Good news for data/economic history nerds like me – the St. Louis FRED has announced it will now include the NBER Macrohistory Database:
These 3036 series from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Macrohistory Database cover the pre-WWI and interwar economies, including production, construction, employment, money, prices, asset market transactions, foreign trade, and government activity. Although most data series cover the United States, there is a limited number of series representing data for the United Kingdom, Germany, and France.
The Republican Party will include a “return to the gold standard” plank in its platform, which has me wondering what prompts all this (other than an effort to appease Ron Paul)?
Paul Krugman recently reiterated the point that many have made about the gold standard: we tried it, and it wasn’t quite as rosy as some would like to believe:
Faced with the kind of shock we’ve just experienced, the real price of gold would “want” to rise. But under a gold standard, the nominal price of gold would be fixed, so the only way that could happen would be through a fall in the general price level: deflation.
So if we’d had a gold standard operating in this crisis, there would have been powerful deflationary forces at work; not exactly what the doctor ordered.
Now, the gold bugs will no doubt reply that under a gold standard big bubbles couldn’t happen, and therefore there wouldn’t be major financial crises. And it’s true: under the gold standard America had no major financial panics other than in 1873, 1884, 1890, 1893, 1907, 1930, 1931, 1932, and 1933. Oh, wait.
The truth is that returning to gold is an almost comically (and cosmically) bad idea.
The advantage of a gold standard is long-run price stability (well, at least in the Classical gold standard period from 1880 to 1914), but that does not come without its own costs; in particular, there are resource costs of maintaing the standard, as Bernanke pointed out:
Gold Standards are far from perfect monetary systems… have to go to South Africa and dig up tons of gold, and move it to New York and put it in the basement of the Federal Reserve bank of New York.
The more important cost is the increased volatility of real output and the price level, and the removal of an important countercyclical policy tool from the toolkit.
Even Milton Friedman opposed a return to the gold standard – here’s Murray Rothbard, criticizing Milton Friedman for advocating a break from the gold standard:
Milton Friedman is a radical advocate of cutting all current ties, however weak, with gold, and going onto a total and absolute fiat dollar standard, with all control vested in the Federal Reserve System. Of course, Friedman would then advise the Fed to use that absolute power wisely…
And Friedman in his 1986 JME article with Anna Schwartz:
I regard a return to a gold standard as neither desirable nor feasible — with the one exception that it might become feasible if the doomsday predictions of hyperinflation under our present system should prove correct.
Friedman believed that the Fed’s efforts to defend the gold standard resulted in the disastrous bank failures of the early 1930s, which greatly exacerbated the depression.
James Hamilton has pointed out that short-term interest rates became much more stable after the establishment of the Federal Reserve, while the duration of recessions became shorter. Those volatile short-term rates and long recessions occurred during the classical gold standard, from 1880 to 1914.
Hamilton reminds us that countries abandoning the gold standard during the depression were fastest to recover:
U.S. recovery began more or less immediately with the elimination in 1933 of the legal convertibility of dollars to gold at the price of $20.67. And our experience was not unique. The 14 countries that decided to abandon the gold standard two years earlier than the U.S. began their economic recovery in 1932…Countries that stayed on gold, by contrast, experienced an average output decline of 15% in 1932. The U.S. recovery began after we abandoned gold in 1933, the Italian recovery began after they went off in 1934, and the Belgian recovery began after they went off in 1935. The three countries that stuck with gold through 1936 (France, Netherlands, and Poland) saw a 6% drop in industrial production in 1935, while the rest of the world was experiencing solid growth.
Underlying the push for a return to gold is, of course, a desire for price stability. Here is Mitt Romney (to his credit, he has not joined the goldbug movement), from a recent Reuters story:
I want to make sure the Federal Reserve focuses on maintaining the monetary stability that leads to a strong dollar and confidence that America is not going to go down the road that other nations have gone down, to their peril.
So, we want the Fed to maintain monetary and price stability. Okay, is there any evidence that it has failed in that objective? Even if one were to take the position that the Fed’s dual mandate should end, and that it should focus exclusively on price stability, is there any reason to claim that it has not achieved a relatively low and stable price level? Quite simply, no. Bernanke assumed the chairmanship of the Board of Governors in February 2006. Using the all-items seasonally-adjusted CPI, the average inflation rate under his watch is a whopping 2.3 percent.
And under the much-admired Alan Greenspan, the inflation rate averaged almost a full percentage point higher, 3.1 percent. Why were there no calls for Greenspan to be fired for his inflationary policies? Far from it; in the Republican primaries, Herman Cain claimed that Greenspan was the best Fed Chairman in 40 years (which prompted a memorable retort from Ron Paul that “he was a disaster!” – at least Paul is consistent). Cain, by the way, later joined with Newt Gingrich in advocating that Bernanke be “fired.”
Let’s hope that this latest push to return to the 19th century is merely a manifestation of political silly-season, and that the rest of the campaign will be about the important problems that lie ahead. Solutions in search of problems are not generally worth pursuing.
Neil Armstrong died yesterday, which prompted the comment below, from Marginal Revolution. It reminded me of the remarkable increase in the pace of technological change in the last century.
Of the 12 men who walked on the moon:
Alan Shepard was the oldest, he was born in 1923, the others were all born in the 1930s at a time when Orville Wright still lived.
Here’s a chart (from Walton & Rockoff) that I show students in my economic history class, which makes the point as well as anything:
Gavin Kennedy corrects a misinterpretation of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.
James Hamilton has a very informative post reviewing the Fed’s actions over the last 5 years. The Fed recently announced that it sold the last securities from its bailout of AIG, actually earning a profit: a net gain of $2.8 billion to the taxpayer. Perhaps a President Romney will take Glenn Hubbard’s advice and keep Bernanke on at the Fed?
The new Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane blog is here.
Here’s the link to a “Town Hall” meeting between Bernanke and selected economics educators at the Federal Reserve.