At the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, Joseph Stiglitz the Nobel Prize-winning economist argued in favor of phasing out currency and moving towards a digital economy.
The view expressed by Stiglitz is similar to that of former IMF Chief Economist Kenneth Rogoff who has been arguing for many years that there is an urgent need to remove cash from the economy. It is held that cash provides support to the shadow economy and permits tax evasion. Some estimates suggest this could be up to $700 billion in the US.
The Governor of the Bank of England – Mark Carney – has expressed similar views in support of the removal of cash.
Yet another justification for its removal is that in times of economic shocks, which push the economy into recession, the run for cash exacerbates the downturn – i.e. it becomes a factor contributing to economic instability by facilitating a cash-induced savings surge rather than an increase in demand.
Other arguments go further, including the position that in the modern world most transactions can be settled by means of electronic funds transfer. Money in the modern world is an abstraction so it is held.
But is it true that money is an abstraction?
The emergence of money
Money emerged because barter could not support the market economy. A butcher who wanted to exchange his meat for fruit might not have been able to find a fruit farmer who wanted his meat, while the fruit farmer who wanted to exchange his fruit for shoes might not have been able to find a shoemaker who wanted his fruit.
The distinguishing characteristic of money is that it is the general medium of exchange. It has evolved as being the most marketable commodity.
On this Mises wrote,
There would be an inevitable tendency for the less marketable of the series of goods used as media of exchange to be one by one rejected until at last only a single commodity remained, which was universally employed as a medium of exchange; in a word, money. (1980, p. 45) (Mises, Ludwig von. 1980. The Theory of Money and Credit. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Classics.)
Similarly, Rothbard wrote that,
Just as in nature there is a great variety of skills and resources, so there is a variety in the marketability of goods. Some goods are more widely demanded than others, some are more divisible into smaller units without loss of value, some more durable over long periods of time, some more transportable over large distances. All of these advantages make for greater marketability. It is clear that in every society, the most marketable goods will be gradually selected as the media for exchange. As they are more and more selected as media, the demand for them increases because of this use, and so they become even more marketable. The result is a reinforcing spiral: more marketability causes wider use as a medium which causes more marketability, etc. Eventually, one or two commodities are used as general media—in almost all exchanges—and these are called money. (1981, p. 3) What Has Government Done to Our Money? Novato, Calif.: Libertarians Publishers.
Since this general medium of exchange emerges from among a potentially wide range of commodities, money is, as such, a commodity.
According to Rothbard,
Money is not an abstract unit of account, divorceable from a concrete good; it is not a useless token only good for exchanging; it is not a ‘claim on society’; it is not a guarantee of a fixed price level. It is simply a commodity. (What Has Government Done to Our Money?)
Moreover, “an object cannot be used as money unless, at the moment when its use as money begins, it already possesses an objective exchange value based on some other use” (Mises,The Theory of Money and Credit. p. 131).
In contrast to directly used consumers’ or producers’ goods, money must have pre-existing prices on which to ground a demand. But the only way this can happen is by beginning with a useful commodity under barter, and then adding demand for a medium to the previous demand for direct use (e.g., for ornaments, in the case of gold). (Rothbard 1981, pp. 3–4)
In short, money is that for which all other goods and services are traded. This fundamental characteristic of money must be contrasted with those of other goods. For instance, food supplies the necessary energy to human beings, while capital goods permit the expansion of infrastructure that in turn permits the production of a larger quantity of goods and services.
Through an ongoing selection process over thousands of years, people settled on gold as money – gold served as the monetary standard. In today’s monetary system, the core of the money supply is no longer gold but coins and notes issued by the government and the central bank. Consequently, coins and notes constitute the standard money, known as cash, that is employed in transactions. Goods and services are sold for cash.
At any point in time individuals can keep their money either in their wallets, under their mattresses, in a safe deposit box or stored – deposited – in banks. In depositing money, a person never relinquishes ownership. No one else is expected to make use of it. When Joe stores his money with a bank, he continues to have an unlimited claim against it and is entitled to take charge of it at any time. Consequently these deposits, labelled demand deposits, form part of money.
At any point in time part of the stock of cash is stored, that is, deposited, in banks.
Thus if, in an economy, people hold $10,000 in cash, then the money supply of this economy is $10,000. But if some individuals have stored $2,000 in demand deposits the total money supply will remain $10,000: $8,000 cash and $2,000 in demand deposits with banks. Should all individuals deposit their entire stock of cash in banks then the total money supply would remain $10,000 – all of it held as demand deposits.
This must be contrasted with a credit transaction. Credit always involves the creditor’s purchase of a future good in exchange for a present good. As a result, in a credit transaction, money is transferred from a lender to a borrower. Such transactions include savings deposits. These are in fact loans to the bank. With these deposits the lender of money (the depositor) relinquishes to the bank his claim over the money for the duration of the loan. These simple credit transactions, however, – i.e. loans which are not created by the banks as multiples of funds on deposit – do not alter the amount of money in the economy. If Bob lends $1,000 to Joe, the money is transferred from Bob’s demand deposit or from Bob’s wallet to Joe’s possession.
These savings deposits – to be contrasted with demand deposits – therefore should not be included as money.
The digitization of money
Does the digitization of money change this?
Electronic money is not money as such but a particular way of using existing money. For instance, by means of electronic devices Bob can transfer his $1,000 to Joe. He could also transfer the $1,000 by means of a check written against his deposit in Bank A. Joe in turn will now place the check with his bank, say, Bank B. After the clearance, the money will be transferred from Bob’s account to Joe’s demand deposit in Bank B.
Note that all these transfers, either electronically or by means of checks, could take place because the $1,000 in cash physically exists. Without the existence of the $1,000 nothing could be transferred.
Now, if Bob pays for his groceries with a credit card he in fact borrows from the credit card company such as MasterCard. For instance, if he buys $100 worth of groceries using MasterCard, then MasterCard pays the grocer $100. Bob, in turn, after one month or earlier repays his debt to MasterCard in whole or part. Again, all this could not have happened without the existence of cash. After all, what exactly has been transferred?
The fact that cash per se was not used in the above example doesn’t mean that we don’t require it any longer. On the contrary, the fact that it exists enables various forms of transactions to take place via sophisticated forms of technology such as electronic or digital transfers. These various forms of transfer are not money as such but simply a particular way of moving money. The underlying commodity being used as the medium of exchange is still cash – just the means of transferring that cash is different in a digital world.
Importantly, the digitization of the process of transferring money has been conflated in popular usage with “digital money”. As the above logic demonstrates, they are two different things.
The removal of money – the case of India
Any attempt to totally remove cash – i.e. money – implies the destruction of the medium of exchange and, ultimately, the market economy. The recent experiment in India to remove large denomination notes has caused serious havoc. Towards the end of last year Prime Minister Modi surprised his country by announcing the banning of 500 and 1000 rupee notes, with some estimating that around 86% of all cash in circulation in India was no longer considered as legal tender.
Any policy directed at phasing out cash in order to stop the shadow economy has the effect of preventing individuals from employing their economy’s medium of exchange. This, however, is unlikely to succeed as individuals will always find various other goods or services to serve as money.
If legal tender notes were to be banned then people would simply use something else. The argument that removing cash will eliminate tax evasion and crime is doubtful. Tax evasion would be reduced if the incentives for it – high taxes based on big government – were removed.
But what of the claim that the existence of cash allows “panic withdrawal” during economic crises which therefore exacerbates those crises?
The fact that during an economic crisis people run to withdraw their money indicates that they have lost faith in the banking system – perhaps for good reasons – and would like to have their money back. The recent Greek “debt crisis” is a textbook example, and indeed bank depositors were quite correct in their assessment of the state of their banks.
Here it is necessary to consider the multiplication of “money” in a modern, fractional reserve banking system. Where banks are allowed – indeed encouraged – to lend multiples of funds on deposit – i.e. create money out of nothing – then it is indeed likely that a mass withdrawal of cash deposits can result in a magnified effect on the economy through forced shrinkage in the credit system and the resulting collapse of the economic activities that relied on that artificially-created money.
What is important to note, however, is that the problem in this case is not the existence of cash but rather the artificial creation of additional money by the commercial banks through fractional reserve lending – mostly with the support of governments. Cash doesn’t cause crises – central bank-enabled fractional reserve lending does.
Irrespective of the level of technological advancement of the economy, the essence of money can never change – it is that against which we exchange goods and services. It is only the (erroneous) definition of money as an empty abstraction that makes it possible to conclude that cash can be phased out of the economy with some hypothetical benefits. This is, in effect, what Stiglitz was suggesting in Davos.
There are other issues associated with the digitization of money flows which warrant comment.
Firstly, there is the problem that the mandatory switch from physical money to money held as deposits within banks will deprive people of the privacy they may wish in the allocation of their financial resources.
Secondly, once all cash is transferred to the banking system, there is the real risk that control over that money is progressively ceded to that system and to the governments which thrive upon it. Political or consumption activities that are unpopular with government and/or commercial interests – especially in an environment of growing powers of the “security state” – could result in retributive action via restrictions on access to those monetary balances.
Thirdly, in a purely digital world it would be impossible to withdraw physical money should people believe that their bank (or the banking system as a whole) was at risk of collapse. This could potentially lock people on board a sinking ship, or at least remove the ability of people to make their own judgements and vote with their monetary feet.
The compulsory switch to purely digital cash could well become yet another facet of the growing tendency towards the further centralization of state power and the decline in individual liberty.