Isaac Newton, the progenitor of the paradigm that anchored all these areas of thought in terms of a unified theoretical construct. Newton put science on a new plane, providing an integrated theoretical explanation for phenomena that had stumped scientists for generations; and it was upon this foundation that the orders of religion, law, politics, and economics were shunted. Alexander Pope’s well-known “Epitaph on Sir Isaac Newton” was, if anything, an understatement of the sentiment of the age:

Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night:

God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

Christian theology became wedded to Newtonian physics, which in particular served as a tool of apologetics.[1] The philosophy of law and politics, already argued in terms of the individual and consent, received a powerful support from the notion of an atomistic universe. And this very same Newtonian construct likewise served to buttress the budding school of classical economics with all of its “natural laws” of wealth and poverty centering on the individual and self-interest.

In all of these areas, Newton’s philosophy, the “settled science” of the day, supplied a powerful sanction. But this is not everything there is to know about Newton. Some areas of his labor, to which he devoted at least as much time as his scientific investigations, have come to light of late, after having languished in the obscurity they were left in by hagiographic biographers determined to highlight the rational character of one of the chief developers of the scientific method, while ignoring what they deemed to be irrational. And Newton exhibited this “irrationalism” in spades.

One of these areas was biblical study. Newton devoted a great deal of time and effort to biblical chronology and to deciphering the Temple of Solomon. The latter in particular he held to be an expression of hidden truth to be unraveled by the initiate. This interest in the Bible and in theology, along with Newton’s clear belief in the biblical version of events regarding, e.g., six-day creation and the Flood, were enough to put a serious dent in Newton’s reputation as the objective enlightened scientist. But the most egregious offense in this regard was provided by the realization that Newton dabbled in alchemy. More than that: he spent a major portion of his investigative life, not in scientific experimentation, but in alchemic explorations, pursuing the transmutation of elements.

It was John Maynard Keynes who first lifted the lid on this aspect of Newton’s legacy. “Newton was not the first of the age of reason,” Keynes wrote in his posthumously published and delivered lecture, “Newton the Man.” Rather, “He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.”

Keynes discovered the “real” Newton while perusing a box of forgotten documents he obtained at an auction in 1936. This led to a radical reevaluation on his part. “In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason. I do not see him in this light. I do not think that any one who has pored over the contents of that box which he packed up when he finally left Cambridge in 1696 and which, though partly dispersed, have come down to us, can see him like that.”

That box revealed Newton the alchemist. Alchemy is the pursuit of transmutation, and Newton avidly pursued it. What the alchemists were after was gold. What one needed for that was the philosopher’s stone; with that in one’s possession, one might convert base metal into the precious yellow metal.

It goes without saying that Newton never came into the possession of such a stone, nor did he ever successfully transform base metal into gold. But it cannot be said that he was altogether unsuccessful in his manipulations in favor of the yellow metal. And here comes the part of the story that is never told, because insufficiently understood. It is the story of how Newton participated in one of the great transformations of world history: the shift of England’s currency from silver to gold, which precipitated the change from a coinage- to a banking-based monetary system. He did so as Master of the Mint, a position he occupied from 1699 until his death in 1727.

A little background is in order at this point. The 16th century witnessed the development of a new order of trade, or, in Immanuel Wallerstein’s terminology,[2] a world-system integrating far-flung areas of the world into a trading network. At the center of this trade network was the fledgling Dutch Republic. In the face of the mercantilist imperative – policies to maximize the retention of precious metals in order to maintain a viable domestic circulation – the Dutch Republic instituted a novel arrangement with regard to currency, dictated by this trading network.

This arrangement facilitated trade with the East. This was because the West ran a chronic trade deficit with the East. There was nothing new about this; from the early medieval period on, the West basically had nothing to offer the more advanced East than such things as furs and slaves, the latter until the slave supply from the Western countries dried up. But there was great demand in the West for what the East had to offer: for instance, silks and spices. How to finance the importation of these luxury goods? Silver.

The one thing the West had that the East wanted, especially since Spain’s discoveries in the New World, was silver. Silver in the East carried a premium vis-à-vis the West, making it profitable to export: this was what made it effective as a means to settle up the trade deficit.

Thanks to new mining techniques and Christopher Columbus, silver became abundant in the 16th century, precipitating the so-called Price Revolution of that century. But in the 17th century the supply began drying up, one of the factors behind the so-called General Crisis of the 17th century and one of the spurs to the spate of policy proposals and implementations summed up in the term “mercantilism.” For one thing, the mines of New Spain were not producing as much as they once did. For another, the flow of silver to the East, primarily China – that bottomless pit, “the World’s Silver Sink”[3] – was beginning to have its effect.

The Dutch Republic served as the funneling mechanism for this flow. Its counter-mercantilist policy allowing the free import and export of specie, and the demand for silver for export exerted a magnetic attraction from all over Europe, with the resulting abundance of coin even precipitating the Tulip Mania of the 1630s.[4] Much of it simply went to offset the burgeoning import business.

English merchants watched all of this with proverbial Argus eyes. They looked on as the Dutch East India Company established its trading network, helped by its special advantage of readily available specie. They sought ways to get around the royal prohibition on the export of currency, and chafed under the restriction.

The breakthrough came in 1663, with the passage of legislation establishing a regime of free coinage. Del Mar finds the impetus for this legislation in the intrigues of Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, Charles II’s mistress.[5] With this opening, the East India Company worked diligently to build its own trading network. The needed silver it obtained, among other places, from the domestic circulation, precipitating a dearth of coin. Together with the wars against Louis XIV conducted by “King Billy,” the Dutch stadhouder become King of England, this precipitated an economic and budgetary crisis.

This decimated the coinage, which suffered from debasement at minting as well as the techniques of clipping and sweating. As a remedy, the wise men of the age recommended a restoration of the coinage to the condition it enjoyed under Queen Elizabeth a century earlier. According to Whig historiography, the great men who recommended this measure, occupants of the Enlightened Pantheon, men like John Locke, here once again displayed their sagacity. Post-Whig reassessment has been less kind.[6]

The attempt to restore the coinage to the silver content of days when silver was abundant had, as its detractors predicted it would, a strongly deflationary effect. And it had the opposite result than hoped, for it simply provided a prime source of silver for export. Full-weight silver coins were simply too juicy to let pass. On these terms, it was quite simply more profitable to export silver than allow it to continue in circulation.

So the result of the so-called Great Recoinage was virtually to establish gold as the currency standard for England.[7] Here is where Newton comes in. As Master of the Mint, Newton ensured the continuation of this trend, maintaining a ratio of silver to gold (15 ½ to 1) that upheld the continued priority of gold over silver. By pricing gold favorably against silver, this ratio ensured that the export of silver in favor of gold would continue to be profitable. Both Newton and Locke indicated the direction that the natural philosophy was going to take with regard to economics: the commodification of money, with all the consequences that this would entail.

But the establishment of gold at the heart of the English currency system had another consequence of a different order: it established fractional-reserve banking in place of coinage as the “money method.” This system of banking had a magical working. It turned paper into gold, or gold into paper, for it multiplied a bank’s specie holdings and circulated a currency “as good as gold” albeit many times the actual amount of gold. This alchemical process actually worked, contrary to Newton’s experiments with the philosopher’s stone. And so Newton stood at the cradle of a new alchemy with far-reaching consequences.

It is one of those curious coincidences of history that Keynes, considered by many to be the modern progenitor of the alchemy of finance, was the first to discover and publicize Newton’s own alchemical wizardries. Keynes’ alchemy consisted in the magical transformation of fiat currency into productivity, growth, and wealth, simply by wielding “effective demand.” Newton’s consisted in the more mundane magic of the multiplication of gold reserves. “Their works follow after them,” for their alchemy lives on. In our day and age, the paradigm of alchemical transmutation has crossed over even into biology and gender. As such, it is the pulsating heartbeat of the age in which we live, all pretensions of scientific rationality notwithstanding.


 

[1] See in particular Margaret C. Jacob, The Newtonians and the English Revolution 1689-1720 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976).

[2]  Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, with a New Prologue, vol. 1 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011 [1974]).

[3] Dennis O. Flynn and Arturo Giráldez, “Born with a ‘Silver Spoon’: The Origin of World Trade in 1571,” Journal of World History, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Fall, 1995), p. 206.

[4] Doug French, “The Dutch Monetary Environment During Tulipmania,” in The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics (Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring 2006), pp. 3-14.

[5] Alexander Del Mar, Barbara Villiers: or, a History of Monetary Crimes (New York: Cambridge Encyclopedia Co, 1899).

[6] For instance: Peter Laslett, “John Locke, the Great Recoinage, and the Origins of the Board of Trade: 1695-1698,” in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 3 (July 1957), pp. 370-402.

[7] A recent article making this case is Charles James Larkin, “The Great Recoinage of 1696: Charles Davenant’s Developments in Monetary Theory” (2006), available at https://goo.gl/JtcWCH.

Honest Money?

“Honest money” is a phrase bandied about as a self-evident truth. As the accompanying graph indicates, its incidence coincides with the heyday of the gold standard. As such, it is the pithy summary of a strongly-held view on the nature of money, which at the time of the gold standard had a highly political charge. The only honest money was gold.

Incidence of the usage of the phrase “honest money” in books, 1800-2000. Source: Google Books Ngram Viewer

As an example, Stanley Waterloo’s Honest Money: “Coin’s” Fallacies Exposed, published in 1895. Here, silver currency is made out to be a dishonest con game: “The Silverite Argument: 1/2=1.”

Modern defenders of “honest money” are not as fastidious. In this, they have forgotten, or at least laid to one side, the controversy of the 19th century as to gold versus silver. Nowadays, according to a leading proponent of this doctrine,[1] honest money is metallic money, preferably gold, but also silver; the only honest money is either a coinage of pure gold or silver composition, or a paper issue 100% backed by such money metal; banks that do not adhere to this are a fraud; the state has no role to play here except enforcement of contracts.

The role of the state is reduced, because honest money is commodity money. In the jargon of the economic historians, money is the “most marketable commodity.” It has developed from the give-and-take of trade as the commodity, or form of merchandise, that proved to be most liquid, i.e., most current, most acceptable to any market participant, not as something directly desired, but as something that could be held and used at a later time in a later exchange.

Hence, the market takes care of money as a sort of automatic by-product. And, according to this version of events, silver and gold constituted the most marketable commodities.

The standard is weights and measures, as befits a commodity. This explains the biblical insistence on honest scales. The shekel, mentioned in the Bible as a unit of currency, was a unit of weight.

Coinage came in later on, as a means of simplifying matters. Instead of weighing out the money commodity for each transaction, coinage was developed in terms of standardized units, in various denominations, unvarying in each denomination, presumably with the weight stamped on each exemplar by way of convenience.

Presumably – because in actual fact, there is no historical example of a coinage stamped with its weight, the way a modern ingot is. What’s more, this version of events is without basis in historical fact.

Not that money did not start out as commodity money. It did, only it did not function in the way the “honest money” proponents would have us believe. The earliest records show a functioning commodity system, but one entirely different from this. In ancient Mesopotamia, a commodity money system developed, but it was, primarily, barley that was the “most marketable commodity.” The barley standard seems to have developed out of the need to store and dispense barley by the cities of the Fertile Crescent, which were more or less autonomous and had to provide for their own citizens. This storage took place in the temples, and was centrally organized. Silver was the other mainstay in monetary transactions. It was used for more high-end and inter-local transactions, while barley was used for local, lower-end transactions.[2]

The important thing to note here is that these commodities were used as units of account. “The temples in Babylonia from the Ur III period through the Achaemenid period use barley like money, especially as a unit of account.”[3] A unit of account serves to facilitate transactions on paper, not actual hand-to-hand transactions. In other words, the commodity was stored away to serve as a basis for monetary transactions, while not actually changing hands. Here we see beginning to take shape before us the basis for the banking system that is the bane of the “honest money” proponents: fractional-reserve banking.

“These institutions were in a position to store grain. They needed it to feed their dependents, and it is clear that they could turn it rather easily into all sorts of other things they might need, ranging from labor-services to commodities.”[4] As Powell notes, the majority of the population was relatively poor and dependent upon these temples for work and sustenance. If payments were made in barley, these could be made on paper (actually, clay tablets) rather than in kind; and as such, they could be expanded far beyond the actual holdings. This in turn would feed indebtedness, which is what a fractional-reserve banking system generates.

The indebtedness is attested by the innumerable cuneiform tablets on which these transactions were recorded. And indebtedness led ineluctably to all manner of social oppression, up to and including debt slavery. This, in turn, led to “clean slate” legislation in which debts were cancelled, debtors were freed from slavery, confiscated lands were returned to the original owners. In fact, the first instance of the word “liberty” – the Sumerian amargi, used by Liberty Press as its logo – does not refer to liberty in the abstract, or to economic freedom, but to the very specific act of debt cancellation. “The term should not be translated vaguely as ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’ in the abstract, but as an economic ‘Clean Slate.’”[5]

The point here is the one I made in my book Follow the Money: “This practice [of fractional-reserve banking] … follows in commodity-based banking’s wake” (p. 15). Commodities used as money do not circulate freely, at least not nearly as much as other commodities, and the more valuable they are, the less freely they circulate. In fact, they have a habit of disappearing from circulation. They wind up in temples or in chests or in vaults, and they circulate only among the very wealthy.  Abraham may have had 400 shekels of silver – “Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver, which he had named in the audience of the sons of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant” – but Abraham was a rich man, for a single shekel of silver was the equivalent of a laborer’s month’s wages.[6]

The biblical prohibition on interest needs to be understood in this context. North argues that the Old Testament does not outlaw the taking of interest. He does so by distinguishing between “usury” and “interest” as two different things. “The Hebrew word ‘usury’ was a term of criticism. Usury referred only to interest taken from a poor fellow believer, in other words, interest secured from a charitable loan. Such usury is prohibited by Biblical law. But interest as such isn’t prohibited.”[7] This suggests there are two words for the phenomenon of interest in the Old Testament, or that the word is used in two senses. This is not the case. There is only one word, and it used in only one sense: interest on loans, not just charitable loans but all loans. By the Law of Moses, any interest at all was illegal, at least to fellow Israelites.

How to understand this? The biblical prohibition on interest was part of a larger complex of institutions, such as the Jubilee, aimed at mitigating the effects of indebtedness. Abraham had been called from “Ur of the Chaldees,” one of the leading cities of “the Mesopotamian Way”; God called him to found a new nation, one that would be able to stand against these nefarious institutions and ward off their debilitating effects. The prohibition on interest was there to keep these institutions from gaining a foothold in Israel. Later on, the Phoenicians, through Jezebel, would introduce their land law into Israel and corrupt it from that end. But the prohibition on interest was intended to prevent Israel from falling under the sway of these foreign influences.

So the Old Testament, while not prohibiting commodity money, mitigated the effects of its use, for it is precisely this that the prohibition on interest provided. Honest money, indeed.

But one might object that this was an aberration. Commodity money as the basis of a fractional-reserve system is not at all what is intended (even though that is what the modern gold standard entailed); commodity money which circulates and/or which forms part of a warehouse-deposit banking system is.

This is problematic. For one thing, it flies in the face of recorded history. Coins valued at weight have hardly ever been able to sustain a circulation. They get removed from circulation precisely because there is no difference between the coin and the commodity. In order to keep coinage in circulation, the value of the coin has to be set at a level higher than its market (intrinsic) value, otherwise it will disappear. This is Gresham’s Law looked at from the other side: it is not that bad money drives out good, but that only “bad” money circulates at all. Which is why nearly all systems of coinage have been fiduciary. Contrary to popular belief, coinage was never a system established to make it easier for commodity money to function, with a coin’s weight stamped on it to simplify matters. Rather, it was established precisely to escape the system of commodity money with its accompanying inconveniences and injustices.[8]

There have been attempts to maintain an “intrinsic” value coinage. But what is clear from them is that their purpose was not to provide for a wide domestic circulation, but only for the upper levels of the economy, for high finance and international trade. During the Dutch Golden Age, for example, the Dutch produced what they called negotiepenningen, “trade pennies,” which were pure silver coins of a certain weight to facilitate trade. These were minted exclusively for international trade and were not meant for domestic circulation – hence the name. Similar examples are the Venetian ducat and the Florentine florin.

The greatest example of such a currency was the Byzantine solidus or bezant, a gold coin maintained for hundreds of years in Byzantium, minted at the rate originally set by Constantine: 72 coins per pound weight of gold. But this coin was part of an intricate system of coinage formed of three metals, copper, silver, and gold. The day-to-day economy ran on silver and copper; the upper reaches of the economy made use of gold. And the empire sacrificed prodigiously to maintain that gold coinage. The state strictly controlled trade to ensure that gold was not exported. It spent massive amounts of resources on gaining and maintaining gold mining regions. Tax rates were high to pay for all of these state activities, to control trade and maintain far-flung armies, all for the sake of maintaining the coinage. And economic development stagnated while economies in neighboring Islamic countries bounded forward: The Muslims, for their part, maintained a silver standard and reaped the benefits of it.

Now let’s suppose that we followed the hard money advocates’ advice and introduced a strictly commodity money based on the precious metals. And further, let’s suppose that we followed their advice and maintained this currency on a basis of strict 100% backing, i.e., without engaging in any fractional-reserve banking or making use of any sort of credit instruments that did not have a strict monetary backing. For one thing, this would call for a heavy dosage of state oversight to ensure that all transactions were conducted on the “up-and-up.” Credit would be eliminated, because credit intrinsically expands the money supply. No lending with the promise of money repayment could take place even on a personal basis, that did not have strict 100% monetary backing. For every such “credit transaction” would in essence expand the money supply. Even the corner grocer’s provision of groceries with a promise of repayment when the paycheck comes in, would be illegal and punishable.

So the state would be heavily involved in the administration of such a standard. But beyond that, it would mean an enduring and drastic deflation, with all the traumatic consequences of such a deflation. This is because the money supply, being limited to the amounts of precious metal that are available to be put into circulation, is by the nature of the case kept at a more or less constant level, while the broader economy, with its innovation, its new technologies, its expanding workforce, its expanding output and consumption, continually outstrips that circulation. With expanding goods and services and a constant money supply, the only direction for prices to go is down. And a deflationary environment is one in which spending collapses, consumption collapses, and everyone holds onto the money they have, to spend it only on things of pressing importance. That is the nature of a deflationary economy. The holders of precious metal would see their holdings appreciate in value daily, while those without such holdings would be left to the mercies of a contracting economy and the opportunities, or lack thereof, it affords.

The attraction of “honest,” i.e., market-based commodity money, is that it seems to be immune to the manipulations of dishonest actors, whether they be bankers, or merchants, or minters, or the state. But this is a mirage. Such an institution never has existed and probably never will. Money needs to be adaptable to the needs of the economy. The money supply needs to be capable of expansion. How that is to be achieved is another question, one which I answer in my oft-mentioned book Follow the Money, to which I refer the reader for further investigation.


 

[1] Gary North, Honest Money: The Biblical Blueprint for Money and Banking (Auburn, AL: The Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2011 [1986]).

[2] A helpful summary of Mesopotamian money can be found in Marvin A. Powell, “Money in Mesopotamia,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 39, No. 3 (1996), pp. 224-242.

[3] Powell, “Money in Mesopotamia,” p. 229.

[4] Powell, “Money in Mesopotamia,” p. 229.

[5] Michael Hudson, The Lost Tradition of Biblical Debt-Cancellation (New York: 1993), p. 16. Download here.

[6] Powell, “Money in Mesopotamia,” p. 229.

[7] North, Honest Money, pp. 81-82.

[8] My book Follow the Money contains much more on this topic.

Weighing the Gold Standard

Seeing as how the gold standard is a “money method”[1] by which all exchange value is made dependent upon the weight of a certain substance, viz., gold, it would seem appropriate to “weigh it up” to determine whether or not, “weighed in the balance,” it is “found wanting.”

Indeed, weight measurement was the standard of value during the period when the gold standard held sway, and that standard was gold by weight: the dollar was set at 23.22 grains of pure gold (a grain being 1/7000 of a pound), the pound sterling at 113 grains, the German mark at 6.146 grains, the French franc at 4.98 grains, etc. In this manner, all the currency systems of the countries that adhered to gold standard were bound together by gold. Gold served as the currencies of the world’s reserve currency. This is likewise the origin of the modern system of reserve currencies, but we reserve that discussion for another opportunity (I discuss reserve banking in more detail here).

The gold standard is considered to be, well, the gold standard of money methods. Its great attraction lies in the discipline it lays on governments to conduct a strict and balanced fiscal policy. It does this because it ostensibly takes monetary policy out of the hands of the state. I say “ostensibly,” because the reality is a bit more complicated than that, as we shall see. Nevertheless, the gold standard system came also to be known as the “automatic mechanism” precisely because it functioned without government interference, indeed without any interference at all, guided by a veritable invisible hand. Again, this was not entirely the reality, but not entirely a departure from reality, either.

So the gold standard took currency management away from the state. Prior to it, the state did manage the currency. And that state-run currency system had its roots far back in history.

To be precise: with the advent of coinage in ancient Lydia (western Anatolia) around 700 B.C., the state became the manager of the monetary system.[2] Prior to this there were systems of commodity money – the Old Testament, for instance, speaks of silver as currency (a shekel being a weight measure of silver), and both silver and barley were used as commodity money in ancient Mesopotamia. These were not state-run but purely market affairs. Coinage was introduced, not as a form of commodity money, but precisely to counteract commodity money, which at that time was intimately tied up with the institution of debt slavery. It was introduced to insulate the domestic economy from foreign hegemony. It thus likewise accompanied the rise of the Western concept of freedom in the Greek city-states: coinage was one of the means which enabled the Greeks to wrestle their freedom from the Eastern (Persian) hegemonic empires.

Rome carried on the Greek tradition of coinage and introduced it throughout its empire (“Shew me a penny. Whose image and superscription hath it? They answered and said, Caesar’s. And he said unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s” (Luke 20: 24-25).) In so doing, it established for posterity the tradition of state management of the money supply. All of the Western European kingdoms took over this Roman institution and applied it as they waxed into independent sovereign states. But this system had its drawbacks. It required precious metals, mainly silver but also, secondarily, gold, to function. And during the entire period of medieval and early modern times, these metals were in short supply. The money supplies of these countries were subject to the vagaries of that supply – mines exhausted here, mines discovered there, new techniques opening new areas up for mining, the demand for silver from the East, in particular India and China – all of these factors played a role in the relative abundance or scarcity of the raw material needed to make the circulation go.

Add to this the practice of competitive devaluations conducted between currency regions, and one can understand the preoccupation for the provision of a supply of metallic currency; a preoccupation which later ages looked upon disparagingly. They even had a name for it: “mercantilism.” But this was no idle preoccupation, for the entire economic circulation depended on the existence of a metallic coinage; nothing else enjoyed the common consent and confidence necessary for a circulating medium.

Coinage was thus a state-run affair, and when the gold standard came around to supplant it, it actually supplanted the regime of coinage entirely. Where the gold standard became established, there coinage dried up. Gold coins never enjoyed the circulation the great silver pieces did, such as the Spanish pieces of eight, which in fact formed the bulk of colonial America’s circulation. No, the system of the gold standard was based on an entirely different “money method”: that of credit and banking.

This may come as a shock to those advocating a return to the gold standard. The common image is that of a rock-solid metallic currency that cannot be manipulated. But the reality of the gold standard was that, under its regime, credit exploded. This was not a bad thing; in fact, it was the way the Industrial Revolution was financed, and without it, that revolution probably would not have materialized. Still, the gold standard engendered a massive increase in banking and credit-derived bank money.

In this system, gold did not circulate in the sense of changing hands. Rather, it was locked up in bank vaults and served as the basis for the structure of credit. It was thus the reserve that every bank needed in order to issue credit. Theoretically, for every dollar of credit the bank issued, it could back in gold. Practice was different: reserve ratios were maintained depending on the likelihood of “cash,” i.e., specie, withdrawals. A ratio of 1/3 was common, at least initially. But with the practice of reserve banking, by which banks deposited their gold holdings with other “reserve” banks, the basis shrank.

So it was under the regime of the gold standard that we obtained an ever more “elastic” money supply. This was reflected in the explosion of credit. Macleod used the following example (from England) to show how the money supply there had changed under the gold standard.[3] He used the finances of the Slater house as representative of commerce in general. For year 1856, this is how its income statement looked:

macleod1

As Macleod noted, “Gold did not enter into their operations to even so much as 2 per cent. And this may furnish a clue by which we may obtain a rough estimate of the amount of Credit.” If this is representative, then credit amounted to 50 times the amount of gold. “This Credit produces exactly the same effects, and affects Prices exactly as so much Gold: and it is through the excessive creation of this kind of Property that all Commercial Crises are brought about.” It is a warning similar to the one Walter Bagehot made in his classic work Lombard Street: the entire edifice of credit was being erected on an ever slimmer basis.

Macleod avers that this lay at the heart of the commercial crises that repeatedly afflicted the economies under the gold standard. But it was the working of the gold standard during the times when it functioned automatically, the way it was supposed to work, that engendered the misery and resentment that led to the rise of the labor movement, political agitation, and the ultimate demise of the system.

This came about because of how the system affected wages and prices, enterprise, and employment. The automatic mechanism functioned through gold flows, and gold flows determined the money supply. Where gold flowed into the economy, the money supply could expand; where it flowed out of the economy, the money supply was forced to contract.

These flows occurred not only within countries but between them, given the international character of the gold standard. When economies, including national economies, ran trade surpluses or deficits, gold flowed to the surplus country, expanding its money supply and fomenting economic activity. By the same token, gold flowed out of the deficit country, restricting the money supply and depressing economic activity. The result was deflation in wages and prices.

So the gold standard worked by allowing inflationary and deflationary swings to redress trade imbalances. This resolved the underlying imbalance, but at what price? Severe bouts of unemployment, and consumption- (and thus production-) killing deflation. Schumpeter, perhaps the most thoughtful and nuanced defender of the gold standard, argued that deflation was not necessarily a bad thing, when all prices and wages moved in sync. Theoretically this might be true, but in practice, deflation has always been traumatic.

In fact, the only benefactors under a regime of regular deflation are creditors. This dynamic gave rise to the so-called social question and the various labor movements, socialism, and communism which characterized the later 19th century’s political landscape. The political unrest behind these movements found increasing recognition in the expansion of the suffrage, which brought the labor movement into the midst of the political arena, and put the interest of the workers on a line with those of the creditors. As a result, a new political calculus came to hold sway – called “stabilization” – consisting in the pursuit of price and wage stability. From this point on, governments pursued policies that could provide this kind of stability.

What then of the gold standard’s automatic mechanism? After all, it was based on the inflation/deflation model of rebalancing, and this new political agenda worked at obvious cross purposes to such rebalancing. The answer is, it was paid lip service as an ideal but was increasingly undermined in practice, first at the edges, later at its heart.

The first concessions to the new agenda were social programs and labor legislation. While they may have alleviated the working class’s lot, they did nothing to solve the underlying problem – the trade imbalance – and in fact hindered its resolution by devoting resources to perpetuating the status quo. Old-school conservatives recognized in this the first signs of state encroachment on the private sector, and they were right.

Along with this came central bank intervention. At first this was small-scale; but after World War I, it became de rigueur. Central banks came to master the art of “open-market operations” to control interest rates and, hopefully, changes in the money supply. But what really broke things open was the policy known as sterilization. By this policy, the automatic mechanism was entirely short-circuited. Sterilization entailed the removal of gold from circulation in the real economy to keep it from affecting prices and wages. This was done in the name of stabilization, but it effectively kept the gold standard from performing its rebalancing function. The countries from which gold flowed remained in a constrained economic situation, while the countries to which gold flowed were kept from expanding. Instead, that money went into the financial market. This precipitated the great bull run on the stock market in the late 1920s which ended in the Great Crash. After this, the gold standard system fell apart: some countries continued to adhere to it, allowing it to constrain their money supplies, while other countries went off of it and saw their money supplies expand and some degree of prosperity return. In addition, this period saw the advent of massive social programs administered by government, which required some degree of government influence on monetary policy in order to gain adequate financing. This dependence by government upon monetary policy, and the popularity this enjoyed among the electorate, sealed the fate of the gold standard.

What are the lessons to be learned from this history?

  1. The gold standard in its historic form as “automatic mechanism” will never be introduced as long as the electorate is democratic, i.e., as long as universal suffrage is the rule;
  2. The gold standard is not a coinage-based but a bank- and credit-based system;
  3. If it is a hard-money, coinage-based system that people are after, then a silver rather than a gold standard would be more feasible. For centuries, silver formed the backbone of the currency system, and for good reason: it is available in sufficient quantities to form an everyday circulation. When the gold standard was introduced, it displaced coinage, which brought great hardship on common people, who suffered from the lack of a circulating medium fitted to their needs.

 


 

[1] The term is Joseph Schumpeter’s: see his Treatise on Money (here and here).

[2] For the historical background to the following discussion, see my book Follow the Money. For more on this entire discussion, one may also consult the accompanying introductory course in economics, which goes into more detail.

[3] The following is taken from Henry Dunning Macleod, The Elements of Economics (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1881), vol. I, pp. 324-325.

Thoughts on the Piketty Thesis

As is the case with the vast majority of commentators on this topic, I have not read Thomas Piketty’s book (Capital in the Twenty-First Century). The following is therefore gleaned from other sources, mainly this interview, from which, unless otherwise indicated, the following quotations are taken.

The first thing to say is that, on the face of it, Piketty’s exposition is capitalism-friendly. In fact, his approach would seem to be a capitalist prerequisite, for it requires wealth to be put to work, which is a capitalist imperative. In his own words “my point is not at all to destroy wealth. My point is to increase wealth mobility and to increase access to wealth.” Which sounds like a good thing.

But, for one thing, it would entail the capitalization of resources that otherwise would be kept out of the sphere of what is unkindly referred to as capitalist exploitation. For instance, forestry. Having been an undergraduate forestry student, I recall the discussion in forest economics class with regard to the exigency placed on forests by a property tax. All of a sudden, a landowner must generate a revenue from that forest simply in order to pay the tax, on a piece of land that otherwise might be left undeveloped, hence ecologically undisturbed. This could lead to the application of sustainable multi-use forestry practices, or it could lead to elimination of the forest, depending upon the ecosystem involved. The same thing applies to traditional, less-than-profitable land uses. Followers of the television series Downton Abbey will recall the difficulties put upon the estate by the imposition of a wealth tax, causing Lord Grantham to anguish over having to remove inefficient tenants in order to turn the land to more productive uses.

Furthermore, a wealth tax would penalize saving in favor of consumption. Piketty can argue that consumption is difficult to distinguish from investment: “What’s the consumption or income of Warren Buffett or Bill Gates when they are using their corporate jet? Are they consuming? Are they investing? Nobody knows.” But the fact of the matter is, the imposition of a wealth tax would establish a prima facie incentive to spend income rather than save it, especially given the bias against inheritance Piketty displays (“In order to get a zero capital tax result, you need basically two very strong assumptions. One is that wealth is entirely a life-cycle wealth; you have no inheritance at all. Once you have inheritance, you want to tax it”). The moral will be, “eat, drink, and be merry, for what is not taxed today will be taxed tomorrow, if you try to hold onto it.” In Holland, there already is a wealth tax, on top of the 52% income tax (highest bracket, which begins rather early), the 21% VAT, the gasoline tax that jacks the price of a gallon up over $10, etc. So the money that escapes the fevered clutches of the Belastingdienst the first time around gets hit at the rate of 2.5% a year in perpetuum. The moral: spend it before it gets eaten away. Or at least, invest it for a return in excess of 2.5%, which in this day and age is no mean feat.

Another point is that Piketty’s wealth tax would be tax on “net” wealth, in other words, assets minus liabilities, property owned net of debt. It thus incentivizes indebtedness. “If you own a house worth $500,000, but you have a mortgage of $490,000, then your net wealth is $10,000 so in my system you would owe no tax. Under the current system, you pay as much property tax as someone who inherited his $500,000 home or who paid off his debt a long time ago.” The anti-saving bias is evident here. What is also evident is the built-in incentive to take on debt so as to offset taxable property holdings.

Regarding Piketty’s discussion of inequality: the message is that inequality has been increasing over the past 20-plus years, precisely the period of time in which globalization and international trade have surged forward. While Piketty himself does not argue this point, his findings do prompt the conclusion that globalization and free markets lead to inequality, while protectionism and government intervention are needed to foster income equality. And Piketty’s wealth tax is precisely one form of government intervention.

Piketty argues that income and wealth inequality have been increasing (although his findings are disputed), and blames it on the “huge cut in marginal tax rates.” From the interview: “Matthew Yglesias: How do we know that high executive compensation comes out of the pockets of other wage earners? Thomas Piketty: Well, because the labor share including CEO compensation did not increase. It actually declined. Maybe it would have declined even more without the rise in CEO compensation, but that’s hard to believe. I think the rise of very large CEO compensation came at the expense of the workers.”

This does seem to be the case, but as a matter of fact, I would have been shocked if the effect of the globalization of the post-Bretton Woods period had not led to greater inequality. But that doesn’t entail a critique of globalization per se, nor excessively low marginal tax rates, but the way in which the international trading system has been manipulated. Let me explain.

Ever since Bretton Woods, we have had a system of ostensibly floating exchange rates. Ostensibly — because exporting countries have been resorting to various hooks and crooks to maintain their exchange rates at artificially low levels, thus to manipulate and subvert that float. The dollar being the reserve currency of choice, and the US being the export market of choice (referred to tongue-in-cheek as “the consumer of last resort”), the manipulation is conducted against the dollar, keeping the exporting country’s exchange rate low vis-à-vis the dollar, allowing the exporting country to sell its production to America at ongoing low-wage-maintaining levels. The result is that production capacity shifts towards the low-wage countries, because the exchange rate is not allowed to adjust upward like it should. So the low-wage countries remain low-wage. Meanwhile, production capacity shifts away from the US, leaving only service-economy jobs there, which likewise generally command lower wages than manufacturing jobs. So in both the exporting countries and the consuming countries, the tendency is to depress working-class wages. On the other hand, the profits from the exchange continue to flow, into the hands of exporting country elites and multinational corporation managements, along with (of course) investors in those enterprises. This works to expand the income gap and thus income inequality. No surprise, really.

So the solution to this problem is not to abolish globalization per se, nor to increase marginal tax rates. Rather, it is to get the countries involved to stop manipulating the global system in favor of various special interests and elites, be they domestic or foreign. After all, the working class in the exporting countries suffers just as much from this situation as does the working class in the importing countries. Both are having their wages depressed.

Again, from the interview: “Matthew Yglesias: I thought one of the most interesting graphics in the book is the one where you show the price-to-book ratio in Germany is quite a bit lower than in the other countries. Is there an important lesson the rest of the world can learn there? Thomas Piketty: Yeah. Actually, to me this was quite striking. Previously I didn’t take seriously this idea that there were different ways of organizing capitalism and the property of capitalistic firms. I think the lesson from this graph is that the market value of a corporation and its social value can be two different things. Of course you don’t want the market value to be zero, but the example of the German corporation shows that even though their market value is not huge, in the end they produce some of the best cars in the world. They export a lot, and they are very successful. I think getting workers involved on the board of German corporations maybe reduces the market value for shareholders, but in the end, it forces workers and unions to be a lot more responsible for the future of the company.” I don’t want to speculate as to the reasons why German companies have relatively low valuations, but I will point out that Germany is at the exporters’ end of the export-import imbalance, only this time the import partners are southern Europe. How did the southern European countries run up so much debt? Mainly by paying for imports from, in the main, Germany. Germany’s model parallels Japan’s and China’s, only it functions mainly within the European sphere, with the help of the euro. In essence, Germany’s currency is structurally undervalued, while Spain’s, Italy’s, Greece’s, is overvalued. That’s how Germany can display such favorable economic data. But as Michael Pettis has shown, Germany’s workers are structurally underpaid because of it. The surplus goes to Euro elites.

There is much more to this story than merely the level of marginal tax rates. As long as the causes of inequality are misconstrued, the solutions on offer will always have be more akin to political footballs than actual fixes. Piketty claims that his “point is not to increase taxation of wealth. It’s actually to reduce taxation of wealth for most people, but to increase it for those who already have a lot of wealth.” Which of course appeals to most of us, because most of us don’t have “a lot of wealth.” But this “fix,” like many others past, present, and future, will get nowhere unless based upon a proper evaluation of the causes of the problem it purports to address.

Quantitative Easing and Substitutionary Atonement

In attempting to explain to my wife why investing in the stock market right now is not such a good idea, I came up with a little graph, which at one glance reveals the matter succinctly. Here it is:

 

Fed and Dow Jones 2007-2013

It shows that the stock market growth of recent years has less to do with fundamental economic growth, which has been anemic, than with the action of the Federal Reserve. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has been rising in close correlation with the growth of the Fed’s balance sheet. The Fed’s program of “quantitative easing” has been nothing less than a boon for the stock market.

What we have here is the Fed’s version of “blessing.” It is blessing the stock market by assuming the “curse” – debts – of big banks, and exchanging them for deposits, which those banks can then turn around and lend. That money appears to be going into speculation, not productive activity. And voila! We have a stock market boom. Such a blessing cannot endure, despite what prognosticators may say.

The fresh funds provided by the Fed in exchange for this debt are no “godsend.” They only add to already existing funds on the money market seeking for returns in a return-starved economy. And so they only serve to feed asset bubbles. Which is why they are being funneled into speculation on the stock market, yielding the direct correlation to be seen in the graph between the Dow on the one hand and the Fed’s balance sheet on the other. This gives an appearance of prosperity, but in fact is only turning the stock market into a casino.

That’s not all. This “blessing” of stock market growth is balanced by the Fed’s assuming the curse of debt burden. Hence the Fed is functioning as mediator, the absolver of debt. But this Christ-like function is only an appearance. For the Fed cannot wipe the slate clean, cannot atone for these debts, cannot defray them. It can only assume them. They continue their existence, and will eventually have to be sold back onto the market, draining it of liquidity and precipitating a downturn (or even a crash), or be held until maturity or default.

In the end, the bonds, consisting mainly of treasury paper and mortgage-backed securities, will have to be either repaid or defaulted on. For the time being at least, treasury paper can be counted on, but the mortgage-backed securities are another story. If they are defaulted on, they blow a hole in the holder’s balance sheet: all of a sudden, liabilities are left without corresponding assets.

If this were to happen to the Fed, the shortfall would still have to be made up, for contrary to popular opinion, the Fed cannot “print” money directly, but only issue it against market-valued assets. There are always assets on its balance sheet to offset the liability of note issue. And so, a reduction on the asset side of its balance sheet would have to be compensated by a reduction on the liability side, either by reducing member bank deposits or eliminating notes issued. How that exactly would work, I have no idea, but the effect would be highly deflationary, as it would collapse the money supply to the money market.

Quite obviously, the Fed’s program of quantitative easing cannot go on forever. Adding $1 trillion-plus a year to its balance sheet will eventually lead to its collapse. So it is trying to backtrack. But every hint of “tapering” leads to market disruption — which is not the desired outcome.

Summing up, we can conclude that the Fed’s little adventure in substitutionary atonement only points up the artificiality of man’s efforts to bequeath himself blessings. In the economy, as in life, atonement is not attained by shifting debts and passing on burdens. It is attained by paying up. For redemption to function, one needs someone with the requisite amount of legal tender ready and willing to make a final settlement of “all debts public and private.” In the temporal as in the spiritual economy, there are no free lunches.