AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES RICKARDS
Octavian Report: Could you take us through what you see happening to the monetary system?
James Rickards: The dollar, the yen, the euro — all are forms of money. I would say gold is a form of money. Bitcoin is a form of money. In times past, feathers and clam shells have been money. One of the criticisms of many modern forms of money, of central bank money and Bitcoin in particular, is that they are not backed by anything.
I make the point — and I’m not the first one to say this, I actually learned this from Paul Volcker — that it is backed by one thing, which is confidence. Meaning if we have confidence that something is money, then it’s money. If you and I think something’s money, and you’re willing to take it from me in exchange for goods and services, and furthermore you believe that you can give it to someone else in exchange for goods and services and make investments, then it’s money. It functions as money. But the problem with confidence is that it’s fine as long as it lasts, but it’s very fragile and it’s very easily lost. Once it’s lost, it’s impossible to get back, or at least extremely difficult to get back.
When I talk about the collapse of the international monetary system, people think I must be an apocalyptic doom-and-gloomer. End of the world, we’re all going to be living in caves, eating canned goods. I say no, not at all. I don’t think it’s the end of the world, I just think it’s the end of a system that has in fact collapsed three times in the past 100 years. There’s nothing unusual about breakdowns in the international monetary system. When it happens, the major trading financial powers get together, sit around a table, and rewrite what they call the rules of the game. “Rules of the game” is actually a phrase, a term of art in international finance, for the operating system (just to use modern jargon) of the international monetary system.
All I’m doing is looking at the system dynamics. It’s very easy to see the collapse coming based on that, and then ask the question: when the collapse comes, what will the new system look like? That is, what will it look like after the next Bretton Woods, or the next Smithsonian agreement, or for that matter Genoa in 1922? The next time the powers sit around the table, what deal will they come up with? Then I work backwards from that to today, and ask: what can I or should I do with my portfolio now to prepare for this new deal?
That’s the scenario. Now, I have the view that basically all the central-bank models, all the risk-management models used on Wall Street and in capital markets around the world are obsolete. There are much better tools available today. The three that I use most frequently — not the only three — are complexity theory, behavioral psychology, and causal inference. Causal inference also goes by the name inverse probability, and it’s also known as Bayes’ theorem. Three branches of science: one’s physics, one’s applied mathematics, and one’s social-psychological. That’s my tool kit, along with some other things.
Using those tools, it’s very easy to see the collapse coming for two reasons. One, in complex systems — and I would make the case that capital markets are complex systems nonpareil — the worst thing that you can have happen is an exponential function of scale. Meaning that as you scale up the system, you don’t increase the risk in a linear way, you increase it in an exponential way. To take a simple example, let’s say that J.P. Morgan tripled the gross notional value of its derivatives. You go to Jamie Dimon and say, “Okay, Mr. Dimon, you tripled your balance sheet. How much did the risk go up?” He would say: “Yeah, we tripled the balance sheet, but it’s long, short, long, short, long, short. The longs offset the shorts. You net it down, the actual risk is quite small relative to the gross notional value. That’s not the way to think about it. We tripled the balance sheet, but the risk went up a little bit.”
If you ask the everyday citizen, they would probably use intuition and say, “Well, if you tripled the balance sheet, sounds like you tripled the risk.” The correct answer is that Jamie Dimon’s wrong, and the everyday citizen using intuition is wrong. The correct answer is if you triple the scale of the system, you increase the risk by a factor of 10 or 100, some X-factor based on the slope of the curve, which is a power curve. It’s basically the degree, the distribution of severity and frequency of risk.
You go back to 2008: what did we hear about? Too big to fail, too big to fail, too big to fail. Today, the five largest banks in the United States are bigger than they were in 2008. They have a larger percentage of all the banking assets, and their derivative books are much bigger. Everything that was too big to fail in 2008 is much bigger today. Given the exponential function I just described, the risk is exponentially greater than 2008. Whatever you saw in 2008, get ready. A much bigger collapse is coming. Probably sooner than later.
I was general counsel of Long-Term Capital Management. I negotiated their bailout, so I had a front row seat for that. I was on the phone with the heads of the major banks. Jon Corzine at Goldman Sachs, Sandy Warner at J.P. Morgan, David Komansky at Merrill Lynch, Herb Allison and others, and Bill McDonough and Gary Gensler from the Treasury in Washington. I basically negotiated that bailout and saw exactly how close the global system came to complete collapse. We were hours away from shutting every stock and bond exchange in the world. Literally hours away, and the bailout got done. Four billion dollars changed hands. The balance sheet was supported. A press release was issued and the crisis passed. But it was extremely close, and not a foregone conclusion at all that we could get that done.
Having witnessed that, and knowing the team at LTCM — we had sixteen Ph.D.s from MIT, Harvard, Chicago, Stanford, and Yale, and two Nobel Prize winners — I said, well, if the smartest people in the world in this field with 160-plus IQ’s can get it that badly wrong, they must be missing something. There must be something wrong with the theory, because they’re not stupid. Nobody likes to lose their own money, so there must be something wrong with the theory.
I spent the next 10 years working on this, about five years figuring out what was wrong, where the flaws were, and another five years figuring out what actually works to remedy them. I refined my models enough that in 2005 and 2006 I was warning people that a collapse was coming again. That it would be worse.
Now, I didn’t say, Bear Stearns’ hedge fund is going to fail at the end of July 2007. I didn’t say that Lehman Brothers was going to collapse in mid-September 2008. It wasn’t necessary. It was sufficient to say that the collapse was coming because none of the lessons of 1998 had been learned. I’m in the same state today: the lessons of 2008 have not been learned. I’m watching the dynamics, I’m watching it play out, and you can see the next collapse coming. Here’s the tempo. In 1998, Wall Street bailed out a hedge fund to save the world. In 2008, central banks bailed out Wall Street to save the world. Move forward 10 years — let’s say 2018, to pick a number — and who’s going to bail out the central banks? Each bailout gets bigger than the one before. Each collapse is bigger than the one before, which is exactly what complexity theory would forecast based on the scaling metrics and the dynamics I described.
So who bails out the central banks? There’s only one clean balance sheet left in the world. There’s only one source of liquidity. After all, the Fed took their balance sheet from $800 billion approximately in 2008 to a little over $4 trillion dollars today. The problem is they haven’t normalized. Now that the crisis is long over, they haven’t gone back to the $800-billion-dollar level, which would be a more normal balance sheet. They stayed at $4 trillion; they’re stuck there. They’re not doing more QE, but they are rolling over what they have and they can’t reduce the size of the balance sheet.
What are they going to do in the next crisis? Go to $8 trillion? To $12 trillion? What is the outer boundary of how much money they can actually print? Legally, there is no boundary. They could actually print $12 trillion if they wanted to. At some point, however, you cross this intangible, invisible confidence boundary that I described earlier — and that goes back to the original problem of confidence in any form of money. And all the other central banks are in the same situation. The People’s Bank of China, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank. It’s not unique to the U.S. If the central banks don’t have the wherewithal to liquefy the world in the next panic, and if the next panic is coming and you can see it a mile away, where will the liquidity come from? There’s only one source of liquidity left in the world, which is the IMF. They can print world money, which are the special drawing rights or SDRs.
When you get to the endgame, they’re going to have to print trillions of SDRs (each SDR is worth about $1.50) to re-liquefy the world in a global financial panic. Will that work? In theory it could work, but I expect if it works, it will only be because nobody understands it, like something’s happening and, as Bob Dylan sang in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Something’s happening here and you don’t know what it is.” At best, it will be highly inflationary.
Now, maybe it won’t work. Maybe people will say, “I’ve lost confidence in Federal Reserve money and European Central Bank money and Bank of Japan money. Why should I have any more confidence in IMF money? It’s just another form of currency, and I’ve lost confidence in all of them and I’m going to go get some gold.” If that actually happens, the world may have to go to a gold standard. Now, I guarantee there’s not a central bank in the world that wants a gold standard. They may have to go to one, not because they want to, but because they have no choice, because it’s the only way to restore confidence. That raises an interesting question: if you go to a gold standard, what’s the price of gold? I talk about this in The New Case for Gold, about the blunder of 1925 with Churchill taking the U.K. back to a gold standard at a price that Keynes warned him was deflationary. Keynes didn’t favor a gold standard at the time. He did in 1944 and he did in 1914. He didn’t in 1925, but he did tell Churchill if you’re going to do this, you need a much higher price to avoid deflation. Churchill ignored him and threw the U.K. into a depression.
So question is: what is the implied non-deflationary price of gold today? I’ll use M1 of China, U.S., and the ECB, just as a frame. The answer’s $10,000 now if you have 40 percent backing — and over $50,000 if you have 100 percent backing of M2, which is a broader money supply. I don’t think you have to use M2. I don’t think you need 100 percent. It’s a judgement that’s debatable. But even on the modest assumptions of M1 using 40 percent backing, gold would have to be $10,000 an ounce to support the money supply. You may or may not have a gold standard, but if you do gold will be $10,000 an ounce.
Now, if you don’t, if the SDR thing actually works, gold will get to $10,000 an ounce the other way, which is inflation. Gold is going to shoot much higher. In the SDR scenario it will shoot much higher because of inflation, and in the gold-standard scenario it will shoot much higher because it has to, to avoid deflation. It’s not really the price of gold going up, it’s the devaluation of the paper currency. It’s the same thing. The dollar price of gold is just the inverse of the value of the dollar.
OR: Why do you say gold has to be part of a new system? What do you say to the people who think it’s an anachronism?
Rickards: The flaw in that — and I think this is one of the biggest problems today, and certainly an issue with everyone from Milton Friedman to Janet Yellen — is that they take confidence for granted. If you assume that confidence in paper money is infinitely elastic, then there’s no reason why the money supply cannot be infinitely elastic.
There are a lot of gold bashers out there who will be very quick to tell you that gold’s a barbarous relic, blah blah blah. But there are some more thoughtful people out there, among whom I would include Stephanie Kelton, Warren Mosler, Richard Duncan, and others. They’re all different, but they’re smart people. I’ve met a lot of them. Paul McCulley, formerly of PIMCO and a close associate of Bill Gross. They call themselves modern monetary theorists.
I think Adair Turner is coming out this way in his new book, Between Debt and the Devil, and even Larry Summers in some ways. What they’re saying is that there’s nothing you cannot print yourself out of. You get too much deflation? Print more money. Deflation won’t go away? Print more. People won’t spend? The government can spend. Maybe you cannot force people to spend it, but the government loves to spend money, they know how to do that really well. If it increases the deficit, so what? Just issue more debt to cover the deficit, and if people don’t want your debt, the central bank can buy it. Don’t worry about paying it back because the central bank can convert the treasury bonds into perpetual bonds. The whole thing just goes away. You don’t have to worry about the national debt — the Fed can just buy the whole $19 trillion of it, sock it away on their balance sheet, make it a perpetual note, and go play golf. What’s the problem?
This is sometimes called “helicopter money.” It’s called “people’s QE” by Jeremy Corbyn, it’s called “fiscal dominance” by Rick Mishkin. It has different names, but it always says the same thing: there’s no outer boundary on how much money you can print, so what’s the problem?
My thesis — and here I’ll flip over to the behavioral-psychology side a little bit — is that it’s not a problem until it is. In other words, confidence can be sustained until it can’t. You can lose this very quickly, so I don’t believe that confidence is infinitely elastic. There’s nothing in human nature or history that says that. If you’re relying on confidence to say that money can be infinitely elastic, then you’re wrong. The concern is that the elites will go down this road — having been wrong about the wealth effect, about QE1, QE2, and QE3, about Operation Twist — and then they’ll somehow wake up and see they’re wrong again. But they’ll find out the hard way because confidence in the entire system will collapse. At which point, your only two remedies are SDRs and gold.
OR: What’s your take on central banks and gold?
Rickards: With regard to central banks and gold, I always say watch what they do, not what they say. If the U.S. has a budget problem, and we’re sitting on about $380 billion in gold, why don’t you just sell the gold and get some money? That’s what Canada did. That’s what the U.K. did. Why are we hanging onto it?
The question answers itself. Obviously, it has some value. Obviously, it has some role in the monetary system. In my book, I write about a discovery I made — one of those discoveries that’s hiding in plain sight. I had been working on a thesis that the Fed is, at least on occasion, insolvent. My basis for that was to look at the Fed’s balance sheet. They’re leveraged today about 113 to one. That’s unheard of. I’ve been in the hedge-fund business, I’ve been in the investment-banking business, I’ve been in the banking business for decades. Banks leverage maybe 12 to one, broker-dealers and investment banks leverage maybe 15 to one, a hedge fund will lever two or three to one (although that’s getting a little risky). Even Long-Term Capital Management was never leveraged more than 20 to one, and we were very aggressive about leverage. 113 to one is way, way off the charts.
Now, just to be clear, the Fed does not mark its value sheet to market. My thought experiment is: what if they did? There’s a lot of data out there about the composition of the bond holdings of the Fed, particularly those held at the New York Fed. It’s not difficult to get that information, to do some bond math, and mark it to market. Doing that, I discovered that they were in fact insolvent at various times along the way. I had this conversation with several Fed officials. One member of the board of governors, another individual who was not a member of the board, but a very, very close advisor to Bernanke and Yellen, a true insider, a Ph.D. economist, a friend of mine. I was able to have this conversation with him. Interestingly, the member of the board of governors more or less conceded my point, but her rejoinder was, “Well, maybe we’re insolvent, but it doesn’t matter.” In other words, central banks don’t need capital. That’s a point of view.
The other conversation was with the insider: he was adamant that they’ve never been insolvent, ever. Regardless of bond-market moves. He wouldn’t tell me why, so I got to thinking about it. I went back to the balance sheet to see what I was missing. And lo and behold, there was this gold item valued at $42 an ounce. I said, “Well I should mark that to market. If I’m going to mark the bonds to market, I need to mark the gold to market.”
Now, as I was doing this I noticed a couple things. The Fed’s gold holdings are approximately 8,000 tons exactly. Close to exactly the amount held by the U.S. Treasury. In intelligence work, the first rule is there are no coincidences, and this non-coincidence explains why the Treasury stopped selling gold in 1980. Bven as late as the late 70’s, the Treasury was still dumping gold to suppress the price. That’s not speculation; there’s declassified correspondence among President Ford, Henry Kissinger, Arthur Burns, and the Chancellor of Germany that lays this out. The Treasury was actually dumping thousands of tons of gold in the late 1970s, but then in 1980 it just stopped on a dime. The U.S. has sold almost no gold since. Instead, we got everyone else to dump their gold. We got the U.K. to dump six hundred tons in the beginning of 1999. We got Switzerland to dump over a thousand tons in the early 2000s. We got the IMF to dump four hundred tons in 2010. The U.S. has been prevailing upon all these other people to sell their gold, but we won’t sell any ourselves. Why? They can’t. The Treasury has to hold the gold they’ve got in order to honor, on legal and constitutional grounds, the certificate held by the Fed. This was received in exchange for the gold (with an explicit guarantee that the gold was there to backstop the Fed’s balance sheet).
So I was wrong the first time. The Fed has never been insolvent; my insider friend was correct. The reason I was wrong was not because of the bond portfolio, which would have made them insolvent, but because of the gold, which adds about $350 billion to the balance sheet. When you add that to capital on a mark-to-market basis, the leverage ratio drops from 113 to one to about 13 to one, which is pretty healthy for a normal bank. On top of everything else we’re discussing, you find that the Federal Reserve has a hidden asset, which is the value of gold, and that it’s well capitalized — if you count the gold. What does it mean when central bankers and public officials disparage gold, tell you it’s an anachronism, tell you it’s a tradition, tell you it’s a barbarous relic, tell you that you’re a fool to own it — and yet they themselves are propped up and made solvent by gold?
OR: More and more physical gold is leaving the tradable system as China and Russia stockpile it, yet huge derivatives are still being written on it. Can you talk about that disconnect?
Rickards: Well, there is a world of paper gold and there’s a world of physical gold. Now, paper gold to me is not paper gold. It’s paper, but it references the price of gold. There’s not going to be any actual large difference between the paper price and the physical price quoted whether it’s in London or Beijing, because of the arbitrages.
I just recently returned from Switzerland where I met with the head of the country’s biggest gold refinery, who told me that he’s seeing severe shortages in supply. This guy, he knows who all the big sellers are, he knows who all the big buyers are because he’s the biggest gold refiner and he takes it in and ships it out. He knows who all the players are and this is, again, in the physical world. He said that with regard to his selling side, he has more demand than he can handle. He’s sending the Chinese 10 tons a week; they want 20 tons. He won’t provide it because he doesn’t have that much gold and he has other customers to take care of.
The physical shortages are already showing up and they’re getting worse. I’ve heard similar things from wholesale dealers — people who deal directly with London Bullion Market Association members and Comex-approved warehouses. These are the large holders of gold in the world, and they are saying that it is taking longer and longer to fill deliveries. The supply situation is stretched and probably about to break.
Meanwhile, the paper gold market continues to expand with 100-to-one leverage. Warehouses continue to get drawn down, contracts continue to be written. You have a very, very large inverted pyramid, with a broad base of paper gold on top and a tiny sliver of physical gold supporting the whole thing. It’s becoming wobbly, and it’s about to tip over.
Any break in that market — coming back to the issue of confidence — would lead directly to what I would call the mother of all short squeezes and a buying panic. What would I mean by a break? Well, most likely a failure to deliver. Suppose some dealer, some large bank, some exchange, some intermediary somewhere has sold a lot of paper gold and has been called upon by the buyers to deliver. They say, “I don’t want to roll over my contract, I don’t want cash settlement, I want the gold, please. Give me the gold.”
They’re not going to be able to get it. That failure will become public, because it always does, and will create a crisis of confidence. Everyone will run down to their dealers, their exchanges, and their brokers all at once and say, “Give me my gold!” They’ll then discover that there’s only about one percent of what’s needed to fulfill that demand, and there’s nowhere near enough gold in the world at anything close to today’s prices (even if you could find it, which you probably will not be able to) to satisfy those contracts.
What would happen next? The answer is that, since you cannot deliver the gold, you’re going to have to terminate the contract, and it will come as a surprise to a lot of paper gold buyers that such terminations are totally legal. If you actually read the contracts gold buyers sign you’ll find what are called force majeure clauses or material adverse change clauses, meaning gold exchanges have the power to suspend delivery. There’s also what’s called trading for liquidation only, which means you can roll over your contract or close it out, but you cannot take delivery. They have emergency powers to do, really, whatever they want to maintain orderly markets. So what they’ll do is they’ll terminate all these contracts using these contractual and governance provisions. They won’t steal your money, they’ll send you a cash settlement for yesterday’s price. But meanwhile the price of gold today will be going up $200, $300, $400, $500 an ounce. Day after day you’ll be sitting there, watching the exact hyperbolic price movements that were the reason you bought the gold in the first place — and you will not be participating in them.
You will be closed out at exactly the time when you most want the contract. That always happens. That’s the conditional correlation effect. The time you most want it is the time you won’t have it, because it doesn’t work for the other guy. They close you out, send you a check for yesterday’s price, and you’ll miss the move. And by the way, even if you want to jump back in, you won’t be able to buy any. Dealers will be sold out, mints will be backlogged, refiners will be backlogged. They won’t even take your calls. That’s what my friend in Switzerland told me. He said if I didn’t know you and you weren’t already a customer, I wouldn’t take your call. I’m not taking any new business because I cannot supply it.
OR: Can you talk about the so-called war on cash and the potential confiscation of gold?
Rickards: The war on cash is over. The government won. We hear about the cashless society and I think Sweden may be the first to get there. Others are considering it. Larry Summers writes an op-ed on abolishing the 100-dollar bill, and there’s a movement in Europe to get rid of the 500-euro note, so there are a lot of significant legal and political trends against cash. It’s really irrelevant, because we don’t use cash anywhere. You might have a few bucks in your wallet, but people get their paychecks from direct deposit, they get their retirement checks from direct deposit, they pay their bills online, they use their credit cards, they use their debit cards, and there hasn’t been a paper Treasury security issue, I think, since the late 1970’s. The dollar is already a digital currency, and so are all the other major currencies.
To the extent we have any paper money at all, it’s a token. To the point where you buy a two-dollar candy bar, you don’t even reach in your pocket and get out a five, you just swipe your debit card. We already live in a world of digital currencies, with respect to the dollar, the major currencies.
People say, “Yeah, but it’s still legal. I can go down to the bank and get $10,000 or $20,000 and stick it in a safe to avoid negative interest rates or have it for an emergency.” They’re wrong. It’s not that easy. If you go actually do it, actually go down to the bank and ask them for $15,000 or $20,000, you will be treated like a drug dealer or a tax evader. Some banks will tell you to come back in a couple days, that they have to order the cash. There’ll be reams of paperwork to fill out. They’ll file a report with the Treasury.
People are kidding themselves about the ease with which they can get cash. They are locked into a digital system. The war on cash is over and the government won. That’s just the prelude to negative interest rates. It’s like slaughtering pigs: you don’t chase the pigs around a field. You get them into a pen and then you slaughter them. What’s happening with savers is that everyone’s being rounded up into one of four or five digital pens, i.e. Citi and J.P. Morgan and Wells Fargo, and they’re going to be led to the slaughterhouse of negative interest rates.
OR: Do you think we are seeing a currency war going on internationally at the moment?
Rickards: About currency wars, let me say I’m always amused when I see a journalist or someone write a story saying “Oh gee, there’s a currency war. Look at this. China’s weakening against the yen.” I make the point that the most recent currency war started in 2010. I talk about it in my book on the subject which came out in 2011. It’s the same currency war. Wars consist of many battles, wars are not continuous fighting all the time. There are big battles and little battles; there are quiet periods and then a new battle erupts. You have an occasional D-Day or Battle of the Bulge, but some episodes are more intense than others.
Currency wars are the same. There are quiet periods, but it’s the same war. What I call Currency War One lasted from 1921 to 1936. What I call Currency War Two lasted from 1967 to 1987. I make the point that the world is not always in a currency war, but when we are they can go on for a very long time because they have no logical conclusion. It’s just back and forth, with a race to the bottom via competitive devaluations. The only conclusion to a currency war is either systemic reform or systemic collapse. Either the system breaks down completely or people get together, as they did at the Plaza Hotel in 1985, to give the system some coherence.
I don’t see the leadership, I don’t see the giants today. I don’t see people like James Baker, Bob Rubin, George Schultz, or John Maynard Keynes. I don’t see people like that on the landscape. I see a lot of people not of that stature in positions of power. I don’t see any awareness that this collapse is coming. So given the two possible outcomes — systemic reform or systemic collapse — I think systemic collapse is the more likely. But we are in a currency war and have been since 2010. We will be perhaps until 2025. Unless the system collapses earlier, which is what I expect.
James Rickards is an investor and the bestselling author of The New Case for Gold, Currency Wars, and The Death of Money.
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On July 2, 2018, Reason and The Soho Forum hosted a debate between Erik Voorhees, the CEO of ShapeShift, and Peter Schiff, CEO and chief global strategist of Euro Pacific Capital. The proposition: “Bitcoin, or a similar form of cryptocurrency, will eventually replace governments’ fiat money as the preferred medium of exchange.”
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It was an Oxford-style debate in which the audience votes on the resolution at the beginning and end of the event, and the side that gains the most ground is victorious. Voorhees won by changing the minds of 15 percent of attendees.
The Soho Forum is held every month at the SubCulture Theater in Manhattan’s East Village. At the next debate, which will be held on August 27, William Easterly, professor of economics at NYU, and Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize Winner in economics and professor at Columbia, will discuss whether free markets or government action is the best way to eliminate global poverty. You can buy tickets here.
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Columbia Law School Scholarship Archive Faculty Scholarship Faculty Publications 2016 A “Barbar A “Barbarous Relic ous Relic”: The F “: The French, Gold, and the Demise of Br ench, Gold, and the Demise of Bretton Woods Michael J. Graetz Columbia Law School, firstname.lastname@example.org Olivia Briffault Follow this and additional works at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship Part of the International Law Commons, and the Law and Economics Commons Recommended Citation Michael J. Graetz & Olivia Briffault, A “Barbarous Relic”: The French, Gold, and the Demise of Bretton Woods, THE BRETTON WOODS AGREEMENTS, TOGETHER WITH SCHOLARLY COMMENTARIES AND ESSENTIAL HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS, NAOMI LAMOREAUX & IAN SHAPIRO, EDS., YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2019; YALE LAW & ECONOMICS RESEARCH PAPER NO. 558; COLUMBIA LAW & ECONOMICS WORKING PAPER NO. 560 (2016). Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/2541 This Working Paper is brought to you for free and open access by the Faculty Publications at Scholarship Archive. It has been accepted for inclusion in Faculty Scholarship by an authorized administrator of Scholarship Archive. For more information, please contact email@example.com. Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2827738 1 © 8/19/16 A “Barbarous Relic”: The French, Gold, and the Demise of Bretton Woods By Michael J. Graetz and Olivia Briffault By the time 730 delegates from 44 countries met at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in July 1944 to create a new post-war international financial order, two decades had passed since John Maynard Keynes had described the gold standard as a “barbarous relic.” But the French were never convinced: to them, gold was the key to international monetary stability and an essential paving stone for their path to global political prominence. The French attachment to gold dates back as far as the French Revolution. In 1789, the National Assembly began issuing “assignat” or paper money backed by the value of the properties that had been confiscated from the Catholic Church. Rampant inflation and illegal exchanges for old regime coins caused the assignat to depreciate quickly. In an attempt to combat this hyperinflation, Napoleon established official bimetallism in 1803 with the fixing of the ratio of silver to gold at 15:1/2:1. 1 The history of the assignat and the first major hyperinflation instilled in French politicians a fear of hyperinflation and a preoccupation with the stability of gold. 1 Michael Bordo and Finn Kydland, “The Gold Standard as a Rule,” Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland Working Papers 9205 (1992). Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2827738 2 By the end of the nineteenth century, not only France but also the United States and all the powers of Europe had adopted a gold standard that permitted people to convert their money into gold on demand. Gold served as the “nineteenth-century global monetary anchor.”2 Indeed, from the earliest use of bills and coins as money until August 1971 money was a claim on gold.3 On Sunday, August 15, 1971, at 9:00 p.m., Richard Nixon, the thirty-seventh president of the United States, announced what he called a “New Economic Policy.” Most of what he said described domestic economic policy changes designed to help ensure Nixon’s reelection the following year: income tax cuts for the middle-class and for businesses, elimination of an excise tax on automobiles, and most dramatically, a 90-day freeze on all U.S. wages and prices along with a new government agency (the Cost of Living Council) to maintain price stability after the freeze expired. Nixon also announced a ten-percent surcharge on all imports. Finally, in a move that, along with the import surcharge, produced shock and dismay around the world, Nixon announced that the United States, which had long been willing to exchange dollars for gold at the rate of $35 per ounce, would no longer do so routinely at any price.4 Beyond understanding that this meant the U.S. dollar would be devalued, especially against the Japanese yen and the German mark, no one knew exactly what Nixon’s “closing the gold window” implied. But it soon became clear that in a few short paragraphs the president had dismantled the existing international monetary system and abrogated the agreements of Bretton Woods, a key plank of which had required each country to maintain the exchange rate of its 2 Ibid., 81-83. 3 Benn Steil and Manuel Hinds, Money, Markets and Sovereignty (Cambridge: Yale University Press, 2010), 88. 4 Nixon’s speech on going off the gold standard is available at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=3115. See also Richard Nixon, Executive Order 116165 – Providing for Stabilization of Prices, Rents, Wages, and Salaries (August 15, 1971), http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=60492 and Proclamation 4074 – Imposition of Supplemental Duty for Balance of Payments Purposes (August 15, 1971), http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=107023. Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2827738 3 currency within one percent of a specified value of gold. What would follow, however, was unknown. The French knew what they wanted: a return to a gold standard with its price doubled. No topic sounds more grounded in economics than international monetary arrangements. But for the French—without denying the critical economic role of international currency relationships— international politics had long played a crucial role. To achieve its political and economic objectives, the French hungered for gold to be reinstated as the centerpiece of any worldwide monetary agreement. Before Bretton Woods Richard Nixon was not the first U.S. president to abandon the gold standard. In 1933, shortly after Franklin Roosevelt took office, the U.S. – faced with a growing imbalance of payments with imports exceeding exports despite large tariffs – dissolved the link between the dollar and gold. By executive order, Roosevelt required private citizens to turn their coins and bullion over to the Federal Reserve and prohibited any exports of gold. Congress then followed with a law overriding the gold payment requirements of public and private contracts, a decision that was ratified by a 5-4 vote in the Supreme Court two years later.5 Roosevelt had become convinced that his only choice was between devaluation of the dollar or domestic deflation, and he preferred the former, a sentiment shared by the twenty-five other nations, including the UK, that had already devalued and de-linked their currencies from gold beginning in 1931.6 The French, however, stayed on the gold standard, and that produced serious imbalances between the value of the French currency and those of the U.S. dollar and UK sterling. By going 5 Benn Steil, The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 25. 6 Ibid. 4 off the gold standard, the U.S. and UK had devalued their currencies – lowering export prices and raising import prices — while the French franc stayed strong and the French economy continued to stagnate.7 This imbalance was further exacerbated by fears among owners of French assets following the formation in 1936 of a French socialist Popular Front government led by Léon Blum. In combination, these events induced major gold outflows from France and forced the French also to devalue their currency in 1936 but without abandoning the franc’s relation to gold.8 In 1934, Roosevelt, using powers Congress had granted him, set the price of gold at $35 an ounce, devaluing the dollar by nearly 60 percent.9 (Gold’s previous price had been $20.67 an ounce.10) This sharp devaluation was intended to stabilize domestic prices, improve the U.S. economy, and provide greater liquidity to the capital markets. Instability in currency markets, which some labeled “currency wars,” led in September of 1936 to what Roosevelt described as a “gentleman’s agreement” (certainly not a treaty) among the U.S., the UK, and France under which the Americans and the British agreed not to contest a 30 percent devaluation of the franc.11 The initial French draft of this “Tripartite Agreement” had proposed a system where the franc, the dollar, and sterling would fluctuate within narrow bounds and the three countries would agree not to devalue except by mutual consent. The French aim was to stabilize the relationships among the currencies and to restore gold convertibility.12 The Americans, however, refused to agree to bilateral rates or to return to a firm link between the dollar and gold, so the final Tripartite Agreement simply stated the three nations’ desire to 7 Michael D. Bordo, Dominique Simard, and Eugene White, “France and the Bretton Woods International Monetary System: 1960 to 1968,” NBER Working Paper Series 4642 (1994). 8 Steil, The Battle of Bretton Woods, 32. 9 Roosevelt’s gold proclamation is available at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=14750. 10 Steil, The Battle of Bretton Woods, 28. 11 Ibid., 32. 12 Bordo, Simard, and White, “France and the Bretton Woods International Monetary System,” 5. 5 minimize exchange rate fluctuations (limit devaluations) and continue free trade.13 The agreement, however, required subscribing nations to agree to avoid competitive depreciations of their currencies and to maintain currency values at existing levels (after the 30 percent French devaluation).14 The Tripartite Agreement, coupled with other economic measures in the U.S., helped stabilize the currencies, at least in the short term, but by 1938, the French had to devalue again.15 While the French held on to the gold standard in the interest of currency stability and urged a return to a proper international gold standard, Roosevelt was determined to achieve both monetary stabilization and the dominance of the U.S. dollar by establishing the dollar price of gold as an essential monetary benchmark.16 Years later, at Bretton Woods, the stability of the dollar – not a link to gold – became the key to international monetary stability. And the same divergence in French and U.S. attitudes towards the monetary role of gold would be repeated in the aftermath of Nixon’s shattering of Bretton Woods. Bretton Woods A monetary and financial conference held in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire to shape the post-war Western economic order and open international trade met in 1944. The most important questions at the conference were with respect to the governance and powers of the international institution that would become the International Monetary Fund (IMF), how to 13 The Tripartite Monetary Agreement is available at http://www.bis.org/publ/arpdf/archive/ar1937_en.pdf. 14 Ibid. 15 Steil, The Battle of Bretton Woods, 33. 16 Ibid. The US increasingly took control of the gold standard, as the US economy was nearly three times larger than that of either France or Germany. See also Robert A. Mundell, “A Reconsideration of the Twentieth Century,” Prize Lecture: Department of Economics, Columbia University (December 8, 1999). 6 create international liquidity, and how countries could gain access to that liquidity.17 Although 730 delegates from all 44 allied countries met at Bretton Woods, the United States and United Kingdom dominated the accords and economic agreement.18 The leading figures drafting and discussing how best to organize the post-war economic order were Harry White from the United States and John Maynard Keynes from the UK. Each drafted their version of an economic agreement and much of the conference was devoted to arguing over their plans. The White Plan advocated a central status for the dollar as the world’s sole surrogate for gold, but conceded that the dollar should be backed by gold (reflecting the U.S.’s large gold holdings).19 Keynes, on the other hand, was repelled by the idea of a gold standard.20 The two plans overlapped, however, in many other features: an end to the economic warfare of the 1930s; the need for an institutional forum for international cooperation on monetary matters; and fixed exchange rates. The governments agreed that, absent floating exchange rates, all states needed the assurance of liquidity through an adequate supply of monetary reserves.21 The big disagreement was whether that assurance should be, as proposed by Keynes, provided by a world bank, which could create new reserves called “bancor,” or a borrowing mechanism through what became the IMF, as preferred by White.22 After bargaining for some concessions, the other countries at Bretton Woods largely agreed to American proposals for the IMF and World Bank in the expectation that most of them would be net borrowers and that the United States would be the largest creditor. So, the final agreement ended up being closer to the White Plan, reflecting U.S. preferences, with the dollar exchangeable for gold at the fixed price of $35 an ounce. 17 Steil, The Battle of Bretton Woods, 233. 18 Ibid., 229. 19 Ibid., 128. 20 Ibid., 138. 21 Ibid., 148. 22 Ibid., 143. 7 The French had also drafted an economic plan that they presented at the conference. The French Plan of 1943, written by Hervé Alphand and André Istel, was designed to create balance and parity among participating countries – relying on a gold standard.23 The French plan would have had participating countries fix their official currency values by reference to the currencies of other countries – official values that must be maintained and could be changed only after consultation with all other participating countries.24 The French plan also would have required each member to hold each other’s countries’ currencies to increase liquidity. The French, for example, would hold dollars and other currencies, especially those of European countries recovering from World War II. Pegging all international currencies with reference to the dollar meant that gold could be used as an international reserve asset and as a means of settlement.25 The French hoped that the agreement would define currencies in terms of a fixed weight of gold.26 The French also proposed a Monetary Stabilization Office to facilitate currency clearings, serve as a depository for collateral, and become the location of international consultation.27 The French would have placed gold, not the U.S. dollar, at the center of the world monetary system. That did not happen. The French plan had virtually no impact on the structure of the IMF or the World Bank. The Articles of Agreement at Bretton Woods, however, did define international currencies with reference to gold, and members agreed to declare a par value and maintain it within a one percent margin.28 Members also agreed to make their currencies convertible for current account transactions. The U.S. pegged the price of gold at $35 an ounce.29 Other members would then 23 Bordo, Simard, and White, “France and the Bretton Woods International Monetary System,” 3. 24 Ibid. 25 Ibid. 26 Ibid. 27 Ibid. 28 Steil, The Battle of Bretton Woods.. 29 Bordo, Simard, and White, “France and the Bretton Woods International Monetary System,” 6. 8 intervene in foreign exchange markets by either buying or selling dollars to maintain the value of their currency within the one percent margin. The last attempt the French made to shape these international arrangements related to gold quotas. Each country’s gold quota determined their position in the directorship. The French wanted a more important gold quota so they could hold a rank in the directorships of the IMF and World Bank. The first three ranks were the U.S., the UK, and Russia. The French wanted the fourth rank, but it was given to China whose economy was growing more quickly.30 Pierre Mendès, the head of the French delegation, complained, “the Americans have taken key positions which are against the French.” To placate the French and affirm the US commitment to France, Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. Treasury Secretary and President of the Bretton Woods conference, added a fifth directorship for the French up from the previously planned three. He responded to Mendès, “I told you I would not go to bed until I tried to correct [the] impression that the American delegation was unfriendly to France.”31 From its inception, the Bretton Woods system became an asymmetrical dollar-gold system.32 Instead of turning dollars into gold and holding gold, countries held dollars, and the dollar became both the private and official international currency.33 As the system moved farther away from a gold standard and closer to a “dollar standard,” there was little the French, who so wanted a return to gold, could do. France’s reconstruction problems – including chronic external and internal imbalances – limited its influence in the postwar monetary system. Because of its 30 Steil, The Battle of Bretton Woods, 233. 31.Ibid. 32 Ibid. 33 Ibid. 9 weak economy, France had to devalue the franc multiple times to comply with the Bretton Woods agreement. 34 The U.S. – by far the wealthiest and most stable Western country – basically dominated international monetary arrangements. The Bretton Woods system, therefore, never actually became a convertible system of international currencies into gold as the agreement seemed to imply, but instead was effectively a dollar standard, with the dollar pegged to a fixed price of gold. “Banaliser le Dollar” If French policymakers had any policy priority in the period between Bretton Woods and when Nixon closed the gold window in 1971, it was to “banaliser le dollar” (dethrone the dollar).35 By 1947, postwar difficulties and domestic reconstruction needs, along with troubles for the British around the world (especially in India, Greece, and Palestine), had undone the British Empire and simultaneously any potential for sterling to compete with the dollar as an international reserve currency.36 The French viewed the British as overly sympathetic to American needs. The beginning of the Marshall Plan the following year, coupled with large U.S. military expenditures, provoked an unprecedented outflow of dollars from the U.S. The French regarded the enormous power the U.S. held in the international community as an attempt to control the world economy for selfish purposes. Over the next decade, the fragility of the Bretton Woods arrangements became apparent. In 1959, the economist Robert Triffin told Congress that the use of “national currencies in 34 Ibid., 6. 35 Harold James, “The Multiple Contexts of Bretton Woods,” Oxford Review of Economics Policy 28:3 (October 2012), 91. 36 Steil, The Battle of Bretton Woods, 309-311. 10 international reserves” was a “built in” destabilizer to “world monetary arrangements.”37 Foreign governments that accumulated dollars as reserves could not use them at home, so they either lent any dollars in excess of the costs of the imports they purchased back to the United States or held them as reserves. The Triffin Dilemma, as it became known, is that there was no practical way for the U.S. to provide sufficient dollars to satisfy the world’s liquidity needs for trade and international capital transactions and simultaneously limit the number of dollars to guarantee that they could be redeemed for gold at a fixed price.38 Jacques Rueff, an extremely influential French economist committed to a gold standard, agreed. Here is how Rueff described the problem of deficits in the U.S. balance of payments while the dollar serves as the international reserve currency: The United States…pays the creditor country dollars, which end up with its central bank. But the dollars are of no use in Bonn, or in Tokyo, or in Paris. The very same day, they are re-lent to the New York money market… So the key currency country never feels the effect of a deficit in its balance of payments. And…there is no reason whatever for the deficit to disappear… [I]f I had an agreement with my tailor that whatever money I pay him he returns to me the very same day as a loan, I would have no objection at all to ordering more suits from him.39 In theory, dollars could be converted into gold at $35 an ounce, but it did not take long for the number of dollars in circulation to overwhelm the capacity of the U.S. to redeem them in gold. In 1962, British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan told President Kennedy that most of the world’s monetary difficulties would be solved if the U.S. doubled the price of gold to $70 an ounce, but Kennedy regarded such a devaluation as signaling U.S. weakness and he refused.40 Nor was Kennedy willing to accept austerity at home, so the U.S. kept expanding its money 37 Ibid., 333. 38 Steil, The Battle of Bretton Woods, 333. See also Robert Triffin, Gold and the Dollar Crisis: The Future of Convertability (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960). 39 Jacques Rueff and Fred Hirsh, “The Role and the Rule of Gold: An Argument,” Princeton Essays on International Finances 47 (June 1965), 2-3. See also Jacques Rueff, The Monetary Sin of the West (New York: Macmillan, 1972), available at http://mises.org/library/monetary-sin-west. 40 Ibid., 334. 11 supply. By the mid-1960s, the dollar shortage of the early 1950s had turned into a dollar glut.41 And the ratio of U.S. gold reserves to the number of dollars circulating through the world had shrunk. The French, unsurprisingly, were unhappy. More than 30 countries around the world had devalued their currencies since the war. France, which had faced ongoing economic difficulties including budget deficits and trade imbalances, had devalued its franc numerous times by 1958. The rebellion of a division of the French Army in Algiers in May of 1958 revealed the weakness of the French Fourth Republic. This attempted coup led to the return of Charles de Gaulle to political power. De Gaulle blamed the constitution and the institutions of the Fourth Republic for France’s economic and political weakness. He drafted a new constitution with Michel Debré that emphasized a strong executive in a presidential regime with bicameralism. This new constitution ushered in the French 5th Republic. De Gaulle wanted to create a new image of France: politically unified, economically strong, and internationally powerful.42 De Gaulle addressed the country’s ongoing deficits through tax increases, large cuts in government spending, and another devaluation of the franc in 1958. 43 This austerity, de Gaulle believed, was necessary to restore France to its rightful place at the center of world affairs and to offset the predominance of the United States. De Gaulle appointed Jacques Rueff to lead a commission to pave a path to economic expansion, which he believed to be the first step toward French domination. Rueff concluded that the major obstacle to French economic strength was that the United States blocked and manipulated interest rates.44 Returning to a real gold standard and a strong French franc was a centerpiece of his plan to regain economic domination. 41 Benjamin J. Cohen, “Bretton Woods System” in Routledge Encyclopedia of International Political Economy, ed. R.J. Barry Jones (Routledge, 2002). 42 Bordo, Simard, and White, “France and the Bretton Woods International Monetary System,” 6-7. 43 Cohen, “Bretton Woods System.” 44 Marc Flandreau, Money Doctors: The Experience of International Financial Advising 1850-2000 (New York: Routledge, 2003). 12 The Treaty of Rome, signed in 1957 by six countries – France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg – had liberalized and expanded trade, especially within Europe, and by the mid-1960s the European economies were enjoying robust postwar economic growth.45 This was accompanied by growing European concerns with domination by the U.S. government and by American multinationals. No one expressed this unease more forcefully than Charles de Gaulle. “The purpose of Europe,” he said, “is to avoid domination by the Americans or Russians.” “Europe,” he added, “is the means by which France can once again become what she has not been since Waterloo, first in the world.”46 At a press conference on February 4, 1965, de Gaulle urged major changes in international monetary arrangements. He described a monetary system based on any single nation’s currency as a danger to the world and sang praises to gold.47 Gold, he said, “does not change to nature” and is “in all places and at all times, the immutable and fiduciary value par excellence.”48 In his memoir, de Gaulle was even more explicit. He described the countries of the West as having “no choice” but to accept the international monetary system of Bretton Woods in which “the dollar was automatically regarded as the equivalent of gold.”49 This, de Gaulle said, enhanced American hegemony, and the surplus dollars exported by the U.S. to France, he added, “put a strain on our currency” that benefited only the Americans. “[T]he monumentally overprivileged position that the world has conceded to the American currency since the two world wars,” he said, “left [America] standing alone amid the ruins of others.”50 So, beginning in 1965, the French adopted as official policy the conversion of its dollar reserves into gold to induce the 45 James, “The Multiple Contexts of Bretton Woods,” 36-37. 46 James, “The Multiple Contexts of Bretton Woods,” 37. 47 See Charles de Gaulle, “Monetary Crisis Ghost of 1965,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9r1NLMFixo. 48 Rueff and Hirsh, “The Role and the Rule of Gold,” preface. 49 Charles de Gaulle, Memoirs of Hope: Renewal and Endeavor, trans. Terrence Kilmartin (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 371-372. 50 Ibid., 371. 13 U.S. to begin reform of the international monetary system. 51 The U.S. and France were on a collision course over their differing visions of international monetary reform and over the role of gold.52 France had become the principal antagonist of the U.S. in monetary affairs. This was in sharp contrast to Germany, which relied heavily on the U.S. military commitment. The German Bundesbank promised the U.S. that it would hold onto dollars. Given the inflation that the U.S. experienced in the 1960s and the accompanying influx of dollars to Germany, this was a decision the Germans came to regret. In a 1970 interview, Karl Blessing, president of the Bundesbank, said, “we should aggressively have converted the dollars into gold until [the Americans] were driven to despair.”53 The French were convinced that the Germans were being manipulated by American desires. The very different frustrations of the French and the Germans inspired both to seek a more coordinated international financial policy; this, in turn, would, two decades later, result in the creation of the euro, in part at least, as a counterweight to the dollar. In 1961, nine central banks from the U.S. and eight European countries created the London Gold Pool in an attempt to maintain fixed convertible values for their currencies and the $35 price for an ounce of gold.54 Half the required supply of gold for the pool came from the U.S. But by 1965, the pool could not stem the outflow of gold. The world gold supply had not increased to match the growing supply of dollars, the U.S. deficit had ballooned, and U.S. inflation was increasing as a result of spending on both social programs and the Vietnam War. By the late 1960s, the Bretton Woods agreement had largely unraveled. 51 Bordo, Simard, and White, “France and the International Monetary System,” 12; James, “The Multiple Contexts of Bretton Woods,” 64. 52 Bordo, Simard, and White, “France and the International Monetary System,” 14. 53 James, “The Multiple Contexts of Bretton Woods,” 64. 54 Peter M. Garber, “The Collapse of the Bretton Woods Fixed Exchange Rate System” in A Retrospective on the Bretton Woods System: Lessons for International Monetary Reform, eds. Michael D. Bordo and Barry Eichengreen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 464. 14 De Gaulle’s attempts to control the international monetary system, however, did not stop at simply controlling imports and exports of gold. Beginning in 1965, de Gaulle began exchanging France’s dollar reserves for gold. This was de Gaulle’s attempt to punish the British, as he believed their economic policies were also being unduly influenced by the United States. In 1966 France stopped contributing to the international gold pool, forcing the U.S. to increase its contribution to the gold pool by the amount previously supplied by France. By 1966, gold accounted for more than 70 percent of French international holdings. 55 When the U.S. rebuffed France’s pressure to devalue the dollar by increasing the price of gold, the French continued accumulating gold. President de Gaulle refused to devalue the franc calling the idea, “the worst possible absurdity,” a refusal that was widely criticized by the international community.56 French economic and political difficulties then created large imbalances of payments for France that produced substantial reserve losses. After de Gaulle retired to his country home in April 1969, the newly elected Georges Pompidou was soon forced to devalue the franc. The Chicago Tribune called the decision a thankful “break with de Gaulle’s monstrously absurd foreign exchange policy.”57 By May 1968, the Gold Pool had completely fallen apart and had been replaced by a twotier gold system with separate private and public gold markets. Governments traded gold in the public market at a fixed price while in the private market the price of gold was set by supply and 55 Bordo, Simard, and White, “France and the International Monetary System,” 12. 56 “After the French Devaluation,” Chicago Tribune, August 13, 1969, 24. 57 Ibid. The 1969 devaluation was particularly important as parity between the French franc and the German mark was an important topic in the 1969 German elections. Germany was debating whether it should revalue the mark upwards. Germany welcomed the French devaluation because it removed the disparity of a key currency with the mark and suggested that an upwards revaluation was “wholly unnecessary.” Germany relied heavily on its relationship to the franc as it struggled between national pressures to maintain the mark’s value and the American desire for the mark to be revalued upwards. 15 demand.58 The next year, the Gold Pool nations stabilized the price of gold by agreeing to stop selling gold in private markets and by allowing the price of gold for nonmonetary transactions to fluctuate.59 In the meanwhile, private gold markets faced separate pressures. Economic sanctions against South Africa for its policy of apartheid and its relations with the Soviet Union made the Krugerrand – which accounted for close to 90% of the global gold coin market — an illegal import in many Western countries (including the United States). This limited the supply of gold, and contributed to anxiety about the status of gold in the international monetary system.60 The reduced supply of gold from South Africa was accompanied by speculation about a potential devaluation of the dollar. In March 1968, the IMF abandoned a single fixed price for gold and reversed its policies regarding purchases of gold from South Africa.61 By September 1969, Germany informed the IMF that it was unable to maintain values for the mark within the prescribed limits around par value.62 A year and a half after that, in a contentious decision, especially upsetting to the French, Germany decided to float the mark.63 French Minister of Finance Giscard D’Estaing then declared, “The world monetary system must be set in concentric circles: the first one being gold, and then, the second, if necessary, recourse to deliberate and concerted creation of either reserve assets or credit facilities. The inner circle is gold. Experience in recent years has shown us that, aside from any theoretical preference, gold remains the essential basis of the world payments system.”64 According to D’Estaing (in a speech to the National Assembly in May 1971), the French 58 Margaret de Vries, The International Monetary Fund 1966-1971, Volume I: Narrative (Washington D.C.: International Monetary Fund, 1976). 59 Ibid. 60 Ibid. 61 Ibid. 62 Garber, “The Collapse of the Bretton Woods Fixed Exchange Rate System.” 63 Ibid. 64 De Vries, “Volume I: Narrative.” 16 Government had three main concerns: to protect the French economy from the international upheaval in currency markets; to fix the roots of international monetary problems; and to ensure that any measures taken in response to international monetary difficulties not compromise the French desire to create a monetary and economic union in Europe.65 D’Estaing criticized Germany’s decision to float its currency – complaining that it was not a European community decision and would not help in creating a European economic monetary union.66 D’Estaing was willing instead to accept a collective revaluation of international currencies.67 In such a case, the European countries would compensate for the United States’ monetary inflation by deflation in Europe.68 But D’Estaing would accept this sacrifice only if it meant continuing the gold standard. By the late 1960s, it was unmistakable that U.S. gold reserves, which had been falling relative to U.S. dollars since 1957, were inadequate to fund convertibility of dollars into gold at the fixed price of $35 an ounce.69 In 1968, riots in both France and the U.S. essentially took international monetary reform off the agenda. In 1969, George Pompidou succeeded Charles de Gaulle as president of France, and Richard Nixon succeeded Lyndon Johnson in the U.S. Domestic disorder on both sides of the Atlantic was a harbinger of the next decades’ social, economic, and international upheavals. In the period leading up to Richard Nixon’s August 1971 policy shift, the U.S. balance of payments deteriorated substantially: the $3.2 billion deficit in the second quarter of 1971 exceeded the deficit for all of 1970. In the third quarter, the deficit was $3.1 billion, hardly better. One of the few constants, however, was the continuing divergence of American and French views concerning the proper role of gold in international monetary affairs. 65 “La politique étrangère de la France: textes et documents,” dir. de publ. Ministère des Affaires Etrangeres. Paris: La Documentation Française, Octobre 1971. “Déclaration de Valéry Giscard d’Estaing à l’Assemblée nationale” (12 Mai, 1971), 162-167. 66 De Vries, “Volume I: Narrative.” 67 Ibid. 68 Ibid. 69 Bordo, Simard, and White, “France and the International Monetary System,” 18 and Figure 5. 17 After the “Nixon Shock” In August 1971, French president Pompidou sent a battleship to New York harbor to remove France’s gold from the vault of the New York Federal Reserve Bank and to transport it to the Banque de France in Paris. Soon thereafter, gold accounted for 92 percent of French reserves. On August 11, the British requested that the Treasury remove the $3 billion of gold from the U.S. depository of Fort Knox to the New York Federal Reserve vault, where the gold of foreign governments was stored. As Paul Volcker, who was then treasury undersecretary for monetary affairs, put it: “If the British, who had founded the system with us, and who had fought so hard to defend their own currency, were going to take gold for their dollars, it was clear the game was indeed over.”70 When Nixon spoke on August 15, 1971, the U.S. held less than 10,000 tons of gold, less than half of what it once had.71 Nixon’s August 1971 decisions caught foreign government by complete surprise. They also surprised most U.S. policymakers and officials. Nixon’s speech and the policies it announced had been suggested to him a few weeks earlier by his charismatic Treasury Secretary, John Connally, and the details had been developed at a meeting of Nixon’s economic advisors who had been sequestered at Camp David the weekend before Nixon’s Sunday night address. As Paul Volcker had told the group, billions might be made with advance knowledge of what the president was planning to do. The necessary secrecy, however, had meant that both technical and strategic planning for its aftermath could not happen until the new policies had been announced. In the weeks following Nixon’s announcement, Connally, Volcker, and other administration officials spent much of their time traveling to foreign capitals attempting to assuage foreign 70 Paul Volcker and Toyoo Gyohten, Changing Fortunes: The World’s Money and the Threat to American Leadership (Three Rivers Press, 1993), 77. 71 One metric ton of gold is composed of 32,150 troy ounces. 18 leaders who were apoplectic about the import surcharge and insecure about the new U.S. monetary policy – whatever that might be. Within the U.S. government, efforts to fashion a new international monetary agreement did not jell until mid-November 1971 in anticipation of a meeting of the G-10 in Rome later that month. The U.S. position was heavily influenced by the need for the French – its principal antagonist – to agree. For economic reasons primarily having to do with trade, the U.S. wanted a substantial devaluation of the dollar vis a vis the German mark and the Japanese yen. For its trade policy, the French needed to maintain the relationship between the franc and the mark, but because its trade with the U.S. was relatively small, France had little concern about the relationship of the franc and the dollar. The French government, however, cared deeply about the price of gold and, unsurprisingly, wanted to preserve an official relationship between the U.S. dollar and gold. Not only did the French government hold the bulk of its official reserves in gold, but virtually every French resident also had a little gold stashed away. On November 29, 1971, the arguments and discussions culminated in a meeting of the finance ministers of the world’s ten richest countries (the G-10) in Rome. At the Rome meeting, the chairmanship, which rotated, was held by the U.S.’s John Connally and he insisted, so that he could be “impartial,” that Paul Volcker would present the U.S. position. Volcker then announced that the U.S. – which had refused since the 1930s to change the official price of gold from $35 an ounce – would accept an upward revision of that price and would eliminate the import surcharge in exchange for an appreciation of other OECD currencies by a weighted average of 11 percent. This devaluation of the dollar was greater than the other G-10 countries expected, and not well 19 received by the other finance ministers. The only real outcome of the meeting was an agreement to hold another meeting the next month in Washington, DC.72 In the interval between the two meetings, crucial negotiations took place between Nixon and Pompidou in the Azores. Pompidou began their meeting with a “Gaullist lecture on gold and the evils of the dollar standard.”73 Ultimately, however, Pompidou agreed to a rise in the price of gold from $35 to $38 an ounce, a rise of 8.5 percent, significantly less than the 11 percent the U.S. had wanted. Soon thereafter, the G-10 meeting took place at the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall. The negotiations, as in Rome, centered on trade agreements and tariffs, the need to devalue the dollar, future exchange rates, and the convertibility of the dollar into gold.74 The U.S. was adamant about its desire to move away from gold. The French were equally adamant to the contrary. The difference in French and U.S. policies were neither new nor driven solely by the economics of the time. French policy was, to be sure, based upon the longstanding French position. By December 1971, the French held enormous gold reserves, but had limited international economic power. The U.S. was in the opposite position: its gold reserves had dwindled, but it still had immense international economic sway. The U.S. was determined both to maintain its global economic dominance and to improve economic conditions at home. The first issue discussed at the Smithsonian meeting was gold convertibility. The French insisted on maintaining gold convertibility, arguing that such convertibility was essential to a fixed currency parity system, and that under the IMF agreement the U.S. was required to 72 These events were related in Edwin S. Cohen, A Lawyer’s Life Deep in the Heart of Taxes (Tax Analysts, 1994) and the collections of his papers at the University of Virginia Law Library, Box 102, “Institutional Monetary Issues.” Cohen’s account is confirmed in Volcker and Gyohten, Changing Fortunes. 73 Volcker and Gyohten, Changing Fortunes, 88-89. 74 Garber, “The Collapse of the Bretton Woods Fixed Exchange Rate System.” 20 maintain to fixed currency relationships. 75 The French expressed their dismay that the U.S. had violated international law, and were determined not to reward the U.S. for breaking its international commitments.76 For the French, Nixon’s unilateral action was just one more example of how the U.S. behavior transgressed the laws that all other countries must obey. The only way to force the U.S. to act like other countries, the French believed, was to force the U.S. to return to a gold standard. The French argued that, although the dollar was clearly overvalued, the only proper way to devalue the dollar was to adjust the price of gold – otherwise the system would remain biased in the U.S.’s favor. 77 When countries allow their currencies to stray too far from the price of gold, the French insisted, they must revalue their currency.78 Georges Pompidou criticized the American approach, “I cannot conceive that the U.S. thinks it can make up the deficit in its balance of payments with exports to Europe. The U.S. balance-of-payments deficit is an American problem.”79 After Nixon suspended convertibility in August 1971, the French had urged Europe to make the U.S. pay.80 Paul Volcker, then undersecretary of the treasury, said that the fundamental structure of the IMF would have to be changed for convertibility to be maintained.81 Volcker believed that gold should no longer play a role in the international monetary system and instead that SDRs (Special Drawing Rights issued by the IMF to play the role of an alternative reserve currency) 75 Jacques Amalric, “Les dirigeants américains paraissent résignés à la dévaluation du dollar,” Le Monde, 17 August 1971, 1. 76 Ibid. By participating in and creating the Fund, the U.S. had promised to tie the dollar to gold; by stopping dollar convertibility the U.S. effectively broke its promise. 77 Jacques Rueff, “La Reevaluation Des Monnais, Faux Problem,” Le Monde, September 10, 1971, reporting the French insistence that the way to fix Bretton Woods would be to enlarge the margin of fluctuations and change the price of gold – not remove gold from the picture. 78 Ibid. 79 Clyde H. Farnsworth, “Europeans Re-Examine Goals,” New York Times, January 14, 1973. 80 Rueff, “La Reevaluation Des Monnais, Faux Problem.” 81 Edwin S. Cohen, “The Highlights of the Group of Ten Deputies Meeting at the International Monetary Fund at 11:00 am, November 16, 1971,” in International Monetary Problems, f.202, ed. Special Collections (University of Virginia Law School, December 16, 1971). 21 should be extended.82 Volcker proposed to increase liquidity, but without any link to gold, and he insisted that in order to maintain the necessary liquidity the U.S. must be free to adjust its own exchange rate. The French rejected Volcker’s arguments, continuing to insist on a return to gold convertibility in order to limit the role of the U.S. dollar in international economic arrangements. The U.S., having consistently rejected French proposals for monetary reform since before the Tripartite Agreement, held firm. It was difficult for the French to gather much support for their position. If gold remained at the center of the international monetary system and the U.S. doubled or even tripled the price of gold in dollars, other countries’ exchange rates with the dollar would also have to change – many by a large amount. Unsurprisingly, the discussion at the Smithsonian then turned to the question of fixed versus floating exchange rates. By the time of the Smithsonian meeting, not only Germany but also the UK, Canada, and several other nations had begun to float the value of their currencies against the dollar as fixed exchange rates had been difficult to maintain with the ongoing decline in the value of the dollar. The U.S. had already decided to lift its import surcharge for nations that agreed to float their currencies against the dollar and was also interested in floating the dollar.83 But the French were adamantly opposed to floating rates. In the French view, floating exchange rates caused unnecessary instability and price uncertainty.84 On the other hand, fixed exchange rates created a need for the U.S. to constantly adjust its domestic economic policies and increased the likelihood that the U.S. would erect and maintain significant trade barriers to 82 Ibid. 83 Department of the Treasury, “Memorandum: Preliminary Notes on International Monetary Problems,” ed. Edwin S. Cohen (Washington DC: University of Virginia Law School, September 16, 1971). 84 Ibid. 22 solve its balance of payment deficit problems.85 The French thought that a two-tier market for gold would solve this problem: governments would privately trade gold and francs at a fixed exchange price, but in the public market supply and demand would determine the price of gold.86 According to the French, floating rates were highly selfish. A Le Monde article from September 1971, reflecting French government opinions on floating rates, compared floating exchange rates to a state of anarchy.87 The article suggested that by floating a currency a country is freer to pursue any policy it would like – as opposed to being constrained by the linkage of its currency to that of other countries.88 Flexible rates allow countries to pursue autonomous economic and monetary policy. The French insisted that floating rates, free from fixed links to the currencies of other countries, would in the long run create even greater international disorder. A central reason that the French wanted to maintain fixed exchange rates was that fixed rates would make the transition to a European economic union, which could compete against the United States, easier. The French believed that Europe needed a common currency.89 The French regarded a link to gold as helping to facilitate the monetary unification of Europe, and with monetary unification, the French expected greater political unification and enhanced French influence in world affairs. 90 An “écu” (European Currency Unit) could be linked to gold and might replace the ubiquity of the dollar in international transactions. 91 Transition to the écu would be made easier by maintaining fixed exchange rates. The French planned to have the écu defined by its relationship to gold and guaranteed by a European reserve fund.92 A European 85 Ibid. 86 De Vries, “Volume I: Narrative.” 87 Paul Fabra, “La Faillite Du Système Monétaire,” Le Monde, September 25, 1971 88 Ibid. 89 Léon Lambert, “Une Monnaie Européen Tout De Suite,” Le Monde, 20 December 1971. 90 Ibid. 91 Ibid. 92 Ibid. 23 currency would then help France counterbalance the U.S. in international economic matters by providing the world an alternative currency that might compete with the dollar. In a final attempt to salvage the Bretton Woods agreement, the negotiations at the Smithsonian meeting concluded with the result that the Azores agreement between Nixon and Pompidou had preordained: the dollar was pegged to gold at $38 an ounce (up from the previous $35) with other countries agreeing to appreciate their currencies by a fixed amount with respect to the dollar. This resulted in an official devaluation of the dollar of 8.57 percent, less than the U.S. had proposed at Rome, but more than other countries had initially anticipated. 93 The G-10 also set wider margins for currency fluctuations based on the new dollar value. The group agreed to help balance the world trading system through special drawing rights (SDRs) issued by the International Monetary Fund.94 The U.S. also agreed to eliminate its new 10 percent surtax on imports. President Nixon announced the agreement at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, then next door to the Castle where the meetings had been held. The French were still not content. They continued to insist that the U.S. return to the gold standard, but the U.S. would not. For the next decade, the French would continue to blame any failures of the Smithsonian agreement on the U.S. refusal to return to a gold standard. The Smithsonian agreement did not long survive. The rather small margins of currency fluctuations agreed to proved impossible to maintain and as the price of dollars in the free market fluctuated, this put pressure on its official price for exchange. As early as 1972, the French were again criticizing American monetary policy. The French continued to insist that the U.S. should buy surplus dollars from European nations with gold, but the U.S. no longer held enough gold to 93 Garber, “The Collapse of the Bretton Woods Fixed Exchange Rate System.” 94 Ibid. 24 do that. 95 Nor did the U.S. have any intention to do so. The French said: “The dollar cannot be a truly international currency, why not make more use of gold, this fiduciary asset par excellence? The official price of the yellow metal, in order to be credible, must not vary too greatly from the market price. Since Washington insists on an excessive discrepancy between the two prices, let us, the Europeans, decide to fix a realistic price for gold for our own transactions.”96 However, the rest of Europe did not support the French view. In June of 1972, the British decided to float the pound, a move that created even greater price discrepancy. The French complained and called the British move a political failure.97 On September 11, 1972, Paul Volcker, still undersecretary of the Treasury, testified before a subcommittee on international exchange of Congress’s Joint Economic Committee.98 He described the British decision in July to float the pound as disrupting the “period of calm” following “the exchange of rate equilibrium so arduously worked out” at the Smithsonian. He also described the interventions in world currency markets undertaken by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve as necessary to keep the value of the dollar in an appropriate relation to other currencies, and he informed the committee that such interventions would continue at U.S. discretion. Here is what he said about gold: With respect to gold, the United States has repeatedly expressed the view that the role of that metal in the international monetary system should and must continue to diminish. Such an evolution is, of course, fully consistent with the trend of monetary history over a period of many years. Governments around the world long ago reached the inevitable judgment that domestic monetary systems and policies could not safely be hostage to vagaries in gold demand and supply – the cost in terms of economic stability was simply too high. Internationally, gold 25 years ago accounted for about 70 percent of total national monetary reserves. By 1972, the ratio had declined to some 27 percent. 95 Richard Janssen, “Connally Suggests New Monetary Rules Discipline Nations with Chronic Surpluses,” The Wall Street Journal, March 20, 1972. 96 Ibid. 97 Roman Eisenstein, “France Has to Back Dollar,” The Guardian, 5 August 1972. 98 Statement of the Honorable Paul A. Volcker, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Monetary Affairs, Before the Subcommittee on International Exchange and Payments of the Joint Economic Committee, September 11, 1972. 25 There are irresistible geological, industrial, and economic facts behind these trends. The physical supply of gold is both limited and, in the Western World, virtually entirely under the control of one producing nation. … Gold is both an attractive and useful metal, but the residual supply is in no way related to the liquidity needs of the world community. … I suppose there are some who would argue that additional liquidity in a gold-based system can be provided by increasing from time to time the price at which gold is traded among monetary authorities. But surely such an approach would make a mockery of any presumed “discipline” from a gold centered monetary system – the virtue sometimes still attributed to the use of gold. A system relying on gold price increases to regulate liquidity would be both continuously destabilizing to the monetary system and capricious in whom it benefits and whom it hurts. Obviously referring to the French view, Volcker added, “I do not think it will be easy to resolve differences about what to do about the precise role of gold.” That was an understatement. The Smithsonian agreement continued to disintegrate. Rather than stabilize the dollar and produce a large U.S. surplus to cure adverse U.S. balance of international payments, the agreement was followed by a weak dollar, and similar problems as before. Early in 1973, the U.S. devalued the dollar to make U.S. products more competitive in world markets and to improve the U.S. balance of payments. This was followed by a dump of dollars into the market in a rush to exchange them for German marks and Japanese yen.99 The combination of high rates of inflation and the first oil crisis in the fall of 1973 made the fixed rates agreed to at the Smithsonian untenable. By late 1973, the U.S., Japan, and all the countries of the European treaty had decided to let their currencies float against the dollar. In the fall of 1975, the principal antagonists, the U.S. and France, reached agreement on a few sentences of amendments to the IMF Articles of Agreement to provide a formal legal basis for floating exchange rates, and in 1976 the IMF Articles were formally amended to reflect the new reality. Both the 1944 agreement of Bretton Woods and the one reached just a few years earlier at the Smithsonian were officially dead. 99 Farnsworth, “Europeans Re-Examine Goals.” 26 Conclusion The interment of gold as a monetary standard has not ended ongoing debates over its strengths and weaknesses. But despite the periodic calls for its renewal by some analysts and many politicians both in the U.S. and abroad, it is difficult to imagine gold’s resurrection as the foundation of international monetary arrangements. Floating rates allow nations to reduce their exposure to the risks of any one currency by diversifying their holdings of foreign currencies. Intermittent national interventions that affect the valuation of domestic currencies to serve domestic economic and political interests remain inevitable. The Maastricht Treaty of February 1992, which led to the adoption of the euro, has, to be sure, reduced the international power of the dollar, but it has also produced some serious economic dislocations in the Eurozone. Some analysts are now looking to the currencies of large emerging countries, such as China, to add stability to the system. But it seems that all we can be sure of – more than seven decades after Bretton Woods and nearly half a century since its demise – is that the stability of the international monetary system rests primarily with judgments of the world’s central bankers and of the international monetary institutions, especially the IMF. This state of affairs proved its mettle during the 2007-2010 financial crisis, but it hardly ensures confidence or monetary stability. The French failure in its efforts to return to a gold standard has not, so far at least, become a loss for everyone. But there is more of the story yet to unfold.
Satoshi gave the world Bitcoin, a true “something for nothing.” His discovery of absolute scarcity for money is an unstoppable idea that is changing the world tremendously, just like its digital ancestor: the number zero.
Zero is Special
“In the history of culture the discovery of zero will always stand out as one of the greatest single achievements of the human race.” — Tobias Danzig, Number: The Language of Science
Many believe that Bitcoin is “just one of thousands of cryptoassets”—this is true in the same way that the number zero is just one of an infinite series of numbers. In reality, Bitcoin is special, and so is zero: each is an invention which led to a discovery that fundamentally reshaped its overarching system—for Bitcoin, that system is money, and for zero, it is mathematics. Since money and math are mankind’s two universal languages, both Bitcoin and zero are critical constructs for civilization.
For most of history, mankind had no concept of zero: an understanding of it is not innate to us—a symbol for it had to be invented and continuously taught to successive generations. Zero is an abstract conception and is not discernible in the physical world—no one goes shopping for zero apples. To better understand this, we will walk down a winding path covering more than 4,000 years of human history that led to zero becoming part of the empirical bedrock of modernity.
Numerals, which are symbols for numbers, are the greatest abstractions ever invented by mankind: virtually everything we interact with is best grasped in numerical, quantifiable, or digital form. Math, the language of numerals, originally developed from a practical desire to count things—whether it was the amount of fish in the daily catch or the days since the last full moon. Many ancient civilizations developed rudimentary numeral systems: in 2000 BCE, the Babylonians, who failed to conceptualize zero, used two symbols in different arrangements to create unique numerals between 1 and 60:
Vestiges of the base-60 Babylonian cuneiform system still exist today: there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 6 sets of 60 degrees in a circle. But this ancient system lacked a zero, which severely limited its usefulness. Ancient Greeks and Mayans developed their own numeral systems, each of which contained rough conceptions of zero. However, the first explicit and arithmetic use of zero came from ancient Indian and Cambodian cultures. They created a system with nine number symbols and a small dot used to mark the absence of a number—the original zero. This numeral system would eventually evolve into the one we use today:
In the 7th century, the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta developed terms for zero in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division (although he struggled a bit with the latter, as would thinkers for centuries to come). As the discipline of mathematics matured in India, it was passed through trade networks eastward into China and westward into Islamic and Arabic cultures. It was this western advance of zero which ultimately led to the inception of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system—the most common means of symbolic number representation in the world today:
The Economization of Math
When zero reached Europe roughly 300 years later in the High Middle Ages, it was met with strong ideological resistance. Facing opposition from users of the well-established Roman numeral system, zero struggled to gain ground in Europe. People at the time were able to get by without zero, but (little did they know) performing computation without zero was horribly inefficient. An apt analogy to keep in mind arises here: both math and money are possible without zero and Bitcoin, respectively—however both are tremendously more wasteful systems without these core elements. Consider the difficulty of doing arithmetic in Roman numerals:
Calculation performed using the Hindu-Arabic system is significantly more straightforward than with Roman numerals—and energy-efficient systems have a tendency to win out in the long run, as we saw when the steam engine outcompeted animal-sourced power or when capitalism prevailed over socialism (another important point to remember for Bitcoin later). This example just shows the pains of addition—multiplication and division were even more painstaking. As Amir D. Aczel described it in his book Finding Zero:
“[The Hindu-Arabic numeral system] allowed an immense economy of notation so that the same digit, for example 4, can be used to convey itself or forty (40) when followed by a zero, or four hundred and four when written as 404, or four thousand when written as a 4 followed by three zeros (4,000). The power of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system is incomparable as it allows us to represent numbers efficiently and compactly, enabling us to perform complicated arithmetic calculations that could not have been easily done before.”
Roman numeral inefficiency would not be tolerated for long in a world enriching itself through commerce. With trade networks proliferating and productivity escalating in tandem, growing prospects of wealth creation incentivized merchants to become increasingly competitive, pushing them to always search for an edge over others. Computation and record-keeping with a zero-based numeral system was qualitatively easier, quantitatively faster, and less prone to error. Despite Europe’s resistance, this new numeral system simply could not be ignored: like its distant progeny Bitcoin would later be, zero was an unstoppable idea whose time had come:
Functions of Zero
Zero’s first function is as a placeholder in our numeric system: for instance, notice the “0” in the number “1,104” in the equation above, which indicates the absence of value in the tens place. Without zero acting as a symbol of absence at this order of magnitude in “1,104,” the number could not be represented unambiguously (without zero, is it “1,104” or “114”?). Lacking zero detracted from a numeral system’s capacity to maintain constancy of meaning as it scales. Inclusion of zero enables other digits to take on new meaning according to their position relative to it. In this way, zero lets us perform calculation with less effort—whether its pen strokes in a ledger, finger presses on a calculator, or mental gymnastics. Zero is a symbol for emptiness, which can be a highly useful quality—as Lao Tzu said:
“We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.”
More philosophically, zero is emblematic of the void, as Aczel describes it:
“…the void is everywhere and it moves around; it can stand for one truth when you write a number a certain way — no tens, for example — and another kind of truth in another case, say when you have no thousands in a number!”
Drawing analogies to the functions of money: zero is the “store of value” on which higher order of magnitude numerals can scale; this is the reason we always prefer to see another zero at the end of our bank account or Bitcoin balance. In the same way a sound economic store of value leads to increased savings, which undergirds investment and productivity growth, so too does a sound mathematical placeholder of value give us a numeral system capable of containing more meaning in less space, and supporting calculations in less time: both of which also foster productivity growth. Just as money is the medium through which capital is continuously cycled into places of optimal economic employment, zero gives other digits the ability to cycle—to be used again and again with different meanings for different purposes.
Zero’s second function is as a number in its own right: it is the midpoint between any positive number and its negative counterpart (like +2 and -2). Before the concept of zero, negative numbers were not used, as there was no conception of “nothing” as a number, much less “less than nothing.” Brahmagupta inverted the positive number line to create negative numbers and placed zero at the center, thus rounding out the numeral system we use today. Although negative numbers were written about in earlier times, like the Han Dynasty in China (206 BCE to 220 BCE), their use wasn’t formalized before Brahmagupta, since they required the concept of zero to be properly defined and aligned. In a visual sense, negative numbers are a reflection of positive numbers cast across zero:
Interestingly, negative numbers were originally used to signify debts—well before the invention of double-entry accounting, which opted for debits and credits (partly to avoid the use of negative numbers). In this way, zero is the “medium of exchange” between the positive and negative domains of numbers—it is only possible to pass into, or out of, either territory by way of zero. By going below zero and conceptualizing negative numbers, many new and unusual (yet extremely useful) mathematical constructs come into being including imaginary numbers, complex numbers, fractals, and advanced astrophysical equations. In the same way the economic medium of exchange, money, leads to the acceleration of trade and innovation, so too does the mathematical medium of exchange, zero, lead to enhanced informational exchange, and its associated development of civilizational advances:
Zero’s third function is as a facilitator for fractions or ratios. For instance, the ancient Egyptians, whose numeral system lacked a zero, had an extremely cumbersome way of handling fractions: instead of thinking of 3/4 as a ratio of three to four (as we do today), they saw it as the sum of 1/2 and 1/4. The vast majority of Egyptian fractions were written as a sum of numbers as 1/n, where n is the counting number—these were called unit fractions. Without zero, long chains of unit fractions were necessary to handle larger and more complicated ratios (many of us remember the pain of converting fractions from our school days). With zero, we can easily convert fractions to decimal form (like 1/2 to 0.5), which obsoletes the need for complicated conversions when dealing with fractions. This is the “unit of account” function of zero. Prices expressed in money are just exchange ratios converted into a money-denominated price decimal: instead of saying “this house costs eleven cars” we say, “this house costs $440,000,” which is equal to the price of eleven $40,000 cars. Money gives us the ability to better handle exchange ratios in the same way zero gives us the ability to better handle numeric ratios.
Numbers are the ultimate level of objective abstraction: for example, the number 3 stands for the idea of “threeness” — a quality that can be ascribed to anything in the universe that comes in treble form. Equally, 9 stands for the quality of “nineness” shared by anything that is composed of nine parts. Numerals and math greatly enhanced interpersonal exchange of knowledge (which can be embodied in goods or services), as people can communicate about almost anything in the common language of numeracy. Money, then, is just the mathematized measure of capital available in the marketplace: it is the least common denominator among all economic goods and is necessarily the most liquid asset with the least mutable supply. It is used as a measuring system for the constantly shifting valuations of capital (this is why gold became money—it is the monetary metal with a supply that is most difficult to change). Ratios of money to capital (aka prices) are among the most important in the world, and ratios are a foundational element of being:
“In the beginning, there was the ratio, and the ratio was with God, and the ratio was God.” — John 1:1*
*(A more “rational” translation of Jesus’s beloved disciple John: the Greek word for ratio was λόγος (logos), which is also the term for word.)
An ability to more efficiently handle ratios directly contributed to mankind’s later development of rationality, a logic-based way of thinking at the root of major social movements such as the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. To truly grasp the strange logic of zero, we must start with its point of origin—the philosophy from which it was born.
Philosophy of Zero
“In the earliest age of the gods, existence was born from non-existence.” — The Rig Veda
Zero arose from the bizarre logic of the ancient East. Interestingly, the Buddha himself was a known mathematician — in early books about him, like the Lalita Vistara, he is said to be excellent in numeracy (a skill he uses to woo a certain princess). In Buddhism, the logical character of the phenomenological world is more complex than true or false:
“Anything is either true,
Or not true,
Or both true and not true,
Or neither true nor not true.
This is the Lord Buddha’s teaching.”
This is the Tetralemma (or the four corners of the catuskoti): the key to understanding the seeming strangeness of this ancient Eastern logic is the concept of Shunya, a Hindi word meaning zero: it is derived from the Buddhist philosophical concept of Śūnyatā (or Shunyata). The ultimate goal of meditation is the attainment of enlightenment, or an ideal state of nirvana, which is equivalent to emptying oneself entirely of thought, desire, and worldly attachment. Achievement of this absolute emptiness is the state of being in Shunyata: a philosophical concept closely related to the void—as the Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh describes it:
“The first door of liberation is emptiness, Shunyata
Emptiness always means empty of something
Emptiness is the Middle Way between existent and nonexistent
Reality goes beyond notions of being and nonbeing
True emptiness is called “wondrous being,” because it goes beyond existence and nonexistence
The concentration on Emptiness is a way of staying in touch with life as it is, but it has to be practiced and not just talked about.”
Or, as a Buddhist monk of ancient Wats temple in Southeast Asia described the meditative experience of the void:
“When we meditate, we count. We close our eyes and are aware only of where we are at in the moment, and nothing else. We count breathing in, 1; and we count breathing out, 2; and we go on this way. When we stop counting, that is the void, the number zero, the emptiness.”
A direct experience of emptiness is achievable through meditation. In a true meditative state, the Shunyata and the number zero are one and the same. Emptiness is the conduit between existence and nonexistence, in the same way zero is the door from positive to negative numbers: each being a perfect reflection of the other. Zero arose in the ancient East as the epitome of this deeply philosophical and experiential concept of absolute emptiness. Empirically, today we now know that meditation benefits the brain in many ways. It seems too, that its contribution to the discovery of zero helped forge an idea that benefits mankind’s collective intelligence — our global hive-mind.
Despite being discovered in a spiritual state, zero is a profoundly practical concept: perhaps it is best understood as a fusion of philosophy and pragmatism. By traversing across zero into the territory of negative numbers, we encounter the imaginary numbers, which have a base unit of the square root of -1, denoted by the letter i. The number i is paradoxical: consider the equations x² + 1 = 0 and x³ + 1 = 0, the only possible answers are positive square root of -1 (i) and negative square root of -1 (-i or i³), respectively. Visualizing these real and imaginary domains, we find a rotational axis centered on zero with orientations reminiscent of the tetralemma: one true (1), one not true (i), one both true and not true (-1 or i²), and one neither true nor not true (-i or i³):
Going through the gateway of zero into the realms of negative and imaginary numbers provides a more continuous form of logic when compared to the discrete either-or logic, commonly accredited to Aristotle and his followers. This framework is less “black and white” than the binary Aristotelean logic system, which was based on true or false, and provides many gradations of logicality; a more accurate map to the many “shades of grey” we find in nature. Continuous logic is insinuated throughout the world: for instance, someone may say “she wasn’t unattractive,” meaning that her appeal was ambivalent, somewhere between attractive and unattractive. This perspective is often more realistic than a binary assessment of attractive or not attractive.
Importantly, zero gave us the concept of infinity: which was notably absent from the minds of ancient Greek logicians. The rotations around zero through the real and imaginary number axes can be mathematically scaled up into a three-dimensional model called the Riemann Sphere. In this structure, zero and infinity are geometric reflections of one another and can transpose themselves in a flash of mathematical permutation. Always at the opposite pole of this three-dimensional, mathematical interpretation of the tetralemma, we find zero’s twin—infinity:
The twin polarities of zero and infinity are akin to yin and yang — as Charles Seife, author of Zero: Biography of a Dangerous Idea, describes them:
“Zero and infinity always looked suspiciously alike. Multiply zero by anything and you get zero. Multiply infinity by anything and you get infinity. Dividing a number by zero yields infinity; dividing a number by infinity yields zero. Adding zero to a number leaves it unchanged. Adding a number to infinity leaves infinity unchanged.”
In Eastern philosophy, the kinship of zero and infinity made sense: only in a state of absolute nothingness can possibility become infinite. Buddhist logic insists that everything is endlessly intertwined: a vast causal network in which all is inexorably interlinked, such that no single thing can truly be considered independent — as having its own isolated, non-interdependent essence. In this view, interrelation is the sole source of substantiation. Fundamental to their teachings, this truth is what Buddhists call dependent co-origination, meaning that all things depend on one another. The only exception to this truth is nirvana: liberation from the endless cycles of reincarnation. In Buddhism, the only pathway to nirvana is through pure emptiness:
Some ancient Buddhist texts state: “the truly absolute and the truly free must be nothingness.” In this sense, the invention of zero was special; it can be considered the discovery of absolute nothingness, a latent quality of reality that was not previously presupposed in philosophy or systems of knowledge like mathematics. Its discovery would prove to be an emancipating force for mankind, in that zero is foundational to the mathematized, software-enabled reality of convenience we inhabit today.
Zero was liberation discovered deep in meditation, a remnant of truth found in close proximity to nirvana — a place where one encounters universal, unbounded, and infinite awareness: God’s kingdom within us. To buddhists, zero was a whisper from the universe, from dharma, from God (words always fail us in the domain of divinity). Paradoxically, zero would ultimately shatter the institution which built its power structure by monopolizing access to God. In finding footing in the void, mankind uncovered the deepest, soundest substrate on which to build modern society: zero would prove to be a critical piece of infrastructure that led to the interconnection of the world via telecommunications, which ushered in the gold standard and the digital age (Bitcoin’s two key inceptors) many years later.
Blazing a path forward: the twin conceptions of zero and infinity would ignite the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment — all movements that mitigated the power of The Catholic Church as the dominant institution in the world and paved the way for the industrialized nation-state.
Power of The Church Falls to Zero
The universe of the ancient Greeks was founded on the philosophical tenets of Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Ptolemy. Central to their conception of the cosmos was the precept that there is no void, no nothingness, no zero. Greeks, who had inherited their numbers from the geometry-loving Egyptians, made little distinction between shape and number. Even today, when we square a number (x²), this is equivalent to converting a line into a square and calculating its area. Pythagoreans were mystified by this connection between shapes and numbers, which explains why they didn’t conceive of zero as a number: after all, what shape could represent nothingness? Ancient Greeks believed numbers had to be visible to be real, whereas the ancient Indians perceived numbers as an intrinsic part of a latent, invisible reality separate from mankind’s conception of them.
The symbol of the Pythagorean cult was the pentagram (a five-pointed star); this sacred shape contained within it the key to their view of the universe—the golden ratio. Considered to be the “most beautiful number,” the golden ratio is achieved by dividing a line such that the ratio of the small part to the large part is the same as the ratio of the large part to the whole. Such proportionality was found to be not only aesthetically pleasing, but also naturally occurring in a variety of forms including nautilus shells, pineapples, and (centuries later) the double-helix of DNA. Beauty this objectively pure was considered to be a window into the transcendent; a soul-sustaining quality. The golden ratio became widely used in art, music, and architecture:
The golden ratio was also found in musical harmonics: when plucking a string instrument from its specified segments, musicians could create the perfect fifth, a dual resonance of notes said to be the most evocative musical relationship. Discordant tritones, on the other hand, were derided as the “devil in music.” Such harmony of music was considered to be one and the same with that of mathematics and the universe—in the Pythagorean finite view of the cosmos (later called the Aristotelean celestial spheres model), movements of planets and other heavenly bodies generated a symphonic “harmony of the spheres”—a celestial music that suffused the cosmic depths. From the perspective of Pythagoreans, “all was number,” meaning ratios ruled the universe. The golden ratio’s seemingly supernatural connection to aesthetics, life, and the universe became a central tenet of Western Civilization and, later, The Catholic Church (aka The Church).
Zero posed a major threat to the conception of a finite universe. Dividing by zero is devastating to the framework of logic, and thus threatened the perfect order and integrity of a Pythagorean worldview. This was a serious problem for The Church which, after the fall of the Roman Empire, appeared as the dominant institution in Europe. To substantiate its dominion in the world, The Church proffered itself as the gatekeeper to heaven. Anyone who crossed The Church in any way could find themselves eternally barred from the holy gates. The Church’s claim to absolute sovereignty was critically dependent on the Pythagorean model, as the dominant institution over Earth—which was in their view the center of the universe—necessarily held dominion in God’s universe. Standing as a symbol for both the void and the infinite, zero was heretical to The Church. Centuries later, a similar dynamic would unfold in the discovery of absolute scarcity for money, which is dissident to the dominion of The Fed—the false church of modernity.
Ancient Greeks clung tightly to a worldview that did not tolerate zero or the infinite: rejection of these crucial concepts proved to be their biggest failure, as it prevented the discovery of calculus—the mathematical machinery on which much of the physical sciences and, thus, the modern world are constructed. Core to their (flawed) belief system was the concept of the “indivisible atom,” the elementary particle which could not be subdivided ad infinitum. In their minds, there was no way beyond the micro barrier of the atomic surface. In the same vein, they considered the universe a “macrocosmic atom” that was strictly bound by an outermost sphere of stars winking down towards the cosmic core—Earth. As above, so below: with nothing conceived to be above this stellar sphere and nothing below the atomic surface, there was no infinity and no void:
Aristotle (with later refinements by Ptolemy) would interpret this finite universe philosophically and, in doing so, form the ideological foundation for God’s existence and The Church’s power on Earth. In the Aristotelean conception of the universe, the force moving the stars, which drove the motion of all elements below, was the prime mover: God. This cascade of cosmic force from on high downward into the movements of mankind was considered the officially accepted interpretation of divine will. As Christianity swept through the West, The Church relied upon the explanatory power of this Aristotelean philosophy as proof of God’s existence in their proselytizing efforts. Objecting to the Aristotelean doctrine was soon considered an objection to the existence of God and the power of The Church.
Infinity was unavoidably actualized by the same Aristotelean logic which sought to deny it. By the 13th century, some bishops began calling assemblies to question the Aristotelean doctrines that went against the omnipotence of God: for example, the notion that “God can not move the heavens in a straight line, because that would leave behind a vacuum.” If the heavens moved linearly, then what was left in their wake? Through what substance were they moving? This implied either the existence of the void (the vacuum), or that God was not truly omnipotent as he could not move the heavens. Suddenly, Aristotelean philosophy started to break under its own weight, thereby eroding the premise of The Church’s power. Although The Church would cling to Aristotle’s views for a few more centuries—it fought heresy by forbidding certain books and burning certain Protestants alive—zero marked the beginning of the end for this domineering and oppressive institution.
An infinite universe meant there were, at least, a vast multitude of planets, many of which likely had their own populations and churches. Earth was no longer the center of the universe, so why should The Church have universal dominion? In a grand ideological shift that foreshadowed the invention of Bitcoin centuries later, zero became the idea that broke The Church’s grip on humanity, just as absolute scarcity of money is breaking The Fed’s stranglehold on the world today. In an echo of history, us moderns can once again hear the discovery of nothing beginning to change everything.
Zero was the smooth stone slung into the face of Goliath, a death-stroke to the dominion of The Church; felled by an unstoppable idea, this oppressive institution’s fall from grace would make way for the rise of the nation-state—the dominant institutional model in modernity.
Zero: An Ideological Juggernaut
Indoctrinated in The Church’s dogma, Christianity initially refused to accept zero, as it was linked to a primal fear of the void. Zero’s inexorable connection to nothingness and chaos made it a fearsome concept in the eyes of most Christians at the time. But zero’s capacity to support honest weights and measures, a core Biblical concept, would prove more important than the countermeasures of The Church (and the invention of zero would later lead to the invention of the most infallible of weights and measures, the most honest money in history—Bitcoin). In a world being built on trade, merchants needed zero for its superior arithmetic utility. As Pierre-Simon Laplace said:
“…[zero is] a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit. But its very simplicity and the great ease which it lent to all computations put our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions.”
In the 13th century, academics like the renowned Italian mathematician Fibonacci began championing zero in their work, helping the Hindu-Arabic system gain credibility in Europe. As trade began to flourish and generate unprecedented levels of wealth in the world, math moved from purely practical applications to ever more abstracted functions. As Alfred North Whitehead said:
“The point about zero is that we do not need to use it in the operations of daily life. No one goes out to buy zero fish. It is in a way the most civilized of all the cardinals, and its use is only forced on us by the needs of cultivated modes of thought.”
As our thinking became more sophisticated, so too did our demands on math. Tools like the abacus relied upon a set of sliding stones to help us keep track of amounts and perform calculation. An abacus was like an ancient calculator, and as the use of zero became popularized in Europe, competitions were held between users of the abacus (the abacists) and of the newly arrived Hindu-Arabic numeral system (the algorists) to see who could solve complex calculations faster. With training, algorists could readily outpace abacists in computation. Contests like these led to the demise of the abacus as a useful tool, however it still left a lasting mark on our language: the words calculate, calculus, and calcium are all derived from the Latin word for pebble—calculus.
Before the Hindu-Arabic numerals, money counters had to use the abacus or a counting board to keep track of value flows. Germans called the counting board a Rechenbank, which is why moneylenders came to be known as banks. Not only did banks use counting boards, but they also used tally sticks to keep track of lending activities: the monetary value of a loan was written on the side of a stick, and it was split into two pieces, with the lender keeping the larger piece, known as the stock—which is where we get the term stockholder:
Despite its superior utility for business, governments despised zero. In 1299, Florence banned the Hindu-Arabic numeral system. As with many profound innovations, zero faced vehement resistance from entrenched power structures that were threatened by its existence. Carrying on lawlessly, Italian merchants continued to use the zero-based numeral system, and even began using it to transmit encrypted messages. Zero was essential to these early encryption systems—which is why the word cipher, which originally meant zero, came to mean “secret code.” The criticality of zero to ancient encryption systems is yet another aspect of its contribution to Bitcoin’s ancestral heritage.
At the beginning of the Renaissance, the threat zero would soon pose to the power of The Church was not obvious. By then, zero had been adapted as an artistic tool to create the vanishing point: an acute place of infinite nothingness used in many paintings that sparked the great Renaissance in the visual arts. Drawings and paintings prior to the vanishing point appear flat and lifeless: their imagery was mostly two-dimensional and unrealistic. Even the best artists couldn’t capture realism without the use of zero:
With the concept of zero, artists could create a zero-dimension point in their work that was “infinitely far” from the viewer, and into which all objects in the painting visually collapsed. As objects appear to recede from the viewer into the distance, they become ever-more compressed into the “dimensionlessness” of the vanishing point, before finally disappearing. Just as it does today, art had a strong influence on people’s perceptions. Eventually, Nicholas of Cusa, a cardinal of The Church declared, “Terra non est centra mundi,” which meant “the Earth is not the center of the universe.” This declaration would later lead to Copernicus proving heliocentrism—the spark that ignited The Reformation and, later, the Age of Enlightenment:
A dangerous, heretical, and revolutionary idea had been planted by zero and its visual incarnation, the vanishing point. At this point of infinite distance, the concept of zero was captured visually, and space was made infinite—as Seife describes it:
“It was no coincidence that zero and infinity are linked in the vanishing point. Just as multiplying by zero causes the number line to collapse into a point, the vanishing point has caused most of the universe to sit in a tiny dot. This is a singularity, a concept that became very important later in the history of science—but at this early stage, mathematicians knew little more than the artists about the properties of zero.”
The purpose of the artist is to the mythologize the present: this is evident in much of the consumerist “trash art” produced in our current fiat-currency-fueled world. Renaissance artists (who were often also mathematicians, true Renaissance men) worked assiduously in line with this purpose as the vanishing point became an increasingly popular element of art in lockstep with zero’s proliferation across the world. Indeed, art accelerated the propulsion of zero across the mindscape of mankind.
Modernity: The Age of Ones and Zeros
Eventually, zero became the cornerstone of calculus: an innovative system of mathematics that enabled people to contend with ever-smaller units approaching zero, but cunningly avoided the logic-trap of having to divide by zero. This new system gave mankind myriad new ways to comprehend and grasp his surroundings. Diverse disciplines such as chemistry, engineering, and physics all depend on calculus to fulfill their functions in the world today:
Zero serves as the source-waters of many technological breakthroughs—some of which would flow together into the most important invention in history: Bitcoin. Zero punched a hole and created a vacuum in the framework of mathematics and shattered Aristotelean philosophy, on which the power of The Church was premised. Today, Bitcoin is punching a hole and creating a vacuum in the market for money; it is killing Keynesian economics—which is the propagandistic power-base of the nation-state (along with its apparatus of theft: the central bank).
In modernity, zero has become a celebrated tool in our mathematical arsenal. As the binary numerical system now forms the foundation of modern computer programming, zero was essential to the development of digital tools like the personal computer, the internet, and Bitcoin. Amazingly, all modern miracles made possible by digital technologies can be traced back to the invention of a figure for numeric nothingness by an ancient Indian mathematician: Brahmagupta gave the world a real “something for nothing,” a generosity Satoshi would emulate several centuries later. As Aczel says:
“Numbers are our greatest invention, and zero is the capstone of the whole system.”
A composition of countless zeroes and ones, binary code led to the proliferation and standardization of communications protocols including those embodied in the internet protocol suite. As people freely experimented with these new tools, they organized themselves around the most useful protocols like http, TCP/IP, etc. Ossification of digital communication standards provided the substrate upon which new societal utilities—like email, ride sharing, and mobile computing—were built. Latest (and arguably the greatest) among these digital innovations is the uninflatable, unconfiscatable, and unstoppable money called Bitcoin.
A common misconception of Bitcoin is that it is just one of thousands of cryptoassets in the world today. One may be forgiven for this misunderstanding, as our world today is home to many national currencies. But all these currencies began as warehouse receipts for the same type of thing—namely, monetary metal (usually gold). Today, national currencies are not redeemable for gold, and are instead liquid equity units in a pyramid scheme called fiat currency: a hierarchy of thievery built on top of the freely selected money of the world (gold) which their issuers (central banks) hoard to manipulate its price, insulate their inferior fiat currencies from competitive threats, and perpetually extract wealth from those lower down the pyramid.
Given this confusion, many mistakenly believe that Bitcoin could be disrupted by any one of the thousands of alternative cryptoassets in the marketplace today. This is understandable, as the reasons that make Bitcoin different are not part of common parlance and are relatively difficult to understand. Even Ray Dalio, the greatest hedge fund manager in history, said that he believes Bitcoin could be disrupted by a competitor in the same way that iPhone disrupted Blackberry. However, disruption of Bitcoin is extremely unlikely: Bitcoin is a path-dependent, one-time invention; its critical breakthrough is the discovery of absolute scarcity—a monetary property never before (and never again) achievable by mankind.
Like the invention of zero, which led to the discovery of “nothing as something” in mathematics and other domains, Bitcoin is the catalyst of a worldwide paradigmatic phase change (which some have started calling The Great Awakening). What numeral is to number, and zero is to the void for mathematics, Bitcoin is to absolute scarcity for money: each is a symbol that allows mankind to apprehend a latent reality (in the case of money, time). More than just a new monetary technology, Bitcoin is an entirely new economic paradigm: an uncompromisable base money protocol for a global, digital, non-state economy. To better understand the profundity of this, we first need to understand the nature of path-dependence.
The Path-Dependence of Bitcoin
Path-dependence is the sensitivity of an outcome to the order of events that led to it. In the broadest sense, it means history has inertia:
Path-dependence entails that the sequence of events matters as much as the events themselves: as a simple example, you get a dramatically different result if you shower and then dry yourself off versus if you dry yourself off first and then shower. Path-dependence is especially prevalent in complex systems due to their high interconnectivity and numerous (often unforeseeable) interdependencies. Once started down a particular pathway, breaking away from its sociopolitical inertia can become impossible—for instance, imagine if the world tried to standardize to a different size electrical outlet: consumers, manufacturers, and suppliers would all resist this costly change unless there was a gigantic prospective gain. To coordinate this shift in standardization would require either a dramatically more efficient technology (a pull method—by which people stand to benefit) or an imposing organization to force the change (a push method—in which people would be forced to change in the face of some threat). Path-dependence is why occurrences in the sociopolitical domain often influence developments in the technical; US citizens saw path-dependent pushback firsthand when their government made a failed attempt to switch to the metric system back in the 1970s.
Bitcoin was launched into the world as a one of a kind technology: a non-state digital money that is issued on a perfectly fixed, diminishing, and predictable schedule. It was strategically released into the wild (into an online group of cryptographers) at a time when no comparative technology existed. Bitcoin’s organic adoption path and mining network expansion are a non-repeatable sequence of events. As a thought experiment, consider that if a “New Bitcoin” was launched today, it would exhibit weak chain security early on, as its mining network and hash rate would have to start from scratch. Today, in a world that is aware of Bitcoin, this “New Bitcoin” with comparatively weak chain security would inevitably be attacked—whether these were incumbent projects seeking to defend their head start, international banking cartels, or even nation-states:
Path-dependence protects Bitcoin from disruption, as the organic sequence of events which led to its release and assimilation into the marketplace cannot be replicated. Further, Bitcoin’s money supply is absolutely scarce; a totally unique and one-time discovery for money. Even if “New Bitcoin” was released with an absolutely scarce money supply, its holders would be incentivized to hold the money with the greatest liquidity, network effects, and chain security. This would cause them to dump “New Bitcoin” for the original Bitcoin. More realistically, instead of launching “New Bitcoin,” those seeking to compete with Bitcoin would take a social contract attack-vector by initiating a hard fork. An attempt like this was already made with the “Bitcoin Cash” fork, which tried to increase block sizes to (ostensibly) improve its utility for payments. This chain fork was an abject failure and a real world reinforcement of the importance of Bitcoin’s path-dependent emergence:
Continuing our thought experiment: even if “New Bitcoin” featured a diminishing money supply (in other words, a deflationary monetary policy), how would its rate of money supply decay (deflation) be determined? By what mechanism would its beneficiaries be selected? As market participants (nodes and miners) jockeyed for position to maximize their accrual of economic benefit from the deflationary monetary policy, forks would ensue that would diminish the liquidity, network effects, and chain security for “New Bitcoin,” causing everyone to eventually pile back into the original Bitcoin—just like they did in the wake of Bitcoin Cash’s failure.
Path-dependence ensures that those who try to game Bitcoin get burned. Reinforced by four-sided network effects, it makes Bitcoin’s first-mover advantage seemingly insurmountable. The idea of absolute monetary scarcity goes against the wishes of entrenched power structures like The Fed: like zero, once an idea whose time has come is released into the world, it is nearly impossible to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle. After all, unstoppable ideas are independent lifeforms:
Finite and Infinite Games
Macroeconomics is essentially the set of games played globally to satisfy the demands of mankind (which are infinite) within the bounds of his time (which is strictly finite). In these games, scores are tracked in monetary terms. Using lingo from the groundbreaking book Finite and Infinite Games, there are two types of economic games: unfree (or centrally planned) markets are theatrical, meaning that they are performed in accordance with a predetermined script that often entails dutifulness and disregard for humanity. The atrocities committed in Soviet Russia are exemplary of the consequences of a theatrical economic system. On the other hand, free markets are dramatic, meaning that they are enacted in the present according to consensual and adaptable boundaries. Software development is a good example of a dramatic market, as entrepreneurs are free to adopt the rules, tools, and protocols that best serve customers. Simply: theatrical games are governed by imposed rules (based on tyranny), whereas rulesets for dramatic games are voluntarily adopted (based on individual sovereignty).
From a moral perspective, sovereignty is always superior to tyranny. And from a practical perspective, tyrannies are less energy-efficient than free markets because they require tyrants to expend resources enforcing compliance with their imposed rulesets and protecting their turf. Voluntary games (free market capitalism) outcompete involuntary games (centrally planned socialism) as they do not accrue these enforcement and protection costs: hence the reason capitalism (freedom) outcompetes socialism (slavery) in the long run. Since interpersonal interdependency is at the heart of the comparative advantage and division of labor dynamics that drive the value proposition of cooperation and competition, we can say that money is an infinite game: meaning that its purpose is not to win, but rather to continue to play. After all, if one player had all the money, the game would end (like the game of Monopoly).
In this sense, Bitcoin’s terminal money supply growth (inflation) rate of absolute zero is the ultimate monetary Schelling point — a game-theoretic focal point that people tend to choose in an adversarial game. In game theory, a game is any situation where there can be winners or losers, a strategy is a decision-making process, and a Schelling point is the default strategy for games in which the players cannot fully trust one another (like money):
Economic actors are incentivized to choose the money that best holds its value across time, is most widely accepted, and most clearly conveys market pricing information. All three of these qualities are rooted in scarcity: resistance to inflation ensures that money retains its value and ability to accurately price capital across time, which leads to its use as an exchange medium. For these reasons, holding the scarcest money is the most energy-efficient strategy a player can employ, which makes the absolute scarcity of Bitcoin an irrefutable Schelling point—a singular, unshakable motif in games played for money.
A distant digital descendent of zero, the invention of Bitcoin represents the discovery of absolute scarcity for money: an idea as equally unstoppable.
Similar to the discovery of absolute nothingness symbolized by zero, the discovery of absolutely scarce money symbolized by Bitcoin is special. Gold became money because out of the monetary metals it had the most inelastic (or relatively scarce) money supply: meaning that no matter how much time was allocated towards gold production, its supply increased the least. Since its supply increased the slowest and most predictable rate, gold was favored for storing value and pricing things—which encouraged people to voluntarily adopt it, thus making it the dominant money on the free market. Before Bitcoin, gold was the world’s monetary Schelling point, because it made trade easier in a manner that minimized the need to trust other players. Like its digital ancestor zero, Bitcoin is an invention that radically enhances exchange efficiency by purifying informational transmissions: for zero, this meant instilling more meaning per proximate digit, for Bitcoin, this means generating more salience per price signal. In the game of money, the objective has always been to hold the most relatively scarce monetary metal (gold); now, the goal is to occupy the most territory on the absolutely scarce monetary network called Bitcoin.
A New Epoch for Money
Historically, precious metals were the best monetary technologies in terms of money’s five critical traits:
- recognizability, and
Among the monetary metals, gold was relatively the most scarce, and therefore it outcompeted others in the marketplace as it was a more sound store of value. In the ascension of gold as money, it was as if free market dynamics were trying to zero-in on a sufficiently divisible, durable, portable, and recognizable monetary technology that was also absolutely scarce (strong arguments for this may be found by studying the Eurodollar system). Free markets are distributed computing systems that zero-in on the most useful prices and technologies based on the prevailing demands of people and the available supplies of capital: they constantly assimilate all of mankind’s intersubjective perspectives on the world within the bounds of objective reality to produce our best approximations of truth. In this context, verifiable scarcity is the best proxy for the truthfulness of money: assurance that it will not be debased over time.
As a (pre-Bitcoin) thought experiment, had a “new gold” been discovered in the Earth’s crust, assuming it was mostly distributed evenly across the Earth’s surface and was exactly comparable to gold in terms of these five monetary traits (with the exception that it was more scarce), free market dynamics would have led to its selection as money, as it would be that much closer to absolute scarcity, making it a better means of storing value and propagating price signals. Seen this way, gold as a monetary technology was the closest the free market could come to absolutely scarce money before it was discovered in its only possible form—digital. The supply of any physical thing can only be limited by the time necessary to procure it: if we could flip a switch and force everyone on Earth to make their sole occupation gold mining, the supply of gold would soon soar. Unlike Bitcoin, no physical form of money could possibly guarantee a permanently fixed supply—so far as we know, absolute scarcity can only be digital.
Digitization is advantageous across all five traits of money. Since Bitcoin is just information, relative to other monetary technologies, we can say: its
- divisibility is supreme, as information can be infinitely subdivided and recombined at near-zero cost (like numbers); its
- durability is supreme, as information does not decompose (books can outlast empires); its
- portability is supreme, as information can move at the speed of light (thanks to telecommunications); and its
- recognizability is supreme, as information is the most objectively discernible substance in the universe (like the written word). Finally, and most critically, since Bitcoin algorithmically and thermodynamically enforces an absolutely scarce money supply, we can say that its
- scarcity is infinite (as scarce as time, the substance money is intended to tokenize in the first place). Taken in combination, these traits make absolutely scarce digital money seemingly indomitable in the marketplace.
In the same way that the number zero enables our numeric system to scale and more easily perform calculation, so too does money give an economy the ability to socially scale by simplifying trade and economic calculation. Said simply: scarcity is essential to the utility of money, and a zero-growth terminal money supply represents “perfect” scarcity — which makes Bitcoin as near a “perfect” monetary technology as mankind has ever had. Absolute scarcity is a monumental monetary breakthrough. Since money is valued according to reflexivity, meaning that investor perceptions of its future exchangeability influence its present valuation, Bitcoin’s perfectly predictable and finite future supply underpins an unprecedented rate of expansion in market capitalization:
In summary: the invention of Bitcoin represents the discovery of absolute scarcity, or absolute irreproducibility, which occurred due to a particular sequence of idiosyncratic events that cannot be reproduced. Any attempt to introduce an absolutely scarce or diminishing supplied money into the world would likely collapse into Bitcoin (as we saw with the Bitcoin Cash fork). Absolute scarcity is a one-time discovery, just like heliocentrism or any other major scientific paradigm shift. In a world where Bitcoin already exists, a successful launch via a proof-of-work system is no longer possible due to path-dependence; yet another reason why Bitcoin cannot be replicated or disrupted by another cryptoasset using this consensus mechanism. At this point, it seems absolute scarcity for money is truly a one-time discovery that cannot “disrupted” any more than the concept of zero can be disrupted.
A true “Bitcoin killer” would necessitate an entirely new consensus mechanism and distribution model; with an implementation overseen by an unprecedentedly organized group of human beings: nothing to date has been conceived that could even come close to satisfying these requirements. In the same way that there has only ever been one analog gold, there is likely to only ever be one digital gold. For the same quantifiable reasons a zero-based numeral system became a dominant mathematical protocol, and capitalism outcompetes socialism, the absolute scarcity of Bitcoin’s supply will continue outcompeting all other monetary protocols in its path to global dominance.
Numbers are the fundamental abstractions which rule our world. Zero is the vanishing point of the mathematical landscape. In the realm of interpersonal competition and cooperation, money is the dominant abstraction which governs our behavior. Money arises naturally as the most tradable thing within a society—this includes exchanges with others and with our future selves. Scarcity is the trait of money that allows it to hold value across time, enabling us to trade it with our future selves for the foregone opportunity costs (the things we could have otherwise traded money for had we not decided to hold it). Scarce money accrues value as our productivity grows. For these reasons, the most scarce technology which otherwise exhibits sufficient monetary traits (divisibility, durability, recognizability, portability) tends to become money. Said simply: the most relatively scarce money wins. In this sense, what zero is to math, absolute scarcity is to money. It is an astonishing discovery, a window into the void, just like its predecessor zero:
Fiat Currency Always Falls to Zero
Zero has proven itself as the capstone of our numeral system by making it scalable, invertible, and easily convertible. In time, Bitcoin will prove itself as the most important network in the global economic system by increasing social scalability, causing an inversion of economic power, and converting culture into a realignment with Natural Law. Bitcoin will allow sovereignty to once again inhere at the individual level, instead of being usurped at the institutional level as it is today—all thanks to its special forebear, zero:
Central planning in the market for money (aka monetary socialism) is dying. This tyrannical financial hierarchy has increased worldwide wealth disparities, funded perpetual warfare, and plundered entire commonwealths to “bail out” failing institutions. A reversion to the free market for money is the only way to heal the devastation it has wrought over the past 100+ years. Unlike central bankers, who are fallible human beings that give into political pressure to pillage value from people by printing money, Bitcoin’s monetary policy does not bend for anyone: it gives zero fucks. And in a world where central banks can “just add zeros” to steal your wealth, people’s only hope is a “zero fucks” money that cannot be confiscated, inflated, or stopped:
Bitcoin was specifically designed as a countermeasure to “expansionary monetary policies” (aka wealth confiscation via inflation) by central bankers. Bitcoin is a true zero-to-one invention, an innovation that profoundly changes society instead of just introducing an incremental advancement. Bitcoin is ushering in a new paradigm for money, nation-states, and energy-efficiency. Most importantly, it promises to break the cycle of criminality in which governments continuously privatize gains (via seigniorage) and socialize losses (via inflation). Time and time again, excessive inflation has torn societies apart, yet the lessons of history remain unlearned—once again, here we are:
The Zero Hour
How much longer will monetary socialism remain an extant economic model? The countdown has already begun: Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Liftoff. Rocket technicians always wait for zero before ignition; countdowns always finalize at the zero hour. Oil price wars erupting in Eurasia, a global pandemic, an unprecedented expansionary monetary policy response, and another quadrennial Bitcoin inflation-rate halving: 2020 is quickly becoming the zero hour for Bitcoin.
Inflation rate and societal wellbeing are inversely related: the more reliably value can be stored across time, the more trust can be cultivated among market participants. When a money’s roots to economic reality are severed—as happened when the peg to gold was broken and fiat currency was born—its supply inevitably trends towards infinity (hyperinflation) and the functioning of its underlying society deteriorates towards zero (economic collapse). An unstoppable free market alternative, Bitcoin is anchored to economic reality (through proof-of-work energy expenditure) and has an inflation rate predestined for zero, meaning that a society operating on a Bitcoin standard would stand to gain in virtually infinite ways. When Bitcoin’s inflation rate finally reaches zero in the mid 22nd century, the measure of its soundness as a store of value (the stock-to-flow ratio) will become infinite; people that realize this and adopt it early will benefit disproportionately from the resultant mass wealth transfer.
Zero and infinity are reciprocal: 1/∞ = 0 and 1/0 = ∞. In the same way, a society’s wellbeing shrinks towards zero the more closely the inflation rate approaches infinity (through the hyperinflation of fiat currency). Conversely, societal wellbeing can, in theory, be expanded towards infinity the more closely the inflation rate approaches zero (through the absolute scarcity of Bitcoin). Remember: The Fed is now doing whatever it takes to make sure there is “infinite cash” in the banking system, meaning that its value will eventually fall to zero:
Zero arose in the world as an unstoppable idea because its time had come; it broke the dominion of The Church and put an end to its monopolization over access to knowledge and the gates to heaven. The resultant movement—The Separation of Church and State—reinvigorated self-sovereignty in the world, setting the individual firmly as the cornerstone of the state. Rising from The Church’s ashes came a nation-state model founded on sound property rights, rule of law, and free market money (aka hard money). With this new age came an unprecedented boom in scientific advancement, wealth creation, and worldwide wellbeing. In the same way, Bitcoin and its underlying discovery of absolute scarcity for money is an idea whose time has come. Bitcoin is shattering the siege of central banks on our financial sovereignty; it is invoking a new movement—The Separation of Money and State—as its revolutionary banner; and it is restoring Natural Law in a world ravaged by a mega-wealth-parasite—The Fed.
Only unstoppable ideas can break otherwise immovable institutions: zero brought The Church to its knees and Bitcoin is bringing the false church of The Fed into the sunlight of its long-awaited judgement day.
Both zero and Bitcoin are emblematic of the void, a realm of pure potentiality from which all things spring forth into being — the nothingness from which everything effervesces, and into which all possibility finally collapses. Zero and Bitcoin are unstoppable ideas gifted to mankind; gestures made in the spirit of “something for nothing.” In a world run by central banks with zero accountability, a cabal that uses the specious prospects of “infinite cash” to promise us everything (thereby introducing the specter of hyperinflation), nothingness may prove to be the greatest gift we could ever receive…
Thank you Brahmagupta and Satoshi Nakamoto for your generosity.