07 June 2012

In Defense of Gambling with Borrowed Chips, Part IV

We now get to the core of our dispute. (“At last!“ you cry.) Lament not, for we have passed through some essential preliminaries.

What is core is that Gravelle takes issue with my recommendation that the U.S. abolish its central bank, the Federal Reserve.

She says (quite accurately) that the Federal Reserve existed for 20 years before the abandonment of the gold standard in 1933. The Fed was founded by an Act signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on December 23, 1913.

I can’t agree with her about the “why” of that decision, though. She writes that the Fed was “needed in part to deal with the rigidity of the gold standard itself, which provided insufficient money, particularly around harvest time.”

No, the Fed wasn’t needed. It came into existence as a simple matter of coalition management. What was needed, politically, was the passage and enactment of something that could be called a “banking reform bill.” There were a lot of reasons for this, most of them terrible, the best of them only slightly muddled. But the vacuity of the Federal Reserve Act as any sort of genuine reform may be seen by the four distinct currents of thought that contributed to it.

There were some important voices at the time who wanted a private and centralized banking system. They found their champion in Nelson Aldrich.
There were others who wanted a system that would be private but decentralized -- this was the guiding idea of Carter Glass, chairman of the House Banking Committee when Wilson entered the White House. There was another group who demanded a system both public and decentralized -- that would describe William Jennings Bryan, for example, who was Wilson’s Secretary of State, and whose interest in monetary/banking issues was a critical source of his own appeal to his own following. Finally, there was a faction that wanted a system both public and centralized, in effect an adjunct to the U.S. Treasury. Among these was William Gibbs McAdoo, who was Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury.

[You can find an account of all of this in the biography, Woodrow Wilson (2010), by John Milton Cooper Jr., which I reviewed for The Federal Lawyer that spring. See especially pp. 219 et seq. of that book. ]

Along the two axes involved (private/public on one side, central/decentralized on the other), there were then four possibilities and for various mutually inconsistent reasons all four factions were unhappy about the banking system, all four wanted a change. Some change was almost certain to come about, and that change (when nominally led by a Wilson, a man with no firm settled convictions of his own on the subject, but a strong desire to please everyone, or at least everyone with a suitably progressive pedigree) was bound to be a jerry-rigged mess.
We have inherited that mess, and I for one am certain that it does us all much more harm than good.
It was merely a mess for the first twenty years of its existence. After 1933, it became something much worse than a mess. The Fed became a nexus of power in its own right, and the center of machinations against the soundness of the dollar. There are always such machinations -- and there are always constituencies for them. What has proven disastrous is that they have had this great institutional leverage.

Their leverage was somewhat diluted by the Bretton Woods accord of 1944, which brought a precious metal back into the system. That brings us to the relation of hard metals and gold in particular to the value of money, which is the fourth and final point I must contest with Ms Gravelle.

Before I do, though, allow me to say this: gold is not logically necessary for the existence of a sound currency. There are other ways of achieving that goal. For example, as I write, the Republic of Greece stilll has a sound currency. That currency is known as the euro, and it is sound because its quantity is outside of the control of any politicians or central bankers within Greece. Thus, the soundness of the currency (which is as it happens not backed by gold) is forcing the Greek political system to make difficult decisions -- decisions that ought to be made but that all participants there would plainly much rather avoid.

It  is possible that Greek politicians may in fact avoid those decisions by abandoning their sound currency, and re-creating the drachma, which they can then manipulate at will. If they succumb to that temptation, though, they will I am sure rue the day.

With that understood, allow me to agree: yes, the abolition of fiat currency means, in the U.S. context and as a practical matter, the re-introduction of some role for gold. This is the one of my policy prescriptions that I haven’t yet discussed, and I will come to it tomorrow.


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