Quick quiz: What was the role of gold under the gold standard?
Money "works" because it is accepted by people with something to sell. There are lots of things that someone offered "money" may want to know about it, but one of those things has always been whether it is scarce, i.e., whether a flood of it may appear and compete for what the offeree may seek to buy with it. What the offeree of money needs, then, is information about the scarcity of the money. Gold, in its day, provided that information.
If the money is specie, the money is its own information, so long as the offeree knows that specie itself is rare. Enough people know that gold and silver are rare so that a gold or silver coin in fact carries the information that the money being offered is rare. (Assume for this discussion that counterfeiting is not an issue.)
Gold certificates, too, carry their own information. If the offeree of the money has confidence that the issuer - a bank with a good reputation or the Federal reserve - will redeem the certificate in gold if asked, even under fractional reserve banking, the offeree knows that the money supply is limited by the gold supply and that the offered money is rare enough to be accepted as money.
Known scarcity is the only feature of gold that cannot be physically duplicated by fiat money. Like gold, fiat money is portable, fungible, and difficult (enough) to counterfeit. But is it rare? How do we know that too much has not or will not be printed? Where is that information to come from?
Well, not from one single source. The object of the game is not to obtain some specific nugget of information; it is to obtain pieces of information sufficient to create confidence that the money is scarce. Thus, it helps to know:
- that only banks can create money and that banks are constrained in that process both by the need to profit (by receiving dollars back that are worth as much as those lent and then some) and by regulation.
- that the money supply against which banks can lend is largely determined by the amount of Treasury securities the Fed buys, which is available to anyone who wishes to know it.
- that the amount of Treasury securities the Government must issue is tied to the government's fiscal deficit, which is politically restrained in several ways, including an absolute statutory debt ceiling.
The debt ceiling is thus analogous to the gold supply under a gold standard. When the Treasury runs out of debt ceiling "gold," it has to stop borrowing money, which means, in effect, that the Fed has to stop creating money in the usual way. It can continue to create money on an emergency basis by direct lending to banks against loans they make, but doing so would itself provide information that money is not as scarce as the debt ceiling says it should be.
The debt ceiling was introduced with the Second Liberty Bond Act in 1917. Money needed to be raised for World War I, and the debt ceiling gave people some comfort that the government had not been given a blank check. But that was nearly one hundred years ago, before Seeking Alpha. Now, we have abundant sources of information about how much money our politicians are causing to be printed. Just as we had enough information in last century to get off the gold standard and rely on publicly available news and politicking to protect the money supply with the added comfort of a debt ceiling, we now have enough information to make the debt ceiling a marginal aid at best, and a noose around our necks at worse.
I realize that there are still some hard money folks around, and that they, and people who have advanced into the fiat age only with the security blanket of a debt ceiling, think that the debt ceiling is the only thing keeping us from ruin. If they are right, it is because a hard money policy is a good policy, which is to say, they are wrong. The most important monetary issue of the industrial age has been avoiding deflation, not inflation. Indeed, I believe a case could be made that we have inflation mostly because we over-correct out of fear of deflation.
If this claim seems counterintutive, recall that deflation was a common problem in the nineteenth century and was, in fact, the cause for William Jennings Bryan's celebrated "Cross of Gold" speech. That we have succeeded in avoiding deflation is the result of fearing it, not evidence that avoiding it is not the primary focus of monetary policy.
Deflation is such an important concern because productive capacity has been growing ever more rapidly, and with the advent of globalization, the productive engine has really gone into overdrive. The financial crisis of 2008 was the result of too much money chasing not too few goods, but too few quality places to put it after it was used to buy the ample supply of goods available. For all that money printing, price inflation was not a problem, because the outputs were there to meet it. The shortage of capital investments should have led to lower capital costs for governments and corporations, but Wall Street diverted that money to liars' loans and naked credit default swaps with the connivance or acquiescence of culprits too numerous to name (and already named elsewhere). But that has nothing to do with monetary policy. The financial disaster was mitigated, not exacerbated, by the Treasury's appetite for money.
That appetite continues unabated, and, why not? There seems to be no risk that we will run out of things for that money to buy. The information about the things a dollar will buy is now ubiquitous, and it is widely known that the Chinese want to sell to us and will pay dollars for their goods. Thus, like gold before it, the debt ceiling has become a burden and not a benefit. Unless our fiscal deficit tracks our trade deficit, the accumulation of money in foreign accounts will badly distort the rest of our capital markets. Instead of "crowding out" investment, the Federal deficit militates against the creation of bogus AAA-rated paper as occurred earlier in this decade. Without the safety valve of Treasury securities, where will our trade deficit dollars go?
We don't seem to know it yet, but a shortage of money, not an excess of debt, is the economic threat of our day. We still believe that Federal debt is "debt" like household debt - that stupid clock reminds us every day. But Federal debt isn't debt at all; it is just a commitment to print money, money sorely needed to absorb the outputs of the world's producers. Sadly, those producers are not American workers, but that, too, is not a fiscal problem. Only when government spending crowds out access to physical and human resources does it become problematic. Otherwise, it's all to our mutual benefit. Constraining that spending in the name of reducing a "debt" that isn't a debt is just plain nuts. It's time for the debt ceiling to join the gold standard in the monetary dustbin. We are a mature economy; it's time to put down the blanky.