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Sound Money Vs. Fiat Currency: Trade and Credit Are the Wild Cards – Charles Hugh Smith

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We need to start thinking outside the current system, which has no solutions.

Our convictions about money are quasi-religious: heretics are burned at the stake. I’m not sure which stake I’ll be tied to, because all the conventional choices–fiat currency, sound money (gold, Bitcoin) or debt-free currency (a.k.a. MMT)–are all fatally flawed.

To understand why, consider the wild cards in any monetary system: global trade and credit. Let’s start with credit, which as David Graeber explained in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, has been an integral component of monetary arrangements since the dawn of civilization.

Taxes must be paid and seed purchased for the next crop, and so credit in some form–notched sticks, bills of sale, purchase orders, loans–is the lifeblood of commerce and state revenues. Credit naturally divides into short-term commercial credit–credit extended until the goods or payment are delivered–and longer term credit secured by collateral.

In traditional economies in which gold and silver are money, credit was generally limited to commerce, as credit based on loaning surpluses of gold and silver was limited by the scarcity of those metals. But the demand for credit did not diminish; rather, it increased, which is why small banks (that often went bust) emerged in the 1820s in America to meet the demand from small enterprises for credit to expand.

In an economy in which gold is the only money, credit is limited to a percentage of gold held in reserves, as much of the reserves must be held to fund customer redemptions / withdrawals. This limits the availability of credit.

In a fractional reserve banking system such as ours, one ounce of gold held in reserve is sufficient collateral for a loan 10 times the value of the reserve: $2,300 in gold enables the issuance of $23,000 in new money, i.e. a loan of $23,000, as every loan is new money created by the act of issuance.

What happens to “gold-backed money” when credit expands the supply of money expands 10-fold? The gold reserves are now spread over a much larger sum of money. The actual value of the gold backing each unit of money declines to a fraction of its initial value.

In other words, if credit is allowed to create money, then the “gold-backed” valuation of each unit is massively diluted. If credit is limited to surplus gold/silver loaned at interest, the sum of credit is a tiny fraction of all money in circulation.

Ancient Rome offers an example of a system in which only gold-silver were money. When the empire’s silver mines in Spain were depleted, the supply of new money dried up and scarcity forced authorities to shave the actual silver content of coinage, the older higher-value coinage was quickly hoarded and left circulation: this is Gresham’s law, that bad money drives good money out of circulation.

Rome also offers an example of trade’s impact on money. Rome’s wealthy–who naturally ended up with most of the empire’s “sound money” wealth–spent freely on luxuries from foreign trade with Africa, India and distant China: silks, incense, gemstones, etc. This trade drained the empire of gold and silver, which was transferred overseas to buy the luxuries.

In other words, trade imbalances drain importers of their gold/silver. President Nixon didn’t end the convertibility of the US dollar to gold on a whim; due to rising US trade deficits, America’s gold would have been drained to zero in a few years. That’s what happens to “sound money” when trade deficits cannot be controlled: those running the trade deficits run out of gold-silver and cease importing goods.

Nixon’s hand was forced by the requirements of a global reserve currency, the US dollar. What is often overlooked in discussions of money is the necessity for reserve currencies to be “exported” to the global economy at scale so there’s enough units floating around to fund commerce and credit.

If there is insufficient currency available in the global system, the currency cannot function as a reserve currency due to its scarcity. As the global economy increased in size, the sums of US dollars required also increased, requiring permanent trade deficits as the means to “export” the currency into the global financial system.

Many feel that getting rid of the USD’s reserve status would be a plus, but those mercantilist nations exporting to the US would disagree, as once trade dries up their gravy train ends. Also unsaid is the reality that many nations must import food and energy, and their trade deficits are thus unavoidable.

A global economy with severely limited credit and trade will be a very different economy than the one we have now, undoubtedly better in terms of reduced consumption but this may not be entirely welcome or usher in an era of stability. The ideal system would be one that enables a transition to a new global economy that doesn’t impoverish the bottom 90%.

Interestingly, convertibility to gold didn’t restrain the ravages of inflation. Look at the chart of the USD’s purchasing power since 1900 and note the value dropped from $25 to $5 during the period that the USD was convertible to gold.

The influx of New World gold and silver via Spain in the 1500s and 1600s also deflated the value of precious metals in Europe.

The larger point is the purchasing power and price of everything is set by global markets: the relative value of precious metals, currencies, commodities, labor, risk, credit–all are set by global markets. Any nation-state which presumes to anchor a price that suits its policy makers only creates a black market for whatever they are attempting to control.

Fiat currencies arose to escape the limitations of “sound money” generated by credit and trade. The problems of fiat currencies are well-known: the temptation to create more currency is irresistible. If currency is simply printed, per Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), a.k.a. debt-free currency, we end up with billion-dollar bills because the increase of currency above and beyond the increase in production of goods and services reduces the value of each unit of currency.

Borrowing money into existence by selling Treasury bonds serves to limit the collapse of currencies, but it imposes interest payments (mostly paid to the wealthy who own 90% of the nation’s financial wealth) which drain the economy of vitality, leading to stagflation / decline.

We need to start thinking outside the current system, which has no solutions: debt-free money leads to billion-dollar bills, “sound money” (gold or bitcoin, it doesn’t matter) ends up in the hands of the wealthy and borrowing money into existence leads to stagnation as soaring interest sucks the economy dry.

I have explored money in two books:

Money and Work Unchained and

A Radically Beneficial World, which proposes a system that creates new money at the bottom of the wealth-power pyramid rather than at the top. Yes, I understand this is wildly impractical in the current zeitgeist, but all conventional monetary systems run aground on their intrinsic limits / flaws, we’ll have to start somewhere other than the status quo.

My recent books:

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases originated via links to Amazon products on this site.

Self-Reliance in the 21st Century print $18, (Kindle $8.95, audiobook $13.08 (96 pages, 2022) Read the first chapter for free (PDF)

The Asian Heroine Who Seduced Me (Novel) print $10.95, Kindle $6.95 Read an excerpt for free (PDF)

When You Can’t Go On: Burnout, Reckoning and Renewal $18 print, $8.95 Kindle ebookaudiobook Read the first section for free (PDF)

Global Crisis, National Renewal: A (Revolutionary) Grand Strategy for the United States (Kindle $9.95, print $24, audiobookRead Chapter One for free (PDF).

A Hacker’s Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
(Kindle $5, print $10, audiobook) Read the first section for free (PDF).

The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake (Novel) $4.95 Kindle, $10.95 print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

Money and Work Unchained $6.95 Kindle, $15 print)Read the first section for free

Become a $3/month patron of my work via

Subscribe to my Substack for free

Self-Reliance in the 21st Century print $18, (Kindle $8.95, audiobook $13.08 (96 pages, 2022) Read the first chapter for free (PDF)

When Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his famous essay Self-Reliance in 1841, the economy was localized and households supplied many of their own essentials. In our hyper-globalized economy, we re dependent on distant sources for our essentials.

Emerson defined self-reliance as being our best selves thinking for ourselves rather than following the conventional path. Self-reliance in the 21st century means reducing our dependency on fragile supply chains and becoming producers as well as consumers.

Self-reliance is often confused with self-sufficiency–the equivalent of Thoreau s a cabin on Walden Pond. But self-reliance in the 21st century isn t about piling up money or a cabin in the woods; it s about humanity’s most successful innovation: cooperating with trustworthy others in productive networks.

The book details the essential mindset of self-reliance and 18 nuts and bolts principles of self-reliance in the 21st century.

Read excerpts for free

Podcast with Richard Bonugli: Self Reliance in the 21st Century (43 min)

When You Can’t Go On: Burnout, Reckoning and Renewal ( $18 print, $8.95 Kindle ebookaudiobook)

When I burned out, what I wanted but could not find was a practical guide by someone who had experienced burnout themselves. None of the material I found spoke to what I was experiencing or to my sense that our economy is now optimized to burn people out.

I decided to write the guide I wanted but could not find. This is my experience of burnout, reckoning and renewal.

This book is my account of what helped me. The intended audience is other burnouts and those who want to better understand the experience of burnout.

Burnout is a life-changing experience in a good way, as absurd as that may sound to those in the depths of burnout. To paraphrase Samuel Beckett: I can’t go on but I must go on. There is a way forward.

Read the first section for free (PDF).         The Introduction

The Epidemic Nobody Talks About: Burnout

Global Crisis, National Renewal: A (Revolutionary) Grand Strategy for the United States ( $22.50 print, $9.95 Kindle ebookaudiobook)

Nations that embrace Degrowth and social cohesion will survive. Those that cling to “waste is growth” economies and destabilizing extremes of inequality will perish.

The threats to the republic are unprecedented, and conventional responses are an accelerant of collapse: the status quo is now the problem rather than the solution.

We have an opportunity to redraw America s Grand Strategy from the ground up. Should we fail to do so, the United States will fail, along with all the other nation-states that are incapable of grasping degrowth and social unity as solutions.

This revolutionary Grand Strategy will be the deciding factor between nation-states that fail and the few (if any) that will not just survive but actually thrive.

Read Chapter One for free (PDF).         Read the Introduction

Podcast discussing the book: A Grand Strategy to Address the Global Crisis (54 min., with Richard Bonugli)



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