Keith Weiner's Open Letter to Ben Bernanke

 

Mar 25, 2012

Re: Open Letter to Discuss Your Misunderstandings About Gold

 

Dear Ben:

You have publicly gone on record with some off-the-wall assertions about the gold standard.  What made you think you could get away with it?  Your best strategy would have been to ignore gold.  Although I concede that with the endgame of the regime of irredeemable paper money near, you might not be able to pretend that people aren’t talking and thinking about gold.  You can’t win, Ben.  In this letter I will address your claims and explain your errors so that the whole world can see them, even if you cannot.

Before I get into your specious claims, I want to point out two of important facts.  First, the gold standard exists when people are free to choose what they wish to use for money.  Gold has won this market competition over thousands of years, but the key is that when people are not forced to use government-issued scrip they choose gold.  And that’s the shabby little secret of your irredeemable paper money, Ben.  You have legal tender laws to force creditors to accept it, whether they would or not.  Will you please let people be free?

Second, central planning does not work.  The Politburo in the since-collapsed Soviet Union did not know how many shoes to make of what sizes.  And you don’t know what rate of interest to set.  Central planning has always led to the collapse of the specialization of labor and the economy with it, to the degree that it is attempted.  The Federal Reserve, the central bank of the USA, is the central planner for money, credit, interest, and discount.  Given the importance of money to every single aspect of the economy, it is no exaggeration to say that there is no such thing as a free market built on top of a centrally planned monetary system.

In your speech at George Washington University, you made the following claims:

 

1. The gold standard hasn't really worked since the end of WWI.

2. To have a gold standard, you have to go dig up gold in South Africa and put it in a basement in New York.  It's nonsensical.

3. The gold standard links the currencies of every country, causing policy in one country to transmit to another.  So for example, if the U.K. fixes the number of pounds to an ounce of gold, and the U.S. fixes the number of dollars to an ounce of gold, then the pound and the U.S. dollar inadvertently become linked.

4. It creates deflation, as William Jennings Bryan noted.  The meaning of the "cross of gold" speech: Because farmers had debts fixed in gold, loss of pricing power in commodities killed them.

5. The gold standard tends to cause interest rates to rise during downturns and interest rates to fall during good times, the exact opposite of what monetary policy should be doing.

6. The economy was far more volatile under the gold standard.

7. The only way the gold standard works is if people are convinced that the central bank ONLY cares about maintaining the gold standard.  The moment there's a hint of another priority (like falling unemployment) it all falls apart.

8. Gold standards leave central banks open to speculative runs, since they usually don't hold all the gold.

9. The gold standard is based on the "desire to maintain the value of the dollar"—implying a "desire to have very low price stability.”

10.        The gold standard is based on an aversion to allowing the central bank to respond with monetary policy to booms and busts, and a desire not to give the central bank that power.

11.        There's simply not “enough” gold

12.        The commitment to the gold standard is that no matter how bad the economy gets, we're going to stick to the gold standard.

13. The gold standard was one of the main reasons the Great Depression was so bad and so long.

 

Please forgive me if my takedown runs a little bit long.  I’ve found that it is much easier to commit a logical fallacy in a sound bite than it is to explain the full context.  I will take your assertions in order.

 

1. The gold standard hasn't really worked since the end of WWI.

This is true.  Just prior to Christmas in 1913 (which is before the beginning of the war, by the way) the Federal Reserve Act was passed into law.  Ever since, the Fed has taken for itself and been granted more and more power to try to centrally plan money and credit.  You and your predecessors have been in power for a century, but this fact is in no way an argument against the gold standard.

 

2. To have a gold standard, you have to go dig up gold in South Africa and put it in a basement in New York.  It's nonsensical.

The fact is that for thousands of years, people have been digging gold up and putting it in basements.  To call the behavior of so many people over so many years “nonsense” is arrogant.  A free country has room for arrogant men, but no place for arrogant men to back their whims with a gun.  From 1933 until 1975, one could be imprisoned for the “crime” of possessing gold.  To this day, it is not legal for a creditor to demand payment in gold.  If you are so confident that you are right and all good men should be happy that you print dollars at your discretion, can we agree on an experiment?  Let’s repeal the laws that force creditors to accept paper, and the laws that nullify gold clauses in contracts, and the taxes on the “gains” in gold, and the laws that force taxpayers to use dollars as their unit of account for bookkeeping purposes, and see what people choose when the gun is not compelling them.  I will wager one ounce of good gold against a frayed old dollar bill that people will choose gold if you let them.  Should I book my flight to Washington to pinky-shake on our bet?

 


 

Surely Heli-Ben will find one of those crumpled in his wallet….

 


 

 

3. The gold standard links the currencies of every country, causing policy in one country to transmit to another.  So for example, if the U.K. fixes the number of pounds to an ounce of gold, and the U.S. fixes the number of dollars to an ounce of gold, then the pound and the U.S. dollar inadvertently become linked.

Actually, Ben, you are describing the gold exchange standard that prevailed from the insane treaty at Bretton Woods until it collapsed in 1971 with Nixon’s default.  The choice is not between price fixing vs. excluding gold altogether. The choice is between the freedom for people to choose gold vs. your smart and efficient central planning.

 

4. It creates deflation, as William Jennings Bryan noted.  The meaning of the "cross of gold" speech: Because farmers had debts fixed in gold, loss of pricing power in commodities killed them.

By the way, Ben, the Coinage Act of 1792 fixed the price of silver in terms of gold at (15:1).  Like every instance of laws that attempt to interfere with the markets, this provision was an unmitigated disaster.  Whichever metal is officially valued at less than its market value will be pulled out of circulation and sent elsewhere for its market price.  Whichever metal is overvalued will be imported from every corner of the earth and come flooding into the country.

In 1873, the government was ready to open the US Mint again.  But when they wrote the list of which coins the Mint was authorized to coin, they somehow “forgot” to include the one ounce silver coin.  Silver was demonetized.  I am sure it had nothing to do with lust for power by the good men who ran the government, nor with any lobbying that might have occurred around that time.  This was dubbed the “Crime of ‘73”.

Demonetizing silver destroyed enormous amounts of capital, Ben.  Just imagine that a farmer, to use your example, has been working hard and saving all his life. And then the government, in callous and cavalier fashion, passes a law that destroys the value of his savings.  But this is the power you crave, isn’t it?  This is the power of central planning, to sit in an office in Washington, taking into account your whims, pet theories, and the desires of lobbyists and casually dispose of the income and wealth of the people without their consent.

 

5. The gold standard tends to cause interest rates to rise during downturns and interest rates to fall during good times, the exact opposite of what monetary policy should be doing.

You have pushed interest rates down to zero on the short end.  This has achieved nothing good, and yet you are unwilling to consider that, just maybe, your pet theory is wrong?  Good thing your pet theory is enforced on the rest of us at gunpoint, eh Ben?

We should pause for a moment to reflect on the nature of downturns.  The original promise of the central bank was that it would prevent downturns!  As recently as the “Great Moderation” which abruptly ended in 2001, this myth was widely believed.  But we see that downturns are not prevented by the central bank.  Instead, much larger downturns (such as the one which began in 2008) are caused by the central bank.

Let us look at the nature of these downturns.  For a while, the bank encourages credit expansion by various means.  The bond speculators (which did not exist under the gold standard) jump onto the bandwagon and the result is that interest rates have fallen for more than 30 years in a row.

During this long period, as you can imagine, much counterfeit credit is created.  By counterfeit credit, I mean where either the saver is unwilling to lend or even unknowing (such as anyone who deposits in a bank nowadays) or when the borrower lacks either the means or intent to repay (such as the government, or many bond issuers and banks).  Sooner or later, the game is up.  The borrower can no longer keep current on the interest payments.  Not even by “rolling” the debt.  As an aside, Ben, this is another dirty secret of the irredeemable currency: there is no way for any debt, ever, to be repaid; it only moves from one debtor to another and ultimately ends up at the Fed or the Treasury.

So what you blithely call a “downturn” is the painful process of writing off bad loans.  Capital has been destroyed, and everyone who made bad loans must write it off.  You are correct that interest rates should rise as a result!  Capital is far more scarce than people believed during the boom.

 

6. The economy was far more volatile under the gold standard.

I don’t think even you believe this, so I will not comment further except to note that the 1929 crash occurred under the tender ministrations and brilliant central planning of the Fed.

 

7. The only way the gold standard works is if people are convinced that the central bank ONLY cares about maintaining the gold standard.  The moment there's a hint of another priority (like falling unemployment) it all falls apart.

 

8. Gold standards leave central banks open to speculative runs, since they usually don't hold all the gold.

No, Ben.  I will address these points together: a gold standard is when there is no central bank.  What you are substituting in your confusion is if the Fed were to somehow try to centrally plan gold.  But you know that doesn’t work, so I need not spend time arguing against it.

Speaking of unemployment, as you know, if the portion of the population who is deemed to be “in the workforce” hadn’t been shrinking so much, the unemployment rate right now would be just below “staggering.”  And this is despite (or perhaps because of) your central planning activities.

 

9. The gold standard is based on the "desire to maintain the value of the dollar"—implying a "desire to have very low price stability.”

The gold standard is about many things.  Speaking of the value of the dollar, you are aware, I am sure, that it has lost about 98% of its value in the 100 years since your organization began centrally planning.  Under gold, prices do not remain constant.  That kind of stasis is neither possible nor desirable.  Prices, and more importantly changes in prices, signal to consumers and entrepreneurs what is scarce and what is in demand.  No, what remains stable is the rate of interest.  And it is this rate that is manifestly unstable under the Fed’s careful designs.  As recently as 30 years ago, the rate on the 10-year US Treasury was almost 16%.  Today it is 2.2%, having recently hit a low under 1.8% (and this rise of more than 22% in a short period of time is both staggering and revealing).

Changes in the rate of interest cause enormous destruction to industry.  A rising rate destroys businesses one by one as each looks at financing new capital projects, or replacement for worn plant.  But at each higher interest rate, fewer and fewer capital projects make any sense.  So factories shut down, and ever more workers join the unemployment line.  Does this strike a note, Ben?

Falling interest rates cause a more pernicious and subtle damage.  Bond speculators make risk-free gains on their bonds.  This money does not come out of thin air, however.  Each bond issuer now has a higher present value of their liabilities.  Good thing that FASB does not require them to mark liabilities to market when the bond price rises, or else there would be a serious problem!  Actually, there is a serious problem even if we all close our eyes and pretend otherwise.  Is that a fair characterization, Ben: that the purpose of the Fed is to help everyone play make-believe?

Under paper, neither prices nor interest rates have been stable.  Have you taken a look at the chart for crude oil or most other commodities, Ben?

 

10. The gold standard is based on an aversion to allowing the central bank to respond with monetary policy to booms and busts, and a desire not to give the central bank that power.

Here you are correct, Ben.  You should not have that power.  No one should have that power.  A brilliant author by the name of JRR Tolkien wrote a story about power.  Have you ever read The Lord of the Rings or seen the version Peter Jackson made into film?

 

11. There's simply not “enough” gold

How much gold do you think there is, Ben?  How much gold do you think a gold standard would need?  You don’t know either number, of course.  This is just an old wives’ tale.  Do you also wear copper bracelets to ward off the common cold, or is that vampires (I forget)?

 

12. The commitment to the gold standard is that no matter how bad the economy gets, we're going to stick to the gold standard.

This is an interesting logical fallacy. You are lumping together commitment to gold with bad economy.  This called “begging the question”.  You are presuming what you ought to be asking.

 

13. The gold standard was one of the main reasons the Great Depression was so bad and so long.

So you think that the disastrous adventure that combined both taxes and protectionism that led to a trade war and thence to collapsing trade had nothing to do with it?  Or FDR’s constant threats to change the rules of the game, thus rendering investments previously made worthless (there’s that problem again)?  What about the various other central planning interventions of both Hoover and the New Deal?

Or how about the falling interest rate structure that I mentioned above?  When the government outlawed the ownership of gold, that herded people into the next-best choice: US Treasuries.  This caused the interest rate to fall.  Have you ever stopped to think what this does to savers, such as the small farmer for whom you weep crocodile tears?

 

Ben, I wrote a paper entitled “Gold Bonds: Averting Financial Armageddon”, because I am convinced that the regime of irredeemable paper money and hence the Fed is going to come to a sudden and catastrophic end.  One way or the other, your power and the power of the Fed will be ended.  I would prefer that it be ended without also ending western civilization, which is the course we’re headed on right now.  You remember that bit earlier about capital being rare and precious?  Your policies are helping accelerate an unprecedented destruction of capital.  When the capital is gone (if not sooner) the game will be up.

 

I would like to avoid plunging into a new Dark Age.  Can we agree at least on this, Ben?

 

Sincerely,

Keith

 

Gold, the money of the free market. And it looks nice too!

 


 

 

 

 


 

 

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5 Responses to “Keith Weiner’s Open Letter to Ben Bernanke”

  • mc:

    This is good analysis mixed with editorializing as the author’s level of disgust rises. I certainly agree there are great ironies in Bernanke’s arguments, but they deserve more of the head-on treatment that some of the earlier points get. I’ll try two of them:

    6. The economy was far more volatile under the gold standard.
    The two largest periods of economic volatility in the US occurred under fiat central bank regimes. Volatility needs to consider the Boom, not just the Bust, and the accumulation of excess credit in the 1920s and 1990-2009 periods are nearly impossible under a gold standard. Because the booms were so much higher, the busts were all that much worse, and both stand as concrete examples of the failure of central economic planning to predict, prevent, mitigate, and recover from the mistakes caused by over expansion of credit and money. Because the imbalances are recognized sooner under a gold standard, the adjustments occur more quickly and can be more severe. Timely liquidation of malinvested capital is key for growth, and these short severe recessions were often followed by rapid growth in the gold regime. Looking at a chart which considers GDP growth over longer time frames (24-36 months) the gold-standard time frames are measurably less volatile than the fiat ones due to the absence of prolonged boom/bust series. Finally, attempting to measure the quantity “economic output” and then stabilize its “level” is itself a questionable process and the idea that minimizing the volatility of this flawed measure is a valuable goal is not self-evident.

    11. There’s simply not “enough” gold
    It is not the quantity of gold (money) that we are concerned with, only in limiting its growth. The fact that gold cannot be easily created is the feature, not a bug. Whatever the amount of gold, its purchasing power is a market-determined factor that is related to the universe of goods and services that can be exchanged for it. All money *can* be backed by a fixed amount of gold, with the total amount of world gold having no bearing on this fact. As well-described on this site, *any* quantity of money will work, and the damage done by creating money to devalue existing currency units is minimized by a gold standard. As far as monetarism is concerned, even if all of the iron in the world was converted to gold, it would still not be enough, because that would still represent an upper limit on the creation of money in a system where creating additional money is the response to a wide variety of issues. At nearly every point in time since its creation, the Fed has also believed that there were “simply not enough” dollars in existence either and facilitated their creation.

  • Let Us Have Peace:

    Let’s consider Mr. Weiner’s list of errors:

    1. The gold standard continued to work domestically until private ownership of gold was literally outlawed by President Roosevelt’s executive order issued under The Trading with the Enemy Act. Where the gold standard “failed” was in its enforcement by the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury in America’s dealings with the world. The French and British Treasuries and their central banks were allowed to offer their own fiat currencies (both countries had gone off the gold standard after WW I began) as payments for their imports from America. The gold standard had always required that countries adjust their trade and investments so that no country ran sustained deficits. The adjustments were made not by changes in the gold exchange standard but by the discounting of bankers acceptances, trade bills and other credits. Under the gold standard France and Britain could only go off the gold standard with holders of pounds and francs if they were willing to accept the severe discounting that would result from such defaults. By accepting France and Britain’s defaults without requiring any adjustment in the terms for U.S. lending, the United States Treasury and Federal Reserve allowed a credit expansion by their eventual Allies that dwarfs our present binge. The expansion in credits from the war spending and the destruction of wealth in the war itself produced a balance sheet crisis that was never resolved and let to a second, even more destructive war.

    2. Chairman Ben is actually right. If by “the gold standard” he means the monetary system under which the unit of account for sovereign Treasuries and their central banks is a fixed weight and measure of gold, then, yes, having a gold standard does mean that the British pound and the U.S. dollar are both “regulated” in value just as the U.S. Constitution requires. What that does not mean is that Britain and the U.S. have no way to adjust their trade and investments with one another so that their accounts balance. They have the mechanism that has always been available in commercial dealings – discounting. What Chairman Ben dislikes about the gold standard is that it prevents the central banks themselves from controlling the discounting.

    3. There was no crime in 1873. By limiting silver’s status as legal tender to fractional coinage – dimes, quarters and dollars, the Congress and President Grant ended the folly of bimetallism. As Mr. Weiner rightly points out, any attempt to make two or more precious metals act as coincident units of account leads to endless arbitrage that drives the good money out of circulation, as Gresham predicted. The U.S. Mint was not “reopened” in 1873; it had never closed. The country continued to produce gold coinage throughout the Civil War/War Between the States; what the United States did not do was keep its Constitutional promise that all its credit paper could be redeemed on demand in specie.

    4. Interest rates do not “remain stable” under the gold standard. How could they? They are the prices for the cost of credit; like all prices under free exchange they will fluctuate.

    The gold standard does not offer a world free of war, disease or financial ruin; the people who wrote and defended our Constitution only expected it to do one thing – impose a fundamental limit on the Congress’ ability to borrow Money on the Credit of the United States.

    • lcm:

      Agree. An electorate that values fiscal sensibility and votes accordingly will likely have it, regardless of whether they are on a gold standard or fiat.

      However, by not letting markets set interest rates, and centrally planning them for decades, the normal market negative feedback loops that commence when a country is following unsound fiscal policies, were circumvented. Since there did not seem to be any drawback to deficit spending (rising interest rates), what was there to worry about? When the sky didn’t fall after Carter and H. Ross Perot claimed that it would due to fiscal excesses, electorate and politicians seemed to throw caution to the wind.

      By repressing real interest rates, the Federal Reserve helped foster an environment where people who should have known better kept walking further out on thin ice because there was no sign of cracking. The ice should have been cracking years ago. Now the icy water beneath our feet is much deeper, and we are much further from shore.

  • juergenwahl:

    I have always liked gold – both cosmetically and economically. I have a gold watch (Patek Philippe), gold pen (Fend), gold cuff links (Tiffany), and a gold belt buckle (Tiffany). I have been in and out of gold investments over the past forty years. While I believe that a gold standard has very attractive merits as an automatic adjustment mechanism for the rationalisation of international trade balances if not tinkered with by politicians – unfortunately, it is always tinkered with by politicians. And this deplorable state of affairs will likely always be the case.

    Case in point: every currency regime which has ever existed has failed, excepting the present one which is now on its way out. And, every currency regime which has ever existed has failed because of political expediency! That’s why economics used to be accurately referred to as political economy. It is the pseudoscience of allocating scarce resources by means of actions of rational individuals who are subject to political constraints.

    The old gold standard was assassinated by venal politicians just as a new one would be. After reaching a tipping point, gold inflows historically resulted in a destabilising inflation. However, much worse, eventual gold outflows would cause a deflationary shrinkage of the monetary base, reduction in aggregate demand, and a rapid decrease in the number of employed workers. In a democratic society, the cry of the common man would be for the government to do something to alleviate the real, bone crunching distress arising from the deflation. Since politicians like to be re-elected, our Solons answered the cry by giving us a fractional reserve, fiat-based system. Since every system can be gamed, this one also was stretched to excess and is now close to the point of failure. So, as long as politicians still call the shots, they will determine at what rate the successor currency regime will be debased. Expecting a regime that will be sustainable, fair, and not politically driven will be tantamount to the babble which Rafael Hythloday (Huthlos, Gr., “nonsense”) encountered on his phantasy trip to Utopia (utopos, Lat., “nowhere”).

    For an attractive, workable currency proposal which does not carry the shortcomings of a gold standard, please vide: Ellen Brown’s, “Web of Debt.”

    The above said, no asset class rises forever – and gold has had quite a good run. From 1999 to 2011, this beautiful metal rose by 660% from 253 to 1924 (18.4% on a compounded basis). Gold’s progress may now be due for a rest. Its monthly chart looks “toppy.” From 3Q11 until present, a descending triangle is forming which carries bearish implications. A Fibonacci count on its last rally would suggest a possible decline to the 1470 area (-12.4%). This is midway between 1 and 2 lower standard deviations on a 20 month Bollinger indicator, and seems to be as good a downside target as any other. (Gold certainly does have enduring, intrinsic value, however, that’s why governments like to confiscate it in time of economic turmoil.)

    I still have a fear that with the great rise of this metal, and the reported counterfeiting by our Chinese friends, a scandal of sizeable proportions may be lurking in the wings. Since gold and tungsten both have comparable specific gravities (19320 kg./cu.m and 19600 kg./cu.m, respectively), it is possible that a good amount of yellow-coloured tungsten could be a part of the general investing public’s gold holdings. I hope not – but such a fiasco is not much out of line with prior Tulip, South Seas, and other episodes (remember Ber-X?). And, as Charles Kindleberger pointed out, great asset rises give rise to careless speculation and fraud.

    • jimmyjames:

      The old gold standard was assassinated by venal politicians just as a new one would be. After reaching a tipping point, gold inflows historically resulted in a destabilising inflation. However, much worse, eventual gold outflows would cause a deflationary shrinkage of the monetary base, reduction in aggregate demand, and a rapid decrease in the number of employed workers

      **************
      I don’t believe that is entirely correct-
      Under gold standard-the corrective mechanism for both inflation and deflation was prices-
      If a nation was productive they produced goods that sold into the world market and as the inflow of gold increased-prices and wages increased until their products became too expensive on the open market and importers started buying elsewhere and that would cause the trade balance to shift from a surplus to a deficit and gold would start flowing out of the country (deflation) the decrease in trade demand would force layoffs and wages and prices would decrease-but the buying power of gold actually increased during deflation to offset the decrease in wages/unemployment and “savers” (which people did under gold standard) would benefit from the lower prices-
      Eventually the lower prices would begin to attract foreign importers back and again the trade balance would shift from negative to positive and the economy would improve as unemployment fell and the trade balance (gold standards self correcting mechanism) would repeat-

      Deflation was/is not the one eyed monster Bernanke and his band of crook bankers would have us believe-

      I agree-that the law protecting gold standard under supervision of easy to bribe/vote sucking Politicians is and always has been its Achilles heel-

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