How can I help but follow in their footsteps when I see a conspiracy theory about my area of expertise?
Money As Debt is a roughly 45-minute presentation that attempts to explain what is wrong with our current monetary system, how it will inevitably lead to disaster, and what to do about it. It is riddled with silly basic errors, made-up evidence, and falsified quotes. It contains almost no citations for any of the arguments it presents. It pretends that it is the only game in town, that economists are completely ignorant of money. And it finally devolves into an outright unsubstantiated, nonsensical, conspiratorial claim about evil international bankers.
It's a real hoot.
Interestingly, it starts out ok. It explains fractional reserve banking, how most of the money supply is created by bank loans, and how runs on banks can lead to harmful deflation.
For those of you not keeping track at home, it works like this. There is a monetary base (M0) made up of hard physical currency, dollars and cents. In the United States, this is created by the Federal Reserve. This printed and coined money is distributed to the population through Open Market Operations and lending to banks.
Individual banks cannot print money, but they can create money by lending. When you deposit money in banks, they don't let it sit in a vault; they lend it out. This process creates money--most of the money invested in banks isn't physically there, even though you never notice when you withdraw from your checking account. This is because banks have to keep some amount of reserves in their vaults. In the United States, this is a required legal fraction called the Reserve Requirement (currently at 10% and not likely to change any time soon).
This all works because of scale economies. The larger a bank is, the less likely it is that it will run into the trouble of people wanting to extract more than is physically in the vault. It takes a bank run to do that, and these are rare, but extremely painful. Milton Friedman pinned the blame of the Great Depression on a series of bank runs cutting the money supply by 1/3rd, and most economists accept this as one of if not the most major cause of the Depression.
Money As Debt explains all of this more or less accurately, though its tone in these beginning stages is fairly conspiratorial. The narrator insists that classes aren't taught about where money really comes from, that the general public is wholly ignorant of this fact. The latter is true but the former is not; every standard Money and Banking or Finance Economics class teaches this fact. It is not a mystery. It is information readily available, even on Wikipedia, as you'll note that I've linked it already. Around the 41 minute mark, the video alleges that surveys of the population and economists shows that neither knows about the fact of money creation by private banks. I beg to differ. I doubt anyone could get a B.S., let alone a PhD, in economics without knowing this basic fact about our monetary system, at least not from any major accredited university. It is not a conspiracy, it is not a secret, and very few economists even think it is a bad thing. Those economists tend to be a fraction of a minority view (Austrian economics). There's no need to go into this debate except to note that it usually takes the form of a property rights debate, rather than the bizarre direction Money As Debt takes it. (See ie here.)
So this is all accurate but with some caveats so far. The narrator goes into the history of banking, which is roughly accurate. I can't fault him for telling a simplified story, but the anthropological and historical evidence on this front is really interesting, especially the repeated patterns of coordination of types of money and the original causes for the popularization of banks. (Highway robbery is among them!) Again, the tone is still annoyingly conspiratorial, as if people weren't willingly contracting with bankers the entire time, as if being in debt isn't good for people sometimes, as if expected value of future goods were completely irrelevant in the production process. But more of that in a minute.
Around 24 minutes in, the video launches into its real point (and real mistake). "Perpetual debt!" it proclaims. The bankers not only lend out money they don't have, but they charge interest on those loans! So you're paying for the use of money that they don't even have, and here's the kicker: the only way to get the money to pay for the interest is to go back to the original money supply, which then gets deposited into banks, which then gets loaned out. . . and the cycle continues forever until there's a massive economy-destroying crisis with bread lines and monsters eating the planet and the bankers OWN EVERYONE FOREVER!
I can't help but describe this hypothesis in mocking language, because it is a true howler on every level. And the mistakes are so many I hardly know where to begin. So I'll just start from the ground up on the most obvious point: the creators of this video have NO IDEA what interest is.
And there's a lot of debate on that point, considering the different objects interest applies to. (In classical economics, "interest" referred to the rents payed to anything; wages are interest to workers, rent is interest to landowners, etc.) But referring specifically to the interest charged by banks, a non-controversial and brief explanation is that the interest rate is the price of future goods relative to the price of present goods.
Human beings tend to have this thing called a discount rate. We discount the value of future consumption relative to present consumption. For example, even if it were 100% certain that I could make this deal happen, would you rather I promise you a candy bar now, or a candy bar exactly one year from now? Most people answer that they would prefer a candy bar now. Now if I were to ask how much you would pay for a candy bar right now, versus how much you would be willing to pay for the 100% guaranteed right to a candy bar a year from now, the difference in prices that you tell me is your current annual discount rate on candy bars.
Virtually everyone prefers present consumption to future consumption, but their discount rates vary. Some people are more patient than others--they have low discount rates. Some are very impatient and want consumption now, future be damned--they have high discount rates. Loans are then voluntary intertemporal trades between these two groups. And interest rates are the price of that trade. If I'm impatient and want to consume now, I can take a loan from someone who is patient and wants to consume later. Since the transaction is voluntary, it is good for both of us. If the interest rate were so high that it wasn't below my discounted value of future goods, then I wouldn't take out the loan.
So how, then, do we pay for interest? Is it by going back to the original money supply, over and over, so that it is a self-selecting cycle and we are forever in debt? Emphatically not! In truth, people use loans not usually for current consumption of goods like televisions or furniture (though this does happen, and these people get badly burned), but for current investment. And if that investment pays out, real goods and services are created. And the money gained from those real goods and services is what borrowers use to pay off their interest rates--and still have some left over, hopefully!
The creators of Money As Debt make it quite clear that they don't understand a lick of this. An interest rate is a price on an IOU, how absurd! A price for something that doesn't exist yet! If you offered me an IOU for a hammer you didn't have, I wouldn't pay you a penny for it is the example it gives. But what if I offered you an IOU for a hammer that you fully expected me to have in the future? If you valued that hammer in the future, why wouldn't you pay me for it?
Money As Debt mentions, at one point, that some have offered "risk to the lender" as an explanation for interest and then quickly dissmises it, but this is not what interest is. Risk does play a factor--the expectations of the lender about the borrower's future income is incorporated into the interest rate. And if a lender has very low expectations, they may refuse a loan or charge an exorbitantly high interest rate. But even in a world of 100% certainty, interest rates would still exist.
The original money supply is mostly irrelevant in this scenario (with a caveat at the end of this entry). The value of a dollar is not intrinsic--it is determined by the amount of goods and services it can purchase. Hence inflation. If the amount of money increases without an equivalent increase in production, a greater number of dollars can only buy the same goods and services, and its value decreases. So we are not stuck forever trying to pay off interest to banks using a failing dollar. Money As Debt decrise inflation as a tax, but inflation is actually great for borrowers and bad for banks, as I'll explain at the end of this post.
MAD alleges that banks can continue to lend on into infinity, and that lending->money supply->lending creates an infinite cycle of debt. It claims that there is no effective limit on banks' money creation ability. This is poppycock. There is a monetary base (M0, mentioned earlier) and a money multiplier created by banks. The cycle ends there. Banks cannot print new money; in the United States, the Federal Reserve has this sole responsibility. The maximum amount of money that can be multiplied on any initial stock of the monetary base is given by 1/R, where R is the reserve requirement. So, since our reserve requirement in the U.S. is 10% (1/10), the maximum amount of money that can be created through the printing of any one dollar is $1/.1 = $10. Here you can find a derivation of the maximum money multiplier. The actual value of the multiplier is determined by the velocity of money--the speed at which it changes hands, or the amount of money that ends up back in banks. The actual multiplier is never as high as the maximum value.
Money As Debt puts forth the completely absurd hypothesis that the government could replace all of its tax policy by an equivalent increase in the inflation rate and make the same amount of money. It's true to a point, but becomes so completely false so quickly that it's only worth mentioning as an example of how not to do economics.
Remember how I said that expectations about the future make their way into interest rates? Expectations about inflation and deflation do as well. If I expect 3% inflation in a year, and I normally charge interest at 2%, I will now start charging interest at 5%. This is because the value of the dollar is going to be decreased by 3%, so to get 2% real interest I have to add in the inflation rate. Likewise, I would subtract deflationary expectations from new loans. The same is true for other prices--the competitive equilibrium is for prices to be adjusted according to inflation or deflation. If the government all of a sudden, without any warning, switched all of its financing by tax into financing by inflation, for one period (and not a very long one at that) the two would be equivalent. But if the population expected this to happen--if the government announced it a month beforehand, or they just had extremely good predictive power, or whatever scenario you can think of that puts expectations in people's heads--the government would raise zero revenues when it made the switch. This is because the true value of the dollar would already be accounted for in prices, so the room for the government to subtract value would have disappeared.
Money As Debt points out that modern economic growth is exponential, which means it must also use resources exponentially. This is partially true, with a major caveat. Growth also includes technological growth. When we creatively learn how to produce more products with fewer resources, it doesn't necessarily follow that resource consumption must be exponential as well.
After blathering on about the evils of a monetary system based on debt, Money As Debt goes on to tell us how to fix these problems. But first it takes a silly deviation through history, a particular fascination of mine: the history of "just price" theories.
MAD points out that "usury," the charging of interest rates, has been demonized throughout history and across several cultures. The Bible insists that Israelites not be allowed to charge interest to one another. Various countries in time have outlawed charging interest, and ethical and religious scholars (especially following from Thomas Aquinas) had once conclusively declared interest unethical. In the 1600s and with the rise of mercantilism and then capitalism, this view faded out of favor. But, MAD tells us, in light of its previous analysis, we need to take their ideas seriously again and abolish lending.
But in light of the analysis that interest is the price of intertemporal trade, all of those religious scholars are ridiculously wrong. Interest is the price of a voluntary beneficial transaction, no better or worse than the price of any other transaction. No society that has outlawed interest has ever experienced the kind of exponential growth we have today. All outlawing interest ever did was keep those with high potential future human capital from ever making use of that comparative advantage. It kept poor people from starting businesses, and other people from enjoying the goods produced by those new businesses. And on the note of the wonderful growth we're blessed with today. . .
Imagine a world, MAD asks us at around 30:30, that, instead of exploiting its future capital stocks, restricted itself to consumption of current income. Wouldn't it be wonderful and sustainable? We'd only use resources we have now, and there would be no crashes or collapses or monster debt eating away at us!
Congratulations, guys, you've just imagined a world without any education. That's right: education is exploitation of a future human capital stock. The price of education is the interest rate on borrowed time, and the opportunity cost is the labor children and teenagers could be doing now. Not only that, but a world in which we survived only on current stocks of resources (without saving or investing) is nothing more than a tragedy of the commons. The nice thing about private property is that property owners are best off when they maximize expected value including future capital stocks. The tragedy of the commons what happens in the unfortunate state of collective property ownership, in which, historically, the resource is then immediately plundered into extinction. This is why there are millions of cows in the U.S. but very few buffalo. People consumed their present capital stock of buffalo without any eye to the future, and the result was abject disaster. The wonderful world MAD has imagined for us is indeed sustainable--sustainable in a steady state of permanent poverty, the destruction of all resources, and no education. It's not a happy world of investment in renewable resources. It's a hunter-gatherer society.
MAD goes on to tell us how to fix the monetary system. Should we switch back to a gold standard? No, it tells us, for a few reasons, all of which are completely laughable. First, gold systems still have problems with money tampering by the government--after all, in ancient Rome, one factor that lead to their downfall was the devaluing of gold coins by the government through shaving, mixing in of other metals, and so on. Furthermore, gold isn't very handy; it's heavy and it was always cumbersome for gold-based societies to carry coins around.
. . .
Yes, the creators of this video are so abhorrently ignorant that they haven't even studied what the gold standard is. Under a gold standard, people don't literally carry around gold coins. Paper money and metal coinage, issued by the government, is backed by a guarantee to be worth a certain weight of gold. Since people are carrying paper money, the cumbersome nature of gold coinage does not enter the problem in any way, shape or form. Since the guarantee is for a weight of gold, shaving and metal mixing do not enter the problem in any way, shape, or form. Since MAD at one point mentions the government-backed guarantee of paper money the U.S. once had under the gold standard, the creators are either lying at this point, are deeply confused, or have devolved into such conspiratorial madness that keeping that facts straight is impossible for their irrationality-addled brains. At no point did the United States, or any other country, suffer problems of gold-tampering under the gold standard.
MAD then goes on to tell us that we should have something very similar to syndicalist labor notes, with interest disallowed. In light of my previous discussion of what interest really is, it should be clear enough that this is nonsense. It's worth mentioning that throughout the video, there's an undercurrent of labor theory of value rhetoric--bankers don't actually produce anything real, nor do stockbrokers, investors, etc. The idea of labor notes clinches it, in my eyes, that the producers buy into the LTV. This post is already quite long enough without opening that can of worms, but I'll go ahead and state flatly that the marginal revolution in economics circa 1871 completely eliminated the LTV in the discipline of economics so thoroughly that no major professional economist now takes it seriously. It is as dead in the discipline as creation theories in biology. In any case, I have already explained how banks do in fact create some "real" good or service--that is, the trade of present consumption and future consumption.
Following this is the piss-poor discussion of inflation that I've already gone over. It's furthermore humorous that the creators think the interest the government pays on its loans somehow keeps it from providing more goods and services. It presently finances its current spending through a mixture of taxes and borrowing. If there were no interest--no loans--the government would not be able to pay for nearly as many goods or services, unless, of course, it raised taxes accordingly. Deficit spending is actually still payed for by taxes--taxes of future generations. The language Money As Debt uses is also inaccurate in this bit. In trying to build a picture of bankers as evil, world-owning scum-sucking charlatans, it keeps saying that banks own the government or the government pays interest to banks too. It's true that the bank pays interest to banks, but banks also pay interest to the government when they take loans from the Federal Reserve. Furthermore, the government pays interest not only to banks but anyone who lends money to it. You don't have to be a bank to buy a T-Bill. You (yes, you!) can go out and do it right now. I wouldn't recommend it in our current situation, but they're usually a pretty stable investment.
This brings us to my absolute favorite part of Money As Debt, where it drops all pretenses of being a serious presentation and straight-up says, "Hey, I'm another idiotic conspiracy theory!" The only thing missing is a dramatic accusation that "THE INTERNATIONAL BANKERS ARE THE JEWS!!!!!"
It starts with a quote:
The inability of the Colonists to get power to issue their own money permanently out of the hands of George III and the international bankers was the PRIME reason for the revolutionary war.Oooooh, Ben Franklin! He was smart! We should listen.
Actually, I was immediately suspicious of this quote. I thought it had been taken out of context. I thought it might not be about the power to "issue" money, but about the Colonists' real, physical money, that Franklin alleged was being stolen from them in the form of taxes.
But I was wrong. The quote wasn't taken out of context. It was completely fabricated. There is no reliable source of Benjamin Franklin ever saying any such thing. To be fair, it appears to be a common misattribution. But it took me three seconds of googling to find out it was a false quote. The people who made Money As Debt could spend the hours and hours it must have taken to narrate and animate this little video, but they couldn't take three seconds to google the quotes they regularly insert.
But that's not even the best part. That single quote is the ONLY piece of evidence to support the next amazing assertion, found at 40:35:
Few people are aware today the history of the United States since the revolution in 1776 has been, in large part, the story of an epic struggle to get free and stay free of control from the European international banks. This struggle was finally lost in 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson signed into effect the Federal Reserve Act, putting the international banking cartel in charge of creating America's money.Really now? Well, that is interesting; I wasn't aware of that history at all! In fact, I'm pretty sure that settlers in the United States had no trouble using their own monies, such as tobacco, and they weren't arrested for it. But that's an interesting hypothesis anyway. Ahhh, three quick questions: 1) Who are these international bankers, 2) In what sense are they in charge of the Federal Reserve, 3) And, oh yeah, one more, what evidence is there for any of this?
The first question is answered by a graphic accompanying the voiceover about international bankers showing two shadowy figures, one saying to the other, "Anonymity is essential" (41:07). So we don't know who they are. How do we know they exist?
By what exact mechanism do they now or did in the past influence the U.S.'s monetary policy? What clause in the Federal Reserve Act says anything like, "And oh yeah, those dudes over in Europe get to determine the money supply"? They just do, apparently. The government's keeping it secret from you.
What evidence is there for any of this? Well, can't you see, man? The banks are evil, Ben Franklin (at no point in recorded history) said so! Besides, it's a conspiracy theory, and the evidence for them is hidden by definition!
Sorry folks, but this is as nonsense, balls-out crazy as it gets. As any good rationalist knows, absence of evidence is evidence of absence. If you're gonna say there's a shadowy conspiracy of international bankers controlling our money system, instead of Ben Bernanke and the board of governors making decisions, you'd better have a serious smoking gun to back it up.
And there it is. All that's left is a few quotes, and the previously aforementioned sourceless accusation that economists don't know how money is created. Money As Debt is a silly conspiracy theory that starts with a little bit of knowledge about how money is created and skyrockets downward into a mess of confusion and piffle about interest rates, the monetary system, capital, expectations, resources, and debt. A little bit of knowledge is apparently a dangerous thing.
The real issue of our monetary system:
I promised throughout this rant that, at the end, I would delve into the alleged unsustainability of a fractional reserve monetary system, including a discussion of deflation. The debunking of Money As Debt is pretty much done at this point if you're ready to duck out.
I said earlier that money is irrelevant when production is used to pay off interest, because money's real value is determined by the amount of goods and services produced, but that there was a caveat. Here it is: interest rates tend to be made in fixed contracts that don't immediately update if there is inflation or deflation. So in a sense, MAD is correct that we have to go back to the original money supply to feed our debt. If there is deflation, our wages will change (decrease) while our contract debt remains the same, leaving borrowers in a rotten position. If there is inflation, our wages increase while the contract debt remains the same, leaving lenders in a rotten position.
I already mentioned that expectations can deal with some of this problem. If people expect the inflation or deflation, they simply adjust the interest rate accordingly and go on borrowing and lending as normal. If it's unexpected, it can cause losses for banks or borrowers.
Imagine a three period model. At time T1, you take out a loan at some positive interest rate. At time T2, there is a deflation, caused by less saving in banks and more money being kept under matresses. At time T3, your wages drop accordingly, but the interest rate you have to pay to the bank is the same. Disaster for you! Is there any solution to this problem?
The obvious, #1 solution is this: inflate! If the Federal Reserve inflates the monetary base by exactly the amount the money supply has deflated, there is no problem, and it ends there. (What happens when people save more in banks again, you ask? The Federal Reserve can then deflate accordingly. They have this power through transacting in Open Market Operations and setting the Reserve Requirement.)
The less obvious solution is that banks could adjust their contracts. Since deflation is good for lenders, this isn't a likely scenario, but if the deflation is so widespread and borrowing so common that a sufficient number of people are facing bankruptcy, it could still be profitable for a bank to do this.
As I said before, a massive deflation was a major trigger of the Great Depression. So it's pretty clear from history that, if it comes to it, the Federal Reserve should inflate.
But is this sustainable? What if we have an incompetent Federal Reserve chairman? Wouldn't a deflation lead to a total collapse?
Well, it would certainly lead to a recession, perhaps even a significantly deep one. But to answer this question it's useful to have an idea about growth paths and steady states. If the money supply deflates such that borrowers are extremely screwed, the economy will reach a new growth path and a new steady state. It will not be permanently mired in recession. Borrowers will get a kick in the pants and everyone else will go on as normal. Prices will adjust, interest rates will adjust, and the deflated money supply will simply be more valuable. That kick in the pants for borrowers can really hurt, but because of the adjustment of prices, the collapse state is not the new steady state. It is an off-balance state that eventually reaches the same old steady state path when prices have adjusted and the losses from the increased debt are paid for.
MAD makes it out as if this cycle involves an inevitable permanent collapse, and I'm sure its creators are seeing the current recession as evidence of this. But a recession happens in the United States an average of every 7 years. Economists have analyzed the impact of monetary policy on recessions; you shouldn't be surprised to know that the Federal Reserve's problem is usually inflation, not deflation.
If the current monetary system isn't perfectly stable, why don't we switch to one that is?
Well, which ones are? A complete-reserve banking system would involve no money creation by individual banks. But considering that this would probably cripple investment and loans, which are Very Good Things as I've explained, economists don't usually favor it.
The gold standard (or silver standard or whatever) would solve nothing. In fact, we were on the gold standard when the money supply crashed in 1929-1932. Just replace "inflating" with "buying more gold" and you have the same thing.
Free banking, which would allow banks to compete and issue their own currencies, would sort-of solve the problem. Individuals could switch their money to a competing currency if there is inflation or deflation, keeping the value stable over time. But the bank in control of the currency suffering the deflation or inflation would surely inflate or deflate in response. With competition over the right amount of inflation/deflation/whatehaveyou, this type of system may be more stable than our current government-issued fiat currency one. Yet free banking has not survived well, historically, and even without legal tender laws we tend to see people of a region adopting only a single currency. This is an academic question that's begging for more research.
Inflation targetting would sort-of solve the problem. If the Federal Reserve aimed for 2% inflation per year, they would be obligated to massively inflate during deflationary periods and vice versa. But this is pretty much what we have now minus a little bit of discretion. Either way, it still requires effort on the part of the Federal Reserve to study money in the economy and match its output accordingly.
But to say that our current system necessarily lends itself to disaster, especially a steady-state collapse, is completely unfounded. In the United States, even with the worst economic crisis we've ever experienced, the balanced path was still lots and lots of growth.
If you want a good, non-conspiracy video about the Great Depression and deflation, watch Volume 3 of Milton Friedman's Free To Choose series.