Economics encompasses two realities, the explicit and the implicit. The explicit is visible, obvious, recorded, and quoted. Explicit expenses are paid to others and recorded by accountants. The explicit is also called “nominal,” since that is what is named. For example, nominal interest is what a bank says it is paying, and the money it pays to depositors.
But there is also an implicit realm that is also real. Indeed, the implicit is more real than the explicit. What is explicit is often merely the superficial appearance. But things are often not what they appear to be. The reality beneath is implicit, not visible, not quoted, and not recorded, yet it is the true reality. Economists often use the adjective “economic” to designate the real thing in contrast to the explicit number or the accounting data.
An enterprise has explicit and implicit expenses. The explicit expenses are recorded by bookkeepers and accountants. The implicit expenses are non-recorded opportunity costs, such as what the owner of a business would have earned elsewhere, or what the assets of the firm would yield if sold and converted to bonds. The real cost of oil is not what the buyer pays but also includes the implicit costs of pollution damage not paid for by the customer.
Real interest is the nominal interest minus the inflation rate. Economic profit is accounting profit minus implicit expenses. Real GDP is nominal GDP (in current dollars) adjusted for inflation. Economists deflate prices and include implicit costs to get at the implicit reality. Continue reading
Last [blog post], we examined some propositions about gold as money, drawing from theory and history. [In] this [blog post] we ask whether and how gold might once again serve a monetary function.
Money of any sort, commodity-based or not, derives its value in large part from what economists call a “network effect.” Like a fax machine, whose value depends largely on how many other people have fax machines, we value money because other people value it. We feel confident our money will buy us what we need tomorrow. A strong network effect means that something drastic has to happen before people will give up their familiar form of money.
Something drastic was happening when U.S. Rep. Ron Paul’s Gold Commission was set up in 1979. By the time the commission’s report was issued in 1980, inflation had reached alarming levels: The consumer price index was at 14 percent and rising. The prime rate was over 20 percent, and in 1980 silver exploded to $50 an ounce and gold surpassed $800 (about $2,300 in today’s dollars). Bestselling books urged people to buy gold, silver, diamonds, firearms, and rural hideouts.
We now know that inflation was peaking and that the silver price spike was a fluke caused by a failed attempt to corner the silver market. But none of this was apparent at the time, so it was reasonable to wonder whether our monetary system would survive. What did happen, of course, was that the new Fed chairman, Paul Volcker, stepped on the monetary brakes hard enough to break the back of inflation. Two back-to-back recessions resulted but were followed by a long period of recovery in which both inflation and interest rates dropped steadily. The Gold Commission was largely forgotten, though the U.S. Mint did get into the business of producing gold coins in a big way. Continue reading
Nothing seems to arouse passions—pro and con—quite like suggestions that gold should once again play a role in our money. “Only gold is money,” says one side. “It’s a barbarous relic,” says the other. Let’s turn down the heat a bit and look into some propositions about gold. That should lead us to some reasonable ideas about whether or how gold might return.
Propositions About Gold
Gold has intrinsic value. Actually, nothing has intrinsic value. The value of any good or service resides in the minds of individuals contemplating the benefits they might derive from it. What gold does have is some rather remarkable physical properties that make it very likely that people will continue to value it highly: luster, corrosion resistance, divisibility, malleability, high thermal and electrical conductivity, and a high degree of scarcity. All the gold ever mined would only fill one large swimming pool, and most of that gold is still recoverable.
Only gold is money. Although gold was once used as money, that is no longer the case. Money is whatever is generally accepted as a medium of exchange in a particular historical setting. Right now, government-issued fiat money, unbacked by any commodity, is the only kind of money we find anywhere in the world, with some possible obscure exceptions.
Perhaps people who say this mean that gold is the only form of money that can ensure stability. That’s what future Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan thought in 1967, when he wrote “Gold and Economic Freedom” for Ayn Rand’s newsletter. “In the absence of the gold standard, there is no way to protect savings from confiscation through inflation,” he said. When later asked by U.S. Rep. Ron Paul whether he stood by that article, Greenspan said he did. But he weaseled out by saying a return to gold was unnecessary because central banks had learned to produce the same results gold would produce. Continue reading