“That if any of the gold or silver coins which shall be struck or coined at the said mint shall be debased or made worse as to the proportion of fine gold or fine silver therein contained, or shall be of less weight or value than the same ought to be pursuant to the directions of this act, through the default or with the connivance of any of the officers or persons who shall be employed at the said mint, for the purpose of profit or gain, or otherwise with a fraudulent intent, and if any of the said officers or persons shall embezzle any of the metals which shall at any time be committed to their charge for the purpose of being coined, or any of the coins which shall be struck or coined at the said mint, every such officer or person who shall commit any or either of the said offences, shall be deemed guilty of felony, and shall suffer death.” –Chap. 16 , Section 19 of the Coinage Act of 1792, passed by the United States Congress on April 2, 1792. (source)While driving home the other day, I heard Dick Morris talking about presidential politics. Nothing new there; this is the guy who helped get Bill Clinton elected, then had "an awakening" and became a conservative. He was talking about Ron Paul in this instance, calling him an "appalling <blank>hole", then ripping Dr. Paul a new one for advocating a return to the gold standard. His rip was classic "barbaric relic" rhetoric, about how we got off the gold standard because it "held our economy back", and "the US economy shouldn't depend on some miner in South Africa" succeeding in a gold mine. Just look at the increase in wealth since we got off the gold standard!
Then he went on to add a disclaimer that, sure, Bernanke has printed too much money and the Fed was troublesome, but "there's a big gap between abstention and alcoholism" and we simply need to be somewhere between those two limits. (That's his actual quote, as best as I can recall).
For a little necessary background, the term "barbaric relic" for gold is from John Maynard Keynes himself, and has been widely parroted by those opposed to a "real money" standard. "Seriously, Muffy, no civilized, advanced society need be bound by having actual, physical, gold, must they? Why, gold is what caused the Spanish to rape and pillage South America, the pursuit of El Dorado, after all!" To keep this down under a million words, I won't get into Ron Paul or any of the other candidates' politics: that's not the point of this.
The point of this is "could we go back on a gold standard"? (and when I say gold standard, understand it could be any commodity that people value; anything but fiat paper that can be printed in infinite amounts). Perhaps the place to start is the converse, why did the world go off the gold standard? From where I sit, they did that so that government spending, and therefore government, could grow essentially without limit. Is that a good thing? As one of my heroes, the (now-retired) Mogambo Guru once put it,
Whether or not this theory is true, I don’t know, but I don’t think so, as I have never read anything like, “From the moment that the government started creating and spending large amounts of money, everything got better and better, and the more money that was created for the government to spend, the better things got, until they reached Utopia and everybody lived happily ever after.”If we were on a gold standard, we would need to spend less - but we wouldn't necessarily have to balance the budget. Some debt - my rough guess: 20% of GDP - would be possible, as long as other nations and people felt that the interest we paid was reasonable and they were confident they'd get it back. The free market would have to set interest rates, not Helicopter Ben (or his ilk). You can bet your butt our interest rates would be much higher and the monetary shenanigans the Fed creates wouldn't be possible. In turn, that means it would be harder for the government to fund wars or an ever-growing entitlement state; the quantity of gold would have to expand to increase the money supply. Increasing our money supply – the thing that Morris thinks has improved the economy – has (IMO) led to the gradual decline of the middle class.
Buried in Morris' assumptions is that if we go back to the gold standard, we go back to the 1972 dollar, but why would that be? We could declare a dollar to be worth any amount of gold we wanted between 1972's $35/ounce and today's number of dollars divided by the amount of gold we have. In other words, 1972's $35/oz - meant each dollar bill was backed by 1/35 oz of gold. According to Wikipedia, the US claims 147.2 million ounces of gold in Ft. Knox. The amount of dollars in circulation is harder to know, but there are some available estimates of that, called the M1 money supply. If we simply divided the 2.2 trillion dollars in the M1 money supply by the amount of gold in Ft. Knox, that would bring the price of gold to $14,900 per ounce, so each dollar would be backed by 1/14,900 of an ounce (around 2 milligrams). I have seen writers suggest that the M1 supply is drastically under reported; that would increase that $14,900 price. Likewise, if there is less gold in US hands, that also acts to increase the price - which reduces the amount of gold behind each dollar. I'm sure you've heard the people who speculate that there is no gold in Ft. Knox and the Fed took it all. That would make gold almost unobtainable in dollars.
Gold at about $15,000/oz. would shake the jewelry business to its core, making gold only practical for plating, if that, and making platinum, palladium and silver the jewelry metals. (I'm sure you've seen rhodium plated items, often considered cheap jewelry, but rhodium costs about as much as platinum). Platinum is currently cheaper than gold; they crossed this past summer (IIRC) for the first time I can recall. The market for scrap gold, the rings and things that people have and just keep for no particular reason, would probably drop well below that price as the supply would spike like crazy - as would theft of gold jewelry. There are still many industrial uses for gold; it's used in electronics for plating contacts of many kinds, in optics, and dental work, of course. Electronics would either increase in price, or alternatives would be found - probably less reliable alternatives. I believe the price of gold would cascade into the other metals, too, but can't predict how much they'd go up.
Backing the dollar with $15,000/oz gold wouldn't affect today's prices in fiat dollars, like going to $35/oz gold would. It wouldn't scale prices to 1971 levels; your $250,000 house wouldn't suddenly be priced at $583 (the same ratio as 35/15000). I think that sort of disruption is what people opposed to the gold standard are thinking of. If we said dollars had to be backed at $35/oz of gold, we'd either have to drastically multiply our supply of gold (not bloody likely) or drastically decrease the number of dollars. That would be quite a disruption. But any move in the direction of a new standard would cause disruptions world wide - and guess what? they're happening already.
Note that we haven't devalued the dollar with respect to 1972, we just pegged it in place to the current supply of gold we have. Devaluing the dollar from being backed by about 900 milligrams of gold to 2 milligrams is what the Fed has been doing since we got off the gold standard, and ultimately since their formation in 1913. The dollar has about 3% of the value it had when the Federal Reserve started. While it's true (as Morris said) that Bernanke has been printing too much money, the majority of that decrease in value, percentage-wise, was long ago and was handed to Bernanke by Alan Greenspan. When the full series is plotted, you see that the dollar is worth about 5 cents in 1913. When you look at this plot, you can see that Bernanke has decreased the value of the dollar, but most of the damage was done by his predecessors. This is one of the arguments against what Dick Morris said.
One way to measure whether or not wealth is actually increasing or if you're just seeing inflation is to divide GDP by the population: normalize GDP per capita. Porter Stansberry's research group produced this chart of an inflation adjusted GDP per capita. It shows that the per capita GDP went down drastically during the 70s (Nixon and Carter) with a strange, but short, reversal in about 1977 and slowly increased until around 9/11/01 (through Reagan, Bush 1 and Clinton). Since the middle of Bush 2's term, wealth has been in a nose dive and is now the lowest it has ever been.
This plot is an example of one of the most important ideas in economics, the marginal utility function. The simple idea here is that if you have one dollar, another dollar is very useful; but if you have a billion dollars, the next dollar doesn't have much utility – and that's the hole that Bernanke finds himself in now. He has flooded the world with dollars, and there simply isn't much more utility in the next dollar being created. The next round of QE – whatever they call it – can't be as useful as the first one. Which wasn't very useful.
It has been said that an ounce of gold buys today about what it did at any point in the past. Stephen Harmston, former economist at Bannock Consulting, wrote that “across 2,500 years, gold has retained its purchasing power, relative to bread at least” which is seemingly proved when one considers that “It is said that an ounce of gold bought 350 loaves of bread in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, who died in 562 BC” which is roughly what it buys today, a stretch of 2,500 years. With some judicious selection of the exact brand of bread, you get remarkably close to 350 loaves (and I'm sure there was some variation in what a loaf of bread cost even in King N's day). Likewise, you'll hear that an ounce of gold would buy a good toga and sandals in pre-Christian Rome, and buys a well-tailored suit and shoes today, or you'll hear that a $20 gold piece bought an 1851 Colt Single Action Army revolver, and today buys a good grade 1911. The point of all of these is that the price of gold is a standard by which other things can be measured. Sure, technology marches along and brings down the cost of some things, but most things that increase in price over the long term do so because the currency inflates.
It is not true that a gold standard removes inflation and deflation, and it's not true that depressions are impossible with a standard. The 1800s had a few periods of inflation over 5%, including a big jump for the civil war, to over 25%; but after those inflation periods, the government took their medicine and dialed back the spending to reign things back in. In 1895 during a bad depression, J.P. Morgan personally bailed out the US; in 1907, Morgan and John Rockefeller bailed out the country together (ref). In those cases, the Federal government was small enough that individuals, although millionaires, could bail it out. So even though the gold standard could not prevent inflation and deflation, the standard kept inflation and recession under more control, so that they weren't as bad as they could have been. In 1900, the “cost of living” was actually lower than it was in 1800, a reflection of improved productivity in farming and other aspects of life.