Home > political-economy > Paul Krugman on interest rates and gold: When a dollar was real money

Paul Krugman on interest rates and gold: When a dollar was real money

September 26, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

From Wikipedia: A picture of a pre-1933 gold certificate currency

I apologize for this part of the series, because it is hopelessly geeky. Unfortunately, I see no way to move forward without getting into the weeds of Marx’s unique contribution to the theory of money at this point. Please bear with me on this. As I really need to explain the difference, before 1933, between a token currency and the commodity money that underpinned its value. Without understanding this relationship, it is impossible to truly understand what happened when the dollar was removed from the gold standard in 1933. Nor is it possible to understand why ex nihilo dollars can’t tell us anything about anything.

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As I explained in the previous post, to become capital, a quantity of gold must be exchanged for ex nihilo currency, but this exchange also strips the capital of the value it contained when it was in the form of gold. This requires a bit of digression: In Marx’s labor theory of value, when a currency of a state no longer has a fixed exchange rate with gold, the value contained in a unit of gold no longer has any definite relationship with the use value of the currency as medium of circulation. This has a radical implication for political-economy that has been long overlooked by both Marxist and bourgeois economists. I will try to explain the implications of going off the gold standard using as little jargon as possible.

Background: Prior to debasement dollars served in the United States both as a measure of value contained in an individual commodity, and the medium of circulation for commodities. By the term “value”, I mean the labor time required by producers on average to produce any object. If an automobile takes as much time on average as a ounce of gold to be produced, we can say that the value of the car is equal to one ounce of gold. Gold acts as a socially valid measure of the value of other commodities when it is used as money. Before money was debased, the value of any good was loosely bound to some definite quantity of money because both the money and the commodity were the product of some definite expenditure of socially necessary labor time. The movement of market prices over a period of time worked to align the socially necessary labor time of a good with the quantity of money containing the same amount of socially necessary labor time. The two functions of money are closely connected: the price of any commodity, when this price was denominated in a currency that observed the gold standard, followed the general rule that, on average and over a period of time, this price was also a measure of the value contained in the commodity.

A token (e.g., paper) currency only could serve as measure of value contained in the commodity if it was fixed to a definite quantity of gold — for instance, prior to the Great Depression law stated one ounce of gold could be exchanged for 20.67 dollars. Since an ounce of gold always had a definite quantity of value (socially necessary labor time required to produce it) fixing the token currency to this definite amount of gold served to fix the currency itself to a definite amount of socially necessary labor time. Token currency, therefore, could only serve as the material expression of socially necessary labor time, because it was itself tied to gold.

We could say the term “dollar” was not only the name of the official currency, it was also the “name” established by law of some definite quantity of gold.

On the other hand, when used directly in circulation, a gold coin served as medium of circulation of commodities in such a way that its actual use in any particular exchange for commodties was very brief; the coin constantly moved from one person to another in the course of commerce — rarely, if ever, staying in one hand for long, since it would almost immediately be used in the next transaction. Marx argued gold in this function was, for several reasons, merely a token of itself used to facilitate the circulation of commodities.

One particular example of this token role was the use of a coin that had been eroded by use over a period of time and was now no longer of legal weight. Although the coin carried a legal definition of one dollar, its weight now no longer adhered to the standard of legal definition of a dollar. Since the coin was legally a dollar, but did not actually contain a dollar’s weight, if it continued in circulation it had been reduced to a token of itself. As a practical matter, this meant, within certain limits, the gold coin could be replaced in circulation by a token currency provided this token was redeemable for a definite quantity of gold. Thus, a token currency like the dollar could serve as money only because it had a fixed and definite relation with some commodity money.

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So, when the dollar was debased from gold, there was more at stake than a simple legal redefinition of money. The Roosevelt and Nixon administrations were severing the currency from the only thing that gave it the ability to express in price form the value contained in a commodity. This legal redefinition of what was officially called money, concealed within itself an unprecedented break in the role of prices in a modern economy. It would not be an exaggeration to say Roosevelt and Nixon, through their executive orders, chopped off Adam Smith’s invisible hand, and replaced it with the iron fist of Fascist State economic policy.

With the debasement of the currency, the two functions of money — measure of value contained in an individual commodity, and the medium of circulation for commodities — devolved on different objects whose relationship was no longer fixed and given. As the material to express the value contained in each commodity, gold no longer played a role as a medium of circulation of these commodities; while token currency, as medium for circulation of commodities, could no longer serve as the material to express their values in the prices we paid for goods.

But, the crises which produced this change offer an even more profound argument about why this debasement occurred. Every commodity is both a useful object and an object containing a definite amount of value (socially necessary labor time to produce it.) Debasement suggests that the routine exchange of commodities is now fundamentally at loggerheads with the routine production of these commodities. As an object containing value — i.e., a definite amount of socially necessary labor time — the commodity cannot circulate; as a particular useful object in circulation its value cannot be expressed. The solution adopted by the two administrations essentially severed rules governing  exchange from the rules governing production.

On the one hand, this means commodities no longer circulate as objects containing value, but only as particular useful objects differentiated only by their particular useful qualities. This conclusion will be both startling and controversial, because it also implies Marx’s law of value no longer determines exchange. The fact that currency has been debased from gold must force the conclusion that prices no longer express the values of the commodities to which they are attached.

By exchange, we can only mean the exchange of qualitatively different objects having equal values — so many pairs of shoes for so many pairs of pants — but the ex nihilo currency now serving as the medium of circulation has no value of its own, and, therefore, the price denominated in units of the currency cannot express the value of either the shoes or the pants.

After the debasement of the dollar, in any transaction between the seller of a commodity and the buyer with an ex nihilo currency, the seller of the commodity gives it to the holder of ex nihilo currency and receives in return nothing but a piece of paper. She gives away not only the particular use value she has, but also the value contained in this particular use value as well. While receiving ex nihilo currency in return for her commodity, she receives nothing in return for the value contained in her commodity. Although it appears otherwise, the exchange is not determined by the quantitative equivalence of the values contained in the two objects, but by qualitative differences in their respective use values alone.

On the other hand, things having no value at all — for instance, Predator drones — can now circulate alongside shoes and pants, the latter of which have both use value and value. This is already given in the successive transactions involving an ex nihilo currency and commodities, or in the exchange between any two ex nihilo currencies. The state can, for instance, produce a quantity of ex nihilo currency simply by crediting it to the account of a defense contractor and receive in return Predator drones to kill kids in Afghanistan. While the purchase of the drone by Washington using newly created ex nihilo currency looks like just another simple market transaction, and even shows up in measures of gross domestic product side by side with purchases like groceries or a new car — this appearance is really quite deceiving.

The most significant implication of the debasement of the currency that is completely overlooked by Marxist and bourgeois economists is this: once gold was removed as the standard of price by the Fascist State, not only did the currency lose its capacity to express the value of an individual commodity, the market as a whole lost the capacity to distinguish between productive labor and wasted unproductive labor. Rather than limiting society to the productive and efficient employment of labor power, the stage was set for something truly unprecedented: the relentless expansion of superfluous labor time and the attendant secular inflation of prices.

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