Building a real financial system
November 2, 2008 8:50 AM   Subscribe

The origins of central banking or, perhaps, central planning[1,2] and a defense of fiat currency[3] in the information age.

"[T]he Federal Reserve erred catastrophically in the Depression not just by failing to stem the decline in those bank deposits necessary to fuel consumer spending but also by allowing banks to fail. In so doing, the Fed destroyed the organization[4] and knowledge base that made banks trusted intermediaries between the myriads of savers with no knowledge of business prospects and the thousands of businesses with no direct ability to draw on individual savers' resources."
posted by kliuless (39 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fiat currency will be our downfall.
Being backed by the "good faith" of the US government is so weak you couldn't blow your nose in it.

You can't print unlimited gold and silver.
posted by Balisong at 12:44 PM on November 2, 2008


Fiat currency is bad, yes, we get that. However, the practice of taking an almost unreactive, ductile, highly electrically conductive metal and turning it into useless bricks and storing it away in vaults, is also bad. Gold being a currency standard makes it expensive, ridiculously so, to the point where its many uses are adversely affected.

There is no inherent reason, beyond (a) it's traditional; (b) gold is kinda pretty, why gold should be chosen as a currency standard. And yet, almost every single essay arguing "we must get rid of fiat currency!" includes this absurd fetishizing of gold. Almost as if the stuff was magical.

How about we pick something else this time? Please?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:13 PM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Non-fiat money only works if the total pool of gold and silver magically reflects the level of economic activity.

Consider a very real world activity, say making iron, steel and aluminum into an engine. An automobile engine costs somewhere in the $1000 to $5000 range, but only requires about $50 worth of materials and maybe another $50 worth of consumables. Once you've payed off your capital you're creating $900-4900 with every engine you crank out.

And most Americans are willing to dismiss things like making an engine as not a skilled enough activity for a first world economy to even bother noticing. Raw materials, even gold and silver, are just not worth enough to keep up with a modern economy.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:14 PM on November 2, 2008


How about we pick something else this time? Please?

Oak leaves?
posted by Balisong at 2:49 PM on November 2, 2008


Non-fiat money only works if the total pool of gold and silver magically reflects the level of economic activity.

No, the value of gold or silver reflects the level of economic activity. Not the price, the value. What it will buy. Sometimes an ounce of silver will get you a sandwitch and a soda. At other times it can buy you a tank of gas, and at others it can buy you rent for a month.

It all depends on the value we attribute to it. Much like currency.
But again, you can't mass print gold and silver. Use whatever real money you want. Diamonds, (DeBeers would love that), emeralds, bushels of wheat, cows, or something else with a known quantity, (or a known production increase per year). Name another fiat currency that has been in circulation for over 200 years. They all fall.

That 700Bil. bailout will dilute every other dollar in existance. Hidden devaluation by inflation.
posted by Balisong at 3:02 PM on November 2, 2008


Oh the rallying cry of "you can't print x out of existance" from the romantic rose-tinted goggles brigade.

Whatever you use as a specie you're going to be at the mercy of the supply of that specie. Sure it's great to look back on 0.1 percent inflation but the short term price stability was in the toilet. What about the times where gold surges caused huge price increases? Do you look back upon those times with such fondness? And what happens when you hit peak gold? Do you think the economy will just stop all growth, sit there and deflate itself out of existence?

Also, fixing the price of a widely traded commodity just encourages speculation. Look at Bretton Woods. Convert gold at $35/ounce and sell it on the open market at $40/ounce. That should be more than enough to tell you that any government has no business in setting the price of gold.

As much as I hate and despise fiat currency and its punishment of responsible savers through constant (but moderate) inflation, it's definitely the lesser of two evils in this case.
posted by Talez at 3:39 PM on November 2, 2008


Oak leaves?
The more I think about it the more I like it. Oaks take ages to grow, if you pull the leaves off them, it'll kill them, they are climate-sensitive, require a fair bit of maintenance; on the other hand, just about anyone could do it if they were of a mind to. Much like digging for gold.

I like (well, I don't like, but I respect the argument of) Terry Pratchett's answer in Making Money, which re-translated to our real world, amounts to: nuclear missiles. ALthough, as with gold, that's a bunch of useful stuff (fissionable materials) that aren't being used for power or medicine or research.

Hmm. What about electricity--or power--supply as a currency standard? Watt/hour dollars?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:46 PM on November 2, 2008


Eponysterical?
posted by OverlappingElvis at 4:11 PM on November 2, 2008


oh god I love gold I need more more please so shiny dear lord not enough not enough please i need more.
posted by Pants! at 4:56 PM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Fiat currency is bad

There is nothing wrong with fiat currency, other than that governments find it easier to abuse. You can talk until you're blue in the face about how fiat currency spells the end for everything it touches, but you'll look rather silly.
posted by oaf at 4:57 PM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Fiat currency will be our downfall.

Labor is the source of all wealth. Fiat currency mandates that American workers accept dollars in return for labor. As long as American labor generates wealth, the dollar will have value. When Americans stop being productive, the dollar will be worth nothing, but at that point, not being on the gold standard will be the least of our problems.

Gold creates nothing. You will never earn money by investing in gold. You earn money by investing in people.
posted by empath at 5:27 PM on November 2, 2008


Sometimes an ounce of silver will get you a sandwitch and a soda. At other times it can buy you a tank of gas, and at others it can buy you rent for a month.
Aren't those the problems people criticize fiat currencies for?
posted by hattifattener at 6:41 PM on November 2, 2008


Except you can take your gold to another country and buy things with it.

Or your gold will still be worth something even if the dollar crashes.
Gold has NEVER been worth zero.
With Zimbabue's currency at astronomical inflation, is gold worth nothing?

Gold creates nothing. You will never earn money by investing in gold.

Nope, you won't. Gold is a better investment to guard against the devaluation against currency, so you can purchase the same worth of value years later than putting your money in your mattress, or depositing it in a bank. (maybe not the Euro or BPS comparatively, but probably better than dollars in the long run.)

There is a difference in money and currency.
Money is real, and currency is imaginary.
Price means nothing. Value is everything.
posted by Balisong at 6:44 PM on November 2, 2008


Maybe Mutant will come in here and set us all straight.
I don't claim to be an expert. I hope someone else will come in here and give us some better insight.

There are better ways to guard your labor than the currency available.
Fiat currencies are subject to whims of governments. Paulson is now the most powerful person on the planet. More than Bill Gates, more than the Saudi princes, more than ANYONE.
Everyone in America is a subject to his whim.

When they did the 700bil bailout, it was 700bil at a time.
He can buy 700bil of bad debt, and sell it all for a penny.
Then he has another 699,999,999,999.99 to buy more debt and sell all that for a penny, too. He can give it away to all his friends if he wants to.
No lawsuit can stop him. No congress can question him. No president can stop him.

It's the end of our currency system. I fear for our current way of life.
But, you know, life goes on.
posted by Balisong at 7:08 PM on November 2, 2008


Or your gold will still be worth something even if the dollar crashes.
Gold has NEVER been worth zero.
With Zimbabue's currency at astronomical inflation, is gold worth nothing?


I'd like to point out that gold only stores its value because you have a reasonable expectation that other people will accept gold when all is said and done.

If an alchemist discovered the way to turn lead into gold tomorrow you can bet your ass that gold as a store of value would go out the window. For reference see the Yap stone coins being debased to oblivion. Currency backed up by an asset still managed to get owned by inflation.

Currency is merely a social agreement of an agreed store of value. If it provides no use as a store of that value then the currency itself collapses whether it be paper, stones or shiny beads. If the government decides to print the money like it's going out of fashion then it's going to be debased. It's not a bug in fiat currency. It's a fundamental part of how currency is supposed to work.
posted by Talez at 7:34 PM on November 2, 2008


Damn electrons!
posted by Balisong at 7:35 PM on November 2, 2008


Er, Protons.
But yes, if you could do cold fusion, then yes, everything would change.
posted by Balisong at 7:42 PM on November 2, 2008


Well then look at the denarius.

Any government that is determined to debase the currency will be able to do so whether they have paper money or shiny precious metal coins.
posted by Talez at 7:45 PM on November 2, 2008


Aparently, some people forget, or didn't know, that it was ILLEGAL to own gold from 1944-1974
posted by Balisong at 7:54 PM on November 2, 2008


Balisong, I honestly can tell if you're being serious or if you're intentionally doing a pitch perfect parody of a Ron Paul supporter.
posted by empath at 8:13 PM on November 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Illegal to own gold? You would think the big controversy would be good old Executive Order 6102.

I never understood why people hold FDR in such high esteem when he effectively stole the gold of US citizens and gave back bits of paper in exchange.
posted by Talez at 8:22 PM on November 2, 2008


Well, I am an interested party.
I closed out my savings account and bought 500+ ounces of silver, and a couple ounces of gold.

But not before I did my own homework. I would encourage everyone to take this stuff seriously. I cashed in my savings and changed all those worthless dollars into things of real worth.
(you know, precious metals, canned goods, shotguns, ammo. Just like I did after Y2k. I never regretted doing it then, and I probably won't now. Except, I'm finally getting around to eating the last of the Y2k peanut butter, and kipper snacks.)
posted by Balisong at 8:35 PM on November 2, 2008


Hmm... Peanut butter shotgun... crunchy and delicious...
posted by qvantamon at 8:42 PM on November 2, 2008


I never understood why people hold FDR in such high esteem when he effectively stole the gold of US citizens and gave back bits of paper in exchange.
Exactly. Nixon, too.
posted by Balisong at 8:44 PM on November 2, 2008


Salt?
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 10:26 PM on November 2, 2008


This stuff is freaking me out, so should I buy booze, bullets, and beans? Will Metafilter be disassembled since its operations are probably based on a Fiat currency? I don't want to have to go back to reading Fark again, like in the early internet days. God help us all.....
posted by highgene at 12:09 AM on November 3, 2008


guys, guys, i come not to bury fiat currencies, but to praise them!

understanding that money is, essentially, a (collective) memory system not at all unlike the big chart for measuring/assigning relative value amongst all many things, or at least helping to accommodate the discovery of such over a variegated population, and recognising the administration of money as a unit of account, means of exchange and store of value, first evolving as specie, and inaugurated in the modern era by gov't diktat (backed by state-controlled violence/power of taxation) through mint and seigniorage, might i suggest that utility and historical (path-dependant) legacy aside it's all rather arbitrary and, indeed, is? that, moreover, because of its arbitrary nature, we might change it (being the leitmotif of the current zeitgeist of course) as is our wont?

what matters in so much as choice of currency is concerned is trust and confidence, that which everyone can agree upon over time and generations. by default that has fallen to the immutability of (by definition) precious metals and/or (sadly) 'the sword' (point of a gun, nuclear annihilation, etc.) but cannot this situation be improved upon? is human ingenuity and progress so limited?

we turned to the tyranny of windows, operating under its closed-source auspices for decades, blithely assuming that because it worked well enough and relatively cheaply (if not entirely 'free') and because everyone else was using it we were locked in, even if perhaps unconsciously we knew there might be a better reality out there or that it would take someone high to propose a way to think differently, that we were locking ourselves in...

so let a thousand currencies bloom (fiat or otherwise) to each according to their needs and never let the underlying model (or ancien regime) lie :P
posted by kliuless at 4:28 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


No lawsuit can stop him. No congress can question him. No president can stop him.

You seem to be unfamiliar with our legal system.
posted by oaf at 4:49 AM on November 3, 2008


you seem to have not read the bailout.
posted by Balisong at 6:36 AM on November 3, 2008


Gold has NEVER been worth zero.

Tell that to King Midas.

Gold bugs seriously annoy me. Anything is worth just as much as people are willing to give you in exchange, in goods or services, for it. This is the same for precious metals as for fiat currency or anything else. If the shit really hits the fan, you'll find gold a much devalued currency compared to canned meat or drinking water. The fact is that, just like paper money, gold and silver's main usefulness is as a means of exchange. Just as with paper money, oversupply leads to inflation, as was witnessed in XVII century Spain, or in many a goldmining town.

So it is bright and shiny. Big fucking deal.
posted by Skeptic at 7:43 AM on November 3, 2008


Yeah! We need to advance to Space Money.
posted by Balisong at 7:48 AM on November 3, 2008


you seem to have not read the bailout.

You seem not to be familiar with the legal system.
posted by oaf at 8:33 AM on November 3, 2008


Joule-based currency is the next big thing (in my dreams).

How much should that car cost? Well, approximately [How many joules worth of material went into its production] + [How many joules worth of energy and labor (as measured in terms of each laborer's expenditure of biological energy X a multiplier for the going market value of each laborer's skill set + any additional weighting for experience) went into its production] + [how many joules does the retailer expend in operating overhead] + [profit mark up for value added] ... Etc. The only question left open then is how many joules is one unit of your currency worth, which would be a function of your country's over-all economic output and the going market value of your currency against an index of global joule output. Depending on the answer, that's how much a car should cost.

Simple, clean, and grounded soundly in reality. Which is also why we will never see anything like it in our lifetimes.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:50 AM on November 3, 2008


saulgoodman A car will cost what other people are ready to pay for it. There are things that demand a lot of energy and effort, yet are worthless. I certainly wouldn't like to reward people and corporations for their inefficiency.
posted by Skeptic at 11:55 AM on November 3, 2008


Gold has NEVER been worth zero.

Gold was of extremely low value in Incan South America. Perhaps you should try reading some history?
posted by rodgerd at 12:41 PM on November 3, 2008


Well, since that is relevant, let's discuss it.

How much gold in Incan South America would a LED flashlight cost?
posted by Balisong at 1:20 PM on November 3, 2008


Balisong, that is a non-sequitur: How many LED flashlights would an ounce of gold in Incan South America cost?
posted by Skeptic at 2:25 PM on November 3, 2008


I certainly wouldn't like to reward people and corporations for their inefficiency.

Then don't buy their wasteful and useless products.

At least in a joule-indexed monetary system, those people and corporations wouldn't be as free to externalize the true costs of the resources and efforts they expend to bring expensive-to-produce but ultimately worthless products to market. The sticker price would minimally reflect the actual cost of the physical resources required, in monetary terms, to provide the good or service.

And if the properly-adjusted price of a good caused too much sticker shock at the checkout, it wouldn't sell, causing the producer's bottom line to take a heavy hit.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:35 PM on November 3, 2008


We all know South American Incas didn't weigh things in ounces.
Plus, they would only want to buy one, and they probably didn't even call it "gold".
posted by Balisong at 4:26 PM on November 3, 2008


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