When the U.S. removed gold and silver coins from circulation in the 1930’s and 1960’s and replaced paper gold certificates and silver certificates with Federal Reserve notes, the paper money looked very much the same. But the thing that the paper money represented changed dramatically. The paper money now represents units of credit money that have no guaranteed relationship with the prices of gold or silver or anything else.
Definitions: A gold or silver coin is a physical object that has weight, volume and physical characteristics. Credit money is a record of the existence of a debt. Credit money exists in the intangible world of information and human relationships. Where Mr. A owes Mr. B a specified unit of money, and where that debt is recorded on paper or another recording medium, and where the record of that debt passes from one person’s possession to another as a medium of exchange, you have credit money.
The Difference Between Good Money (Gold for instance) and Bad (Credit) Money
Gold coins are minted; debts are recorded. The two forms of money could hardly be more dissimilar. Metallic money has been used by people for about 2,600 years. It has been used sporadically and in certain places. Credit money has been used for at least 5,000 years, when people first started recording debts on clay tablets, pieces of wood or ivory, etc., and trading those IOU’s as money. Before debts were recorded in writing, they were, in prehistoric times, discussed verbally, remembered, and sometimes traded in verbal transactions. This is how very primitive people still trade using debt today.
Anyone who has no intention of paying back his debt, such as the Federal government, can potentially issue debt in infinite amounts. To create a gold coin, someone has to first mine the gold from the earth, refine it, mill it, stamp it into circular shapes and then stamp the governmental pattern on it. To create a piece of credit money, a debt has to be created and then a piece of paper printed or a record created on a computer. There is an issue of whether that debt is worth anything, however.
A gold coin that is legal tender will always be accepted as money. With credit money, some of it is good and some of it is bad. In recent years Zimbabwe’s credit money went bad. Before that, the Weimar Republic’s credit money became worthless. All circulating debt has a mixture of good and bad. When a lot of it goes bad at the same time, it causes a crisis, where the “toxic debt” must be guaranteed or purchased by government or else banks and other financial institutions will go bankrupt.
Credit money has the quality that there is a continuing flow of interest payments away from the users of money in the general population and toward creditors. Most debt specifies interest payments as part of the loan agreement. The Federal Reserve notes we use as money are claims on interest-bearing debt owned by the Federal Reserve. With a gold money system, there is no such continued flow of wealth from debtors to creditors in a gold money system.
Because interest payments are constantly flowing out from families, businesses and communities to financial centers and wealthy creditors, credit money results in economic sluggishness unless there is a constant expansion of the supply of credit money. Under a gold money system, people can function much better with a constant money supply because there is no leakage of interest payments. Each community can continue to circulate its own holdings of gold money without having to pay any of it out in the form of interest payments.
In order to keep a credit money economy going, more debt must be continually created. Government and financial leaders who do not want to be blamed for a downward spiral of slowing economic activity must see to it that more debt is constantly being created. Under a gold money system, there is no pressure to constantly increase the burden of debt.
The fractional reserve method of banking encourages asset bubbles because new money is created as borrowers take out new loans. When people borrow money to buy bubble assets (e.g., houses 1981-2006), it creates enormous amounts of new money to feed the asset bubble. Many asset bubbles were also created during the gold money era due to fractional reserve banking, but where the unit of currency is guaranteed by government to be equal to a fixed weight in gold, the inflation threat is taken out of the picture and that restrains bubble creation somewhat.
Higher interest rates also discourage the formation of asset bubbles.To support the value of their currencies under a gold money system, governments must also often raise interest rates in order to encourage investors to sell gold in exchange for bonds paying good interest. Higher interest rates also discourage the formation of asset bubbles.
A zero interest rate policy is impossible under a gold money system. The demand for gold would soon deplete government’s gold holdings to zero. Under a credit money system a policy of low interest rates and financial repression can be imposed for an indefinite period of time.
Low interest rates and the ease with which credit money is created lead to increased lending activity and higher debt loads. Under a gold money system, debt will necessarily be created at a slower rate. By stepping up the pace of debt creation, a credit money system serves the interests of the banks.
Continually increasing debt leads ultimately to debt saturation.[the situation in the US today] When a country’s people and businesses are saturated with debt, it makes it much more difficult to continue to increase the debt load. That leads to stagnation and slowing economic activity in a credit money system. A gold money system does not tend to lead to debt saturation and has no similar problems with debt saturation.
The higher debt load facilitated by a credit money system results in greater flows of wealth from the debtor class to the creditor class. The higher debt load leads to increased disparities in income, more very poor and very rich and fewer of the middle class.
Gold-backed currencies have an excellent track record of holding their value. Credit money tends to inflation, the rate of which largely depends on how fast new debt is being created.
One of the three functions of money is as a store of value. (The others are a medium of exchange and a unit of account.) When the U.S. government guarantees that 35 U.S. dollars will buy an ounce of gold, as it did in the years 1934-67, government aid savers by acting as a guarantor of that store of value. When the U.S. went off the gold standard in 1971, it changed the relationship between citizens and their government when government no longer provided that guarantee.
In a credit money system, however, the creation of new debt is so important that anyone who goes into debt is a hero of the economy. In a gold money system, a person who takes out a loan and does not repay it is considered a bad person, almost a thief. He has robbed his creditors of the money they were rightfully owed.
That is why under a debt money system, it is considered more important that new debt be created (e.g., as student loans) than to worry about whether they will ever be paid back or to pin blame and guilt on loan defaulters.
It changes every individual’s relationship with his own money, with government, and with banks. It changes the power relationships within society. It changes the patterns of ownership and wealth accumulation.
For people with over 2,500 years of experience with gold money, it is difficult to understand it and get used to it. But anyone who does understand it will be better off because of making better-informed decisions. We might as well get used to it because we shall likely have to live with a credit money system for a very long time.