Thoughts on Time from a College Library

Note: This was written by my brother Keith, and he did not originally post it online but sent it to our family members. For being a younger brother, he brings a hell of a lot of wisdom to the table, and I think this thought-provoking epistle deserves to be shared more widely. I am publishing it here, with permission:

From Keith:

I learn a great deal from my family.  The facts, figures, and articles that commonly result from discussing and arguing with each other are a reward in and of themselves.  As might be expected, many of these experiences and facts are soon forgotten, making way for new debates.  Once in a while, however, when discussing a topic, we–or I–stumble upon an insight which radically changes, clarifies, or re-enforces my understanding.

In recent months, I had two routine, incidental, and unrelated conversations, one with my brother, and the other with my sister.  The conversation with my sister did not start during some contentious economic debate, but when we were eating dinner together.  Offhand, my sister said to me:  “Keith, I have really come to appreciate the ideas from your econ classes you told me about, like opportunity cost, especially the opportunity cost of time spent on one task being a loss of all other possible actions.  When I applied those ideas to my everyday life, I saw a marked improvement, because I had become more efficient, simply from valuing my time appropriately.”  We often complain that few people these days recognize how econ is not a theory of how society works but of how math can represent human reality at any level. This is one case where there are real, personal benefits from understanding the math of limited lifespan.

My second recent conversation of note did not concern this day and age, in fact, it concerned the ideas of a wealthy 2000-year-old Roman by the name of Seneca.  My brother had recently been translating his Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (literally “Moral letters to Lucilius” in Latin, courtesy of Wikipedia), and had stumbled upon Roman intellectual gold.  Any attempt of mine to summarize the ideas in the letter would be less than adequate, so I shall copy it here.  I know that it is long, and rather Latin-ish, but I would encourage anyone to take the time to read it, if only because reading it will pay your time back, with interest:

Greetings from Seneca to his friend Lucilius.

Continue to act in the way you described, my dear Lucilius: set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or stolen away, or has merely slipped from your hands. Make yourself believe the truth of my words, that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness. Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem of lost time, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose. What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed, Whatever years be behind us are in death’s hands.

Therefore, Lucilius, do as you write me that you are doing: hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity: time! And yet time is the one loan that even a grateful recipient cannot repay.

You may desire to know how I, who preach to you so freely, am practising. I confess frankly: my time account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man. My situation, however, is the same as that of many who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: everyone forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.

What is the state of things, then? It is this: I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early.  For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.  

Farewell

After listening to my brother dictate the whole of this letter, I felt genuine chills.  The truth it contains is so blatant, a simple calculation could yield the same result:  life is made up of a limited number of hours, therefore life is time.  Whenever you work, you are giving up your time for money (hence the old adage that time is money).  This means that whenever you waste time, or money, you are wasting your life, and wasted life is death.  This single fact horrifies me every day, because like most every other human, I waste an obscene amount of time.  Time watching a movie I have already seen, trolling through Facebook without really reading any of the posts, or having the same argument all over again:  rarely, when I am doing these things do I think about what else I could be doing.

Therein lies the link, which most will have already seen, between my two conversations.  Our time is not free.  Every moment we spend sleeping, eating, studying, etc., has a cost–an opportunity cost–and once it has been spent, if it was not truly the best way to spend it, then some small part of your life has been lost without reward.

I see this nearly everywhere:  students doze off in class or idly check their email or texts, they, when “studying” in the library, will spend a majority of the time effectively idle.  Writing this, I am in a college library, and with sample size n=11, I may, without prying too much, say that ~7/11ths  of my fellow computer users are not doing what they came intending to do.  They are wasting time they will not get back.

And so I say to you, whoever you may be reading this (perhaps idly), much the same as what Seneca might say to you, only I will say it less eloquently, and more directly:  value your time.  Do not waste it.  Work on being efficient not for the sake of productivity, but for the sake of leisure, for we all have our jobs to do, and if we get them done faster then there is more time for enjoyment.  If you spent less time complaining, you might spend that time actively addressing your problems, solving them rationally and thus eliminating your cause for complaint.

Vale.

Hyperinflation and trust in Ancient Rome

Since it hit 1,000,000% in 2018, Venezuelan hyperinflation has actually been not only continuing but accelerating. Recently, Venezuela’s annual inflation hit 10 million percent, as predicted by the IMF; the inflation jumped so quickly that the Venezuelan government actually struggled to print its constantly-inflated money fast enough. This may seem unbelievable, but peak rates of monthly inflation were actually higher than this in Zimbabwe (80 billion percent/month) in 2008, Yugoslavia (313 million percent/month) in 1994, and in Hungary, where inflation reached an astonishing 41.9 quadrillion percent per month in 1946.

The continued struggles to reverse hyperinflation in Venezuela are following a trend that has been played out dozens of times, mostly in the 20th century, including trying to “reset” the currency with fewer zeroes, return to barter, and turning to other countries’ currencies for transactions and storing value. Hyperinflation’s consistent characteristics, including its roots in discretionary/fiat money, large fiscal deficits, and imminent solvency crises are outlined in an excellent in-depth book covering 30 episodes of hyperinflation by Peter Bernholz. I recommend the book (and the Wikipedia page on hyperinflations) to anyone interested in this recurrent phenomenon.

However, I want to focus on one particular inflationary episode that I think receives too little attention as a case study in how value can be robbed from a currency: the 3rd Century AD Roman debasement and inflation. This involved an iterative experiment by Roman emperors in reducing the valuable metal content in their coins, largely driven by the financial needs of the army and countless usurpers, and has some very interesting lessons for leaders facing uncontrollable inflation.

The Ancient Roman Currency

The Romans encountered a system with many currencies, largely based on Greek precedents in weights and measures, and iteratively increased imperial power over hundreds of years by taking over municipal mints and having them create the gold (aureus) and silver (denarius) coins of the emperor (copper/bronze coins were also circulated but had negligible value and less centralization of minting). Minting was intimately related to army leadership, as mints tended to follow armies to the front and the major method of distributing new currency was through payment of the Roman army. Under Nero, the aureus was 99% gold and the denarius was 97% silver, matching the low debasement of eastern/Greek currencies and holding a commodity value roughly commensurate with its value as a currency.

The Crisis of the Third Century

However, a major plague in 160 AD followed by auctions of the imperial seat, major military setbacks, usurpations, loss of gold from mines in Dacia and silver from conquest, and high bread-dole costs drove emperors from 160-274 AD to iterative debase their coinage (by reducing the size and purity of gold coins and by reducing the silver content of coins from 97% to <2%). A major bullion shortage (of both gold and silver) and the demands of the army and imperial maintenance created a situation where a major government with fiscal deficits, huge costs of appeasing the army and urban populace, and diminishing faith in leaders’ abilities drove the governing body to vastly increase the monetary volume. This not only reflects Bernholz’ theories of the causes of hyperinflations but also parallels the high deficits and diminishing public credit of the Maduro regime.

Inflation and debasementFigure 1 for Fiat paper

Unlike modern economies, the Romans did not have paper money, and that meant that to “print” money they had to debase their coins. The question of whether the emperor or his subjects understood the way that coins represented value went beyond the commodity value of the coins has been hotly debated in academic circles, and the debasement of the 3rd century may be the best “test” of whether they understood value as commodity-based or as a representation of social trust in the issuing body and other users of the currency.

Figure 2 for Fiat paper

Given that the silver content of coins decreased by over 95% (gold content decreased slower, at an exchange-adjusted rate shown in Figure 1) from 160-274 AD but inflation over this period was only slightly over 100% (see Figure 2, which shows the prices of wine, wheat, and donkeys in Roman Egypt over that period as attested by papyri). If inflation had followed the commodity value of the coins, it would have been roughly 2,000%, as the coins in 274 had 1/20th of the commodity value of coins in 160 AD. This is a major gap that can only be filled in by some other method of maintaining currency value, namely fiat.

Effectively, a gradual debasement was not followed by insipid ignorance of the reduced silver content (Gresham’s Law continued to influence hoards into the early 3rd Century), but the inflation of prices also did not match the change in commodity value, and in fact lagged behind it for over a century. This shows the influence of market forces (as monetary volume increased, so did prices), but soundly punctures the idea that coins at the time were simply a convenient way to store silver–the value of the coins was in the trust of the emperor and of the community recognition of value in imperial currency. Especially as non-imperial silver and gold currencies disappeared, the emperor no longer had to maintain an equivalence with eastern currencies, and despite enormous military and prestige-related setbacks (including an emperor being captured by the Persians and a single year in which 6 emperors were recognized, sometimes for less than a month), trade within the empire continued without major price shocks following any specific event. This shows that trust in the solvency and currency management by emperors, and trust in merchants and other members of the market to recognize coin values during exchanges, was maintained throughout the Crisis of the Third Century.

Imperial communication through coinage

This idea that fiat and social trust maintained higher-than-commodity-values of coins is bolstered by the fact that coins were a major method of communicating imperial will, trust, and power to subjects. Even as Roman coins began to be rejected in trade with outsiders, legal records from Egypt show that the official values of coins was accepted within the army and bureaucracy (including a 1:25 ratio of aureus-to-denarius value) so long as they depicted an emperor who was not considered a usurper. Amazingly, even after two major portions of the empire split off–the Gallic Empire and the Palmyrene Empire–continued to represent their affiliation with the Roman emperor, including leaders minting coins with their face on one side and the Roman emperor (their foe but the trusted face behind Roman currency) on the other and imitating the symbols and imperial language of Roman coins, through their coins. Despite this, and despite the fact that the Roman coins were more debased (lower commodity value) compared to Gallic ones, the Roman coins tended to be accepted in Gaul but the reverse was not always true.

Interestingly, the aureus, which was used primarily by upper social strata and to pay soldiers, saw far less debasement than the more “common” silver coins (which were so heavily debased that the denarius was replaced with the antoninianus, a coin with barely more silver but that was supposed to be twice as valuable, to maintain the nominal 1:25 gold-to-silver rate). This may show that the army and upper social strata were either suspicious enough of emperors or powerful enough to appease with more “commodity backing.” This differential bimetallist debasing is possibly a singular event in history in the magnitude of difference in nominal vs. commodity value between two interchangeable coins, and it may show that trust in imperial fiat was incomplete and may even have been different across social hierarchies.

Collapse following Reform

In 274 AD, after reconquering both the Gallic and Palmyrene Empire, with an excellent reputation across the empire and in the fourth year of his reign (which was long by 3rd Century standards), the emperor Aurelian recognized that the debasement of his currency was against imperial interests. He decided to double the amount of silver in a new coin to replace the antoninianus, and bumped up the gold content of the aureus. Also, because of the demands of ever-larger bread doles to the urban poor and alongside this reform, Aurelian took far more taxes in kind and far fewer in money. Given that this represented an imperial reform to increase the value of the currency (at least concerning its silver/gold content), shouldn’t it logically lead to a deflation or at least cease the measured inflation over the previous century?

In fact, the opposite occurred. It appears that between 274 AD and 275 AD, under a stable emperor who had brought unity and peace and who had restored some commodity value to the imperial coinage, with a collapse in purchasing power of the currency of over 90% (equivalent to 1,000% inflation) in several months. After a century in which inflation was roughly 3% per year despite debasement (a rate that was unprecedentedly high at the time), the currency simply collapsed in value. How could a currency reform that restricted the monetary volume have such a paradoxical reaction?

Explanation: Social trust and feedback loops

In a paper I published earlier this summer, I argue that this paradoxical collapse is because Aurelian’s reform was a blaring signal from the emperor that he did not trust the fiat value of his own currency. Though he was promising to increase the commodity value of coins, he was also implicitly stating (and explicitly stating by not accepting taxes in coin) that the fiat value that had been maintained throughout the 3rd Century by his predecessors would not be recognized going forward by the imperial bureaucracy in its transactions, thus signalling that for all army payment and other transactions, the social trust in the emperor and in other market members that had undergirded the value of money would now be ignored by the issuing body itself. Once the issuer (and a major market actor) abandoned fiat currency and stated that newly minted coins would have better commodity value than previous coins, the market–rationally–answered by moving quickly toward commodity value of the coins and abandoned the idea of fiat.

Furthermore, not only were taxes taken in kind rather than coin, but there was widespread return to barter as those transacting tried to avoid holding coins as a store of value. This pushed up the velocity of money (as people abandoned it as a store of value and paid higher and higher amounts for commodities to get rid of their currency). The demonetization/return to barter reduced the market size that was transacted in currency, meaning that there were even more coins (mostly aureliani, the new coin, and antoniniani) chasing fewer goods. The high velocity of money, under Quantity Theory of Money, would also contribute to inflation, and the unholy feedback loop of decreasing value causing distrust, which caused demonetization and higher velocity, which led to decreasing value and more distrust in coins as stores of value kept this cycle going until all fiat value was driven out of Roman coinage.

Aftermath

This was followed by Aurelian’s assassination, and there were several monetary collapses from 275 AD forward as successive emperors attempted to recreate the debased/fiat system of their predecessors without success. This continued through the reign of Diocletian, whose major reforms got rid of the previous coinage and included the famous (and famously failed) Edict on Maximum Prices. Inflation continued to be a problem through 312 AD, when Constantine re-instituted commodity-based currencies, largely by seizing the assets of rich competitors and liquidating them to fund his army and public donations. The impact of that sort of private seizure is a topic for another time, but the major lesson of the aftermath is that fiat, once abandoned, is difficult to restore because the very trust on which it was based has been undermined. While later 4th Century emperors managed to again debase without major inflationary consequences, and Byzantine emperors did the same to some extent, the Roman currency was never again divorced from its commodity value and fiat currency would have to wait centuries before the next major experiment.

Lessons for Today?

While this all makes for interesting history, is it relevant to today’s monetary systems? The sophistication of modern markets and communication render some of the signalling discussed above rather archaic and quaint, but the core principles stand:

  1. Fiat currencies are based on social trust in other market actors, but also on the solvency and rule-based systems of the issuing body.
  2. Expansions in monetary volume can lead to inflation, but slow transitions away from commodity value are possible even for a distressed government.
  3. Undermining a currency can have different impacts across social strata and certainly across national borders.
  4. Central abandonment of past promises by an issuer can cause inflationary collapse of their currency through demonetization, increased velocity, and distrust, regardless of intention.
  5. Once rapid inflation begins, it has feedback loops that increase inflation that are hard to stop.

The situation in Venezuela continues to give more lessons to issuing bodies about how to manage hyperinflations, but the major lesson is that those sorts of cycles should be avoided at all costs because of the difficulty in reversing them. Modern governments and independent currency issuers (cryptocurrencies, stablecoins, etc.) should take lessons from the early stages of previous currency trends toward trust and recognition of value, and then how these can be destroyed in a single action against the promised and perceived value of a currency.

Be Our Guest: “Of Monies and Juries and Freedoms”

Be Our Guest is a new, experimental series at NOL. Basically, NOL is invite-only but you can, and should, submit your thoughts to us. The latest piece is by Michalis Trepas, a Greek national working in the financial sector. An excerpt:

The judicial system was reluctant to intervene, out of respect of the separation of powers (according the Weimar Constitution, currency matters were reserved for the parliament). So, at first, the courts upheld the nominalistic principle and refused to accept a revalorisation of debts. But then, something began to change in the courts’ reasoning. The currency’s slide prior to 1921 could be attributed to the conditions of the “war economy”, whose burden was to be shared by everyone in the country. The unrestrained fall thereafter, the courts said, was a monetary phenomenon, punishing “blindly and unpredictably” only the creditor class.

If you cannot guess by now what Michalis is writing about, read on! If you have figured out what the subject of his piece is about, read on, as it only gets more interesting.

There are cultural and geopolitical considerations to think about here, too, in regards to Greece and Germany and financial markets and constitutionalism.

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.”

Further,

“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:

untitled-1

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”…

“Ethnic Violence in Africa: Destructive Legacies of Pre-Colonial States”

Note: I’ve gotten through the first three chapters of Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method. (Rick’s initial thoughts are here, and Bill has been doing Feyerabend for awhile. These are the two you should probably follow a bit more closely throughout the summer.)

My own thoughts on Against Method are coming, but I keep getting distracted. Check out this beast of an article on how pre-colonial states in Africa continue to influence current affairs today, even though these have been absorbed into the post-colonial states we are all familiar with in Africa today. (h/t Kevin Lewis)