Home > political-economy > A Critique of Pure Bullshit, Part Three: Eichengreen on Ron Paul (A Tale of Two Monies)

A Critique of Pure Bullshit, Part Three: Eichengreen on Ron Paul (A Tale of Two Monies)

September 2, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I have been critiquing Barry Eichengreen’s unprincipled attack on Ron Paul and his demand for a return to the gold standard, but, so far, I have danced around the real question posed by this vicious hit piece. Eichengreen’s argument is not about whether or not Ron Paul’s ideas can be compared to the insanity of Glenn Beck, nor is it even about the criticism of the Fascist State proposed by the argument of Frederick Hayek, who plays in this venal attack only the role of betrayer — Ron Paul having based his argument on many of the insights of Hayek, is ultimately betrayed by him when the latter dismisses
the possibility of a return to the gold standard.

Hayek concedes, in other words, to the necessity of totalitarianism.

Ron Paul, having been deserted by Hayek, even before he begins his career as a politician, is left alone in the company of Glenn Beck, who (Beck) is trying to foist gold coin on you at an astounding markup. The implication of this being that if Ron Paul is not himself in cahoots with Glenn Beck, he is just another hopeless sucker to be played. Just another miser looking for a place to safely store up his accumulated wealth from the predations of the investment banksters.

All of this is nothing more than an attempt at misdirection, a ploy to distract you from asking the important question:

What is money?

Ask this question to Ron Paul, and he will tell you gold is money — honest money, not a fiction of money as is ex nihilo currency. When Ron Paul asked Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke if gold was money, the Chairman tried his damnedest to avoid giving a straight answer. The chairman knows that money can perform two useful functions: universal means of payment in an exchange, and store of value. Even if gold is not recognized as the official standard of prices in a country, it can still perform exceptional service as store of value. And, in this function, it entirely fulfills the definition of a money – moreover, it fulfills this function better than any other commodity. And, it certainly fulfills this function better than currency created out of thin air.

Yes. Gold is money. But, of course, that is not the question I am asking:

“What is money?”

Not what thing can serve as money, but what is money itself. No matter what serves as money, or the functions of money it fulfills; what is money itself, i.e., the functions to be filled by the things?

Simply stated: Gold is money, but money is not gold.

People always make this silly argument: “Why can’t dogs, or sea shells or emeralds be money?” Yes. Within limits, anything can serve as money; and, this fact makes the thing serving as money appear entirely accidental and arbitrarily established. So, for instance, whether gold or dancing electrons on a Federal Reserve terminal is money seems simply a matter of convenience and fit.

But, the real questions raised by this is why anything serves as money? That is, why money? This question appears to us entirely irrational. We take the existence of money for granted, and therefore, argue not about money itself, but the things to be used as money. Eichengreen wants us to believe the question, “What thing should serve as money?”, has no deeper significance but for a handful of scam artists and marks like Glenn Beck and Ron Paul. A fifty dollar gold coin (worth some $1900) is inconvenient for daily purchases; we should use dancing electrons on a Federal Reserve terminal.

But, why do we have to use anything at all when it comes time to fill up the SUV for a trip to the corner store? Why isn’t the gas free? In other words, what is money doing coming between us and the things we need?

“Because”, the economist Barry Eichengreen will tell us, “there is not enough of stuff to go around.” Well, how does Barry know this? Does he have some insight into how much of one or another thing is produced in relation to demand for that thing? No. He doesn’t. The function of money is to tell us which things are in shortfall relative to demand because those things have a price in the market place. Prices presuppose the existence of scarcity; of a relation to nature marked by insufficiency of means to satisfy human want. Money is not an attribute of a fully human society, but the attribute of a society still living under the oppressive demands of nature.

So, the question,

“What is money?”

really comes down to

“What is scarcity?”

And, this can now be answered: it is insufficient means to satisfy human needs. But, this answer is still insufficient, because we really have no way to know directly if scarcity exists, right? What we know is the things generally have a price, and we infer from this that things must be scarce. But, this too is a fallacy like “gold is money = money is gold”. I stated that prices presuppose scarcity — but I must now correct myself. Scarcity of means to satisfy human needs is necessarily expressed by prices, but prices do not of themselves necessarily express scarcity of means.

Catelization, monopoly pricing, false scarcity and the Fascist State

We know, for instance, near the turn of the 20th Century, certain big industries learned they could maintain artificially high prices on their products by creating entirely artificial scarcities. We know also how this expertise was put to use and the reaction of society to it. Or, at least, we think we do. Folks like Joseph Stromberg, Murray Rothbard, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy tell a much different story than the official record. That alternative narrative is summed up brilliantly by Kevin Carson in his work here.

Carson argues:

But merely private attempts at cartelization before the Progressive Era–namely the so-called “trusts”–were miserable failures, according to Kolko. The dominant trend at the turn of the century–despite the effects of tariffs, patents, railroad subsidies, and other existing forms of statism–was competition. The trust movement was an attempt to cartelize the economy through such voluntary and private means as mergers, acquisitions, and price collusion. But the over-leveraged and over-capitalized trusts were even less efficient than before, and steadily lost market share at the hands of their smaller, more efficient competitors. Standard Oil and U.S. Steel, immediately after their formation, began a process of eroding market share. In the face of this resounding failure, big business acted through the state to cartelize itself–hence, the Progressive regulatory agenda. “Ironically, contrary to the consensus of historians, it was not the existence of monopoly that caused the federal government to intervene in the economy, but the lack of it.”

In fact, these folks argue, cartelization and monopoly pricing wasn’t very successful until the state stepped in at the behest of industry to organize them. Carson again:

The Federal Trade Commission created a hospitable atmosphere for trade associations and their efforts to prevent price cutting. (18) The two pieces of legislation accomplished what the trusts had been unable to: it enabled a handful of firms in each industry to stabilize their market share and to maintain an oligopoly structure between them. This oligopoly pattern has remained stable ever since.

It was during the war [i.e. WWI] that effective, working oligopoly and price and market agreements became operational in the dominant sectors of the American economy. The rapid diffusion of power in the economy and relatively easy entry [i.e., the conditions the trust movement failed to suppress] virtually ceased. Despite the cessation of important new legislative enactments, the unity of business and the federal government continued throughout the 1920s and thereafter, using the foundations laid in the Progressive Era to stabilize and consolidate conditions within various industries. And, on the same progressive foundations and exploiting the experience with the war agencies, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt later formulated programs for saving American capitalism. The principle of utilizing the federal government to stabilize the economy, established in the context of modern industrialism during the Progressive Era, became the basis of political capitalism in its many later ramifications. (19)

But, there’s a problem with this cartel argument by Austrians, like Hayek and Mises, and Marxist-Keynesians, like Baran and Sweezy: Following Rudolf Hilferding, they describe prices realized by cartelization as “tribute exacted from the entire body of domestic consumers.”

The “monopoly capital” theorists introduced a major innovation over classical Marxism by treating monopoly profit as a surplus extracted from the consumer in the exchange process, rather than from the laborer in the production process. This innovation was anticipated by the Austro-Marxist Hilferding in his description of the super profits resulting from the tariff:

The productive tariff thus provides the cartel with an extra profit over and above that which results from the cartelization itself, and gives it the power to levy an indirect tax on the domestic population. This extra profit no longer originates in the surplus value produced by the workers employed in cartels; nor is it a deduction from the profit of the other non-cartelized industries. It is a tribute exacted from the entire body of domestic consumers. (64)

The problem with this theory is this: if we assume a closed system where the wages of the working class are the overwhelming source of purchasing power for the goods produced by industry, with prices of commodities more or less dependent on the consumption power of the mass of workers who produce them, these workers are unable to buy what they produce. The problem cited by Marx that the consumption power of society is an obstacle to the realization of surplus value is only intensified by cartelization.

Cartelization, even if it could be achieved in one or two industries, could not be the principle feature of any closed economy. Moreover, Marx’s theory predicts as productivity increased, and the body of workers needed to produce a given output shrank, this imbalance worsens. Even with the full weight of the state behind it, monopoly pricing would result in the severe limitation of the consumption power of society. This wholly artificial limitation on the consumption power of society would be expressed as a reduced demand for the output of industry and generally falling prices. So, in any case, the attempt to impose a general scarcity on society through cartelization alone must, in the end, fail miserably.

At this point it is entirely necessary to again ask the question:

“What is money?”

But, this time, not in the fashion we previously addressed it,

“Why is money coming between us and the things we need?”

We now can ask it in the form Barry Eichengreen wants us to consider it:

“What thing should serve as the money?”

As we just saw, cartelization must fail, even if it is sponsored by the state, owing to the artificial limits on the consumption of society. The limited means of consumption in the hands of the mass of workers must place definite limits on the demand for the output of industry.

But, what if — and this is only a silly hypothetical — another source of “demand” could be found within society? What if, out of nowhere, government should suddenly find itself in possession of a previously untapped endless supply of gold? What if, no matter how much of this supply of gold was actually spent, the gold coffers of the state remained full to the bursting point. Indeed, what if, for every bar of gold the state spent, 2 or 3 … or one thousand bars took the place of the spent gold?

In this case, the consumption power of society lost by cartelization and monopoly pricing could be made up for by judicious Fascist State spending, for instance on the military or building out an entire highway system or leveling the industiral competitors of entire continents in a global holocaust or pursuing a decades long Cold War/War on Terror/War on Democracy, to offset the limited demand of society. Since all gold bars look pretty much the same, no one need know that the state had a secret vault that produced gold as needed. No one need know that gold had lost its “price” as a commodity, because it was so incredibly abundant as to exceed all demand for it.

Which is to say, no one need know that in gold-money terms, all other commodities, including labor power, were essentially being given away for free.

The only people who would know this would be the men and women who managed the vault. And, since they were getting a cut of every bar spent into circulation, they could be relied on to keep this a tightly held secret.

So, again:

“What is money?”

Is it gold, a commodity in limited supply, and requiring a great deal of time and effort to produce? Or, is it the dancing electrons on a computer terminal in the basement of the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington, DC? Is it real gold, available in definite limited quantities? Or, is it “electronic gold”, available in infinite quantities? The first choice makes it impossible for state enforced monopoly pricing and cartelization; the second makes it entirely possible.

So far as I know, I am the only one making this argument — Marxist or non-Marxist. But, it is the entire point of Ron Paul’s campaign. It is what makes his campaign a potentially revolutionary moment in American society. Of far greater importance than he imagines, because, like any petty capitalist, he is only looking for a safe place to store his wealth. The radical potential of a demand for the return to the gold standard, even from the mouth of this petty capitalist, this classical liberal is a dagger aimed directly at the heart of the Fascist State, and of its globe-straddling empire.

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