Why is the gold standard crazy?

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I wrote a long post on this a couple of months ago. Here's the highlight reel:

In short, you don't get anything out of a gold standard that you didn't bring with you. If your government is a credible steward of the money supply, you don't need it; and if it isn't, it won't be able to stay on it long anyway. (See Argentina's dollar peg). Meanwhile, the limitations on the government's ability to respond to fiscal crises, the necessity of defending against speculative attacks in times of crises, and the possibility of independent changes in the relative price of gold, make your economy more unstable. It's a terrible idea, which is why there are so few economists willing to raise their voices in support of it.

No Ron Paul supporter (or other gold standard advocate) has managed to articulate to me what problem the gold standard solves. Inflation is low, and even better, relatively predictable, so the expectation is built into asset prices. Moreover, most people on fixed incomes are retirees, and most retirees get almost half their income from Social Security, which is indexed for inflation.

This Ron Paul speech lists a number of reasons, all of them wrong:

1. The Federal Reserve destabilizes the economy with its "boom and bust" monetary policy. This is hard to square with the fact that the longer the Federal Reserve has been in existance, the more stable the economy has been. Dr. Paul's words strongly imply that he believes that there was no business cycle in the 19th century, which is untrue; as best we can tell, recessions were much longer and deeper before America had a central bank.

2. Americans don't save because they're afraid inflation will erode their savings. This is daft. Moderate inflationary expectations are built into the interest rates that banks offer. After thirty years of stable monetary policy, a good portion of the population doesn't even remember high inflation, and the ones that do are mostly retired and spending down their savings. Americans don't save because . . . well, have you tried the Wii? It's awesome.

3. American exporters are whipsawed by our fluctuating currency. Unless Dr. Paul has plans to put the entire world back on the gold standard--which I mote would require the kind of powerful international organization he's so suspicious of, or invasion--our currency will still fluctuate relative to others if we're on the gold standard. Every time the price of gold changes in another country, American exporters will either be helped or hurt by a change in the relative prices of their goods. The gold standard will shelter exporters from currency fluctuations only in their trade with other countries on the gold standard. There are no other countries on the gold standard.

4. Fiat money inflation benefits those shadowy figures who receive access to artificially inflated money before the inflationary effects kick in. Those shadowy figures being the bankers who loaned it to you so that you could buy your house. At any rate, this would only be true if we were talking about unexpected inflation. Expected inflation is already built into asset prices. The US economy does not have significant unexpected inflation.

5. Fiat money inflation "also benefit big spending politicians who use the inflated currency created by the Fed to hide the true costs of the welfare-warfare state". This is an extraordinarily primitive view of the money supply. The Federal government is not Caesar cutting his denarii with lead. The revenues from seignorage on 2% inflation are trivial. The Federal government gets the money for the "welfare-warfare" state just where it says it does: by taxing the bejeesus out of your wages.

6. Congress does not have constitutional authority to delegate its power "the authority to coin money and regulate the value of the currency". Hmm. Okay, but I'm pretty sure none of our legislators are qualified to operate a printing press, much less the annealing ovens and upsetting mills needed to mint coins.

7. Congress "should only permit currency backed by stable commodities such as silver and gold". Commodities, almost by definition, are not stable. The price of gold looks as if it used to be stable, because the dollar was fixed relative to an ounce of gold. This does not mean that its value relative to other economic goods was unchanged. You could fix your currency to the price of a bushel of wheat, and suddenly "wheat bugs" would be claiming that wheat is the only reliable, stable commodity in the world whose price never changes. That wouldn't stop fluctuating wheat supplies from whipsawing your economy back and forth. To be sure, the supply of gold changes more slowly than the supply of wheat. But demand for it is not so fixed.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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