The Free Market Is A Failure

Sorry for the deliberately click-bait-y headline, but I think this message is important to get out there.

In my discussions few months back on What is Neoliberalism, I noted that a core element of neoliberal philosophy is that markets are the only efficient, effective and rational way to distribute goods and services.

Neoliberals profess the idea that only competitive markets can allocate “scarce” resources efficiently, and that it is only such “free” markets that can lift people out of poverty and deliver broad prosperity. They pound it into our heads constantly.

Yet the Covid-19 crisis has illustrated spectacular and pervasive failures of such “free” markets all over the globe, and especially in the U.S. Instead of fairness or efficiency, we see systemic failure in every market we look: the food industry, the medical industry, the retail industry, the employment market. Resources are being destroyed and misallocated on a massive scale

Let’s start with the food industry, because food is the most important thing (nine means from anarchy, and all that). Thousands and thousands of pigs are being slaughtered, their meat left to rot, eaten by no-one, regardless of the forces of supply and demand:

The United States faces a major meat shortage due to virus infections at processing plants. It means millions of pigs could be put down without ever making it to table…

Boerboom, a third-generation hog farmer, is just one of the tens of thousands of US pork producers who are facing a stark reality: although demand for their products is high in the nation’s grocery stores, they may have to euthanise and dispose of millions of pigs due to a breakdown in the American food supply chain.

Meat shortage leaves US farmers with ‘mind-blowing’ choice (BBC)

Potatoes are sitting in Belgian warehouses and left to rot, only two short years after a drought threatened to produce a severe shortage:

Belgium: Lighthearted campaign to ‘eat more fries’ aims to lift heavy load (DW)

Meanwhile, dairy farmers in the U.S. heartland are dumping milk into the ground, to be drunk by no one.

Cows don’t shut off: Why this farmer had to dump 30,000 gallons of milk (USA Today)

In fact, the whole food situation is rather ugly, as this piece from The Guardian summarizes:

This March and April, even as an astounding 30 million Americans plunged into unemployment and food bank needs soared, farmers across the US destroyed heartbreaking amounts of food to stem mounting financial losses.

In scenes reminiscent of the Great Depression, dairy farmers dumped lakes of fresh cow’s milk (3.7m gallons a day in early April, now about 1.5 million per day), hog and chicken farmers aborted piglets and euthanized hens by the thousands, and crop growers plowed acres of vegetables into the ground as the nation’s brittle and anarchic food supply chain began to snap and crumble.

After delays and reports of concealing worker complaints, meatpacking plants that slaughter and process hundreds of thousands of animals a day ground to a halt as coronavirus cases spread like wildfire among workers packed tightly together on dizzyingly fast assembly lines.

Meanwhile, immigrant farmworkers toiled in the eye of the coronavirus storm, working and living in crowded dangerous conditions at poverty wages; at one Washington state orchard, half the workers tested positive for Covid-19. Yet many of these hardest working of Americans were deprived of economic relief, as they are undocumented. Advocates report more farmworkers showing up at food banks – and some unable to access food aid because they can’t afford the gas to get there.

None of this is acceptable or necessary and it’s not just about Covid-19, it’s also illustrative of a deeply deregulated corporate capitalism. America’s food system meltdown amid the pandemic has been long-developing, and a primary cause is decades of corporate centralization and a chaotic array of policies designed to prop up agribusiness profits at any cost.

Farmers are destroying mountains of food. Here’s what to do about it (Guardian)

That doesn’t sound very “efficient” to me, does it? How about you? Free market fundamentalists, care to weigh in?

Meanwhile, hospitals in the United States, which one would think are the most important thing to keep open during a pandemic, are actually closing across the country. These are the very things you want most to be open! Why is this happening? Because health care in the U.S. is a profit-driven enterprise that “competes” in the free market. Because elective procedures—their cash cow—have either been suspended or postponed. U.S. hospitals are closing because they are dependent upon these elective procedures to shore up their profits, and markets rely on profits.

As the deadly virus has spread beyond urban hotspots, many more small hospitals across the country are on the verge of financial ruin as they’ve been forced to cancel elective procedures, one of the few dependable sources of revenue. Williamson Memorial and similar facilities have been struggling since long before the pandemic — at least 170 rural hospitals have shut down since 2005, according to University of North Carolina research on rural hospital closures.

But even as hospitals in cities like New York City and Detroit have been deluged with coronavirus patients, many rural facilities now have the opposite problem: their beds are near-empty, their operating rooms are silent, and they’re bleeding cash.

More than 100 hospitals and hospital systems around the country have already furloughed tens of thousands of employees, according to a tally by industry news outlet Becker’s Hospital Review. They’ve sent home nurses and support staffers who would be deemed essential under state stay-home orders.

Rural hospitals are facing financial ruin and furloughing staff during the coronavirus pandemic (CNN)

And how about allocating labor via impersonal markets? How’s that going? Well, not so well. The workers with the skills most desperately needed on the front lines during the crisis are taking pay cuts and getting laid off left and right. Instead of contributing, they are sitting at home, unable to work even if they wanted to:

At a time when medical professionals are putting their lives at risk, tens of thousands of doctors in the United States are taking large pay cuts. And even as some parts of the US are talking of desperate shortages in nursing staff, elsewhere in the country many nurses are being told to stay at home without pay.

That is because American healthcare companies are looking to cut costs as they struggle to generate revenue during the coronavirus crisis.

“Nurses are being called heroes,” Mariya Buxton says, clearly upset. “But I just really don’t feel like a hero right now because I’m not doing my part.”

Ms Buxton is a paediatric nurse in St Paul, Minnesota, but has been asked to stay at home.

At the unit at which Ms Buxton worked, and at hospitals across most of the country, medical procedures that are not deemed to be urgent have been stopped. That has meant a massive loss of income.

Coronavirus: Why so many US nurses are out of work (BBC)

It’s an ironic twist as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the nation: The very workers tasked with treating those afflicted with the virus are losing work in droves.

Emergency room visits are down. Non-urgent surgical procedures have largely been put on hold. Health care spending fell 18% in the first three months of the year. And 1.4 million health care workers lost their jobs in April, a sharp increase from the 42,000 reported in March, according to the Labor Department. Nearly 135,000 of the April losses were in hospitals.

As Hospitals Lose Revenue, More Than A Million Health Care Workers Lose Jobs (NPR)

So it doesn’t seem like “free and open” markets are doing so well with either health care or labor.

Meanwhile, U.S. states are competing against each other for desperately needed PPE equipment, bidding up the price and preventing scarce resources from going to where they are most badly needed, which would naturally be where Covid-19 has struck the hardest:

As coronavirus testing expands and more cases of infection are being identified, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers are scrambling to find enough medical supplies to replenish their dwindling supply.

But state and local governments across the United States are vying to purchase the same equipment, creating a competitive market for those materials that drives up prices for everyone.

“A system that’s based on state and local governments looking out for themselves and competing with other state and local governments across the nation isn’t sustainable,” said John Cohen, an ABC News contributor and former acting Undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security, “and if left to continue, we’ll certainly exacerbate the public health crisis we’re facing.”

“There’s a very real possibility,” he added, “that those state and local governments that have the most critical need won’t get the equipment they need.”

Competition among state, local governments creates bidding war for medical equipment (ABC News)

Yet neoliberals always tell us how important “competition” is in every arena of life.

Failure, failure, failure! Everywhere we look, we see failure. Pervasive, systematic failure. Resources going unused. Surpluses of food being dumped even while people go hungry and line up at food banks. Workers with necessary skills sitting at home, twiddling their thumbs. Other workers unable to even earn a living to support themselves and their families, no matter how badly they want to work. Masks and protective equipment NOT going to where they are most needed, their costs inflating, befitting no one except profiteers even as people die.

Tell me again about how the market is “efficient” at distributing resources. Tell me again about how central planning inevitably results in wasted resources, surfeits and shortages.

And here is the big, bold, underscored point:

The free-marketeers want to trumpet the market’s successes, but they don’t want to own its failures.

Free-market boosters always want to talk about the wonderful benefits of markets. How they allow multiple people to coordinate their activities across wide variations of space and time. How they allow knowledge to be distributed among many different actors. How they favor tacit knowledge that a single entity could not possess. Libraries of encomiums have been written celebrating the virtues of the “free” market. You know their names: The Provisioning of Paris, Economics in One Lesson, Free to Choose, I Pencil, and all of that. Much of what passes for economic “science” is simply cheerleading for markets– the bigger, freer and less-regulated the better.

Okay, fair enough.

But how about market failures? Why don’t they ever talk about that? Because if you read the economics books I cited above, you would come away with the idea that there are no market failures! That, in fact, there is no such thing. That markets, in effect, cannot fail!

If you want to own the successes, you need to own the failures.

Oh, they love, love, love to talk about central planning’s “failures”. They can’t get enough of that. They love to talk about empty shelves in the Soviet Union, long lines at supermarkets, the lack of toilet paper in Venezuela (amusingly, now a problem throughout the capitalist world), and the allegedly long waiting times in “socialized medicine” countries. We are constantly subjected to that drumbeat day after day after day. It’s part of every economics 101 course. Central planning doesn’t work. Central planning is inefficient. Central planning is “tyranny.”

But what about all that stuff I cited above?

Where are all the free-market fundamentalists now?

What is their excuse?

They’ll use special pleading. They’ll argue that it’s exceptional circumstances. That no one could have foreseen a “black swan” event like the global Covid-19 pandemic (despite numerous experts warning about it for years). They’ll tell us that markets work just fine under “normal” circumstances. They’ll say we cannot pass any kind of judgement on the failings of markets during such an unusual event.

Here’s why that argument is bullshit:

Pandemics are a real, and recurring phenomenon in human history. We’ve been incredibly fortunate that we’ve been in rare and atypical hundred-year period from 1918-1919 to today without a global pandemic or novel disease we couldn’t quickly contain and/or eradicate.

But pandemics are always—and always have always been—a societal threat, even if we’ve forgotten that fact. And the experts tell us that there will be a lot more of them in our future, with population overshoot, environmental destruction, encroachment on formerly unoccupied lands and climate change proceeding apace. What that means is this:

If your economic system can’t function properly during a pandemic, then your economic system is shit.

If your economic system only works when conditions are ideal, in fact depends upon conditions being ideal, then, your economic system doesn’t really work at all. If something like a pandemic causes it to seize up and fail, then your economic system is poorly designed and doesn’t work very well. Not only do the free markets graphed on economists’ chalkboards not exist in anywhere the real world, they apparently rely on a blissful Eden-like Arcadia to function as intended—a situation any causal glance at human history tells us is highly unusual. Any disruption and they fall like dominoes. They are about as resilient as tissue paper.

And the stresses are only going to get worse in the years ahead, with climate change making some areas uninhabitably hot, while other places are submerged under rising sea levels. And that’s before we get to the typical natural disasters like volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes. And there will be new novel plant diseases as well, unfolding against the increasing resistance of germs to antibiotics.

Will the free market fundamentalists and libertarian market cheerleaders acknowledge this???

Don’t hold your breath.

No, they will continue to lionize “private initiative” at every opportunity, while completely ignoring the stuff I opened this post with. They’ll sweep it under the rug or, more likely, simply handwave it away. They’ll continue to say that we need to scale back government regulation and interference and let the invisible hand sort it all out.

Because discipline of modern economics as practiced today is not a science. It may not even rise to the level of a pseudoscience. It’s PR for laissez-faire capitalism.

Of course, we’ve had market failures before. They occurred all throughout the nineteenth century and during Great Depression, for example. These are well-documented. But many of the things that came out of those bygone market failures to prevent or mitigate them have been systematically and deliberately dismantled over the past generation due to rise of neoliberalism.

And now we’re paying the price.

Karl Polanyi made an important distinction between markets and Market Society. Markets are where people come together to buy, sell, and exchange surplus goods. These have existed throughout history. They are tangential to society; embedded in something larger than it. Such markets can be shut down without causing an existential threat to civilization.

But Market Society is dependent upon impersonal forces of supply and demand and functioning markets for absolutely everything in the society, from jobs to food to health care. Everything is oriented around maximizing private profits, and not human needs. Markets failing to function adequately lead to unemployment, sickness, starvation and death. Shutting them down is an existential threat to civilization.

As Dmitry Orlov wrote in his best-known work, the Russians survived the collapse of the Soviet Union precisely because they didn’t rely on the Market.

Naturalizing markets in this way is an abdication of both causal and moral responsibility for famines, a way to avoid reality and the ethical consequences for people in a position to change things. Markets are not given; they are predicated on a host of laws and social conventions that can, if the need arises, be changed. It makes no sense for American farmers to destroy produce they can’t sell while food banks are struggling to keep up with demand. This kind of thinking is a way for powerful people to outsource ethical choices to the market, but the market has no conscience.

Famine Is a Choice (Slate)

Now, to be clear I’m not necessarily making an argument for or against central planning as opposed to markets. That’s a different discussion.

But my core point is simply this: you cannot discuss market successes without discussing market failures. To do so is intellectually dishonest, disingenuous, and not to mention incredibly dangerous and irresponsible. If economics were a real science, instead of just PR for capitalism, it would take a look at the things I described above, and figure out ways they could have been avoided, regardless of any preconceived ideology or assumptions about the “right” way to arrange a society, or assumptions about how things “should” work. It would seek out ways for society to become, in Nassim Taleb’s terminology, “antifragile.”

But don’t hold your breath for that, either.

A Theory About Stocks

A lot of people have been utterly mystified by the fact that the stock market seems to be going up and up and up, even as unemployment soars to Great Depression levels, pandemics shut down economies across the globe, American cities are in full revolt, the military is on the streets, clouds of locusts stalk Africa, hurricane season approaches, and the world just generally seems to be melting down around us.

How the f*ck can stocks still be going up???

First the obvious statement: stocks are not the economy. But I’m sure you already knew that. As Paul Krugman put it:

[W]henever you consider the economic implications of stock prices, you want to remember three rules. First, the stock market is not the economy. Second, the stock market is not the economy. Third, the stock market is not the economy. That is, the relationship between stock performance — largely driven by the oscillation between greed and fear — and real economic growth has always been somewhere between loose and nonexistent…Did I mention that the stock market is not the economy?

The stock market is simply a casino. Yes, yes, you’ll read in the economic textbooks written by very serious academic scholars using sophisticated academic terms like “capital resource allocation,” and “price discovery,” and all that, as well as about how distinguished gentlemen are doing very, very serious research and making totally rational assumptions about the future needs of society based on prospectuses and sober, realistic assessments of future earnings and capital flows and…blabbity-blabbity-blah.

Don’t believe a word of it—it’s a f*cking casino. That’s the best way to describe what’s going on when you strip away all the economic jargon designed to baffle us into thinking it’s something so sophisticated that us mere mortals with our puny brains cannot possibly understand.

News flash: Casinos aren’t rational!

Now, of course, it’s not just pure dumb luck like spinning a roulette wheel. It’s obvious that some companies have better future prospects than others. You can get information to make informed choices, just as you can count cards to do better at games of blackjack. But the future is inherently unknowable, and stocks are as much bets on the future as they are assessments of the present.

So what’s a stock worth? What someone else is willing to pay for it.

And I hope you’re smart enough not to buy in to economists’ explanation about how this is all totally rational. In fact, as anyone who has had a family member with a chronic gambling addiction in their lives knows all too well, it is precisely when one is gambling and seeking a windfall that one is at their least rational.

Furthermore, stock bubbles have been a persistent phenomenon through the entire history of capitalism, from the Tulip Bubble (where a single tulip bulb equaled a years’ wages), to the Mississippi bubble, to the South Sea Bubble, to railroad mania, the Great Depression, to 2008, and everything in between.

However, I have a theory as to why today’s stock market seems to be so awesomely divorced from the actual world as to seem like it’s on a totally different planet.

In the age of neoliberalism, with wages having been hollowed out for generations, gambling in the stock market is now the only realistic way to make money anymore. Internet gurus like Mr. Money Mustache gain fame and celebrity by telling us we can all get rich by pouring all our money into stonks and retire at 30! (seriously, this is what the guy says). Everywhere on the internet, everyone seems to have morphed overnight into little mini-J.P. Morgans, managing their oh-so complex portfolios, buying and selling their way into the one percent and ready to share their galaxy brain financial knowledge with the rest of us mortals. On Reddit, anyone not gambling in the market is a chump and deserves to starve!

Our only way to retire, we re told, is buying stocks. Even pension funds are invested in stocks. They even tried to put all our Social Security money into the stock market, for crying out loud (which totally wouldn’t have unrealistically inflated stock values at all, oh no!)

Where else is the money gonna go???

Basically neoliberalism has built everything around the edifice of the stock market. Everything is wrapped up in it. Absolutely everything is invested in these imaginary numbers, untethered from reality. It might as well be a f*cking video game score. To that end, we can all just extend and pretend forever. Why the hell not?

Stocks, stocks, stocks, stocks. Is it any wonder the market always goes up?

To be alive in America is to be assaulted by endless high-decibel blather about the critical importance of the stock market. There are entire TV channels devoted to it, new highs are always celebrated on network news, it’s on the front page of newspapers, it’s on an app that comes preinstalled on your iPhone, and the president is constantly yelling at you about it.

Yet the stock market has little direct relevance for regular people. By some estimates, the richest 10 percent of U.S. households account for over 80 percent of American stock ownership. The richest 1 percent by themselves own half of that, or 40 percent of stock. Half of Americans own no stock at all.

Once you understand this, the media’s stock market mania is maddeningly hilarious. It’s as though half of the national news was yammering about the weather in Greenwich, Connecticut. (“Our top story on ABC World News Tonight: This afternoon Greenwich was unseasonably warm.”) And no one notices how bizarre this is.

By contrast, think about economic facts with concrete relevance to the lives of normal people: the unemployment rate, whether the middle class is getting raises, if the minimum wage is going up, strikes, health care, workplace safety. There’s no cable TV ticker about that.

Coronavirus Matters, the Stock Market Doesn’t, and Thinking It Does May Literally Kill Us (The Intercept)

Paul Krugman also points to the lack of alternatives for actual productive investment:

Investors are buying stocks in part because they have nowhere else to go. In fact, there’s a sense in which stocks are strong precisely because the economy as a whole is so weak. What, after all, is the main alternative to investing in stocks? Buying bonds. Yet these days bonds offer incredibly low returns. The interest rate on 10-year U.S. government bonds is only 0.6 percent, down from more than 3 percent in late 2018. If you want bonds that are protected against future inflation, their yield is minus half a percent. So buying stock in companies that are still profitable despite the Covid-19 recession looks pretty attractive.

And why are interest rates so low? Because the bond market expects the economy to be depressed for years to come, and believes that the Federal Reserve will continue pursuing easy-money policies for the foreseeable future. As I said, there’s a sense in which stocks are strong precisely because the real economy is weak.

Crashing Economy, Rising Stocks: What’s Going On? (New York Times via Reddit)

And, of course, the Federal reserve is pumping staggering amounts money into the stock market, buying up assets all over the place. By some measures, several trillion have been spent buying up assets such as stocks, bonds and other securities. Strangely, neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump ever once asked howyagunnapayforit—they only do that for policies that benefit anyone outside the investor class.

Now, to the point: Nearly all financial trading nowadays is done by bots. That is, computers trading with each other to get the best deal. The technical tern for this is fintech (financial tech).

I tried to find out how long the average stock is held today. I couldn’t find it. I’ve heard everything from four months to 22 seconds. The only point of agreement is that they are being held for shorter and shorter time periods over the years, and trading volume has increased by a big amount (just how big is also hard to discern). But just how short is a mystery. Michael Hudson apparently buys the 22 seconds figure:

Michael Hudson, a former Wall Street economist at Chase Manhattan Bank who also helped establish the world’s first sovereign debt fund recently said: “Take any stock in the United States. The average time in which you hold a stock is – it’s gone up from 20 seconds to 22 seconds in the last year. “Most trades are computerised. Most trades are short-term. The average foreign currency investment lasts – it’s up now to 30 seconds, up from 28 seconds last month. The financial sector is short term, yet they talk as if they’re long term.”

Computerised high-frequency trading, which makes up about 70pc of all trades, is the subject of the book, The Fear Index, published late last year.

However, this Business Insider article disputes some of those figures, citing the original source, but it doesn’t give any alternative figures. I would imagine BI doesn’t want people to start questioning the stock market, and Hudson is very plugged in to the finance and economic worlds, so I think his figures can be trusted. Most financial reporting that us “ordinary people” can find via Google is designed to prop up the legitimacy of the casino by pulling the wool over our eyes.

This is just anecdote, but I was talking with a friend who works in IT. He was talking about someone he knew who worked in tech in the financial sector. He told me that this person moved one of the computers from one office to another office closer to the fiber optic line to shave off 15 femtoseconds from trading speed. Yes, femotoseconds, that’s what he said. To save you the search, a femtosecond is one quadrillionth of a second (10-15)

Now, bots are obviously unaware that the world is melting down around them. How could they? They have only one goal: buy and sell stocks to maximize value—almost like the mythical Paperclip Maximizer of AI paranoia.

What’s the cardinal rule of stock buying? Buy low and sell high.

We humans tend to do the opposite thanks to cognitive biases such as loss aversion and the Bandwagon Effect. We see stocks going up and we want to buy. We see stocks going down and we get spooked, so we sell. That is, we do the opposite of what we should rationally be doing—we tend to buy high and sell low.

So that’s why the financial industry turned to computers.

Computers do not have the irrational biases that fallible humans do. That’s why they are considered better. And that’s why trading is increasingly done by these computers, often fortified with some sort of AI to game the system using algorithms developed by “quants”. I’ve repeatedly heard that the trading pits where you see all those angry, overweight white dudes in ties screaming at each other like a troop of rabid baboons until they’re beet-red in the face, is kept open only as a sort of performance theater for the masses—there’s no actual trading going on there anymore. It’s all run by computers.

It’s hard to get good data on this; there seems to be a lot of secrecy surrounding it. Presumably they need to prop up the legitimacy of the “democratic” stock market for us average rubes.

But if you’re a bot and you’re designed to buy low, what happens when stocks start dropping in price? When the price is dropping, that means stocks are cheaper. When this happens to fairly good (esp. blue-chip) stocks, that means that they are undervalued. So what do you do? You buy!

Of course, you don’t know the real world of actual people and things “out there” is melting down, because you’re just a brain in a box.

So the computer brain in the box just sees “undervalued stocks” and thinks “buy”. And then other bots see this and they buy too. They follow their instructions. And then they sell the stocks to each other. Wash, rinse repeat. Almost like a simulation.

And, voilà, the stock market goes up. Trading goes on as normal. Paradoxically, the lower the prices go, the more undervalued the stocks appear to the bots, and so the more they buy expecting to get a bargain. So buying activity actually increases! And then the bots buy and sell the stocks to each other, until they go back up to more-or-less where they were before, which they read as the “correct” price, because they are just brains in boxes, with no knowledge that meatspace is quickly sliding into the depths of hell.

A video game score is the appropriate analogy here. What “real world” thing is your video game score tied to? Does it care whether you’re sick or unemployed? No, it only cares whether you’re playing, and the number is just a made up number based on the whim of a bunch of computer programmers somewhere.

So, the reason stocks are still so high, in my theory, aside from just the Fed money bazooka, is because trading is done by machines with simple mandates based on number crunching, blissfully unaware of the real world going on outside the box, which is riddled with pandemic disease, increasing violence, insurrection, social breakdown, economic depression, and environmental collapse.

I imagine a time in the far future where, after the oceans have risen and coastal cities drowned, when the Amazon rain forest has been slashed and burned and billions flee parts of the globe too hot for human metabolism, after 70 percent of terrestrial animals have gone extinct and we’re scraping the ocean floor for methane hydrates to run our remaining power stations, the computers will still be happily swapping stocks between each other, trading away in the darkness, unmonitored, sending the Dow to 100,000,000, or whatever imaginary nonsense number it will be in the future.

That’s my theory, anyway. However, I have no specialist knowledge in either trading or fintech, so I might be way off on this. If by some unlikely circumstance, someone with actual inside knowledge of either computerized trading or the stock market happens to read this, please let me know if this theory holds any water or is total bullsh!t. Thanks.


Presented without comment:

A Finance Primer

“Just as the rich rule the poor, so the borrower is servant to the lender.”

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be; / For loan oft loses both itself and friend.”
HAMLET, Act 1, Scene 3

I’m not going to try and explain all the bailouts, even if I pretended I knew exactly what is going on. There are others who are doing that.

But I would like to make some important points about finance in general, and hopefully make it a bit more clear. I hope people find this “explain like I’m five” somewhat useful.

From a very, very big picture perspective, haute finance is the creation and propagation of financial instruments. That’s it. The swapping and trading of these financial instruments constitutes the main activity of finance.

In the jargon of finance, these instruments are called securities. Both stocks and bonds are examples of securities, but there are many, many more.

More broadly, you can think of these as legally binding claims to some kind of resource. That could be real, tangible resource, or something less tangible like a loan or income stream.

The “legally binding” thing is important. A security has to hold up in court. You have to be able to take people to court and have the claim hold up in court for a security to mean anything. Hence the term “secure.” Securities are regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the United States.

The term “security” is interesting in itself. It is intended to inspire confidence like so many other financial terms like trust and credit. It is intended to express something fundamentally safe and sound, coming from the Latin securitas, meaning “free from care.” That is, no need to worry—your money is being kept safe.

Securities have two important characteristics: they are fungible, which means they can be turned into other things. The most obvious example is turning stocks or bonds into cash. You can also do the reverse: turn cash into stocks or bonds by buying them from a broker. Securities are protean by design.

How easily one thing can be converted into another thing is called its liquidity in financial jargon. Liquid assets can be converted into other things very easily. Illiquid assents can’t be. For example, I can’t convert stocks directly into bonds. And I can’t change from real estate to stocks unless I sell my real estate first (or find someone willing to exchange one for the other).

Cash (i.e. money, banknotes, or currency) is the ultimate liquid asset, in that it can be converted into pretty much everything else very easily—stocks, bonds, real estate, insurance policies, commodities, what have you.

The other important property of securities is that they are negotiable. Negotiability means that they can be easily passed along from person to person, with ownership passing to each person in the chain. I can pass along a security to you, or the guy over there, or the government, with ownership to the underlying claim passing to each entity in turn. That is, negotiable instruments do not have your name on them; they are not tied to you as a person. Ownership is always temporary and at-will.

Basically, if it can be traded, it’s negotiable.

That, then, is a security: a fungible, negotiable financial instrument that conveys ownership rights or creditor rights (an IOU). It can pass from owner to owner without limit and can be converted into cash. It’s an investment as either an owner or a creditor in which the investor hopes to make a profit. If it can easily be converted into cash, it is called a marketable security in the jargon.

If I buy a security, I give up the use of my money for a specified period of time. Why would I do that? I do it in the hope of getting more money back in the future. The longer I give up the use of my money, the more I will expect back in the future, generally speaking.

[Tangentially, I would argue that the concept of investing money now, in order to get back more money later (whether as profit or interest or whatever) is the core, animating idea behind capitalism.]

So when you hear the word “security,” think “financial instrument designed to transfer debt (or ownership claims).” And you will hear the term used all the time in financial jargon. What you should ask yourself when you hear the term is, “from whom to whom?” And why.

Securities are of just two major types: debt and equity; that is, ownership or loanership (or a mixture of the two). Equity is just a fancy term for ownership. Equity is an ownership claim on some real underlying resource.

The principle example of an equity security is stock. Businesses issue stocks to raise money from the public. When you buy a company’s stock, you buy a small slice of ownership in the company. It is an ownership claim. In the jargon, you have equity in the company.

Equity is typically ranked. In other words, some ownership claims take precedent over others. This is determined by a country’s laws.

Stocks are issued by companies, typically very big companies. The biggest companies of all are the corporations listed on the various stock exchanges we always hear about: The Dow Jones Industrial Index, the Standard and Poors (S & P) 500, the NASDAQ (National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations), and so on. Different countries list their companies on their own stock exchange. Governments do not issue stock; you cannot purchase equity in the United States or Japan, for example. This is because governments have the ability to tax, which companies to not have.

The value of all the stocks on the index in the aggregate determines whether the index of that particular stock market is “up” or “down.” Theoretically, the value of the stock is determined by the underlying value of the company issuing it—how profitable it is, expectation of future growth, etc. (in practice, however, this is often rather different).

A debt security is simply an IOU.

An IOU expresses a debtor/creditor relationship. The holder of the IOU is the creditor. The issuer of the IOU is the debtor. In financial jargon, the person owning the security is called the bearer (or payee), and the entity issuing the security is called the maker, payer, or most commonly, the issuer.

So an IOU is simply a way of raising money. Typically, an IOU comes with the promise that more money will be repaid in the future over and above the original amount. That is why people buy them, after all—the expectation of getting more money back in the future. In the financial jargon, the original amount of money loaned is called the principal. The additional money you get back is the interest. The length of time of the loan is the maturity. That could be anywhere from overnight to thirty years, and everything in between. The total amount you receive from the bond purchase is called the yield.

In a pettifogging sense, there doesn’t have to be interest. I could loan you 50 bucks, and you pay me back 50 bucks. But since I’m giving up the use of that money for a specified period of time, the thought is that I should be compensated for the opportunity cost of not having that money available to me right now. Hence the interest. It’s basically a motivator for the loan. Its the cost of renting money.

The likelihood you will ever see that future cash is what determines the interest rate on the IOU, broadly speaking. If you are almost certain you will be paid back: low interest rate. If you are pretty uncertain you will ever get paid back: high interest rate. Loan to the neighborhood millionaire: low interest rate. Loan to your unemployed deadbeat brother-in-law: high interest rate. And so on.

The basic idea is that you need additional motivation in order to make a risky loan. The higher the risk, the higher the (potential) reward. If the debtor welshes on paying back the loan, it is called a default. If they don’t pay back anything, it is a full default, otherwise if they pay back a portion it is a partial default. In either case, the bond holder is said to have taken a haircut (!!).

For every debtor, there is an equivalent creditor. That’s something to keep in mind, and it will put you ahead of 99 percent of the galaxy brain armchair commenters on the internet. When you hear about the debt—any debt—don’t just think about the debt, think about who the creditor is, because there cannot be one without the other. It’s simply impossible. In order for their to be debt, there has to be a loan, and in order for a loan to exist, there has to be to somebody, somewhere, who loaned the money in the first place.

The principle example of a debt security is a bond. It is the most common debt instrument. A bond is an IOU. Unlike stocks, bonds are issued by both governments and businesses. Like stocks, they are a way of raising money. As noted above, typically in order to motivate people to lend to it, the entity issuing the bond pays it back with interest. The perception of reliability in paying back the bond determines what that interest rate is. They are typically issued for a fixed term, which is a specified amount of time for the money and the interest to be paid back.

One very common type of security is a treasury security. As the name implies this is an IOU issued by the treasury department of a government. The treasury borrows money, and pays it back in a certain amount of time. It is a government IOU. You become a creditor on the government by buying a treasury security.

You may be wondering what the difference is between a treasury security and a government bond, or whether they are, in fact, the same thing. Really, they’re different names for the same thing. Again, the financial jargon here makes it less clear. But typically, the IOUs issued by the government are classified according to how long the loan to the government is for.

The shortest-term loans are called “T-bills” (‘T’ for “treasury”) and are for only four weeks to a year. “T-notes” are for a longer period of time—between two and ten years. “T-bonds” (i.e. government bonds) are the longest term securities—thirty years—and pay interest annually. Investors use a combination of all three of these to manage money. Long-term bonds in the UK and some Commonwealth nations are commonly referred to as “gilts” because the original paper bonds issued had gold edges. Many early gilts had no maturity date; that is, they were perpetual.

Treasury securities are a way of taking money out of the system (i.e. “locking it up”) for a specified amount of time. How long it’s locked up for is the term of the security. Taxes, by contrast, are away of taking money out of the system permanently. That is, taxes are “unprinting money.”

The government buys and sells securities via its central bank to manipulate the amount of money floating around in the system, and hence to manipulate the overall interest rate (i.e. the price of money). That’s a big topic which we’ll leave alone for now.

Earlier I said that bonds are a way to raise money from the public. In the case of government this seems prima facie true, but it is not the actually the case; the government is the sole issuer of currency and does not need to raise money in order to spend. It is true, however, in the case of currency users like state and local governments, which do not issue their own currency. At the national level, then, governments issue bonds as 1.) safe havens to store money, and 2.) a way to transfer debt liabilities between entities, especially the public and the private sector, but also between nations (typically via central banks).

Treasury securities are usually considered the safest assets to own by investors. That’s because, unlike private entities, the government has a printing press (or, more realistically, keystrokes). Consequently, the interest rate on treasury securities is typically quite low. The only concern with such securities is whether the money that the security is converted into will be worth more or less in the future, which is determined by whether there is inflation or deflation. That’s a topic for another time.

At the other end of the spectrum, bonds issued by entities with a very low likelihood of paying back the money are called junk bonds.

Securities are issued by entities (governments or businesses) typically through financial intermediaries (called brokers). In rare cases, they are issued directly to the public. Once they are released into the wild, they are then traded around all over the place from person to person, entity to entity, in what are termed secondary markets (because they are negotiable, remember).

The interest rate (yield) paid by the bonds is determined determined by the face value of the bond, regardless of the price the bond is traded for in secondary markets. This means that if bonds can be bought on the cheap, there is a large potential for profit.

If we had a Venn diagram, then, all of the T-notes, bills and bonds are all treasury securities, which fall into the larger category of securities, which includes both stocks and bonds. Into that larger circle of the Venn diagram of securities we would also place other things like options, promissory notes and bills of exchange, which I’m ignoring for now. Outside of it would be things like insurance policies or retirement accounts (IRAs or 401Ks), which hold securities but are not securities themselves—don’t worry too much about this distinction).

An ordinary person like you or me does not issue stocks or bonds they way governments and companies/corporations do. They do take out loans, however. Both individuals and households often have outstanding debts from loans. These are usually paid back over time from their income.

Another dyadic relationship is the one between assets and liabilities. For every liability there is a corresponding asset. In total, these sum to zero. From the perspective of the lender, for example, the loan is the asset, the thing the loan is for is the liability. For the debtor’s perspective, the thing they took out the loan for (a house, say) is their asset, and the loan is their liability. Again, one cannot exist without the other. That mirrors the creditor/debtor relationship.

A bank’s assets are all the money it is owed. It’s liabilities are the money it must pay out to others. A $1,000 loan to someone is an asset (as long as they are able to repay it). A check drawn on the same bank for $1,000 is a liability. Recall that banks also borrow from, and lend to, each other. A bank’s (or any company’s) assets must exceed its liabilities in the long term, otherwise it is insolvent. Because loans are typically paid back over time, a bank could be solvent, but still illiquid (i.e. not enough cash on hand for current use). In such cases, central banks are designed to bridge the gap.

Thus, financial instruments (securities) are ultimately ways of transferring debt and ownership about. Debt and ownership are saleable commodities, just like aluminum or pork bellies. That’s the basic, underlying concept of finance. The sheer numbers and complexity of these exchanges is what makes it mind-boggling to the average person on the street, but hopefully the above explanation may help you to understand the basics a little better.

The big, big picture problem with the financial system is that the steps from the original borrower and the original lender (or from the original owner to the current owner) are so confusing and convoluted thanks to all the secondary markets and wheeling-dealing going on around the world that the system resembles nothing so much as the proverbial Gordian Knot—unknowable and unwindable. So someone taking out a loan from a bank to buy a house in Michigan, for example, may find that his mortgage repayments are funding a pension system in Lithuania, or some such.


Insurance is not a security; it is a way of transferring risk.

Options are also ways of transferring risk, but the are securities. An option is a right (but not an obligation) to buy or sell an asset (a security or commodity) at a specified price (called the strike price) at some point in the future. If the option is for buying, it is a call option. If it is for selling, it is a put option.

Basically, these are bets on whether the underlying asset will go up or down in price.

From a call perspective, if you expect the price to drop, you are short, if you expect it to go up you are long. From a put option perspective, the reverse is true. Often times options contracts are written on securities that the options trader does not actually own.

In general parlance, to short something means that you think it will go down in price or become less valuable (“shorting a currency”). To go long means that you expect it to go up in price or become more valuable.

If the value of an asset is dependent upon what the market does, it is considered to be a speculative asset. Speculation in financial jargon is just a fancy term for gambling.

Here’s a good explanation of futures contracts courtesy of a Reddit user:

[F]utures contracts are essentially pre-ordering something, hoping it sells out, and then scalping it on eBay, but on a far larger scale. You have a contract agreeing that you’ll buy something at a certain price (the settlement price) at a certain date (the settlement date). Let’s say that you make orange juice, and I want to buy orange juice. I offer to pay you $3 for a gallon of orange juice that I’ll pick up next Saturday. When Saturday comes by and I pick up the orange juice, if the price goes up to $5 a gallon, you still have to honor our contract and give it to me. I then can sell it for a $2 profit. If the price had gone down to $2 a gallon, I’d be left with a $1 loss.


Is money (cash) a security? Well, it depends on how you look at it. Most definitions would say no; money is what you use to buy securities. But I think it is possible to see money as another kind of security.

There is a good historical argument that paper money began in China as circulating IOUs from prominent merchants in place of cumbersome iron coins. These IOUs then started to be passed from person to person within the province. That is, they were fungible, since they could be converted into other things (real goods, securities, real estate, etc.), and they were negotiable, in that they could pass from person to person. Eventually, the government got in on the act and began issuing their own IOUs which could be used to pay taxes. Often these had an expiration date (like bonds, but unlike modern currencies). These became a form of portable, anonymous wealth based on paper.

Thus, money is the government’s liability. What backs it is the wealth of the nation issuing it, along with its laws and institutions. They are government IOUs in the sense that you can always settle your debts to the government with them. The government also declares them to be legal tender for the settlement of private domestic debts as well. Since everyone needs them to pay taxes, fees and fines, they become broadly accepted as a means of exchange and payment in the wider society.

The way that MMT economists often express this is that money is circulating tax credits. The money that is in circulation—in people’s bank accounts and wallets and so on—are tax credits that have not been redeemed yet.

On the other hand, securities are often distinguished from cash in that they are not perfectly liquid, and they can expressed in terms of currency. By contrast, the value of currency can only be expressed in terms of itself. Securities also typically provide some sort of return, although this is not absolutely necessary—you can have a zero (or even negative) interest bond, for example.

But cash by its nature does not provide any sort of return. If you put it in a bank account it does, but then the bank account is the security, not the money itself. That is, a security is typically considered to be an investment, whereas cash is clearly not an investment. Also, in the U.S. at least, money is legally exempted from being a security. See:

Nevertheless, in terms of exchanging value and being an IOU issued by the government, I think it’s safe to think of money as another type of security for now, albeit a very special and unusual one.

Money is exchanged for securities; securities are changed back into more money, that money is once again exchanged for securities (or securities are simply rolled over); so goes the pulsating heartbeat of finance all over the planet. That’s really what it is at heart—swapping securities all over the place. And everyone’s doing it—governments, businesses, individuals, and so on. It’s basically debt-swapping on a global scale.

So that’s haute finance in a nutshell: everyone is trying to at least preserve their existing wealth and, preferably, to increase it relative to everyone else. But again, the question is: who’s doing the swapping, what for, and what is ultimately lying beneath it all. That’s what you should be asking yourself whenever you hear about all this financial stuff in the press.

The Code of Capital

An interesting book came out earlier this year by law professor Katerina Pistor called The Code of Capital. The book explains in detail the qualities that an asset has to have in order to generate wealth over time, and how the law can bestow such properties on an ordinary asset to turn it into a capital asset.

In other words, capital is coded via law, and a set of private legal institutions have been set up and used for centuries in order to to code certain things into capital. The first asset coded this way was land, but the code has been extended to more and more things over time, and it continues to be expanded.

I think the book is important because the standard libertarian argument relies on a misunderstanding of things like private property, money and capital as being somehow “natural” and a priori to the state.

But in reality, all of these things are created by human institutions, most particularly the state with its monopoly on coercive power. They are than artificial creations designed to arbitrarily privilege some groups over others.

Pistor’s book focuses on capital, and her conclusion is that the institution which creates capital is the legal system. In the book, she attempts to document exactly how this is done. It also has some interesting historical insights into how capitalism emerged out of feudalism with much of the original power relations more-or-less intact.

Capital is an asset that has some potential to generate private wealth. In order to create a capital asset out of an ordinary asset, Pistor argues that you need to do some legal encoding of that asset. This encoding of an asset—grafting onto an asset a particular set of ideas enshrined in the law—is what she refers to as the “code” of capital. The “code of capital” is what flips a simple object, idea, or promise to pay into a wealth-generating capital asset.

Over time, the code of capital has transformed more and more things into income-generating assets. The code was originally developed with respect to land to preserve the wealth of landlords from challenges to their power. Over time, these legal codes have been used to make capital assets out of things like financial instruments, debt and intellectual property.

Pistor argues that you need to encode three out of four of these concepts to flip an ordinary asset into a capital asset. They are:

1. Priority – Having more senior rights to an asset than other people. This is the fundamental rule you need in order to create a capital asset, or even to have private property.

Legal institutions create ranks and prioritize some claims over others. This matters in insolvency, for example, where claims are ranked from strongest to weakest. The strongest claims feed at the trough first, while the weaker “runt” claims get the leftovers, if anything. How those claims are ranked is determined by the law.

Priority rights are the minimum requirement. But to create a capital generating asset, you need more.

2. Durability – If an asset can end up easily on the auction block, the ability to accumulate wealth over time is limited. Durability protects assets and asset pools from too many counterclaims. It extends priority rights in time.

Durability was fist established using the entail in English common law to protect assets from being seized by creditors. See Fee tail (Wikipedia)

3. Universality – Priority and Durability need to be enforced against everyone, not only against the parties with whom you have directly negotiated these interests—erga omnes in the legal terminology.

Universality gives lawyers the ability to create assets that have priority rights that will be universally enforced not just against the contracting parties, but against anybody, whether or not they knew about the arrangement or were parties to the deal. Universality extends priority rights in space.

4. Convertibility – This allows you to not just be able to transfer an asset, but also to flip the asset into another, safer asset if necessary.

This is most obviously comes into play by turning an object into cash. State-issued currency retains its nominal (though not its actual) value. The ability to do this is especially critical in giving financial assets durability. Without being able to “cash out” paper assets, they might lose much, or even all, of their value. As Pistor describes, convertibility was especially critical in turning things like CDOs and other debt-based securities into capital assets.

When these four legal ideas are grafted onto an asset–any asset–it becomes an income-generating asset, that is capital. Any object, promise of payment or idea can be flipped into a capital asset using these legal tools–this “code”

A lot of these were first developed with respect to land, and then were grafted onto other assets: land, farms, debt, firms, know-how, and even data, with data being the most recent and ongoing.

The legal modules to do this have remained fairly stable over time. She enumerates them as: Property law, Contract law, Corporate law, Collateral law, Trust law and sometimes Bankruptcy law, which can mimic features of all the others.

This is also provides a useful definition of what capital is. Obviously, capital is the beating heart of our economic system. Yet, remarkably, people still argue over what it even is!

Marx entitled his masterwork Captial, and placed it at the center of his analysis. Following him, the overall economic system has been termed “capitalism.” But a solid definition of what does and does not constitute capital has remained elusive. Using the above, we might define it as an asset—physical or otherwise—that possesses three out of four legal properties of priority, durability, universality, and convertibility.

Economists often claim that the central factors of production are land labor and capital. But land and labor can be capital. In fact, anything can be capital if it is coded as such. She points out that one’s own labor can be coded as capital by establishing a corporate entity and issuing dividends to yourself as a corporation shareholder in lieu of a salary.

What this demonstrates that the law is intimately involved in the creation of capital.

“What are the functions that law plays? What you need to convert an asset into a capital asset is a credible commitment of enforceability. You want to make sure that you can enforce your rights at some future date in some place, and maybe even in some place outside your own jurisdiction. You need to have the institutionalization of the centralized means of coercion that private parties can use to organize their private affairs so that they can bank on enforceability. At some level, at every stage in the creation of capital and the creation of financial markets, I would say in the creation of markets in general, the state is deeply involved.”

But what do we mean by law? Law is a particular institutionalization of the central state’s coercive powers. Pistor distinguishes three dimensions in which we have institutionalized law:

1. Top-down vertical ordering – the state enforces order among its citizens through a monopoly on coercive violence.

But the flip side of this vertical dimension is that, in rule-of-law based constitutional systems, citizens can also use the law to protect their interests against the state. This aspect is often ignored. Top-up vertical ordering allows private actors to supersede the state; to “tie its hands” as it were.

The centralization of the means of coercion on the one hand, and the allowing of individuals to avail themselves of the legal system to protect their private property rights against the state through civil and political rights, was an enormous institutional revolution.

2. Horizontal ordering – Private parties can employ the coercive properties of the state to organize their own private affairs. This means that private relations can be structured much more forcefully than they otherwise could be by private parties availing themselves of the state’s legal system.

Pistor traces this legal coding all the way back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in England. For whatever reason, England developed a very powerful private legal profession very early on. Wealthy landowners commonly availed themselves of legal services provided by professional attorneys much more often then their continental counterparts. On the continent the legal profession was less empowered. France controlled them in a top-down fashion, and Prussia halved the private legal profession in the eighteenth century because they were seen, correctly, as a threat to state power.

As Pistor depicts it, many of these laws originated for the benefit of the large, aristocratic landlords to, in essence, to preserve the power relations under feudalism. They enshrined these pre-modern, pre-legal, pre-constitutional power relations into law. The lawyers who did this were often descendants of these very same aristocratic landowning families, so its obvious whose side they were really on.

This adds an interesting perspective on the libertarians’ “year zero” problem. They usually argue for a “night watchman” state that only protects private property rights and lets everything else just sort of work itself out. But where do these property rights come from in the first place? Why do some people have priority over others?

Matt Breunig makes this same point:

Perhaps the most interesting thing about libertarian thought is that it has no way of coherently justifying the initial acquisition of property. How does something that was once unowned become owned without nonconsensually destroying others’ liberty? It is impossible. This means that libertarian systems of thought literally cannot get off the ground. They are stuck at time zero of hypothetical history with no way forward.

How Did Private Property Start (Jacobin)

Pistor’s book fills in some of the gaps in that process. It was through law that such priority rights established, and legal decisions usually favored certain stakeholders over others. These decisions can in no way always be said to be “fair.” Rather, she argues that they come from whatever legal arguments happen to carry the day in court.

During the sixteenth-century in England there was a legal dispute over who had better property rights to the land—the landlords or the commoners. Who had priority rights over the commons, the peasants or the aristocracy?

The commons was an area where multiple, overlapping stakeholders had multiple, overlapping claims, and those claims were balanced against one another for centuries by traditional customs without written legal precedent determining ownership. So whose claims would take priority if one side defected, and whose claims would be downgraded, or even dismissed?

At first, this dispute was conducted in a decentralized fashion in hundreds of sporadic conflicts all up and down the British Isles. The landlords attempted to assert their rights over the commons. The commoners rebelled. There was violence, breaking fences, and digging hedges. The “Diggers” were so-named because they dug under the fences and hedgerows planted by landlords to mark their territory.

Eventually, these disputes wound up in the courts. The attorneys—by and large children of the nobility—argued on behalf of the landlords. The landlords won. The argument that carried the day in the court was seniority—the landlords had the stronger claims to the land because their rights took precedent. In essence, they were there first. Another strike against commoners is that they were not organized into a single, coherent corporate entity, so unlike the landowner, they could not assert collective rights. They were simply seen as numerous private individuals by the courts. More recent scholarship has shown that by the early seventeenth century, already two-thirds of arable land in England had been enclosed even before the major Enclosure Acts were passed.

These decisions gave the landlords priority rights. But you also needed to have shielding devices to create sustainable value.

To this end, the landed elite in England learned how to entail their land to preserve it down through time. Lawyers took a page from feudal law and argued that the contracts that potential creditors had entered into were with the “life tenant” rather than the person who gained the profit off the land. The life tenant, however, was not the real owner, they said—he only holds the asset for future generations. Under the feudal law, this meant that you could only seize 50 percent of the land, and never the family mansion.

Entailment gave English landlords durability. When the land was no longer able to generate sufficient revenue thanks to the repeal of the Corn Laws and the flooding of the market with cheap grain, the landlords could shield themselves from creditors and keep land in the family. This caused a debtor crisis by the mid-nineteenth century. In 1881 the English courts declared that the the life tenant was the true owner and therefore creditors could seize all of the land. After the Land Settlement Act and the Land Conveyance Act were passed, almost 20 percent of land changed hands. The repeal of durability greatly affected the value of land as a capital asset.

When England started seizing lands from aboriginal peoples all over the world, obviously the “they were here first” argument wouldn’t hold water. So the attorneys switched up their arguments to improvement and discovery. Improvement is the argument made by John Locke, i.e. you combine your labor with the land to make it productive, so that gives you ownership rights to the land. Discovery is a sovereign territorial claim. It boils down to, essentially, “finders keepers.”

Note that this is the inverse of the priority rights that were argued during the enclosure movement. Under the feudal system, it was by-and-large the labor of the commoners that brought forth the fruits of the land. Yet back then, this gave them no special claims to ownership! Landlords had some legal and administrative duties back during the feudal era, but the Crown (i.e. the state) had largely taken over those functions by the time these disputes showed up in the courts. Thus, landlords contributed very little labor to the land, and yet they claimed exclusive ownership rights over it, and won in court!

And, of course, how does the labor theory of property apply to a financial asset?

In other words, what justifies one’s claim to an asset appears to be whatever the apologists for those with power argue it should be. And that obviously favors those already with the power.

Pistor highlights the fight by the indigenous Maya to encode their collective use rights as property rights in the Supreme Court of Belize. The constitution of Belize—as most constitutions do—says that property rights will be protected. But it does not define what counts as property—it simply assumes it. The supreme court of Belize eventually recognized the priority claims to the ancestral lands by the indigenous Maya. But what they didn’t do was use the state’s coercive power to back up those claims. Instead, Mayan land continued to be bought and sold by outsiders.

In telling this story, Pistor’s core point is this: what we recognize and what we do not recognize as property is a political decision that we make. In making these decisions the state tends to favor the rights of those who will generate more wealth for the state.

Since the end of the nineteenth century in Britain, we’ve shifted from protecting the landowners and their capital to protecting the credit claimants. By elevating creditor claims above all other claims, we have allowed financialization to occur. This has subsequently engendered all the “exotic” financial instruments based on debt that we see circulating today.

Pistor goes into detail about how these legal coding techniques were used to turn exotic financial instruments into capital assets via law. In doing so, the features of durability, universality, and convertibility became paramount in turning paper claims into capital assets. In fact, it was in trying to understanding the exotic financial instruments underlying the global financial crisis that she discovered the code of capital. For example, the “code” allowed the mortgage debts of millions of ordinary homeowners were turned into capital assets that could be traded and used for wealth generation. Her arguments here are fairly complex, so if interested you should look further into the book.

An important point she makes is that land and other tangible, usable objects are still usable in a certain way even without any legal coding. You can grow crops on land. You can drive a tractor. You can milk a cow.

However, intellectual property rights and financial assets only exist in law. These are entirely creations of the law.

And so, she notes, we’ve created a legal system where we create brand new assets ex nihilo through the law, and then further enhance these assets with the additional attributes of priority, durability, universality, and convertibility to turn them into wealth-generating assets. Of course, this benefits certain people over others.

Finally, she addresses the issue of universality. Private law is domestic law, but we live in a global capitalist system. And so how can you have domestic law sustaining a system of global capitalism when we don’t have a global state?

Pistor argues that as long as all global states choose to recognize the features of a specific legal system, you can, in theory, have legal universality even without a single, global legal system. For financial capitalism, the legal systems that currently serve this purpose are the laws of England, the state of New York, and Delaware for corporate law. Thus globalization turns out to be a very parochial system of coding rooted in just two legal systems! This gives Anglo-Saxon firms a legal advantage in crafting these types of assets, including financial assets. The world’s largest and most powerful law firms are all headquartered in Anglo-Saxon countries, where most of the legal coding work is done.

“The globalization of legal practice which is the very foundation of our global capitalist system is ultimately a globalization of Anglo-Saxon, particularly American legal practices.”

What started centuries ago in land has been extended to corporations, to financial assets, to intellectual property rights, to data, and potentially to many more things. As she notes, even exotic things like DNA are being eyed as potential capital assets.

As a result, citizens of various states increasingly feel as if they’ve lost control of their own domestic destiny. With everything around them being rapidly turned into capital assets for international markets left and right, they feel helpless. They feel that collective self-governance has fallen by the wayside under this system. Pistor points out that Brexit was rooted in the idea that the people have lost their legal sovereignty. She argues that this perception was essentially correct, but it was not really a takeover by Brussels (the EU headquarters) but more accurately a takeover by London.

The Code of Capital illustrates that the neofeudal order that is coalescing today is not some inevitable force of nature, but an imposition of a specific legal code on all of us to turn the entire world into capital assets owned and traded by an international oligarchy of wealth, while local communities are steadily hollowed out. It is the endgame of global capitalism; the final gutting of civil society. Despite the assertion of neoliberals and libertarians, there is nothing “natural” about it. It is blatantly obvious for whom the state’s monopoly on coercive violence is now serving, and its not the citizens of the world’s various counties, but a transnational investor elite.

Ive taken the above information from YouTube talks and interviews given by professor Pistor.

Talk at the Watson Institute:

Talk in Brussels:

Majority Report interview:–ck

Book review from the London School of Economics

Don’t Think Like an Economist

Here’s Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution:

Larry Summers is my favorite liberal economist because even while maintaining his liberal values he never stops thinking like an economist. That makes him suspect among the left but it means that he is always worth listening to….

Summers on the Wealth Tax (Marginal Revolution)

No, that’s precisely what makes him NOT worth listening to (he’s—surprise, surprise!—opposed to the tax). Listening to arrogant Ivy League hyper-elite technocrats like Larry Summers is exactly why the Democratic Party is in the pathetic state its is in, and continually loses elections, even to incompetent morons like Donald Trump. If Larry Summers is a representation of “liberal values” than God help us all.

Summers was Obama’s economic advisor, the same Obama who refused to jail a single banker or financier for their role in the housing collapse, no matter how blatant their malfeasance. But the most telling example about how Larry Summers “never stops thinking like an economist” (a good thing in Cowen’s estimation) is the infamous Summers memorandum, where he argued that—according to economic logic—Africa was tragically underpolluted, and that needed to be rectified.

Summers, an enthusiast for the [World] Bank’s policy of encouraging poor countries to open their borders to trade, went on to explain why he thought that it was legitimate to encourage polluting industries to move to poor countries. ‘The measurement of the cost of health-impairing pollution depends on the forgone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality,’ he wrote. So dangerous pollution should be concentrated ‘in the country with the lowest wages’.

He added: ‘I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.’

He also introduced the novel notion of the ‘under-polluted’ country. These included the ‘underpopulated countries in Africa’ where ‘their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles’. His point was that since clean air, which he calls ‘pretty air’, is valuable as a place to dump air pollution, it is a pity poor countries can’t sell their clean air for this purpose. If it were physically possible there would be a large ‘welfare-enhancing trade in air pollution. . .’ he says.

Summers admits in his much-faxed memo that there might be objections to his case, on moral grounds for instance. But he concludes by saying that ‘the problem with these arguments’ is that they ‘could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalisation’.

‘What he is saying,’ comments British environmentalist Nicholas Hildyard, ‘is that this argument represents the logical conclusion of encouraging free trade round the world.’

Why it’s cheaper to poison the poor (New Scientist)

He never stops thinking like an economist!!! Um, yay?

The sociopathic logic above is the “logical” outcome of doing a cost-benefit analysis involving “tradeoffs” – the stock in trade of economics as a governing philosophy, which we’ll look at more closely in a bit.

Here are some more of Larry Summers’s greatest hits:

Fresh off his success in Lithuania, Summers moved to the World Bank, where he was named the chief economist in 1991, the year he issued his famous let’s-pollute-Africa memo. It was also the year that Summers, and his Harvard protégé Andrei Schleifer (who worked with Summers on the Lithuania economic transformation), began their catastrophic “rescue” of Russia’s crisis-ridden economy. It’s a complicated story involving corruption, cronyism and economic devastation. But by the end of the 1990s, Russia’s GDP had collapsed by more than 60 percent, its population was suffering the worst death-to-birth ratio of any industrialized nation in the twentieth century, and the financial markets that Summers and Schleifer helped create had collapsed in what was then the world’s biggest debt default ever. The result was the rise of Vladmir Putin and a national aversion to free markets and anything associated with Western liberalism.

The Summers Conumdrum (The Nation)

Behold, the results of “liberal” economists. My core point is this: this kind of autistic “economic thinking” is the very reason why the voting public believes there is no substantial difference between the Republicans and the (Neoliberal) Democrats. And they’re right! It’s also worth noting that Professor Cowen has let the cat out of the bag, tacitly admitting that the very discipline of economics is inherently right-wing (it makes him suspect among the left…). Yet it still masquerades as ideologically neutral!

Which brings me to a topic I’ve wanted to mention. A new book by New York Times economic columnist Binyamin Applebaum explains how this kind of “economic thinking” has come to dominate the actions of the world’s governments in place of all other social factors. But it wasn’t always so. Quite the opposite! In fact, economics…

…was not always the imperial discipline. Roosevelt was delighted to consult lawyers such as [Adolf] Berle, but he dismissed John Maynard Keynes as an impractical “mathematician.” Regulatory agencies were headed by lawyers, and courts dismissed economic evidence as irrelevant. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy’s Treasury secretary made a point of excluding academic economists from a review of the international monetary order, deeming their advice useless. William McChesney Martin, who presided over the Federal Reserve in the 1950s and ’60s, confined economists to the basement…In the 1950s, a Columbia economist complained he made as much as a skilled carpenter.

How Economists’ Faith in Markets Broke America (The Atlantic)

But it was not to last. Applebaum’s book details how economists became the de-facto technocratic rulers of society, supplanting all other notions of good and effective governance. The story begins, ironically, with Roosevelt’s New Deal, which…

…created a new need for economists. [It] inflated the size of the federal government, and politicians turned to economists to make sense of their new complicated initiatives and help rationalize their policies to constituents. Even Milton Friedman, the dark apostle of market fundamentalism, admitted that “ironically, the New Deal was a lifesaver.” Without it, he said, he may have never been employed as an economist. From the mid-1950s to the late 1970s the number of economists in the federal government swelled from about 2,000 to 6,000. The New Deal also gave rise to cost-benefit analysis. Large projects, like dam building or rural electrification, needed to be budgeted and constrained…

The Tyranny of Economists (The New Republic)

This gave rise to the kind of cost/benefit analysis described above, where absolutely everything—human life, the ecosystem, labor, healthy communities, etc.—had its price, and that price became a part of painful-but-necessary “tradeoffs”; a totally new way of thinking about how to govern society. This concept of a cost/benefit analysis, even though it produced distinctive winners and losers, wasn’t seen as a problem, because…

…the government could theoretically redirect a little money from the winners to the losers, to even things out: For example, if a policy caused corn consumption to drop, the government could redirect the savings to aggrieved farmers. However, it didn’t provide any reason why the government would rebalance the scale, just that it was possible.

What is now called the Kaldor-Hicks principle, “is a theory, “ Appelbaum says, “to gladden the hearts of winners: it is less clear that losers will be comforted by the possession of theoretical benefits.” The principle remains the theoretical core of cost-benefit analysis, Appelbaum says. It’s an approach that sweeps the political problems of any policy—what to do about the losers—under the rug.

The Tyranny of Economists (The New Republic)

In fact, many of the proponents of global “free-trade” openly acknowledged that there would inevitably be “winners” and “losers” from such policies. But, they claimed, some of the gains of the winners could be easily siphoned off to compensate the losers, making everyone better off in the long run. Win-win thinking at its finest.

It should be obvious by now what kind of a sick joke that was. It should also be proof positive just how drastically economic theory never matches the reality.

It was also World War two that ushered in the concept of Gross Domestic Product, or GDP (originally Gross National Product, or GNP), which was designed to measure total national output for the war. Even the economists (Kuznets, et. al.) who created it explicitly warned that it was not to be taken as a be-all and end-all measure of societal health or well-being. It was designed to manage the War Economy, and its continual increase was not to be regarded as an end in itself.

Yet that’s exactly what it became thanks to economists.

It was the ultimate triumph of “market society” as Polanyi described it. Markets and money were now the sole governing principles. Political decisions were reduced to simply a series of cost-benefit analyses, freeing politicians from any moral culpability for their decisions. Governing society was no longer about increasing the general welfare as the Framers of the Constitution imagined—it would now be simply about increasing GDP and making the necessary “tradeoffs”.

With the Neoliberal revolution, economists emerged from the basement and took over the place:

Starting in the 1970s…economists began to wield extraordinary influence. They persuaded Richard Nixon to abolish the military draft. They brought economics into the courtroom. They took over many of the top posts at regulatory agencies, and they devised cost-benefit tests to ensure that regulations were warranted. To facilitate this testing, economists presumed to set a number on the value of life itself; some of the best passages of Appelbaum’s fine book describe this subtle revolution. Meanwhile, Fed chairmen were expected to have economic credentials. Soon the noneconomists on the Fed staff were languishing in the metaphorical basement.

But, in the wake of the Powell Memorandum, the biggest beneficiaries were big business, who soon poured bottomless amounts of money into economics departments (such as the one that employs Cowen as well as Summers’s Harvard) and a dizzying array of “think-tanks” which employed the ever-expanding number of economics graduates. Economics soon went from virtual obscurity to one of the most popular majors at American universities, especially for children of the affluent. In the 1980’s, big corporations and the wealthy…

…soon found a powerful ally in economists, a vast majority of whom opposed regulation as inefficient. Corporations began to argue that if the cost of compliance to a new regulation (say seatbelts or lead remediation) exceeded the benefit, it shouldn’t be implemented. The government, starting at the end of Nixon’s administration and continuing to this day, agreed.

Cost-benefit analysis hinged on an ever-changing calculation of the monetary value of a human life. If a life could be shown to be expensive, regulation could be justified. If not, it would be blocked or scrapped. The EPA, in 2004—to allow for more lax air pollution regulations—quietly sliced eight percent off their value of human life, and then another three percent in 2008 by deciding to not adjust for inflation. The fluctuating value of life was a seemingly rational but conveniently opaque method for making political decisions. It simultaneously trimmed away the gray areas of political discourse by reducing the debate to a small set of numbers and obscured the policy in hundreds of pages of statistics, figures, and formulas. This marriage of rational simplicity and technocratic complexity provided cover for regressive policies that favored corporations over taxpayers. Economists reduced a question that dogged political philosophers for centuries—about how much harm is acceptable in a society—to a math problem.

The Tyranny of Economists (The New Republic)

Here’s another particularly vivid example of the results of that type of thinking:

In June of 1985, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a “national consumer alert” about the type of sofa chair that strangled [two-year-old Joy] Griffith. But the commission still needed to decide if they would require design changes. So Warren Prunella, the chief economist for the Commission, did some calculations. He figured that 40 million chairs were in use, each of which lasted ten years. Estimates said modifications likely would save about one life per year, and since the commission had decided in 1980 that the value of a life was one million dollars, the benefit of the requirement would be only ten million. This was far below the cost to the manufacturers. So in December, the commission decided that they didn’t need to require chair manufacturers to modify their products. If this seems odd today, it was then too—so odd, in fact, that the chair manufacturers voluntarily changed their designs.

Prunella’s calculations were the result of a growing reliance on cost-benefit analysis, something that the Reagan administration had recently made mandatory for all new government regulations. It signaled the rise of economists to the top of the federal regulatory apparatus. “Economists effectively were deciding whether armchairs should be allowed to crush children,” Binyamin Appelbaum writes in his new book The Economists’ Hour. “The government’s growing reliance on cost-benefit meant that economists like Prunella were exercising significant influence over life and death decisions.” Economics had become a primary language of politics.

The Tyranny of Economists (The New Republic)

And this how we got to the polices of today, where, as Margaret Thatcher confidently declared, “there is no alternative”:

“The United States experienced a revolution. No gun was fired. No lives were lost. Nobody marched. Most people didn’t notice. Nonetheless, it happened.”…what Appelbaum presents could be seen as a picture of a dramatic class-war, a conservative counter-revolution in reaction to the New Deal government, duplicitously legitimized by a regressive political theory: economics. Or as a more bracing economics writer, John Kenneth Galbraith, once put it: “What is called sound economics is very often what mirrors the needs of the respectably affluent.”

The Tyranny of Economists (The New Republic)

To reiterate, Larry Summers was Obama’s (a Democrat) chief economic advisor. What, then, is the difference between the two major political parties again?

…a 1979 survey of economists that “found 98 percent opposed rent controls, 97 percent opposed tariffs, 95 percent favored floating exchange rates, and 90 percent opposed minimum wage laws.” And in a moment of impish humor [Applebaum] notes that “Although nature tends toward entropy, they shared a confidence that economies tend toward equilibrium.” Economists shared a creepy lack of doubt about how the world worked.

The Tyranny of Economists (The New Republic)

No wonder Cowen (who manages the Koch-funded Mercatus Center at George Mason University) is such a fan! And thus you get his laudatory praise of how Summers is always “thinking like an economist” despite his alleged “liberal values”.  So when you are urged, for example, to “think like an economist” you are all but guaranteed to come up with conclusions which overwhelmingly favor the rich and powerful and screw over the rest of us. And all of this is presented as totally nonpolitical and “just common sense!”

Isn’t it funny how “bad economics” is anything that helps labor and the working class?

However, this kind of quasi-religious faith in free trade and free markets has shown a remarkable and disastrous lack of effectiveness in the real world:

Inequality has grown to unacceptable extremes in highly developed economies. From 1980 to 2010, life expectancy for poor Americans scandalously declined, even as the rich lived longer. Meanwhile, the primacy of economics has not generated faster economic growth. From 1990 until the eve of the financial crisis, U.S. real GDP per person grew by a little under 2 percent a year, less than the 2.5 percent a year in the oil-shocked 1970s.

How Economists’ Faith in Markets Broke America (The Atlantic)

…the theories often demonstrably did not do what they were supposed to do. Monetarism didn’t curb inflation, lax antitrust and low regulation didn’t spur innovation, and low taxes didn’t increase corporate investment. Big economic shocks of the 1970s, like the befuddling “stagflation,” provided reasons to abandon previous, more redistributive economic regimes, but a reader still burns to know: How could economists be so wrong, so often, and so clearly at the expense of the working people in the United States, yet still ultimately triumph so totally? It’s likely because what economists’ ideas did do, quite effectively, was divert wealth from the bottom to the top. This entrenched their power among the winners they helped create.

The Tyranny of Economists (The New Republic)

And this type of thinking has now permeated the entire world as Neoliberalism encircled the globe, from Chile to China. And as a result, we see the entire world burning down – metaphorically in the case of places like Chile, Lebanon, Syria, France, Spain, Russia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and even New York City; and literally in places affected by climate change like California. It’s also led to the majority of the world’s population living under some kind of strong-man authoritarian rule, with surveillance states expanding daily and democracy under dire threat everywhere.

New Delhi now has to distribute gas masks to students for them to even go outside. Isn’t it time we stopped listing to the economists, even the allegedly “liberal” ones like Larry Summers as well as overtly pro-corporate Libertarians like Cowen? In reality, they are all of a piece, and it’s time for these sociopaths to go into the dumpster of history where they belong. John Maynard Keynes himself hoped that economists would eventually become “about as important as dentists.” But that’s drastically unfair to dentists—they are far more useful and have done far less harm to civilization! Carpenters and dentists provide real benefits to society. Economists, however, should probably be treated the way witches were treated in Medieval Europe. To paraphrase Diderot: Man will never be free until the last CEO is strangled with the entrails of the last economist.

The Origin of Paper Money 7

It’s here that we finally get to what’s really the heart of this entire series of posts, which is this: in the West, paper money has been an instrument of revolution.

Both the American and French Revolutions were funded via paper money, and it’s very likely they could not have succeeded without it. It allowed new and fledgling regimes to command necessary resources and fund their armies, which allowed them to take on established states. While such states have mints, a tax base, ownership of natural resources, the ability to write laws, etc.; a rebellion against an established order has none of these things. So, to raise funds, the ability to issue IOUs as payment makes being able to start a revolution far more likely. As we’ve already seen, just about every financial innovation throughout history came about due to the costs of waging wars. Paper money was no exception.

One might even go so far as to say that the American, French and Russian Revolutions would never have been able to happen at all without the invention of paper money!

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, MMA-NYC, 1851.jpg

1. The United States

Earlier we looked at the financial innovations that the colonies undertook to deal with the lack of precious metals in circulation. Wherever paper money and banks had been created, commerce and prosperity increased.

Then it all came to a screeching halt.

The British government passed laws which forbade the issuing and circulation of paper money in the colonies. The monetary experiments came to an end. As you might expect, the domestic economy shrank, and commerce was severely constricted. Of course, the colonists became quite angry at this turn of events.

British authorities initially viewed colonial paper currency favorably because it supported trade with England, but following New England’s “great inflation” in the 1740s, this view changed. Parliament passed the Currency Act of 1751 to strictly limit the quantity of paper currency that could be issued in New England and to strengthen its fiscal backing.

The Act required the colonies to retire all existing bills of credit on schedule. In the future, the colonies could, at most, issue fiat currencies equal to one year’s worth of government expenditures provided that they retired the bills within two years. During wars, colonies could issue larger amounts, provided that they backed all such issuances with taxes and compensated note holders for any losses in the real value of the notes, presumably by paying interest on them.

As a further important constraint on the colonies’ monetary policies, Parliament prohibited New England from making any fiat currency legal tender for private transactions. In 1764, Parliament extended the Currency Act to all of the American colonies.

Paper Money and Inflation in Colonial America (Owen F. Humpage, Economic Commentary, May 13, 2015)

To get around the prohibition on governments issuing paper notes as IOUs, banking may have filled the void. But that option was also cut off by the British government. Last time we saw that the South Sea Bubble, along with a panoply of related schemes, had nearly taken down the entire British economy (as it had done in France). In response, Parliament passed the Bubble Act, which forbade any chartered corporations except those expressly authorized by a Royal Charter. This effectively put the kibosh on banking as an alternative source of paper money in the American colonies.

Given their instinct for experiment in monetary matters, it would have been surprising if the colonists had not discovered or invented banks. They did, and their enthusiasm for this innovation would have been great had it not also been systematically curbed.

In the first half of the eighteenth century the New England colonies, along with Virginia and South Carolina, authorized banking institutions. The most famous, as also the most controversial of these, was the magnificently named Land Bank Manufactory Scheme of Massachusetts which, very possibly, owed something to the ideas of John Law.

The Manufactory authorized the issue of bank notes at nominal interest to subscribers to its capital stock – the notes to be secured, more or less, by the real property of the stockholders. The same notes could be used to pay back the loan that their issue had incurred. This debt could also be repaid in manufactured goods or produce, including that brought into existence by the credit so granted.

The Manufactory precipitated a bitter dispute in the colony. The General Court was favorable, a predisposition that was unquestionably enhanced by the award of stock to numerous of the legislators. Merchants were opposed. In the end, the dispute was carried to London.

In 1741, the Bubble Acts – the British response, as noted, to the South Sea Company and associated promotions and which outlawed joint-stock companies not specifically authorized by law – were declared to apply to the colonies. It was an outrageous exercise in post-facto legestlation, one that helped inspire the Constitutional prohibition against such laws. However, it effectively ended the colonial banks. (Galbraith, pp. 56-57)

Benjamin Franklin, as we have seen, was a longstanding advocate of paper money. He wrote treatises on the subject, and even printed some of it on behalf of the government of Pennsylvania. It was this paper money, he argued, that was the cause of the colonies’ general prosperity in contrast to the widespread poverty and discontent he witnessed everywhere in England:

Before the war, the colonies sent Benjamin Franklin to England to represent their interests. Franklin was greatly surprised by the amount of poverty and high unemployment. It just didn’t make sense, England was the richest country in the world but the working class was impoverished, he wrote “The streets are covered with beggars and tramps.”

It is said that he asked his friends in England how this could be so, they replied that they had too many workers. Many believed, along with Malthus, that wars and plague were necessary to rid the country from man-power surpluses.

“We have no poor houses in the Colonies; and if we had some, there would be nobody to put in them, since there is, in the Colonies, not a single unemployed person, neither beggars nor tramps.” – Benjamin Franklin

He was asked why the working class in the colonies were so prosperous.

“That is simple. In the Colonies, we issue our own paper money. It is called ‘Colonial Scrip.’ We issue it in proper proportion to make the goods and pass easily from the producers to the consumers. In this manner, creating ourselves our own paper money, we control its purchasing power and we have no interest to pay to no one.” – Benjamin Franklin

Soon afterward, the English bankers demanded that the King and Parliament pass a law that prohibited the colonies from using their scrip money. Only gold and silver could be used which would be provided by the English bankers. This began the plague of debt based money in the colonies that had cursed the English working class.

The first law was passed in 1751, and then a harsher law was passed in 1763. Franklin claimed that within one year, the colonies were filled with unemployment and beggars, just like in England, because there was not enough money to pay for the goods and work. The money supply had been cut in half.

Hidden History: According to Benjamin Franklin, the real reason for the Revolutionary War has been hid from you (Peak Prosperity)

A good comment to the above article notes other factors which were also at work:

The timing of the shift in British policy toward colonial scrip (1763) also encompasses…the end of the Seven Years’ War, better known in the United States as the French and Indian War.

William Pitt’s prosecution of the war was conducted by running up government debt, and the settlement of this debt after the war’s conclusion required the raising of taxes by Parliament. Since, from Britain’s view, the war had been fought in order to protect its colonies, it felt that it was only fair that the colonies bore some of the financial burden. Colonial scrip was useless to Parliament in this regard, as was barter. The repayment of British lenders to the Crown could only be done in specie.

The colonies, as you correctly pointed out, did not have this in any significant quantity, although in the view of British authorities this was the colonies’ problem and not theirs. This policy also came on the heels of the approach of benign neglect conducted by Robert Walpole as Prime Minister, under which the colonies were allowed to do pretty much as they pleased so long as their activities generally benefited the British Crown. It should also be noted here that demands of payment of taxes in hard currency is a common tactic for colonial powers to undermine local economies and customs. It played that role in fomenting the American Revolution as well as the Whiskey Rebellion of the new Constitutional republic, not to mention how it was used in South Africa to compel natives participating in a traditional economy to abandon their lands and take up work as laborers in the gold mines.

Hidden History: According to Benjamin Franklin, the real reason for the Revolutionary War has been hid from you (Peak Prosperity)

Now, it would be unreasonable to say that this was THE cause of the American Revolution. In school, we’re taught that that taxes were the main cause: “No taxation without representation” went the slogan (and precipitated the Boston Tea Party). We’re also told that the colonists were much aggrieved by high customs duties, such as those of the unpopular Stamp Act.

But the suppression of paper money and local currency issuance by the British government appears to have been just as much of a cause, although it is probably unknown by the vast majority of Americans. The reason for this strange omission is unexplained. Galbraith thinks that that more conservative attitudes towards money creation in modern times have caused even American historians to argue that the British authorities were largely correct in their actions!

English historian, John Twells, wrote about the money of the colonies, the colonial Scrip:

“It was the monetary system under which America’s Colonies flourished to such an extent that Edmund Burke was able to write about them: ‘Nothing in the history of the world resembles their progress. It was a sound and beneficial system, and its effects led to the happiness of the people.

In a bad hour, the British Parliament took away from America its representative money, forbade any further issue of bills of credit, these bills ceasing to be legal tender, and ordered that all taxes should be paid in coins. Consider now the consequences: this restriction of the medium of exchange paralyzed all the industrial energies of the people. Ruin took place in these once flourishing Colonies; most rigorous distress visited every family and every business, discontent became desperation, and reached a point, to use the words of Dr. Johnson, when human nature rises up and assets its rights.”

Peter Cooper, industrialist and statesman wrote:

“After Franklin gave explanations on the true cause of the prosperity of the Colonies, the Parliament exacted laws forbidding the use of this money in the payment of taxes. This decision brought so many drawbacks and so much poverty to the people that it was the main cause of the Revolution. The suppression of the Colonial money was a much more important reason for the general uprising than the Tea and Stamp Act.”

Our Founding Fathers knew that without financial independence and sovereignty there could be no other lasting freedoms. Our freedoms and national sovereignty are being lost because most people do not understand our money system…

Hidden History: According to Benjamin Franklin, the real reason for the Revolutionary War has been hid from you (Peak Prosperity)

If paper money was the cause of the American Revolution, it was also the solution. The Continental Congress issued IOUs to pay for the war – called ‘Continental notes’ or ‘Continental scrip’:

With independence the ban by Parliament on paper money became, in a notable modern phrase, inoperative. And however the colonies might have been moving towards more reliable money, there was now no alternative to government paper…

Before the first Continental Congress assembled, some of the colonies (including Massachusetts) had authorized note issues to pay for military operations. The Congress was without direct powers of taxation; one of its first acts was to authorize a note issue. More states now authorized more notes.

It was by these notes that the American Revolution was financed….

Robert Morris, to whom the historians have awarded the less than impeccable title of ‘Financier of the Revolution’, obtained some six-and-a-half million dollars in loans from France, a few hundred thousand from Spain, and later, after victory was in prospect, a little over a million from the Dutch. These amounts, too, were more symbolic than real. Overwhelmingly the Revolution was paid for with paper money.

Since the issues, Continental and state, were far in excess of any corresponding increase in trade, prices rose – at first slowly and that, after 1777, at a rapidly accelerating rate…Eventually, in the common saying, ‘a wagon-load of money would scarcely purchase a wagon-load of provisions’. Shoes in Virginia were $5000 a pair in the local notes, a full outfit of clothing upwards of a million. Creditors sheltered from their debtors like hunted things lest they be paid off in worthless notes. The phrase ‘not worth a Continental’ won its enduring place in American language. (Galbraith, pp. 58-59)

Despite this painful bout of hyperinflation, as Galbraith notes, there was simply no other viable alternative to fund the Revolutionary War at the time:

Thus the United States came into existence on a full tide not of inflation but of hyperinflation – the kind of inflation that ends only in the money becoming worthless. What is certain, however, is the absence of any alternative.

Taxes, had they been authorized by willing legislators on willing people, would have been had, perhaps impossible to collect in a country of scattered population, no central government, not the slightest experience in fiscal matters, no tax-collection machinery and with its coasts and numerous of its ports and customs houses under enemy control.

And people were far from willing. Taxes were disliked for their own sake and also identified with foreign oppression. A rigorous pay-as-you-go policy on the part of the Continental Congress and the states might well have caused the summer patriots (like the monetary conservatives) to have second thoughts about the advantages of independence.

Nor was borrowing an alternative. Men of property, then the only domestic source, had no reason to think the country a good risk. The loans from France and Spain were motivated not by hope of return but by malice towards an ancient enemy.

So only the notes remained. By any rational calculation, it was the paper money that saved the day. Beside the Liberty Bell there might well be a tasteful replica of a Continental note. (Galbraith, p. 60)

While this is often used as yet another cautionary tale of “government money printing” by libertarians and goldbugs, a couple of things need to be noted. The first, and most obvious is the fact that: without government money printing there would be no United States. That seems like an important point to me.

The second is a take from Ben Franklin himself. He argued that inflation is really just a sort of tax by another name. And, as opposed to “conventional” government taxation, the inflationary tax falls more broadly across the population, meaning that it was actually a more even-handed and fair method of taxation!

And you can kind of see his point. With legislative taxes, government always has to decide who and what to tax—and how much. This inevitably means that the government picks winners and losers by necessity. Sometimes this can be done wisely, but in practice it often is not. But an inflationary tax cannot be easily controlled by government legislation to favor privileged insiders, unlike more conventional methods of direct taxation, where the rich and well-connected are often spared much of the burden thanks to undue influence over legislators:

From 1776 to 1785 Franklin serves as the U.S. representative to the French court. He has the occasion to write on one important monetary topic in this period, namely, the massive depreciation of Congress’ paper money — the Continental dollar — during the revolution. In a letter to Joseph Quincy in 1783, Franklin claims that he predicted this outcome and had proposed a better paper money plan, but that Congress had rejected it.

In addition, around 1781 Franklin writes a tract called “Of the Paper Money of America.” In it he argues that the depreciation of the Continental dollar operated as an inflation tax or a tax on money itself. As such, this tax fell more equally across the citizenry than most other taxes. In effect, every man paid his share of the tax according to how long he retained a Continental dollar between the time he received it in payment and when he spent it again, the intervening depreciation of the money (inflation in prices) being the tax paid.

Benjamin Franklin and the Birth of a Paper Money Economy (PDF; Philidelphia Fed)

I’m not sure that many people would agree with that sentiment today, but it is an interesting take on the matter.

Once the war was won, and with the Continental notes inflating to zero, the new fledgling government could now issue money for real. The first government building constructed by the new government was the mint. The power to tax was authorized by Congress.

Although the war ended in 1783, the finances of the United States remained somewhat chaotic through the 1780s. In 1781, successful merchant Robert Morris was appointed superintendent of finance and personally issued “Morris notes”—commonly called Short and Long Bobs based on their tenure or time to maturity—and thus began the long process to reestablish the government’s credit.

In 1785, the dollar became the official monetary unit of the United States, the first American mint was established in Philadelphia in 1786, and the Continental Congress was finally given the power of taxation to pay off the debt in 1787, thus bringing together a more united fiscal, currency, and monetary policy.

Crisis Chronicles: Not Worth a Continental—The Currency Crisis of 1779 and Today’s European Debt Crisis (Liberty Street)
One of the more common silver coins used all over the world at this time was the Maria Theresa thaler (or taler), issued by the Holy Roman Empire from its silver mines in Joachimsthal, hence the name (today the town of Joachimsthal is known as Jáchymov and is located in the Czech Republic).

“Taler” became a common name for currency because so many German states and municipalities picked it up. During the sixteenth century, approximately 1,500 different types of taler were issued in the German-speaking countries, and numismatic scholars have estimated that between the minting of the first talers in Jáchymov and the year 1900, about 10,000 different talers were issued for daily use and to commemorate special occasions.

The most famous and widely circulated of all talers became known as the Maria Theresa taler, struck in honor of the Austrian empress at the Gunzberg mint in 1773…The coin…became so popular, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East that, even after she died, the government continued to mint it with the date 1780, the year of her death.

The coin not only survived its namesake but outlived the empire that had created it. In 1805 when Napoleon abolished the Holy Roman Empire, the mine at Gunzberg closed, but the mint in Vienna continued to produce the coins exactly as they had been with the same date, 1780, and even with the mintmark of the closed mint. The Austro-Hungarian government continued to mint the taler throughout the nineteenth century until that empire collapsed at the end of World War I.

Other countries began copying the design of the Maria Theresa taler shortly after it went into circulation. They minted coins of a similar size and put on them a bust of a middle-aged woman who resembled Maria Theresa. Of they did not have a queen of their own who fit the description, they used an allegorical female such as the bust of Liberty that appeared on many U.S. coins of the nineteenth century.

The name dollar penetrated the English language via Scotland. Between 1567 and 1571, King James VI issued a thirty-shilling piece that the Scots called the sword dollar because of the design on the back of it. A two-mark coin followed in 1578 and was called the thistle dollar.

The Scots used the name dollar to distinguish their currency, and thereby their country and themselves, more clearly from their domineering English neighbors to the south. Thus, from very early usage, the word dollar carried with it a certain anti-English or antiauthoritarian bias that many Scottish settlers took with them to their new homes in the Americas and other British colonies. The emigration of Scots accounts for much of the subsequent popularity of the word dollar in British colonies around the world… (Weatherford, History of Money, pp. 115-116)

In 1782, Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes on a Money Unit of the U.S. that “The unit or dolar is a known coin and most familiar of all to the mind of the people. It is already adopted from south to north.”

The American colonists became so accustomed to using the dollar as their primary monetary unit that, after independence, they adopted it as their official currency. On July 6, 1785, the Congress declared that “the money unit of the United States of America be one dollar.” Not until April 2, 1792, however, did Congress pass a law to create an American mint, and only in 1794 did the United States begin minting silver dollars. The mint building, which was started soon after passage of the law and well before the Capitol or White House, became the first public building constructed by the new government of the United States. (Weatherford, History of Money, p. 118)

In the nineteenth century, there were strong arguments around the establishment of a central bank in the United States. One was, in fact, chartered, and then its charter was later revoked. We’ll talk a little about this in the final entry of this series next time, but for now, it is beyond the scope of this post.

Scene from the French Revolution

2. France

In the late eighteenth century, France’s financial circumstances were still very dire. It constantly needed to raise money for its perennial wars with England who, as we saw earlier, successfully funded its own wars with paper money and state borrowing via the Bank of England an—option not available to France in the wake of the Mississippi Bubble’s collapse and the failure of John Law’s Banque Royale. France’s generous loan to the United States’ revolutionaries may have been well appreciated by us Americans, but in retrospect, it was probably not the best move considering France’s fiscal situation (plus the fact that Revolution would soon engulf it; something the French aristocracy obviously had no way of knowing at the time).

In the aftermath of the Revolution, the National Assembly repudiated the King’s debts. It also suspended taxation. But it still badly needed money, especially since many of the countries surrounding France (e.g. Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, Spain and several other monarchies) declared war on it soon after the King met the guillotine. The answer they came up with was, once again, monetizing land. In this case, it was the land seized from the Catholic Church by the Revolutionary government. “[T]he National Assembly agreed that newly nationalised properties in the form of old church land could be purchased through the use of high-denomination assignats, akin to interest-bearing government bonds, mortgaged (assignée) on the property.”

The Estates-General had been summoned in consequence of the terrible fiscal straits of the realm. No more could be borrowed. There was no central bank which could be commanded to take up loans. All still depended on the existence of willing lenders or those who could be apprehended and impressed with their duty.

The Third Estate could scarcely be expected to vote new or heavier levies when its members were principally concerned with the regressive harshness of those then being collected. In fact, on 17 June 1789 the National Assembly declared all taxes illegal, a breathtaking step softened by the provision that they might be collected on a temporary basis.

Meanwhile memories of John Law kept Frenchmen acutely suspicious of ordinary paper money; during 1788, a proposal for an interest-bearing note issue provoked so much opposition that it had to be withdrawn. But a note issue that could be redeemed in actual land was something different. The clerical lands were an endowment by Heaven of the Revolution.

The decisive step was taken on 19 December 1789. An issue of 400 million livres was authorized; it would, it was promised, ‘pay off the public debt, animate agriculture and industry and have the lands better administered’. These notes, the assignats, were to be redeemed within five years from the sale of an equivalent value of the lands of the Church and the Crown.

The first assignats bore interest at 5 per cent; anyone with an appropriate amount could use them directly in exchange for land. In the following summer when a new large issue was authorized, the interest was eliminated. Later still, small denominations were issued.

There were misgivings. The memory of Law continued to be invoked. An anonymous American intervened with Advice on the Assignats by a Citizen of the United States. He warned the Assembly against the assignats out of the rich recent experience of his own country with the Continental notes. However, the initial response to the land-based currency was generally favourable.

Had it been possible to stop with the original issue or with that of 1790, the assignats would be celebrated as a remarkably interesting innovation. Here was not a gold, silver or tobacco standard but one based solidly and logically on the good soil of France.

Purchasing power in the first years had stood up well. There was admiring talk of how the assignats had put land into circulation. And business had improved, employment had increased and sales of the Church and other public lands had been facilitated. On occasion, sales had been too good. In relation to annual income, the prices set were comparatively modest; speculators clutching large packages of the assignats had arrived to take advantage of the bargains.

However, in France, as earlier in America, the demands of revolution were insistent. Although the land was limited, the claims upon it could be increased.

The large issue of 1790 was followed by others – especially after war broke out in 1792. Prices denominated in assignats now rose; their rate of exchange for gold and silver, dealing in which had been authorized by the Assembly, declined sharply. In 1793 and 1794, under the Convention and the management of Cambon, there was a period of stability. Prices were fixed with some success. What could have been more important, the supply of assignats was curtailed by the righteous device of repudiating those that had been issued under the king. In those years they retained a value of around 50 per cent of their face amount when exchanged for gold and silver.

Soon, however, need again asserted itself. More and more were printed. In an innovative step in economic warfare, Pitt, after 1793, allowed the royalist emigres to manufacture assignats for export to France. This, it was hoped, would hasten the decay.

In the end, the French presses were printing one day to supply the needs of the next. Soon the Directory halted the exchange of good real estate for the now nearly worthless paper – France went off the land standard. Creditors were also protected from having their debts paid in assignats. This saved them from the ignominy of having (as earlier in America) to hide out from their debtors. (Galbraith, pp. 64-66)

The lands of aristocrats who had fled France was confiscated as well and used to back further issuances of paper currency. Despite this, as with the Continentals, the value of the assignats soon inflated away to very little. France then issued a new paper money, the mandats territoriaux, also carrying an entitlement to land, in an attempt to stabilize the currency. But distrust in the paper currency (and in the government) was so endemic that the mandats began to depreciate even before they were issued:

With the sale of the confiscated property, a great debtor class emerged, which was interested in further depreciation to make it cheaper to pay back debts. Faith in the new currency faded by mid-year 1792. Wealth was hidden abroad and specie flowed to surrounding countries with the British Royal Mint heavily purchasing gold, particularly in 1793 and 1794.

But deficits persisted and the French government still needed to raise money, so in 1792, it seized the land of emigrants and those who had fled France, adding another 2 billion livres or more to French assets. War with Belgium that year was largely self-funded as France extracted some rents, but not so for the war with England in 1793. Assignats no longer circulated as a medium of payment, but were an object of speculation. Specie was scarce, but sufficient, and farmers refused to accept assignats, which were practically demonetized. In February 1793, citizens of Paris looted shops for bread they could no longer afford, if they could find it at all.

In order to maintain its circulation, France turned to stiff penalties and the Reign of Terror extended into monetary affairs. During the course of 1793, the Assembly prohibited buying gold or silver at a premium, imposed a forced loan on a portion of the population, made it an offense to sell coin or differentiate the price between assignats and coin, and under the Law of the Maximum fixed prices on some commodities and mandated that produce be sold, with the death penalty imposed for infractions.

France realized that to restore order, the volume of paper money in circulation must decrease. In December 1794, it repealed the Law of the Maximum. In January 1795, the government permitted the export of specie in exchange for imports of staple goods. Prices fluctuated wildly and the resulting hyperinflation became a windfall for those who purchased national land with little money down. Inflation peaked in October 1795. In February 1796, in front of a large crowd, the assignat printing plates were destroyed.

By 1796, assignats gave way to specie and by February 1796, the experiment ended. The French tried to replace the assignat with the mandat, which was backed by gold, but so deep was the mistrust of paper money that the mandat began to depreciate before it was even issued and lasted only until February 1797…

Crisis Chronicles: The Collapse of the French Assignat and Its Link to Virtual Currencies Today (Liberty Street)

…In February 1797 (16 Pluvoise year V), the Directory returned to gold and silver. But by then the Revolution was an accomplished fact. It had been financed, and this the assignats had accomplished. They have at least as good a claim on memory as the guillotine. (Galbraith, p. 66)

FRA-A73-République Française-400 livres (1792) 2.jpgEventually, France’s money system stabilized once its political situation more-or-less stabilized, but entire books have been written about that subject. The military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte sold off the French lands in North America to the United States to raise money for its wars of conquest on the European continent. Napoleon also finally established a central bank in France based on the British model.

In 1800, the lingering suspicion of the French of such institutions had yielded to the financial needs of Napoleon. There had emerged the Banque de France which, in the ensuing century, developed in rough parallel with the Bank of England. In 1875, the former Bank of Prussia became the Reichsbank. Other countries had acquired similar institutions or soon did…(Galbraith, p. 41)

It might to be going too far to say that without paper money, neither the American or French revolutions would have ever happened. But nor is entirely absurd to say that this may well be the case. It’s certainly doubtful that they would have succeeded. It’s difficult to imagine how much history would be different today had it not been for paper money and its role in revolution.

Paper money would continue to play that role throughout the Age of Revolutions well into the Twentieth Century, as Galbraith notes:

Paper was similarly to serve the Soviets in and after the Russian Revolution. By 1920, around 85 per cent of the state budget was being met by the manufacture of paper money…

In the aftermath of the Revolution the Soviet Union, like the other Communist states, became a stern defender of stable prices and hard money. But the Russians, no less than the Americans or the French, owe their revolution to paper.

Not that the use of paper money is a guarantee of revolutionary success. In 1913, in the old Spanish town of Chihuahua City, Pancho Villa was carrying out his engaging combination of banditry and social reform. Soldiers were cleaning the streets, land was being given to the peons, children were being put in schools and Villa was printing paper money by the square yard.

This money could not be exchanged for any better asset. It promised nothing. It was sustained by no residue of prestige or esteem. It was abundant. Its only claim to worth was Pancho Villa’s signature. He gave this money to whosoever seemed to be in need or anyone else who struck his fancy. It did not bring him success, although he did, without question, enjoy a measure of popularity while it lasted. But the United States army pursued him; more orderly men intervened to persuade him to retire to a hacienda in Durango. There, a decade later, when he was suspected by some to be contemplating another foray into banditry, social reform, and monetary policy, he was assassinated. (Galbraith, pp. 66-67)

3. Conclusions

Given that both the Continentals and the assignats both suffered from hyperinflation towards the end, they have been often held up as a cautionary tale: governments are inherently profligate and can not be trusted with money creation; only by strictly pegging paper money issuance to a cache of gold stashed away in vault somewhere can hyperinflation be avoided.

As Galbraith notes, this is highly selective. Sure, if you look just for instances of paper money overissuance and inflation you will find them. But this is also deliberately ignoring instances–often lasting for decades if not for centuries–that paper money functioned exactly as intended all across the globe; from ancient China, to colonial America, to modern times. It emphasizes the inflationary scare stories, but intentionally ignores the very real stimulus to commercial activity that paper money has provided, as opposed to the extreme constraints of a precious metal standard. It also totally ignores any extenuating circumstances in hyperinflations, such as Germany’s repayment of war debt in the twentieth century, or persistent economic warfare in the case of Venezuela today.

So the attitude that “government simply can’t be trusted” is more of a political opinion than something based on historical facts.

…in the minds of some conservatives…there must have been a lingering sense of the singular service that paper money had, in the recent past, rendered to revolution. Not only was the American Revolution so financed. So also was the socially far more therapeutic eruption in France. If the French citizens had been required to act within the canons of conventional finance, they could not, any more than the Americans, acted at all. (Galbraith, pp. 61-62)

The desire for a gold standard comes from a desire to anchor the value of money in something outside of the control of governments. But, of course, pegging the value of currency to a certain arbitrary amount of gold is a political choice. Nor does it guarantee price stability–the value of gold fluctuates. A gold standard is more of a guarantee of the stability of the price of gold than the stability of the value of money. Also, in almost every case of war and economic depression in modern history, the gold standard is immediately chucked into the trashbin.

The other thing worth noting is that the worth of paper money is related to both issues of supply AND demand. Often, it’s not just that there is too much supply of currency. It’s that people refuse to accept the currency, leading just as assuredly to a loss in value.

And the lack of acceptance is usually driven by a lack of faith in the issuing government. You can see why this might be the case for assignats and Continentals. Both were revolutionary governments whose very stability and legitimacy was in question, particularly in France. If the government issuing the currency (which are IOU’s, remember) may not be around a year from now, then how willing are you to accept that currency? James Madison pointed out that the value of any currency was mostly determined by faith in the credit of the government issuing the currency. That’s why he and other Founding Fathers worked so hard to reestablish the credit of the United States following the Continental note debacle.

As Rebecca Spang—the author of “Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution”—notes, many people in revolutionary France were vigorously opposed to the seizing of Church property. Thus, they would not accept the validity of notes based on their value. This led to a lack of acceptance which contributed just as much to hypernflation as did any profligacy on the part of the government:

Revolutionary France became a paradigm case for the quantity theory of money, the view that prices are directly and proportionately correlated with the amount of money in circulation, and for the deleterious consequences of letting the latter run out of control.

Yet Spang shows that such neat economic interpretations are inadequate. At times, for example, prices rose first and politicians boosted the money supply in response.

Spang reiterates that the first assignats were neither a revolutionary policy nor a form of paper money. But as her stylishly crafted narrative makes clear, this soon changed. Politicians made the cardinal error of thinking that the state could be stabilised by in effect destabilising its money.

Popular distrust of the “real” worth of assignats prompted a contagion of fraud, suspicion and uncertainty. How could one tell a fake assignat, when technology couldn’t replicate them precisely? How could they even be used, when there was no compulsion beyond patriotic duty for sellers to accept them as payment? Small wonder that so many artists made trompe l’oeil images out of them — what looked solid and real was anything but…

‘Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution’, by Rebecca Spang (Financial Times)

Note that the situation of a stable government is totally different. Britain’s government was eminently stable compared to the United States and France at that time, hence its money retained most of its value, even when convertibility was temporarily suspended. This also underlies the value of Switzerland’s currency today, since they have a legendarily stable, neutral government (and really not that much in the way of actual  resources).

So those who argue that America’s “fiat” money is no good would somehow have to make the case that the United States government is somehow more illegitimate or more unstable than the governments of other wealthy, industrialized nations. To my mind, this is tangential to treason. Yet no one ever calls them out on this point. From that standpoint, the biggest threat to the money supply comes not from overissuance (hyperinflation is nowhere to be seen), but from undermining the faith in, and credit of, the United States government. That’s been done exclusively by Republicans in recent years by grandstanding over the debt ceiling—an artificial borrowing constraint imposed during the United States’ entry into World War One. Really, this should be considered an unpatriotic and treasonous act. It almost certainly would have been perceived as such by the Founding Fathers.

I always have the same response to libertarians who sneer at the “worthlessness” of government fiat money. My response is this: if you truly believe it is worthless, then I will gladly take it off your hands for you. Please hand over all the paper money you have in your wallet right now at this very moment, as well as all the paper money you may have lying around your house. If you want, you can even take out some “worthless” paper money from the nearest ATM and hand it over to me too; I’ll gladly take that off your hands as well. You can give me as much as you like.

To date, I have yet to have a libertarian take me up on that offer. I wonder why?

Next: The Civil War finally establishes a national paper currency for the U.S.

The Origin of Paper Money 6

1. France

France ended up conducting its own monetary experiment with paper money at around the same time as the American colonies in the early 1700s. Unlike the American experiment, it was not successful. It would be initiated by an immigrant Scotsman fleeing a murder charge (and gambling addict) by the name of John Law. (Jean Lass in French).

At this time—the early 1700’s—France was having much the same conversation around the money supply as in the Anglo-Saxon world. There, the problem was not so much a shortage of  coins, but an excess of sovereign debt due to the wild spending sprees of France’s rulers on foreign wars and luxury lifestyles.

Despite being probably the most wealthy and powerful nation in Western Europe, France’s debts (really, the King’s debts) exceeded its assets by quite a bit, at least on paper. The country struggled to raise enough funds via its antiquated and inefficient feudal tax system to pay the interest on its bonds; France’s debt traded in secondary markets as what we might today call junk bonds (i.e. low odds of repayment).

Louis XIV, having lived too long, had died the year before Law’s arrival. The financial condition of the kingdom was appalling: expenditures were twice receipts, the treasury was chronically empty, the farmers-general of the taxes and their horde of subordinate maltôtiers were competent principally in the service of their own rapacity.

The Duc de Saint-Simon, though not always the most reliable counsel, had recently suggested that the straightforward solution was to declare national bankruptcy – repudiate all debt and start again. Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, the Regent for the seven-year-old Louis XV, was largely incapable of thought or action.

Then came Law. Some years earlier, it is said, he had met Philippe in a gambling den. The latter ‘had been impressed with the Scotsman’s financial genius.’ Under a royal edict of 2 May 1716, law, with his brother, was given the right to establish a bank with capital of 6 million livres, about 250,000 English pounds…
(Galbraith, pp. 21-22)

…The creation of the bank proceeded in clear imitation of the already successful Bank of England. Under special license from the French monarch, it was to be a private bank that would help raise and manage money for the public debt. In keeping with his theories on the benefits of paper money, Law immediately began issuing paper notes representing the supposedly guaranteed holdings of the bank in gold coins.

Law’s…bank that took in gold and silver from the public and lent it back out in the form of paper money. The bank also took deposits in the form of government debt, cleverly allowing people to claim the full value of debts that were trading at heavy discounts: if you had a piece of paper saying the king owed you a thousand livres, you could get only, say, four hundred livres in the open market for it, but Law’s bank would credit you with the full thousand livres in paper money. This meant that the bank’s paper assets far outstripped the actual gold it had in store, making it a precursor of the “fractional-reserve banking” that’s normal today. Law’s bank had, by one estimate, about four times as much paper money in circulation as its gold and silver reserves…

The new paper money had an attractive feature: it was guaranteed to trade for a specific weight of silver, and, unlike coins, could not be melted down or devalued. Before long, the banknotes were trading at more than their value in silver, and Law was made Controller General of Finances, in charge of the entire French economy.

The Invention of Money (The New Yorker)

It’s also worth noting that banknotes were denominated in the unit of account, unlike coins which typically were not. Coins’ value usually fluctuated against the unit of account (what prices were expressed in), sometimes by the day. What a silver sovereign or gold Louis d’Or was worth on one day might be different that the next, especially since the monarchs liked to devalue the currency in order to decrease the amount of their debts. However, if you brought, say, 10 livres, 18 sous worth of coins to Law’s bank, the paper banknote would be written up for the equivalent amount the coins were worth at that time: 10 livres, 18 sous.

By buying back the government’s debt, Law was able to “retire” it. Thus, the money circulating was ultimately backed by government debt (bonds), just like our money today. Law’s promise to redeem the notes for specie gave users the confidence to use them. Later on, the government will decree the notes of the Banque Generale as the “official” money to be used in payment of taxes and settlement of all debts, legitimizing their value by fiat. Law later attempted to sever the link to gold and silver by demonetizing the latter. He was not successful; paper money was far too novel at the time for people to trust its value in the absence of anything tangible backing it.

Not much of what transpired was that unusual for today, but it was pretty radical for the early 1700s. Had Law stopped at this point, it’s likely that all of this would have been successful, as Galbraith points out:

In these first months, there can be no doubt, John Law had done a useful thing. The financial position of the government was eased. The bank notes loaned to the government and paid out by it for its needs, as well as those loaned to private entrepreneurs, raised prices….[and] the rising prices…brought a substantial business revival.

Law opened branches of his bank in Lyons, La Rochelle, Tours, Amiens and Orleans; presently, in the approximate modern language, he went public. His bank became a publicly chartered company, the Banque Royale.

Had Law stopped at this point, he would be remembered for a modest contribution to the history of banking. The capital in hard cash subscribed by the stockholders would have sufficed to satisfy any holders of notes who sought to have them redeemed. Redemption being assured, not many would have sought it.

It is possible that no man, having made such a promising start, could have stopped…
(Galbraith, pp. 22-23)

Trading government debt for paper money helped lower the government’s debts, but on paper, France’s liabilities still exceeded its assets. But it had one asset that had not yet been monetized—millions of acres of land on the North American continent. So Law set out to monetize that land by turning it into shares in a joint-stock company called the Mississippi Company (Compagnie d’Occident). The Mississippi Company had a monopoly on all trading with the Americas. Buying a share in the company meant a cut of the profits (i.e. equity) of trading with North America.

The first loans and the resulting note issue having been visibly beneficial – and also a source of much personal relief – the Regent proposed and additional issue. If something does good, more must do better. Law acquiesced.

Sensing the need, he also devised a way of replenishing the reserves with which the Banque Royale backed up its growing volume of notes. Here he showed that he had not forgotten his original idea of a land bank.

His idea was to create the Mississippi Company to exploit and bring to France the very large gold deposits which Louisiana was thought to have as subsoil. To the metal so obtained were also to be added the gains of trade. Early in 1719, the Mississippi Company (Compagnie d’Occident), later the Company of the Indies, was gives exclusive trading privileges in India, China and the South Seas. Soon thereafter, as further sources of revenue, it received the tobacco monopoly, the right to coin money and the tax farm. (Galbraith, p. 23)

Law—or the Duc d’Arkansas as he was now known—talked up the corporation so well that the value of the shares skyrocketed—probably the world’s very first stock bubble (but hardly the last). Gambling fever was widespread and contagious, as the desire to get rich by doing nothing is a human universal. The term “millionaire” was coined. Law took advantage of the inflated share price to buy back more of the government’s debt. And the money to buy the shares at the inflated prices was printed by the bank itself. Knowing that there was far more paper than gold and silver to back it in the kingdom, Law then tried to break the link between paper money and specie by demonetizing gold and silver; at one point making it illegal to even hold precious metals.

He was unsuccessful. Paper money was still too new, and people were unwilling to trust it without the backing of previous metal, causing a loss of faith in the currency. Later suspensions of convertibility were done after generations of paper money use. Law’s entire scheme (from origin to collapse) took place over the course of less than a year.

[Law] funded the [Mississippi] company the same way he had funded the bank, with deposits from the public swapped for shares. He then used the value of those shares, which rocketed from five hundred livres to ten thousand livres, to buy up the debts of the French King. The French economy, based on all those rents and annuities and wages, was swept away and replaced by what Law called his “new System of Finance.”

The use of gold and silver was banned. Paper money was now “fiat” currency, underpinned by the authority of the bank and nothing else. At its peak, the company was priced at twice the entire productive capacity of France…that is the highest valuation any company has ever achieved anywhere in the world.

Galbraith and Weatherford summarize the shell game that Law’s “system” ended up becoming:

To simplify slightly, Law was lending notes of the Banque Royale to the government (or to private borrowers) which then passed them on to people in payment of government debts or expenses. These notes were then used by the recipients to buy stock in the Mississippi Company, the proceeds from which went to the government to to pay expenses and pay off creditors who then used the notes to buy more stock, the proceeds from which were used to meet more government expenditures and pay off more public creditors. And so it continued, each cycle being larger than the one before. (Galbraith, p. 24)

The Banque Royale printed paper money, which investors could borrow in order to buy stock in the Mississippi company; the company then used the new notes to pay out its bogus profits. Together the Mississippi Company and the Banque Royale were producing paper profits on each other’s accounts. They bank had soon issued twice as much paper money as there was specie in the whole country; obviously it could no longer guarantee that each paper note would be redeemed in gold. (Weatherford, p. 131)

Such a scheme couldn’t last, of course. Essentially the entire French economy—its central bank, its money supply, its tax system, and the monopoly on land in North America—were in the hands of one single, giant conglomerate run by one man. That meant that when one part of the system failed, all the rest went down like ascending mountain climbers roped together.

Because the central bank owned the Mississippi company, it had an incentive to loan out excess money to drive the share price up—in other words, to inflate a stock bubble based on credit. This is always a bad idea. Finally, Law’s exaggeration of the returns on investments in the Mississippi Company inflated expectations far beyond what was realistic.

The popping of the Mississippi stock bubble, followed by a run on the bank, was enough to bring the whole thing crashing down.

People started to wonder whether these suddenly lucrative investments were worth what they were supposed to be worth; then they started to worry, then to panic, then to demand their money back, then to riot when they couldn’t get it.

Gold and silver were reinstated as money, the company was dissolved, and Law was fired, after a hundred and forty-five days in office. In 1720, he fled the country, ruined. He moved from Brussels to Copenhagen to Venice to London and back to Venice, where he died, broke, in 1729.

The Invention of Money (The New Yorker)

As Law must have known, if you gamble big, sometimes you lose big.

Some of the death of the Bank was murder, not suicide. As part of his System, one of Law’s initiatives was to simplify and modernize the inefficient and antiquated French tax system. Taxes were collected by tax farmers (much as in ancient Rome), and Law threatened to overturn their apple cart. He also attempted to end the sale of government offices to the highest bidder. This made him a lot of enemies among the moneyed classes, who thrived on graft and corruption. Such influential people (notably the financiers the Paris brothers), were instrumental in the run on the bank and the subsequent loss of confidence in the money system:

[Law] set about streamlining a tax system riddled with corruption and unnecessary complexity. As one English visitor to France in the late seventeenth century observed. “The people being generally so oppressed with taxes, which increase every day, their estates are worth very little more than what they pay to the King; so that they are, as it were, tenants to the Crown, and at such a rack rent that they find great difficulty to get their own bread.” The mass of offices sold to raise money had caused one of Louis XIV’s ministers to comment, “When it pleases Your Majesty to create an office, God creates a fool to purchase it.” There were officials for inspecting the measuring of cloth and candles; hay trussers; examiners of meat, fish and fowl. There was even an inspector of pigs’ tongues.

This did nothing for efficiency, Law deemed, and served only to make necessities more expensive and to encourage the holders of the offices “to live in idleness and deprive the state of the service they might have done it in some useful profession, had they been obliged to work.” In place of the hundreds of old levies he swept away (over forty in one edict alone), Law introduced a new national taxation system called the denier royal, based on income. The move caused an outcry among the holders of offices, many of whom were wealthy financiers and members of the Parliament, but delight among the public. “The people went dancing and jumping about the streets,” wrote Defoe. “They now pay not one farthing tax for wood, coal, hay, oats, oil, wine, beer, bread, cards, soap, cattle, fish.” (Janet Gleeson, Millionaire; pp. 155-156

Michel Aglietta, in his magisterial work on money, notes that Law…

…wanted to introduce the logic of capitalism in France, based on providing credit through money creation. Money creation had to be based on expected future wealth, and no longer on the past wealth accumulated in precious metals. (Aglietta, p. 206, emphasis in original)

The danger is, if this wealth fails to materialize; or if people lose the belief that it will materialize, confidence in the system is lost, and failure soon follows.

Although John Law has come down in history as a grifter, and his ideas as fundamentally unsound, many of his ideas eventually became fundamental tenets of modern global finance:

The great irony of Law’s life is that his ideas were, from the modern perspective, largely correct. The ships that went abroad on behalf of his great company began to turn a profit. The auditor who went through the company’s books concluded that it was entirely solvent—which isn’t surprising, when you consider that the lands it owned in America now produce trillions of dollars in economic value.

Today, we live in a version of John Law’s system. Every state in the developed world has a central bank that issues paper money, manipulates the supply of credit in the interest of commerce, uses fractional-reserve banking, and features joint-stock companies that pay dividends. All of these were brought to France, pretty much simultaneously, by John Law.

The Invention of Money (The New Yorker)

Law’s efforts left a lingering suspicion of paper money in France. Unfortunately, the revenues problem was not definitively solved. Going back on a specie standard delivered a huge blow to commerce. While England’s paper money system flourished, France stagnated economically. Eventually, the revenues situation of the government became so dire that the King had no choice but to call an Estates General—the extremely rare parliamentary session that kicked off the French Revolution—in 1789.

Once the Mississippi bubble burst, a lot of the capital in France needed some new outlet to invest in. Much of that capital fled across the channel to England, which at the time was inflating a stock bubble of its own:

France’s ruin was England’s gain. Numerous bruised Mississippi shareholders chose to reinvest in English South Sea shares.
The previous month, with a weather eye to developments in France, the South Sea Company managed to beat its rival the Bank of England and secure a second lucrative deal with the government whereby it took over a further $48 million of national debt and launched a new issue of shares. A multitude of English and foreign investors were now descending on London as they had flocked less than a year earlier to Paris “with as much as they can carry and subscribing for or buying shares.”

In Exchange Alley–London’s rue Quincampoix–the sudden surce of new money also bubbled a plethora of alternative companies launched to capitalize on the new fashion for financial fluttering… (Gleeson, p, 200)

2. England

Britain chose a different tack – sovereign debt would be monetized and circulate as money. It too utilized the joint-stock company model that had been invented in the previous centuries to enable the Europeans to raise the funds to exploit and colonize the rest of the world. A bank was founded as a chartered company to take in money through subscribed shares and loan out that money to the King. That debt—and not land—would securitize the notes issued by the bank. The notes would then circulate as money, albeit alongside precious metal coins and several other forms of payment. As with the original invention of sovereign debt in northern Italy, it was used to raise the necessary funds for war:

The modern system for dealing with [the] problem [of funding wars] arose in England during the reign of King William, the Protestant Dutch royal who had been imported to the throne of England in 1689, to replace the unacceptably Catholic King James II.

William was a competent ruler, but he had serious baggage—a long-running dispute with King Louis XIV of France. Before long, England and France were involved in a new phase of this dispute, which now seems part of a centuries-long conflict between the two countries, but at the time was variously called the Nine-Years’ War or King William’s War. This war presented the usual problem: how could the nations afford it?

King William’s administration came up with a novel answer: borrow a huge sum of money, and use taxes to pay back the interest over time. In 1694, the English government borrowed 1.2 million pounds at a rate of eight per cent, paid for by taxes on ships’ cargoes, beer, and spirits. In return, the lenders were allowed to incorporate themselves as a new company, the Bank of England. The bank had the right to take in deposits of gold from the public and—a second big innovation—to print “Bank notes” as receipts for the deposits. These new deposits were then lent to the King. The banknotes, being guaranteed by the deposits, were as good as gold money, and rapidly became a generally accepted new currency.

The Invention of Money (The New Yorker)

From this point forward, money would be circulating government debt. Plus, it’s value would be based on future revenues, as Aglietta noted above, and not just on the amount of gold and silver coins floating around.

The originality of the Bank of England was that it was not a deposit bank. Unlike for the Bank of Amsterdam, the coverage for the notes issued was very low (3 percent in the beginning). These notes, the counterparty to its loans to the state, replaced bills of exchange and became national and international means of payment for the bank’s customers.

They were not legal tender until 1833. But the securities issued by the bank, bringing interest on the public debt, became legal tender for all payments to the government from 1697 onwards. (Aglietta, pp. 136-137)

Why did the King of England have to borrow at all? Well, for a couple reasons. The power to raise taxes had been taken away from the King and given to Parliament as a consequence of the English Revolution. That revolutionary era also witnessed the inauguration goldsmith banking (such as that undertaken by John Law’s own family of goldsmiths). These goldsmith receipts were the forerunners of the banknote:

The English Civil War…broke out because parliament disputed the king’s right to levy taxes without its consent. The use of goldsmith’s safes as secure places for people’s jewels, bullion and coins increased after the seizure of the mint by Charles I in 1640 and increased again with the outbreak of the Civil War. Consequently some goldsmiths became bankers and development of this aspect of their business continued after the Civil War was over.

Within a few years of the victory by the parliamentary forces, written instructions to goldsmiths to pay money to another customer had developed into the cheque (or check in American spelling). Goldsmiths’ receipts were used not only for withdrawing deposits but also as evidence of ability to pay and by about 1660 these had developed into the banknote.

Warfare and Financial History (Glyn Davies, History of Money online)

By this time, control over money had passed into the hands of a rising mercantile class, who—thanks to the staggering wealth produced by globalized trade—possessed more wealth than mere princes and kings, but lacked the ability to write laws or to print money, which they strongly coveted. It was these merchants and “moneyed men” (often members of the Whig party in Parliament) who backed the Dutch staadtholder William of Orange’s claim to the English throne in 1688.

The banknotes began to circulate widely, displacing coins and bills of exchange. And it didn’t stop there: more money was quickly needed, and the Bank acquired more influence. Part of this was due to England being a naval—rather than an army—power. Warships require huge expenditures of capital to build. They also require a vast panoply of resources, such as wood, nails, iron, cloth, stocked provisions, and so forth; whereas land-based armies just require paying soldiers and provisions (which can be commandeered). Thus, financial means to mobilize these resources were much more likely in naval powers such as Holland and England than in continental powers like France, Austria and Spain.

This important post from the WEA Pedagogy blog uses excerpts from Ellen Brown’s Web of Debt to lay out the creation of the Bank of England, and, consequently, central banking in general (and is well-worth reading in full):

William was soon at war with Louis XIV of France. To finance his war, he borrowed 1.2 million pounds in gold from a group of moneylenders, whose names were to be kept secret. The money was raised by a novel device that is still used by governments today: the lenders would issue a permanent loan on which interest would be paid but the principal portion of the loan would not be repaid.

The loan also came with other strings attached. They included:

– The lenders were to be granted a charter to establish a Bank of England, which would issue banknotes that would circulate as the national paper currency.

– The Bank would create banknotes out of nothing, with only a fraction of them backed by coin. Banknotes created and lent to the government would be backed mainly by government I.O.U.s, which would serve as the “reserves” for creating additional loans to private parties.

– Interest of 8 percent would be paid by the government on its loans, marking the birth of the national debt.

The lenders would be allowed to secure payment on the national debt by direct taxation of the people. Taxes were immediately imposed on a whole range of goods to pay the interest owed to the Bank.

The Bank of England has been called “the Mother of Central Banks.” It was chartered in 1694 to William Paterson, a Scotsman who had previously lived in Amsterdam. A circular distributed to attract subscribers to the Bank’s initial stock offering said, “The Bank hath benefit of interest on all moneys which it, the Bank, creates out of nothing.” The negotiation of additional loans caused England’s national debt to go from 1.2 million pounds in 1694 to 16 million pounds in 1698. By 1815, the debt was up to 885 million pounds, largely due to the compounding of interest. The lenders not only reaped huge profits, but the indebtedness gave them substantial political leverage.

The Bank’s charter gave the force of law to the “fractional reserve” banking scheme that put control of the country’s money in a privately owned company. The Bank of England had the legal right to create paper money out of nothing and lend it to the government at interest. It did this by trading its own paper notes for paper bonds representing the government’s promise to pay principal and interest back to the Bank — the same device used by the U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks today.

Note that the interest on the loan is paid, but never the loan itself. That meant that tax revenues were increasingly funneled to a small creditor class to whom the government was indebted. Today, we call such people bond holders, and they exercise their leverage over governments through the bond markets. For all intents and purposes, this system ended government sovereignty and tied the hands of even elected governments being able to spend tax money on the domestic needs of their own people. Control over the state’s money was lost forever.

An interesting couple of notes: William Paterson was, like John Law, a Scotsman—giving credence to the claim that it was the Scots who “invented Capitalism” (Adam Smith and James Watt were also Scots). It also raises the idea (to me, anyway) that the modern financial system was started by instinctive hustlers and gamblers. We’ve already referred to John Law’s expertise at the gambling tables of Europe and ability to inspire confidence in his schemes. Patterson, upon returning to Scotland, began raising funds via stock for an ambitious scheme to develop a society in Central America. This scheme ended up being on of the worst disasters in history. Not only that, but the Darien scheme collapsed so badly that Scotland’s entire financial health was devastated, and is considered to be a factor in Scotland signing the Acts of Union, politically joining with England to the south.

For an overview of the Darien scheme, see this: Scotland’s lessons from Darien debacle (BBC)

The WEA Pedagogy blog than adds some additional details:

Some more detail of interest is that the creation of Bank of England was tremendously beneficial for England. The King, no longer constrained, was able to build up his navy to counter the French. The massive (deficit) spending required for this purpose led to substantial progress in industrialization.

Quoting Wikipedia on this: “As a side effect, the huge industrial effort needed, including establishing ironworks to make more nails and advances in agriculture feeding the quadrupled strength of the navy, started to transform the economy. This helped the new Kingdom of Great Britain – England and Scotland were formally united in 1707 – to become powerful. The power of the navy made Britain the dominant world power in the late 18th and early 19th centuries”

The post then summarizes the history of the creation of central banking:

…It is in this spirit that we offer a “finance drives history” view of the creation of the first Central Bank. The history above can be encapsulated as follows:

1. Queen Elizabeth asserted and acquired the sovereign right to issue money.
2. The moneylenders (the mysterious 0.1% of that time) financed and funded a revolution against the king, acquiring many privileges in the process.
3. Then they financed and funded the restoration of the aristocracy, acquiring even more privileges in the process.
4. Finally, when the King was in desperate straits to raise money, they offered to lend him money at 8% interest, in return for creating the Bank of England, acquiring permanently the privilege of printing money on behalf of the king.

The process by which money was created by the Bank of England is extremely interesting. They acquired the debt of the King. This debt was used as collateral/backing for the money they created. The notes they issued were legal tender in England. Whenever necessary, they were prepared to exchange them for gold, at the prescribed rates. However, when the confidence of the public is high, the need for actual gold as backing is substantially reduced.

Origins of Central Banking (WEA Pedagogy Blog)

As I noted above, the importance of the Navy in the subsequent industrialization of England is often overlooked. There have been a few scholars who have argued that it was Britain’s emphasis on naval power which was a factor in England (and not somewhere else) becoming the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution. Many of its key inventions were sponsored by the government in order to more effectively fight and navigate at sea (from accurate clocks and charts to canned food). Even early mass production was prompted by the needs of the British Navy: pulley blocks were mass-produced by engineers and were one of the first items made this way via mechanization.

Just like in other countries, the needs of war caused the Bank to issue more and more notes, greatly increasing to the national debt. However, the vast profits of industrialization and colonialism were enough to support it. When convertibility was finally temporarily suspended in the mid 1800s by necessity, paper money continued to carry the trust of the public, unlike in France. Galbraith sums up the subsequent history of the Bank of England:

In the fifteen years following the granting of the original charter the government continued in need, and more capital was subscribed by the Bank. In return, it was accorded a monopoly of joint-stock, i.e., corporate, banking under the Crown, one that lasted for nearly a century. In the beginning, the Bank saw itself merely as another, though privileged, banker.

Similarly engaged in a less privileged way were the goldsmiths, who by then had emerged as receivers of deposits and sources of loans and whose operations depended rather more on the strength of their strong boxes than on the rectitude of their transactions. They strongly opposed the renewal of the Bank’s charter. Their objections were overcome, and the charter was renewed.

Soon, however, a new rival appeared to challenge the Bank’s position as banker for the government. This was the South Sea Company. In 1720, after some years of more routine existence, it came forward with a proposal for taking over the government debt in return for various concessions, including, it was hoped, trading privileges to the Spanish colonies, which, though it was little noticed at the time, required a highly improbable treaty with Spain.

The Bank of England bid strenuously against the South Sea Company for the public debt but was completely outdone by the latter’s generosity, as well as by the facilitating bribery by the South Sea Company of Members of Parliament and the government. The rivalry between the two companies did not keep the Bank from being a generous source of loans for the South Sea venture. All in all, it was a narrow escape.

For the enthusiasm following the success of the South Sea Company was extreme. In the same year that Law’s operations were coming to their climax across the Channel, a wild speculation developed in South Sea stock, along with that in numerous other company promotions, including one for a wheel for perpetual motion, one for ‘repairing and rebuilding parsonage and vicarage houses’ and the immortal company ‘for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is’. All eventually passed into nothing or something very near.
In consequence of its largely accidental escape, the reputation of the Bank for prudence was greatly enhanced.

As Frenchmen were left suspicious of banks, Englishmen were left suspicious of joint-stock companies. The Bubble Acts (named for the South Sea bubble) were enacted and for a century or more kept such enterprises under the closest interdict.

From 1720 to 1780, the Bank of England gradually emerged as the guardian of the money supply as well as of the financial concerns of the government of England. Bank of England notes were readily and promptly redeemed in hard coin and, in consequence, were not presented for redemption. The notes of its smaller competitors inspired no such confidence and were regularly cashed in or, on occasion, orphaned.
By around 1770, the Bank of England had become nearly the sole source of paper money in London, although the note issues of country banks lasted well into the following century. The private banks became. instead, places of deposit. When they made loans, it was deposits, not note circulation, that expanded, and, as a convenient detail, cheques now came into use. (Galbraith, 32-34)

By a complete accident, Britain was able to escape France’s fate. When the South Sea bubble popped, the Bank of England was able to reliably take up the slack and manage the government’s debt—an option that France did not have, since the central bank and the Company were all part of the same organization, and that organization had a monopoly over loans to the government, tax collection, and money creation.

Next time: An Instrument of Revolution.

The Origin of Paper Money 3

Despite paper instruments like bills of exchange having existed for centuries, for most ordinary people, money was exclusively the gold and silver coins minted by various national governments. Gold was used for high-value transactions, and silver for smaller ones. When the precious metals from the New World began flowing into Europe, the amount of coins dramatically increased, leading to a continent-wide bout of inflation.

The Spanish, the major beneficiaries of this increased money supply from silver mines of Bolivia and Mexico, used the money to purchase all sorts of things from abroad and live large. Because they became so filthy rich with very little effort (the enslaved Native Americans did all the hard work of digging out the silver), the Spanish failed to develop any domestic industries or innovate much, and thus were passed over by the more industrious Northern Europeans—much like a wealthy, spoiled heir who never learns any practical skills until the money runs out—and by then it’s too late.

There were many in Europe after 1493 who knew only distantly of the discovery and conquest of lands beyond the ocean seas, or to whom this knowledge was not imparted at all. There were few, it can be safely said, who did not feel one of its principal consequences.

Discovery and conquest set in motion a vast flow of precious metal from America to Europe, and the result was huge rise in prices – an inflation occasioned by an increase in the supply of the hardest of hard money.

Almost no one in Europe was so removed from market influences that he did not feel some consequence in his wage, in what he sold, in whatever trifling thing he had to buy.

The price increases occurred first in Spain where the metal first arrived; then, as they were carried by trade (or perhaps in lesser measure by smuggling or for conquest) to France, the Low Countries and England, inflation followed there.

In Andalusia, between 1500 and 1600, prices rose perhaps fivefold. In England, if prices during the last half of the fifteenth century, i.e. before Columbus, are taken as 100, by the last decade of the sixteenth century they were roughly at 250; eighty years later, by the decade of 1673 through 1682, they were around 350, up by three-and-a-half times from the level before Columbus, Cortez and the Pizarros. After 1680, they levelled off an subsided, as much earlier they had fallen in Spain. (Galbraith, pp. 8-9)

Prior to this era, Europe had dealt with ongoing, chronic shortages of precious metals for coins, because much of the continent’s silver leaked out through trading with the Arab world, especially after the Crusades. This is why much of the European economy remained unmonetized for so long. In fact, northern Italian bankers had invented banking and bills of exchange specifically to deal with this problem. Thus, markets in Europe remained confined to specific market towns and “ports of trade” and were subject to strict regulations by rulers. It was not a lack of desire for profits on the part of rulers, but a lack of coins that kept capitalism in embryo.

The vast increase in the money supply from New World silver and gold is what made capitalism possible in Western Europe, but that’s a story for another time.

At its peak in the early 17th century, 160,000 native Peruvians, slaves from Africa and Spanish settlers lived in Potosí to work the mines around the city: a population larger than London, Milan or Seville at the time. In the rush to exploit the silver, the first Spanish colonisers occupied the locals’ homes, forgoing the typical colonial urban grid and constructing makeshift accommodation that evolved into a chaotic mismatch of extravagant villas and modest huts, punctuated by gambling houses, theatres, workshops and churches.

High in the dusty red mountains, the city was surrounded by 22 dams powering 140 mills that ground the silver ore before it was moulded into bars and sent to the first Spanish colonial mint in the Americas. The wealth attracted artists, academics, priests, prostitutes and traders, enticed by the Altiplano’s icy mysticism. “I am rich Potosí, treasure of the world, king of all mountains and envy of kings” read the city’s coat of arms, and the pieces of eight that flowed from it helped make Spain the global superpower of the period.

Potosí: The mountain of silver that was the world’s first global city (Aeon)

How silver turned Potosí into ‘the first city of capitalism’ (The Guardian)

This price spike led to an important realization that people started to have after prices finally leveled off in the late 1600’s: the number of economic transactions (and hence the overall size of the economy and the capacity to specialize) was dependent on the amount of money in circulation. In other words, the volume of trade is determined by the amount of currency in circulation.

Today this is known as the quantity theory of money.

This newfound abundance of silver in Europe caused rising prices–the so-called “Price Revolution”. For the first time there was enough money to create a new class of people whose wealth consisted primarily of money as oppose to land: moneyed men, or the merchant caste. It also caused Spanish coins to be widely used and distributed, function as the world’s first global currency from the Americas to the Middle East to Asia:

The silver of the America made possible a world economy for the first time, as much of it was traded not only to the Ottomans but to the Chinese and East Indians as well, bringing all of them under the influence of the new silver supplies and standardized silver values. Europe’s prosperity boomed, and its people wanted all the teas, silks, cottons, coffees, and spices which the rest of the world had to offer. Asia received much of this silver, but it too experienced the silver inflation that Europe underwent. In China, silver had one-fouth the value of gold in 1368, before the discover of America, but by 1737 the ratio plummeted to twenty to one, a decline of silver to one-fifth of its former value. This flood of American silver came to Asia directly from Acapulco across the pacific via Manila in the Philippines, whence it was traded to China for spices and porcelain. (Weatherford, Indian Givers, pp. 16-17)

The so-called “Price Revolution” taught Europeans another important lesson: What constituted money didn’t change, but it’s purchasing power did. Therefore, they concluded, the value of money depended on how much of it there was in circulation, and not on some intrinsic quality. If there was a shortage of cash, it was worth a lot (i.e. it had high purchasing power). If there was a surplus, it wasn’t worth nearly as much (i.e. it had lower purchasing power). They had seen this first-hand.

In other words, the value of money had to do with how much of it there was, more than any intrinsic, magical quality. The value attributed gold and silver was merely a cultural artifact.

In fact, money had to be useless, since if it were more useful as a commodity than as money, then that’s what it would be used for, and there would be perennial shortages of currency causing the economy to contract.

This led to the following conclusions: If money has no inherent value, but was merely an expedient for spot transactions, than why not paper? But it does have to be backed by something, otherwise people will lose confidence in it. Although precious metal coins could be devalued by government edicts, their worth could never fall to zero, since there was always a commodity market for gold and silver for things like jewelry and tea sets. Precious metals tended to flow from where they were undervalued to countries where the commodity price was higher, causing perennial spot shortages throughout Europe, along with the requisite economic chaos.

The basic problem people were struggling with was that, since all money at the time was dependent on precious metals, how could you increase the supply of money without stumbling upon new sources of precious metal, as the Spanish had done? The money in circulation had to be increased—that was obvious to a growing number of people. But the low-hanging fruit of gold and silver had already been harvested. And with vast new material wealth continuing to flow into Europe from the Americas, how could the money supply be increased enough to take advantage of this?

Paper was an obvious solution. Paper had come to Europe in the Middle Ages from China. After the Black Death, many of the cotton clothes worn by the deceased were turned into pulp, which helped spread the use of paper, and indirectly drive the commercial revolution of the Middle Ages, along with innovations like Arabic numerals and double-entry bookkeeping (aka the “Venetian method”). The printing press, invented in Mainz in 1502 by Gutenberg, further enhanced the power of paper printing. But the real use of paper was in banking:

In the West, paper found its most important use as a means of keeping ledgers in banks. Long before it was used as a means of printing more money, it was used by bankers to increase the money supply. Only later did it gradually emerge as a replacment for coins in daily commerce. The initial development and circulation of monetary bills of paper came about as a side effect of banking. (Weatherford, p. 128)

Paper instruments of credit were already widely circulating throughout Europe, such as Bills of Exchange. Yet, underneath it all, money was still ultimately tied to finite amounts of precious metal. Paper checks were simply transfers of monies from one account to another, similar to giro banking in the ancient world, while Bills of exchange were:

“…essentially a written order to pay a fixed sum of money at a future date. Bills of exchange were originally designed as short-term contracts but gradually became heavily used for long-term borrowing. They were typically rolled over and became de facto short-term loans to finance longer-term projects…bills of exchange could be re-sold, with each seller serving as a signatory to the bill and, by implication, insuring the buyer of the bill against default…”

Crisis Chronicles: The Commercial Credit Crisis of 1763 and Today’s Tri-Party Repo Market (Liberty Street)

One solution was just to issue credit in excess of the amount of gold and silver stored in your vaults—the so-called “goldsmith’s trick.” This became especially common around the time of he English Revolution, where goldsmiths acted as moneylenders and bankers. As long as there was enough gold and silver sitting in the vault to cover the amount people showing up to exchange their paper, you were all right. But if more paper was redeemed than the gold and silver you had at any one point, you were doomed. This is why governments were reluctant to embrace such a solution (later, this idea would underpin fractional reserve banking).

The question ultimately boiled down to, if not gold and silver, then what would give paper money its value? And what would limit its supply? Otherwise, any enterprising printer could just print up money in any amount and give it to himself. Ultimately, the answers would come down to some sort of government authority to regulate the issuance of such bills, and back it up with the government’s credit.

One very common idea floating around in the late 1600s and early 1700s were proposals for a land bank–essentially monetizing land. Such banks wouldn’t take deposits in gold or silver; Rather, they would issue government-backed paper money securitized by mortgages on land. “In these early cases the term “bank” meant simply the collection or batch of bills of credit issued for a temporary period. If successful, reissues would lead to a permanent institution or bank in the more modern sense of the term.” After all, even if a country didn’t have gold and silver mines, it did always have land. Land was valuable, and inherently limited in supply–even moreso than gold and silver (“Buy land – they aren’t making any more if it,” said Mark Twain). This was a variant of the idea of paper money as a claim on real resources. However, the problem was much the same as with the goldsmith’s trick: what happens if you print money in excess of the underlying resources?

[I]f we look at the world through the lens of the late 17th century…[m]oney was made of metal, and there was therefore no scope for creating more money without finding new supplies of silver and gold. There were two types of wealthy individual: moneyed men and landed men.

The land bank proponents were early contributors to the economic debate. In their pamphlets the principal problem that they identified was the sluggish economy. They all agreed that the situation could be improved and saw the best means of improvement as an increase in the supply of money.

Rather than doing this as the Spanish and Portuguese did by sailing to the new world and bringing back vast quantities of precious metals, they proposed using the banking model that had succeeded in Amsterdam and Venice. According to Schumpeter, they “fully realised the business potentialities of the discovery that money – and hence capital in the monetary sense of the term – can be manufactured or created”.

Britain, which was not rich in terms of gold and silver, had plenty of potential in its land. Therefore, a land bank appeared to be a sensible suggestion. None of the land banks that were set up succeeded…

Land Bank Proposals 1650-1705 (PDF)

Land banks had already been established in the American Colonies in a limited fashion:

In 1686, Massachusetts established the first American land bank. Others soon followed.

Despite the name, these were not true banks; they did not accept deposits. Instead, they issued “banks” or notes, or “bills on loan,” to borrowers who put up land as collateral with the bank.

To fortify confidence in the notes, colonial governments promised to issue only a fixed amount of notes and for a set term and to secure their loans with collateral typically equal to twice the amount of the loan.

These notes soon became legal tender for all public and private debts. Principal and interest payments were due annually, but the bank often delayed the first principal payment for a few years. Payments had to be made in notes or in specie.

While the notes furnished a circulating currency, the interest payments provided a revenue stream to the colonial governments.

Paper Money and Inflation in Colonial America (Owen F. Humpage)

National land banks were proposed in the early 1700’s by two people who would become very influential in the history of paper money: John Law (for France) and Benjamin Franklin (for Pennsylvania). Later on, this idea would be used by the revolutionary French government to back its own paper currency called assignats. They used the land seized from the Catholic Church and some aristocrats to back the money. And there was a lot of this land—the Church owned an estimated one-fifth of all the land in France prior to the Revolution.

We can think of this as the very earliest rumblings of today’s Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Money wasn’t gold and silver after all—rather, it was any means of exchange by which trade was conducted. The medium could be anything, so long it retained its value in exchange. What really mattered was the supply of it: that it was somewhat commensurate with the amount of economic transactions desired. The Scotsman John Law, who would establish the first paper money system in France, had seen people at the gambling tables of England using bills of exchange, stocks, bonds, banknotes, IOUs—any sort of valuable paper instrument—as de facto money in a pinch. This gave him the essential insight that any paper people believed had intrinsic value could be used as money, not just gold and silver coins:

[John] Law thought that the important thing about money wasn’t its inherent value; he didn’t believe it had any. “Money is not the value for which goods are exchanged, but the value by which they are exchanged,” he wrote. That is, money is the means by which you swap one set of stuff for another set of stuff. The crucial thing, Law thought, was to get money moving around the economy and to use it to stimulate trade and business.

As Buchan writes, “Money must be turned to the service of trade, and lie at the discretion of the prince or parliament to vary according to the needs of trade. Such an idea, orthodox and even tedious for the past fifty years, was thought in the seventeenth century to be diabolical.”

The Invention of Money (The New Yorker)

What was undeniable was that the growing economies of the North Atlantic needed more money, and lots of it; far in excess of what any gold and silver mines anywhere in the world could reasonably provide.

Next: The first (Western) paper money

The Origin of Paper Money 2

When it comes to paper money in the West, the foremost innovator was the United States, as John Kenneth Galbraith points out:

If the history of commercial banking belongs to the Italians and of central banking to the British, that of paper money issued by a central government belongs indubitably to the Americans. (Galbraith, p. 45)

The reason the American colonies had to experiment with paper money was simple: “official” money in the American Colonies was gold and silver coins, and there was a perennial shortage of such coins.

The American colonies had no rich deposits of gold of silver, unlike the Spanish in Latin America. There were no mines, and, to make things worse, there no mints allowed in North America. And, to top it all off, the British government forbade the colonies from chartering banks, “Thus bank notes, the obvious alternative to government notes, were excluded.” (Galbraith, p. 47). Colonists used whatever coins they could get their hands on, most of which came from the Spanish colonies to the south. In particular, this meant the Spanish Peso de Ocho Reales, or Piece of Eight: the world’s first global currency. This was also the origin of the famed dollar $ign. Foreign coins would continue to circulate as money in the United States until after the Civil War.

The curious origin of the dollar symbol (BBC)

Since the colonies couldn’t mint their own coins, if you wanted to get your hands on gold and silver coins, you had no other choice but to trade with the outside world. If you didn’t trade with the outside world, then getting sufficient coins was really difficult, severely limiting internal trade. This wasn’t accidental—the British, like all colonial powers, wanted the colonies to be sources of raw materials for their domestic manufacturing industries, and not to be economically self-sufficient.

To help alleviate the ongoing shortage of previous metal coins, local authorities might have passed laws to restrict the export of gold and silver–what we would today call capital controls—but such laws were expressly forbidden by the British government. In the mercantilist world of the 1600-1700s, the strength of a nation lay in the amount of gold and silver stashed away in its vaults—probably a holdover from the time when gold and silver paid for mercenaries in Europe before the era of professional standing armies.

And so there was a perennial, ongoing shortage of currency for transactions. This was an anchor around the leg of the domestic economy of the colonies.

…the British colonies in North America suffered from a constant shortage of all coins. The mercantile policies then in vogue in London sought to increase the amount of gold and silver money in Britain and to do whatever was practical in order to prohibit its export, even to its own colonies.

Beginning in 1695, Britain forbade the export of specie to anywhere in the world, including to its own colonies. As a result, the American colonies were forced to use foreign silver coins rather than British pounds, shillings, and pence, and they found the greatest supply of coins in the neighboring Spanish colony of Mexico, which operated one of the world’s largest mints.

Because of the great wealth produced in Mexico and Peru, Spanish coins became the most commonly accepted currency in the world…The most common Spanish coin in use in the British colonies in 1776 was the pillar dollar, so named because the obverse side showed the Eastern and Western hemispheres with a large column on either side.

In Spanish imperial iconography, the columns represented the Pillars of Hercules, or the narrow strait separating Spain from Morocco and connecting the Mediterranean with the Atlantic. A banner hanging from the columns bore the words plus ultra, meaning “more beyond.” The Spanish authorities began issuing this coin almost as soon as they opened the mint in Mexico with the intent of publicizing the discovery or America, which was the plus ultra, the land out beyond the Pillars of Hercules.

Some people say that the modern dollar sign is derived from this pillar dollar. According to this explanation, the two parallel lines represent the columns and the S stands for the shape of the banner hanging from them. Whether the sign was inspired by this coin or not, the pillar dollar can certainly be called the first American silver dollar. (Weatherford, pp. 117-118)

Another thing the colonists did to get around this chronic shortage of metal coins was barter, which led to settling accounts with all sorts of things other than previous metal coins. They might settle accounts, for example, with so-called “county pay” or “country money,” typically cash crops: cod, tobacco, rice, grain, cattle, indigo, whiskey, brandy–whatever was at hand. During 1775 in North Carolina as many as seventeen different forms of money were declared to be legal tender.

Without the convenience of money, colonists resorted to many less-efficient methods of trading. Barter, of course, was common, particularly in rural areas, but individuals often had to accept goods that they did not particularly need or want only because they had no other way to complete a transaction. They accepted these goods hoping to pass them on in future trades. Some items, most famously tobacco in Virginia and Maryland, worked well in this way and became commodity monies directly or as backing for warehouse receipts. Various other types of warehouse receipts, bills of exchange against deposits in London, and individuals’ promissory notes might also circulate as money. In addition, shopkeepers and employers sometimes issued “shop notes,” a type of scrip—often in small denominations—redeemable at a specific store.

Out of necessity, merchants and wealthy individuals frequently extended credit to others. In an economy that depended heavily on barter, however, one could end up holding debts against many individuals and across a broad array of goods. People naturally hoped to net out some of these debts, but this is extremely difficult under barter. Fortunately, colonial creditors could tally debts in British pounds or colonial currencies even if these currencies were not readily available. In this way, money acted as a unit of account. By attaching a value to things, money accommodated the netting out of debts.

Paper Money and Inflation in Colonial America (Cleveland Fed)
One of the most popular substitutes in North America could be obtained domestically: beads made from marine sea shells called wampum, which were used extensively in the tribute economy of the the Iroquois nations. Wampum is a member of the huge amount of currencies all over the globe that were made from sea shells, including cowrie shells and dentalium. Since these were regarded as valuable by Native American tribes, they had the added advantage of being able to be traded for animal pelts bagged by the Native Americans (who soon stripped the forest bare in order to get more wampum—and hence more prestige). In 1664 Pieter Stuyvesant arranged a loan in wampum worth over 5,000 guilders for paying the wages of workers constructing the New York citadel. They were even subject to a form of counterfeiting:

The first substitute was taken over from the the Indians. From New England to Virginia in the first years of settlement, the wampum or shells used by the Indians became the accepted small coinage. In Massachusetts in 1641, it was made legal tender, subject to some limits as to the size of the transaction, at the rate of six shells to the penny.

However, within a generation or two it began to lose favor. The shells came in two denominations, black and white, the first being double the value of the second. It required by small skill and a smaller amount of dye to convert the lower denomination of currency into the higher.

Also, the acceptability of wampum depended on its being redeemed by the Indians in pelts. The Indians, in effect, were the central bankers for the wampum monetary system, and beaver pelts were the reserve currency into which the wampum could be converted. This convertibility sustained the purchasing power of the shells.

As the seventeenth century passed and settlement expanded, the beavers receded to the evermore distant forests and streams. Pelts ceased to be available; wampum ceased, accordingly, to be convertible and thus, in line with expectation, it lost in purchasing power. Soon it disappeared from circulation except as small change. (Galbraith, pp. 47-48)

Another very popular domestic currency in use was tobacco leaf. In fact, tobacco’s reign as currency in America lasted longer than gold’s:

Tobacco, although regionally more restricted, was far more important than wampum. It came into use as money in Virginia a dozen years after the first permanent settlement in Jamestown in 1607. Twenty-three years later, in 1642, it was made legal tender by the General Assembly of the colony by the interestingly inverse device of outlawing payments that called for payment in gold or silver.

The use of tobacco money survived in Virginia for nearly two centuries and in Maryland for a century and a half – in both cases until the Constitution made money solely the concern of the Federal government. The gold standard, by the common calculation, lasted from 1879 until the cancellation of the final attenuated version by Richard Nixon in 1971. Viewing the whole span of American history, tobacco, though more confined as to region, had nearly twice as long a run as gold. (Galbraith, p. 48)

And such practices might be where Adam Smith came up with his erroneous notion of primitive barter economies, which continues to plague economics and economic history to this day.

Early American Colonists Had a Cash Problem. Here’s How They Solved It (Time)

This illustrates another dictum about money: barter tends to occur in fully monetized market economies where the medium of exchange is in short supply. This is because internal exchanges in market economies take the form spot transactions among anonymous competing strangers. Anthropologists now know that pre-monetary economies were embedded in social relations and took the forms of reciprocity, redistribution, householding, and ceremonial exchange, rather than constant efforts to “truck, barter and exchange.” Anthropologists have never found an example of a barter economy anywhere in the world (e.g. “I’ll give you ten chickens for that cow”).

People in North America and other remote regions were using things like cod, tobacco, grain, brandy, and shells to settle accounts, sure—but these were fully monetized economies that just happened to have a chronic shortage of coins! To get around this, certain items which were particularly valuable because they could be traded with the outside world—like cod in Newfoundland, or tobacco in Virginia, were used to settle accounts. Or, because some items were particularly valuable inside the community, they could be used in subsequent trades as a medium of exchange (like iron nails in Scotland, another Smith example). One might include the “cigarette money” used in prisons in this category. A contemporary example is the use of spruce tips in remote Alaskan towns: spruce tips can only be harvested during a few weeks in the spring and are used in all sorts of exported products (beer, tea, soap, etc.) that are traded with the outside world.

A year after moving to Skagway, Alaska, John Sasfai walked into Skagway Brewing Co. and ordered the signature Spruce Tip Blonde Ale. But instead of pulling out his wallet, the guide for Klondike Tours put a sack of spruce tips on the bar to pay his tab. That’s because in this town, the bounty he foraged from trees near Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park serves as a currency.

This village, with a year-round population just shy of 1,000, is notably remote – it’s about 100 miles north of Juneau and 800 miles south-east of Anchorage by car. And though stampeders established Skagway during the late-19th-Century gold rush, these days the nuggets of value are plucked from the forest, not panned or mined. While spruce tips – the buds that develop on the ends of spruce tree branches – are only good for cash at Skagway Brewing Co., bartering with spruce tips for food, firewood or coffee (which are delivered by barge once a week) is not uncommon.

The Alaska town where money grows on trees (BBC)

However, in all of Smith’s cases, prices were denominated in standard units of account, but people settled their debts in whatever was at hand. But none of these things were the origin of prices and money, as Smith incorrectly claimed.

To start, with Adam Smith’s error as to the two most generally quoted instances of the use of commodities as money in modern times, namely that of nails in a Scotch village and that of dried cod in Newfoundland, have already been exposed [as fraudulent] … and it is curious how, in the face of the evidently correct explanation … Adam Smith’s mistake has been perpetuated.

In the Scotch village the dealers sold materials and food to the nail makers, and bought from them the finished nails the value of which was charged off against the debt. The use of money was as well known to the fishers who frequented the coasts and banks of Newfoundland as it is to us, but no metal currency was used simply because it was not wanted.

In the early days of the Newfoundland fishing industry there was no permanent European population; the fishers went there for the fishing season only, and those who were not fishers were traders who bought the dried fish and sold to the fishers their daily supplies. The latter sold their catch to the traders at the market price in pounds, shillings and pence, and obtained in return a credit on their books, with which they paid for their supplies. Balances due by the traders were paid for by drafts on England or France.

A moment’s reflection shows that a staple commodity could not be used as money, because ex hypothesi, the medium of exchange is equally receivable by all members of the community. Thus if the fishers paid for their supplies in cod, the traders would equally have to pay for their cod in cod, an obvious absurdity. In both these instances in which Adam Smith believes that he has discovered a tangible currency, he has, in fact, merely found—credit.

Then again as regards the various colonial laws, making corn, tobacco, etc., receivable in payment of debt and taxes, these commodities were never a medium of exchange in the economic sense of a commodity, in terms of which the value of all other things is measured. They were to be taken at their market price in money. Nor is there, as far as I know, any warrant for the assumption usually made that the commodities thus made receivable were a general medium of exchange in any sense of the words. The laws merely put into the hands of debtors a method of liberating themselves in case of necessity, in the absence of other more usual means. But it is not to be supposed that such a necessity was of frequent occurrence, except, perhaps in country districts far from a town and without easy means of communication.

What is money? (Alfred Mitchell-Innes)

All of this experience showed colonists that multiple things could be used as money, if needed. There was no more magic to a gold standard, then to a cowrie standard, or a tobacco standard, a grain standard, or a cattle standard, or anything else for that matter. This would prove to be an instrumental lesson in the creation of paper money in the colonies.

Galbraith, for his part, gives an alternative explanation for the chronic lack of precious metals in the American colonies:

Many countries or communities had gold and silver in comparative abundance without mines. Venice, Genoa, Bruges had no Mother Lode (Nor today does Hong Kong or Singapore.) While the colonists were required to pay in hard coin for what they brought from Britain, they also had products – tobacco, pelts, ships, shipping services – for which British merchants would have been willing, and were quite free, to expend gold and silver.

Much more plausibly, the shortage of hard money in the colonies was another manifestation of Gresham. From the very beginning the colonists experimented with substitutes for metal. The substitutes, being less well regarded than gold or silver, were passed on to others and this were kept in circulation. The good gold or silver was kept by those receiving it or used for those purchases, including those in the mother country, for which the substitutes were unacceptable. (p. 47)

So the colonists were forced by economic necessity to experiment with paper money, and that’s why the United States is the cradle of rolling out this innovation. As Galbraith notes of the above cases, “None of these substitutes was important as compared with paper money.” (Galbraith p. 51).

Next: Europe rethinks money

The Origin of Paper Money 1

Where did paper money come from? That’s the question behind this article from The New Yorker: The Invention of Money. It’s a review of recent biographies of John Law and Walter Bagehot. The author concludes:

The present moment in financial invention therefore has some similarities with the period when money in the form we currently understand it—a paper currency backed by state guarantees—was first created. The hero of that origin story is the nation-state. In all good stories, the hero wants something but faces an obstacle. In the case of the nation-state, what it wants to do is wage war, and the obstacle it faces is how to pay for it.

At the same time, I’ve been reading a few popular books on monetary history. One is Jack Weatherford’s The History of Money. Weatherford, best known for his books about Genghis Khan, is eminently readable, and hits most of the major developments. However, he is clearly in the Ron Paul school of economics: gold alone is money, governments are profligate and can’t be trusted, free banking is good, central banks are bad, etc. There are also a number of basic factual errors in the book, which leads me to recommend it only if you take it as a brief survey that gets many things wrong and is a bit outdated.

Weatherford’s major reference for his chapter on paper money is John Kenneth Galbraith’s: Money, Whence It Came and Where It Went. So I decided to go directly to the source. Galbraith, a lauded economist, has a view that is much more authoritative and nuanced than Weatherford’s. Galbraith’s book concentrates mainly on the origins of banking and the modern money system, and not so much on the deep history of money in the ancient world or the Medieval period.

I’d like to take these (and others) and give an account of how the money system works today. While Modern Monetary theory is a good descriptor of how money works in nation states in the present, it often doesn’t describe how that system initially came about, and what makes it so radically different from how the money system functioned in ancient economies.

But first, I’d like to say a few brief words on why any of this matters.

Like it or not, money runs the world. If you want to understand how the world works—and how to change it—it’s important to know how the systems comprising it work. Money may seem like a boring topic (sorry!), but I would argue that no knowledge is more fundamental and useful for trying to make things marginally better. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who call themselves “Socially liberal but fiscally conservative.” And what do they mean by “fiscally conservative?” Nine times out of ten, it’s this: money is inherently scarce; debt is evil; and government budgets should be balanced down to the penny. You also have libertarian Bitcoin cranks, who are convinced that algorithms will save mankind once the state somehow withers away. These views are extraordinarily resistant to any kind of challenge, almost as if they were a de facto religion (in fact, they are probably even more resistant to rational analysis that most people’s religious faith!) Such people would be amenable to a more progessive message if not for the universal brainwashing about what money is, and what it does. History can provide a useful guide.

China’s False Start

All paper money all rests on the same fundamental basis: they are circulating IOU’s. The name of the creditor backing them and what’s used to securitize them changes over time, however. Sometimes it’s a particularly reputable member of the community. Sometimes it’s a king or other ruler. Sometimes it’s a democratically-elected government–or more precisely, the future anticipated revenues of that government. Sometimes it’s backed by something tangible, like silver, gold, or real estate (the most common options). Sometimes it’s not. Nowadays, sovereign money is usually backed by the government’s ability to redistribute and to impose binding liabilities on its citizens  (and, by extension, it’s monopoly on the use of legitimate force).

Paper money began where papermaking began: in China. The usual sources were hemp and mulberry bark, and printing blocks were made of wood or metal. Because of China’s strong imperial state structure, centrality, and geographic reach, it could command officially stamped pieces of paper to be accepted by its citizens as currency in lieu of precious metals. The story is told in this excellent podcast by Tim Harford on the origins of paper money: Paper Money (50 Things that Made the Modern Economy)

In Harford’s telling, paper money begins in Sichuan province, where iron coins were used rather than gold and silver in order to keep specie from leaking out of China to the hostile territories surrounding China, such as those of the Jurchen. Iron coins had holes in the middle and were carried around on cords, called cash.
The problem, as you might expect, was that these strings of heavy iron coins were extremely cumbersome. You would be turning over larger weights of coins that the weight of the things you were trying to buy: 10 pounds of coins for a five pound chicken, or something like that.

Sichuan’s iron currency suffered from serious deficiencies. The low intrinsic value of iron coins, worth no more than a tenth of the equivalent amount of bronze coin, imposed a great burden on merchants who needed to convey their purchasing capital from one place to another, and on ordinary consumers as well. A housewife would have to bring a pound and a half of iron coin to the marketplace to buy a pound of salt, and a merchant from the capital would receive ninety-one and a quarter pounds of iron coin in exchange for an ounce of silver.

Of course, the inconvenience of transporting low-value coin affected bronze currency as well. In the early ninth century, the Tang government created depositories at its capital of Chang’an where merchants could deposit bronze coin in return for promissory notes (known as feiqian, or “flying cash”) that could be redeemed in provincial capitals. “Flying cash” was especially popular among tea merchants who wished to return their profits from the sale of tea in the capital to the distant tea-growing areas of southeastern China. The Song dynasty continued this practice under the rubric of “convenient cash” (bianqian), accepting payments of gold, silver, coin, or sil in return for notes denominated in bronze coin. (The Origins of Value, pp. 67-68)

In the mid-990s, Sichuan was captured by rebels (partly angered by depreciating currency), who shut down the mint. It remained shut even after the government regained control of the province. This prompted some private merchants to issue their own paper bills to compensate for the acute shortage of coins. Such bills represented debt—the debt of the private merchant, of course. These bills soon began to circulate, and people began using them in place of iron coins, as Harford describes:

Instead of carrying around a wagonload of iron coins, a well-known and trusted merchant would write an IOU, and promise to pay his bill later when it was more convenient for everyone.

That was a simple enough idea. But then there was a twist, a kind of economic magic. These “jiaozi”, or IOUs, started to trade freely. Suppose I supply some goods to the eminently reputable Mr Zhang, and he gives me an IOU. When I go to your shop later, rather than paying you with iron coins – who does that? – I could write you an IOU.

But it might be simpler – and indeed you might prefer it – if instead I give you Mr Zhang’s IOU. After all, we both know he’s good for the money. Now you, and I, and Mr Zhang, have together created a kind of primitive paper money – it’s a promise to repay that has a marketable value of its own – and can be passed around from person to person without being redeemed.

This is very good news for Mr Zhang, because as long as people keep finding it convenient simply to pass on his IOU as a way of paying for things, Mr Zhang never actually has to stump up the iron coins. Effectively, he enjoys an interest-free loan for as long as his IOU continues to circulate. Better still, it’s a loan that he may never be asked to repay.

No wonder the Chinese authorities started to think these benefits ought to accrue to them, rather than to the likes of Mr Zhang. At first they regulated the issuance of jiaozi, but then outlawed private jiaozi and took over the whole business themselves. The official jiaozi currency was a huge hit, circulating across regions and even internationally. In fact, the jiaozi even traded at a premium, because they were so much easier to carry around than metal coins.

How Chinese mulberry bark paved the way for paper money (BBC)

Over the next ten years, these “exchange bills” became important in China’s intraregional trade, but the problem of bogus private bills issued by unscrupulous traders remained an ongoing problem for government officials. There were growing calls for government to get more involved in the circulation of bills. Enter the new prefect of Chengdu, one Zhang Yong. He issued a series of government reforms to address this problem in 1005. He:

1.) reopened Sichuan’s mints and introduced a new large iron coin that was equivalent to ten small iron coins, or two bronze coins;

2.) restricted the right to issue exchange bills to a consortium of sixteen merchant houses in Chengdu that were known to have sufficient financial resources to back the bills up, and;

3.) standardized the bills by mandating that they be issued in a specified size, color and format, using government-supplied labor and materials (although merchants could add their own watermark).

There were no standard denominations; rather, the merchants ascribed the value of the note in ink as needed. A three percent fee was charged for cashing in the notes. There was no limit on the number of bills issued. The amount of bills in circulation tended to vary with the seasons: more bills were issued in the early summer when new silk reached the market and in the fall during the rice harvest.

There were still problems with the paper currency, however, such as counterfeiting and overissuance of bills without sufficient backing. In 1024 under a new governor, Xue Tian, the government took over the issuance of jiaozi. A state-run Jiaozi Currency Bureau was established in Chengdu and given exclusive rights to issue jiaozi. The bills had the same format, but were issued in fixed denominations: one and ten guan. Most significantly, the bills had an expiration date of two years, exchangeable for fresh ones, giving the government a modicum of control over the amount issued and preventing the counterfeiting of worn or outdated bills. Also, quotas were established for the issue of the currency. Tea merchants engaged in intraregional and international trade were the most enthusiastic users of the currency, as it eliminated the need to transport heavy coins and prevented robbery by bandits (note that the needs of traveling merchants were also instrumental in the creation of Bills of Exchange issued by banks in medieval Europe centuries later).

Yet there were still problems. The government issued notes to procure military supplies from the merchants; and the ongoing costs of wars on the frontier led to their overissue. Plus, a new emperor nationalized the tea industry, meaning that the major consumers of jiaozi—the tea merchants—no longer had as much use for them. This loss of demand alongside oversupply caused a sharp depreciation in the value of the currency in the market. Instead of trading at a ten percent premium, the bills were now accepted at a ten percent discount. In 1107 the government issued a new paper currency—the qianyin—at a rate of 1:4 to the old, depreciating the earlier jiaozi bills in effort to reduce the supply.

The rest of the history of China’s bills is basically a cycle of the same thing: issuing new bills, overspending due to military needs on the frontier, rampant counterfeiting, bills depreciating, demonetizing old notes, new dynasties issuing new bills, etc. Bills were still in use in trade when Marco Polo vistied China. This is the description from the fourteenth century by the Arab Traveller ibn Battuta:

The Chinese use neither [gold] dinars nor [silver] dirhams in their commerce. All the gold and silver that comes into their country is cast by them into ingots, as we have described. Their buying and selling is carried on exclusively by means of pieces of paper, each of the size of the palm of the hand, and stamped with the sultan’s seal. Twenty-five of these pieces of paper are called a balisht, which takes the place of the dinar with us [as the unit of currency]

This demonstrates some of the essential dictums of Modern Monetary Theory.

The first is Hyman Minsky’s dictum: Anyone can create money, the secret is in getting it accepted.

The second is Felix Martin’s definition of money: Money is tradeable debt.

The other is the observation that that: The credit that is bears highest reputation is typically that of the sovereign. Gresham’s Law being what it is, this usually means that sovereign’s money will drive out all competitors, as we’ll see much later in the United States during the Civil War.

As a reminder, Gresham’s Law is this: Bad money drives out good, or perhaps, more accurately, people spend “lesser” money if they can, and hoard “greater” money for themselves.

Gresham’s Law…is perhaps the only economic law that has never been challenged, and for the reason that there has never been a serious exception. Human nature may be an infinitely variant thing. But it has it’s constants. One is that, given a choice, people keep what is best for themselves, i.e. for those whom they love the most. (Galbraith, p. 8)

A similar rationale led to the establishment of banks and banking in Northern Europe during the Age of Sail. You deposited coins and got a receipt for the amount of coins stashed in the vault. These receipts could be used to pay for things, with the value equivalent to the coins traded (in fact, the notes were more valuable, since they couldn’t be melted down or devalued).

A final interesting note: overissuance of paper currencies and lavish spending by the Yongle emperor Zhu Di (on wars, but also notably on the Chinese treasure ship voyages) led to China going back onto a silver standard just in time for the European discovery and conquest of the New World. The Chinese demand for silver is what fueled the European trade with the Far East, since the Europeans had nothing else that the Chinese wanted to exchange for goods like silks and porcelain. Without that silver standard, who knows what would have happened?

The sizable deficits incurred by Yongle’s costly foreign expeditions, including the famous maritime explorations of Admiral Zheng He and his fleet, and the emperor’s decision to relocate the Ming capital from Nanjing to Beijing were abated, albeit temporarily, by printing more money. Finally, in the 1430s, the Ming yielded to economic realities, abandoning its paper currency and capitulating to the dominance of silver in the private economy. The Ming state gradually converted its most import and sources of revenue payments in silver, while suspending emission of paper money and minting in bronze coin.

Though still uncoined, silver prevailed as the monetary standard of the Ming and subsequent Qing dynasty (1644-1911), fueled from the sixteenth century onward by the import of vast quantities of foreign silver from Japan and the Spanish colonies in the Americas. In times of fiscal crisis, such as on the eve of the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644 and during the worldwide depression of the 1830s to 1840s, appeals to restore paper currency were renewed, but ignored. In the nineteenth century private banks, both Chinese and foreign, began to issue negotiable bills, but the weakness of the central government after its defeat in the Opium War precluded the emergence of a unified currency…Not until 1935, under the Republic of China, did China once again have a unified system of paper currency. (The Origins of Value, p. 87-89)

Although paper money first originated in China, the paper money we use today has no direct lineage with these systems. Government-issued paper money was invented independently in Western Europe, and under very different circumstances. We’ll take a look at that next time.

Despite the importance of paper money in Chinese history, the modern world system of paper money did not develop in China, or even in the Mediterranean homeland of Marco Polo or ibn-Batuta. It evolved in the trading nations around the North Atlantic. (Weatherford, p. 129)