Forty years ago today, Britain moved to decimal currency. A 1971 penny was worth the equivalent of today’s 10p. In recognition of this dramatic debasement, and its devastating effects, we are bringing forward this classic article, originally published in December 2009.
Mr Smith works hard, plans carefully, and saves what he can, putting his money into a building society. He pays his credit card bills off each month, and tries to overpay his mortgage when he can.
Mr Smith got a 3% pay rise last year – inflation was only 2% – so he felt good about that. But… he doesn’t feel any wealthier.
Year after year, the government had said that the economy was growing strongly, but still, things seemed harder for his family and him. Train ticket prices up again. Heating bills rocketed when the price of oil went up, but never seemed to come down. He swears a loaf of bread and a pint of milk were much cheaper in years gone by.
When he changes his cash for Euros, he realises that his holiday in France is now unbearably expensive. His tax rates didn’t go up, but still, after all his bills were paid, he seemed to have less and less spare cash than he remembers a few years ago.
There are Mr Smiths everywhere. Careful folk, who plan, save for a rainy day and have a sense of personal responsibility.
Smith is the target.
It is Mr Smith who is going to pay for the banking crisis.
His saved wealth will pay the national debt.
His prudence will bail out Gordon Brown’s profligacy.
His forgone holiday will pay the banker’s bonuses.
His careful spending will pay for the vast number of quangos.
His financial planning will bail out the failed NHS computer project, over-budget military programs and ID cards.
His sense of responsibility will end up funding the destruction meted out in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It won’t be the politicians or the bankers who pay for global warming – he will.
He knows he pays tax… but what is hard for him to comprehend is that there is another pernicious process draining his wealth and subverting his hard work towards paying for the misjudgement of others. Whether he likes it or not, he naively pays for the decisions made by the political class.
He has no choice. No option. He was never asked to vote for it. And for the most part, the act of theft is so subtle he doesn’t even know it is happening.
Why does he feel poorer?
Why is it that Mr Smith seemed to miss the ‘boom’, yet is hurting more in the bust? Why doesn’t life get easier for him? What is going on?
As technology produces things more cheaply, Mr Smith should have been able to reap the rewards – except that things don’t get cheaper for him. Society cheats him when the government opens the spigot of new money, washing this value away as the torrent of new money chases prices higher beyond his reach.
The winners are always those close to the gusher – the banks, financiers and politicians. These are the ones who get to spend the new money first, thus chase prices up before Mr Smith gets any sniff of what is happening.
To save or to invest?
Think about your personal circumstances. Every time your payslip comes in, you have a choice of how much to spend and how much to save. Every rational person knows that there is a balance to be struck between current enjoyment (consumption) and future enjoyment (savings – or deferred consumption).
This choice is exactly the same for society as a whole. As a country, we must decide how much to consume, and how much to defer consumption in order to allow our children and us to enjoy things in the future.
The choice for us all is simple. Defer consumption and invest for the future, or consume and enjoy now.
What is the process by which we save for the future? There are two ways.
- Voluntary saving. If society needs to invest for the future, but people prefer to consume, then the savings rate – the profits paid on investments and/or the interest rate paid on deposits, rises until people choose to defer consumption and invest.
- Forced saving. Government policy forces a decrease of the purchasing power of money via inflation of the money supply. The net effect is a transference of wealth from savers and fixed income groups towards net borrowers (itself included). It also creates an artificial pool of liquidity into which the government can sell its IOUs.
The evil of Forced Saving
The natural state of affairs in a free market, with a more consistent supply of money, is that general prices fall as technology advances. The prudent are rewarded, and borrowers have to carefully evaluate and moderate their flights of fancy, only investing borrowed funds carefully in sound projects.
When the value of money declines, savers find that their money buys less, whilst borrowers are happy to find that they can repay their debts with money of a decreased value. It’s like borrowing five books from the library and finding that you are only required to give four back!
By setting a target for rising prices and then pulling levers to increase the supply of money in the economy to achieve it, the government prevents the natural response of general prices to competition, increased efficiency and innovation: they stop prices from falling.
Entrepreneurs, innovators, inventors and new businesses exist because they believe that they can satisfy society’s wants better than they have been served before. They have ideas, innovations and take risks in order to provide goods that are cheaper than they otherwise would be. Businesses operating in a competitive environment always seek to reduce costs, be that one step more efficient and produce a cheaper or better widget. As group of people, entrepreneurs bring efficiency and innovation, and they make stuff cheaper.
The benefit to Mr Smith should be that his income goes further. As time progresses, technological innovation should mean he can buy more with the same cash. But that’s not what happens, as any pensioner knows. Saved money buys far less now than it did at the time it was saved.
Governments achieve rising prices by encouraging the supply of new money. This new money comes from the central bank via its control of the banking system. The first users of this new money are invariably politicians, finance capitalism and big business. These guys get to use the newly minted money first, and thus spend it first. This process bids up prices, leaving everyone else chasing behind, and poor old Mr Smith last in the queue.
What an evil system it is then, when government can control money in such a way as to give it a first user advantage that penalises all those in the general population whose wealth is being rapidly diluted. A process that systematically violates and loots pensions, savings, fixed incomes and the actions of prudent, and rewards the profligate, the speculative borrowers and above all, rewards the biggest borrower of all: Government.
Let’s be clear. The current system is a process that diverts the benefits of innovation and technological advancement that should accrue to the general population, and thrusts it towards the desired spending of the well connected and the political class.
We need to stop this continual violation of the little man. Mr Smith has to start realising what is happening to him.
That’s why I’m proud to support the efforts of the Cobden Centre.