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.

Nightcap

  1. One thousand years of labor: the evolution of work Gabriel Winant, the Nation
  2. Why didn’t ancient Rome industrialize? Mark Koyama, NOL
  3. Productions, and the threshold of industrialization Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon
  4. Rationalization of production and changes in the nature of work Jacques Delacroix, NOL

Nightcap

  1. Against traditional definitions of the ‘Classics’ Josephine Quinn, TLS
  2. In defense of hoaxes Justin Smith, Nunc Enim Sermo De Toto Est
  3. There are no authentic globalists in the West Julius Krein, American Affairs
  4. Ottoman explorations of the Nile John Butler, Asian Review of Books

Eye Candy: the provinces of ancient Rome

NOL ancient Rome's adminstrative units.png
Click here to zoom

This is a beautiful map of Rome’s administrative units. There’s not much more to say, really.

Here is Barry on Roman law. Here is Mark on the Roman economy. Have a good week!

Nightcap

  1. Exquisite Rot: Spalted Wood and the Lost Art of Intarsia Daniel Elkind, Public Domain Review
  2. Classic books: Like ice in children’s hands Alberto Manguel, Times Literary Supplement
  3. Our aquatic universe Tim Folger, Aeon
  4. From eternity to here: the Rome we have lost Ingrid Rowland, Commonweal

Nightcap

  1. The story of our species needs rewriting again Christopher Bae, Aeon
  2. Conjuring anthropology’s future Simon During, Public Books
  3. Picasso’s year of erotic torment Michael Prodger, New Statesman
  4. “What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?” Robert Darby, Quillette