The Mystery of Capital in Context

Given the rancorous debate unleashed by the UK electorate’s decision to depart the European Union – in particular, regarding the damage to the UK economy that independence might bring – it seems wise to re-examine the foundations of economic prosperity and its relationship to political and legal factors. I do so by examining Hernando de Soto’s seminal book, The Mystery of Capital, which goes to the heart of the relationship between political framework, legal framework, and economic development.


The “mystery of capital” is the intriguing title of one of the most important books of the new millennium. Written by the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, it breaks with the tradition of dealing with capitalism as a system established of, by, and for the rich, by looking at it from the bottom up: from the lowest levels of society. De Soto finds capitalism even at that level, albeit in a stage of dormancy, as it were. His treatise is intended to help us understand that capitalism is nothing esoteric – despite its being a “mystery” – but rather something down to earth, active in the lowest levels of society, and only waiting for a proper legal and political framework to become an equitable system, in the service of all, not just the well-to-do.

De Soto first made a name for himself with his path-breaking work in Peru, which culminated in the best-selling book The Other Path. In order to show an alternative route to a better society, De Soto developed a unique investigative method. At the time – the 1980s – the better society was being promised by radical revolutionary groups. In Peru, such a group was El Sendero Luminoso, the “Shining Path” – the path to the enlightened society, the workers’ paradise. Officially, this was the Communist Party of Peru, and throughout the 1980s it engaged in violent revolution. De Soto proposed El Otro Sendero, the “other path,” which would render the revolution irrelevant by integrating the real-world economies of the poor within an all-embracing economic framework that left no one out.

What De Soto and his colleagues at the Institute for Liberty and Democracy had discovered was that, at the poorest and most basic levels of society, a vibrant economy was already in existence. It functioned in spite of, rather than because of, the formal institutional and legal structures provided by the state. For in Third-World countries such as Peru, there was not one economy but two: the formal economy, the economy of the wealthy and middle class, connected with the rest of the world; and the informal economy, the economy of the poor, the “off the books” economy, comprising the residual and peripheral denizens who happened to make up the vast majority of the nation. Essentially, the legal and political institutions functioned within and for the benefit of the formal economy, while the informal economy ran on its own, ignored and neglected by the powers that be, kept by the phalanx of rules and regulations from ever graduating from the shadows into the sunlight of the economy proper.

De Soto’s book highlighted this situation and the potential that it held, if it could be harnessed, both for the benefit of the poor and for the nation as a whole. Mainly, the regime of bloated regulation and official corruption needed to be exchanged for the rule of law, specifically the institutions of property and contract. If this would occur, the chains would come off of the poor and they could become full-fledged participants in a functional rather than dysfunctional social order.

De Soto’s second book, The Mystery of Capital, is the culmination of the work done in the wake of, and building on the foundations laid in, The Other Path. It is the product of the transfer of the method pioneered in Peru into many other Third World countries facing similar problems. De Soto took his show on the road, making the Institute for Liberty and Democracy into a globally active entity.

Unlike The Other Path, however, The Mystery of Capital is more than an exposition of the findings of investigative field work. In fact, it transcends the empirical method altogether: it sets forth a philosophical outworking that is both result and foundation of those empirical findings.

In making this leap from practice to theory, De Soto had penned a most important book on the subject. He was enabled to do this precisely because of the empirical basis: the book went beyond economic theory to the real world in which economic practice is embedded, a world that economic theory studiously ignores; it takes into account the real-world framework within which economies function.

The recognition of the two-tiered economy led De Soto to perceive the crucial importance of the legal system. For in his findings, it was the legal system that made the difference between the two economies. This led him to explore virtually virgin territory: the relationship between the legal system and the economy has been largely ignored, except for certain specialty (and rather idiosyncratic) disciplines such as institutional economics, “new” institutional economics, and law and economics. While these latter disciplines have not been entirely fruitless, they have not helped to rework economic theory the way that De Soto had done in his book.

De Soto’s reworking of economic theory starts from a rather crucial distinction that is well known to legal philosophers, the distinction between possession and property. This is a staple of the Western legal tradition (both civil and common). Essentially, the difference between possession and property is physical versus mental – possession is physical holding, while property is an entitlement that stays in force regardless of whether the owner is in physical possession or not. And this distinction depends on a functioning legal order that enforces its arrangements. With possession, enforcement is essentially left to the possessor; with property, it is maintained by a separate entity charged with law enforcement, and hence is not dependent upon the physical strength of the owner in order to enforce possession.

With property arrangements, then, the relations of people and things are elevated to a higher plane than arrangements of pure possession. And they provide for higher-order exploitation of resources than simple possession does. For one thing, property rights can be split up and farmed out any number of ways. For another, property allows for encumbrance in credit contracts, whereby the property item serves as collateral. Without changing its physical status, the encumbered asset engenders a new set of economic advantages. The owner can borrow money against it; and, as Steuart showed back in the 18th century and Schumpeter in the 20th, this is essentially the way in which, in the modern world, money comes into being. At least, in a banking- as opposed to a coinage- or scrip-based system. Credit and debt are the source of money issue. As any bank balance sheet will show you, all money issued has as its counterpart an encumbered economic asset.

In his book, De Soto never explicitly refers to the legal doctrine of possession vis-à-vis property, but despite that, it underlies his entire exposition. He argues that it is the legal system that enables possessions to become property, thus assets, and assets to become capital – resources capable of generating new productivity and income. “Like electrical energy, capital will not be generated if the single key facility that produces and fixes it is not in place. Just as a lake needs a hydroelectric plant to produce usable energy, assets need a formal property system to produce significant surplus value. Without formal property to extract their economic potential and convert it into a form that can be easily transported and controlled, the assets of developing and former communist countries are like water in a lake high in the Andes – an untapped stock of potential energy.”[1]

De Soto’s argument is crucially important – as far as it goes. But it runs into problems when he goes further and highlights a single aspect of the legal system, to which he attributes excessive importance. This in turn causes him to lose sight of other aspects, and indeed, the bigger picture.

De Soto emphasizes the role of record-keeping as the determining factor in creating a cognitive layer overlaying the physical layer of tangible things. Records, titles, data storage and retrieval, allow the things that otherwise exist in isolation to be integrated together into a collective mind map, by which they become a synergistic whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. For De Soto, this is the crucial element of a system of property rights, which enables it to generate productive economic assets – capital.

But this is to overplay his hand. It is not so much record-keeping within a framework of law, but the framework of law itself that is the important thing. The key is the establishment of common law: a law that is valid across the board across the entire territory, which holds for everyone and which establishes at its core, property rights and freedom of contract, uniformly and equally enforced. Historically, this kind of common law was established early on in England, where the king’s writ came to run everywhere. Which is why England became the common-law country par excellence.[2]

Such an establishment of common law, in turn, depends upon the consolidation of sovereignty.

Sovereignty is the power by which the rule of law is established. It is the prerequisite of a functioning legal order. Sovereignty is the power to establish and confirm shared, social value. It does this through legislation and adjudication, establishing laws as standards by which the social order is ruled – the rule of law. These, then, are values, which are universally valid and binding.[3]

But there is more to the establishment of value than this. Valuation has, of course, an economic dimension as well as a juridical one. But does the legal system generate economic value? Yes it does, through the utilization of property and contract. And here we have the intangible, mental, symbolic dimension of the economy that De Soto intuits, but does not quite elucidate, given his focus on record-keeping. Property and contract generate value by the process of credit and debt. When property is harnessed as collateral in a credit contract, it is valued; and this valuation is expressed in the issuance of a monetary equivalent. A deposit is established at the bank, in the equivalent of the loan. Borrowing a metaphor from the days of minting coinage, Steuart called this the “melting down” of property into “symbolical” money. Hence, the regime of property and contract participate in the process of valuation in a very critical way. And out of this valuation comes capitalization – capital.

Now then, the context of this valuation and process issuing forth ultimately in that mysterious entity, capital, is a common legal order, the product of a consolidated and viable locus of sovereignty. Sovereignty, then, enables this whole process of capitalization to take place. What is the locus of sovereignty? Following the German Calvinist statesman and political philosopher, Johannes Althusius, we can answer unambiguously, the nation.[4]

The Industrial Revolution, the “take-off,” as W.W. Rostow put it, did not come about in a vacuum. It came about in nations in which sovereignty had been consolidated; and those nations in which sovereignty had not been consolidated, did not experience it. Nationhood and sovereignty go together. Like a lens out of focus, sovereignty is weak where it does not shine through the prism of nationhood. And, where sovereignty is weak, there also a domestic economy does not materialize; as a result, conditions are rife for an exploitative, colonial or neo-colonial framework. Wallerstein’s center-periphery framework then looms large. None of that is necessary for economic growth: in fact, it only benefits particular interests, at the expense of broad-based, populace-elevating economic growth.

So then, it is sovereignty refracted through nation-states that has enabled the genesis of the capital which De Soto seeks to demystify. Summarizing this state of affairs, I wrote: “Through the institutions of property and contract, credit and debt, the asset base in man (human capital) and through man (tangible and intangible property) becomes capitalized, generating a money supply which, when properly maintained, is the faithful representation of that asset base, no more and no less. The nations of the world have no need of a Wizard of Oz to grant them prosperity. It is in their hands to do so, if they would only recognize it.”[5] That is the mystery of capital explained. In its fullness, only nations can bring it off. Neither inchoate peoples, nor empires, ever have, or ever will.


[1] Hernando De Soto, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 48.

[2] For more on this point see my book Common Law & Natural Rights (Aalten: WordBridge, 2009), pp. 68ff.

[3] For more on this point see my book Common-Law Conservatism: An Exercise in Paradigm-Shifting (Aalten: WordBridge, 2007), ch. 1.

[4] For more on this point see this previous post.

[5] Follow the Money, p. 190.

Maggie’s Revenge

The British vote on June 23rd, 2016, to leave the European Union, is one of those events that will long be remembered. Yet there was another event involving Britain on the one hand and the European Union (then Community) on the other, that likewise came as a shock, and which likewise lives on in the memory, at least for those who, at the time, were political aware. I refer to Margaret Thatcher’s resignation of the prime ministry, exactly 25 years and seven months earlier, on November 23rd, 1990. Personally, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard that bit of news over the radio.

Thatcher’s resignation resulted from her opposition to European union. She paid the price by being cashiered by her own party, not by the electorate. I wrote an article in 1991, discussing this event, its significance, and what I considered to be its historical relevance. In terms of the latter, the article was flawed in its diagnosis, but not in its recognition of that relevance. And today, I think that Margaret Thatcher is looking down with a sense of grim satisfaction.

To honor this event, I excerpt from that article, published in 1991.


It came so suddenly as to leave the world in a state of shock. Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady,” the fighter who would rather die than quit, did just that: she voluntarily resigned her position as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She did so as she reflected on what “a funny old world” it should be that a party leader never defeated in a general election, still commanding a majority of her own party, who had led that party to three successive election victories, who had spearheaded a thoroughgoing reformation of public policy whose very name was synonymous with that reformation, should be forced by her own party to resign her post. Truly these were rather funny goings-on.

To top it all, it was not any strictly domestic issue but “European unity” that brought all this about. To many, she was the champion of a by-gone era of national sovereignty and “Little England,” “the prim and condescending leader of a has-been empire bent on turning back the tide of history, a latter day King Canute who actually believed the sea would heed her.”(1) So it was portrayed: Thatcher versus Europe, isolation versus community, proud independence versus peaceful cooperation. And it turned out to be an Achilles’ heel which her opposition lost no time in exploiting as soon as opportunity presented itself.

Her enemies’ strategy worked. But to characterize Margaret Thatcher’s position with respect to the European Community (E.C.) in these terms is, at the very least, open to question. She regarded herself the most pro-European of them all; nevertheless her approach to and her concept of unity differed – fundamentally – from theirs.

Perhaps the key element of difference lay in the goal of monetary union. Thatcher remained to the end staunchly opposed to the formation of a pan-E.C. single currency administered by an independent central bank. Most others see such an arrangement as the indispensable core of a truly common market. Across Europe as a whole, the goal of monetary union commands broad support. Certainly it was this issue more than any other which isolated her from her peer heads of state and made her vulnerable to attack at home.

Such issues have not heretofore been the stuff of dramatic controversy, at least if one follows standard historical accounts. Most historically-conscious folks have a vague recollection, for example, that the establishment of a central bank in the United States was a very hot issue from time to time and was finally brought to pass with the Federal Reserve in 1913 (which isn’t really a true central bank but rather a “federally organized” group of regional banks). But they remain supremely indifferent to the subject and would much rather look into the accounts of politics or war or class struggles, or perhaps “social” histories of “everyday life” in such and such a period. The history of banking and monetary policy is definitely a subject for the specialist. And thus supremely boring.

Yet as contemporary events should insinuate, a long look needs to be taken especially at the history of monetary union. Upon further inquiry that history proves to be decisively important to understanding our present and certainly what Margaret Thatcher would consider our predicament. One has consequently to go back to its roots and see how and why it has become so fundamental – as it truly has – to modern society….

Mrs. Thatcher … faced opposition on two major points – domestically, the poll tax issue, and in external affairs, her position concerning the European Community. The poll tax weakened her position with respect to the electorate, enabling her opposition in the Conservative Party to gain ground on her. But in the final analysis the poll tax is not what felled her.

The timing of events leading to her fall is conclusive here. At the annual party conference in early October [1990], the Conservatives showed themselves lackluster, despondent, without much enthusiasm for the upcoming elections which they feared they might lose. More than anything else, it was the Europe issue that divided them. Many in the party were leaning toward a strong pro-Europe stance; Sir Geoffrey Howe, for instance, argued for full acceptance of monetary union, and Michael Heseltine preached pro-union to a well-attended side meeting. On the other side were the anti-union forces worried that Mrs. Thatcher, who had been showing herself conspicuously indeterminate in the last months, would be “led gently to monetary union, like some doddery old lady, with Mr Major and Mr Douglas Hurd… at either elbow.”(2)

Thatcher herself was then “ambushed” at the E.C. summit in Rome at the end of October. Italy’s prime minister Giulio Andreotti presented a proposal with definite dates for achieving monetary union, something which caught Mrs. Thatcher by surprise. This seems to have woken her from her lethargy. Back home she gave a rousing speech in the House of Commons against monetary union and giving over national sovereignty to Brussels. Her old followers were delighted. Others wondered how long she would last.

It was this speech and her renewed hard line which led to the resignation of Sir Geoffrey Howe from her cabinet. And it was his resignation speech which solidified the opposition against Mrs. Thatcher, prompting Michael Heseltine to run against her in the party election. Howe vociferated against her “anti-Europe” position, arguing that it jeopardized the future of the nation and its role in a united Europe. And then of course Heseltine gained enough votes on the first ballot to force a second one, after which Thatcher resigned.

It was, then, undoubtedly the Europe issue which brought Thatcher’s downfall. That much is clear. In the final analysis, however, not even the politicians were ultimately the cause. The powers-that-be want monetary union, and if anyone stands in their way, they will simply remove him, or her, to get it. The politicians know this and act accordingly if they know what is good for them. The people do not know any better than to accept this goal because it is proffered to them by every available media source from which they derive their opinions.


1. Newsweek, Dec. 3, 1990, p. 22.
2. The Economist, Oct. 31, 1990, p. 43.

The Problem of Saving

When Schumpeter writes, “Now to the question: what is a savings account?”,[1] he is not being facetious. There is more to savings than meets the eye. Of course, the bare fact of saving is simple enough to understand. Rather than spend all of our earnings, we take some and put it to one side. What could be more straightforward?

Actually, the problem is not so much understanding what savings, or a savings account, is, but what kind of effect it has. And that is anything but straightforward.

Essentially, what is accomplished with the act of saving is the removal of circulating medium from the cycle which is what an economy is.

An economy is a cycle or a circular flow: this is one of the first lessons of basic economics, encapsulated in the principle originally put forward by Jean-Baptiste Say, “supply creates its own demand.” All this means is that, at the end of the day, the producers are the consumer and the consumers, the producers. It is the same people producing who do the consuming, and vice versa.

At least, this is the basic picture, before things get complicated with things like foreign trade and fiscal policy. And things like savings. For what savings does is remove some of the circulating medium by which this economic cycle does its cycling. There are two aspects to the cycle: the circulation of goods and service, and the accompanying circulating medium by which the goods and services are accounted. When a shortfall of the circulating medium crops up, the result is deflation. And so, saving on the face of it has a deflating effect on wages and prices. And a deflationary environment is noxious to economic growth.

As a result, we have what economists have dubbed the “paradox of thrift” whereby saving, normally thought of as an act of economic virtue, or at least efficiency, actually depresses economic activity. The details as to how this occurs differ depending on the analyst, but the upshot is that saving, far from being the benign, even constructive act that it may well be on the personal level, actually has, or can have, a negative effect on the economy at large.

So which is it? Do we really have a paradox here along the lines of moral man, immoral society? Is personal saving something good for the individual or the household or other economic entity, but bad for the economy at large?

To figure this out, we have to take a look at what actually happens in the act of saving. First, of course, there is the proverbial mattress, or, especially in the days of coinage, the chest. In such a case, we have the circulating medium definitively removed from the economy for however much time the saver desires. (Or for much longer than that, as witness contemporary discoveries of hoards of coins from e.g. Roman times.) We can call this form of saving “hoarding.” It is peripheral to the main discussion.

What happens in the modern world is something different. When we save, our first resort is not the mattress but the bank. And when we do this, our money earns interest. What is interest? Let’s just say that is another of those phenomena that economists have a hard time figuring out. Perhaps we can address that subject in a future article. For now, we mention it in passing with the caveat that in the contemporary zero-interest-rate environment, it is not the incentive for saving that it normally might be.

So we put our money in banks. What happens then? Does it just sit there, like in the mattress? Not in the modern system. Instead, it enters into a second market, which runs independently of the market for goods and services with which we are already acquainted. We speak of the financial market. Banks (and non-bank financial institutions) are the gatekeepers of this market. We include a graphic taken from the accompanying course to indicate the structure of this second market.

Figure 3:  Two Markets, Two Monetary Circulations
Figure 1:  Two Markets, Two Monetary Circulations

Savings, then, go into this market, where they are “put to use” to earn income for the bank or other financial entity. The differential between what these latter entities earn and the interest they pay out is their profit.

What happens on this market? There are several submarkets which determine this. The bond market is where corporate and government borrowers go to get ahold of some of these savings. The stock market is where corporate interests go to sell stock in their companies – the money that goes here is not savings in the strict sense, as is money lodged with banks, but it does fall under the same category of earnings set aside to earn a separate income and to be available for future use, so we include it in our discussion.

“For future use” – this already indicates that the so-called paradox of thrift need not be so paradoxical. The writers on the problem of saving often seem to talk as if the money put into saving will never come back. In fact, the whole point of saving is to put earnings aside for “a rainy day,” or for the later purchase of big-ticket items, or for retirement – at any rate, not to eliminate it but to return it to circulation at some future time. And in a developed economy, over time the money put aside as savings will be counterbalanced by money previously set aside as savings and now returning to circulation. In addition, this money may have been supplemented by earnings on the financial market, which means that more money will be returning to circulation than left it. So on the face of it, this shouldn’t be a problem.

But there is a problem, and it is this. In normal situations this flow of funds back and forth between the ordinary and the financial markets is not problematic. But in the contemporary situation, it is.

One reason is because the ordinary market is being hit from various directions, making it unproductive and therefore unattractive. Firstly there are what Jane Jacobs (see this post for more on her) called “transactions of decline,” in which government removes money from productive activities, precisely because they are productive, and redistributes it to non-productive activities, precisely because they are unproductive. This can have a Keynesian motivation, whereby Say’s Law is turned on its head: demand then creates its own supply, and all government has to do is distribute money around to consumers (breaking the link between production and consumption) to generate productivity. According to Keynesians, this should in and of itself bring about prosperity, but as Jacobs points out, it only undermines productive activity and the human capital that underlies that productive activity, and so becomes a self-generating downward spiral.

Other things government engages in that undermine productivity are excessive taxation and regulation. All of this makes the ordinary market an unproductive affair, in which risks exceed rewards. The upshot is that savers put their money, not in ordinary investment, but in the financial market, which essentially is a zero-sum game, but in which at least the prospect of a decent return beckons.

And so more funds flow into the financial market than flow out, creating a dearth of liquidity in the ordinary market, which manifests itself in low interest rates combined with difficulty in borrowing (despite those low interest rates).

The flip side of the dearth of liquidity in the ordinary market is a glut of liquidity in the financial market. As funds pile into the market, returns there diminish and the quest for “alpha” (market-beating returns) becomes a frenzy. This is what happened during the 2000s in the run-up to the credit crisis. With the excess liquidity in the financial market, funds were available for lending that never would have been lent in a normal risk/reward analysis, often under political duress. An example is the subprime lending that took place. Michael Lewis (see this post for more on him) wrote about this in two of his most important books, The Big Short and Boomerang (the latter in particular gives a dramatic picture of the workings of the liquidity glut).

This was exacerbated by the trillions of dollars kept in the financial market by exporting countries like Japan and China (see this post this post for more on this), in their attempts to hold down the values of their domestic currencies. That in itself added substantially to the glut. But the very fact that what these countries were doing– looked at globally – was further undermining productivity by destroying productive capacity in rich countries while misdirecting investment in their own countries, only meant that another nail was being driven in the coffin of the ordinary market. Such “global value chains,” when established and maintained through currency manipulation and other fiscal and monetary policies designed to create unfair advantage for exporters at everyone else’s expense, only make the ordinary market even less attractive, which is another reason for the flight to financial markets, and even to inert investments like gold and other luxury items such as works of art.

A lot of work has to be done to restore ordinary markets to decent functionality. One of these is a return to an emphasis on the national economy as opposed to the lopsided emphasis on global-value-chain globalism such as obtains today. And within the national economy, a return to emphasizing the production side of the economy. Consumption does not magically engender productive activity; in particular, deficit spending to fund consumption is as pernicious a fiscal policy as can be devised. Various forms of capital are needed for that, various forms of infrastructure, from legal to educational (virtue versus entitlement) to religious. All of this is fodder for new discussions, so we’ll leave it at that for now.

This topic and more are dealt with more fully in the accompanying course.


[1] Treatise on Money, p. 147.

The Trouble with Exchange Rates

Do floating exchange rates work? By which we mean, do floating exchange rates bring countries, national economies, into equilibrium? Equilibrium here means that trade between countries is in balance. Thus, exports and imports of goods and services, although in constant fluctuation as economies progress along divergent paths, balance each other over time.

With this we do not refer to the total global trade balance. By definition, this will always sum to zero. The problem of imbalances crops up when certain countries run persistent surpluses and/or deficits. Because then, precisely by virtue of the zero-sum condition, other countries will have to run the reverse, a persistent mirror image, whether surplus or deficit. And the question then is, how is this possible in an age of floating exchange rates? In terms of theory, at least, floating exchange rates should compensate for such imbalances. If a country is running a trade surplus, the currency should appreciate, and vice versa if it is running a deficit, and this should result in the trade surplus or deficit being eliminated. But we have countries that run persistent surpluses or deficits. So what is going on?

The current regime of floating exchange rates has been in place ever since President Nixon eliminated the link between the dollar and gold back in 1971. Prior to that, we had the Bretton Woods system, in which the dollar was linked to gold, and was established as the reserve currency for the world’s monetary systems. Since then, the dollar has still officially played the role of the world’s reserve currency, but no longer like it used to. Back in the day, it was the means by which countries could maintain their currencies at the agreed-upon fixed rate: they needed to hold a certain level of reserves to maintain that exchange rate of their currency. Nowadays, of course, not being obligated to maintain a particular exchange rate, the need to maintain dollar reserves falls away. Or so one would think.

The fact is, even in an age of floating exchange rates, the “float” can be undermined and even negated, precisely by making use of dollar reserves. Two questions: how does this work? And, why would a country want to do this?

The first question, as to how it works: by resorting to techniques that were originally developed during the days of the gold standard (in order to short-circuit it) and have since been fine-tuned.

Essentially, since the dollar is the currency in which international trade takes place, a currency’s exchange rate with the dollar can be depressed by keeping dollar earnings from being exchanged into that currency. This is done by “sterilization,” the process of diverting dollar earnings from being converted into the domestic currency and repatriated into the domestic economy. This keeps the domestic economy from being “inflated” – from feeling the effects of prosperity, and, crucially, from importing more, which would force up the exchange rate. Therefore, export prospects remain undiminished, but at the expense of household consumption. The export machine is maintained at the expense of domestic prosperity. This is referred to as “forced savings,” which is really forced underconsumption.

There are other ways to accomplish the same goal. One is to impose a consumption tax. What this does is reduce spending without reducing production. There is then a surplus of production over consumption, and the surplus production is exported. The exchange rate depreciates, not by any active central-bank intervention, but because demand for the domestic currency declines on foreign exchanges – despite the fact that the country is running a trade surplus. Tariffs work in a similar manner. “Tariffs and consumption taxes always … increase net exports by reducing the real value of disposable household income [vis-à-vis importable goods] and so, presumably, by reducing household consumption.”[1]

Another way is through what Michael Pettis refers to as financial repression. Pettis in fact writes that “financial repression matters to trade even more than undervalued currencies.” Financial repression occurs when countries control the banking system and treat it like a department of state. In that case, the central bank sets interest rates that banks are required to follow, and these interest rates are set at a below-market level. Since households and consumers have no other place to put their money, they are required to accept this below-market interest income. This constitutes a subsidy forcibly paid by households to borrowers – companies. Business borrows at below-market prices, while consumers have interest income taken from them. The result is reduced consumption, and the same effect as discussed above with the consumption tax.

The question then is, why would a country want to do this? After all, we have been conditioned to think that an appreciating currency is a strong currency and a strong currency is a desirable thing to have. The fact of the matter is, for an exporting country which has built its prosperity on maintaining a trade surplus, a weak currency is a must.

This strategy is a staple of the Asian Tiger model of economic development. Starting with Japan, the Asian Tiger economies have pursued policies by which trade surpluses could be maintained. The following graphs give an indication of the success these policies have had in helping these countries’ export industries:

South Korea Balance of Trade Taiwan Balance of Trade Japan Balance of Trade China Balance of Trade Singapore Balance of Trade

Similar things can be said about Germany. This country likewise resorts to consumption-repressing policies, although nothing so drastic as the financial repression characteristic of countries like China. And as far as currency manipulation is concerned, Germany is part of the European Monetary Union and so shares a common currency, the euro, with the other member countries, and so cannot engage in currency manipulation. But Germany runs consistent current account surpluses with other member countries of the EMU. How? By virtue of the fact that its exchange rate was locked in at an artificially low level while those other countries were locked in at an artificially high level, and by voluntarily constraining wage growth (via agreement between labor unions, businesses, and government). The result can be seen in this post I wrote a couple of years back.

All in all, pretty much the same thing can be said of floating exchange rates as has been said of humility, Biblical welfare, conservatism, capitalism, even love: it works every time it’s tried. The problem is, it isn’t tried, even in this age of ostensibly floating national currencies. But there are signs that the problem is being recognized, as witness the spate of books dealing with currency wars. Even politicians are getting into the act: Donald Trump pledges to confront China’s currency manipulation. How this will play out going forward is anyone’s guess. But it will most likely continue to remain a bone of contention and true obstacle to realizing a more prosperous and equitable global order.


 

  1. Michael Pettis, The Great Rebalancing: Trade, Conflict, and the Perilous Road Ahead for the World Economy(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014) , p. 30. Pettis is professor of finance and economics at Peking University.

Confessions of a Free Trade Advocate

Ever since I can remember I have been a proponent of free trade. It seemed the logical thing: why should the government restrict economic activity which in itself is legal and aboveboard? And when I began exploring economic theory, lo and behold, free trade was at the forefront of most every exposition. It was the natural, the logical position to hold, and arguments against it seemed forced and, in fact, unfair, as if a basic principle of justice was being violated.

My instincts received even more validation from historical, moral theology. Francisco Vitoria, the Spanish theologian who was the first to flesh out a recognizably modern theory of the international community and law of nations, made freedom of trade one of the pillars of such a world order. As I wrote in 1991, “Freedom of trade Vitoria also includes among these rights of natural communication. This is quite noteworthy: remember, these rights belong to the ‘primary’ law of nations and as such may never be denied! National governments may infringe the right of neither their own nor of foreign private citizens and subjects to freely engage in trade, so long as trade and business may be carried on without prejudicing the health and safety of the community.” Free trade seemed to be a categorical imperative.

I continued along these lines in a book I published in 1999 entitled A Common Law. There I articulated a twofold tradition in Western constitutional theory and practice, the common-law tradition and the civil-law tradition. Of these two, the common-law tradition espoused limited sovereignty and the primacy of private law over public law, while the civil-law tradition embraced absolute sovereignty and the subordination of private to public law. As an extension of this, I included freedom of trade versus restriction of trade as a dividing line between the two traditions. With regard to the unification of Germany’s disparate states in the 19th century, I wrote that “The roots of German unification lay firmly in the civil-law tradition. Customs union lay the basis for further political union: free trade was established within the customs union, tariff barriers between it and the rest of the world…. In the civil-law tradition, trade can only be securely established within an area controlled by the sovereign; the domestic economy is the only stable economy. In the common-law tradition, trade binds societies under law, a law which also binds sovereigns and commits them to enforce it. In the civil-law tradition, law is the servant of the sovereign; in the common-law tradition, the sovereign is the servant of law” (pp. 125-126). Here again, I made free trade a categorical imperative and one of the core elements of a “constitution of liberty.”

As a final example, I wrote this in 1992: “Today the world is faced with the choice between two kinds of democracy. One, liberal democracy, is the descendant of the theocratic jus gentium, upholding freedom of trade, open borders, restricted national sovereignty, and the primacy of the private sector, considering that human society at the level of private association basically furthers the harmony of interests of its members, and that coercive authority is necessary only to ensure that violations in this harmony are punished. The other, social democracy, is the descendant of divine right absolutism, championing economic nationalism, closed borders, absolute national sovereignty (unless that sovereignty can be transferred to a supranational body), and the primacy of the public sector to rectify the inherent conflict of interests which exists in human society.”

So my free trade bona fides are fairly impeccable. But what I didn’t realize through all these expositions was something I only later began to uncover. It is a principle that already was elucidated by Friedrich List, one of the first post-classical economists to critique the doctrine of freedom of trade. The principle is this: trade between individuals and private entities is not the same as trade between nations, because it is nations that establish the framework within which trade can even take place. In the words of Karl Polanyi, markets are embedded. And this is of crucial importance. Nations establish currencies, laws, markets; they embody cultures and mores that impinge directly on economic performance; they embrace religions that, as Max Weber among others has shown, likewise are of crucial importance to economic activity. The public interest and the common-wealth are real factors that transcend private economy. They condition all economic activity and they cannot be abstracted away as if irrelevant to economics. This is the besetting sin of the free-trade theories of classical and neo-classical economics.

“How!” questions List. “The wisdom of private economy is then the wisdom of public economy! Is it in the nature of an individual to be preoccupied with the business and the wants of the future, as it is in the nature of a nation and of a government?” Leaving everything to individual action could not possibly ensure that collective interests will be taken care of. “Consider only the building of an American city; each man left to himself would think only of his own wants, or, at the utmost, of those of his immediate descendants; the mass of individuals as united in society are not unmindful of the interests and advantages even of the remotest coming generations; the living generation, with that view, submits calmly to privations and sacrifices which no sensible man could expect from individuals in reference to the interests of the present, or from any other motives than those of patriotism or national considerations” (National System of Political Economy, trans. G.A. Matile, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1856, pp. 245-246).

The absence of an understanding of the role of nations, and the focus on individuals, led classical economics to consider the entire world as one great commonwealth, with no distinctions of nationality and sovereignty. This is what led it astray. Its basic principles are valid within the framework of the nation, in their own sphere; but they run aground when trade between nations is considered. “In representing free competition of producers as the surest means for developing the prosperity of mankind,” List writes on p. 261, “the School is perfectly right, considering the point of view from which it regards the subject. In the hypothesis of universal association, every restriction upon honest trade between different countries would seem unreasonable and injurious. But as long as some nations will persist in regarding their special interests as of greater value to them than the collective interests of humanity, it must be folly to speak of unrestricted competition between individuals of different nations.” List here speaks only of national interests, but elsewhere he discusses the whole range of relevant criteria by which nations are distinguished. And so, “The arguments of the School in favor of such competition are then applicable only to the relations between inhabitants of the same country. A great nation must consequently endeavor to form a complete whole, which may maintain relations with other similar unities within the limits which its particular interest as a society may prescribe.” The social, public interests which obtain between nations are divergent; they differ from private interests and cannot be treated equally with them. “Now these social interests are known to differ immensely from the private interests of all the individuals of a nation, if each individual be taken separately and not as a member of the national association, if, as with Smith and Say, individuals are regarded merely as producers and consumers, and not as citizens of a nation” (p. 261).

So what does List propose as an alternative? Protectionism. This is his great failing. Because of this, his book has been neglected by those who realize the shortcomings of that doctrine, among whom I include myself. As I knew and still know, protectionism has its own set of problems.

Recall that “the School,” as List refers to the classical school of Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say, advocated a commodity-money regime, which in effect harnessed the nations to a single currency. Because of this, if a nation wished to effectuate some sort of insulation of the domestic economy, it could only resort to protectionism as a fall-back.

The United States pursued a protectionist policy throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. The problems to which this led were given powerful expression at the crackup of the commodity-money regime in 1931, by James Harvey Rogers. Rogers placed a good deal of the blame for the bleak situation on the regime of tariffs obstructing trade.

The prominent part played by our high protective tariff in the present disastrous situation is beyond serious question. Aside from the political corruption which it has engendered in our national politics throughout more than a hundred years of our history, and aside, too, from the glaring domestic injustices which, since its inception, it has created and maintained; on it can now be laid the blame for a very important part in the extraordinary maldistribution of the money metal, in the recent drastic and rapid decline of prices, and therefore in the world-wide depression (America Weighs Her Gold, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1931, p. 193).

Of course this would have to be the case. Tariff walls short-circuit the functioning of a commodity-money regime. The attempt to eliminate trade imbalances through what effectively is a single currency run up against the shoals of that irreducible datum, the national economy. Domestic interests, in particular labor interests, simply will not pay the inflation/deflation whipsaw price to be paid to keep that system running. And so came the inevitable resort to trade barriers, and the eventual collapse of the system.

It is unfortunate that List’s exposition is known only for its advocacy of protectionism. Underneath that veneer lies a trenchant critique of the “cosmopolitan” system which is what unrestricted free trade embodies, which is valid now, as it was then. A common-law understanding of economics, which is what underlies List’s work, recognizes that nationhood and national sovereignty entail a framework of laws and institutions that delimit all economic activity and set up “natural” trade barriers that schemes like free trade and commodity money cannot overcome. A truly “natural” economic framework understands that currency is a function of sovereignty, and that floating exchange rates will provide the balancing mechanism that nations need to conduct trade relations with each other.

So how do we save freedom of trade? Not by eliminating nations, national sovereignty, national boundaries, and the like, but by embracing them within a framework that recognizes rather than undermines national sovereignty. Free-floating currencies are one crucial aspect of such a regime; after all, this is nothing else than free trade in currencies. Another is the adoption of domestic fiscal and monetary policies that do not promote the advantage of one nation over another. This is what happens when, for example, countries like Germany and China inflict forced-savings regimes on their own citizenry, punishing consumption and promoting production. What then in fact happens is that other countries are forced to take on board their excess production, as Michael Pettis has demonstrated in his book The Great Rebalancing. It is here that international efforts need to be conducted, not in imposing transnational regimes that undermine and displace national sovereignty altogether, and make a farce of even the pretense of democratic rule.

An End to Alchemy?

Michael Lewis, the author of various illuminating accounts of the events and progressions of the great financial crisis of 2008 – one of which became an Oscar-winning Hollywood movie – this time provides us with an illuminating account of someone else’s book – Mervyn King’s newly published The End of Alchemy. The thesis is a familiar one: the banking system is fundamentally flawed, and this is the cause of most if not all of our economic misery.

As befits a governor of the Bank of England (2003-2013), King is of course a veteran of the various banking vicissitudes of the 21st century. It is on the basis of this tenure that he writes this book, analyzing problems and offering remedies. But he does not wish to come across as someone with all the answers. As he writes in the introduction, “Many accounts and memoirs of the crisis have already been published. Their titles are numerous, but they share the same invisible subtitle: ‘How I saved the world.’” King may not want to save the world, but he certainly wishes to subject the banking system to a thorough reworking.

This is because the situation is that bad. What was behind the Great Crash of 2008? “Bad incentives that are still baked into money and banking – and so quite likely to create another, possibly even greater, crisis.” Still baked into: for, despite the (“arguably”) biggest financial crisis in history, nothing that addresses fundamental problems has changed. Shareholder limited liability encourages risk-taking, as shareholders take advantage of that absence of liability; deposit insurance encourages depositors to lodge money with banks, without regard to the riskiness of said banks’ lending policies; too-big-to-fail remains entrenched, encouraging gigantic risks to be run in the knowledge that if they turn sour, a bailout will be forthcoming.

Furthermore, the steps that have been taken ostensibly to mitigate the problem have only served to conceal it. Or, as Lewis puts it, “it’s being used to disguise how little has actually been done to fix that system.” Lewis quotes King: “Much of the complexity reflects pressure from financial firms. By encouraging a culture in which compliance with detailed regulation is a defense against a charge of wrongdoing, bankers and regulators have colluded in a self-defeating spiral of complexity.”

On this score we have a framework that seems designed for failure. There is the problem of moral hazard, which basically refers to the fact that when something is insured for, it is actually fostered or encouraged. Insurance against risk actually encourages risk. This problem is not restricted to the banking sector; it is endemic to any form of insurance. And then there is the web of ineffective regulation that seems to make a mockery of attempts to improve the situation.

King has an alternative. It is to revamp the banking system so as to eliminate risk-taking with other people’s money. “Deposits and short-term loans to banks simply need to be separated from other bank assets. Against all of these boring assets, banks would be required to hold government bonds or reserves at the central bank in cash. That is, there should be zero risk that there won’t be sufficient cash on hand to repay people wanting to flee any bank at a moment’s notice.”

So these deposits would be kept separate from other bank assets. These latter indeed could be used to finance the risky business of trading. These assets would have to be acceptable to the lender of last resort, the central bank, in case of financial crisis. And this acceptability will have been determined beforehand. “The riskier assets from which banks stand most to gain (and lose) would … be vetted by the central bank, in advance of any crisis, to determine what it would be willing to lend against them in a pinch if posted as collateral. Common stocks, mortgage bonds, Australian gold mines, credit default swaps and whatever else.”

The upshot is what Lewis calls “the King Rule.” As Lewis describes it, a bank must have on its balance sheet enough assets to cover withdrawals of its short-term liabilities (deposits plus short-term loans to the bank (one year or less)). But of course, you say, of course it has assets to cover those liabilities – that’s what double-entry bookkeeping is all about: every liability on the balance sheet has a corresponding asset. But here’s the rub: in the process described above, of the central bank vetting collateral, these assets would be given a “haircut” – assigned a discount at which the central bank would be willing to rediscount (buy) the asset, in case of a liquidity shortage. And it is this “haircut” valuation that banks in future would have to respect before putting funds out in quest for returns.

How exactly would this work? In the example Lewis provides from King’s book, a bank has $100 million in assets. Of these, $10 million are reserves deposited with the central bank, $40 million are “relatively liquid securities” and $50 million are “illiquid loans to businesses.” The central bank values these assets at 100%, 90%, and 50% of full value, respectively – these are their “haircuts.” Thus, in the eyes of the central bank, the bank’s assets “in a pinch” are worth $71 million, not $100 million. And therefore it cannot have more than $71 million in short-term liabilities. What other liabilities are there that could fill the $29 million gap? Lewis answers, “a lot more equity and long-term debt” than currently is the case.

With all due respect to both Mr. Lewis and a former governor of the Bank of England, I don’t think this is how banks really work. The suggestion is that banks receive deposits and short-term loans and turn around and invest them, sometimes in riskier material, sometimes less risky. So that banks don’t do anything except play with “other people’s money.” But banking doesn’t work that way. The very fact that they engage in what is referred to as fractional-reserve banking, in which they are allowed to “create” a multiple of amount of reserves they hold at the central bank, belies the notion that they only act as passive receivers of money.

In the case referred to above, the bank with $50 million in “illiquid loans to businesses” has on its asset side these loans; but on the liability side, it has deposits it created when it made the loans. That $50 million was not already in its coffers, waiting to be lent out. Not all of it, at any rate. Much if not all of it wasn’t there at all.

This is not to say that banks do not receive deposits. Of course they do. But these deposits, in turn, had to come from somewhere. Those funds weren’t always “just there.” It was in fact created, in the very process of credit extension. This is what Joseph Schumpeter clearly saw, and integrated it into his theory of economic development.

Unlike the deposits created by the bank to lend to businesses (“illiquid loans”), these deposits do run the risk of being removed and placed with another bank, and for that eventuality the bank has to have a contingency plan, e.g., only use that money in ways that can be quickly recovered. But for the loans to businesses, that money will always be replenished: the businesses will be depositing future income even as they withdraw for expenses, and this will remain in a rough balance. This is not the danger to the banking system, and it is hard to see why, on the face of it, these loans should require such a “haircut” as 50%. They are long-term investments by the bank. They are the beating heart of the capitalist system. They are not the problem. The problem lies elsewhere.

The argument of King’s book, then, is to put an “end” to “alchemy.” But this “alchemy” is already built into the very nature of the system. It cannot be gotten around by mandating certain levels of “safe” asset holdings. The focus on quality of collateral is good, but it needs to be done properly. Banks certainly need to ensure that the collateral they accept is marketable, is liquid. But that is easier said than done: because this is not a function of banks, but of markets. And market dysfunctionality goes far beyond bank policies.

There has been a glut of liquidity on world markets in recent decades. Lewis himself knows this all too well: he himself chronicled it in his excellent book Boomerang. Another excellent chronicler and serious economist to boot, Michael Pettis, in his book The Volatility Machine, shows just how this liquidity deranges markets. We like to think of markets as being driven by economic fundamentals, but Pettis shows how, rather than this, they are liquidity-driven, tossed about by massive flows of funds in pursuit of shrinking returns. And banks, together with the burgeoning shadow banking system, are at the forefront of trying to place these funds, running ever increasing risks in the process. This is the dysfunctionality, not so much “illiquid loans to businesses.”

The effect of liquidity-driven markets is to make market valuations go awry. We get asset bubbles and collapses, gyrating valuations, and therefore gyrating bank balance sheets. The collateral-based banking system is struck in its heart. But this is not the banking system’s fault per se, but an ever-increasing oversupply of liquidity.

Where did this global liquidity glut come from? A good portion of it has been the result of the collusion of transnational corporate interests with governments (and central banks!) of low-wage countries by which exchange rates are pegged to favor export industries. The method by which this is accomplished is sterilization – the practice of preventing foreign-exchange earnings from being converted into domestic currency. This has resulted in trillions of excess dollars. Japan and China have been at the forefront of this. The accompanying graphs tell that tale.

Figure 19: China's Foreign Exchange Holdings, 1997-2016
China’s Foreign Exchange Holdings, 1997-2016
Figure 14:  Japan's Foreign Exchange Holdings, 1975-2016
Japan’s Foreign Exchange Holdings, 1975-2016

For the rest, the very existence of debt overhang that afflicts the global economy also spells excess liquidity. The so-called law of reflux explains why. In a nutshell, when debt is repaid, liquidity is extinguished in the same amount. This is a function of the way our banking system creates money. So then, when debt is left unrepaid and instead is constantly rolled over, that liquidity is not withdrawn from the system. It lingers. Hence, excess liquidity.

To make a long story short: what we need is not so much an end to alchemy but an end to the range of toxic fiscal and monetary policies intended to rig the system in favor of various interests. Debt rollover is one of those, as it is simply a result of the too-big-to-fail approach. All of these interests are conflicting. But they have now coalesced in a globalist order that enriches the few at the expense of both workers and entrepreneurs, in both the developed and the less-developed worlds. That’s where we need to focus our attention.

National Economy?

At first glance the notion of a national economy would seem to be self-evident. After all, the lion’s share of economic data comes in the form of “national accounts,” which treat the nation as a self-contained economic entity, like a business. And the talk, when it comes to the economy, is always of how the nation is doing, or how other nations or countries are doing. Likewise, history revolves around the nations and their economic progress, as with the US and its “manifest destiny.”

But the idea of a national economy does not extend to the level of theoretical category. Economic theory does not take it into consideration. It comes into play because of political, not economic, considerations. The fact of the matter is, because politics is concentrated at the national level, so also is fiscal and monetary policy. And this factual state of affairs determines the subject matter. It is at the national level that both fiscal and monetary policy takes place; it is the level at which results from these policies are expected.

Economic theory, however, is not discussed in terms of the nation but in terms of abstractions: the “market,” “business,” “consumers,” etc. This is, or at least it used to be, referred to as “microeconomics.” Then we have “macroeconomics,” which is essentially the economic role of the state with its aforementioned fiscal and monetary policies; in this way we smuggle the nation in through the back door, as it were.

But the nation never functions as a subject of economic theory in its own right. Economic practice, of course, cannot avoid it – the sovereign democratic state is the way things are, it delimits the subject matter at the “macro” level.

The unexamined presupposition in all of this is, what is the locus of the economy? It is actually a question of the utmost importance, because only in this way can we come to grips with crucially important notions – and realities that, like it or not, we have to deal with – like the “global” economy.

One person who, thankfully, did not leave this presupposition unexamined is Jane Jacobs. In her book Cities and the Wealth of Nations,[1] she puts the notion of a national economy, which she takes to be the reigning doctrine, squarely in the cross-hairs. In her view, such an economy is an artificial imposition: the real economy is city-oriented. Cities, not nations, form the watersheds of an economy. Which is to say, cities are the focus of integrated, mixed economies, involving all major sectors from agriculture to industry to finance. Within the city and its supply regions, a stable and integral economy is maintained.[2]

Therefore exporting and importing takes place between cities, not nations. By extension, cities perform the vital economic function of import-replacing: the replacement of imported goods with goods of their own making. In Jacobs’ model, it is this import-replacing function that is the basic motor of economic growth.[3]

Jacobs adds to this import/export functionality the logical corollary: currencies. Currencies function as feedback mechanisms: they provide economies with information with respect to their productivity vis-a-vis other economies. A rise in an economy’s currency indicates that it is more productive than other economies the currencies of which are falling in relative terms, while a fall indicates the reverse condition.

So then Jacobs draws the obvious conclusion. Since cities are the basic units of import and export, currencies, in order to best perform their function, should be geared to the city economy itself; their rise and fall would thus trigger the appropriate response in the city economy, because this currency fluctuation acts as both tariff barrier and export subsidy (a falling currency acts as an export subsidy, a rising currency as a tariff barrier). Cities should maintain their own currencies.[4]

This also indicates a problem with this entity known as the national economy. A larger political unit such as a nation-state, when it imposes a common currency on a multiplicity of cities, short-circuits this feedback function of currencies. It favors the economies of some cities at the expense of others. Since cities not only import and export to foreign nations but also to sister cities in the same nation,[5] the automatic feedback information provided by the currency does nothing to allow cities within the range of the currency to adjust their economies to each other. They receive none of the feedback information that a city-based currency would provide them. Therefore, the cities whose economic position is favored by the national currency continue to grow, while the others stagnate.[6]

Clearly Jacobs is no friend of the nation-state. “Virtually all national governments, it seems fair to say, and most citizens would sooner decline and decay unified, true to the sacrifices by which their unity was won, than prosper and develop in division.”[7] And she takes classical economics, especially as exemplified in Adam Smith’s tellingly titled Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, to task for this. Smith “accepted without comment the mercantilist tautology that nations are the salient entities for understanding the structure of economic life. As far as one can tell from his writings, he gave that point no thought but took it so much for granted that he used it as his point of departure.”[8] Smith’s unthinking assumption of this assumption was subsequently passed from generation to generation without any further thought on the matter. “Ever since, that same notion has continued to be taken for granted. How strange; surely no other body of scholars or scientists in the modern world has remained as credulous as economists, for so long a time, about the merit of their subject matter’s most formative and venerable assumption.”[9]

So Jacobs agrees with us that the locus of the economy is an unexamined proposition. Nevertheless, her thesis that the nation was the focal point of classical economic theory is debatable. In fact, it is contradicted by an early proponent of “The National System of Political Economy,” Friedrich List.[10] List certainly does not figure as an unthinking follower of Adam Smith. His description of Smith’s school is telling: he calls it “the Cosmopolitical System.” By which he means that, pace Jacobs, it is the antithesis of a “national system” of economics.

In line with the influential vision of “Perpetual Peace” put forward in the late 18th century by the celebrated Abbé St. Pierre, this “cosmopolitical system” of economics presupposes harmony and peace between the nations. In such a situation, nations per se have no interests; the human race is joined together as one; and for this reason, “for the most part the measures of governments for the promotion of public prosperity are useless; and that to raise a State from the lowest degree of barbarism to the highest state of opulence, three things only are necessary, moderate taxation, a good administration of justice, and peace.[11] Free trade is then the norm, and indeed, can only truly be implemented under the auspices of such a universal peace. But, argues List, this is to confuse a hypothetical goal toward which the nations should work, with a standing condition already attained.

The [classical] School has admitted as realized[,] a state of things to come. It presupposes the existence of universal association and perpetual peace, and from it infers the great benefits of free trade. It confounds thus the effect and the cause. A perpetual peace exists among provinces and states already associated; it is from that association that their commercial union is derived : they owe to perpetual peace in the place they occupy, the benefits which it has procured them. History proves that political union always precedes commercial union. It does not furnish an instance where the latter has had the precedence. In the actual state of the world, free trade would bring forth, instead of a community of nations, the universal subjection of nations to the supremacy of the greater powers in manufactures, commerce, and navigation. [12]

While Smith and the other proponents of the classical school did recognize the existence of nations and national interests, List correctly assesses the basic orientation of the system. Much of this was inchoate; Lists’s strictures served to stir up debate, generate criticism, and give rise to critical schools of economic theory, such as the so-called Historical School.

This is evident not only in the advocacy of free trade generally as panacea for all economic ills, but also, importantly, in the advocacy of free trade in the area of currency. As we explored in this earlier post, leaving currency to the free market is a key element in a cosmopolitan system that deemphasizes nations as economic actors and subjugates sovereignty, in order to establish a “center-periphery” system of exploitation. And Adam Smith’s classical system established commodity money as a cornerstone of its economic order. As such, in its essentials List’s construct holds true.

List is correct to point out that mercantilism, the target of the classical school’s vituperation, took the nation to be the focus of economics. The system of commodity money, established to overcome mercantilism, is thus a product of the cosmopolitan system. Indeed, the latter found its justification in the fact that it overcame mercantilism, with its supposed framework of conflict of interests and the struggle between nations.

The system of commodity money came to be embodied in the gold standard. As I have argued elsewhere (Follow the Money, ch. 14: “The Great Transformation”), that system ended up in the shipwreck of two world wars and a great depression. As such, it is forever a thing of the past.

Since then, we have had national currencies; and since 1971, ostensibly free-floating national currencies. Jacobs’ polemic against the current system of national currencies has this to say for it, that it understands the role of currencies as feedback mechanisms. Furthermore, the understanding of economies as things that are city-oriented and city-generated. Where Jacobs goes astray is in her exclusive focus on currencies as the only way imbalances are rectified.

As I outline in the accompanying course, economic regions within national boundaries, which thus share the same currency, adapt to each other and resolve imbalances between each other by changes in wages and prices. These changes trigger flows between the economic regions, which are called factor flows: flows of mobile factors of production. Two such factors are labor and capital. They flow back and forth between economic regions, depending on such things as wage levels, price levels, and interest rates.

In the cosmopolitan system, these flows take place not only within countries but between countries. The world is then viewed as a unified, universal jurisdiction of provinces, with the free flow of mobile factors of production settling up regional imbalances.

The problem with this system is, of course, that it does not take nations into account as inescapable realities with inescapable, differentiated, often conflicting characteristics. Nations have different cultures, languages, religions, mores, values, levels of material development, and certainly different approaches to and attitudes towards getting and spending. This leads to evident differentials in things like rates of economic growth.

There is more. Nations have an unsettling penchant: inner drive to establish sovereignty. This was one of the great insights of the German Calvinist statesman and political philosopher Johannes Althusius (1563-1638). At the time, the doctrine of sovereignty was for the first time being fully developed in its modern form as the power that cannot be gainsaid, the power that stands above all other human institutions and authorities and “speaks the law” to them in a final manner. The Frenchman Jean Bodin (1530-1596), coincidentally one of the forerunners of the theory of commodity money, was also the developer of this new theory of sovereignty, which he located squarely in the ruler, whether king or national assembly of whatever sort.

Althusius accepted Bodin’s doctrine of sovereignty but turned it on its head, as it were. It was not the ruler, but the nation as a whole which was the bearer and locus of sovereignty. The ruler was simply the administrator thereof, who exercised its power in the name of and in trust to the true sovereign, the people or nation.

I have attributed the rights of sovereignty, as they are called, not to the supreme magistrate, but to the commonwealth or universal association. Many jurists and political scientists assign them as proper only to the prince and supreme magistrate to the extent that if these rights are granted and communicated to the people or commonwealth, they thereby perish and are no more. A few others and I hold to the contrary, namely, that they are proper to the symbiotic body of the universal association to such an extent that they give it spirit, soul, and heart. And this body, as I have said, perishes if they are taken away from it. I recognize the prince as the administrator, overseer, and governor of these rights of sovereignty. But the owner and usufructuary of sovereignty is none other than the total people associated in one symbiotic body from many smaller associations. These rights of sovereignty are so proper to this association, in my judgment, that even if it wishes to renounce them, to transfer them to another, and to alienate them, it would by no means be able to do so, any more than a man is able to give the life he enjoys to another. For these rights of sovereignty constitute and conserve the universal association.[13]

This key consideration is something that Jacobs and economists in general overlook. Sovereignty is a legal and political doctrine that fixes economic reality in a determinate and conclusive manner. It transcends economics while also acting as a basic datum that real-world economics must take into consideration. And it is nations that exercise sovereignty. As such, it is nations that establish and maintain a common law, the determiner of economic reality: hence, common-law economics. Currency, for one thing, is a function of this common law. No nations, no sovereignty; and no sovereignty, no common law. As this piece is already long enough, I will spare the reader any further elucidations. But this on-site article can serve to fill the gap.


[1] Jane Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life (New York: Random House, 1984).

[2] Ibid., ch. 2.

[3] “Whenever a city replaces imports with its own production, other settlements, mostly other cities, lose sales accordingly. However, these other settlements – either the same ones which have lost export sales or different ones – gain an equivalent value of new export work. This is because an import-replacing city does not, upon replacing former imports, import less than it otherwise would, but shifts to other purchases in lieu of what it no longer needs from outside. Economic life as a whole has expanded to the extent that the import-replacing city has everything it formerly had, plus its complement of new and different imports. Indeed, as far as I can see, city import-replacing is in this way at the root of all economic expansion.” Ibid., p. 42.

[4] Ibid., ch. 11.

[5] Ibid., p. 43.

[6] Ibid., ch. 11.

[7] ch. 13; the quotes are from pp. 212, 215-16.

[8] Ibid., p. 30.

[9] Ibid., p. 31.

[10] As elaborated in his book The National System of Political Economy,  first published in German in 1841. The English translation was first published in 1856.

[11] National System of Political Economy (1856 ed.), p. 191.

[12] Ibid., p. 200.

[13] Frederick S. Carney (trans. and ed.), The Politics of Johannes Althusius (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1965), p. 10. Emphasis added.

Capitalism and the “Modern World System”

World system analysis was first developed in the early 1970s as an alternative to the traditional nation-state-oriented analysis of the global economy. In its initial form (which has since been expanded – even, significantly, to ancient Mesopotamia[1]) the focus was put on the modern world system, as evidenced by the title of the pioneering work of the genre, by Immanuel Wallerstein: The Modern World-System. According to this version of events, the world system developed in the transition from medieval to modern times, with the key period being the 16th century.

What characterizes a world system is what is called a center-periphery relation. The center determines the flows and the rationale, while the periphery provides the means and materials. The center is the “why,” the periphery is the “how.” The whole thing exists for the benefit of the center; the periphery may derive some advantages from the relationship, but these are adventitious.

Wallerstein argues that such a system was set up by the Western colonial powers. Prior to this, the structure for economically connecting various regions was empire – a political method, not an economic one. In the imperial model, there is likewise a center-periphery relation, but it functions differently. Such empires “guaranteed economic flows from the periphery to the center by force (tribute and taxation) and by monopolistic advantages in trade.”[2] That was the good news; the bad news was that these forced contributions required massive outlays in coercive apparatus in order to be sustained. “The bureaucracy made necessary by the political structure tended to absorb too much of the profit, especially as repression and exploitation bred revolt which increased military expenditures;” the upshot is that empire was only “a primitive means of economic domination.”[3]

As such, the new method of world system was a great improvement exploitation-wise. “It is the social achievement of the modern world, if you will, to have invented the technology that makes it possible to increase the flow of the surplus from the lower strata to the upper strata, from the periphery to the center, from the majority to the minority, by eliminating the ‘waste’ of too cumbersome a political superstructure.”[4]

It was capitalism that enabled this great leap forward. Capitalism does not require political hegemony to realize these economic flows between the center and the periphery; rather, it makes use of political power to attain favorable terms of trade. “The state becomes less the central economic enterprise than the means of assuring certain terms of trade in other economic transactions.” It stacks the deck in favor of the center, to ensure the center’s superiority. Trade is the medium for accomplishing this. Not free trade, to be sure, but managed trade. “The operation of the market (not the free operation but nonetheless its operation) creates incentives to increased productivity and all the consequent accompaniment of modern economic development.”[5]

“The world-economy is the arena within which these processes occur.”[6] And so globalism came into being.

There have been many critiques of this framework. For one thing, was this really the first time such a world system has come about? There is good reason to believe that such a world system was already established in ancient Mesopotamia (at least, a far-reaching center-periphery arrangement based in capitalism and trade rather than conquest).

For another, does capitalism necessarily form such a world system? It can be argued that there are different forms of capitalism. Was it not a form of capitalism that participated in Wallerstein’s empire? It would seem that capitalism of some form was alive and well in, e.g., the Roman Empire. And cannot capitalism function just as well within a domestic economy, under the thumb of sovereignty?

Indeed, if there is a term subject to equivocal use, it is capitalism. Schumpeter referred to capitalism as “that word which good economists always try to avoid,” precisely because of the range of meanings attributed to it. For his part, Schumpeter defined it as “that form of private property economy in which innovations are carried out by means of borrowed money, which in general, though not by logical necessity, implies credit creation.” Those familiar with Schumpeter’s theory of economic development will recognize the emphasis he puts on this function; those who aren’t, might profit from the course in economics available elsewhere on this website, which highlights this functionality. For his part, Schumpeter defends the importance he attaches to it. “It undoubtedly appears strange at a first reading, but a little reflection will satisfy the reader that most of the features which are commonly associated with the concept of capitalism would be absent from the economic and from the cultural process of a society without credit creation.”[7]

Be that as it may, world system analysis is important, not as just another critique of capitalism, but as a critique of the form capitalism can take and the way in which trade, banking, etc., can be used to establish hegemonic exploitative regimes on a transnational basis.

One of the important aspects of world system analysis is the perspective it opens to the way sovereignty can be manipulated, even hijacked. For the center of the system is less a political power center than an amorphous, protean nerve center. Fernand Braudel, not quite a world-system analyst but a kindred spirit nevertheless, depicted this kind of capitalism quite starkly. From early on, he wrote, the great capitalists have seated themselves astride the currents of domestic and international trade; they have been able to make things happen for themselves in a major way.  “This commanding position at the pinnacle of the trading community was probably the major feature of capitalism in view of the benefits it conferred: legal or actual monopoly and the possibility of price manipulation.”[8]

Thus, “active social hierarchies” were constructed atop the market economy, and those at the pinnacles could call the tune in the great national and international markets. The esoteric privileged area of large-scale and international trade represented a “shadowy zone” atop the market economy.  “Certain groups of privileged actors were engaged in circuits and calculations that ordinary people knew nothing of.  Foreign exchange for example, which was tied to distant trade movements and to the complicated arrangements for credit, was a sophisticated art, open only to a few initiates at most.” For Braudel, this transnational perch is the linchpin of the arrangement. “To me, this second shadowy zone, hovering above the sunlit world of the market economy and constituting its upper limit so to speak, represents the favoured domain of capitalism.”[9]

This understanding opens the door to a critique of this world-system analysis. The core-periphery framework with which it works, demands strong states at the core and weak states at the periphery. “The world-economy develops a pattern where state structures are relatively strong in the core areas and relatively weak in the periphery. Which areas play which roles is in many ways accidental. What is necessary is that in some areas the state machinery be far stronger than in others.”[10]

In the early-modern period, according to Wallerstein, it was absolute monarchy which provided the strong state, benefiting the two main power groups, the so-called capitalist bourgeoisie and the feudal aristocracy. “For the former, the strong state in the form of the ‘absolute monarchies’ was a prime customer, a guardian against local and international brigandage, a mode of social legitimation, a preemptive protection against the creation of strong state barriers elsewhere. For the latter, the strong state represented a brake on these same capitalist strata, an upholder of status conventions, a maintainer of order, a promoter of luxury.”[11]

But as I have written elsewhere,[12] it was not any of the absolute monarchies but the Great Exception, the Dutch Republic, that functioned as the core of the budding world system. This was not an absolute monarchy but a country in which the very concept of sovereignty and its location was unclear. It was a country the political power of which was divided between a stadhouder (a viceroy without a king) and a city-oriented gentry which might serve as the poster children of Wallerstein’s capitalist bourgeoisie.

As I explained in a previous post, the Dutch Republic was able to establish its trading network basically by poaching the silver circulation of its neighboring “absolute monarchies,” which is one reason France invaded the country in 1672. In other words, it worked to undermine the sovereign attributes of its neighbors to establish this network. It also e.g. circumvented trade restrictions established by its more powerful neighbors. In other words, the world system functioned by weakening, not strengthening, national sovereignty.

This characteristic is overlooked by Wallerstein’s analysis. It recurs on a regular basis. The entire commodity-money framework which the Dutch Republic and then England worked to establish on a world-wide basis, the monetary framework that fostered the world system such as it was, takes money entirely out of the hands of the state and puts in in the hands of a private capitalist elite.

Del Mar’s scathing denunciation serves to highlight just how opposite to the notion of a “strong core state” this new monetary regime actually was:

From the remotest time to the seventeenth century of our æra, the right to coin money and to regulate its value (by giving it denominations) and by limiting or increasing the quantity of it in circulation was the exclusive prerogative of the State. In 1604, in the celebrated case of the Mixed Moneys, this prerogative was affirmed under such extraordinary circumstances and with such an overwhelming array of judicial and forensic authority as to occasion alarm to the moneyed classes of England, who at once sought the means to overthrow it. These they found in the demands of the East India Company, the corruption of Parliament[,] the profligacy of Charles II., and the influence of Barbara Villiers. The result was the surreptitious mint legislation of 1666-7: and thus a prerogative, which, next to the right of peace or war, is the most powerful instrument by which a State can influence the happiness of its subjects, was surrendered or sold for a song to a class of usurers, in whose hands it has remained ever since.[13]

In a similar vein, the core of John Hobson’s critique of British colonialism (taken over by Lenin in his Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism) is that colonialism serves the interests neither of the mother country nor of the colonies, but only the interests of certain specific parties who profit from the arrangement. It follows that such a world system is not necessarily benefiting the core countries at all – it might even be a serious drain on them. Qui bono? The answer is not so simple as the world system analysis might lead us to believe.

Fast forward to the contemporary situation. The arrangement in which we find ourselves, which has been gestating since the end of World War II and has settled into a familiar pattern since the 1980s, cannot be described in terms of this center-periphery arrangement. In fact, the argument can be made (and forcefully) that it has been the periphery which has taken advantage of the core. This has been accomplished mainly by pegging exchange rates at levels advantageous to exports from the periphery (production) paid for by the core (consumption). In this arrangement, the United States is referred to as the “consumer of last resort,” the place where excess production can be most efficaciously offloaded.

This hollows out the production capacity of the consumption-oriented countries running the trade deficit. Obviously, this is not good for workers in those countries. Nor is it beneficial to the workers in the producing and exporting economies. As Michael Pettis makes clear in his extremely important book The Great Rebalancing, it is by a form of forced “savings” (i.e., expropriation) imposed on households and thus workers that this trade advantage is maintained. Qui bono? Not the workers, neither in the exporting nor in the consuming countries. Rather, it is our familiar friend, Braudel’s “shadowy zone” of behind-the-scenes capitalist power brokers, which benefits from its “commanding position at the pinnacle of the trading community” to steer the profits in its direction and the losses to both ends of the trading network. In this arrangement, there is no core and no periphery – there are only regions of exploitation. The difference is in the form the exploitation takes.

Having covered these arrangements more extensively in the accompanying course, I direct the reader there for further background. In the meantime, it is enough to confirm that the seismic rumblings now being felt among the various electorates in the West have a solid basis in reality. It is only to be hoped that the powers that be take heed of these rumblings and make the appropriate adjustments, before they turn into actual political earthquakes.


 

[1] For example: Barry Gills, Andre Gunder Frank (eds.), The World System: Five Hundred Years Or Five Thousand? (London and New York: Routledge, 2014).

[2] Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, with a New Prologue, vol. 1 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011 [1974]), p. 15.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., pp. 15-16.

[5] Ibid., p. 16.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Joseph Schumpeter, Business Cycles: A Theoretical, Historical, and Statistical Analysis of the Capitalist Process (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1939), vol. 1, pp. 223-224.

[8] Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century: Vol. II, The Wheels of Commerce (New York: Harper & Row, 1984 [1979]), p. 374.

[9] Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century: Vol. I, The Structures of Everyday Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1981 [1979]), p. 24.

[10] Wallerstein, The Modern World-System, p. 355.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See my Follow the Money: The Money Trail Through History (Aalten: WordBridge, 2013), pp. 84ff.

[13] Alexander Del Mar, Barbara Villiers: or, a History of Monetary Crimes (New York: Cambridge Encyclopedia Co, 1899), p. 7.

Isaac Newton and the Alchemy of Finance

Western Christendom experienced a sea change in the late 17th century. On one side of that divide was theological dogmatics, scholastic philosophy, the divine right of kings and priests, and, seemingly in their train, wars of religion; on the other side, there was theological indifference, mechanical philosophy, government by consent of the governed, latitudinarian and sectarian church polity, and the political balance of power. Not that these things came all at once; but the tendencies were clear. The mood and temper of the peoples had swung; religion lost its position of overriding importance, to be replaced by economic and political considerations, reason of state, and the wealth of nations.

A pantheon of figures has been elevated to apostolic status as trailblazers in the transition from the Darkness of the one side of this great divide to the Enlightenment of the other. Hugo Grotius, Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Pierre Bayle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, all figure in enumerations of enlightened progenitors of the new era. Paired with these names was a new theoretical orientation which determined the mindset, the Zeitgeist, the Weltanschauung of this new dawn: a new science putting the categories “nature” and “natural law” on a new footing, providing the essential authoritative basis for the new order.

Thus “nature” was the determining factor. The “imperative of nature” came to dominate all areas of inquiry and practical philosophy. The “state of nature” became the orientating condition; rights in a state of nature came to be the touchstone of all just legal and political order; natural religion, religion in accordance with the dictates of nature, came to be touchstone to judge revelation, or at least to form a stand-alone, autonomous body of knowledge alongside revelation; and a new school of thought, economics, arose from out of the disarray of “mercantilist” controversy, basing itself upon – you guessed it – nature, with the initial iteration provided by Richard Cantillon and François Quesnay, and which issued forth as “physiocracy”: the rule of nature.

Perhaps one figure above all others represented and personified this trend. That would be Isaac Newton, the progenitor of the paradigm that anchored all these areas of thought in terms of a unified theoretical construct. Newton put science on a new plane, providing an integrated theoretical explanation for phenomena that had stumped scientists for generations; and it was upon this foundation that the orders of religion, law, politics, and economics were shunted. Alexander Pope’s well-known “Epitaph on Sir Isaac Newton” was, if anything, an understatement of the sentiment of the age:

Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night:

God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

Christian theology became wedded to Newtonian physics, which in particular served as a tool of apologetics.[1] The philosophy of law and politics, already argued in terms of the individual and consent, received a powerful support from the notion of an atomistic universe. And this very same Newtonian construct likewise served to buttress the budding school of classical economics with all of its “natural laws” of wealth and poverty centering on the individual and self-interest.

In all of these areas, Newton’s philosophy, the “settled science” of the day, supplied a powerful sanction. But this is not everything there is to know about Newton. Some areas of his labor, to which he devoted at least as much time as his scientific investigations, have come to light of late, after having languished in the obscurity they were left in by hagiographic biographers determined to highlight the rational character of one of the chief developers of the scientific method, while ignoring what they deemed to be irrational. And Newton exhibited this “irrationalism” in spades.

One of these areas was biblical study. Newton devoted a great deal of time and effort to biblical chronology and to deciphering the Temple of Solomon. The latter in particular he held to be an expression of hidden truth to be unraveled by the initiate. This interest in the Bible and in theology, along with Newton’s clear belief in the biblical version of events regarding, e.g., six-day creation and the Flood, were enough to put a serious dent in Newton’s reputation as the objective enlightened scientist. But the most egregious offense in this regard was provided by the realization that Newton dabbled in alchemy. More than that: he spent a major portion of his investigative life, not in scientific experimentation, but in alchemic explorations, pursuing the transmutation of elements.

It was John Maynard Keynes who first lifted the lid on this aspect of Newton’s legacy. “Newton was not the first of the age of reason,” Keynes wrote in his posthumously published and delivered lecture, “Newton the Man.” Rather, “He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.”

Keynes discovered the “real” Newton while perusing a box of forgotten documents he obtained at an auction in 1936. This led to a radical reevaluation on his part. “In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason. I do not see him in this light. I do not think that any one who has pored over the contents of that box which he packed up when he finally left Cambridge in 1696 and which, though partly dispersed, have come down to us, can see him like that.”

That box revealed Newton the alchemist. Alchemy is the pursuit of transmutation, and Newton avidly pursued it. What the alchemists were after was gold. What one needed for that was the philosopher’s stone; with that in one’s possession, one might convert base metal into the precious yellow metal.

It goes without saying that Newton never came into the possession of such a stone, nor did he ever successfully transform base metal into gold. But it cannot be said that he was altogether unsuccessful in his manipulations in favor of the yellow metal. And here comes the part of the story that is never told, because insufficiently understood. It is the story of how Newton participated in one of the great transformations of world history: the shift of England’s currency from silver to gold, which precipitated the change from a coinage- to a banking-based monetary system. He did so as Master of the Mint, a position he occupied from 1699 until his death in 1727.

A little background is in order at this point. The 16th century witnessed the development of a new order of trade, or, in Immanuel Wallerstein’s terminology,[2] a world-system integrating far-flung areas of the world into a trading network. At the center of this trade network was the fledgling Dutch Republic. In the face of the mercantilist imperative – policies to maximize the retention of precious metals in order to maintain a viable domestic circulation – the Dutch Republic instituted a novel arrangement with regard to currency, dictated by this trading network.

This arrangement facilitated trade with the East. This was because the West ran a chronic trade deficit with the East. There was nothing new about this; from the early medieval period on, the West basically had nothing to offer the more advanced East than such things as furs and slaves, the latter until the slave supply from the Western countries dried up. But there was great demand in the West for what the East had to offer: for instance, silks and spices. How to finance the importation of these luxury goods? Silver.

The one thing the West had that the East wanted, especially since Spain’s discoveries in the New World, was silver. Silver in the East carried a premium vis-à-vis the West, making it profitable to export: this was what made it effective as a means to settle up the trade deficit.

Thanks to new mining techniques and Christopher Columbus, silver became abundant in the 16th century, precipitating the so-called Price Revolution of that century. But in the 17th century the supply began drying up, one of the factors behind the so-called General Crisis of the 17th century and one of the spurs to the spate of policy proposals and implementations summed up in the term “mercantilism.” For one thing, the mines of New Spain were not producing as much as they once did. For another, the flow of silver to the East, primarily China – that bottomless pit, “the World’s Silver Sink”[3] – was beginning to have its effect.

The Dutch Republic served as the funneling mechanism for this flow. Its counter-mercantilist policy allowing the free import and export of specie, and the demand for silver for export exerted a magnetic attraction from all over Europe, with the resulting abundance of coin even precipitating the Tulip Mania of the 1630s.[4] Much of it simply went to offset the burgeoning import business.

English merchants watched all of this with proverbial Argus eyes. They looked on as the Dutch East India Company established its trading network, helped by its special advantage of readily available specie. They sought ways to get around the royal prohibition on the export of currency, and chafed under the restriction.

The breakthrough came in 1663, with the passage of legislation establishing a regime of free coinage. Del Mar finds the impetus for this legislation in the intrigues of Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, Charles II’s mistress.[5] With this opening, the East India Company worked diligently to build its own trading network. The needed silver it obtained, among other places, from the domestic circulation, precipitating a dearth of coin. Together with the wars against Louis XIV conducted by “King Billy,” the Dutch stadhouder become King of England, this precipitated an economic and budgetary crisis.

This decimated the coinage, which suffered from debasement at minting as well as the techniques of clipping and sweating. As a remedy, the wise men of the age recommended a restoration of the coinage to the condition it enjoyed under Queen Elizabeth a century earlier. According to Whig historiography, the great men who recommended this measure, occupants of the Enlightened Pantheon, men like John Locke, here once again displayed their sagacity. Post-Whig reassessment has been less kind.[6]

The attempt to restore the coinage to the silver content of days when silver was abundant had, as its detractors predicted it would, a strongly deflationary effect. And it had the opposite result than hoped, for it simply provided a prime source of silver for export. Full-weight silver coins were simply too juicy to let pass. On these terms, it was quite simply more profitable to export silver than allow it to continue in circulation.

So the result of the so-called Great Recoinage was virtually to establish gold as the currency standard for England.[7] Here is where Newton comes in. As Master of the Mint, Newton ensured the continuation of this trend, maintaining a ratio of silver to gold (15 ½ to 1) that upheld the continued priority of gold over silver. By pricing gold favorably against silver, this ratio ensured that the export of silver in favor of gold would continue to be profitable. Both Newton and Locke indicated the direction that the natural philosophy was going to take with regard to economics: the commodification of money, with all the consequences that this would entail.

But the establishment of gold at the heart of the English currency system had another consequence of a different order: it established fractional-reserve banking in place of coinage as the “money method.” This system of banking had a magical working. It turned paper into gold, or gold into paper, for it multiplied a bank’s specie holdings and circulated a currency “as good as gold” albeit many times the actual amount of gold. This alchemical process actually worked, contrary to Newton’s experiments with the philosopher’s stone. And so Newton stood at the cradle of a new alchemy with far-reaching consequences.

It is one of those curious coincidences of history that Keynes, considered by many to be the modern progenitor of the alchemy of finance, was the first to discover and publicize Newton’s own alchemical wizardries. Keynes’ alchemy consisted in the magical transformation of fiat currency into productivity, growth, and wealth, simply by wielding “effective demand.” Newton’s consisted in the more mundane magic of the multiplication of gold reserves. “Their works follow after them,” for their alchemy lives on. In our day and age, the paradigm of alchemical transmutation has crossed over even into biology and gender. As such, it is the pulsating heartbeat of the age in which we live, all pretensions of scientific rationality notwithstanding.


 

[1] See in particular Margaret C. Jacob, The Newtonians and the English Revolution 1689-1720 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976).

[2]  Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, with a New Prologue, vol. 1 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011 [1974]).

[3] Dennis O. Flynn and Arturo Giráldez, “Born with a ‘Silver Spoon’: The Origin of World Trade in 1571,” Journal of World History, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Fall, 1995), p. 206.

[4] Doug French, “The Dutch Monetary Environment During Tulipmania,” in The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics (Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring 2006), pp. 3-14.

[5] Alexander Del Mar, Barbara Villiers: or, a History of Monetary Crimes (New York: Cambridge Encyclopedia Co, 1899).

[6] For instance: Peter Laslett, “John Locke, the Great Recoinage, and the Origins of the Board of Trade: 1695-1698,” in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 3 (July 1957), pp. 370-402.

[7] A recent article making this case is Charles James Larkin, “The Great Recoinage of 1696: Charles Davenant’s Developments in Monetary Theory” (2006), available at https://goo.gl/JtcWCH.

Honest Money?

“Honest money” is a phrase bandied about as a self-evident truth. As the accompanying graph indicates, its incidence coincides with the heyday of the gold standard. As such, it is the pithy summary of a strongly-held view on the nature of money, which at the time of the gold standard had a highly political charge. The only honest money was gold.

Incidence of the usage of the phrase “honest money” in books, 1800-2000. Source: Google Books Ngram Viewer

As an example, Stanley Waterloo’s Honest Money: “Coin’s” Fallacies Exposed, published in 1895. Here, silver currency is made out to be a dishonest con game: “The Silverite Argument: 1/2=1.”

Modern defenders of “honest money” are not as fastidious. In this, they have forgotten, or at least laid to one side, the controversy of the 19th century as to gold versus silver. Nowadays, according to a leading proponent of this doctrine,[1] honest money is metallic money, preferably gold, but also silver; the only honest money is either a coinage of pure gold or silver composition, or a paper issue 100% backed by such money metal; banks that do not adhere to this are a fraud; the state has no role to play here except enforcement of contracts.

The role of the state is reduced, because honest money is commodity money. In the jargon of the economic historians, money is the “most marketable commodity.” It has developed from the give-and-take of trade as the commodity, or form of merchandise, that proved to be most liquid, i.e., most current, most acceptable to any market participant, not as something directly desired, but as something that could be held and used at a later time in a later exchange.

Hence, the market takes care of money as a sort of automatic by-product. And, according to this version of events, silver and gold constituted the most marketable commodities.

The standard is weights and measures, as befits a commodity. This explains the biblical insistence on honest scales. The shekel, mentioned in the Bible as a unit of currency, was a unit of weight.

Coinage came in later on, as a means of simplifying matters. Instead of weighing out the money commodity for each transaction, coinage was developed in terms of standardized units, in various denominations, unvarying in each denomination, presumably with the weight stamped on each exemplar by way of convenience.

Presumably – because in actual fact, there is no historical example of a coinage stamped with its weight, the way a modern ingot is. What’s more, this version of events is without basis in historical fact.

Not that money did not start out as commodity money. It did, only it did not function in the way the “honest money” proponents would have us believe. The earliest records show a functioning commodity system, but one entirely different from this. In ancient Mesopotamia, a commodity money system developed, but it was, primarily, barley that was the “most marketable commodity.” The barley standard seems to have developed out of the need to store and dispense barley by the cities of the Fertile Crescent, which were more or less autonomous and had to provide for their own citizens. This storage took place in the temples, and was centrally organized. Silver was the other mainstay in monetary transactions. It was used for more high-end and inter-local transactions, while barley was used for local, lower-end transactions.[2]

The important thing to note here is that these commodities were used as units of account. “The temples in Babylonia from the Ur III period through the Achaemenid period use barley like money, especially as a unit of account.”[3] A unit of account serves to facilitate transactions on paper, not actual hand-to-hand transactions. In other words, the commodity was stored away to serve as a basis for monetary transactions, while not actually changing hands. Here we see beginning to take shape before us the basis for the banking system that is the bane of the “honest money” proponents: fractional-reserve banking.

“These institutions were in a position to store grain. They needed it to feed their dependents, and it is clear that they could turn it rather easily into all sorts of other things they might need, ranging from labor-services to commodities.”[4] As Powell notes, the majority of the population was relatively poor and dependent upon these temples for work and sustenance. If payments were made in barley, these could be made on paper (actually, clay tablets) rather than in kind; and as such, they could be expanded far beyond the actual holdings. This in turn would feed indebtedness, which is what a fractional-reserve banking system generates.

The indebtedness is attested by the innumerable cuneiform tablets on which these transactions were recorded. And indebtedness led ineluctably to all manner of social oppression, up to and including debt slavery. This, in turn, led to “clean slate” legislation in which debts were cancelled, debtors were freed from slavery, confiscated lands were returned to the original owners. In fact, the first instance of the word “liberty” – the Sumerian amargi, used by Liberty Press as its logo – does not refer to liberty in the abstract, or to economic freedom, but to the very specific act of debt cancellation. “The term should not be translated vaguely as ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’ in the abstract, but as an economic ‘Clean Slate.’”[5]

The point here is the one I made in my book Follow the Money: “This practice [of fractional-reserve banking] … follows in commodity-based banking’s wake” (p. 15). Commodities used as money do not circulate freely, at least not nearly as much as other commodities, and the more valuable they are, the less freely they circulate. In fact, they have a habit of disappearing from circulation. They wind up in temples or in chests or in vaults, and they circulate only among the very wealthy.  Abraham may have had 400 shekels of silver – “Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver, which he had named in the audience of the sons of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant” – but Abraham was a rich man, for a single shekel of silver was the equivalent of a laborer’s month’s wages.[6]

The biblical prohibition on interest needs to be understood in this context. North argues that the Old Testament does not outlaw the taking of interest. He does so by distinguishing between “usury” and “interest” as two different things. “The Hebrew word ‘usury’ was a term of criticism. Usury referred only to interest taken from a poor fellow believer, in other words, interest secured from a charitable loan. Such usury is prohibited by Biblical law. But interest as such isn’t prohibited.”[7] This suggests there are two words for the phenomenon of interest in the Old Testament, or that the word is used in two senses. This is not the case. There is only one word, and it used in only one sense: interest on loans, not just charitable loans but all loans. By the Law of Moses, any interest at all was illegal, at least to fellow Israelites.

How to understand this? The biblical prohibition on interest was part of a larger complex of institutions, such as the Jubilee, aimed at mitigating the effects of indebtedness. Abraham had been called from “Ur of the Chaldees,” one of the leading cities of “the Mesopotamian Way”; God called him to found a new nation, one that would be able to stand against these nefarious institutions and ward off their debilitating effects. The prohibition on interest was there to keep these institutions from gaining a foothold in Israel. Later on, the Phoenicians, through Jezebel, would introduce their land law into Israel and corrupt it from that end. But the prohibition on interest was intended to prevent Israel from falling under the sway of these foreign influences.

So the Old Testament, while not prohibiting commodity money, mitigated the effects of its use, for it is precisely this that the prohibition on interest provided. Honest money, indeed.

But one might object that this was an aberration. Commodity money as the basis of a fractional-reserve system is not at all what is intended (even though that is what the modern gold standard entailed); commodity money which circulates and/or which forms part of a warehouse-deposit banking system is.

This is problematic. For one thing, it flies in the face of recorded history. Coins valued at weight have hardly ever been able to sustain a circulation. They get removed from circulation precisely because there is no difference between the coin and the commodity. In order to keep coinage in circulation, the value of the coin has to be set at a level higher than its market (intrinsic) value, otherwise it will disappear. This is Gresham’s Law looked at from the other side: it is not that bad money drives out good, but that only “bad” money circulates at all. Which is why nearly all systems of coinage have been fiduciary. Contrary to popular belief, coinage was never a system established to make it easier for commodity money to function, with a coin’s weight stamped on it to simplify matters. Rather, it was established precisely to escape the system of commodity money with its accompanying inconveniences and injustices.[8]

There have been attempts to maintain an “intrinsic” value coinage. But what is clear from them is that their purpose was not to provide for a wide domestic circulation, but only for the upper levels of the economy, for high finance and international trade. During the Dutch Golden Age, for example, the Dutch produced what they called negotiepenningen, “trade pennies,” which were pure silver coins of a certain weight to facilitate trade. These were minted exclusively for international trade and were not meant for domestic circulation – hence the name. Similar examples are the Venetian ducat and the Florentine florin.

The greatest example of such a currency was the Byzantine solidus or bezant, a gold coin maintained for hundreds of years in Byzantium, minted at the rate originally set by Constantine: 72 coins per pound weight of gold. But this coin was part of an intricate system of coinage formed of three metals, copper, silver, and gold. The day-to-day economy ran on silver and copper; the upper reaches of the economy made use of gold. And the empire sacrificed prodigiously to maintain that gold coinage. The state strictly controlled trade to ensure that gold was not exported. It spent massive amounts of resources on gaining and maintaining gold mining regions. Tax rates were high to pay for all of these state activities, to control trade and maintain far-flung armies, all for the sake of maintaining the coinage. And economic development stagnated while economies in neighboring Islamic countries bounded forward: The Muslims, for their part, maintained a silver standard and reaped the benefits of it.

Now let’s suppose that we followed the hard money advocates’ advice and introduced a strictly commodity money based on the precious metals. And further, let’s suppose that we followed their advice and maintained this currency on a basis of strict 100% backing, i.e., without engaging in any fractional-reserve banking or making use of any sort of credit instruments that did not have a strict monetary backing. For one thing, this would call for a heavy dosage of state oversight to ensure that all transactions were conducted on the “up-and-up.” Credit would be eliminated, because credit intrinsically expands the money supply. No lending with the promise of money repayment could take place even on a personal basis, that did not have strict 100% monetary backing. For every such “credit transaction” would in essence expand the money supply. Even the corner grocer’s provision of groceries with a promise of repayment when the paycheck comes in, would be illegal and punishable.

So the state would be heavily involved in the administration of such a standard. But beyond that, it would mean an enduring and drastic deflation, with all the traumatic consequences of such a deflation. This is because the money supply, being limited to the amounts of precious metal that are available to be put into circulation, is by the nature of the case kept at a more or less constant level, while the broader economy, with its innovation, its new technologies, its expanding workforce, its expanding output and consumption, continually outstrips that circulation. With expanding goods and services and a constant money supply, the only direction for prices to go is down. And a deflationary environment is one in which spending collapses, consumption collapses, and everyone holds onto the money they have, to spend it only on things of pressing importance. That is the nature of a deflationary economy. The holders of precious metal would see their holdings appreciate in value daily, while those without such holdings would be left to the mercies of a contracting economy and the opportunities, or lack thereof, it affords.

The attraction of “honest,” i.e., market-based commodity money, is that it seems to be immune to the manipulations of dishonest actors, whether they be bankers, or merchants, or minters, or the state. But this is a mirage. Such an institution never has existed and probably never will. Money needs to be adaptable to the needs of the economy. The money supply needs to be capable of expansion. How that is to be achieved is another question, one which I answer in my oft-mentioned book Follow the Money, to which I refer the reader for further investigation.


 

[1] Gary North, Honest Money: The Biblical Blueprint for Money and Banking (Auburn, AL: The Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2011 [1986]).

[2] A helpful summary of Mesopotamian money can be found in Marvin A. Powell, “Money in Mesopotamia,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 39, No. 3 (1996), pp. 224-242.

[3] Powell, “Money in Mesopotamia,” p. 229.

[4] Powell, “Money in Mesopotamia,” p. 229.

[5] Michael Hudson, The Lost Tradition of Biblical Debt-Cancellation (New York: 1993), p. 16. Download here.

[6] Powell, “Money in Mesopotamia,” p. 229.

[7] North, Honest Money, pp. 81-82.

[8] My book Follow the Money contains much more on this topic.