Don’t Start from the Coin


Even today, textbooks on Money, Currency, and Banking are more likely than not to begin with an analysis of a state of things in which legal-tender ‘money’ is the only means of paying and lending. The huge system of credits and debits, of claims and debts, by which capitalist society carries on its daily business of production and consumption is then built up step by step by introducing claims to money or credit instruments that act as substitutes for legal tender… Even when there is very little left of [money’s] fundamental role in practice, everything that happens in the sphere of currency, credit, and banking is construed from it, just as the case of money itself is construed from barter. 

Historically, this method of building up the analysis of money, currency, and banking is readily understandable… Legal constructions, too, … were geared to a sharp distinction between money as the only genuine and ultimate means of payment and the credit instrument that embodied a claim to money. But logically, it is by no means clear that the most useful method is to start from the coin—even if, making a concession to realism, we add inconvertible government paper—in order to proceed to the credit transactions of reality. It may be more useful to start from these in the first place, to look upon capitalist finance as a clearing system that cancels claims and debts and carries forward the differences—so that ‘money’ payments come in only as a special case without any particularly fundamental importance. In other words: practically and analytically, a credit theory of money is possibly preferable to a monetary theory of credit.

Perry Mehrling quotes this passage at the start of his essay Modern Money: Credit or Fiat. If you’re someone who worries about the vexed question of what is money anyway, you will benefit from the sustained intelligence Perry brings to bear on it.

Readers of this blog may not be familiar with Perry’s work, so let me suggest a few things. The Credit or Fiat essay is a review of one of Randy Wray’s books, but it makes important positive arguments along with the negative criticism of MMT. [1] A good recent statement of Mehrling’s own views on the monetary system is The Inherent Hierarchy of Money. Two superb essays on monetary thought in the postwar neoclassical synthesis are The Money Muddle and MIT and Money. [2] The former of these coins the term “monetary Walrasianism.” This refers to  the idea that the way to think of a monetary economy is a barter system where, for whatever reason, the nth good serves as unit of account and must be on one side of all trades.  This way of thinking about money is so ingrained that I suspect that many economists would be puzzled by the suggestion that there is any other way of thinking about money. But as Perry shows, this is a specific idea with its own history, to which we can and should imagine alternatives. Finally, The Vision of Hyman Minsky is one of the two best essays I know giving a systematic account of Minsky’s, well, vision. (The other is Minsky as Hedgehog by Dymski and Pollin.) Anyone interested in what money is, what “money” means, and what’s wrong with economists’ answers, could save themselves a lot of trouble and wrong turns by reading those essays. [3]

But let’s talk about the Schumpeter quote.  I think it is right. To understand the monetary nature of modern economies, you need to begin with the credit system, that is, the network of money obligations. Where we want to start from is a world of IOUs. Suppose the only means of payment is a promise to pay. Suppose it’s not only possible for me to tell the bartender at the end of the night, I’ll pay you later, suppose there’s nothing else I can tell him — there’s no cash register at the bar, just a box where my tab goes. Money still exists in this system, but it is only a money of account — concretely we can imagine either an arbitrary unit of value, or some notional commodity that does not circulate, or even exist. (Historical example: non-circulating gold in medieval Europe.) If you give something to me, or do something for me, the only thing I can pay you with now is a promise to pay you later.

This might seem paradoxical — jam tomorrow but never jam today — but it’s not. Debts in this system are eventually settled. As Schumpeter says, they’re settled by netting my IOUs to you from your IOUs to me. An important question then becomes, how big is the universe across which we can cancel out debts? If A owes B, B owes C, and C owes A, it’s not hard to settle everyone up. But suppose A owes B who owes C who owes …. who owes M who owes … who owes Z, who owes A. It’s not so easy now for the dbets to be transferred back along the chain for settlement. In any case, though, my willingness to accept your IOUs depends on my belief that I will want to make some payment to you in the future, or that I’ll want to make some payment to someone who will want to make a payment to someone …. who will eventually want to make a payment to you. The longer the chain, the more important it is for their to be some setting where all the various debts are toted up and canceled out.

The great fairs of medieval Europe were exactly this. During their normal dealings, merchants paid each other with bills of exchange, essentially IOUs that could be transferred to third parties. Merchants would pay suppliers by transferring (with their own endorsement) bills from their customers. Then periodically, merchant houses would send representatives to Champagne or wherever, where the various bills could be presented for payment. Almost all the obligations would end up being offsetting. From Braudel, Capitalism and Civilization Vol. 2:

… the real business of the fairs, economically speaking, was the activity of the great merchant houses. … No fair failed to end with a ‘payment session’ as at Linz, the great fair in Austria; at Leipzig, from its early days of prosperity, the last week was for settling up, the Zahlwoche. Even at Lanciano, a little town in the Papal States which was regularly submerged by its fair (though the latter was only of modest dimensions), handfuls of bills of exchange converged on the fair. The same was true of Pezenas or Montagnac, whose fairs relayed those of Beaucaire and were of similar quality: a whole series of bills of exchange on Paris or Lyons travelled to them. 

The fairs were effectively a settling of accounts, in which debts met and cancelled each other out, melting like snow in the sun: such were the miracles of scontro, compensation. A hundred thousand or so “ecus d’or en or” – that is real coins – might at the clearing-house of Lyons settle business worth millions; all the more so as a good part of the remaining debts would be settled either by a promise of payment on another exchange (a bill of exchange) or by carrying over payment until the next fair: this was the deposito which was usually paid for at 10% a year (2.5% for three months). 

This was not a pure credit-money system, since coin could be used to settle obligations for which there was no offsetting bill. But note that a “good part” of the net obligations remaining at the end of the fair were simply carried over to the next fair.

I think it would be helpful if we replaced truck-and-barter with something like these medieval fairs, when we imagine the original economic situation. [4] Starting from a credit view of money modifies our intuitions in several, as I see it, helpful ways.

1. Your budget constraint is always a matter of how much people will lend you, or how safe you feel borrowing. Conversely, the consequences of failing to pay your debts is a fundamental parameter. We can’t push bankruptcy onto the back burner as a tricky but secondary question to be dealt with later.

2. The extension of credit goes with an extension of the realm of the market. The more things you might be willing to do to settle your debts, the more willing I am to lend to you. And conversely, the further what you owe runs beyond your normal income, the more the question of what you won’t do for money comes up for negotiation.

3. Liquidity, money, demand, depend ultimately on people’s willingness to trust each other, to accept promises, to have confidence in things working out according to plan. Liquidity exists on the liability side of balance sheets as much as on the asset side.

4. When we speak of more or less liquidity, we don’t mean a greater or lesser quantity of some commodity designated “money,” but a greater or lesser degree of willingness to extend credit. So at bottom, conventional monetary policy, quantitative easing, lender of last resort operations, bank regulations — they’re all the same thing.

When Minsky says that the fundamental function of banks is “acceptance,” this is what he means. The fundamental question faced by the financial system is, whose promises are good?

[1] I don’t want to get into Perry criticisms of MMT here. Anyone interested should read the article, it’s not long.

[2] MIT and Money also makes it clear that I was wrong to pick Samuelson’s famous consumption-loan essay as an illustration of the neoclassical position on interest rates. The point of that essay, he explains, was not to offer a theory of interest rate determination, but rather to challenge economic conservatives by demonstrating that even in a simple, rigorous model of rational optimization, a public pension system could could be an unambiguous welfare improvement over private retirement saving. My argument wasn’t wrong, but I should have picked a better example of what I was arguing against.

[3] Perry has also written three books. The only one I’ve read is The New Lombard Street. I can’t recommend it as a starting point for someone new to his work: It’s too focused on the specific circumstances of the financial crisis of 2008, and assumes too much familiarity with his larger perspective.

EDIT: I removed some overly belligerent language from the first footnote.

“Recession Is a Time of Harvest”

Noah and Seth say pretty much everything that needs to be said about this latest #Slatepitch provocation from Matt Yglesias.  [1] So, traa dy lioaur, I am going to say something that does not need to be said, but is possibly interesting.

Yglesias claims that “the left” is wrong to focus on efforts to increase workers’ money incomes, because higher wages just mean higher prices. Real improvements in workers’ living standards — he says — come from the same source as improvements for rich people, namely technological innovation. What matters is rising productivity, and a rise in productivity necessarily means a fall in (someone’s) nominal income. So we need to forget about raising the incomes of particular people and trust the technological tide to lift all boats.

As Noah and Seth say, the logic here is broken in several places. Rising productivity in a particular sector can raise incomes in that sector as easily as reduce them. Changes in wages aren’t always passed through to prices, they can also reflect changes in the distribution between wages and other income.

I agree, it’s definitely wrong as a matter of principle to say that there’s no link, or a negative link, between changes in nominal wages and changes in the real standard of living. But what kind of link is there, actually? What did our forebears think?

Keynes notoriously took the Yglesias line in the General Theory, arguing that real and nominal wages normally moved in opposite directions. He later retracted this view, the only major error he conceded in the GT (which makes it a bit unfortunate that it’s also the book’s first substantive claim.) Schumpeter made a similar argument in Business Cycles, suggesting that the most rapid “progress in the standard of life of the working classes” came in periods of deflation, like 1873-1897. Marx on the other hand generally assumed that the wage was set in real terms, so as a first approximation we should expect higher productivity in wage-good industries to lead to lower money wages, and leave workers’ real standard of living unchanged. Productivity in this framework (and in post-GT Keynes) does set a ceiling on wages, but actual wages are almost well below this, with their level set by social norms and the relative power of workers and employers.

But back to Schumpeter and the earlier Keynes. It’s worth taking a moment to think through why they thought there would be a negative relationship between nominal and real wages, to get a better understanding of when we might expect such a relationship.

For Keynes, the logic is simple. Wages are equal to marginal product. Output is produced in conditions of declining marginal returns. (Both of assumptions are wrong, as he conceded in the 1939 article.) So when employment is high, the real wage must be low. Nominal wages and prices generally move proportionately, however, rising in booms and falling in slumps. (This part is right.) So we should expect a move toward higher employment to be associated with rising nominal wages, even though real wages must fall. You still hear this exact argument from people like David Glasner.

Schumpeter’s argument is more interesting. His starting point is that new investment is not generally financed out of savings, but by purchasing power newly created by banks. Innovations are almost never carried out by incumbent producers simply adopting the new process in place of the existing one, but rather by some new entrant — the famous entrepreneur– operating with borrowed funds. This means that the entrepreneur must bid away labor and other inputs from their current uses (importantly, Schumpeter assumes full employment) pushing up costs and prices. Furthermore, there will be some extended period of demand from the new entrants for labor and intermediate goods while the incumbents have not yet reduced theirs — the initial period of investment in the new process (and various ancillary processes — Schumpeter is thinking especially of major innovations like railroads, which will increase demand in a whole range of related industries), and later periods where the new entrants are producing but don’t yet have a decisive cost advantage, and a further period where the incumbents are operating at a loss before they finally exit. So major innovations tend to involve extended periods of rising prices. It’s only once the new producers have thoroughly displaced the old ones that demand and prices fall back to their old level. But it’s also only then that the gains from the innovation are fully realized. As he puts it (page 148):

Times of innovation are times of effort and sacrifice, of work for the future, while the harvest comes after… ; and that the harvest is gathered under recessive symptoms and with more anxiety than rejoicing … does not alter the principle. Recession [is] a time of harvesting the results of preceding innovation…

I don’t think Schumpeter was wrong when he wrote. There is probably some truth to idea that falling prices and real wages went together in 19th century. (Maybe by 1939, he was wrong.)

I’m interested in Schumpeter’s story, though, as more than just intellectual history, fascinating tho that is. Todays consensus says that technology determines the long-term path of the economy, aggregate demand determines cyclical deviations from that path, and never the twain shall meet. But that’s not the only possibility. We talked the other day about demand dynamics not as — as in conventional theory — deviations from the growth path in response to exogenous shocks, but as an endogenous process that may, or may not, occasionally converge to a long-term growth trajectory, which it also affects.

In those Harrod-type models, investment is simply required for higher output — there’s no innovation or autonomous investment booms. Those are where Schumpeter comes in. What I like about his vision is it makes it clear that periods of major innovation, major shifts from one production process to another, are associated with higher demand — the major new plant and equipment they require, the reorganization of the spatial and social organization of production they entail (“new plant, new firms, new men,” as he says) make large additional claims on society’s resources. This is the opposite of the “great recalculation” claim we were hearing a couple years ago, about how high unemployment was a necessary accompaniment to major geographic or sectoral shifts in output; and also of the more sophisticated version of the recalculation argument that Joe Stiglitz has been developing. [2] Schumpeter is right, I think, when he explicitly says that if we really were dealing with “recalculation” by a socialist planner, then yes, we might see labor and resources withdrawn from the old industries first, and only then deployed to the new ones. But under capitalism things don’t work like that  (page 110-111):

Since the central authority of the socialist state controls all existing means of production, all it has to do in case it decides to set up new production functions is simply to issue orders to those in charge of the productive functions to withdraw part of them from the employments in which they are engaged, and to apply the quantities so withdrawn to the new purposes envisaged. We may think of a kind of Gosplan as an illustration. In capitalist society the means of production required must also be … [redirected] but, being privately owned, they must be bought in their respective markets. The issue to the entrepreneurs of new means of payments created ad hoc [by banks] is … what corresponds in capitalist society to the order issued by the central bureau in the socialist state. 

In both cases, the carrying into effect of an innovation involves, not primarily an increase in existing factors of production, but the shifting of existing factors from old to new uses. There is, however, this difference between the two methods of shifting the factors : in the case of the socialist community the new order to those in charge of the factors cancels the old one. If innovation were financed by savings, the capitalist method would be analogous… But if innovation is financed by credit creation, the shifting of the factors is effected not by the withdrawal of funds—”canceling the old order”—from the old firms, but by … newly created funds put at the disposal of entrepreneurs : the new “order to the factors” comes, as it were, on top of the old one, which is not thereby canceled.

This vision of banks as capitalist Gosplan, but with the limitation that they can only give orders for new production on top of existing production, seems right to me. It might have been written precisely as a rebuttal to the “recalculation” arguments, which explicitly imagined capitalist investment as being guided by a central planner. It’s also a corrective to the story implied in the Slate piece, where one day there are people driving taxis and the next day there’s a fleet of automated cars. [3] Before that can happen, there’s a long period of research, investment, development — engineers are getting paid, the technology is getting designed and tested and marketed, plants are being built and equipment installed — before the first taxi driver loses a dollar of income. And even once the driverless cars come on line, many of the new companies will fail, and many of the old drivers will hold on for as long as their credit lasts. Both sets of loss-making enterprises have high expenditure relative to their income, which by definition boosts aggregate demand. In short, a period of major innovations must be a period of rising nominal incomes — as we most recently saw, on a moderate scale, in the late 1990s.

Now for Schumpeter, this was symmetrical: High demand and rising prices in the boom were balanced by falling prices in the recession — the “harvest” of the fruits of innovation. And it was in the recession that real wages rose. This was related to his assumption that the excess demand from the entrepreneurs mainly bid up the price of the fixed stock of factors of production, rather than activating un- or underused factors. Today, of course, deflation is extremely rare (and catastrophic), and output and employment vary more over the cycle than wages and prices do. And there is a basic asymmetry between the boom and the bust. New capital can be added very rapidly in growing enterprises, in principle; but gross investment in the declining incumbents cannot fall below zero. So aggregate investment will always be highest when there are large shifts taking place between sectors or processes. Add to this that new industries will take time to develop the corespective market structure that protects firms in capital-intensive industries from cutthroat competition, so they are more likely to see “excess” investment. And in a Keynesian world, the incomes from innovation-driven investment will also boost consumption, and investment in other sectors. So major innovations are likely to be associated with booms, with rising prices and real wages.

So, but: Why do we care what Schumpeter thought 75 years ago, especially if we think half of it no longer holds? Well, it’s always interesting to see how much today’s debates rehash the classics. More importantly, Schumpeter is one of the few economists to have focused on the relation of innovation, finance and aggregate demand (even if, like a good Wicksellian, he thought the latter was important only for the price level); so working through his arguments is a useful exercise if we want to think more systematically about this stuff ourselves. I realize that as a response to Matt Y.’s silly piece, this post is both too much and poorly aimed. But as I say, Seth and Noah have done what’s needed there. I’m more interested in what relationship we think does hold, between innovation and growth, the price level, and wages.

As an economist, my objection to the Yglesias column (and to stuff like the Stiglitz paper, which it’s a kind of bowdlerization of) is that the intuition that connects rising real incomes to falling nominal incomes is just wrong, for the reasons sketched out above. But shouldn’t we also say something on behalf of “the left” about the substantive issue? OK, then: It’s about distribution. You might say that the functional distribution is more or less stable in practice. But if that’s true at all, it’s only over the very long run, it certainly isn’t in the short or medium run — as Seth points out, the share of wages in the US is distinctly lower than it was 25 years ago. And even to the extent it is true, it’s only because workers (and, yes, the left) insist that nominal wages rise. Yglesias here sounds a bit like the anti-environmentalists who argue that the fact that rivers are cleaner now than when the Clean Water Act was passed, shows it was never needed. More fundamentally, as a leftist, I don’t agree with Yglesias that the only important thing about income is the basket of stuff it procures. There’s overwhelming reason — both first-principle and empirical — to believe that in advanced countries, relative income, and the power, status and security it conveys, is vastly more important than absolute income. “Don’t worry about conflicting interests or who wins or loses, just let the experts make things better for everyone”: It’s an uncharitable reading of the spirit behind this post, but is it an entirely wrong one?

UPDATE: On the other hand. In his essay on machine-breaking, Eric Hobsbawm observes that in 18th century England,

miners’ riots were still directed against high food prices, and the profiteers believed to be responsible for them.

And of course more generally, there have been plenty of working-class protests and left political programs aimed at reducing the cost of living, as well as raising wages. Food riots are a major form of popular protest historically, subsidies for food and other necessities are a staple policy of newly independent states in the third world (and, I suspect, also disapproved by the gentlemen of Slate), and food prices are a preoccupation of plenty of smart people on the left. (Not to mention people like this guy.) So Yglesias’s notion that “the left” ignores this stuff is stupid. But if we get past the polemics, there is an interesting question here, which is why mass politics based around people’s common interests as workers is so much more widespread and effective than this kind of politics around the cost of living. Or, maybe better, why one kind of conflict is salient in some times and places and the other kind of conflict in others; and of course in some, both.

[1] Seth’s piece in particular is a really masterful bit of polemic. He apologizes for responding to trollery, which, yeah, the Yglesias post arguably is. But if you must feed trolls, this is how it’s done. I’m not sure if the metaphor requires filet mignon and black caviar, or dogshit garnished with cigarette butts, or fresh human babies, but whatever it is you should ideally feed a troll, Seth serves it up.

[2] It appears that Stiglitz’s coauthor Bruce Greenwald came up with this first, and it was adopted by right-wing libertarians like Arnold Kling afterwards.

[3] I admit I’m rather skeptical about the prospects for driverless cars. Partly it’s that the point is they can operate with much smaller error tolerances than existing cars — “bumper to bumper at highway speeds” is the line you always hear — but no matter how inherently reliable the technology, these things are going to be owned maintained by millions of individual nonprofessionals. Imagine a train where the passengers in each car were responsible for making sure it was securely coupled to the next one. Yeah, no. But I think there’s an even more profound reason, connected to the kinds of risk we will and will not tolerate. I was talking to my friend E. about this a while back, and she said something interesting: “People will never accept it, because no one is responsible for an accident. Right now, if  there’s a bad accident you can deal with it by figuring out who’s at fault. But if there were no one you could blame, no one you could punish, if it were just something that happened — no one would put up with that.” I think that’s right. I think that’s one reason we’re much more tolerant of car accidents than plane accidents, there’s a sense that in a car accident at least one of the people involved must be morally responsible. Totally unrelated to this post, but it’s a topic I’d like to return to at some point — that what moral agency really means, is a social convention that we treat causal chains as being broken at certain points — that in some contexts we treat people’s actions as absolutely indeterminate. That there are some kinds of in principle predictable actions by other people that we act — that we are morally obliged to act — as if we cannot predict.