But their demand to return to some mythical good times when money was gold coins is not realistic and not going to solve the problem of runaway government spending. In fact, the demand for “commodity based” money shows so little understanding of basic economics that it makes the advocates appear to be silly and ignorant. It calls into question the rest of their proposals, some of which have a lot of merit.
To understand the problem better we first need to understand money and the history of money. What money is, and what money is not. From Dictionary dot com we have, “Mon-ey, noun, 1. any circulating medium of exchange, including coins, paper money, and demand deposits.” Remember that definition because we will get back to it. First I'll digress into the history of the Dollar and how we got to where we are today.
Back before the American Revolution, the British Colonists used English Pounds when available. There was also a lot of Spanish Doubloons and Pieces of Eight in circulation, especially in the more southern colonies. The silver Pieces of Eight were often cut into as many as 8 pieces or “bits.” Even today a US quarter dollar is still sometimes called “two bits.” The money system was mostly chaos. Farmers often bartered produce for blacksmith goods. Merchants and small shops took whatever they could get in payment. Buckskins or beaver pelts were sometimes used on the frontier. Two bucks might buy you a jug of whiskey. If you distilled whiskey like George Washington you might trade 5 gallons for a piece of furniture. Gold or silver was good if you could get it, but it was hard to come by in many parts of rural America.
The US Government began in debt. The Continental Congress borrowed most of the money that financed the Revolutionary War. They wrote bonds or notes to purchase materials, arms, and food for Washington's army, or to pay soldiers. When the new Constitutional government was created it took over the debts of the Revolution. Washington and Congress adopted a tax on whiskey to raise money to pay off the debt, but many distillers had no money. They bought stuff with jugs of whiskey, not money. There was a “Whiskey Rebellion.” President Washington had to call out the Militia to stop angry farmers who distilled whiskey from taking over the new government.
The word “Dollar” comes originally from Low German. In 1519 a Bohemian silver mine near the town of Joachimstal minted silver coins. The coins came to be called “Joachimstallers,” or Tallers” for short. Tallers from Joachimstal and later from other places were widely circulated in what is now Germany and much of northern Europe, New York was originally founded by Dutch and called New Amsterdam until it was captured by the English and renamed New York. There were German Tallers in circulation in New York and among immigrants from places such as Denmark or Germany. English colonists began using the term “Taller” or now “Dollar” to refer other silver coins such as Spanish pieces of eight. During the American Revolution there was a lot of public sentiment to divorce as much of America from England as possible. One way that division was created was to abandon English money and create American money. Continental Congress adopted “dollar” when it set up U.S. Currency in July 6, 1785. The decision was based on the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson and others, because the term was widely known but not British. No American dollars were actually used until 1794.
Money and commerce in the US was still chaotic from the beginning until the early 20th century. The authors of the US Constitution gave the new Congress the authority to coin money and to regulate interstate commerce, but it took a long time to develop methods to accomplish a uniform system of money that could be used. As mentioned earlier, farmers who used whiskey for trade goods revolted in the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s because they had no money to pay President Washington's new tax. The first minting of Dollars began in response to that and other critical needs for money to lubricate business in the new America.
We need to stop for a moment in our history discussion to remember that what we call “money” any circulating medium of exchange. Money can be thought of as a kind of oil or even fuel that allows commerce to work. Money has no intrinsic value unto itself but only represents various goods or services that can be exchanged. Hold this thought. We will come back to it.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, many commercial banks were started by enterprising men in just about every town across America. As anyone who has ever borrowed money knows, when you go to a bank to borrow money they don't hand you a pile of gold. They write a “draft,” “note,” or “cashier's check,” and hand you a piece of paper with their promise to pay written on it. During the 19th century banks all across America printed bank notes or the bank's promise to pay and gave them to people who borrowed “money” from the bank or who made deposits of gold or silver for the bank to hold. For any larger purchase a bank draft is much easier to handle than a strong box full of gold. By the middle of the 19th century the majority of buying and selling in the US was done with bank notes issued by thousands of small town banks. Over 90% of the people were family farmers who did all their business with the local merchant, but the chaos of money was an ongoing problem.
With thousands of banks issuing their own notes or “money” to be used in local business nobody more than a few miles away from the small town knew if the notes were any good or not. How could a merchant in Atlanta buy wheat from Ohio if he had to pay in bank notes on a bank that neither the buyer or the seller had ever heard of? How could a beef merchant in Chicago or New York City pay for cows from Texas? And the new railroads had to allow people in every city and village to buy tickets or pay for freight shipments. There were frequent local and some national panics caused by a loss of confidence in bank notes. There were frequent “runs” on banks where people would lose confidence and start taking all the notes to the bank demanding gold. None of the banks kept enough gold to pay all their notes. The bank's assets were in loans to other people, a note or mortgage from some farmer or merchant, not gold. The chaos of a thousand bank notes and frequent panics became worse and worse as people and commerce left the farms and moved to cities. By the last part of the 19th century frequent panics had become common. Business and manufacturing was getting to be impossible. Something better had to be found.
Using “money” made of gold, silver, or copper is a lot like speculating in the commodity markets. The value or price of metals goes up and down according to supply, demand, and speculation. Almost 30 years ago a guy I worked with invested most of his saving to buy gold at about $800 per ounce. A few weeks later the market price of gold dropped to less than $400 per ounce. His investment in gold “hard money” was a loss until only the past couple of years the price of gold went back up. Buying gold, silver, oil, or potatoes is a little like going to a casino and rolling some dice. It does not make a stable basis that large and small businesses can count on to make payroll week after week.
The solution the government came up with was to contract with a major, government chartered bank to print and issue government notes that would be known and used in every state. The government notes originally said “Pay to the Bearer One Dollar in Silver,” then they said “Pay to the Bearer One Dollar.” Now they don't even say "pay," they just say "Federal Reserve Note, One Dollar." When coins quit being made of silver the paper dollar, bank notes, couldn't promise a dollar in silver because a dollar coin was made of copper or some other alloy. We know the bank as the Federal Reserve Bank and they have several regional branches. We now have only one commercial bank printing bank drafts or bills that we all know. Or do we? Lets look at “money” again.
At the TEA Party, the Republican local caucus, and other places people worry out loud about the government “printing” money to pay its bills. Go back to “hard” money or gold coins, some say. But how does "printing money" actually work in the lives of most Americans?
Green back dollars, the Federal Reserve Notes we are all familiar with, are only about 1% of the money in regular commerce in the US. When the government “prints” money are they rolling the presses to print more greenback dollars? Nope. Lets look deeper into “printing money.”
Often when I go to my local Buy Mart store to get a basket full of stuff I don't have a pocket full of notes from the Federal Reserve Bank to pay for the food, tools, beer, and other stuff. I might whip out my “check” book and write a bank draft or “check” to pay Buy Mart for the stuff. At the end of the month I get a small pile of bills for cable TV, utilities, rent, loan payments, etc. I whip out my check book and write some bank drafts or “checks” to pay them. I have printed money to pay my bills and buy stuff. My “check” is a bank draft, a promise to pay the bearer. It represents a lot MORE MONEY than the Federal Reserve Notes I have in my pocket. Exactly like the thousands of commercial bank notes circulating in the 19th century, I have printed money and spent it. Is it real money? Of course it it. I can spend it to buy stuff. My check is paper money, a medium of exchange regularly accepted in commerce. Every time you or me write a check and spends it, the total of all money in circulation in the US goes up by the amount of money we just “printed.” Your personal check also has the same problem that small town bank notes had in the 19th century. If you go to Atlanta, or Chicago, they don't know who you or your bank are, so they don't want to take your out of town bank draft.
If you look closely at the greenback dollars, the Federal Reserve Notes, they are very much like your personal check. They are promises to pay, a “note” drawn on a commercial bank. The Federal Reserve Note has the bank's name, the Federal Reserve System, and your check has your bank's name. Both have the amount to pay. Both have the signature of the person or entity responsible to pay. The greenback dollar is signed by the Treasurer of the United States, and the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States. Even though the Federal Reserve System is actually a commercial bank, the government's note is the same kind of “money” as your own bank note or “check.”
If the TEA Party and Republican Caucus proposal is adopted and we return to “hard money,” you or I would have to take a box of gold, count out appropriate amounts and take it around to all the merchants to pay our monthly bills instead of sending them a bank draft, a check. We would have to get a shipping box from the post office, put in some gold, and mail it to out of town businesses. There would be lots of chance for theft, miscounting, and other problems, to say nothing about the inconvenience to us. We would still have to write out paperwork documenting how much gold we thought we had put in the box. Assuming that there is enough gold (which there isn't) just handling physical stuff is problematic. Its much easier just to write a check (money) and pop it in an envelope. The check becomes our record in case of future question about the amount paid. With a stack of gold we don't have a record. Having to use gold instead of writing checks would be a big problem for every one of us every day.
All the commercial banks in the US print money every day too. When you go to a bank to get a loan for a home or car do they hand you a strong box full of gold? Nope. Do they hand you a suitcase full of greenback dollars? Nope. They print out a bank draft, their check, the same kind of paper money that you can write. The bank hands you a bank draft, their promise to pay, money. Or do they. If we look deeper even the bank checks are only a fraction of money in the US.
The last time I went to a commercial bank to get a loan for a car, they actually did not hand me a check, a cashier's check, or a bank draft. The loan officer pounded a few keys on his computer and caused the bank's computer to show several thousand dollars more in my account. He handed me a deposit receipt for the money, his promise to pay me that amount which I can assign to someone else by writing a check. There are no greenback dollars that I can fold and stuff in my pocket. The bank had just created several thousand dollars, but all of it existed only as numbers, or organized electrons, in the bank's computer. Is it real money? Of course its real money. I can go to any store and spend it. I can go to a car dealer and buy a car with it. I can go to a land seller and by real property with it. I can go on-line to Wal-Mart dot com, type in my numbers, and they will send me a new 47 inch HD TV made in Asia. If it isn't real money I couldn't spend it at Wal Mart.
It turns out that over 90% of ALL THE MONEY in the US exists ONLY as organized electrons or magnetic fields representing a binary code of 1s and 0s in someone's computer.
The "hard" money argument says that the government could not spend money it doesn't have if it could only spend gold or silver money. That is true, but neither could any of us 360 million American people. Our economy could not function without the demand deposits, checks, and organized electrons lubricating business and shopping. Shoe stores and grocery stores, farms and factories could not function. Even if we wanted to hand gold back and forth instead swiping a card or shopping on-line, there just isn't enough gold for a world population of 6 billion to do business. Most of us don't want to give up shopping on-line either.
Many of us don't even write checks very often any more because they are slow and tedious compared to swiping a card or typing in our account numbers. We call it “plastic money” because the card that holds the computer code strip is plastic. Is it “real” money? Can you buy stuff with it? Of course you can. Would you rather have to count out gold and ship it to the Amazon to buy a book rather than entering your VISA card numbers? No, you would not. Requiring “hard money” instead of data code money would just close down most of the businesses and jobs in the US. In the 19th century people often didn't have “money” to buy meat and potatoes because they had no gold. It was chaos. We do not want to bring that dysfunctional chaos back.
Arguing for a return to “hard” gold money or “commodity based” money would do away with almost all the real money that is used today to facilitate computerized business. Many of the checkout clerks at grocery and dry goods stores are now called “scanners” because their job has become one of data entry into computers. They scan the products sold, and scan the magnetic coded strip on the customer's card. They are still able to accept greenback notes, but they don't like to. I don't spend the greenback dollars, the Federal Reserve Notes any more except at yard sales and hamburger joints.
The Congress wisely has authority under the Constitution to "coin" money and promote or regulate interstate commerce. Technology and population have moved our "money" from gold and silver coins to binary computer codes, but it is still "coining" money. And a nation wide system is still necessary to regulate interstate commerce.
When the TEA Party or Republican caucus argues for a return to “commodity based” or gold standard money, they display a real ignorance of the meaning and use of money. This advocacy shows a lack of economic good sense so sever that it discredits their general understanding of economics in other areas. Obviously socialists are economic nincompoops, but “hard money” conservatives have no claim to economic sense either.
There are real reasons to fear for the economy today considering the abysmal mismanagement going on in the Obama regime. Massive deficit spending is done by selling bonds at auction and writing government checks with no money in an account. It may, in fact, destroy confidence in US Dollars to the point where they become effectively worthless. But its not done by “printing” greenbacks. It is done, mostly, by entering revised data in bank computers. Lets get real, and go after the real problems.