Davies’ “Extreme Economies” – Part 1: Survival

Late to the party, I relied on the quality-control of the masses before I plunged into Richard Davies’ much-hyped book Extreme Economies: Survival, Failure and Future – Lessons from the World’s Limits (see reviews by Diane Coyle and Philip Aldrick). I first heard about it on some Summer Reading List – or perhaps Financial Times’ shortlist for best books of 2019. What really prompted me to read it, however, was an unlikely source: The Guardian’s long-read in late-August. Davies adopted his Louisiana Prison chapter and described the intricate ways prisoners and guards in maximum-security prison Louisiana State Penitentiary (“Angola”) exchange value using the top-up debit card Green Dot and single-use MoneyPak cards. I was hooked.

Davies’ captivating and personal writing in that 4000-word piece made me want to read the full thing. Once I got around to it, I couldn’t put it down – which is the best compliment an author can get. At little over 400 pages of easy non-jargon prose, it doesn’t take too long to get through – and the nine case-study chapters can easily be read on their own. Further attesting to the brilliance of the book are the many questions it raised with me, insights to investigate further.

The book’s structure is simple to follow: three themes ‘Survival’ (“The Economics of Resilience”), ‘Failure’ (“The Economics of Lost Potential”) and ‘Future’ (“The Economics of Tomorrow”), each containing three fascinating places, wrapped between an introductory and a concluding chapter.

The motivation for the book is a mixture of John Maynard Keynes and a Scottish 19th century civil engineer named David Kirkaldy. The latter’s big idea was studying “why materials buckled and bent under pressure” (p. 31); to fully grasp the potential for something, we need to examine why they fall apart. From Keynes Davies took the idea that the future is already partly here:

“We can get a glimpse of the future today, if we know where to look. The trick was to identify a sustained trend – a path most people are following – and look at the lives of those experiencing the extremes of that trend. […] to zoom forward in time, he said, we need to find those whose lives are like this already.” (p. 31)

Davies ventures to nine places of the world, all extreme in some aspect, and investigates the everyday economic challenges that people face and the ingenious ways in which they do – or do not – solve them. By carefully looking at the present, he posits to gauge something about the future.

In this first part – ‘Survival’ – I look at Davies’ three selections (Aceh, Indonesia; Zaatari, Jordan; and Louisiana, U.S.). The next part contains the case studies of ‘Failure’ (Darien, Panama; Kinshasa, DRC; Glasgow, Scotland) and the concluding part looks at ‘Future’ (Akita, Japan; Tallinn, Estonia; and Santiago, Chile). As I have personal experience of living in two of these places while knowing virtually nothing about many of the others, I reserve some complementary reflections on Glasgow and Santiago when appropriate.

Aceh, Indonesia

On Dec 26, 2004, an Indian Ocean earthquake created a tsunami that devastated coastlines from Thailand to Madagascar. Two-thirds of the 230,000 human lives lost were in Indonesia, mostly in the Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra, closest to the earthquake’s epicentre. Pictures taken before and after show how complete the destruction was; except for a few sturdy mosques, nothing was left standing.

A few years later, the busy streets and crowded beaches were pretty much back to normal. How?

Davies’ story does not emphasise aid flows or new investment by outsiders, but “informal systems of trade, exchange and even currency” (p. 49), an aspect that generally “goes unmeasured an unassessed” (p. 65). Aceh’s catastrophe is a story of human resilience and of intangibles.

The people Davies interviewed told him how the ancient Aceh practice of keeping savings in wearable and portable gold – necklace, rings, bangles – provided survivors who had lost everything with a source of funds to draw on. Importantly, a gold dealer told him, as the market price of gold is set internationally, the massive sell orders coming in simultaneously did not affect prices very much. Additionally, the dealer’s knowledge of market prices and contacts in Jakarta allowed him to quickly set up his business again. Buying Acehnese’s gold during those crucial months, way before foreign aid or government could effectively respond, provided people with funds to rebuild their lives. Traditional practices “insulated Aceh and provided its entrepreneurs with rapid access to cash” (p. 49).

Another insightful observation is the role played by intangibles – the knowledge of how and where and when that most of our economies depend on. Sanusi, 52-year-old coffee trader, lost everything: his shop, his equipment, his family. Amid his devastation he realized that one thing that the tsunami had not destroyed was his knowledge of the coffee business – where to source the best beans, how to make it, where and when to sell the coffee. He patched together some spare planks, used his business contacts to provide him with trade credit and had his rudimentary coffee business set-up in time for the arrival of coffee-drinking construction and aid-agency workers.

Davies also gives us a very balanced GDP discussion here, as the years after the December 2004 disaster saw huge GDP growth. Most economists would reflexively object and invoke Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy. Yes, Davies is well aware, but he’s getting at something more subtle:

“GDP aims to capture what a country’s residents are doing now, rather than what they have done previously. [It is] all about current human activities – spending, wages, income, producing goods – rather than the value embodied in physical assets such as building and factories. Far from being a mean or cold measure, economists’ favourite yardstick is a fundamentally human one.” (p. 53, 65)

To GDP, what you produced in the past is of no consequence. Clearly, when the tsunami devastated the coastline of Aceh, killing hundreds of thousands of people in the process and wiping away houses, factories and equipment, that made everyone poorer – their assets and savings and capital were literally washed away. Considering the massive construction boom that followed, only partly financed by outside aid and government money, it is not incorrect to say that GDP boomed; it is only incorrect to believe that people were made better off because of the disaster. Bastiat teaches us that they were not.

I think of this as the difference between your total savings (in cash, stocks, bank accounts, houses, jewelry) and your monthly income, a difference between “stock” and “flow”. If, like many Acehnese that Davies interviewed, your earnings-potential depend on your knowledge of your industry, your most valuable assets remain untouched even after a complete disaster. Your savings – your capital, your stuff – are completely eradicated, but the basis for your future income remains intact. With some minor equipment – a trade credit, some furniture, a shop patched together with flotsam – you can quickly approach the production and income you had before. GDP attempts to measure that income – not the current value of total assets.

“The people here,” Davies concludes, “lost every physical asset but the tsunami survivors retained skills and knowledge from before the disaster, and rebuilt quickly as a result.” (p. 66).

Zaatari, Jordan

Following the Syrian civil war and its exodus of refugees, camps were set up in many neighbouring countries. Often run by the UN, these camps ensure minimum survivability and life-support for refugees and are rather centrally-planned; the UNHCR hands out blankets, assigns tents and provides in-kind goods and services (food, medicine etc).

In April 2013, the Zaatari camp in the northern Jordan desert had grown to over 200,000 inhabitants, with daily inflows of up to 4,000 refugees. It was too much – and the UNHCR “ran out of manpower” (p. 70). They rationalised operations, focused on their core tasks – and left individuals alone to trade, construct and flourish on their own. It became a lesson in anarchic cooperation and of the essentiality of markets – and, like the Louisiana prison economy below, an ingenious monetary system.  It “did not happen by design, but by accident”, Davies writes, and constitutes “an economic puzzle worth unpicking” (p. 72) only if you doubt the beneficial consequences of markets and free people. If you don’t, the result is predictable.

Every month, the Zaatari camp administrators load up payment cards for the refugees with 20 dinars (£23) per person, spendable only in the two camp supermarkets. Designed to be a cashless economy, the money flowed directly from donors to the supermarkets: “refugees cannot transfer cash between wallets, so aid money designated for food cannot be spent on clothes, and the winter clothing allowance cannot be spent on food” (p. 79).

This extreme and artificial economy teaches us something universal about markets; imposed orders, out of touch with market participants’ demands, malfunctions and create huge wastes. Complete monetary control by outsiders, Davies writes, “fails the basic test of any well-functioning market – to be a place where demand meets supply” (pp. 80-81). Supermarkets lacked the things refugees wanted, and they stocked up on things that reflected kickbacks to donor countries (Italian spaghetti or Brazilian coffee), entirely out of sync with Syrian cuisine and preferences. And the unorganic, artificially-set prices were entirely detached from the outside world.

Yet, the refugee city of Zaatari is a flourishing economy where people build, make and trade all kinds of things. How did this happen? Innovative Syrians found a way around their monetary restrictions: the economy of Zaatari “rests on the conversion of homes to business and flipping aid credit, via smuggling, into hard cash” (p. 88). Informal and free markets, at their best.

Along most of the camp’s boundaries, there are no fences, only roads – and the huge number of children playing ball games on the concrete roads or running in and out of the camp, makes identifying who’s a refugee and who’s a teenage smuggler next to impossible. What the refugees did was:

  • buy some item in the supermarket using the e-card credits provided by UNHCR
  • sell it to smugglers for less than their outside market value and obtain hard cash in return
  • smugglers slip out of the camp and sell the goods to Jordanians and other driving past, taking a cut for themselves.

Bottom line: refugees turned 20 dinars of illiquid and restricted e-credit into hard cash, spendable on anything anywhere in the camp. The productive powers of 200,000 refugees was unleashed. In Zaatari, the presence of smugglers allowed large-scale interactions with the outside world – and so the artificially-created closed-loop payment system did not remain closed. Instead, it was connected to the outside Jordanian economy through smuggling!

The take-away point is to cherish market activities, even informal ones, since they “matter to everyone and are fundamentally human” (p. 102). Governments plan and creates problems; markets solve them.

Louisiana State Prison

Analogous to the Zaatari refugees, prisoners in Louisiana’s maximum-security prison (“Angola”) find themselves in a similar economic squeeze: unsatisfied demand and large shortage of goods, artificial constraints on what prisoners can and cannot own. Prisons are places where official prices don’t work: paltry “incomes” through mandatory work stand in no relation to the officially-mandated prices of goods that prisoners can buy at commissary. Accusations of modern slavery comes to mind. The “official price system,” Davies writes, “has been intentionally broken” (p. 119).

To escape their formal and restricted economy, prisoners have long relied on smuggling. Radford’s famous article about cigarettes becoming money in a WWII Prisoners-of-War camp applied – until Angola officials decided to ban tobacco from the premises. Cash too risky to hold; age-old money banned. What now? Fintech to the rescue!

Louisiana prisons “have a remarkable new currency innovation, something far better than tobacco or cans of mackerel”. Physical dollar bills are not handled, bank accounts that leave digital traces are not linked to individuals: “people pay each other with dots”, says an ex-convict that Davies interviewed (p. 132).

Contrary to the belief that smuggling into prisons happen through corrupt prison guards only, prisoners have some power; they can stage riots or make guards’ everyday-life very hard by misbehaving in every imaginable way. That power gives prisoners and guards alike incentives to trade with another – but prisoners don’t have anything to offer, apart from occasional or indivisible services like car repairs or (like Andy Dufresne in the movie Shawshank Redemption) accounting services. And paying guards in commissary products is not gonna cut it.

Here’s how Angola prisoners solved their monetary constraints, obtaining means of payment to smuggle in items their economy’s participants demanded:

  • set up an account with Green Dot, providing a pre-paid debit card without requirements of ID or proof of address.
  • buy a second card, a single-use scratch card called MoneyPak, used to load the first card with anywhere between $20 and $500. These cards are usable anywhere that accepts VISA and Mastercards, and easily bought/cashed out at Walmarts or pharmacies.
  • Scratch away MoneyPak’s 14-digit number (“the dots”), and transfer those digits to somebody else, be it another prisoner or guard.
  • that person goes online, logs into their Green Dot account, enters the combination and credit is added to their debit card.

The dots, Davies describes, “are a currency close to cash: an instant, simple and safe transfer of value over long distance” (p. 134). Even prison economies, argues Davies, “show that the human urge to trade and exchange information is impossible to repress” (p. 136).

The Economics of Resilience

The power of informal economies are great – and essential to people cut off from regular economic processes. Through natural disasters, in refugee camps or in prisons, innovative people find ways around their imposed-upon constraints and “establish a trading system if theirs is damaged, destroyed or limited in some way”. (p. 135)

Aceh, Zaatari and the Angola prison show “three places where markets, currencies, trade and exchange exist despite all odds.” (p. 139).

Musings on opinions: de gustibus non est disputandum

A well-known Latin adage reads “de gustibus non est disputandum”, roughly translated as “about tastes it should not be disputed”. In English, we usually refer to the maxim as “over tastes there is no argument”, indicating the economist’s fundamental creed that tastes and preferences may very well come from somewhere but are useless to argue over. We can’t prove them. We can’t disavow them. Ultimately, they just are and we have to live with that.

In November last year, ridiculing a prominent Swedish politician, I used the example of ice-cream flavours to illustrate the point:

“I like ice-cream” is an innocent and unobjectionable opinion to have. Innocent because hey, who doesn’t like ice-cream, and unobjectionable because there is no way we can verify whether you actually like ice-cream. We can’t effortlessly observe the reactions in your brain from eating ice-cream or even criticize such a position.

Over tastes there is no dispute. You like what you like. We can theorize all we want over sociological or cultural impacts, or perhaps attempt to trace biological reasons that may explain why some people like what they like – but ultimately we must act in the world (Proposition #1) and so we shrug our shoulders and get on with life. We accept that people believe, like, and prefer different things and that’s that.

Being strange rationalising creatures, you don’t have to scratch humans very deeply before you encounter convictions or beliefs that make no sense whatsoever. Most of the time we’re talking plainly irrational or internally inconsistent beliefs, but, like most tastes and political opinions, they are very cheap to hold – you are generally not taxed or suffer noticeable disadvantages from holding erroneous or contradictory beliefs. Sometimes, by giving the speaker social kudos for believing it, the cost of holding an erroneous belief might even be negative – portraying openly it gives us benefits with our in-group. (yes, we’re all Caplanites now).

Let’s continue the “what to eat” comparison since, apparently, the personal is political and recently what I eat seems to be everybody else’s business too.

When I make a decision in the world (as I must to stay alive, Proposition #1), I occasionally feel the urge to explain that choice to others – because they ask or because I submit to the internalised pressure. I might say “eating ice-cream is good for me” (Proposition #2a).

Now, most people would probably consider that statement obviously incorrect (ice-cream is a sweet, a dessert; desserts make you fat and unhealthy, i.e. not good for you). The trouble is, of course, that I didn’t specify what I meant by “good for me”.  It’s really unclear what that exactly means, since we don’t know what I have in mind and what I value as “good” (taste? Longevity? Complete vitamins? How it makes me feel? Social considerations?).

This version of Proposition 2a therefore essentially reverts back to a Proposition 1 claim; you can like whatever you want and you happen to like what ice-cream does to you in that dimension (taste, feeling, social consideration). Anything still goes.

I might also offer a slightly different version (Proposition #2b) where I say “eating ice-cream is good for me because it cures cancer”.

Aha! Now I’ve not only given you a clear metric of what I mean by ‘good’ (curing cancer), I’ve also established a causal mechanism about the world: ice-cream cures cancer.

By now, we’ve completely left the domain of “everything goes” and “over tastes there is no argument”. I’m making a statement about the world, and this statement is ludicrous. Admittedly, there might be some revolutionary science that shows the beneficial impacts of ice-cream on cancer, but I seriously doubt it – let’s say the causal claim here is as incorrect and refuted as a claim can possibly be.

Am I still justified in staying with my conviction and eating ice-cream? No, of course not! I gave a measure of what I meant by ‘good’ and clear causal criteria (“cure cancer”) for how ice-cream fits into that – and it’s completely wrong! I must change my beliefs, accordingly – I am no longer free to merely believe whatever I want.

If I don’t change my behaviour and maintain enjoying my delicious chocolate-flavoured ice-cream, two things happen: First, I can surrender my outrageous claim and revert back to Proposition 1. That’s fine. Or I can amend Proposition 2b into something more believable – like “eating ice-cream makes me happy, and I like being happy”.

What’s the story here?

If we substitute ice-cream for – I posit with zero evidence – the vast majority of people’s beliefs (about causality in the world, about health and nutrition, about politics, about economics and religion), we’re in essentially the same position. All those convictions, ranging from what food is good for you, to how that spiritual omnipotent power you revere helps your life, to what the government should do with taxes or regulations to reduce poverty, are most likely completely wrong.

Sharing my own experiences or telling stories about how I solved some problem is how we socially interact as humans – that’s fine and wonderful, and essentially amounts to Proposition 1-style statements. If you and I are sufficiently alike, you might benefit from those experiences.

Making statements about the world, however, particularly causal relations about the world, subjects me to a much higher level of proof. Now my experiences or beliefs or tastes are not enough. Indeed, it doesn’t even matter if I invoke the subjective and anecdotal stories of a few friends or this or that family member. I’m still doing sh*t science, making claims about the world on seriously fragile grounds. It’s not quite Frankfurt’s “Bullshit” yet, since we haven’t presumed that I don’t care about the truth, but as a statement of the world, what I’m saying is at least garbage.

I am entitled to my own beliefs and tastes and political “opinions“, whatever that means. I am not, however, entitled to my own facts and my own causal mechanisms of the world.

Keeping these spheres separate – or at least being clear about moving from one to the other – ought to rank among the highest virtues of peaceful human co-existence. We should be more humble and realise that on most topics, most of the time, we really don’t know. But that doesn’t mean anything goes.

Financial History to the Rescue: The Harder Money Wins Out

This article is part of a series on bitcoin (and bitcoiners’) arguments about money and particularly financial history. See also:

(1) ‘On Bitcoiners’ Many Troubles’, Joakim Book, NotesOnLiberty (2019-08-13)
(2): ‘Rothbard’s First Impressions on Free Banking in Scotland Were Correct’, Joakim Book,
AIER (2019-08-18)

(4): ‘Bitcoin’s Fixed Money Supply Is a Weakness’, Joakim Book, AIER (2019-08-28)

The great monetary economist and early Nobel Laureate John Hicks used to say that monetary theory “belongs to monetary history, in a way that economic theory does not always belong to economic history.”

Today I’m going to illustrate exactly that with respect to the Bitcoiner’s (mistaken) progressivism in another episode of Financial History to the Rescue.

In the game of monetary competition, the Bitcoin maximalists posit, the “harder” money always wins out. I’ve been uneasy with the statement as it (1) isn’t clear to me what “harder” money (or money’s “hardness”) really means, and (2) probably isn’t historically true. So we end up with something that’s false, or vague – or both! Clearly unsatisfactory. As I pointed out in my overview post to this series, financial and monetary history is almost always more nuanced than what such simple generalizations allow.

Luckily enough, Saifedean Ammous at the Soho Forum debate last week, did inadvertently provide me with a useable definition – and I intend to use it to debunk the idea that money’s history is one of increased hardness. Repeatedly Saif claimed that monetary history, before the advent of central banking, showed us that the harder money always won out: whenever two monetary networks clashed (shells and silver; wampum and gold) the “harder” money won. The obvious implication is that Bitcoin, being the “hardest” money, will similarly win out. Right off the bat, there’s some serious problems here.

First, it’s not altogether clear that such “This time is not different” arguments apply. Yes, economic history teaches us not to discount what seems to be long-standing or universally applicable phenomena – but also to take notice of the institutional setting in which they happen. Outcomes specific to, say, the Classical Gold Standard, rarely generalize into our hyper-modern financial markets with inflation targeting central banks.

Second, over the twentieth century we literally went from the hardest money (gold) to the “softest” money (central bank-created fiat paper money). Sure, you can argue that this was unfair or imposed upon us from above by wars and welfare states, but discounting it as irrelevant strikes me as overly cherry-picking. If the hardest money “lost” before, what makes you think that your new fancy money will win out this time around?

Then Saif returned to the topic of hardness and defined it as a money whose supply is “the hardest to increase.” The hardness of Cowrie shells or Wampum or gold or Whale’s teeth or Rai stones or the other early money that Jevons listed and discussed in 1875, all rely on a difficult, costly and inconvenient process of extraction and/or production. Getting Rai stones from far-away islands, stringing beads together into extended strips of Wampum, or digging up gold from inaccessible patches of the earth were all cumbersome and expensive processes. In Saif’s mind, this contributed to their hardness. Their money stock were simply difficult to expand – in jargon: their money supplies were inelastic.

The early 1600s Dutch Republic struggled with another problem. As the main financial centre of the time, countless hard money (coins) from all over the world were used in Amsterdam. Estimates say over a thousand legally recognized kinds of coins – and presumably even more unrecognized coins. A prime setting for monetary competition: they were all pretty hard (Saif’s definition: difficult and costly to expand) commodity moneys, of various quality, origin, and recognition in trade.

Another feature of 17th century Amsterdam was the international environment of Bills of Exchange (circulating private credit notes). Briefly summarized, merchants across the world traded debts on Amsterdam bankers or traders, and rather than holding and transporting bullion across the world, they transported the debt of the most trustworthy and reliable Dutch financiers. As all such bills required a settlement medium in Amsterdam, trade on thin margins was very sensitive to fluctuations in prices between the commodity moneys in which their bills were denominated – and very sensitive to debasements and re-defined values by various European proto-governments.

In 1609, the City of Amsterdam created the Wisselbank (initially a 100% reserve exchange bank) specifically tasked with standardizing the coinage and to insulate the bill market from currency fluctuations (through providing a ‘neutral’ unit of account for bills settlement). The Bank accepted deposit of whatever coin at the legally recognized rate (unrecognized at metal content) and delivered ”high-quality Dutch trade coins” upon withdrawal. To fund itself, it added a withdrawal fee of 1.5%, but no internal transfer fee, which made holding currency at the Bank very expensive in the short-term, but very cheap in the long-term. Merchants also avoided much of the withdrawal fee by simply trading balances with one another rather than depositing and withdrawing trade coins. In return for this cost-saving, sellers of bank balances would share a portion of the funds saved with the buyer in what’s known as the “Agio”: the price of Bank money in terms of current money outside the Bank’s accounts. This price would fluctuate like any other price on the market and would indicate the stance of liquidity demands.

In a classic example of Alchian’s monetary competition by transaction costs, Dutch merchants and financiers “outsourced” the screening and assaying of unfamiliar coins. They preferred settling their transactions through the (cheaper) medium that was deposits in the Bank.

And it gets worse for the bitcoiner’s story. In 1683, the Bank coupled its deposits with specific receipts for withdrawal; to gain access to coins, one was required both to hold balances and to purchase a receipt issued by the Bank (they also changed the pricing). Roughly speaking, the Bank became a fractional reserved bank (with capped withdrawals) overnight – and contrary to what the hardness argument would imply, the agio on Bank money rose to above par!

Two monetary historians, Stephen Quinn and William Roberds, summarize one of their many writings on the Wisselbank as follows:

“imaginary money on the Bank’s ledgers succeeded because it was more reliable than the real stuff. […] The most liquid asset in the economy was no longer coin, but a sort of ‘virtual banknote’ residing in Bank of Amsterdam accounts.”


“the evolution of the agio shows that the market valued irredeemable balances as if they were closely tied to backing trade coins” (my emphasis)

The story of the Amsterdam Wisselbank’s monetary experiments and innovations show us that monetary adaption relies on many more dimensions than “hardness.” Sometimes “hard” money is defeated by “soft” money, since the softer money brought other benefits to its users – in this case a cheap and reliable settling medium.

The lesson for bitcoin-vs-fiat-vs-FinTech is pretty clear: hard money doesn’t always “win”; and sometimes “soft” money can better serve the needs of consumers in a free market.

Financial History to the Rescue: On Bitcoiners’ Many Troubles

This article is part of a series on bitcoin (and bitcoiners’) arguments about money and particularly financial history. See also:

(2): ‘Rothbard’s First Impressions on Free Banking in Scotland Were Correct’, Joakim Book, AIER (2019-08-18)
(3): ‘The Harder Money Wins Out’, Joakim Book, NotesOnLiberty (2019-08-19)
(4): ‘Bitcoin’s Fixed Money Supply Is a Weakness’, Joakim Book, AIER (2019-08-28)

It is unfair to expect technologically savvy bitcoiners to also be apt and well-read monetary economists. By no means do the skills and experiences of either have to overlap. Through the rise of Bitcoin with its explicit central banking challenge and attempt to become a worldwide currency, the subject matter of the two groups has unexpectedly clashed. All arguments that support or attack bitcoin is a head-first dive into monetary economics – sometimes exhuming centuries-long disputes among monetary economists and often blatantly distorts and overlooks money and banking arrangements of the past.

We can’t have that, can we.

One of the most delightful events in the libertarian world is the monthly Soho Forum debate run by Gene Epstein. Yesterday’s splendid showdown between Profs. George Selgin and Saifedean Ammous on the suitability of Bitcoin as a Medium of Exchange is bound to get some serious traction once the recording is on available only – look out for that!

A great debate for anyone interesting in monetary system and monetary economics more generally, this was probably the best and most entertaining of many Soho Forum debates I’ve watched. It’s a good format that forces speakers to engage and respond to one another’s arguments, which makes a two-hour conversation on something as technical and intricate as Bitcoin’s monetary role an absolute delight; even those of us deep into this nerdy rabbit hole can learn a lot and walk away with a trove of inspiration.

Channeling that inspiration into long-form, multi-part reviews of the relevant financial and monetary history is exactly what I’m going to do!

One question I often get regarding my research interests (banks, money and financial markets in the past) is the mildly offensive but absolutely correct question to ask: who the f— cares?! Bitcoin and the question of monetary regimes are perfect examples that make financial history relevant: the rise of crypto questions the fundamentals of monetary systems, systems that very rarely change. Naturally, the financial historian has an edge here, having a lot more nuanced knowledge about past monetary and financial arrangements and their operations. History becomes our (only) laboratory, to which the financial historian typically has a lot to contribute.

Moreso than other topics, fundamental questions of monetary regimes are explicitly pitted against other possible regimes – by their nature comparative and always informed by historical experience. It takes about two-and-a-half sentences before debates over money invoke some reference to financial and monetary history – as they should, since they illustrate how some (aspect of) a different monetary regime worked. Frustratingly enough, there’s a good chance that the speaker has mindboggingly little idea of what s/he’s talking about!

That’s where I like to come in. To a roomful of aspiring monetary economists at Cato’s Alternative Money University in July this year, Randall Wright‘s response to why he does monetary economics at all (“to debunk all this B-S!”) generalizes pretty well.

I’m gonna use this post to review some of the mistakes Saifedean made yesterday – and use it going forward as an updated collection of future posts on the topic, especially as I go through Saif’s promising book, The Bitcoin Standard: The Decentralized Alternative to Central Banking. The aim here is to respectfully clarify the parts of the Bitcoin arguments where I’d like to think that I have a comparative advantage – financial and monetary history – and to better develop my understanding of the monetary theory involved.

Here are some points that came up yesterday:

  • The Monetary Progression of ‘Harder Money’: the brilliance of the past is that almost any account, no matter how persuasive and compelling, is bound to run into inconvenient historical facts. The world is more nuanced than can be reasonably captured by pithy generalization (yes, I realize the irony here). In a piece attacking this bitcoiner’s creation myth earlier this year, I wrote:

This progressively upward story is pretty compelling: better money overtake worse money until one major player unfairly took over gold – the then-best money – replacing it with something inferior that the Davids of the crypto world now intents to reverse. […] Too bad that it’s not true. Virtually every step of this monetary account is mistaken.

  • The Lender-of-Last-Resort role privately provided: Many Austrians and opponents to fractional reserve banking routinely believe that banks holding less-than-100% reserve against their deposits must have a government backing them, providing emergency liquidity when such banks are inevitably run upon. This is completely false. I can point to many different historical instances that privately accounted for such risks, from private clearinghouses to insurance, to the option-clause debate in Scottish Free Banking and contingent/unlimited liability institutions.
  • …which leads us to Scottish Free Banking. There’s a famous quip by Rothbard (“Rothbard’s Law“) that describes the tendency for economists to specialize in the fields they’re worst at: Henry George specialized in land, where his writing is appalling; Milton Friedman on Money, where he’s awful etc. I usually say that the same thing applies for Rothbard whenever he writes on Financial History. Very bad. And yes, I will go through his article ‘Myth of Free Banking in Scotland’
  • Saif made a distinction yesterday between the “Medium of Exchange” and the “Payment Mechanism” involved that struck me as misleading, and I didn’t get a chance to finish my reasoning with him in person – so I’ll flush it out in a piece later on. Happily for all you Free Banking fans, it involves note-issuing Scottish banks and the bigger questions of redeemability and outside/inside money.

Some additional housekeeping from yesterday:

  • Saif: “There was no real estate bubble on the Gold Standard”.
    • Yes, Selgin said, the Florida 1920s housing bubble leading up to the Great Depression. No, Saif correctly objected, that wasn’t a real gold standard, but a central bank-planned Gold Exchange Standard.
      Ok, fine – I’d agree with Saif here. How about the 1893 Australian banking crisis? Classical Gold Standard, no central bank, but a property boom and bubble-like collapse nonetheless.
    • A response might be “but fractional reserve banking!” but a) that’s a topic I’ll delve into much more, and b) this is started to sound like a No True Scotsman fallacy…
  • Saif: “Central banks hold gold – they don’t trust each other enough to hold currency”
    • Saif probably misspoke here, since he couldn’t possibly believe this; looking at any central bank’s balance sheet would instantly dispell such beliefs. Central banks generally hold no more than 5-8% of their assets in gold, and often a lot more than that in foreign currency-denominated asset. The ECB holds about equal parts (7-8% of assets) in gold and foreign currency. I routinely follow the weekly changes in the Riksbank’s balance sheet and even after a more extreme QE programe than the Fed’s (as % of GDP), it holds more FX than it does SEK-denominated assets (and no more than 5% in gold). The Bank of England technically doesn’t actually have any gold at all on its balance sheet, but holds gold in storage at its vaults (on behalf of other countries and the UK Treasury).

Bear with me over the next few months, as I make my way through Saif’s book and engage with these thrilling debates. Feel free to interrupt/comment on Twitter at any point if you think I’ve made a factual/empirical error, error in reasoning or in relevance to Bitcoin.

And yes, keep in mind that this is a respectful inquiry into fascinating topics with people who agree on like 92% of everything. Feel free to call me out for unnecessarily snarky and offensive thing as we go along – and welcome to the party!

On Translating Earnings From The Past

A few days ago, John Avery Jones published a great piece on the Bank of England blog (“Bank Underground”), investigating how much Jane Austen earned from her novels in the early 1800s. By using the Bank’s own archives and tracking down Austen’s purchases of “Navy Fives” (Bank of England annuities, earning 5%), Avery Jones backed out that Austen’s lifetime earnings as a writer was probably something like £631 – assuming, of course, that the funds for this investment came straight from the profits of her novels.

Being a great fan of using literature to illustrate and investigate financial markets of the past, I obviously jumped on this. I also recently looked at the American novelist Edith Wharton’s financial affairs and got very frustrated with the way commentators, museums, and scholars try to express incomes of the past in “today’s terms”, ostensibly vivifying their meaning.

For the Austen case, both Avery Jones and the Financial Times article that followed it, felt the need to “translate” those earnings via a price index, describing them as “equivalent to just over £45,000 at today’s prices”.

Hang on a minute. Only “£45,000”? For the lifetime earnings of one of the most cherished writers in the English language? That sounds bizarrely small. That figure wouldn’t even pay for the bathroom in most London apartments – and barely get you a town-house in Newcastle. The FT specifically makes a comparison with contemporary fiction writers:

“[Austen’s] finances compare badly even with those of impoverished novelists today: research last year by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society found that writers whose main earnings came from adult fiction earned around £37,000 a year on average”

Running £631 through MeasuringWorth’s calculator yields real-price estimates of £45,910 (using 1815 as a starting year) – pretty close. But what I think Avery Jones did was adjusting £631 with the Bank’s CPI index in Millenium of Macroeconomic Data dataset (A.47:D), which returns a modern-day price of £45,047 – but that series ends in 2016 and so should ideally be another 7% or so from 2016 until May 2019.

 “This may not be the best answer”

Where did Avery Jones go wrong in his translation? After all, updating prices through standard price indices (CPI/RPI/PCE etc) is standard practice in economics. Here’s where:


The third line on MeasuringWorth’s result page literally tells researchers that the pure price number may not reflect the question one is asking. The preface to the main site includes a nuanced discussion about prices in the past:

“There is no single ‘correct’ measure, and economic historians use one or more different indices depending on the context of the question.”

When I first estimated Mr. Darcy’s income, this was precisely the problem I grappled with; simply translating wealth or incomes from the past to the present using a price index severely understates the meaning we’re trying to convey – i.e., how unfathomably rich this guy was. There is no doubt that Mr. Darcy was among the richest people in England at the time (his annual income some 400 times a normal worker’s salary), a well-respected and wealthy man of elevated rank. However, translating his wealth using a price index doesn’t even put him on the Times’ Rich List over the thousand wealthiest Britons today. Clearly, that won’t do.

Because we are much richer today in real terms, price indices alone do not capture the meaning we’re trying to communicate here. Higher real income – by definition – is a growth in incomes above the rise in prices. We therefore ought to use a more tangible comparison, for instance with contemporary prices of food or mansions or trips abroad; or else, using real income adjustments, such as GDP/capita or average earnings.

MeasuringWorth provides us with three other metrics over and above the misleading price-index adjustment:

Labour Earnings = £487,000
using growth in wages for the average worker, it reports how large your wage would have to be today to afford what Austen could afford on £631 in 1815. Obviously, quality adjustments and technological improvements make these comparisons somewhat silly (how many smartphones, air fares and microwaves could Austen buy?), but the figure at least takes real earnings into account.

Relative Income = £591,300
Like ‘Labour Earnings’, this adjustment builds on the insight above, but uses growth in real GDP/capita rather than wages. It more closely captures the “relative ‘prestige value’” that we’re getting at.

Both these attempt are what I tried to do for Mr. Darcy (Attempt #2 and #3) a few years ago.

Relative Output = £2,767,000
This one is more exciting because it captures the relationship to the overall economy. If I understand MeasuringWorth’s explanation correctly, this is the number that equates the share of British GDP today with what Austen’s wealth – £631 – would have represented in 1815.

Another metric I have been experimenting with is reporting the wealth number that would put somebody in the same position in the wealth distribution of our time. For example, it takes about £2,5m to qualify for the top-1% of British wealth (~$10m in the United States) distribution today. What amount of wealth did somebody need to join the top 1% in, say, 1815? If we could find out where Austen’s wealth of £631 (provided her annuities were her only assets) rank in the distribution of 1815, we can back out a modern-day equivalent. This measure avoids many of the technical problems above for how to properly adjust for a growing economy, and how to capture inventions in a price index – and it gets to what we’re really trying to convey: how wealthy was Austen in her time?

Alas, we really don’t have those numbers. We have to dive deep into the wealth inequality rabbit hole to even get estimates (through imputed earnings, capital stocks or probate records) – and even then the assumptions we need to make are as tricky and inexact as the ones we employ for wage series or prices above.

The bottom line is pretty boring: we don’t have a panacea. There is no “single correct measure”, and the right figure depends on the question you’re asking. A reasonable approach is to provide ranges, such as MeasuringWorth does.

But it’s hard to imagine the Financial Times writing “equivalent of between £45,000 and £2,767,000 at today’s prices”…

Elite Anxiety: Paul Collier’s “Future of Capitalism”

Paul Collier, the controversial Oxford professor famous for his development work and his acclaimed books Exodus and The Bottom Billion, is back. But the author of Exodus and The Bottom Billion is long gone. The compelling writing and carefully reasoned world that made Bottom Billion impossible to put down has somehow disappeared. In The Future of Capitalism, Collier is tired. He is bitter. And he is sometimes quite mad – so mad that his disdain for this or that group of thinkers or actors in society consumes his otherwise brilliant analytical mind.

Instead of having his editors moderate those of his worst impulses, he doubles down on his polemic conviction. Indeed, he takes pride in offending people in all political camps, believing that it supports the book’s main intellectual point: ideologues of every persuasion are dangerous, one-size-fits-all too constricted for a modern society and we should rather turn to a communitarian social democratic version of pragmatism – by which he means some confused mixture of ideas that seem to advocate “what works” on a case-by-case basis.

Yes, it’s about as nutty as it sounds. And he is all over the place, dabbling in all kinds of topics for which he is uniquely unqualified to offer advice: ethics, finance, education, family, social policy and on and on and on.

One reason The Future of Capitalism went awry might have been the remarkable scope: capturing all the West’s so-called ‘Anxieties’ – and their solutions – in little over 200 pages of non-academic prose. Given the topic, a very unfitting sort of hubris.

Apart from the feeble attempt at portraying a modern society that has “come apart at the seams,” there’s no visible story, no connection between the contents of one paragraph and the next and hardly any connection between one chapter and another. Rather, it’s a bedlam of foregone conclusions, appeals to pragmatism, dire stings to ideological ‘extremists’ on either side and a hubris unfitting for someone like Collier. I guess this is a risk that established academics run at the end of their careers, desperately trying to assemble all their work into One Grand Theory.

The most charitable thing I can say about Collier’s attempt is that it offers a lot of policy prescriptions – tax unearned land rents, tax-and-redistribute productivity increases, expand housing supply through local governments, have governments direct the Silicon Valley-clusters of tomorrow, cap mortgage finance, benefits for families, expand ethical responsibilities of firms, encourage marriage, create a new G6 (EU, US, Russia, India, Japan, China) that could overcome the global collective action problem (good luck with that!), expand Germanic vocational training and workers’ representation on company boards, embrace patriotism but never nationalism, detach ownership from control and place control with stakeholders (workers, suppliers, local homeowners).

The common denominator seems to be an imperative to do all these things that seem to have worked well in some time or place or utopia, conveniently ignore institutional or cultural reasons, while espousing all ideological positioning and political capture.

Just voicing the suggestions ought to spark at least some fruitful conversations.

Chapter 8, ostensibly concerned with the Class Divide, is an illuminating case study. It takes Collier about 36 pages (out of 37) to mention ‘class’ (not that I blame him: the concept is way too nebulous and politically infected to be meaningfully dealt with in such short space). Instead, Collier discusses all kinds of topics whose relevance to class is quite unclear: public policy for single mothers, German vocational training, lawyers and the rule of law, a Yorkshire project to encourage reading in school kids – not to mention a ten-page digression into the institution of marriage for stable families.

When his polemics, dry writing, unsupported analysis or incomprehensive treatment of a topic hasn’t put me off (I gave up on the book at least four times during the last couple of months), some of the picture Collier paints does resonate with me. There is a social and geographical divide in Britain: the economically flourishing South-East, dominated by the well-educated English and the cosmopolitan accents of almost every language on the planet, is posited against the collapsing towns of the backward Midlands or the North. If this divide is real – in support of which Collier offers next-to-no evidence – it is not clear to me that it wasn’t already captured in, say, David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere or Branko Milanovic’s Global Inequality, or for that matter the countless of magazine articles trying to outline the fractures that Brexit unearthed about British society. Considering the effort those authors put into mapping their divides, Collier’s attempt seems frivolous.

He can do better. Much better.
My fellow Notewriter Rick is organising a summer reading group around Feyerabend’s Against Method. The equivalent Collier reading group could be aptly named Against Ideology.

Economists, Economic History, and Theory

We can all come up with cringeworthy clichés for why history matters to society at large – as well as policy-makers and perhaps more infuriatingly, to hubris-prone economists:

And we could add the opposite position, where historical analysis is altogether irrelevant for our current ills, where This Time Is completely Different and where we naively disregard all that came before us.

My pushback to these positions is taken right out of Cameron & Neal’s A Concise Economic History of The World and is one of my most cherished intellectual guidelines. The warning appears early (p. 4) and mercilessly:

those who are ignorant of the past are not qualified to generalize about it.

We can also point to some more substantive reasons for why history matters to the present:

  • Discontinuities: by studying longer time period, in many different settings, we get more used to – and more comfortable with – the fact that institutions, routines, traditions and technologies that we take for granted may change. And do change. Sometimes slowly, sometimes frequently.
  • Selection: in combination with emphasizing history to understand the path dependence of development, delving down into economic history ought to strengthen our appreciation for chance and randomness. The history we observed was but one outcome of many that could have happened. The point is neatly captured in an obscure article of one of last year’s Nobel Prize laureates, Paul Romer: “the world as we know it is the result of a long string of chance outcomes.” Appropriately limiting this appreciation for randomness is Matt Ridley’s rejection of the Great Man Theory: a lot of historical innovations seems to have been inevitable (When Edison invented light bulbs, he had some two dozen rivals doing so independently).
  • Check On Hubris: history gives us ample examples of similar events to what we’re experiencing or contemplating in the present. As my Glasgow and Oxford professor Catherine Schenk once remarked in a conference I organized: “if this policy didn’t work in the past, what makes you think it’ll work this time?”

History isn’t only a check on policy-makers, but on ivory-tower economists as well. Browsing through Mattias Blum & Chris Colvin’s An Economist’s Guide to Economic Historypublished last year and has been making some waves since – I’m starting to see why this book is quickly becoming compulsory reading for economists. Describing the book, Colvin writes:

Economics is only as good as its ability to explain the economy. And the economy can only be understood by using economic theory to think about causal connections and underlying social processes. But theory that is untested is bunk. Economic history provides one way to test theory; it forms essential material to making good economic theory.

Fellow Notewriter Vincent Geloso, who has contributed a chapter to the book, described the task of the economic historian in similar terms:

Once the question is asked, the economic historian tries to answer which theory is relevant to the question asked; essentially, the economic historian is secular with respect to theory. The purpose of economic history is thus to find which theories matter the most to a question.

[and which theory] square[s] better with the observed facts.

Using history to debunk commonly held beliefs is a wonderful check on all kinds of hubris and one of my favorite pastimes. Its purpose is not merely to treat history as a laboratory for hypothesis testing, but to illustrate that multitudes of institutional settings may render moot certain relationships that we otherwise take for granted.

Delving down into the world of money and central banks, let me add two more observations supporting my Econ History case.

One chapter in Blum & Colvin’s book, ‘Money And Central Banking’ is written by Prof. John Turner at Queen’s in Belfast (whose writings – full disclosure – has had great influence on my own thinking). Focusing on past monetary disasters and the relationship between the sovereign and the banking system is crucial for economists, Turner writes:

We therefore have a responsibility to ensure that the next generation of economists has a “lest we forget” mentality towards the carnage that can be afflicted upon an economy as a result of monetary disorder.” (p. 69)

This squares off nicely with another brief article that I stumbled across today, by banking historian and LSE Emeritus Professor Charles Goodhart. Lamentably – or perhaps it ought to have been celebratory – Goodhart notes that no monetary regime lasts forever as central banks have for centuries, almost haphazardly, developed their various functions. The history of central banking, Goodhart notes,

can be divided into periods of consensus about the roles and functions of Central Banks, interspersed with periods of uncertainty, often following a crisis, during which Central Banks (CBs) are searching for a new consensus.”

He sketches the pendulum between consensus and uncertainty…goodhart monetary regime changes

…and suddenly the Great Monetary Experiment of today’s central banks seem much less novel!

Whatever happens to follow our current monetary regimes (and Inflation Targeting is due for an update), the student of economic history is superbly situated to make sense of it.