The Golden Road Remains Constant

Authored by Roy Sebag via GoldMoney.com,

I

One must always be careful to distinguish between a truism, a claim or narrative which is so deeply embedded into the fabric of cultural understanding that it is taken to be an indisputable historical fact, and truth, a continuing, self-evident feature of reality which is available to be observed, reasoned about, and tested in the present. Truisms are the handmaidens of convention which, for economic participants, eventually come to replace objective observations. The result is that the ‘science’ of economics is transformed into a battleground for subjective beliefs, where the soldiers are not self-evident observations or testable predictions, but, rather, fashionable claims and politically-correct statements. In recent times, we have seen this to be the case for the Philips Curve, the theory of aggregate demand, and Keynes inversion of Say’s Law. These, among many similar economic ideas, are modern truisms which, though falsified by present-day economic observation, persist as structures of belief which are dearly held by the economists and politicians who shape our collective future.

In this essay, I will draw the reader’s attention to a truism which endures as conventional wisdom today, even though it can be easily falsified by plain experience and objective examination. I speak of a belief which colours the whole of recent economic history: the judgment that the natural element Gold (Au) is now relegated to its present status as a store of value because payment technology has evolved beyond physical media.

The whiggish story goes something like this: just as we humans evolve, so, too, does our civilization progress along the rising road of history; therefore, just as our maturing societies exhibit increased technical capabilities, so do our monetary instruments undoubtedly improve with the march of time. Consequently, the transition from carrying around weighty physical coins made from precious metals to making instantly-settled electronic payments is seen as evidence enough that, in our time, gold no longer has a role to play as a monetary instrument.

This specific belief is unique insofar as opposite factions within the battleground of subjective economics all hold it to be true: while the disparate schools of sound money advocates, mainstream academics, and cryptocurrency evangelists share very little in common, they all seem to agree that physical gold, as a monetary instrument, has been superseded by human innovation and technology. To each of these independent groups, what the car is to the horse and carriage is what modern digital payments are to antiquated gold coins and balance scales.

In my own experience founding a precious metals payments and savings business, I have always been puzzled by this truism, and I have ultimately come to reject it. I believe that, in this regard, sound money advocates have made a terrible concession. As a result, the frontlines of one of the most important intellectual battles has been relinquished to the economic alchemists and technology-worshipping wizards of cryptocurrency; meanwhile, advocates of sound money retreat to their ramparts, safely guarding their own cherished bedrock upon which it is engraved with the chisel of perennial reason that gold, though no longer money for all, is the premier store of value for man. What results from this fissure is that most people view gold as a historic monetary instrument which remains a store of value today for some mysterious and indiscernible reason. For people like myself, however, gold is money for all times: as practical today as it was at any point in history.

In order to reconcile these two positions, we must first discern what money is. The traditional definition which you find in the dictionary is as follows: money is a unit of account, medium of exchange, and store of value. But what do these words mean? Unit of account refers to an objective, that is to say, unchanging measure which is fungible and arithmetically calculable. For example: one inch is always an inch; one gram is always one gram. Medium of exchange refers to the marketability of the thing, such that it is readily accepted among peoples across time and place. Said differently, the likelihood of any thing to be accepted implies its ease of use or its ability to efficiently move from the hands of one to the hands of another. We can even go further to say that, not only does the thing need to be exchangeable, but it must in itself have some utility or usefulness, lest it fail to be desired by different people at different places and different times. For example: an amount of salt in one place is desired in another place because salt preserves meat and enhances the taste of food; thus, salt could be carried from one place to another and readily accepted by self-interested actors as a medium of exchange. Finally, store of value refers to the relative scarcity of the thing (in comparison with other things) as embodied in the unit of account and medium of exchange. The rarer the thing, the more desirable and exchangeable it will be, from the past, through the present, and into the future. For example: the best house on the best street is a store of value because, so long as it remains unchanging and useful, it will always be more desirable and exchangeable relative to any other house on any other street.

This is the traditional picture which we learn from contemporary economic theory. But we can already see that this definition is perplexing, for it appears to presuppose something with physical qualities which simultaneously satisfies these three criteria. In other words, unless there was already something which is always able to satisfy these three criteria, then the act of defining ‘money’ would prove to be elusive. Now, it would be a difficult task to fulfill these three criteria in all times and in all places. In the case of the house, someone may build a better house, or the house may decay, or the quality of the neighbourhood may decline; we also know that people have subjective preferences for different architecture and design, so it may be unclear whether one house is ‘better’ than another. The same is true for salt: while we know that salt may be readily accepted, we can think of many things which are rarer and last longer than salt. We can begin to see that the standard definition of money presupposes an understanding of the order of nature and, more specifically, the irreducible building blocks of all matter – the corporeal elements. For without the unchanging, qualitative, and measurable attributes of the elements, we would be unable to rank potential moneys according to an internal hierarchy, such that we can discern a corporeal thing’s fittingness to satisfy these three criteria. Indeed, as we shall soon explore, attempts to superimpose human ideas into this procrustean definition of money consistently prove to be unintelligible, requiring a tremendous amount of complex, lofty thinking which contradicts the simplicity and intelligibility of the natural world.

Let us simplify our definition of money, in order to understand its nature, its purpose, and its function in light of the importance of these tripartite criteria. We know that these criteria must simultaneously hold true at all times and all places, intrinsically in the thing itself; therefore, any attenuation of these criteria undermines the viability of the thing-at-hand to be money. Keeping this in mind, we define ‘money’ as such: money is a corporeal good which serves as an unchanging measure and reward by virtue of its relative scarcity and temporal endurance when compared with other corporeal goods. With this definition of money, the unchanging nature of a naturally scarce, long-lasting, and useful corporeal good provides the foundation for neutral and lasting satisfaction among self-interested parties in any potential exchange. That the money must be a unit of account renders it an unchanging measure; likewise, that the money must be a useful store of value renders it a satisfying reward.

Money therefore is not simply the instrument which best facilitates payment; but rather, it underpins, reflects, and adjudicates the entirety of any transaction between self-interested parties, from measurement to reward, or from payment to satisfaction. At this point, we may recognise that the desire for convenience and expediency should in no way undermine the nature, purpose, and function of money.

II

In modern times, we have come to know a very different kind of money than the one I have just defined. Modern ‘money’ is really a monetary substitute whereby the medium of exchange or payment feature is, in practice, no more than the communication or confirmation of a transaction between two or more self-interested parties, rather than the actual movement of the money from one party to the other in coincidence with the settlement of a good or service. In this way, the payment has come to be conflated with the notion of settlement, or, as I prefer to say, lasting satisfaction; this is because swift, virtual payments often lead us to believe that the exchange has been satisfied in actuality. As we shall argue, the increase in the speed of payments afforded by modern money involves both the deferral of the actual settlement, as well as the grievous diminishment of the true nature and purpose of money.

It is indeed true that the manner according to which a transaction is communicated is responsive to technological innovation. Any conquest over latency, that is to say, the shortening of time in the act of communication, is thus an improvement in the means of payment. However, this is only an improvement when it comes to transactions between parties which are physically distant. We therefore agree that an instant payment confirmation between a merchant in Munich and a consumer in London is an impressive accomplishment, and it is perhaps more convenient than the mailing of a cheque or bill of sale. But, to be sure, this verification of payment communication does not extend to the settlement of the goods or services being exchanged; that activity, i.e., the delivery of the good to the London consumer, remains bound by the same physical laws which govern all actual cooperative transactions. Markus, the merchant in Munich, may receive instant confirmation of his payment from James, the consumer in London; contractually, however, James will not be satisfied until the time when Markus has delivered his good or completed his service. During this prolonged temporal interval between payment and satisfaction, while James still waits to receive his purchased product, both the value of the modern money that was paid to Markus and the acceptance or refusal of the product by James is subject to change. Here we see that the acceleration of the payment has perhaps introduced a layer of trust between self-interested parties, but it has done nothing to change the dynamics of satisfaction or the final settlement which is required for the transaction to be complete. Thus, in spite of the increased speed and ostensible convenience, the deferral of the settlement leaves the economic transaction open-ended and not yet subject to finality. This inescapable reality is one which issuers of modern money wish to disguise. In their view, the speeding up of payment supersedes the importance – or even redefines the notion – of settlement.

What we learn from this example is that the measure and reward of cooperation emerge from the settlement, not the payment, for the payment is contingent upon the settlement in an irreversible forward causation. Returning to our example: James pays Markus instantly, but neither party will be satisfied until James receives his good from Markus; if what James receives is in any way different from what he expected to receive, there will be no satisfaction for either James or Markus. This is different from a traditional transaction, where James enters a marketplace and decides to purchase a specific item which is physically present at the market and which satisfies his need or desire; James then agrees with the vendor about the payment, and the transaction is settled. So far, then, we can see that for exchanges where the parties are co-located, there is no need to improve the speed of the transaction in the first place, for the entirety of the exchange is measured, rewarded, and settled at the same time. Increased payment speed therefore does not enhance or improve the cooperative transaction for cases where parties are co-located and where settlement is contemporaneous with payment. On the other hand, for physically-distant transactions, or ones involving a temporal delay between payment and settlement even in local settings, accelerating the payment speed does nothing to secure the final settlement of the transaction. This is because the transaction is not complete until the product or service has been received and satisfaction has been obtained for both parties. Correspondingly, modern money, and the convenience which it provides, ultimately defers settlement in service of payment speed.

The result of this deferral is that the nature and purpose of money, namely, its being an unchanging measure and reward of human cooperation, is compromised for all parties involved. This is because, within this temporal interval of deferral, in the time between the instant payment and the delayed settlement, the value of the modern money and the nature of the transaction is in motion rather than at rest; therefore, it is subject to change. For rest to be achieved, either the money itself has to be at rest, which requires that money be defined as an unchanging naturally-scarce corporeal good, or the transaction has to be settled.

Now, in our modern era, one may rush to point to a class of transactions which may appear at first glance to be exempt from this analysis of the shortcomings of modern money: that is, virtual services. While James surely has to wait for his physical good to arrive from Munich in the post before he is satisfied, James need not wait when he pays for a subscription to an online streaming service before he can begin to instantly use the service. Here there is immediate settlement of the service at the same time that the payment is issued. The case of virtual services may therefore disprove our assessment of modern money. Perhaps, as a cryptocurrency enthusiast may argue, the anomaly case of virtual services may even provide reason for, or confirm the viability of, a modern money which is purely virtual in itself. In order to explore these challenges, let us first ask two general questions:

1. Can any cooperative society exist, prosper, and depend upon a purely virtual service economy?

2. With respect to the use of modern moneys for virtual services, what exactly serves as the unchanging measure and reward (money) which mediates such acts of cooperation, thereby enabling lasting satisfaction among all parties? 

With respect to the first question, it should be evident to any reader that there can be no such state of affairs. The basic concerns of any household will always and everywhere be tethered to the physical world: a family requires food to eat, fabrics to be clothed in, and energy for heat. Thus, each and every cooperative society is always dependent upon the negotiation, harvest, and distribution of useful, corporeal goods and their accompanying services in the physical world. We may instantly receive as many virtual video consultations with our doctor, but, at some point, we will require the administration of actual medicine and the use of real tools which must be produced by someone else in order to nurse our health condition. This fundamental premise holds true for all the necessities of life, from food, to shelter, to medicine, to law enforcement, and so on. It is impossible, then, for an economy to be purely virtual.

This is why we must ask the second question: at some point, these modern monetary abstractions demand resources from society which are corporeal and useful – from labour, to energy, to physical space. The same goes for virtual services: both the virtual service and the monetary abstraction which is used as payment for the service exact necessities within the corporeal world. It is these corporeal realities which determine the extrinsic boundaries for whether the virtual service, the virtual money, and the transaction as a whole can achieve lasting satisfaction. Thus, abstract utility (if such a thing even exists) is always and everywhere dependent upon and bound by corporeal usefulness. In light of our answer to the first question, it becomes clear that the abstract measure and reward which is modern money, whether it be paper fiat or virtual cryptocurrency, will be incapable of being unchanging, long lasting, and relatively scarce, insofar as it is always dependent upon the corporeal realities to which it remains tethered. Ultimately, these virtual services and modern moneys are always and everywhere determined by the real economy and the corporeal boundaries which define it.

Take the following example: let us say that there exists a mathematical school, run by Pythagoras himself, which offers the community with a promise that the teacher and his acolytes will employ the mysteries of the universe in order to maintain a master ledger of the community’s transactions which is cryptographically governed and thus logically unchanging. Would it not come across as strange or even silly to the local farmer and the local miner, who provide this academic school and the greater society with their daily nourishment, if each time they transacted their reward was merely an incorporeal and inaccessible promise from someone else in their town? Moreover, that a portion of their physical surplus would be required as a seigniorage to the mathematicians who administer this virtual service? No doubt this is a silly scheme indeed, and yet this silliness has endured from ancient times – think of the infamous John Law and the Mississippi Bubble, or, even in our present day, think of government-issued fiat currency as well as privately-issued fiat cryptocurrency. History teaches us that, wherever man seeks to contrive money, rather than to embrace money as a given feature of nature, the fundamental attributes of money as a measure and reward of cooperation are sacrificed, leading to injustice and disorder within society.

Consequently, with respect to modern moneys and their use for virtual services, we arrive at the same conclusion: that any apparent increase in speed diminishes the nature, function, and purpose of money. For money must in itself be the corporeal, useful, naturally-scarce, and enduring thing which objectively measures and neutrally rewards all acts of human cooperation. By contrast, an abstract modern money will always be subject to worldly fluctuation because it lacks any tether or grounding in concrete reality. As we established earlier, with modern money, speedy payment is pushed forward while the act of settlement is delayed. What results is similar to a game whereby a group of friends sitting in a circle pass around a melting ice cube: with each turn, the ice cube is fundamentally changed, and eventually it disappears altogether. With these monetary substitutes, the party receiving the money in any transaction is not left with an equitable measurement, a just reward, or even a lasting store of value – all he has is the melting ice cube, which he must pass on quickly. Whoever is left with nothing to show for his work but a puddle of water has been unfairly deprived of his labour, good, or service.  

We therefore see the need for these transactions to be anchored to a true or real money. If this rope fails to be hitched, then the abstract service economy may become parasitic upon the real economy – even though the former depends upon the latter – ultimately leading to two standards which become diametrically opposed to each other. The only way this paradox can be resolved, such that lasting settlement is at all possible, is for money to be physically quantifiable as an unchanging measure and reward which is either in motion (during payment) or at rest (during settlement). Only this money can grant finality to transactions because this money, possessing an unchanging nature in the corporeal world, in itself serves as a final settlement. For most of human history, man has chosen a natural money (a corporeal entity found in nature) which no man could create, manipulate, or replicate, for the very reasons which we have just adumbrated: it is physical, it can be either in motion or at rest, and it is not subject to change over extended periods of time. Furthermore, within a range of potential natural moneys, our ancestors consistently chose to employ the precious metals gold or silver as the money with which to measure, to reward, and to settle cooperative transactions. At this stage, we may now appreciate why it would be preferable to employ the most rare, long-lasting, and unchanging of the earth’s elements instead of the service offered by Pythagoras.

III

The monetary wisdom of our ancestors must not be disregarded, as if it were merely a crude stage of the evolutionary timeline of man’s history, culminating in the great telos of the modern technological awakening. Nor must we reject my appeal to the wisdom of the ancients as a kind of wistful nostalgia for a bygone era. Comparing the modern car to the horse and carriage is just fine; but comparing modern, man-made moneys which exhibit a superior payment speed to true money – to unchanging, corporeal, gold money – is a false equivalency. For, as we have argued, most human cooperation, insofar as it requires a physical, non-virtual settlement, remains beholden to some kind of corporeal settlement; the acceleration of payment speed does not alone replace or redefine the concrete satisfaction which needs to take place. Consequently, the benefit of speedy payments, which is the quiddity of modern money, does not in and of itself prove that gold has somehow been usurped by technologically-superior modern money. Before we proceed, let us review the argument which we have given so far:

i. The unchanging nature of money provides settlement finality, satisfaction, or rest.

ii. Payment speed alone does not achieve settlement finality

iii. For virtual services, it does initially appear possible that payment speed alone can achieve settlement finality.

a. But we cannot have a purely virtual economy because everything is interconnected and interdependent upon the physical, real economy.

b. Moreover, even virtual services and modern moneys require ultimate finality in the physical world because they demand resources in order to exist.

iv. If all of this is true, we can see that gold can still be used today to settle transactions instead of modern money. The acceleration of payment speed therefore cannot be the reason that gold is no longer used as money.

We must therefore reject the conventional wisdom, or truism, that gold is an antiquated monetary instrument which has been eclipsed by superior monetary instruments. Once we reject this claim, we can begin to perceive the real issues which proscribe gold money from being adopted today.

So far we have uncovered that, for most of human history, precious metals have continually and universally served as the unchanging measure and reward which enables lasting satisfaction between self-interested parties. What we have not yet discussed is the myriad novel technologies and innovations which made this possible. Take the following examples: ancient cuneiform tablets and Egyptian papyri reveal bills of sale for merchant transactions which required a contractual deferral between payment and settlement, such as in the case of an imminent harvest; circa 600 BC, coinage was invented in Lydia in order to increase the velocity of transactions so that individuals no longer needed to weigh variable masses of metals; in the early modern era, Isaac Newton served as the first Master of the Royal Mint implementing policies and procedures which allowed for bills corresponding to metals stored at the bank’s vaults to circulate more swiftly and efficiently. The most recent example is the Bretton Woods system which functioned from 1934-1971. In this system, the measure and reward of settlement (gold) was kept in physical vaults at specific locations, while the payment media circulated throughout the banking systems of the world. We are aware that this system failed, but we must be careful not to judge the reason for its failure to be something related to either inefficient payment speed or wholesale advancements in technology. In all of these examples, we see technology that is introduced and adopted in order to enhance the efficiency and speed of payments, while the money itself remains anchored to a gold standard, grounded in the natural world. In this way, lasting satisfaction is achieved, payment speed is maximized, and the primary nature and purpose of money are maintained.

Here we have touched upon another point of rather unquestionable agreement amongst disparate schools of economic thought. That is, that all gold standards have failed. This technically-correct statement tends to be touted by mainstream economists, often as a rebuttal to the dictum of sound money advocates that ‘all fiat currency systems have failed.’

There is an obvious distinction which makes one statement correct in the sophistic sense while the other is correct in the ontological sense. It is indeed correct to say that ‘all gold standards have failed,’ but only if we qualify the claim as follows: all gold standards have failed because governments have failed to maintain a gold backing as originally promisedHence why the value of gold today, that is to say its purchasing power, is atemporally commensurate with historical gold standard ratios, while the value of fiat has deteriorated. For example: on the eve of the suspension of the gold standard by President Richard Nixon in 1971, the price of gold was 42 dollars per ounce; today, 49 years later, the price of gold is 1,800 dollars per ounce. The 1,800 dollars today will buy the same goods and services that the 42 dollars would in 1971, whereas the same 42 dollars held from 1971 to the present day can only buy 2% of the original ounce of gold. In other words, the dollar has been devalued by 98%. In this case, it is clear that the gold standard ‘failed’ not because gold has ceased to be an unchanging, naturally-given measure and reward, but because our political leaders decided to terminate the system, with deleterious consequences for the purchasing power and savings of the average person. The sophistic statement that ‘all gold standards have failed’ is thus rendered to its proper place, as nothing more than propaganda. Conversely, the challenge that ‘all fiat currency systems have failed’ cannot be disputed on the same grounds, given that fiat currencies which have historically failed have no present value, while existing fiat currencies lose purchasing power over time because of inflation. The best reply to the challenge is to say that the current instantiation of fiat currency has not failed per se, but, rather, that it has lost over 90% of its purchasing power in fifty years, leading to unprecedented wealth inequality and myriad disorders within the modern West. Meanwhile, gold has continued to function as an enduring store of value which is owned and traded by citizens and governments.

Having now rejected the truism, and having come to discern the true reason for the failure of historic gold standards, we are provided with an additional insight: the great integrity of the gold monetary system not only grants finality to transactions and lasting satisfaction to all members of the cooperative society, but it also alerts the society to when the promises of the social and political kind are broken. Just as the money is either at motion or at rest, so, too, is there a tangible backing of metal or not. This greater indication of the health of society and the status of the social contract is yet another instance of the complex manifestation of the naturalist understanding of real money which we have so far discussed. Conversely, modern, man-made money obfuscates whether or not a promise has been broken because it provides the issuers of said contrived money with great latitude and power to change the definition of money itself, while defaulting on historic promises. Here we come full circle in recognising how, within the modern monetary system, conventional wisdoms – including the truism that ‘gold is old’ – are, in effect, manipulative responses to the subjective winds of politicians, rather than the result of objective observation, testable prediction, or even common sense.

III        

Even today, gold exemplifies the nature and purpose of money in its very essence. Indeed, gold can serve as money today, not just as savings, but as the sole means of measuring and rewarding all cooperative transactions. There are no technical impediments which could prevent a sovereign from employing physical gold to anchor their monetary system, thereby restoring an unchanging measure and lasting reward for all people. This can be done both with or without redemption rights, and it can be enhanced by both historic and contemporary innovations in payment communications. Gold can easily anchor a physical coin, a fiat currency, a swift system, a stock exchange, or a credit card network which would significantly improve how we cooperate for the reason that such a system would grant lasting satisfaction to all involved.

As for the apparent costs associated with the institution of a gold standard, they are de minimis when compared with their alternatives: from the hypothetical Pythagorean school, to an army of 5,000 PhDs employed at the Federal Reserve, to the hundreds of millions of watts of electricity which online banking systems and cryptocurrencies demand twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week. In truth, the ‘costs’ of tethering the economy to gold would amount to rounding errors within the overall balance sheet of physical cooperation; this is because gold itself is a quantifiable, physical element which exists and endures in nature independently of the acts of cooperation which are anchored to it. It is the physical, natural attributes of gold – its specific gravity, natural scarcity, malleability, ductility, conductivity – which render it the most effectively dense material to store, to protect, and to transport within the physical world. Even today, the Bank of England supports hundreds of billions of dollars of annual economic activity (much of which takes place instantly and electronically) with a hoard of physical gold stored within its vaults. The metal almost never moves, yet the transactions which are supported by the metal transcend time, space, nationality, or creed.  Conversely, any man-made, modern money systems which attempt to mimic gold exact an exhaustive dependence upon all acts of human cooperation; even so, the result of this ‘progress’ provides us with nothing more than the frustrating deferral of settlement and an ever-growing pile of broken promises.

Those who argue that gold monetary systems are antiquated relics of an ante-technological, ante-digital era should reconsider their position. To anchor a ledger to physical gold requires minimal effort compared to fiat or cryptocurrencies. Therefore, as we have argued, governments have ceased to do this for fiscal reasons, rather than because of any limitations intrinsic to gold or any advantages intrinsic to modern moneys.

The only obstacle standing between mankind and the implementation of a gold monetary standard today is that governments must make the decision to transparently reserve a unit of money in circulation to a weight of gold. This is the truth of the matter, not the truism. It is a truth which I believe, in our lifetime, will be rediscovered.

It will only require one nation, one leader, one society to make this decision, a decision which will profoundly impact its citizens and their relative prosperity, and which will reshape the course of geopolitical history in the years to come. The golden road remains constant, for it is permanently paved by the hand of God within the natural world. No matter how many alternative roads man chooses to build, the golden road is always available to be taken.

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