Thursday, January 29, 2009

Elastic or Inelastic Money Supply?

Constance writes:

>Prof Langbert,

I have just started to “self-educate” on economics and have found your blog very useful. I am currently reading a book by Jesus Huerta de Soto called “Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles’. He is of the Austrian school and supports sound money backed by precious metals and a 100% reserve requirement for demand deposits. In his book he argues that a gold-backed money would be inelastic and would prevent serious deflations as experienced during the Great Depression. I have always heard that one of the advantages of our present economic system (fractional reserves and a central bank) was that the Fed could “manage the money supply” which I take to mean expand or contract the supply of money.

If you had the time and inclination, it would be great if you could write a blog post on the advantages/disadvantages of an elastic versus inelastic money supply.

My reply (edited for the blog):

There is no need for an elastic money supply. I will put de Soto on my list, but I do not believe that deflation is as important a problem as he says.

I'll be glad to answer but let me give you a little background about myself. I'm not really an economist. I studied labor issues in graduate school and teach business and human resource management. I finished my Ph.D. in 1991 and have taught management ever since. In the 1970s I had gotten involved in the libertarian movement in New York City right after Murray Rothbard dropped out of what was then called the Free Libertarian Party. There I met Howard S. Katz who has written a great deal about the money issue on his blog

Since 2004 I renewed my interest in this subject because of current events. What seemed bad in '04 has turned into a worst case scenario over the past year. I decided to pursue a new research topic concerning decentralization. I decided to make the monetary issue a part of that topic, so I have begun to familiarize myself with it. Perhaps we can form a study group!

I recommend these books to begin your pursuit of understanding money:

Hans Sennholz, Money and Freedom, available through the von Mises Institute (
Murray Rothbard, The Mystery of Banking and What Has Government Done to Our Money?
Howard S. Katz, The Paper Aristocracy

I read William Greider's book Secrets of the Temple last fall. Greider is a Keynesian and the book is full of inconsistencies (such as that the Federal Reserve system helps the poor but the banks lend hundreds of billions to big business boondoggles; inflation is good for the middle class, etc.).

Business and banking interests have always said that flexibility in money, an elastic money supply, is desirable. However, the history of the nineteenth century was that when money was tightest, from 1879 to 1900, progress was most rapid in technology and innovation. The three central banks that existed before the Fed, The Bank of North America, The First Bank of the United States and The Second Bank of the United States, were all associated with corruption, high inflation and economic dislocation.

Business interests favor central banks because the banks create money out of thin air and then lend it to favored business interests. The business interests can make investments at pre-inflation levels, and as the money filters through the economy and the banking system multiplies it, prices go up as do asset values. The businesses repay their loans in depreciated dollars and enjoy increased asset values and diminished loan values (because the loan is for a fixed dollar amount but the asset goes up with inflation). The gain in real wealth that the business interests enjoy has to come from somewhere. It generally comes from those who own the least assets, average workers whose wages lag the inflation.

Thus, the real hourly wage (not family income--families have compensated for declining real wages by holding multiple jobs) has been in decline since the gold standard was abolished in 1971. However, the stock market has climbed steadily higher. This is because artificially low interest rates boost the stock market but the inflation caused by monetary expansion reduces workers' real (inflation-adjusted) wages. Thus, central banks allocate money from the average worker to hedge fund managers and stock holders. It is telling that one of the themes of William Greider's book is that inflation hurts asset owners. That would be true if asset owners held their assets in bank accounts, which hasn't been true in 100 years. Greider's book is testimony to my long standing belief that the left's aim is to support Wall Street and the wealthy at the expense of those whom it claims to represent, the poor. Thus, leftists are granted academic posts and are hired by capital to dominate the mass media and expatiate on why inflation is good for the poor.

Children like candy, and if you asked a nine year old whether they should have cake and ice cream for breakfast they would say "Yes, an elastic diet is good for me. You let me eat cake and ice cream when I choose." Naturally businesses like cheap credit. But if you look historically, the late nineteenth century was when most of the American innovation occurred, and it was a period of deflation. Competition is painful to business but it breeds productivity. No pain no gain. Today's business executive is a self-indulgent, other-directed narcissist who pays himself a high salary in order to move plants overseas and cannot come up with new ideas to save his or her life.

Also, there was proportionately more immigration into America the late nineteenth century despite the depressions of the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s. Yet real wages were rising. Yes they were. Despite cheap immigrant labor in the late nineteenth century, there was more innovation than at any other time in history and rising average real wages but deflation. Yet, most economists you hear on television tell you that deflation is the worst thing imaginable. If you can find it in a library, a great book on that topic is David Ames Wells' Recent Economic Changes published in 1889.

The pro-inflation position has been the mainstream view of the economics profession. Not coincidentally, the economics field enjoys benefits from the banking industry. For instance, many economists find work there, banking interests donate to universities and the like. The mass media only gives air time to the Keynesian viewpoint, there are almost never Austrian or monetarist economists on TV these days.

The ideas of John Maynard Keynes came out of the Populist movement in America. In the late nineteenth century there was deflation. The deflation hurt property owners. Farmers formed a mass movement to protest the gold standard. Earlier in American history there had been a bi-metallic standard. Historians who study this topic do not ask the right questions. They look at the income level of the farmers but not their asset holdings. They conclude that the Populists were low income farmers who needed loans to finance their crops. But it is likely that many of the Populist supporters were land holders who had obtained land via the land grant acts of the mid nineteenth century. Holding land might have represented hope for a good investment to many, but deflation made farming much less attractive. It is difficult to know the extent of that phenomenon. In general, falling food prices help workers but hurt farmers. Historians paint the picture that falling food prices were bad because the farmers didn't like them, but they ignore the effects on other kinds of workers. Also, it is not clear that real wages of agricultural labor were falling. There is a difference between farm profit and farm wages. Profits in general were falling in the late nineteenth century, and much of the protest about the gold standard was from business owners who resented deflation that caused falling profits. Perhaps farming was no different. As laborers, farmers may have been receiving increasing wages, but as real estate investors farmers may have been suffering even bigger losses.

There were two investment bankers who picked up on the Populist inflationist concept, I forget their names but the title of their book was something like "Road to Plenty". They argued that inflation could create wealth. The banker Mariner Eccles made similar arguments and FDR later appointed him head of the Fed. John Maynard Keynes wrote his General Theory after the Populists, the Road to Plenty guys and Eccles had written about inflation stimulating investment and social welfare. No one denies that Keynes derived his ideas from these movements.

The history of the Fed was that it was established Christmas week 1913 and it is likely that neither Wilson nor the Congressmen who voted it in totally understood it. They believed the "elastic" argument. Within two years World War I began and the Fed initiated its first inflation, leading to a contraction and depression of 1920. There was a mild inflation in the 1920s, and there was a second credit contraction in the late 1920s which led to the Great Depression. During the 1920s there was increased use of consumer credit in the form of car loans and margin buying on stocks, and neither of these had existed before.

The Great Depression began with Roosevelt illegalizing ownership of gold and abolishing the gold standard. He re-inflated in 1933 and there was a 75% stock market rise in 1933. He appointed Eccles to be Fed chairman and the recovery was stopped in 1935 or 6 by another Fed contraction. The massive inflation of World War II ended the Depression. Since then, there has been consistent inflation. The result has been a considerable degree of economic miscalculation. Excessive real estate construction, one corporate boondoggle after the next, excessive financing of corporate waste. For instance, the Hunt Brothers' attempt to corner the silver market in 1980 was bank financed and could not have happened without the Fed. Likewise, the Latin American debt crisis in the 1980s, the tech bubble, Long Term Capital Management. Oh, and did I mention the stagflation of the 1970s? Who paid for all this waste? Not university professors, who live off fresh Fed money funneled through government grants. Not Wall Street bankers and business executives who were responsible for one incomprehensible business boondoggle after the next, but the average American, who has passively racked up big credit card bills while allowing the Fed and its academic boosters to run amok. This generation of Americans is a disgrace to the memory of Andrew Jackson.

If you're ambitious, the next book I plan to read is : Ludwig von Mises, Theory of Money and Credit.

Hope that helps!


Anonymous said...

I find it amusing that so many people are just now beginning to understand Austrian economic theory as the older theories (and in fact the entire Bretton Woods system) prove to be failed experiments. Now that you have explained the effects, why not take a crack at teaching your students the real causes behind the deliberate and ongoing economic enslavement of humanity?

Although one can find clues all the way back to Babylonian times, our own US history is littered with obfuscated events that reveal an architecture of monetary bondage.

What did ALL the assassinated presidents of the US have in common, as it relates to their views of monetary policy? ow did Lincoln fund the North in the Civil War? What was JFK's Executive Order 11110?

The Austrian theory requires a solid backing of currency. This would be unacceptable to those who prop up our kings.

Mitchell Langbert said...

Dear Friend: I just noticed your comment. I indeed mention these issues in my classes.

Anonymous said...

It was certainly interesting for me to read this blog. Thanx for it. I like such themes and anything that is connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more soon.

Anonymous said...

Keep on posting such themes. I like to read stories like that. Just add some pics :)

Anonymous said...

Cool post you got here. It would be great to read a bit more concerning that matter. Thanks for sharing that material.

Anonymous said...

It was very interesting for me to read that blog. Thanx for it. I like such topics and everything that is connected to this matter. I definitely want to read more soon.

Hilary Kuree

Anonymous said...

It was very interesting for me to read that article. Thanx for it. I like such topics and everything connected to this matter. I would like to read a bit more soon.

Joan Simpson

Anonymous said...

Sorry for my bad english. Thank you so much for your good post. Your post helped me in my college assignment, If you can provide me more details please email me.