Mitchell’s Musings 7-25-16: Old Gold: Bad Ideas Never Die

23 Jul 2016 3:05 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 7-25-16: Old Gold: Bad Ideas Never Die


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


If you poke around in the Republican platform that was approved by the Party’s national convention last week, you will find the following somewhat obscure statement:


Determined to crush the double-digit inflation that was part of the Carter Administration’s economic legacy, President Reagan, shortly after his inauguration, established a commission to consider the feasibility of a metallic basis for U.S. currency. The commission advised against such a move. Now, three decades later, as we face the task of cleaning up the wreckage of the current Administration’s policies, we propose a similar commission to investigate possible ways to set a fixed value for the dollar.[1]


What does this section mean and why was it included? As you might expect, there is a long history. First, the phrase about “a metallic basis for U.S. currency” is in fact a reference to the gold standard. (Would anyone think it referred to tin or copper or iron?) But most people are nowadays barely aware of the gold standard as a monetary issue. It lives on in popular culture as an idiom. Look up its idiomatic meaning and you will find examples on the web such as:


Ferrari is the gold standard among automobiles.[2]


The implication of the idiomatic expression is that the gold standard of something is the best of its kind.  But would the gold standard be best today as a monetary system? In simple terms, the idea of the U.S. going on the gold standard is ridiculous. Setting up a new commission to study the idea of returning to the gold standard would be the gold standard of foolishness.


There is in fact a long history of the contentious development of the U.S. currency and the role of the gold standard in that development. Given all the latest discussion of “American exceptionalism,” it’s worth noting that the U.S. seems to be unique in its history of there being major political controversy around currency issues. Other countries seem to be content to have the authorities deal with monetary matters. They don’t see grand conspiracies surrounding the issue. They don’t see central banks as centers of evil.[3] But monetary conspiracy theories have always been part of U.S. politics.


Back in the late 1990s, through some odd circumstances, I became president of a professional academic organization then called the North American Economics and Finance Association. One duty of the organization’s president was to write and deliver a presidential address. I decided to write about the gold standard in the American context. Part of the reason was that although (Republican) president Richard Nixon had essentially killed the remains of the gold standard in the early 1970s, segments within the GOP seemed unable to give it up. Such figures from Republican politics of the 1990s as Ron Paul, Jack Kemp, and Steve Forbes favored a return to the gold standard. And as the quote from the 2016 platform suggests, the idea lingers even now.


U.S. history of monetary controversy goes back to the early days of the country as I noted in my presidential address. But a good starting point for this musing is the 1896 presidential election in which the Democrats were taken over by the populist free silver movement in the form of the candidacy of William Jennings Bryan.[4] Bryan won himself the nomination with his famous “Cross of Gold” speech which attacked the gold standard using religious imagery. Republicans ran (and won) in 1896 with William McKinley and his support of the then-existing gold standard.


In my presidential address, I looked at the political situation a century later:


The ultimate triumph of William Jennings Bryan’s battle against gold could be seen 100 years after the defeat of his first campaign for the presidency. Whereas incumbent Bill Clinton spoke of a “bridge to the 21st century” in the 1996 presidential campaign, candidates such as Steve Forbes and Jack Kemp tried to interest the public in returning to the gold standard. But such a monetary bridge to the 19th century simply did not resonate with the electorate. It just sounded odd. A candidate might as well have campaigned for a return to the bustle and the buggy. By the 2000 campaign, Kemp had dropped out of presidential politics. And Steve Forbes’ gold position had been condensed into single sentence in his campaign book, easily lost in a sea of other agenda items.[5]


In the modern view, the old gold standard was one version of a fixed exchange rate system. If all currencies are pegged to gold, then they are also fixed in relation to one another. But you don’t need gold to have fixed exchange rates. For example, before the euro-zone was fully created with its own single currency, it went through a stage in which the various currencies that were to be replaced (marks, francs, lire, etc.) were fixed relative to one another. No gold was involved in the fixing nor was gold needed to create such a system.


The odd platform plank envisions pegging the dollar to gold despite the fact that no other countries have any interest in doing so. So it wouldn’t be a fixed exchange rate system. It would instead create a system in which volatile gold price swings relative to currencies other than the dollar would cause the dollar to appreciate and depreciate. The chart below shows fluctuations in euros per ounce of gold over the past ten years. Do you think it would be helpful to the U.S. economy if the dollar moved up and down depending on the vagaries of the volatile and speculative gold market depicted on the chart?




Now there could be value in at least considering a return to fixed exchange rates. But the point is that pegging the dollar to gold when no other currency does so is not fixed exchange rates. It would be flexible rates on steroids. The current flexible exchange rate system obviously has some volatility, maybe too much. For example, over the same ten year period, comparing the dollar’s lowest point relative to the euro to its later high is an appreciation of the dollar in the 50% range (euros per dollar). But peak to trough of the gold price (euros per ounce) is about three fold.


It’s hard to find the once-popular brand of Old Gold cigarettes nowadays, but some folks can’t quit the habit, just as others can’t quit longing for the gold standard. Bad ideas never die. They apparently don’t even fade away.



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[1] https://prod-static-ngop-pbl.s3.amazonaws.com/docs/2012GOPPlatform.pdf.  [page 4] 

[2] http://www.idiomeanings.com/gold-standard/

[3] Indeed, sometimes not questioning monetary affairs abroad can be a failing. So when experts in the EU proposed a monetary union and a super-national currency, it did not become a political issue. Of course now, the ready acceptance of the euro in place of national currencies within a subset of EU member states is a matter at least some folks in those countries now regret.  

[4] Bryan remained a popular figure and folks liked to hear him give the address many years later. He made a phonograph record with excerpts from the speech which can be heard at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HeTkT5-w5RA

[5] Daniel J.B. Mitchell. (2000). “Dismantling the cross of gold: economic crises and U.S. monetary policy.” North American Journal of Economics and Finance, 11 (2000) 77-104. Available at: http://www.anderson.ucla.edu/documents/areas/fac/hrob/mitchell_gold.pdf

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