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)

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!

Josh Barro and the Gold Standard

A few days ago, when it was announced that former Cato Institute president John Allison was under consideration for treasury secretary, Josh Barro of Business Insider dismissed the man as a “nutcase”. Why? Because Allison believes that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) generates a moral hazard that contributes to financial crises (a statement I agree with).

This slur irked one of the economists at Cato, George Selgin, who took to twitter to challenge Barro. In the exchange, at one point, Barro indicated that the desire of libertarians to return to the gold standard confirms the “nuttiness” of libertarians and the people at Cato.

And here, Barro allows me to make a comment on the gold standard. The sympathy towards the gold standard is not sympathy towards gold per se, but rather sympathy for reducing the capacity of governments to exercise discretion. Basically, each time you hear some academic economist mention the gold standard, what that economist means is rules-based monetary policy.

The gold standard era (1875-1914) was not an image of perfect monetary policy. It is not a lost paradise that we ought to strive to. However, the implicit rules imposed by the system did favor more stability that would have been the case with discretion during that era. In fact, the era of central banking with the Federal Reserve has not been that great relative to the gold standard era (and in the world of central banks, the Fed is pretty good). A lot of the scorn that the gold standard era has received had to do with regulatory policy towards banks (notably regarding restrictions on branch banking which forced more volatility) or with the role of changes in international demand for assets (see here). Thus, in spite of its many flaws, the gold standard was not that bad (but it was not* gold per se that was helpful – it was the shunning of discretion by governments).

To be sure, I do not favor a return to a gold standard era. What I do like, and what I think John Allison likes as well, is the return to rules-based monetary policy. Josh Barro should have been intellectually generous and understand this key distinction. By not making that distinction, of which he must be aware given his background, he debased the debate over monetary policy.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Freedom of the Athenians (book review)
  2. The Myth of the Myth of Barter
  3. Trade Liberalization and Growth: New Evidence (pdf)
  4. From West Philly to Gulshan e Iqbal and Back
  5. Obama’s Witness for the Prosecution
  6. When Your Dream Lovers Die

On Scottish Free Banking (a Canadian Perspective)

Yesterday, George Selgin responded on Alt-M to a series of (relatively) recent paper that posit the impossibility of private money. While Selgin does criticize the theoretical reasoning of the papers, the majority of his case is based on the historical experience of private money – notably the Scottish experience with free banking.

I wanted to write something on this, but Selgin got there faster. Indeed, the historical evidence of free banking in Canada, Scotland, Sweden and the limited experiences observed in France and elsewhere provide a strong backing for soundness of private money. Selgin is right to emphasize this.

However, I can provide a small piece of evidence to support his case. It is not only scholars like Selgin who believe that the historical experience of Scotland was positive. As far back as 1835 and as far away as Canada, the robustness of the Scottish free banking experience was lauded. Consider the following quote from a report to the House of Assembly of Upper Canada (modern day Ontario):

“In Scotland, private banking has long existed and fewer failures have occurred there than in any other part of the world; their Joint Stock Banking Companies embrace some of the following principles by which the public are quite secured and the institutions useful as Banks of Deposit and circulation, while the stock is above par, and proved to be a good investment”

This report was actually presented in Canada arguing that Scottish free banking was a solution to a longstanding problem in the colony : dearth of small denominations. The “big problem of small change” was a real issue in the colony and created important frictions. The problem was most likely created by the fixing of exchange rates between the different currencies at levels dissonant with the actual value of different currencies so that “bad money drove out good money” (see Angela Redish’s work). The report recommended legislative actions to encourage the formation of banks that would issue private notes to solve this problem. Newspapers in the neighboring colony of Lower Canada also praised (in the early 1830s) the role that banks played in easing the problem of “poor money”.

I have made an initial foray on this with Mathieu Bédard of Aix-Marseille School of Economics (and we plan to make another few) and  showed that the role of free banking in improving economic growth was considerable exactly because of the issue of private money. While Canada is a small, it provides some additional support to the claim that private money can indeed exist, survive and be superior to state money.

Source:  House of Assembly of Upper Canada. 1835. Report of the Select Committee to which was referred the subject of The Currency. Toronto : M.Reynolds Printer.

P.S. Below there is a picture of a half-penny issued by the Quebec Bank in 1837 showing that there was even private coinage in Canada.


Around the Web: Greece Edition

  1. Tyler Cowen has been owning this debate.
  2. Unfortunately, Greek citizens have been too fed up with the rest of the world to listen.
  3. (Perhaps libertarians and their arguments were just late to the party.)
  4. This is still the best concise sociological analysis of Greece and the EU I’ve come across.

It’s worth noting here that the overwhelming majority of ‘No’ voters – the ones who just rejected the EU after their elected, far Left leader walked out of talks days before said talks were scheduled to end – don’t want to leave the EU. Confused? See the Cowen link.

Matthew and I had a dialogue on Greece awhile back here at NOL that might be of interest.

Free Banking Beats Central Banking

In “More Bits on Whether We Need a Fed,” a November 21 MarginalRevolution blogpost, George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen questions “why free banking would offer an advantage over post WWII central banking (combined with FDIC and paper money).”  He adds, “That’s long been the weak spot of the anti-Fed case.”

Free banking is better than central banking because only in a free market can the optimal prices and quantities of goods be determined.  Those goods include the money supply, and prices include the rate of interest.

There is no scientific way to know in advance the right price of goods.  With ever-changing population, technology, and preferences, markets are turbulent, and there is no way to accurately predict fluctuating human desires and costs.

The quantity of money in the economy is no different from other goods.  The optimal amount can only be discovered by the dynamics of supply and demand in a market.  The impact of money on prices depends not just on the amount of money, but also on its velocity, that is, how fast the money turns over. The Fed cannot control the velocity since it cannot control the demand for money, that is, the amount people want to hold. Also, even if the Fed could determine the best amount of money for today, the impact on the economy takes several months to take effect, and so the central bankers would need to be able to accurately predict the state of the economy months into the future. Continue reading

Selgin on Bernanke

Some of you have probably already seen Roger Lowenstein’s overly laudatory, but still useful and interesting, article on Ben Bernanke in the March 2012 Atlantic. As a good antidote, you should check out George Selgin’s thorough and informed critique of Bernanke’s first of four lectures on the Federal Reserve. Bernake seemingly unreflectively repeats many gross myths about the history of banking. Although these myths are widely believed by mainstream economists who who are abysmally ignorant of history, Bernanke has specialized in monetary history and should really know better.

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel