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Noah Smith Needs Backup: Hoisted from the Archives: Sources of Austrian Confusion

Noah Smith ventures deep into the weeds where people talk about good German engineers and bad Jewish financiers:

Noahpinion: Inflation for the People: For the past few weeks I've been getting acquainted with the popular wing of the "Austrian economics" movement. First I discovered the Bizarro Economics World of online forums, then I got re-acquainted with Zero Hedge, which seems to have taken a more and more inflationista/goldbuggy/Austrian tone in recent years.  Then a bunch of Texan friends started posting "End the Fed!" memes to my Facebook feed. So I went on Facebook and I asked: "Why do people want to end the Fed?"

In response, a friend sent me this video… a guy loses his house, and his American Dream is crushed. He is then taken back in time by a guy with a horribly fake African-American accent, to witness the source of his problems. As it turns out, everything is the fault of bankers, who steal people's money through fractional reserve banking. Eventually, banking power is concentrated in the hands of a shadowy cabal headed by the Rothschilds, to whom even J.P. Morgan must kowtow. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson temporarily hold off the evil bankers here in America, ushering in a huge boom "with real money, backed with real gold." But eventually the bankers get in, and end up forming the Fed, which proceeds to steal people's hard-earned money even more via inflation and collaboration with the IRS. 

Anyway, for now I'll ignore the oddity of anti-semitic video makers latching onto an economic philosophy (Austrianism) invented by a Jewish guy and a movement (the Ron Paul movement) inspired by another Jewish guy. Anti-semitism has always been a bit weird like that. I'll also put aside the thing about fractional reserve banking (a subject for another post)…

We may never see him again.

So let me throw him a lifeline, in the form of an explanation of where this Austrian fear not just of central banking but of any kind of banking comes from:

Hoistd from the Archives: November 2011: Brad DeLong: "Fictitious" Wealth and Ludwig von Mises: In comments, rootless_e warns:

Attempts to make sense out of right wing Austrian economics can never amount to anything.

Nevertheless, like a moth to a flame--or like a dog to its vomit, or like a dog to something worse--whenever I see something like:

Ludwig von Mises: Attempts to carry out economic reforms from the monetary side can never amount to anything but an artificial stimulation of economic activity by an expansion of the circulation, and this, as must constantly be emphasized, must necessarily lead to crisis and depression. Recurring economic crises are nothing but the consequence of attempts, despite all the teachings of experience and all the warnings of the economists, to stimulate economic activity by means of additional credit...

I find myself under a mysterious but inexorable and irresistible compulsion to waste what would otherwise be productive work time trying to make some kind of sense of it--to at least understand wherein lies the error, and how somebody trying very hard to understand the economy (never mind that he is a big fan of the political leadership of Benito Mussolini) can go so pathetically wrong.

It is, of course, not the case that every expansion of the circulation is an "artificial" (and unnatural) "stimulation of economic activity" that must "necessarily lead to crisis an depression". So why does Ludwig von Mises think that it must?

Here is my current guess as to where von Mises is coming from:

Let us start out with a world of publicly-known technology and constant returns to scale in everything. People happily make things and trade them. And everything sells at its resource cost.

One of the things people make is little disks of gold, usually decorated with pictures of bearded men on one side and allegorical female figures on the other, with lettering saying things like: "Fecund Augustae" or "Concordia Militum" or "Fides Exercituum" on them. These little gold disks trade--like everything else--at their cost of production: the cost of digging the ore out of the ground, extracting the metal from the ore, and stamping the disk into the right shape.

Then somebody has a bright idea: Because these little metal disks are valuable and easy to carry, they are subject to theft. I will offer to perform a service: I will keep everybody's little metal disks in my stronghouse, and let's write out signed declarations that people have little metal disks in my stronghouse and they can trade those rather than the disks directly. Here is what one such might look like:


And--as long as the circulating medium is backed by gold--everything goes on as before, with everything selling for its cost of production.

Then somebody else has a bright idea: They write out a whole bunch of signed declarations that they have little metal disks in the stronghouse, even though they actually do not have any such. They then buy things with these pieces of the circulating medium that they have written out.

These people, Ludwig von Mises says, are thieves: thieves pure and simple:

  1. They have bought useful things.

  2. They have claimed that they have done so by trading (claims to) valuable little metal disks (in the warehouse) for useful commodities.

  3. But they have lied.

  4. They did not have any valuable little metal disks for trade.

And, Ludwig von Mises would say, these lying thieves come in three forms:

  1. governments that print dollar bills without having 100% gold bullion backing for them in Fort Knox.

  2. banks that issue bank notes.

  3. banks that allow depositors to write checks in amounts that exceed the specie reserves they have in their vaults.

The problem, I think Ludwig von Mises would say, is that the wealth of society is the amount of work has gone into creating the commodities in the economy: the food, the clothing, the houses, the little gold disks. The sum of past work crystalized in commodities is society's wealth. The food is wealth, the housing is wealth, the clothing is wealth, and the little gold disks are wealth. Then add unbacked fiat money and bank credit--either public or private, it doesn't matter--to the mix. The fiat money and the bank credit are counted as wealth, as if they were claims to little gold disks that took sweat and tears to create, but they are not wealth at all. They are fictions: false promises that there is somewhere some valuable gold that you have title to.

And, Ludwig von Mises would say, the larger the unbacked circulating medium the bigger the lie and the theft. It is all guaranteed to end in tears. Whenever society thinks that it is richer than it is, plans will be inconsistent and unattainable. When that unattainability becomes manifest, that will trigger the crash and the depression.

That is, I think, where von Mises is coming from.

And, of course, this is wrong--so so so so so so so so so unbelievably wrong.

It is simply not the case that we can cheaply and easily buy things with money because it is valuable. It is, instead, the case that money is valuable because we can cheaply and easily buy things with it.

One way into the tangle of understanding why it is wrong is to ask each of us why we are happy accepting money in exchange when we sell useful commodities. Hint: it's not because we are looking forward to going down to the bank, exchanging our bank notes for the little disks of gold usually decorated with pictures of bearded men on one side and allegorical female figures on the other with lettering saying things like "Fecund Augustae" or "Concordia Militum" or "Fides Exercituum" on them, taking our little disks home, and feeling happy looking at them.

That's not why we accept money.

We accept money because if we don't have any money we have to buy commodities with other commodities, and when we do so we are unlikely to receive the cost of production for what we sell. Have you ever tried to buy a latte at Peets with a copy of Ludwig von Mises's Money and Credit? It does not go well.

The fact is that your wealth is only worth its cost of production if you are liquid--if you can wait to sell until somebody willing to pay full cost of production comes along, which is not every minute. The use-value of money is that it allows you to time your other transactions so that you can realize the full exchange value of what you sell, rather than having to sell it at a discount.

Thus there is no paradox: no sense in which the existence of fiat money creates a situation in which society must necessarily think that it is richer than it is, with claims to total wealth valued at more than the value of total wealth itself. You think--correctly--that your fiat money has value, and that value is just equal to the discount from its cost of production that your other wealth incurs because it is illiquid. But what if the government prints more fiat money than the illiquidity gap in your other wealth? Well, then people will say: "I don't need to hold all this extra money. I would be liquid enough with less." Everybody will try to run down their money balances, and so the price level will rise until the real money stock is just what people think covers the illiquidity gap between their other wealth and its cost of production.

What von Mises misses completely is that the size of this illiquidity gap can and does change suddenly and drastically--and it is the business of the central bank and of the government to alter the quantity of money to keep such changes from disrupting the real economy.