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Driverless Money by George Selgin

Last week I was contemplating a post having to do with driverless cars when, wouldn’t you know it, I received word that the Bank of England had just started a new blog called Bank Underground, and the first substantive post on it had to do with — you guessed it — driverless cars.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried that Bank Underground had stolen my fire. The post, you see, was written by some employees in the Bank of England’s General Insurance Supervision Division, whose concern was that driverless cars might be bad news for the insurance industry.

The problem, as the Bank of England’s experts see it, is that cars like the ones that Google plans to introduce in 2020 are much better drivers than we humans happen to be — so much better, according to research cited in the post, that “the entire basis of motor insurance, which mainly exists because people crash, could … be upended.”

Driverless cars, therefore, threaten to “wipe out traditional motor insurance.”

It is, of course, a great relief to know that the Bank of England’s experts are keeping a sharp eye out for such threats to the insurance industry. (I suppose they must be working as we speak on some plan for addressing the dire possibility — let us hope it never comes to this — that cancer and other diseases will eventually be eradicated.)

But my own interest in driverless cars is rather different. So far as I’m concerned, the advent of such cars should have us all wondering, not about the future of the insurance industry, but about the future of…the Bank of England, or rather of it and all other central banks.

If driverless cars can upend “the entire basis of motor insurance,” then surely, I should think, an automatic or “driverless” monetary system ought to be capable of upending “the entire basis of monetary policy,” as such policy is presently conducted.

And that, so far as I’m concerned, would be a jolly good thing.

Am I drifting into science fiction? Let’s put matters in perspective. Although experiments involving driverless or “autonomous” cars have been going on for decades, until as recently as one decade ago, the suggestion that such cars would soon be, not only safe enough to replace conventional ones, but far safer, would have struck many people as fantastic.

Consider for a moment the vast array of contingencies such a vehicle must be capable of taking into account in order to avoid accidents and get passengers to some desired destination. Besides having to determine correct routes, follow their many twists and turns, obey traffic signals, and parallel park, they have to be capable of evading all sorts of unpredictable hazards, including other errant vehicles, not to mention jaywalkers and such.

The relevant variables are, in fact, innumerable. Yet using a combination of devices tech wizards have managed to overcome almost every hurdle, and will soon have overcome the few that remain.

All of this would be impressive enough even if human beings were excellent drivers. In fact, they are often very poor drivers indeed, which means that driverless cars are capable, not only of being just as good, but of being far better —  90 percent better, to be precise, since that’s the percentage of all car accidents attributable to human error.

Human beings are bad drivers for all sorts of reasons. They have to perform other tasks that take their mind off the road; their vision is sometimes impaired; they misjudge their own driving capabilities or the workings of their machines; some are sometimes inclined to show off, while others are dangerously timid. Occasionally, instead of relying on their wits, they drive “under the influence.”

Central bankers, being human, suffer from similar human foibles. They are distracted by the back-seat ululations of commercial bankers, exporters, finance ministers, and union leaders, among others. Their vision is at the same time both cloudy and subject to myopia.

Finally, few if any are able to escape altogether the disorienting influence of politics. The history of central banking is, by and large, a history of accidents, if not of tragic accidents, stemming from these and other sorts of human error.

It should not be so difficult, then, to imagine that a “driverless” monetary system might spare humanity such accidents, by guiding monetary policy more responsibly than human beings are capable of doing.

How complicated a challenge is this? Is it really more complicated than that involved in, say, driving from San Francisco to New York? Central bankers themselves like to think so, of course — just as most of us still like to believe that we are better drivers than any computer.

But let’s be reasonable. At bottom central bankers, in their monetary policy deliberations, have to make a decision concerning one thing, and one thing only: should they acquire or sell assets, and how many, or should they do neither?

Unlike a car, which has numerous controls — a steering wheel, signal lights, brakes, and an accelerator — a central bank has basically one, consisting of the instrument with which it adjusts the rate at which assets flow into or out of its balance sheet. Pretty simple.

And the flow itself? Here, to be sure, things get more complicated. What “target” should the central bank have in mind in determining the flow? Should it consist of a single variable, like the inflation rate, or of two or more variables, like inflation and unemployment? But the apparent complexity is, in my humble opinion, a result of confusion on monetary economists’ part, rather than of any genuine trade-offs central bankers face.

As Scott Sumner has been indefatigably arguing for some years now (and as I myself have long maintained), sound monetary policy isn’t a matter of having either a constant rate of inflation or any particular level of either employment or real output. It’s a matter of securing a stable flow of spending, or Nominal GNP, while leaving it to the marketplace to determine how that flow breaks down into separate real output and inflation-rate components.

Scott would have NGDP grow at an annual rate of 4-5 percent; I would be more comfortable with a rate of 2-3 percent. But this number is far less important to the achievement of macroeconomic stability than a commitment to keeping the rate — whatever it happens to be — stable and, therefore, predictable.

So: one goal, and one control. That’s much simpler than driving from San Francisco to New York. Heck, it’s simpler than managing the twists and turns of San Franscisco’s Lombard Street.

And the technology? In principle, one could program a computer to manage the necessary asset purchases or sales. That idea itself is an old one, Milton Friedman having contemplated it almost forty years ago, when computers were still relatively rare.

What Friedman could not have imagined then was a protocol like the one that controls the supply of bitcoins, which has the distinct advantage of being, not only automatic, but tamper-proof: once set going, no-one can easily alter it. The advantage of a bitcoin-style driverless monetary system is that it is, not only capable of steering itself, but incapable of being hijacked.

The bitcoin protocol itself allows the stock of bitcoins to grow at a predetermined and ever-diminishing rate, so that the stock of bitcoins will cease to grow as it approaches a limit of 21 million coins.

But all sorts of protocols may be possible, including ones that would adjust a currency’s supply growth according to its velocity — that is, the rate at which the currency is being spent — so as to maintain a steady flow of spending, à la Sumner. The growth rate could even be made to depend on market-based indicators of the likely future value of NGDP.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t any challenges yet to be overcome in designing a reliable “driverless money.” For one thing, the monetary system as a whole has to be functioning properly: just as a driverless car won’t work if the steering linkage is broken, a driverless monetary system won’t work if it’s so badly tuned that banks end up just sitting on any fresh reserves that come their way.

My point is rather that there’s no good reason for supposing that such challenges are any more insuperable than those against which the designers of driverless cars have prevailed. If driverless car technology has managed to take on San Francisco’s Lombard Street, I see no reason why driverless money technology couldn’t eventually tackle London’s.

What’s more, there is every reason to believe that driverless money would, if given a chance, prove to be far more beneficial to mankind than driverless cars ever will.

For although bad drivers cause plenty of accidents, none has yet managed to wreck an entire economy, as reckless central bankers have sometimes done. If driverless monetary systems merely served to avoid the worst macroeconomic pileups, that alone would be reason enough to favor them.

But they can surely do much better than that. Who knows: perhaps the day will come when, thanks to improvements in driverless monetary technology, central bankers will find themselves with nothing better to do than worry about the future of the hedge fund industry.

Cross-posted from Alt-M.org and Cato.org.

George Selgin

Venezuela Hits 510% Inflation by Steve Hanke

Venezuela’s bolivar is collapsing. And as night follows day, Venezuela’s annual implied inflation rate is soaring. Last week, the annual inflation rate broke through the 500% level. It now stands at 510%.

With free market exchange-rate data (usually black-market data), the real inflation rate can be calculated. The principle of purchasing power parity (PPP), which links changes in exchange rates and changes in prices, allows for a reliable inflation estimate.

Using black-market exchange rate data that The Johns Hopkins-Cato Institute Troubled Currencies Project has collected over the past year, I estimate Venezuela’s current annual implied inflation rate to be 510%. This is the highest rate in the world. It’s well above the second-highest rate: Syria’s, which stands at 84%.

Venezuela has not always experienced punishing inflation rates. From 1950 through 1979, Venezuela’s average annual inflation rate remained in the single digits.

It was not until the 1980s that Venezuela witnessed a double-digit average, and it was not until the 1990s that Venezuela’s average inflation rate exceeded that of the Latin American region.

Today, Venezuela’s inflation rate is over the top.

A version of this post first appeared at Cato.org.

More on the Venezuelan Collapse


Steve H. Hanke

Steve H. Hanke is a Professor of Applied Economics and Co-Director of the Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Rome: Money, Mischief, and Minted Crises by Marc Hyden & Lawrence W. Reed

Ancient Rome wasn’t built in a day, the old adage goes. It wasn’t torn down in a day either, but a good measure of its long decline to oblivion was the government’s bad habit of chipping away at the value of its own currency.

In this essay we refer to “inflation,” but in its classical sense — an increase in the supply of money in excess of the demand for money. The modern-day subversion of the term to mean rising prices, which are one key effect of inflation but not the inflation itself, only confuses the matter and points away from the real culprit, the powers in charge of the money supply.

In Rome’s day, before the invention of the printing press, money was gold and silver coin. When Roman emperors needed revenue, they did more than just tax a lot; like most governments today, they also debased the money. Think of the major difference between Federal Reserve inflation and ancient Roman inflation this way: We print, they mint(ed). The long-term effects were the same—higher prices, erosion of savings and confidence, booms and busts, and more. Here’s the Roman story.

Augustus (reigned 27 BC – 14 AD), Rome’s first real emperor, worked to establish a standardized system of coinage for the empire, building off of the Roman Republic’s policies. The silver denarius became the “link coin” to which other baser and fractional coins could be exchanged and measured. Augustus set the weight of the denarius at 84 coins to the pound and around 98 percent silver. Coins, which had only been sporadically used to pay for state expenditures in the earlier Republic, became the currency for everyday citizens and accepted as payment for commerce and even taxation in the later Republic and into the imperial period.

Historian Max Shapiro, in his 1980 book, The Penniless Billionaires, pieces various sources together to conclude that “the volume of money he (Augustus) issued in the two decades between 27 BC and 6 AD was more than ten times the amount issued by his predecessors in the twenty years before.” The easy money stimulated a temporary boom, leading inevitably to price hikes and eventual retrenchment. Wheat and pork prices doubled, real estate rose at first by more than 150 percent. When money creation was slowed (late in Augustus’s reign and even more for a time under that of his successor, Tiberius), the house of cards came tumbling down. Prices stabilized but at the cost of recession and unemployment.

The integrity of the monetary system would remain intact until the reign of Emperor Nero (54-68 AD). He is better known for murdering his mother, preferring the arts to civic administration, and persecuting the Christians, but he was also the first to debase the standard set by Augustus. By 64 AD, he drained the Roman reserves because of the Great Fire of Rome and his profligate spending (including a gaudy palace). He reduced the weight of the denarius to 96 coins per pound and its silver content to 93 percent, which was the first debasement of this magnitude in over 250 years. This led to inflation and temporarily shook the confidence of the Roman citizenry.

Many successive emperors incrementally lowered the denarius’s silver content until the philosopher-emperor, Marcus Aurelius (reigned 161-180 AD), further debased the denarius to 79 percent silver to pay for constant wars and increased expenses. This was the most impure standard set for the denarius up to this point in Roman history, but the trend would continue. Aurelius’ son Commodus(reigned 177-192 AD), a gladiatorial wannabe, was likewise a spendthrift. He followed the footsteps of his forebears and reduced the denarius to 104 coins to the pound and only 74 percent silver.

Every debasement pushed prices higher and gradually chipped away at the public faith in the Roman monetary system. The degradation of the money and increased minting of coins provided short-term relief for the state until merchants, legionaries, and market forces realized what had happened. Under Emperor Septimius Severus’ administration (reigned 193-211 AD), more soldiers began demanding bonuses to be paid in gold or in commodities to circumvent the increasingly diminished denarius. Severus’ son, Caracalla (reigned 198-217 AD), while remembered for his bloody massacres, killing his brother, and being assassinated while relieving himself, advanced the policy of debasement until he lowered the denarius to nearly 50 percent silver to pay for the Roman war machine and his grand building projects.

Other emperors, including Pertinax and Macrinus, attempted to put Rome back on solid footing by increasing the silver content or by reforming the system, but often when one emperor improved the denarius, a competitor would outbid them for the army’s loyalty, destroying any progress and often replacing the emperor. Eventually, the sun set on the silver denarius as Rome’s youngest sole emperor, Gordian III (238-244 AD), essentially replaced it with its competitor, the antoninianus.

However, by the reign of the barbarian-born Emperor Claudius II (reigned 268-270 AD), remembered for his military prowess and punching a horse’s teeth out, the antoninianus was reduced to a lighter coin that was less than two percent silver. The aurelianianus eventually replaced the antoninianus, and the nummus replaced the aurelianianus. By 341 AD, Emperor Constans I (reigned 337-350 AD) diminished the nummus to only 0.4 percent silver and 196 coins per pound. The Roman monetary system had long crashed and price inflation had been spiraling out of control for generations.

Attempts were made to create new coins similar to the Neronian standard in smaller quantities and to devise a new monetary system, but the public confidence was shattered. Emperor Diocletian (reigned 284-305 AD) is widely known for conducting the largest Roman persecution of Christians, but he also reformed the military, government, and monetary system. He expanded and standardized a program, the annona militaris, which essentially bypassed the state currency. Many Romans were now taxed and legionaries paid in-kind (with commodities).

Increasingly, Romans bartered in the marketplace instead of exchanging state coins. Some communities even created a “ghost currency,” a nonexistent medium to accurately describe the cost and worth of a product because of runaway inflation and the volatility of worthless money. Diocletian approved a policy which led to the gold standard replacing the silver standard. This process progressed into the reign of Rome’s first Christian emperor, Constantine (reigned 306-337 AD), until Roman currency began to temporarily resemble stability.

But Diocletian did something else, and it yielded widespread ruin from which the Empire never fully recovered. In the year 301 AD, to combat the soaring hyperinflation in prices, he issued his famous “Edict of 301,” which imposed comprehensive wage and price controls under penalty of death. The system of production, already assaulted by confiscatory taxes and harsh regulations as well as the derangement of the currency, collapsed. When a successor abandoned the controls a decade or so later, the Roman economy was in tatters.

The two largest expenditures in the Roman Empire were the army, which peaked at between 300,000-600,000 soldiers, and subsidized grain for around 1/3 of the city of Rome. The empire’s costs gradually increased over time as did the need for bribing political enemies, granting donatives to appease the army, purchasing allies through tributes, and the extravagance of Roman emperors. Revenues declined in part because many mines were exhausted, wars brought less booty into the empire, and farming decreased due to barbarian incursions, wars, and increased taxation. To meet these demands Roman leaders repeatedly debased the silver coins, increasingly minted more money, and raised taxes at the same time.

In a period of about 370 years, the denarius and its successors were debased incrementally from 98 percent to less than one percent silver. The massive spending of the welfare/warfare state exacted a terrible toll in the name of either “helping” Romans or making war on non-Romans. Financial and military crises mixed with poor leadership, expediency, and a clear misunderstanding of economic principles led to the destruction Rome’s monetary system.

Honest and transparent policies could have saved the Romans from centuries of economic hardships. The question future historians will answer when they look back on our period is, “What did the Americans learn from the Roman experience?”

(For more on lessons from ancient Rome, visit www.fee.org/rome).

Marc Hyden is a political activist and an amateur Roman historian. Lawrence W. Reed is President of the Foundation for Economic Education.

Marc Hyden

Marc Hyden is a conservative political activist and an amateur Roman historian.

Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s.

Bitcoin Technology: A Festival of the Commons

Open-source currencies create new property paradigms by ANDREAS ANTONOPOULOS:

Open-source technologies such as bitcoin are a combination of open-source software, common technology standards, and a participatory decentralized network. These layers create a three-tiered commons where innovation contributed by users adds to the common platform, which makes it better for everyone.

But for the last few hundred years, we have generally thought of goods as best belonging to the private domain. Consider that, in economic terms, the “tragedy of the commons” is a market-failure scenario where a shared public good is overexploited. In this scenario, each user has an incentive to maximize his or her own use until the good is depleted.

The example used to illustrate this economic theory is a grassland (a “village commons” in British English) that is unregulated and overgrazed by cattle until it deteriorates to a muddy field. The tragedy of the commons occurs when individual self-interest combined with a large economic externality (the cost to the commons) create a market failure for all.

The opposite of the tragedy of the commons is called a “comedy of the commons,” but I prefer to use the term “festival of the commons,” which conjures a better visual example: a grassland used to hold a community festival that benefits everyone. The comedy of the commons was first stipulated as an economic theory governing public goods such as knowledge, where individual use of the common good does not deplete the good but instead adds to it.

The sharing economy, which consists of open-source software (for example, Linux), participatory publishing (Wikipedia), and participatory networks (BitTorrent), creates conditions where increased participation adds to the good’s underlying value and benefits all participants. In such cases, the underlying good is knowledge, software, or a network, and its availability is not depleted by individual use.

Software applications are themselves open-sourced and add to the commons, offering new capabilities for all subsequent innovators. Enhancements to the protocol bring new features across the entire network, allowing the ecosystem to build new services around them. Finally, as more users adopt the technology and add their resources to the P2P network, the scalability and security of the entire network increases.

Open-source currencies have another layer that multiplies these underlying effects: the currency itself. Not only is the investment in infrastructure and innovation shared by all, but the shared benefit may also manifest in increased value for the common currency. Currency is the quintessential shared good, because its value correlates strongly to the economic activity that it enables. In simple terms, a currency is valuable because many people use it, and the more who use it, the more valuable it becomes. Unlike national currencies, which are generally restricted to use within a country’s borders, digital currencies like bitcoin are global and can therefore be readily adopted and used by almost any user who is part of the networked global society.

The underlying festival-of-the-commons effect created by open-source software, shared protocols, and P2P networks feeds into the value of the overlaid shared currency. While this effect may be obscured in the early stages of adoption by speculation and high volatility, in the long run, it may create a virtuous cycle of adoption and value that become a true festival of the commons.

The festival is now open. Who will join it?

ABOUT ANDREAS ANTONOPOULOS

Andreas M. Antonopoulos is a technologist and serial entrepreneur who advises companies on the use of technology and decentralized digital currencies such as bitcoin.