January 16, 2013

The odd concept that is “money”

Filed under: Economics, Government, History — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

In his nominally NFL-related column, Gregg Easterbrook talks about the phenomenon that is money:

Currency is surprisingly abstract as a concept. Money is whatever you agree to accept in trade, with the understanding that others will accept it in turn. If there’s a $20 bill in your wallet or purse, you view it as valuable because you know that others will as well. If you have $1 million in a bank account, you view it as valuable because you know that others will as well. But you can’t eat a $20 bill or sleep under a bank account. Money is valuable only if others agree that it is.

Even if money is backed by some precious substance such as gold, the abstraction doesn’t change much. You can’t eat or wear gold. You view gold as valuable only because you know that others will as well. Whether a thin sheet of linen-like paper or a gold ingot or a string of digits on an electronic financial statement, money is, itself, worthless.

That money has value only when others think it does is why currencies collapse. The ruble and the Zimbabwean dollar lost value when no one wanted them, because a person holding this currency couldn’t be sure that others would also view it as valuable. But if Barack Obama ordered the minting of a trillion-dollar platinum coin, and it was viewed as having a trillion dollars’ worth of value, then it would.

[. . .]

Bear in mind, that’s how the past six years of irresponsible debt-based federal giveaways — two years under George W. Bush, now four years under Obama — have been funded. The Federal Reserve keeps buying Treasuries, or mortgage-backed securities issued by Fannie Mae and similar federal agencies. That gives the executive branch money to spend. One division of government tells another, “Here is a new string of numbers,” and money comes into existence.

What’s underlying these transactions? Nada, beyond the belief that strings of numbers issued by the United States are more likely to be useful in trade than strings of numbers issued by, say, Greece. Because the credibility of the United States is so high, its strings of numbers bear heft. But if government keeps printing money and talking about obvious gimmicks such as trillion-dollar coins, how long will that credibility last?

Economists including Friedrich Hayek have contemplated the idea that privately issued money would be more solid than government-issued money, since privately issued money would be cross-checked by market forces, while government is run to please campaign donors. Governments from the Roman emperors of the far past to the liberal Scandinavian democracies of today insist that they alone control the supply of money. One reason is to ensure taxation. At a deeper level, governments know how easily it could all unravel, and money be viewed as worthless.

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