The answer is that the US dollar has lost 98.17% of its purchasing power and the pound sterling 99.42% of its purchasing power. Well done then, I suppose, for surpassing even the great tyrants of old who plagued the citizenry of both nations!
Gold was money for a large part of mankind’s history.
It was discovered by early man to be the most marketable of commodities. As such, the free interaction of people led to this commodity being adopted as the final thing for which all goods and services were traded. This discovery allowed man to lift himself from direct exchange, or barter, of his goods and services to indirect exchange. This indirect exchange allowed the universal application of the division and specialization of labour that has, in turn, given us all the material prosperity we have today. The discovery of money, then, must rank along with language as arguably the most important invention or discovery in the whole course of human history.
Note that, like language, money was not created by the State but by the private and spontaneous interaction of free individuals.
There are many stories in history of wicked monarchs who, to fund their various despotic regimes or lifestyles, would call in the coinage of the realm, extract a small percentage of gold — a “clip” — and then add an impurity before giving them back to the public; this is debasing of the monetary unit. This embezzlement was unlawful for the minter in the private sector and many people over the ages have been executed for stealing from money owners in this way but the monarch usually got away with it. One of the most notable examples in history was when Emperor Nero reduced the value of the denarius from being pure silver weighing 4 grams to 3.8 grams. His financial gain was enormous.
Another great example of history is our very own tyrant per excellence, Henry the VIII. He reduced the weight of sliver in the silver penny to 1/3rd of its purity from 0.925 to 0.250. By the reign of Elizabeth I, the Tudor financier Sir Thomas Gresham had to negotiate a loan from the Antwerp traders to provide more money for her nation. Sir Thomas came back and said
It may please your majesty to understand, that the first occasion of the fall of exchange did grow by the King majesty, your late father, in abasing his coin … which was the occasion that all your fine gold was conveyed out of this your realm.
What became know as Gresham’s law is that “Bad money drives out good under legal tender laws”. In Europe this is know as the Copernicus Law, as he was saying the same thing on the continent. The great medieval philosopher and theologian Nicole d’Oresme was the inspiration of Copernicus on this matter.
Economics of the Matter
A debasement always meant an inflation. Why? As there was more coinage in circulation chasing a similar amount of goods and services for sale, prices rose.
No less a figure than John Maynard Keynes in Economic Consequences of the Peace (1920), said:
By a continuous process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method, they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some.
This is from a man whose current disciples are inflating the western world’s money supply to a point that can only lead to rampant inflation.
We should remember the names which we have used to label money historically. In the UK “sterling” and in the USA “dollar” each described a fixed weight of gold . Gold was the money unit, not sterling or dollar in itself.
Before World War I the pound sterling was worth $4.86856 and a dollar was worth 1/20th of an ounce of gold. For the sake of simplicity I will say that the pound sterling was defined as ¼ of an ounce of gold and the USA dollar 1/20th of an ounce.
So How Much is my Pound Sterling Worth Today?
One ounce of gold today is worth $1,093.40 and 1/20 oz therefore $54.67 but the dollar pre World War I was just a name in the USA for 1/20 of an ounce of gold: what would have cost $1 before World War I would cost $54.67 today. The dollar has lost its purchasing power. In fact it has lost 98.17% of its purchasing power in 100 years. One dollar today should buy something like a single person’s weekly food shop, not a single daily newspaper.
The fate of the pound sterling has been even worse than that of the dollar. One ounce of gold today is £692.26. So if a pound sterling pre World War I was just a name in the UK for 1/4 of an ounce of gold, it would imply that the pre World War I purchasing price was 1/4 of £692.26 or £173.06. In fact the pound sterling has lost 99.42% of its purchasing power in 100 years. One pound should buy something like a good week’s food shop for a familiy of four and not just one daily newspaper like it would today.
Our modern day Neros and Henry VIIIs are those we call our Prime Ministers and our Presidents. We are told they are all well meaning men and women. That may well be the case. They have however, since World War I, sat on the single greatest debasement of our wealth in human history.
They do this via the monetization of their nations’ debt. A politician in power might have promised to give X, Y or Z group of people £X, £Y and £Z in exchange for voting for them. If the tax revenue is not enough, then they simply, out of thin air, either create more money — old style monetizing the debt to pay off the debt obligation — or, with a computer key, they open up a new bank deposit for themselves to pay or buy back some of their debt. This is called “QE” or Quantitive easing and we discuss the errors associated with it here.
Last year the UK raised over £200 billion by one part of the government issuing debt and the other part buying it. So £200 billion of new money is now in circulation. Nero and Henry VIII would blush at the brashness of this debasement. This is done wholly at the expense of yours and my very own purchasing power.
The Cobden Centre exists to promote honest money and social progress. Honest money is money that cannot be debased by governments to pay off liabilities they have incurred over and above their tax revenue. I outlined a banking reform proposal which advocated 100% reserve money here. Staying within the existing paper money regime, one would need a bill to prevent the new issuance of either paper money or computer generated new bank deposits by the government. Ultimately, we must look at fully re rooting our paper money back into solid commodities that the government cannot destroy or create at will.
- Huerta de Soto, Money, Bank Credit and Economic Cycles
- Baxendale, A day of reckoning: how to end the banking crisis now
- What is wrong with banking, part 1: the legal nature of banking contracts
- Frank Whitson Fetter, Development of British Monetary Orthodoxy 1797 – 1875
- F. A. Hayek, Denationalisation of Money: The Argument Refined
- Gordon Kerr, How To Destroy the British Banking System and Bailing out the Banks – Glaring Evidence of Moral Hazard
- James Tyler, My Journey to Austrianism via the City, Money is not working and How to avoid future encounters with financial meltdown
- Irving Fisher, 100% Money, 1935