A magnificent but largely forgotten man.
Whither, Federal Reserve? (2)After Our Crash
Whither, Federal Reserve? (2)
Philadelphia Changes the Nature of Money
Banking changed its fundamentals, on Third Street in Philadelphia, three different times.
Shaping the Constitution in Philadelphia
After Independence, the weakness of the Federal government dismayed a band of ardent patriots, so under Washington's leadership a stronger Constitution was written. Almost immediately, comrades discovered they had wanted the same thing for different reasons, so during the formative period they struggled to reshape future directions . Moving the Capitol from Philadelphia to the Potomac proved curiously central to all this.
Unwritten Constitutional Modification
It is so difficult to amend the Constitution, we mostly don't do it. Our system is to have the Supreme Court migrate slowly through several small adjustments, watching the country respond. Occasionally we have imported new principles, sometimes not entirely wise ones, adopted without the same seasoning.
In noting that our Constitution has lasted for over two centuries, we assert that this simple short document has largely anticipated everything important to anticipate, including the Industrial Revolution, atomic warfare, and the Information Age, to name a few. When an occasional issue arises that is not only unmentioned in the Constitution but where no one is certain what to do, our system leaves us spiritually adrift. Such an issue is found in o0ur monetary system, where we have been wandering for two hundred years.
The founding fathers worried a great deal that popular majorities would abuse minorities, particularly in the case of the majority poor people voting themselves the property of minority rich ones, or that debtors in the majority might dishonor the rights of creditors. Although we have developed a welter of laws about debt and creditors, bankruptcy and taxation, they are if anything too specific. What is lacking is a few general words in the Constitution about the principles of credit and money. The problem now is the same as it was in 1787; we don't know what to say.
For a very long time, some very well educated people were strongly opposed to the creation of a bank, later to mean a banking system. Alexander Hamilton's proposition that a "national debt is a national treasure" was greeted with horror by several Presidents, as well as by Albert Gallatin, one of the most sophisticated financial thinkers of the time. Underlying this perplexing reaction to the simple proposal to create a bank was surely the perception that making the Federal Government into a substantial debtor creates a powerful ally to all debtors in their eternal struggle with all creditors; the outcome of such an unequal struggle would inevitably be to the disadvantage of creditors. In common parlance, the word capitalist seems to imply a creditor. It took a very long time for it to become understandable that debtors, too, were essential beneficiaries of a capitalist system, but that idea still often meets with dissent. However, when millions of the world population belong to religions which prohibit the payment of interest, it should not be surprising to find many Americans who cannot get their heads around the idea that debtors and creditors need each other to an equal degree.
In the case of inflation, governments have always been somewhat favorable to debauching the currency. Naturally, a major debtor hopes to repay its debt with cheaper money. Since it has more or less always been necessary to use police powers to maintain a common currency, Kings and governments have long been in control of money, whether that means gold bars or beaded wampum. And for the same length of time, governments have been discovered bending the rules in favor of themselves. Bronze has been substituted for gold, the edges of coins have been shaved, the printing presses print paper money unrestrainedly, and the consumer price index has been manipulated to encourage inflation. Political parties have sought votes from debtors by promising to regulate banks, promote silver as a substitute for gold, disadvantage foreign competitors, inhibit or manipulate the value of the currency on foreign exchanges.
For forty years we have operated without any fixed standard for money. Money for all that time has lacked any physical representation or discipline. Money has become a computer notation. At first, it was based on calculations of monetary aggregates, a bewildering concept promoted by Milton Friedman. More recently, it is entirely based on inflation targeting as promoted by Alan Greenspan. With a target of maintaining steady prices, an inflation rate of 2% is set as a specific target for the Federal Reserve. If inflation falls below that target, more money is created; if it rises above that level, less money is created. How much there is of it does not matter; it's beyond calculation. Although this simplified description fills almost any listener with doubts, it seemed vindicated by seventeen years without a notable recession. Even though events beginning in 2007 raise pretty serious doubts, it may still prove to be the best possible monetary system.
Even though this most fundamental of all commercial issues cry out for a simple principle to be stated in the Constitution so that neither populist congressmen not rapacious financiers can ruin us, it is not presently possible even to imagine what a new Constitutional amendment would, should or even could say. Meanwhile, some immense power rests in the hands of shadowy figures whom we blindly trust, for lack of a better idea about how we should select them or what we should instruct them to do.
Originally published: Wednesday, December 31, 2008; most-recently modified: Sunday, July 21, 2019