The Gold Bug Variations

The search for better economic policy.
Nov. 23 1996 3:30 AM

The Gold Bug Variations

The gold standard--and the men who love it.

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The legend of King Midas has been generally misunderstood. Most people think the curse that turned everything the old miser touched into gold, leaving him unable to eat or drink, was a lesson in the perils of avarice. But Midas' true sin was his failure to understand monetary economics. What the gods were really telling him is that gold is just a metal. If it sometimes seems to be more, that is only because society has found it convenient to use gold as a medium of exchange--a bridge between other, truly desirable, objects. There are other possible mediums of exchange, and it is silly to imagine that this pretty, but only moderately useful, substance has some irreplaceable significance.

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But there are many people--nearly all of them ardent conservatives--who reject that lesson. While Jack Kemp, Steve Forbes, and Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley are best known for their promotion of supply-side economics, they are equally dedicated to the belief that the key to prosperity is a return to the gold standard, which John Maynard Keynes pronounced a "barbarous relic" more than 60 years ago. With any luck, these latter-day Midases will never lay a finger on actual monetary policy. Nonetheless, these are influential people--they are one of the factions now struggling for the Republican Party's soul--and the passionate arguments they make for a gold standard are a useful window on how they think.

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T here is a case to be made for a return to the gold standard. It is not a very good case, and most sensible economists reject it, but the idea is not completely crazy. On the other hand, the ideas of our modern gold bugs are completely crazy. Their belief in gold is, it turns out, not pragmatic but mystical.

The current world monetary system assigns no special role to gold; indeed, the Federal Reserve is not obliged to tie the dollar to anything. It can print as much or as little money as it deems appropriate. There are powerful advantages to such an unconstrained system. Above all, the Fed is free to respond to actual or threatened recessions by pumping in money. To take only one example, that flexibility is the reason the stock market crash of 1987--which started out every bit as frightening as that of 1929--did not cause a slump in the real economy.

While a freely floating national money has advantages, however, it also has risks. For one thing, it can create uncertainties for international traders and investors. Over the past five years, the dollar has been worth as much as 120 yen and as little as 80. The costs of this volatility are hard to measure (partly because sophisticated financial markets allow businesses to hedge much of that risk), but they must be significant. Furthermore, a system that leaves monetary managers free to do good also leaves them free to be irresponsible--and, in some countries, they have been quick to take the opportunity. That is why countries with a history of runaway inflation, like Argentina, often come to the conclusion that monetary independence is a poisoned chalice. (Argentine law now requires that one peso be worth exactly one U.S. dollar, and that every peso in circulation be backed by a dollar in reserves.)

So, there is no obvious answer to the question of whether or not to tie a nation's currency to some external standard. By establishing a fixed rate of exchange between currencies--or even adopting a common currency--nations can eliminate the uncertainties of fluctuating exchange rates; and a country with a history of irresponsible policies may be able to gain credibility by association. (The Italian government wants to join a European Monetary Union largely because it hopes to refinance its massive debts at German interest rates.) On the other hand, what happens if two nations have joined their currencies, and one finds itself experiencing an inflationary boom while the other is in a deflationary recession? (This is exactly what happened to Europe in the early 1990s, when western Germany boomed while the rest of Europe slid into double-digit unemployment.) Then the monetary policy that is appropriate for one is exactly wrong for the other. These ambiguities explain why economists are divided over the wisdom of Europe's attempt to create a common currency. I personally think that it will lead, on average, to somewhat higher European unemployment rates; but many sensible economists disagree.

So where does gold enter the picture?

While some modern nations have chosen, with reasonable justification, to renounce their monetary autonomy in favor of some external standard, the standard they choose these days is always the currency of another, presumably more responsible, nation. Argentina seeks salvation from the dollar; Italy from the deutsche mark. But the men and women who run the Fed, and even those who run the German Bundesbank, are mere mortals, who may yet succumb to the temptations of the printing press. Why not ensure monetary virtue by trusting not in the wisdom of men but in an objective standard? Why not emulate our great-grandfathers and tie our currencies to gold?

Very few economists think this would be a good idea. The argument against it is one of pragmatism, not principle. First, a gold standard would have all the disadvantages of any system of rigidly fixed exchange rates--and even economists who are enthusiastic about a common European currency generally think that fixing the European currency to the dollar or yen would be going too far. Second, and crucially, gold is not a stable standard when measured in terms of other goods and services. On the contrary, it is a commodity whose price is constantly buffeted by shifts in supply and demand that have nothing to do with the needs of the world economy--by changes, for example, in dentistry.

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T he United States abandoned its policy of stabilizing gold prices back in 1971. Since then the price of gold has increased roughly tenfold, while consumer prices have increased about 250 percent. If we had tried to keep the price of gold from rising, this would have required a massive decline in the prices of practically everything else--deflation on a scale not seen since the Depression. This doesn't sound like a particularly good idea.

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