on 15 September 2011
I agree with the bit on the cover of this book where it says that this is not an easy read. For me, it has not been, and not just because the truths Schlichter spells out and explains are so not-easy to take. I am a huge fan of his, and have been ever since I first heard him talk about the analysis in this book in London about a year ago, but he makes me work hard. This book is heavy on logical exposition, much lighter on diverting anecdote. For the latter sort of Schlichter stuff, you must read his blog.
One way to describe Paper Money Collapse might be to say that it is the sort of book that the great Austrian School economist and economic historian Murray Rothbard might have written, had he lived a bit longer. Last year I read Rothbard's Man, Economy and State. While doing this, I kept hoping that I would read a theoretical analysis of our current financial woes, as opposed merely to Rothbard's general take on Austrian Economics as a whole. I realise that this was a lot to ask of a book published several decades ago, and not surprisingly I was, although in general much educated, largely disappointed on that particular count. Well, what I was only hoping to read in that Rothbard book was what I did read in Detlev Schlichter's much shorter book, which I heartily recommend to anyone willing to really get stuck into it. Here is a conceptual analysis, in very much the painstaking Rothbard manner, of how non-commodity-backed currencies behave when they collapse, and why they do collapse, always, inevitably. In other words it is about the times we now live in.
I learned a lot from reading Paper Money Collapse. In particular, Schlichter has convinced me of the wrongness of the argument that since we want economic activity in the world to increase indefinitely, but gold is, barring a few trivial further discoveries, fixed in quantity, gold won't work as the basis of currency. But non-elasticity is exactly why gold is such a good basis for currency. Totally elastic money, on the other hand, inevitably collapses, always and everywhere. Why should our elastic money be any different?
Schlichter is not pointing the finger at individuals. This is not a detective story, where in the final chapter all the suspects are rounded up and Herr Schlichter points the finger at the guilty man. President Nixon's decision to break the final link between the dollar and gold is deplored, and Ben Bernanke's recent pronouncements are likewise disapproved of, but many of the decisions that lead to our current mess were made many, many decades ago, and by their nature they are the kind of decisions which are far easier to make than they are to reverse and clean up after.
Nor does Schlichter believe that hyper-inflation now threatens us all because central bankers are unaware of the badness of hyper-inflation. They know that hyper-inflation is bad. Unfortunately, they also know that if the collapse that Schlichter describes occurs while they are in office, then that, for them, will be even worse than a bit more inflation or even quite a lot more inflation. So, they carry on printing money and postponing the resolution of the problem, which means that when nemesis does finally arrive, it will be all the worse. But, says Schlichter, they know what they are doing; they just don't know how to stop. Schlichter telling them to stop will accomplish nothing.
I suspect that Schlichter may be being rather kind about just how plain stupid some even quite high ranking central bankers now are, but clever or stupid, these people are now thoroughly boxed in by their previous decisions and by the decisions of their predecessors of earlier years and decades.
I have been using the phrase "paper money", as Schlichter himself does in his title. But as we all know, when central bankers now create yet more money, they are mostly putting numbers in electronically managed bank accounts. It is not the printing of bank notes that is the problem; it is the lack of a commodity base to control the process. By the same token, paper bank notes that refer to a currency that is solidly based on something like gold would be fine. But I am sure that Schlichter has thought long and hard about this phrase, and I gladly defer to his decision to call it "paper currency" in his title. I certainly don't know a better way of putting it. "Fiat" money? "Elastic" money? (That's the phrase that Schlichter switches to in the subtitle, also prominently displayed on the front cover.) Both are a bit more accurate than "paper" money, but are also a bit less attention-grabbing for the kind of intelligent and educated everyman whom Schlichter is trying to reach. "Paper" gets over the gist of the problem pretty well, I think. And you start learning what that means as soon as you read the sub-title.
When it comes to Schlichter's pessimism about him personally having any influence on the conduct of public policy, I agree with him, in the short run. But I think he may be proved wrong, in the longer run. I agree with him that there is nothing much he can say to the people now in charge of financial policy that will persuade them to do the right thing now, which basically means getting the collapse over and done with as soon as possible. But when this collapse starts seriously happening anyway, in just the manner and for precisely the reasons that Schlichter says, he could then become a very Big Cheese, as we say in my native England. In fact, if this book does half as well as I suspect it may, Schlichter will probably be accused, by various paper (fiat, elastic) money idiots who know only the title of this book but nothing of what it says, of having precipitated the catastrophe he describes. But other people, including politicians and central bankers, could also then be asking him: So, Schlichter, what the hell do we do now? I urge Schlichter to be ready for this moment. Suggested title for his next book: Now What? (Presumed answer: Let non-state controlled and non-state backed bankers supply currency, which they will back with gold. Get out of their way and let them get on with it.)
Meanwhile, I urge anyone who thinks that he might find this book enlightening, and helpful for personally navigating through the mess, to go ahead and be enlightened. I think this book may become very big. It certainly deserves to.