Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades


Constitutional Era
American history between the Revolution and the approach of the Civil War, was dominated by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Background rumbling was from the French Revolution. The War of 1812 was merely an embarrassment.

Second Edition, Greater Savings.
The book, Health Savings Account: Planning for Prosperity is here revised, making N-HSA a completed intermediate step. Whether to go faster to Retired Life is left undecided until it becomes clearer what reception earlier steps receive. There is a difficult transition ahead of any of these proposals. On the other hand, transition must be accomplished, so Congress may prefer more speculation about destination.

The Age of the Philadelphia Computer
Computers have a long slow history. The computer industry, however, had an abrupt start and sudden decline, in Philadelphia.

Banking Panic 2007-2009 (2)

New topic 2013-02-14 19:27:06 description

New topic 2013-02-14 19:27:06 contents

Why Jefferson Hated Banks and Hamilton Loved Them

First Bank of Philadelphia

Some things are easier to understand when they start, before they get complicated. That's true of banking, where it can now be puzzling to hear there was a strong inclination to forbid banks by law. While we were still a colony, the British discouraged bank formation, fearing strong concentrations of wealth at a great distance could lead to ideas of independence. Anti-bank sentiment was thus a Tory characteristic, although as the Industrial Revolution progressed, Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels stamped it permanently with a proletarian flavor. Large owners of farmland were displeased to see their power weakened by urban concentrations of wealth, while poor recent settlers of America wanted to buy and sell land cheaply, so they favored a currency that steadily declined in value. People with wealth have an incentive to keep money stable, but people with debts have an incentive to pay them off with cheap money. After these battle lines clarified and hardened, the debate has transformed from an original dispute about banks, into cat fights about a strong currency. As Rogoff and Rheinhart have pointed out, inflation is a way for governments to cheat their citizens, devaluation is a way of cheating foreigners. Naturally, politicians prefer to cheat foreigners, but national tradition curiously seems to favor one style more than another. Essentially, they are the same thing with the same motive, although outcomes may be different. One is restrained by fear of revolution, the other by fear of an international currency war.

{Alexander Hamilton}
Alexander Hamilton

While George Washington was America's first president, Alexander Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury and Thomas Jefferson was Vice President; the cabinet contained only four members. Although Hamilton was born poor, the bastard brat of a Scottish peddler in the view of John Adams, he had learned about practical finance in a counting house, and later gained Washington's confidence on the headquarters staff; Washington eventually made him a general. Jefferson was part of the slaveholding Virginia planter elite, elegant in writing style and knowledge of art and architecture, sympathetic to the French Revolution; eventually, he died bankrupt. Early in the Washington presidency, Hamilton produced three long and sophisticated white papers, advocating banks and manufacture. Jefferson was opposed to both, one facilitating the other, which we would today describe as taking a green, or leftish position. Banks were described as instruments for accepting deposits in hard currency, or specie, and lending it out as paper money. The effect of this was a degrading of gold into paper money, or if not, an inflationary doubling of currency. Banks would be able to create money at will, a capricousness Jefferson felt should be confined to the sovereign government. Just keep this up, and one day some former banker from Goldman Sachs would be able to tell the President of the United States, "The bond market won't let you do that." In this sense, the bank argument became a dispute about public and private power.

{Thomas Jefferson}
Thomas Jefferson

Hamilton, a former clerk of a maritime counting house, could observe that sending paper money on a leaky wooden boat kept the real gold in the counting house even after the boat was lost at sea. To him, prudent banking transactions enhanced the safety of wealth, reducing risk rather than enlarging it. Later on, he learned from Robert Morris that a bank floating currency values on the private market, disciplined the seemingly inevitable tendency of governments to water the currency. Once more, banks should enhance overall safety in spite of being vilified for creating risk. To both Hamilton and Jefferson, all arguments in an opposing direction seemed specious, designed to conceal ulterior motives.

Banks came and went for a century. By the time they almost were a feature of every street corner, banks were taking paper money (instead of gold and silver) as deposits and issuing loans as paper money, too; the gold was kept somewhere else, ultimately in Fort Knox, Kentucky. With experience, deposits could stay with the bank long enough that only a rare run on the bank would require more than 20% of the loans to be supported by physical ownership of gold. By establishing pooling and insurance of various sorts, banks persuaded authorities it was safe enough for them to hold no more than 20% of their loan portfolio in reserves. By this magic, loans at 6% to the customer could now return 30% to the bank. A few loans will default, a reserve for defaults was prudent, so the bank with a 2% default rate could settle for a 20% return rate. A bank which was deemed "too big to permit it to default" was invisibly and costlessly able to trim its reserves, and thus receive a 25% return by relying on the government to bail it out of an occasional bank crisis. With this sort of simple arithmetic it is easy to see why multi-billion dollar banks were soon arguing that 5:1 leveraging was too small, a reserve of gold and silver was unnecessary, and the efficiencies of large banks were needed to compete with big foreign banks. By the time of the 2007 crash, many banks were leveraged fifty-to-one, which even the man on the street could see was over-reaching. The ideal ratio was uncertain, but 50:1 was certain to collapse, probably starting with the weakest link in the chain.

{Alan Greenspan}
Alan Greenspan

This brings the banking arguments more or less up to date. Except in 1913, an "independent" Federal Reserve Bank was created. It was a private reserve pool balanced by a public partner, the government. In time, the need for gold and silver was eliminated entirely, by the wartime Breton Woods Agreement, and the Nixon termination of it. The predictable inflation which could be expected to result from a world currency without physical backing, was prevented by allowing the Federal Reserve to issue, or fail to issue as necessary, the currency in circulation. This substitution was deemed possible by having the Fed monitor inflation, and adjust the flow of currency to maintain a 2% inflation rate. Although 100% paper money was an historic change, it has endured; it has withstood efforts by the politicians to re-define inflation, undermine the indices of its measurement, and brow-beat the vestal virgins appointed to defend the value of the dollar. The old definition of money has changed: it is no longer a store of value, it is only a medium of exchange. The store of value is a nation's total assets. Jubilant politicians have added an additional burden of preventing unemployment, to the original one of defending price stability. In practical terms, the goal is defined as maintaining a 2% inflation rate, while achieving a 6.5% unemployment rate. It remains to be seen whether the two goals can exist at the same time, particularly if the definitions of inflation and unemployment become unrecognizably undermined.

And it even remains to be seen whether the black-box system can be undermined from within. The Federal Reserve is so poorly understood by the public that his enemies now accuse Alan Greenspan of causing the present recession. It is argued that the eighteen years of banking quiet which his chairmanship enjoyed, was only gradual inflation, deeply concealed. It is contended that the unprecedented steady rise of the stock market during those eighteen years was financed by a small but steady loosening of credit by the Federal Reserve. Perhaps what this means is: the definition of inflation must be tightened so its target can be made and adjusted, not to 2%, but to some number slightly less than that, measured to three decimal places. Or that the 6.5% unemployment target must be jettisoned in order to preserve the dollar. With that prospect including international currency wars as its corollary , it will be an interesting debate, and immigration policy is related to it. Because one alternative could become the abandonment of the fight against inflation, in order to sustain the new objective of reducing unemployment, Jefferson would have won the argument.


The History of the United States: Course 8500, 15 Hamilton's Republic: ISBN: 156585763-1 The Great Courses
This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly: Kenneth Rogoff, Carmen M. Reinhart: ISBN-13: 978-0691152646 Amazon

Bernanke's QE3: A New Titanic, or A New Bretton Woods?

{Ben Bernanke}
Ben Bernanke

Nobody likes to execute a guilty prisoner, but in finance it is surely true that allowing bad debts to remain unresolved harms the whole economy. It makes little difference whether a bank fails to mark its debts to market, whether debts are "extended", or insolvent institutions are subsidized. Andrew Mellon once advised Herbert Hoover that he should "wring the rottenness out of the system", but that is such poor politics that even Hoover rejected it. In time, the process of "good bank, bad bank" was devised to isolate bad debts into a single institution so the rest of the economy could begin to recover. QE3 is a version of good bank, bad bank. Unfortunately the public is easily misled in these matters, so although all three Q's involve the Federal Reserve buying long bonds, QE1 unfroze a frozen financial marketplace (successfully), QE2 meant to stimulate the economy (unsuccessfully), but QE3 seems to have much grander ambitions. So it is unfortunate that three different activities share the same name, and still more unfortunate that name is made so mysterious. Let's forget about the first two, and concentrate on QE3.

The Federal Reserve is well along in a program of buying huge quantities of questionable long bonds, and has announced it is going to keep buying huge quantities until either inflation exceeds 2.5% or unemployment falls below 6.5%. That's not exactly the same as buying every bad bond in existence, but it could come to that. Instead of letting the holders of those bonds go bankrupt, the Fed is buying the bonds out of circulation, which could rescue a great many investors. Small businesses do not ordinarily issue bonds, so there is some bias in favor of large businesses and banks, but surely not an intentional bias. The effect is to make the Federal Reserve both a good bank and a bad bank at the same time. The main difference between this and wringing the rottenness out, is that bankrupt institutions cannot come back to haunt you, while in the more benign purchase of bonds, you have assumed an obligation to pay them back. When you sell them back you drive the price down and money disappears. Furthermore, when the price of bonds declines, interest rates will rise and the national debt will increase more rapidly. If the economy cannot withstand higher interest rates, a recession will deepen. You have to get the timing right, and the world is in such a delicate state that it is impossible to get the timing entirely right for everybody. Because interest rates are now essentially zero, they cannot go lower, so investment advisors are increasingly advising clients to sell some bonds while they still can. If that gets out of hand, it could start a panic.

{United States Federal Reserve}
United States Federal Reserve

However, the United States Federal Reserve is not an investor, it controls the currency and can print unlimited amounts of it. There is nothing which can force it to sell its bond holdings, ever. Without going into the details of the Bretton Woods Treaty, the tie to gold was eliminated nearly fifty years ago. Meanwhile, its bonds are paying interest, which at the moment it is returning to the U.S. Treasury to reduce the national debt. It can reduce this outflow more or less at will, and it can increase it by raising interest rates (ie by selling bonds, as described). With a few extra steps, this enormous pot of debt could become the basis for an international currency reserve. At the least, it could bring a halt to an international currency war. If it chooses, it can decide to wait as long as fifteen or twenty years for economic demand to recover from a century of overleveraging, and then pay it back by letting the bonds reach maturity. But there is at least one big flaw in this dream.

At some point, the bond market may decide to take the bull by the horns and raise rates before the Federal Reserve wishes to. Political appointees come and go, and the bond market could easily decide that a misjudgment has been made by somebody. It could easily happen that public apprehension could grow that something doesn't smell right. In that climate, a few heavy sales could trigger a panic. And then everyone will try to get out the door at the same time.

Bretton Woods

{The Bretton Woods conference in 1944}
The Bretton Woods conference in 1944

Stripped of its mystery and irrelevant details, the Bretton Woods conference agreed that all nations would make their currency convertible into U.S. dollars, and the U.S. would make its currency convertible into gold. Since World War II had left the United States with the only major working economy, it sold goods to the rest of the world and the rest of the world sent us their money to be converted into dollars; we had a "favorable balance of trade." Somewhere in the 1960s the rest of the world got on its feet, and we began to have an unfavorable balance of trade. After a while, foreigners started converting their dollars (the "reserve" currency) into gold. By 1971, the depletion of gold from Fort Knox became alarming, and the United States stopped converting its currency into gold. From that point onward, all currencies became effectively computer notations, whose value as a medium of exchange was what their government said it was.

Paradoxically, it is hard to see how this system would work without a government in charge of it, although private substitutes would probably soon appear if governments relaxed their monopoly on currency. Since a great many people dislike their governments for one reason or another, they chafe at a system which forces them to keep their governments in order to prevent commercial chaos. For those who do not adequately understand this, governments all stand ready to maintain themselves with force, and many other people dislike that feature even more. Since it took place at the same time, the Vietnam protest movement may have had some relation to this major change in the nation, misunderstood perhaps, but viscerally perceived. In view of President Nixon's central role in all of this, one is even tempted to speculate that his electoral promise of a secret means to end the Vietnam conflict, coupled with the subsequent peaceful surge of China and the financial recycling of Chinese money through Treasury bond purchases, may all have been subjects discussed during his historic trip to China.
Irrational Exuberance

However that may be, it is a fact that the Vietnam War ended, the Chinese economy flourished with American help, and the deposit of Chinese money in our economy helped fuel a massive economic bubble, and the weakest links in the chain -- mortgage backed securities -- were the place the bubble burst. Not much of this could have occurred with a gold standard, and in many circles this was regarded as proof that gold was a barbarous relic. In retrospect, few would deny we had been leveraging our economy to dangerous heights, for nearly fifty years. In 1996, Alan Greenspan denounced our "irrational exuberance", and yet the bubble did not burst for another twelve years. If we succeed in deleveraging our economy until it reaches 1996 levels, it will be regarded as a remarkable success. But the Chairman of the Federal Reserve at that time described it as a dangerous level. And looking back over the centuries, an indescribable number of kings were dethroned or beheaded because they evaded the rather irrational restraints of a scarce, hence precious, barbarous relic. Balanced against that, a billion Asiatics have been raised out of poverty, and the economy of the world overall would seem opulent to our grandfathers. Somehow, we must find the wit and the self restraint to solve this problem.


The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order:z Benn Steil: ISBN-13: 978-0691149097 Amazon

Deficits Don't Matter When Your Party Is In Power

{CBO February 2013 cover}
CBO February 2013 cover

The cacophony that is the economic debate: Paul Krugman reports today (March 11, 2013 in the New York Times Op Ed) that the February 2013 CBO report shows that America's deficits don't matter.

One of his points is that automatic stabilizers did their job: people lost their jobs -> unemployment payments went up -> the pain of the recession was lessened ... and as things improve, government expenditures will go down (are currently going down, in fact).

This is the basic macroeconomics one learns in college, but looking at the CBO's summary I have a hard time thinking our deficit situation is not a continuing problem. The bottom two graphs are hopeful, but the top graph does not inspire confidence. I didn't read the entire report and maybe Krugman did; but the graphs presumably are what the CBO thought summarized their findings.

Funny that Krugman and Cheney have both told us that deficits don't matter. I think maybe deficits don't matter when your party is in power.

Cyprus Tests the Limits of Paper Money

{Cyprus Map}
Cyprus Map

Tourists like to banter about their favorite place in the whole world; until recently, mine was Cyprus. It's an eastern Mediterranean island, where it was possible to swim from beaches in the morning, ski in the afternoon, and luxuriate in an inexpensive but posh hotel in the evening. The locals had their ethnic rivalries, but what would a tourist care. Since I was last there, apparently Russian and other billionaires discovered the place, and now three local banks are bigger than the GNP of the nation. Like Ireland, Hungary, Iceland and several other small European nations, this dystrophic growth made it impossible for the government to guarantee the assets of the banks, as the familiar "lender of last resort" because the banks were bigger than the government. Accordingly, the local government was forced to declare a protracted bank holiday, to forestall what was certainly going to turn into a run on the banks as depositors all tried to get out the door at the same time. International stock markets immediately dropped a noticeable number of points, as the whole world suddenly discovered Cyprus wasn't such a nice place to put your money after all. The Russians might possibly be nasty people, but in this matter of bank deposits, people all link arms internationally like brothers.

There have been lots of other bank panics in small nations without much agitation, so what seems to have bothered the markets was the decision of the Central European Bank to tax the depositors 10% to support the system. Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, said she thought it was a good idea to tax depositors, and that really upset a lot more people. Ms. Lagarde is French, but the IMF which she heads is located a few blocks from the U.S. White House, so the suspicion grew that Mr. Obama might approve of placing a tax on bank deposits, too. As things started to get out of hand, everyone hastily dropped the whole idea, and even the Cypriote Parliament voted against it. There was no time for even the large organizations devoted to managing the news to manage this one. World opinion was instantaneously mobilized, and thunderous in voicing its low opinion of taxing bank deposits, by anyone, anywhere. What was accidentlally aroused was the realization that since the World went off the gold standard in 1971, the world's money is backed by nothing at all except a computer notation. Irrevocably taxing it in bank accounts could be done in an hour.

In 1944 the international conference held at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, agreed that other nations could exchange their currency for American dollars, but only the U.S. dollar could be converted into gold. As long as the U.S. ran a trade surplus, the gold remained undisturbed in Fort Knox. But when other nations began to export their goods in the 1960's, their dollars began to be changed into gold. Gresham's Law took over quickly, since when two currencies of unequal value circulate together, the more valuable one will quickly disappear; the shifting balance of trade had made gold more valuable than dollar bills. When President Nixon began to see that Fort Knox was soon going to be emptied, he put a stop to the exchange. He "closed the gold window". At that point, we were all off the gold standard, but nothing much happened. It remained possible to continue to speak of gold as a "barbarous relic", and by implication any standard like silver or oil or land, was also a barbarous relic. But the experience of Cyprus taught the world that everyone did want the value of currency to be independent of the whims of government, and like the Emperor's suit of clothes, was just waiting for someone to point it out. A system of monetary exchanges, or exchanges of goods and services, really can be run without backing by anything except the word of government. But inflation targeting does need a government to run it, and thus governments have acquired a power over currencies which centuries of experience had taught people not to trust for a moment. North and South American hemispheric trade had been comfortably run without governments for centuries, as long as there were Spanish pieces of eight in actual circulation. But the modern Cyprus government could not run for a week without the trust of depositors, and neither can any other government. Conversely, it is impossible to run an economy without a government to guarantee the international value of money. People don't like that situation, and the threat of chaos in the streets is not much different in any place in the world which does not run a brutal military system. When you reach a point where even the soldiers refuse to be paid with paper money, you are about at the point General George Washington found himself after the Revolution. Robert Morris convinced him it would be possible to base a currency on the credit of the nation, and General Alexander Hamilton had been taught how to run such a thing. The rest of the country didn't understand what that meant, but they did understand that it seemed to work. But it would only work if the people trusted their Constitution, and the government it designed. But then, our government never tried to put a tax on bank deposits. In fact, it took another hundred years before the American public was completely certain you could trust banks even to exist. The good ol' mattress, that's where to keep your money. If it's in gold coins, that is. Paper money might just as well be in a bank, because its value is only symbolic of a government promise.


The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order: Benn Steil: ISBN-13: 978-0691149097 Amazon
Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution: Charles Rappleye: ISBN-10: 1416570926 Amazon
Bitter Lemons: Lawrence Durrell: ISBN-13: 978-1604190045 Amazon

Gold Standard Substitutes

{Bretton Woods conference in 1944}
Bretton Woods conference in 1944

Make-shift proposals to address international monetary crises after 2007, particularly confiscation of bank deposits suggested briefly in 2013 for the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, stimulated a search for a better monetary system. A gold standard sufficed for thousands of years, but the Industrial Revolution increased world economies faster than gold metal was discovered, constantly driving prices downward. It became increasingly difficult to manage rapid growth of debt, as happens in wartime. The crisis which led to the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference was the inability to accommodate the massive national debt rearrangements of the Second World War. With the United States owning two thirds of the world gold supply, international trade was seriously impaired.

Bretton Woods created the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which can be ignored for present purposes. It established the United States dollar as a "reserve currency", alone able to be exchanged for gold. Other nations were allowed to exchange their money for United States dollars. Suplemented at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944 by this gold-standard-once-removed (the U.S. dollar as a "reserve currency"), this expedient only prospered as long as the United States could maintain a positive trade balance. After 1960, the outflow of gold from Fort Knox was relentless, and in 1971 the United States was forced to abandon its buffering between gold and the world's banking systems. After 1971 the world's currencies would supposedly trust their central banks to be "lenders of last resort", but in the financial crises after 2007 many could not sustain that obligation. What they could do was devalue their currency, and even that expedient was blocked by the rules of the euro zone. Put to the test, the European Central Bank became uncertain it wanted the role of lender of last resort. At one time, the gold standard had provided the one backing for currency which was independent of all governments' temptation to inflate away their debts. The U.S. reserve-currency buffer extended the system for several more decades, but after President Nixon cut the link to gold, the post-1971 system only provided a promise of government rescue, without universal ability of governments to live up to the promise. In a sense, governments backed their currency with a mortgage on the nation, and many mortgages were already overextended. For those nations, variants of the gold standard had been replaced by no standard at all. Since governments which had historically been the cause of inflation were now expected to be the source of its restraint, the private sector urgently needed to devise a new system to force the public sector to accept a new and unwelcome role.

Money on a gold standard was formerly both a storehouse of value, and a means of exchange. The world supply of gold was unable to keep pace with the world's increasing wealth for more than a century, so prices were driven down, disrupting long term debts. Rising prices were just as bad; what commerce needed was price stability. What was devised for the 1971 disruption was inflation targeting. The Federal Reserve and to some extent the other major central banks, issued or withdrew currency to achieve a 2% inflation rate, thus hoping to maintain stable prices with a 2% growth rate. Skipping over the details of central banking, the Federal Reserve could safely count on government to promote inflation at almost all times; the need was to restrain it to 2%. Unfortunatly, contraction at 2% takes about as long as expansion at 2%, frustrating the hope of the public to have booms last as long as possible and depressions to be over as soon as possible. Periodic episodes of deflation are a problem. From time to time the economy expands its production capacity faster than consumption can grow, and the inevitable resulting panic not only impairs the ability of banks to lend, but frightens the public away from borrowing. Without a gold standard, prices then fall even farther and faster than with a gold support because money no longer has any intrinsic value. Our problem thus reduces itself to two requirements.

Without a gold or other monetary standard, and seeking to preserve the inflation-targeting system, how can we induce prices not to fall in a depression? And, how can we induce a booming economy not to increase its production capacity beyond what it can consume or sell, so that every boom period stops being followed by an uncontrollable crash? That is, much of the problem of keeping production from falling, is to prevent it from going so high it has to fall. That's not so easy in a democracy; if you stand in the way of making money when making money is easy, you will very likely be voted out of office. Price controls, by the way, have been tried many times; they always fail. The practical problem is thus pressed into the mode of forcing savings into some sort of escrow fund, during boom times. Meanwhile, the practical politician must persuade a suffering public that, once you overbuild capacity, it will probably only wear out at the same 2% rate that it took to grow so big. These are not new sentiments; the public must learn self-restraint during booms, something it has repeatedly resisted.

{Fort Knox}
Fort Knox, KY

Features particularly irritating to the private sector about the Cyprus proposal had several sources, all of them heightened by annoyance that the bureaucracy would immediately try to force the private sector to pay for administrative design blunders. A gold standard permits international trade in defiance of government wishes; a currency without a physical store of value cannot exist without workable rules for international trade. If satisfactory rules cannot be made, voices will demand a return to the gold standard. No one said the Greeks and the Turks should love each other; no one said the Russians must respect private property. What is stated is if workable rules are not forthcoming, private alternatives will arise.

Ben Bernanke is not only the chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, he is one of the recognized academic experts on managing a depression. He has spent his life studying this particular problem, and occupies the most powerful position among the group charged with doing something about it. His innovation in the management of a financial crash is QE, quantitative easing. Essentially, this amounts to the creation of a fund managed by the Federal Reserve, generated by purchasing bonds with money created by the Fed. The content, size and purpose of the fund has varied in the past few years, to the point where it amounts to a gigantic fund at his disposal, as needed, Initially, it injected funds into markets frozen with fear, and successfully unfroze them, making a profit for the Treasury along the way. He next used the fund to manage a gigantic Keynesian effort to stimulate the private economy with federal fund. While it is possible this stimulus averted some worse disasters, the net effect was not outstanding, and is generally regarded as a failure. His current effort, titled QE3, amounts to an enormous effort at what is termed "good bank, bad bank" in financial jargon. Because so many good bonds are undervalued in a recession, it is believed they will return to true market value if the truly bad bonds are removed from the market place. In Victorian days, this was accomplished by bankruptcy, but it is thought to be more humane to buy up and remove them temporarily from the marketplace. The humane approach of course has the disadvantage that the bad bonds may reappear later, and some critics say it is only a variant of "kicking the can down the road." It seems to have worked well for the Scandinavians however,and the final verdict cannot yet be issued. For the purposes of the present discussion, the essential point is that a three-trillion dollar discretionary fund has been put in the hands of most powerful and most knowledgable person involved in international finance. At the moment, the fund contains most of the dubious bonds in circulation, but there are signs that Bernanke plans to replace them with U.S. Treasury bonds, thought to be the safest investment available. He can essentially do anything he pleases with this fund, subject only to the approval of the rest of the Board.

It must have occurred to Bernanke, that this multi-trillion dollar fund of the safest investments on earth would make a highly suitable substitute for gold, if it ever becomes clear that the world needs to return to some tangible commodity to back its currency, or become the new lender of last resort, if we choose to put it that way. Mr. Bernanke essentially needs no one's permission to create this fund, but to use it in some novel way would require the permission of politicians, acting in some way identifiable as the will of the American public. If it should come to that, a few suggested limitations immediately come to mind.

In the first place, one of the main purposes of imposing a gold standard on spendthrift Kings was to keep the King from spending it and substituting his own worthless paper money. Three variants of this threat, inflation, devaluation and confiscation, all amount to the same thing, which would get us back to our present predicament quite quickly, indeed. Mr. Bernanke must realize that our Constitution was written by Founding Fathers who were intensely fearful of entrusting as much power to one person as Mr. Bernanke would likely possess if this idea moved to implementation. To put it bluntly, the first action after it is done should be to surrender the ability to do it. To take another lesson from Constitutional history, it might be remembered that the functions of the Legislative Branch were established in six months, those of the Presidency evolved in the first five years of George Washington's office, and those of the Supreme Court required forty years to evolve. During all of that time, the ability to destroy the Constitution's main purposes had to be shielded from unbelievers, and an apparently unnecessary Bill of Rights had to be appended to reassure the remaining doubters. The main risk to this technical monetary reconfiguration is not monetary, but political.

{Financial Crisis}
Financial Crisis

But there are technical issues, as well. Because they are technical, it is more difficult to depend on wise public opinion, and thus it enhances feasibility when technical issues can be translated into political speech. Because events have demonstrated it is much more difficult to reverse a depression than a bubble, thought should be given to devising ways to use this new vehicle to reverse a depression. Obviously, it should be used to unfreeze a frozen market; that's an important lesson from the success of 2009. Furthermore, the revenue from three trillion dollars of bonds is appreciable, and should be used to finance tax reductions in a recession. More importantly, it should be withheld from government treasuries to restrain a developing bubble, more or less forcing governments to raise taxes during a bubble. Perhaps standards are necessary for expansion and contraction of the fund itself to supplement the use of the fund's income in those extreme situations. Indeed, to forbid the use of principal for those end-purposes might leverage the effectiveness of changing the fund balance, because it would force larger swings of principal to be adjusted. Most of these considerations come into play when a bubble is being restrained, because it is easier to restrain a growing bubble than to repair the damage once it bursts. Restraining a growing bubble is not easy, and picking the right time is still less easy. Better to make most of it automatic, and related to defined market benchmarks. Benchmarks may be inaccurately chosen, but at least something is learned for the next time.

Mr. Bernanke's QE fund is not the only one which could take the place of gold in a new monetary standard. Commodities of various sorts would not be much different from gold and might soften the volatility of mining supply. Land could be used, or fresh water, or petroleum; perhaps we could divide up the ocean in some way. Among the more attractive candidates would be world index funds of stocks or bonds; bonds seem perhaps more suitable, perhaps not. But at the moment, no one seems to be exploring any substitute monetary standard other than gold or the QE fund. Perhaps the disadvantages of each would cancel out in a basket of all the suggested standards. Perhaps inflation targeting can be improved, and no other benchmark is needed; perhaps international branch banking could cover the requirements. And perhaps it is all an academic exercise, but it would still seem helpful if academia would explore a little further, just in case we need them.

Stress Tests for the European Union

{Dr. Ronald J. Granieri}
Dr. Ronald J. Granieri

Dr. Ronald J. Granieri of the office of Secretary of Defense, recently spoke to the Right Angle Club about recent threats to the unification of Western Europe. One of his more striking points was that the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union ending the Cold War, may have unintentionally thwarted the plans for a European Union. The Iron Curtain running from the Baltic to the Black Sea had served as an Eastern boundary for European dreams. When the curtain suddenly disappeared, the European Union was flooded with applications for membership from the recently liberated, formerly Communist dominated, Eastern bloc. It was understandable why these countries would wish to get away from Russia, and equally understandable that Russia would be annoyed. But bedazzling expansion was quite unexpected by the European Founding Fathers, who were having enough trouble without doubling their number with weak economies. If Napoleon or Bismarck or some other empire-builder had been in charge at that time, Europe would either have been expanded by brute force, or its borders slammed shut with brute force. But in the clutch no one was thinking big. Acquiring twenty new nations was an undreamed-for opportunity, but a technical headache for academic theorists. It called for bold action at a time when bold actors were not in charge.
13 Colonies

Although it hurts European pride to admit they were following the American model, most of the problems they were encountering were the same problems our own Founding Fathers encountered in 1789. There were two main differences, however, one of which had been written into our Constitution. The other went largely unnoticed. The written difference was we had a bicameral legislative branch, designed to address the issue of voting rights straddling three big states and nine little ones. Pennsylvania had already gone through a dispute over the unicameral Pennsylvania Legislature, which proved to have so much power it unbalanced the three-branch system of government. Consequently the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, held in that same building, was already uneasy about unicameral legislatures. It was John Dickinson the delegate from little Delaware, who went to James Madison (of Virginia, then the largest state) and told him bluntly that if Virginia persisted in demanding a unicameral Congress with representatives elected by population size, well, there just wasn't going to be any Union. The three big states refused to participate in any one-state, one-vote, system, while the nine small states wouldn't submit to large-state domination by population size. Either voting by state or voting by population would inevitably result in one side winning every hotly contested vote in a unicameral legislature. So, we had solved our problem by having two legislative houses, one of each kind, and agreeing that legislation would only proceed if both houses were in agreement. What made any legislation possible under these terms, was the informal system of "log rolling", in which informal agreements on seemingly unrelated matters would compensate the loser branch of government, and the states they represented. Since in modern Europe, any group of ten or twenty states in a union would surely have memberships of unequal size, bicameral legislatures seem to Americans to be a perfectly sensible arrangement, so get on with it. The insistence by the League of Nations and the United Nations for one-vote, one-nation arrangements, is a major reason the United States never permitted these supranational forums to have much power.

{Iron Curtain}
Iron Curtain

It's an unspoken truth however, that other nations do not see it our way. That's partly because the German and other parliaments going all the way back to the Roman Senate had established a unicameral tradition in Europe. The other main but unwritten cause of Constitutional differences between the two continents is that we had been surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean, and never had to consider the danger that external and internal enemies would join forces to frustrate our decisions. It is true that many attempts were made to do just this, but they were immediately recognized and easily quashed in the past. As long as the Iron Curtain was operational, Europe thought it might have such ocean-like protection as well, but events in 1989 swept that idea away. With a large addition of formerly hostile states, some members were occasionally bound to join forces with Russia or China, even though they were nominally loyal citizens of the EU. Traitorous behavior had long been an underlying cause of splinter parties and brutal suppression, but that was when Communists were thought by everyone to be agents of a hostile foreign power. With the end of the Cold War they might become misguided local citizens exercising freedom of speech, claiming a right to argue for behavior which would have formerly been denounced as traitorous. Nations harboring few such inclinations soon became cautious about joining government with nations who had a great many of them. Citizens of recently enslaved nations were particularly resistant to soothing arguments about unity. It must be confessed that the example of our own Civil War lends force to this feeling of what might happen.

{Baltic and Black Seas}
Baltic and Black Seas

It may be claiming too much to describe the fall of the Iron Curtain, as the major reason for decline of interest in forming a political union in Europe. That decline did occur, and was replaced by the rather weak stratagem of leaving unified government to another time. In its place appeared a strategy of economic unification, hoping the benefits to everyone would become so apparent that unified nationhood would follow. A substrategy emerged, narrowing it to a unified currency, the Euro. Bankers and other financial experts argued that such unification would be fairly simple and effective. And so it proved, until the same difficulty appeared in a different form. The design of the Euro Currency Zone had apparently underestimated the problems of a foreign currency operating together with the Euro, and variants of Gresham's Law surfaced. Small nation members like Iceland and Cyprus found their small banking systems could not cope with huge inflows of flight money, escaping to tax havens within the Euro zone. As well, underdeveloped member nations actually romanced non-member capital to relocate to their shores. Since local currency is ultimately supported by the full faith and credit of the nation, local banks and economies cannot easily deny equal protections to foreign capital, except temporarily while exchange controls are applied. But when a sufficiently small nation is thus forced to guarantee a sufficiently large amount of foreign money, local banks and markets will be destined to crash. If, in addition, the member nations are deprived of the ability to devalue their currency as the Euro zone could, some type of informal arrangement for a two-value currency had to be devised unless more prosperous members like Germany were willing to subsidize the money flows. When two currencies of unequal value circulate together, said John Gresham to Queen Elizabeth I, the more valuable one will quickly disappear.

Minimum Wage Fangdoodle

Governor Chris Christie

The November, 2013 elections have been widely accepted to be a spectacular win for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, suddenly making him a presidential front-runner for 2016. The only other significant election was a close win in the Virginia gubernatorial race for a fund-raising crony of Bill Clinton over the Attorney General who started the Supreme Court Case over Obamacare. In the view of the newsmedia, there were only two elections in this off-year -- a landslide in New Jersey, and a dead heat in Virginia, for Governor.

Well, as a matter of fact, there was also an election in New Jersey for all of the members of the legislature, which means that I was running against the Democratic majority leader in the 6th Legislative District. I got 19,000 votes, but I needed more to win. At least in my family, it was a big event, particularly since no one else in New Jersey contributed a dime to my campaign, and while Governor Christie may have whispered a few encouraging words to me, there was no evidence of his assistance. But you can forget about that, too, because this election was really about the minimum wage.

The first inkling I got that something was up was receiving a sample ballot, three days before the election, where there was a referendum question about the minimum wage that no one had told me about, although it could scarcely have been a secret to get it on the ballot. And secondly, on election day there was scarcely any evidence of campaigning for Democrat candidates except for a few yard signs, but literally dozens of campaign workers poured into the subway stations, handing out great volumes of campaign literature about the minimum wage. Even that went past me unnoticed, because who in the world would vote for a proposal which would increase unemployment during a severe recession? When I expressed the same sentiment to my Democratic friends, I was surprised to discover they all knew about it in advance. In retrospect, that was a fairly good indication that the Internet had selectively urged support of this proposition to the party faithful, but had not said one word in campaigning for it. It won endorsement by a heavy margin, as things soon turned out. What's worse, what had been endorsed by referendum had been to amend the constitution to this effect, automatically indexing it to the cost of living. It's going to be pretty hard to reverse that, since all constitutions have been written to make it very hard to amend them.
Paul Krugman

In the week after election, I notice that several other states have been considering raising the minimum wage. An article appeared on the editorial page of the New York Times arguing that research showed there was no evidence that raising the minimum wage caused unemployment, and a few days later, Paul Krugman had a learned column on the Times editorial page to the effect that smart people all knew there was no reason to expect unemployment from raising the minimum wage, and only the hopelessly ignorant rubes would imagine there was reason to think so. Having spent some time with editorial writers, it seemed pretty evident to me that there was a nationally coordinated effort to convert this into a truism, accepted so widely it would be futile to argue against it. When it is also possible to see the existence of a campaign to impose a maximum wage (and not merely in Switzerland, where it was defeated on a ballot), the trajectory of a rising minimum wage meeting a falling maximum wage easily led to conjectures that what was really afoot was a campaign to take wages out of the marketplace. Or was that really the goal?

Ben Bernanke

For months, the Federal Reserve Chairman has been emphasizing that the Fed must obey two mandates: to maintain price stability and to minimize unemployment. Meanwhile, the dirty little secret among economists has been that unemployment is the main obstacle to inflation in the face of a massive enlargement of the money supply. Unemployment is currently at 7.1% and falling, while the Fed has lifted the veil of "transparency" to reveal it made a promise in double-speak to start selling some of the bonds it issued to combat the recession, when unemployment reaches 6.5%. As time has gone on, Mr. Bernanke has seemed to back away from that promise. He is not so sure that unemployment is a good measure of unemployment, other measures may be a better measure of what we are driving at. He never meant to start selling bonds when unemployment reached 6.5%, he only meant that he might reduce the number he planned to buy. He never meant to make a promise, he only was being transparent about the current thinking of the Board. And anyway, Janet Yellen will take over his job in a month, so you can't very well bind your successor to do anything at all. What's this tap-dancing all about?

Well it simply won't do, to suggest that the Federal Reserve isn't as independent of politics as it pretends to be. But everyone noticed that the stock market had a bad fainting spell when he suggested a few months ago that the Board had been discussing the matter; just imagine what it would do if he actually made a promise to act, let alone actually taking an action. By itself, such an announcement would probably send interest rates on a rise toward normal levels. The stock market mostly anticipates the future, so it would jump ahead of whatever action was taken. Since the United States is now the largest debtor on earth, a rise of interest rates would immediately add huge amounts to the current deficit and the projected national debt. The stock market would almost surely drop, possibly severely, in response to such commotion in the debt markets. And the national economy would certainly feel the deflationary effect of such activity in the financial markets, sending markets even lower. Fear of such a reaction would surely persist longer than the real need for monetary easing, making the resultant inflation even worse than it had to be.

{top quote}
Is it possible the Obama Administration prefers a little extra unemployment, to risking a stock market crash before a coming election? {bottom quote}
Minimum Wage Uproar
And so comes the rumination that perhaps raising the minimum wage has some merit, after all. Under the peculiar circumstances of looming inflation with high unemployment, with the economy unresponsive to huge monetary expansion, with the banks refusing to lend until the economy is deleveraged, perhaps the minimum wage can be raised, briefly and temporarily, without increasing unemployment. Perhaps, that is, the "research" published recently is not the product of some Administration poodle, but actually shows a true effect. Perhaps it remains true that if you raise the price of something (wages), you will get less of it (employment). But any businessman faced with this situation, has a choice. He can either hire fewer hamburger flippers, or he can raise the price of hamburgers. Which one he will choose will depend on whether he has streamlined the efficiency of his workforce as much as he can, or whether he has already raised prices as much as the market will bear. That is, whether there is more "elasticity" in prices, or labor, at that particular moment. And it seems entirely possible that nearing the end of a recession, and the end of monetary expansion, wages may be the more elastic of the two. And so raising the minimum wage may have a counter-intuitive effect of preventing unemployment from falling further, or else he can sustain profitability by raising prices. At some later time, it is equally likely that price resistance may be stronger, and the full force of a mandatory wage increase would again result in increased unemployment. The tricky part would be to guess the proper timing of the end of QE3, using blunted signals. Could it be even remotely possible that the Obama Administration prefers a little extra unemployment, rather than risk precipitating a stock market crash just before a coming election? It's easy to believe the President would go to the stake rather than admit such a thing.

In an era of desperate experimentation with the simultaneous solutions of several problems at once, perhaps the best conservative response to this caper is to seek ways to relax its inflexibility. The political process, particularly the amendment of state constitutions, is a lengthy and cumbersome impediment to agile management of the economy. It is fairly unlikely that a secret springing of a referendum trap can be repeated. The greater risk is that we will know what should be done, but become unable to do it quickly.

Enforcing the Constitution: Civil Monetary Penalties (CMP)

Founding Fathers

The 1787 Constitution created three branches of government along with their defined powers, but described no remedy for a branch overstepping its boundaries. Gradually, a system evolved for declaring some laws unconstitutional, one by one, clarifying individual issues along the way. By contrast, the founding fathers viewed the President as an agent of Congress, expecting Congress to devise controls if needed. George Washington had an intense distaste for monarchs, and eight years as Commander in Chief had exposed no taste for conflict with the Continental Congress. Unfortunately, this has proven to be unusual for Presidents, especially as popular sovereignty appears to expand the Presidential mandate. Moreover, Washington himself developed more friction with Congress during his two terms as President.

In retrospect, the main factor behind Presidential restlessness is the experience of misinterpreting the meaning of a broader electoral mandate, which can more properly be traced to hasty repair of the defects of the 1800 election process. Experience has shown that while ignoring rules invites anarchy, impeachment of a President usually seems too drastic a remedy for unwelcome innovation, while impeaching the whole Legislative Branch for failure to supervise in a general way, is incomprehensible. The President needs some sort of supervision. While the original intent was to have Congress do the supervising, the Supreme Court is now probably better suited for judging the issue of unconstitutional behavior, except for the awkwardness that the President appoints the Supreme Court. These are the simple ingredients of a solution, preferably unwritten and revolving around conferring special "standing" in special circumstances.

{William Bingham class=}
Chief Justice, John Marshall

At present, grievances tend to accumulate until someone acquires "standing" by being injured. At present it is generally true a grievance scarcely matters if no one is injured, but the exception is the lack of redress for injury to the Constitution, whereby everyone may be injured. Furthermore, actual experience with creeping boundary encroachment has mostly proved to be nuanced, rather than confrontational, gradual rather than abrupt. The descriptive example is that of a frog in a gradually heated pan of water, whereby the frog is cooked faster than he realizes he is in danger. Otherwise, the courts have evolved an unspecified balance which has proved remarkably serviceable.

It took thirty years for John MarshalI to formulate the general approach needed. In Marbury v. Madison , his first action after becoming Chief Justice, John Marshall suggested a writ of Mandamus (i.e. "We command...") from the Court might well be the first step in what he coyly described as only a hypothetical situation. Only lawyers were expected to recognize fully that If the President ignored the writ, then the grounds for impeachment might escalate, with the President forced into the role of flouting a decision of the Court. Regardless of how it stood on the original issue, the public would likely support a Court in performing its duty to make difficult decisions.

One way or another, the national issue would become one of whether the nation wished to continue with its Constitution; Marshall had only outlined the steps the process would probably take. At several points along the way, the Chief Justice would have a chance to back off. But Marshall's lifelong hatred of his cousin Thomas Jefferson was so well known there was little doubt he was serious. Knowing of his cousin's hatred for him, President Jefferson let the matter drop; subsequent Presidents followed his example. Generations of lawyers have studied this case and pondered its implications. The solution to the problem of extending it from unconstitutional laws to unconstitutional behavior, probably already exists in many minds.


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Why Jefferson Hated Banks and Hamilton Loved Them
American RevolutionaryFor centuries, Americans have quarreled about whether banks are good or evil. Some of the arguments are good and bad, but hardly any are new.

Bernanke's QE3: A New Titanic, or A New Bretton Woods?
Ben Bernanke is crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope.

Bretton Woods
The Bretton Woods conference in 1944 was very simple. The U.S. dollar was convertible to gold, and all other currencies were convertible into U.S. dollars. By 1971, so many countries converted to dollars and then into gold, that gold was running out. To prevent Fort Knox from being completely depleted of gold, the convertibility of dollars into gold was stopped. All money everywhere is now just a computer notation, controlled by government. In fact, we need governments in order to have money, and many people dislike their government.

Deficits Don't Matter When Your Party Is In Power
Krugman channels Cheney

Cyprus Tests the Limits of Paper Money

Gold Standard Substitutes
The monetary crisis which continues since 2007 keeps financiers searching for a better monetary system.

Stress Tests for the European Union
Ending the Cold War in 1989 may have generated an unexpected obstacle to European unification.

Minimum Wage Fangdoodle
While no one was looking, mandating a minimum wage turned into a contrivance to maintain low interest rates.

Enforcing the Constitution: Civil Monetary Penalties (CMP)
The Constitution does not define penalties if one branch of government oversteps its grant of authority. But starting with writs of mandamus , the U.S. Supreme Court has left the other two branches with little alternative but compliance.