What We're Up Against

by George Selgin May 20th, 2014 6:36 pm

A couple weeks ago I experienced an embarrassing bout of "premature e-publication," having unknowingly made public a mere fragment of a post-in-progress, consisting of a quotation that I thought I had merely saved for future editing. That involuntary emission elicited some puzzled inquiries and speculation concerning just who the quote was from, and what its point was, for which, my humble apologies.

Here is the passage again:

Unlike the income tax, prominent lawmakers from both parties recognized the need to overhaul the laissez-faire, crazy-quilt way that money was created and interest rates determined. Private "national" banks were still in charge of issuing currency and loaning it out, in blithe disregard of the panics that resulted every few years--the latest in 1907--from such unpredictability. Everyone familiar with the problem favored some kind of regulated coordination among banks.

The words are, in fact, not Paul Krugman's (as one reader speculated). Nor are they from any economist. They are from Michael Kazin's book, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, which I'd decided to read in order to gain a better understanding of the man who played an important (if overlooked) part in shaping the modern U.S. currency system.

To be honest, even a few initial dips into Kazin's book where enough to persuade me that his was not a work that I was likely to gallop my way through with bells on. For one thing, in discussing the Scopes trial Kazin dismisses Mencken as an anti-semite, which is, to employ a Menckenesque term (and no matter what Charles Fecher says), a calumny, and a threadbare one at that. For another, he considers the fact that Bryan anticipated much of FDR's New Deal a reason for us to revise our opinion of the man upward.

So Kazin is no economist--or at least isn't enough of one to seriously reckon with the predictable consequences, for an economy faced with mass unemployment, of policies aimed at boosting prices by curtailing output. But he is a professional historian, with a teaching post a Georgetown U., who as such might be expected to do a little homework before committing to print a statement as misleading as the one I've quoted above--not to mention one brandishing such a doozy of a misplaced modifier.

Kazin, it seems, believes that panics were somehow caused by private bankers issuing currency, as if the problem had been a surfeit of that nasty private paper. In contrast every economist or economic historian worth his weight in leftover Chautauqua tickets, whether he be current or of the late 19th century, knows or knew that the problem back then was one of currency shortages, where the shortages, far from having been the bankers' fault, were a result of government regulations dating from the Civil War. Those regulations tied the stock of national bank notes to that of outstanding U.S. government bonds, the supply of which steadily declined as the century wore on, while making it it unprofitable for state banks to issue any notes at all. In Canada currency also consisted of the notes of private banks. But because the Canadian government imposed no comparable limits on its banks' ability to issue notes, Canada was spared both currency shortages and associated panics.

U.S. reformers naturally tried at first to get rid of the regulations that were the true cause (or at least one of them) of U.S. financial crises. So it's something of a kicker to realize that no man did more to oppose such reforms, "in blithe disregard of the panics that resulted every few years," than Mr. Kazin's godly hero.


Let's not ban private money

by Kevin Dowd May 10th, 2014 10:45 pm

[originally posted at the Institute for Economic Affairs on 6 May 2014]

In a recent Financial Times article Martin Wolf announced his conversion to the view that private banks should be stripped of their ability to create money. The proposal to end private money is an old idea that periodically resurfaces in the history of economic thought, typically during crises of confidence in mainstream economic thinking when the conventional wisdom becomes discredited. An early example was the early 19th century Currency School; they succeeded in implementing it in the form of the Bank Chart Act of 1844, which imposed a 100 per cent marginal reserve requirement on the note issue and effectively gave the Bank of England a monopoly of the note supply. Later versions included the Chicago Plan advocated by Irving Fisher and Henry Simons in the 1930s; and it has surfaced repeatedly in the recent financial crisis. These more modern versions boil down to monopolising the issue of bank deposits through a 100 per cent reserve requirement.

Its proponents make extraordinary claims for it: it would slash public debt, stabilise the financial system, make the banking system run-proof and make it much easier for the government to achieve price stability. If these claims seem too good to be true, it is because they are.

In essence, this proposal is just another instance of what Ronald Coase once derided as ‘blackboard economics’ – a scheme that works well on the blackboard, but does not actually work in the real world because the economy never works the way its proponents imagine it to.

The Bank Charter Act is a perfect example. The note issue restrictions of the Act were supposed to ensure banking stability based on the premise that the underlying cause of instability was an unstable private note supply. However, it soon became apparent these restrictions created additional instability of their own, as they suppressed the note issue elasticity that previously worked to calm markets. In subsequent years – 1847, 1857 and 1866 – crises erupted that were only resolved when these note issue restrictions were temporarily suspended. The Bank Charter Act was, thus, a failure.

A second problem with the proposal to prohibit private money is that it would seriously impact the credit system because it would entail a massive switch in bank assets from private lending to government securities. Bank lending to the private sector would go to zero and banks would then exist primarily to finance government. Mr. Wolf acknowledges the issue, but almost casually dismisses it on the grounds that ‘we’ could find new (non-bank) channels to finance investment, as if the problem were easily resolved. These new credit channels would take time to emerge, however, and in the meantime the provision of credit would be to a large extent stopped in its tracks. This amounts to hitting our already fragile credit system with a sledgehammer and would probably be enough to push the economy into a depression.

But perhaps the biggest problem with any proposals to prohibit private money is not practical but intellectual: they are based on a mistaken view of the causes of economic and financial instability. Major fluctuations are not caused by volatile behaviour on the part of the private sector, but by government or central bank interventions that have destabilised the economy again and again. The Currency School is a case in point; it overlooked the point that the main causes of instability were the erratic policies of the Bank of England and the restrictions under which other banks were forced to operate. As a result, they applied the wrong medicine which then didn’t work.

More recent government interventions have created further instability: the botched policies of the Federal Reserve were the key factors behind the length and severity of the Great Depression; deposit insurance and the lender of last resort have created major incentives for banks to take excessive risks; and erratic monetary policies have greatly destabilised the macroeconomy over much of the last century. As Milton Friedman observed back in 1960:

The failure of government to provide a stable monetary framework has…been a major if not the major factor accounting for our really severe inflations and depressions. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the record is the adaptability and flexibility that the private sector has so frequently shown under such extreme provocation.

So let’s challenge the conventional wisdom by all means, but proposals to prohibit private money are based on a false diagnosis and go in the wrong direction. The problem is not the instability created by private money, but rather the instability created by government intervention into the monetary system. Government money is not the solution; it is the problem.


A neglected anniversary

by Kurt Schuler May 10th, 2014 9:30 pm

Max Weber was born 150 years ago on April 21. I saw no note of it on any of the blogs I follow written by economists of the Austrian School. Besides being the author of the most important book in sociology of the 20th century, Weber has some indirect relevance to free banking because he recognized that the key question for the practicability of a socialist economy is whether it can calculate efficiently (Economy and Society, part I, chapter 2, section 12, "Calculations in Kind"). The key theoretical addition to arguments for free banking over the last generation is a form of Ludwig von Mises's socialist calculation argument, which Weber slightly preceded and which he acknowledged in a note added while "Calculations in Kind" was in press.

In the same book and chapter, section 6, "Media of Exchange, Means of Payment, Money," Weber remarks, "The formulation of monetary theory, which has been most acceptable to the author, is that of von Mises." Finally, he observes in passing near the start of section 32, "The Monetary System of the Modern State and the Different Kinds of Money: Currency Money," and near the start of section 34, "Note Money," that issuing coins or notes need not be a monopoly.