Saturday, June 30, 2007

For the Love of Money

A well-managed fiat currency can outperform commodity money under certain circumstances.

That is a simple statement all economists can agree with. It is vague and sufficiently qualified to be uncontroversial. The qualifiers, however, should be sufficient to keep that statement purely normative with no practical application. To see why, consider this equally true statement:

Given perfect information, a perfect monopoly can maximize profits by controlling supply.

If, however, a would-be monopolizer did not have perfect information or did not have a perfect monopoly and attempted to exercise monopoly power, market forces would act to decrease any actual monopoly power the firm held. Any exercise of monopoly power increases the incentives for both competition to arise and consumers to seek suitable substitutes. This can be seen every day: telephone monopolies are challenged by wireless, cable monopolies are challenged by satellite, etc.

And, so it is with governments which issue fiat currency. Long before 1961, when Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Mundell penned his article, "A Theory of Optimum Currency Areas," states issued fiat currencies. Although Mundell argued against it, governments seized on his ideas as rationale for issuing fiat as a matter of nationalistic pride. Every government, no matter how powerless or underfunded, fancies themselves as being the monopoly provider of currency as a divine right.

Right off, there is an obvious problem. Between the presence of commodity money and every nation issuing their own fiat currency, there is certainly no lack of suitable substitutes. This means that an individual nation actually has very little in the way of monopoly power; to maintain the charade, governments have to resort to the use of force against their own people, commanding that they use only that nation's fiat currency and confiscating other fiat and commodity money.

Another problem, which should be obvious but which is a topic rarely broached, is that a government cannot begin to assemble perfect information. Perfect information would require the instantaneous knowledge of the preferences and actions of every man, woman, child, nation, and force of nature now and in the future. That information would have to be analyzed (correctly) and changes to the fiat supply planned (with laser accuracy).

There is no question that this information cannot be known, therefore all analysis and planning is based on assumptions about assumptions. The end result is not management of the fiat currency, it is educated guessing, and more often wrong than not. This causes recessions, depressions, boom and bust, inflation, and inevitably hyperinflation.

Since the management of fiat currency is based on speculation and not fact, it cannot be well-managed, and thus the first qualifier of the top statement can never be met. That leaves us, then with the statement, "a fiat currency can outperform commodity money under certain circumstances."

At the turn of the 20th century, Georg Simmel wrote, "although money with no intrinsic value would be the best means of exchange in an ideal social order, until that point is reached the most satisfactory form of money may be that which is bound to a material substance." We can safely conclude that Simmel would not consider the current state of human affairs an "ideal social order." Even if we temper his requirement, we can confidently predict that nothing approaching the certain circumstances qualifier of our statement is likely to ever occur.

With no hope of ever satisfying the qualifiers, our fine, universally-agreed upon normative statement boils down to the following when practically applied: a fiat currency can not outperform commodity money.

Why, then, when the consequences of failure are so destructive in terms of human lives and resources, do nations persist in issuing fiat currency, and why do otherwise-rational economists give such a system their blessings?

With the US dollar in free-fall mode, the soundness of this system should be in serious doubt. But, in the American Idol contest for the Presidency in 2008, only one of the candidates even understands the danger of a fiat monetary system, let alone has the courage to broach the subject publicly.

Congressman Ron Paul has written extensively on the subject of sound money, and yet columnists, whose monetary expertise consists of picking up a dinner check now and then, have described him by saying his "economics are wacky." Not a moment too soon, though, economists and journalists are being forced to admit that Paul's injection of real economic hazards into his Presidential campaign is going to make him look very prescient in the coming months and years.

After nearly a century of happy-go-lucky welfare and warfare, such a large portion of the world is dependent on the hegemony of the US dollar that its eminent collapse will trigger a world-wide depression. But, as Ron Paul knows, all that is needed to prevent such a calamity is to reject the monopolist charade and allow sound, commodity money to compete on the market with US dollars. Let the users of the currency decide on their own schedule whether they prefer the fiat currency or sound money.

Open competition between sound and fiat currencies will ultimately result in a stronger system than we have now, even if consumers decide to stick with a fiat system!

Labels: , , ,

Life With Hyperinflation

I popped out for a Z$25,000 loaf of bread last Friday. It had gone up to Z$30,000 dollars. I ran home for the extra, ran back to the shop - and the price of my loaf had risen to Z$44,000.

Those are the words of Moses Moyo, a pseudonym for a journalist in Zimbabwe who details life with Mugabe. He details a horrific economy where the government is forcing businesses to liquidate their stocks at less than half their value.

An order went out to all manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers to slash their prices by half. Any who showed the slightest reluctance to do so were visited by the Green Bombers - young graduates from the Zanu-PF terror camps whose economic arguments are enforced with a smack on the head with a stout stick.

Those shops that obeyed the edict and reduced their prices were invaded by fervent shoppers, and the result was chaos, with many businesses threatening to close their doors for the rest of the week at least, if not for good.

And the end result? Where it worked best, where prices were cut by a genuine 50 per cent, the government succeeded in reducing the cost of living to almost exactly what it was 10 days ago.

If you think that can't happen where you live, you are sorely mistaken. As part of my new Squidoo habit, I'm working through the causes and problems of inflation under fiat currency schemes. There's more to come on a simple, effortless, and, best of all, non-government solution to this government-made problem.