When times are tough, new economic theories get a better hearing. Maybe some old ones, too.
The gold standard is one of the oldest ideas about money, but the hardest of hard-money hawks sense an opening to breathe new life into it. Decades ago, the amount of cash circulating in a country was often limited by the stash of bullion held in its coffers. Especially since 2008, developed-world policy has headed in the exact opposite direction, expanding the powers of central banks to stoke growth. Helicopter drops of money, potentially the next new thing, would be a giant leap further.
For those in the U.S. who see much risk and little benefit in the current course, gold is still a rallying point. And their audience may be growing.
“The fringe has become the mainstream,” said Jesse Hurwitz, a U.S. economist at Barclays Capital in New York. He sees the gold standard as a bad idea but “something we’ll increasingly talk about.”
Of course, full restoration of the system that reigned in the U.S. for a century through the 1970s is almost inconceivable. Even many gold bugs say it can’t be done, and there’s near-unanimity among economists that it shouldn’t be attempted: the U.S. would be in much worse shape, they say, with a Federal Reserve stripped of its ability to freely tinker with the money supply.
But the backdrop to this well-rehearsed debate is changing. Rumbling discontent with the economy has left the establishment under siege, and you can’t get more establishment than the Fed. So, in a curious twist, it’s becoming easier for supporters of hard money -- historically a policy favored by the rich -- to give the idea a populist slant. The money conjured up by central bankers after the crisis, the argument goes, all went to bankers, leaving most Americans no better off. It’s time to tie the Fed’s hands, if not to gold, then at least to something.
“We don’t need to be a slave to history,” said George Selgin, director of the Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives at the Cato Institute in Washington. The gold standard is “like Humpty Dumpty,” he said, hard to put back together. But “we can think about having a monetary system that isn’t completely arbitrary, where it isn’t just a matter of discretion, people sitting in a room 13 times a year doing whatever.”
‘Hijacked by Bankers’
For a while, to the hard-money folks, the U.S. election season must have appeared full of promise.
The Fed was getting bashed from all sides. “It is unacceptable that the Federal Reserve has been hijacked by the very bankers it is in charge of regulating,” Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders said in a New York speech in January. Economists who support Sanders, like Nobel prizewinner Joe Stiglitz, see the Fed’s quantitative easing as a form of trickle-down economics that’s exacerbated inequality.