A forgotten 300-year-old-solution to Alex Salmond's money problems

Adam Smith or David Hume were no slouches when it came to economics but on the subject of monetary policy, the palm goes not to those superstars of the Scottish Enlightenment but to a man born a generation before them and much less well known.

One of the centrepieces of the SNP’s manifesto for Scottish independence is a pledge to keep the British pound. As far as Alex Salmond is concerned, the future of money is the status quo. Meanwhile, on 18 November, Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve, endorsed the viability of digital money in a letter to the US Congress. Within a week, the price of a single Bitcoin – the best-known web-based currency – had passed $1,200 (11 months ago, it was worth just $13.50). For the technocracy of Silicon Valley, the future of money is in the cloud.

These two seemingly unrelated developments are linked. They represent alternative answers to the questions at the centre of all monetary history: who should govern our money and how? The remarkable thing is that both answers were exposed as dangerous errors centuries ago. While the geeks behind Bitcoin can be excused their ignorance of this, the history-loving Scottish First Minister most definitely cannot – because the man who first explained these answers’ failings was none other than the greatest monetary thinker that Scotland has ever produced.

I don’t mean Adam Smith or David Hume. They were no slouches when it came to economics but on the subject of monetary policy, the palm goes not to those superstars of the Scottish Enlightenment but to a man born a generation before them and much less well known: John Law of Lauriston.

While Smith and Hume spent their formative years swotting in the libraries of Oxford and Edinburgh, respectively, Law – the mathematically gifted son of a prosperous Edinburgh goldsmith – hightailed it down to London to learn the practical business of modern banking from the entrepreneurs, inventors, gamblers and quacks who were busy fomenting the financial revolution that was sweeping London in the 1690s.

When he returned to Edinburgh, all the talk was of a possible union with England. The key economic question, then as now, was what to do about the currency. The conventional answer was the one that Alex Salmond echoes today: to adopt the pound sterling, under the control of the then newly founded Bank of England.

John Law was having none of it. He had discovered an economic truth that we know only too well today – that monetary policy has profound effects on employment, output and the distribution of wealth. As a result, he concluded, it would be “contrair to reason to limit the industry of the people” by acquiescing in the use of a currency “not in our power, but in the power of our enemies”.

How many citizens of Spain, where unemployment is at 27 per cent, or of Italy, where GDP today has fallen to the level of 13 years ago, wish their leaders had listened to the laird of Lauriston’s 300-year-old advice that letting other people manage your money is sheer madness? Yet the SNP’s plan, bizarrely, is to re-create the eurozone within the British Isles.

If letting other people decide the value of your currency is daft, what is the alternative? Law first toyed with the idea of creating a national currency with a value that would be linked to Scotland’s stock of land. That was a similar idea to the solution the English were to settle on in time – a gold standard that fixed the value of the pound to that of precious metal.

The principle behind such commodity-based systems is that the simplest way of avoiding a monetary standard controlled by one’s enemies is to plump for one controlled by nobody at all. No one, after all, can conjure up gold, or land, out of nothing.

That is also the logic of Bitcoin. A physical commodity in fixed supply is replaced by a virtual one subject to a preprogrammed ceiling – but the principle is the same. Don’t let someone else manipulate the supply of the money you use; better that it should be free from manipulation by anyone at all.

This second answer to the perennial question of monetary governance is also flawed. The problem – learned the hard way over the course of two centuries under the operation of the gold standard – is that an arbitrary monetary standard is just that: arbitrary.

There is no reason whatsoever to expect gold discoveries to keep pace with economic growth. The supply of land – let alone of Bitcoins – is even less flexible. The result is a ruinous tendency to deflation. The flip side of the relentless rise in price of a single Bitcoin is the relentless fall in the price of everything else, as measured in Bitcoins.

So John Law jettisoned this second answer, too. Having failed to convince his fellow Scots to reject the Acts of Union, he went to France. There, his avant-garde ideas found a readier audience and he engineered an unlikely ascent that culminated in his appointment as the country’s minister of finance.

In 1719, he took France off its gold standard and introduced paper money, issued at the discretion of the national government. It was the first European fiat currency regime, regulated by the world’s first deliberate monetary policy.

Thus Law furnished a third answer to the central question of monetary history – and it is one for the ages. Rather than ceding the control of one’s money to someone else – the Alex Salmond solution – or abandoning it to the vagaries of blind chance – the Bitcoin solution – the ideal way is to manage one’s money oneself and in one’s own national interest.

Such enlightenment, it seems, can be fleeting. David Hume has his statue on Edinbugh’s Royal Mile and there is one of Adam Smith on the High Street. John Law, on the other hand, hasn’t even made it into the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Much worse than this is that his teachings, too, have been utterly forgotten by those who claim to be the staunchest defenders of his beloved homeland.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond at the launch of the White Paper for Scottish Independence in November 2013. Photo: Getty.

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Burnout Britain

Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons
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Donald Trump brings home his dark vision of America at the Republican convention

The Presidential nominee pledged: "Safety must be restored."

Donald Trump brought home the Republican convention Thursday night with a dark vision of contemporary America – a darkness he claimed only his leadership could lift. It was a lengthy, tightly-scripted speech framed around polarities – insiders and outsiders, criminals and victims, the United States and the rest of the world – and infused with righteous anger. And yet against the darkness, he offered not lightness but “greatness” – a bombastic, personalistic vision of how through sheer force of will he could right the American ship before it plunged irretrievably into the depths. “I alone can solve,” he famously tweeted earlier in the campaign. This was the 80-minute version.

Any presidential challenger, of course, has to lay out a set of problems they believe need fixing and a case for why their leadership might make a difference. It was the breathtaking scale and intensity of Trump’s diagnosis, and the lack of optimistic alternative to counterbalance it, that was notable compared to other acceptance speeches. He portrayed the United States as a country riddled with crime and corruption, a “rigged system” in which politicians like Hillary Clinton can evade justice, while police officers trying to protect its citizens become targets; a fearful country, its economy sluggish, its infrastructure crumbling, its security an illusion, and its international stature in freefall

For a candidate who has mocked the soaring rhetoric of President Obama (the “hopey-changey stuff,” as Sarah Palin once called it), it was perhaps not surprising that Trump’s speech would be short on uplift. It was at least more disciplined than his other campaign speeches, if in keeping with their tone and content – the much-maligned teleprompter rolling a script to which he largely stuck. (“He sounds presidential,” a lady behind me remarked, though his press conference Friday morning marked a reversion to free-wheeling form).

It was short on substance too, though acceptance speeches aren’t designed to be policy laundry lists like a State of the Union. Still, there were few specifics, beyond a pledge to revise tax laws which inhibit religious groups from political advocacy, and a newfound concern with student loans. It was daughter Ivanka’s speech that had the greater substantive heft, promising her father would push for new labour laws to help working mothers, and for affordable childcare in the US. Neither are traditional Republican positions, but the crowd seemed on board for anything Trump might offer.

He even had them cheering for LGBTQ rights, after recalling the tragedy in Florida last month, and the need to protect gay Americans from a “hateful foreign ideology” in radical Islam. “It is so nice as a Republican to hear you cheering for what I just said,” he commended the delegates in an unscripted moment. But whether they had really embraced this unexpected message – or if it was the anti-terror chaser that really got them on their feet – remains to be seen. In either case, it was a rare grace note in an otherwise bruising speech.

Presenting himself repeatedly as the candidate of “law and order,” Trump evoked Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. At a time when American cities were erupting in race riots and protests over the Vietnam War, Nixon had pitched himself as the face of stability and security. Likewise Trump has reacted to the simmering racial tensions and terrorist attacks this summer with a hard-line stance on “lawlessness.” “Safety must be restored,” Trump said, in one of the eerier lines he delivered. Yet in his convention speech, Nixon had balanced his tough talk with a positive message – speaking of love, courage, and lighting a “lamp of hope” in partnership with the American people. 

Trump channeled another president in his speech, too, when he promised to give voice to “the forgotten men and women of our country” – drawing on the language of Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt had promised to aid “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid” during the 1932 campaign. But Roosevelt’s solution to the forgotten man’s distress was economic internationalism – tearing down tariff walls and trading freely with the world – which the Republican Party then opposed. Trump’s solution is the protectionist policies Roosevelt had railed against.

Trump’s economic and security philosophy is encapsulated in another, more notorious phrase associated with that era: “America First.” A rallying cry for isolationists seeking to avoid US entanglement in World War II, it acquired an anti-Semitic taint. But Trump has employed it nonetheless, capturing as it does his core argument that America must do more to protect its own citizens against threats from within and without – from illegal immigrants, from radicalized Islamic terrorists, from the downsides of free international trade. Little wonder that former George W.

Bush staffer Nicolle Wallace announced that the Republican party she knew “died in this room tonight.” In embracing elements of isolationism, protectionism, and nativism, however, it is perhaps truer to say that Trump’s Republican party reverted to an earlier form.

Often disconcerting, at times mesmerizing, the question remains how effective this speech will be. The delegates responded enthusiastically to Trump’s fierce rhetoric, but many prominent Republicans had stayed away from the convention altogether. Combined with Senator Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement, Trump goes into the general election campaign without a fully united party behind him. For both partisans and the public, Trump’s speech offered a cast of villains to rally against, but no positive, unifying vision to rally behind – beyond the much-touted yet elusive “greatness,” of course. In a typical election year, that would seem a critical flaw in a campaign – but Trump loves to confound the naysayers. As his convention speech showed, he thinks the formula that got him this far - showcasing his fame and fanning Americans’ fears – can land him in the White House.