Q: When is a dollar pegged to gold not on a gold standard? A: From 1934-1971

by Eric on February 1, 2016

On this day, the first of February, in 1934, the New York Times carried Franklin Roosevelt’s proclamation of a new gold value for the US dollar. Previously it had been worth 25 8/10 ounces of gold 9/10 fine; now it would be worth 15 5/21 ounces of gold 9/10 fine—or, as it is more commonly said, the dollar had been valued at $20.67 to an ounce of pure gold and now it would be $35 to an ounce of pure gold. But the US was not in 1934, nor would it ever again be, on a gold standard.

Roosevelt’s action was authorized by the Gold Reserve Act he signed two days before—coincidentally, the president’s birthday. The new law transferred title in the United States’ gold holdings from the Federal Reserve to the Treasury, which is why George Harrison, president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, told Roosevelt the Act was “me giving you a birthday present—the largest ever presented.” Upon assigning title in the nation’s gold to the Treasury, the Act gave the president the power to control the dollar’s value in terms of that gold, should he find that the US was adversely affected by foreign currency depreciation, that the US economy required an emergency expansion of credit, or that he needed that expansion to secure international agreement on currency stabilization. He could vary the dollar’s value between fifty and sixty percent of its current weight.

On 31 January, the president met his advisors to talk about what value to choose. Harrison wanted a sixty percent dollar—“to give the appearance of finality” in the revaluation game by choosing a round number. As one advisor recorded in his diary, the president demurred: “Roosevelt said that he did not want the appearance of finality.” The weight they chose was about 59% of the old one; Roosevelt understood he was signaling he would change the value of the dollar if he saw fit.

John Maynard Keynes applauded the new law and the president’s new policy of pegging the dollar to a gold value while retaining the right to adjust it. Only a few weeks earlier he had admonished Roosevelt for his policy of stepwise devaluation, comparing it to “a gold standard on the booze.”1 But now he cheered unreservedly. The new policy “means real progress,” Keynes wrote. It was not only “likely to succeed in putting the United States on the road to recovery” but also to provide the basis for an international system in which nations committed to “provisional parities from which the parties to the conference would agree not to depart except for substantial reasons arising out of their balance of trade or the exigencies of domestic price policy.” Which is to say, the American adoption of an adjustable peg, movable in case of domestic need, paved the way for an international system of such currencies—which came to pass ten years later, at Bretton Woods.2

The US dollar under the Gold Reserve Act and under the Bretton Woods system is frequently characterized by uncareful observers as being on a gold standard. It wasn’t, as the economist Edward Bernstein (who was in the Roosevelt Treasury, at Bretton Woods, and later served in the IMF) succinctly explained, years later.

In spite of the Gold Reserve Act, the United States was not really on a gold standard after 1933. The essence of the gold standard is that the money supply must be limited by the gold reserve. The last time that the Federal Reserve tightened its policy because the gold reserve ratio had fallen close to the legal minimum was on March 3, 1933, when the Federal Reserve Bank of New York raised the discount rate to 3-1/2 per cent. Thereafter, whenever the gold reserve neared the legal minimum, the required reserve ratio was reduced and finally eliminated. A country that loses more than half of its gold reserve, as the United States did in 1958-71, without reducing its money supply is not on the gold standard.

If your gold holdings don’t constrain your monetary policy, you’re not on a gold standard, whatever you claim about your currency’s gold value.

1Keynes’s irritation at Roosevelt’s 1933 devaluation may have had less to do with its policy soundness and more to do with its effect on his personal portfolio: “Keynes bet that the United States dollar would appreciate—just before Franklin Delano Roosevelt abandoned the gold standard in 1933, a move that caused the dollar to lose value.”

2It’s because the essential elements of Bretton Woods were already in place early in 1934, before Harry Dexter White even joined the Roosevelt administration, that White’s role in drafting that system is less important than sometimes believed.



marcel proust 02.01.16 at 6:33 pm

This event apparently doesn’t merit even a mention for this date in Wikipedia!


Eric 02.01.16 at 6:39 pm

Maybe because the law was 30 January or the proclamation was 31 January… but no, it’s not on those days either… oh well.


Bloix 02.01.16 at 7:27 pm

This issue was the subject of extensive comment on posts by Eric last March:


at which there is a lot of discussion of the Bernstein quote (in comments), and


Note that in this post, Eric says that the United States was “not on a gold standard” after 1933; Bernstein says that the US was “not really on a gold standard” after that date. That “really” is doing a lot of work. Eric believes that it’s surplusage; IMHO (see comments to prior posts) it packs a hell of a wallop.


Eric 02.01.16 at 7:36 pm

No, it really doesn’t. “The essence of the gold standard is that the money supply must be limited by the gold reserve.” Bernstein doesn’t think you’re on a gold standard if you don’t let your gold holdings influence your monetary policy. Neither do I. And indeed, one might reasonably ask, what would the point of a gold standard be if it didn’t limit your monetary policy?

(The answer is either “none,” or “purely symbolic.”)


A H 02.01.16 at 8:23 pm

“If your gold holdings don’t constrain your monetary policy, you’re not on a gold standard, whatever you claim about your currency’s gold value.’

It depends what constrains means. If you mean “Rules of the Game” style adjustments than these never existed. It’s pretty widely recognized that in history countries on the gold standard had a high degree of flexibility. Triffen’s “Myth and Realities of the So-called Gold Standard” is the classic article.

I highly recommend “The Making of Modern Finance: Liberal Governance and the Gold Standard” by Samuel Knafo, it shows that the 19th century gold standard actually came into being as a way for the government to control over financial innovation rather than a policy driven by a desire for liberal markets.



Kevin Donoghue 02.01.16 at 8:28 pm

“Keynes’s irritation at Roosevelt’s 1933 devaluation may have had less to do with its policy soundness and more to do with its effect on his personal portfolio.”

Maybe so, but my guess is he was a bit more worried about its effect on Britain’s exports, to third countries especially, and (consequently) British hopes of recovery.


Jason Smith 02.01.16 at 8:43 pm

There appear to be three periods of quantitatively different relationships between money M (monetary base minus reserves) and the price level P from the 1920s through today

log P ~ (k – 1) log M
with k ~ 1 in effect until the 1940s (i.e. approx zero inflation)

log P ~ k M
in effect from the mid-1940s to late 1950s

log P ~ (k – 1) log M
with k ~ 1.5 in effect after the 1950s

The time between #1 and #3 actually best corresponds to the period of pegged interest rates (and lack of Fed independence) — and may not have anything to do with gold per se.



Bloix 02.01.16 at 8:44 pm

As I said last March:

“Under Bretton Woods, most countries had exchange rates fixed to the dollar, and since the dollar was fixed to gold, their currencies were also stable with respect to gold. Although ordinary citizens could not convert dollars to gold at a fixed price, foreign governments could and did.”

In 1971, when the “not really a gold standard” finally collapsed, France redeemed $191 million in dollars with gold held by the US Treasury. Switzerland redeemed $50 million. That was 7 million troy ounces of gold, which is a lot of stuff for something that is “purely symbolic.”

It’s true that from 1934 to 1971, no one put the American claim to be on a “not really a gold standard” to the test. But in 1971 they did, and at that point we moved from “not really a gold standard” to “not a gold standard.” In hindsight you can argue that it was always not a gold standard, but while those decades were going on, from the point of view of the people living it, it was only not really a gold standard. There was a box that was supposed to have the standard in it, and until Charles de Gaulle opened the box, a lot of people believed that it was in there and still alive.

Again, as I said last March, “I understand what you mean when you say that Roosevelt took the dollar off the gold standard in 1933, but I think it’s worth noting that gold continued to play an important role in the valuation of the dollar (and through it, other currencies) until 1971.”

You ask, “what would the point of a gold standard be if it didn’t limit your monetary policy?,” and you answer, “none, or purely symbolic,” as if these answers were identical. But if your goal in 1944 is to persuade the world to accept the dollar as the global reserve currency, “purely symbolic” translates into a hell of a lot of gold. By the 1970s, “purely symbolic” had dwindled away to none, but the intervening decades did actually happen.


Eric 02.01.16 at 9:03 pm

Bloix: I take the position that a policy that doesn’t do what a gold standard does is not a gold standard. You can say, look, there’s a notional gold value. But that’s not the same thing. Don’t take my word for it; listen to Keynes:

In fact, the plan introduces in this respect an epoch-making innovation in an international instrument, the object of which is to lay down sound and orthodox principles. For instead of maintaining the principle that the internal value of a national currency should conform to a prescribed de jure external value, it provides that its external value should be altered if necessary so as to conform to whatever de facto internal value results from domestic policies, which themselves shall be immune from criticism by the Fund. Indeed, it is made the duty of the Fund to approve changes which will have this effect. That is why I say that these proposals are the exact opposite of the gold standard. They lay down by international agreement the essence of the new doctrine, far removed from the old orthodoxy.


P O'Neill 02.01.16 at 9:25 pm

This question is surely settled by … the script of Goldfinger.

[Colonel Smithers] We here at the Bank of England, Mister Bond, are the official depository for gold bullion, just as Fort Knox, Kentucky is for the United States. We know, of course, the amounts we each hold, we know the amounts deposited in other banks, and we can estimate what is being held for industrial purposes. This enables the two governments to establish respectively the true value of the dollar and the pound. Consequently, we are vitally concerned with unauthorized leakages … Gentlemen, Mister Goldfinger has gold bullion on deposit in Zurich, Amsterdam, Caracas and Hong Kong, worth twenty million pounds. Most of it comes from this country … Because the price of gold varies from country to country. If you buy it here at thirty dollars an ounce, you can sell it in, say, Pakistan at a hundred and ten dollars and triple your money…

etc etc


Bloix 02.01.16 at 9:48 pm

@9 – “You can say, look, there’s a notional gold value.”
But the value wasn’t purely notional. At the level of sovereign powers, the dollar was fully convertible into gold until 1971, and several countries – notably the French – took advantage of that convertibility until Nixon ended it.
Your position, as I understand it, is that Nixon wasn’t doing anything of significance because any prior president could have done the same. Therefore, no administration was ever truly bound by convertibility.
My position is that we don’t know whether any prior president – Truman? – could have done the same without upending what was then a novel and untested global financial system. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it doesn’t seem to me that I’m obviously wrong.


Eric 02.01.16 at 9:57 pm

No, my position is, you are using a definition of “gold standard” that is different from that of Roosevelt, Bernstein, and Keynes.


Bloix 02.01.16 at 11:19 pm

I’ve agreed with you seven ways til Sunday that after 1934 the United States was no longer “on a gold standard” in the strict sense. But I’ve expressed doubt that convertibility from 1934 until 1971 (what I’ve called “not really a gold standard”) had no practical effects. And your response is to repeat that the United States wasn’t “on a gold standard” after 1934. That’s unfortunate for me, because my point is more of a question than an argument, and I’d be happy to learn the answer from you.


Rakesh Bhandari 02.01.16 at 11:41 pm

We may no longer have commodity in the form of a gold standard anymore , but doesn’t inflation targeting represent a de facto return to commodity money? Eichengreen:

“Any kind of rigid monetary rule would limit what the government could do.
But if you are serious about this, why peg the dollar to gold? Why not peg
it to a basket of commodities? There’s nothing intrinsically different about
gold from silver, copper, platinum, wheat, tobacco, automobiles, et cetera.
You could also just target the consumer price index. There are central banks
that do that. It’s called inflation targeting. Targeting rules are a way to
be sure that you get price stability and you can write them into the
Constitution or the central bank statute.

But what they eliminate, of course, is flexibility and the ability to
respond to unanticipated events. With a monetary rule, the mint’s printing
presses would click on or click off in response to the latest information on
gold prices or consumer prices or whatever you are targeting. But what
happens when there is a problem in financial markets — for example, a
Lehman Brothers bankruptcy — and you have to flood the markets with
liquidity? That’s what a central bank sometimes has to do, to act like a
lender of last resort, and that’s what’s wrong with the gold standard or any
other simple monetary rule. There is no flexibility for doing that.”


Rakesh Bhandari 02.01.16 at 11:42 pm

sorry typo
We may no longer have commodity MONEY in the form of a gold standard anymore , but doesn’t inflation targeting represent a de facto return to commodity money?


Eric 02.02.16 at 12:10 am

Bloix, I’m sure it’s my failing, but I don’t see a question in your comments. Do you want to pose one, clearly, so I can see it?


Eric 02.02.16 at 12:13 am

Commodity-basket-based policy is something Keynes discussed in his earlier writing as a good alternative to the gold standard; it was called in America the “rubber dollar,” because it would stretch and snap back at need, or so the theory went.

And any rule introduces a degree of rigidity to policy. I think Keynes would say we want a rule, so we have reliability, but also a rule from which there are less-than-catastrophic penalties for deviating from in case of need.


Rakesh Bhandari 02.02.16 at 12:20 am

would you kindly provide a link to something on the rubber dollar as you are describing it here? Google just gave me something on condoms.


Eric 02.02.16 at 1:11 am

Here‘s something not on condoms…


D.C.W. 02.02.16 at 1:40 am

I’m happy to grant Eric the purely semantic point here. But the (perhaps unintended) implication that the macroeconomic effects of the US currency regime were very different in the pre-34 period were very different from those of the 44-71 period is one that most (all?) economists would dispute. Regardless of its inability to handle a hypothetical massive conversion run, the US successfully maintained fixed exchange rates in the 44-71 period. That means that inter-national re-balancings occurred via real rather than nominal adjustments in 44-71, just as they had to pre-34. The key macroeconomic question for a currency regime is fixed vs floating exchange rates; the mechanics of the peg are of secondary importance.


Bruce Wilder 02.02.16 at 2:01 am

Eric @ 4: Bernstein doesn’t think you’re on a gold standard if you don’t let your gold holdings influence your monetary policy.

Like Bloix, I understand that FDR changed policy, 1933-34, but “influence” is an elastic verb. Even if gold holdings were no longer constraining FDR’s monetary policy, surely he was nevertheless using gold, and its value relative to the dollar as a currency unit, as a point of leverage. Weren’t they expecting an inflationary effect from the change in the price of gold relative to the dollar?

If the price of gold can still affect the general price level, then gold remains some kind of monetary fulcrum in the system.

At what point did the price of gold cease to matter, not just for the thinking of policymakers, but for giving policy an effect?


Bloix 02.02.16 at 3:08 am

@16: As I understand it, your argument – made through Bernstein – is that convertibility of gold at $35/oz, from 1934 to 1971 was entirely nominal and had no practical effect. Why? Because in Bernstein’s words, “whenever the gold reserve neared the legal minimum, the required reserve ratio was reduced and finally eliminated.” Why did it “near its legal minimum”? Because the US was selling gold on the international market from time to time in order to keep the market price to $35/oz. And as long as the market price of gold stayed at $35/oz, foreign sovereigns would not be tempted to convert their dollars into gold, and the reduced reserve ratio would be perfectly adequate. But at some market price, all the gold in the world would not have been enough to bring the price back down.

Bernstein draws the conclusion that “[a] country that loses more than half of its gold reserve, as the United States did in 1958-71, without reducing its money supply is not on the gold standard.”

I agree that the US was “not on the gold standard.” But saying that the US did not reduce its money supply is not the same as saying that the US was not constrained in increasing its money supply by the amount of gold in its vaults.

In writing this, I got interested in Bernstein’s choice of 1958. I did some googling to see what gold reserves looked like over time, and found that they went up throughout the ’30s and remained stable during the 1940s and 50s, and then began to drop steadily beginning in 1958. It looks like the policy was to build and maintain substantial reserves through the Depression, WWII, and the post-war recovery, and then someone in the Eisenhower administration made a conscious decision to start to sell gold. Did they? If 1958 was the beginning of the end of the “not really a gold standard,” it would be interesting to know why.

So the question is, what evidence is there that convertibility of gold from 1934 to 1958, and then from 1958 to 1971, did or did not discipline successive administrations in refraining from increasing the money supply faster than gold sales could be used to hold the market price to $35/oz?


Trivial 02.02.16 at 5:23 am

I appreciate the commentaries and responses by Keynes. For my courses, at least, this evidence elucidates (and illustrates) Keynesian changes and monetary continuities in New Deal history. The semantics of the gold standard and an adjustable peg, as well as fixed vs. flexible exchange rates, similarly shaped the history of the Bretton Woods system.


James Wimberley 02.02.16 at 11:24 am

There’s a play asking to be written, preferably by Michael Frayn, about Harry Dexter White, Keynes, and Bretton Woods. Capitalism saved by a bisexual half-socialist Bloomsbury aesthete and a Soviet agent is quite a story. I can only assume that White’s KGB handlers had absolutely no clue about the discussions and had no usable instructions to give him. By that stage, after the purges, the KGB was run by not terribly bright ethnic Russians of sound class origins and little understanding of the world. They may well have thought, like Hitler, that American economic policy was dictated by Jewish bankers.

If I were writing the play, I would have a second act in Moscow in 1991 with the representatives of the institutions Keynes and White created giving terrible advice to Yeltsin.


Alex 02.02.16 at 1:44 pm

The version of Dexter White given by Robert Skidelsky is more of a Philby figure – whatever instructions anyone gave him was rather beside the point, as he was determined to use the situation history gave him to do what the hell he liked. He’d managed to report equally to State and Treasury and the White House, and therefore in practice to none of them. Similarly, he was working for both superpowers and therefore, in an important sense, for himself.


JP Koning 02.02.16 at 4:14 pm

+1 D.C.W. @ 02.02.16 at 1:40 am

One can debate the proper definition of the gold standard till kingdom come. As D.C.W says, the U.S. monetary system from 1914-1933 functioned pretty much like it did during the Bretton Woods era. I’m going to use 1954-1968 as my dates for this (and omit 1960) since those are the years over which the price of gold held at US$35. You can see the charts at my December post: “Was Bretton Woods a Real Gold Standard”

That being said, you’ve found some fascinating quotes here. Especially like George Harrison’s “I’m giving you the largest ever present…”


Eric 02.02.16 at 5:15 pm

For D.C.W. and Koning: It’s not just “semantic.” Either you’re conducting monetary policy with an eye to your gold holdings or you’re not. If you’re not, you’re free to focus on something else: rate of inflation, say, or employment level.

Further: D.C.W., your comment—if I understand it correctly—seems to discount the existence, or at least efficacy, of national exchange stabilization funds after 1934 and the IMF after 1946.

Bloix: the 1958 break point has nothing to do with Eisenhower or US policy. It’s when European currencies finally became convertible for current-account transactions. The Bretton Woods period is generally divided into the two sub-periods: 1946-1958 and 1959-1971. You ask: what evidence is there that gold holdings did not serve as a constraint on US monetary policy during this period? A smartass answer would be, the massive loss of gold we’ve just described. A proper answer would be: there’s a recent paper on just that topic, which concludes, “During the Bretton Woods era, balance-of-payments developments, gold losses, and exchange-rate concerns had little influence on Federal Reserve monetary policy, even after 1958 when such issues became critical. The Federal Reserve could largely disregard international considerations because the U.S. Treasury instituted a number of stopgap devices—the gold pool, the general agreement to borrow, capital restraints, sterilized foreign-exchange operations—to shore up the dollar and Bretton Woods. These, however, gave Federal Reserve policymakers the latitude to focus on the domestic objectives and shifted responsibility for international developments to the Treasury.”

Koning’s remark supporting D.C.W.’s assertion that “the U.S. monetary system from 1914-1933 functioned pretty much like it did during the Bretton Woods era” is obviously wrong; see the linked paper and again, the existence of the ESF.

The fact that I found the Bordo and Humpage paper in about a minute suggests a further point: these comments tend to proceed as if mine were somehow an eccentric view not shared by other scholars (and further, that the only things I’ve ever written on this view are contained in blog posts as opposed to e.g. books). It ain’t so! There’s a lot of research, easily googlable. Now, I’ve linked some here. Maybe you guys could do some of your own googling in future, though?


Bloix 02.02.16 at 7:11 pm

You may be correct, but the Federal Reserve System appears to disagree, at least to some extent:

“The Bretton Woods system became operational in 1958… The intention had been for the system to mimic the working of the gold standard…

“[I]n order to counter the loss of gold by attracting inflows of funds, the Federal Reserve would have to raise interest rates… In this spirit, the Fed raised interest rates in early 1960 and money (M1) declined over the years 1959 and 1960… [During the Kennedy administration], the Treasury and the Fed combined forces to maintain a cautious monetary policy heedful of international payments imbalances…

“[Beginning in 1964], political pressures made it nearly impossible for the Fed to raise interest rates for balance of payments reasons. In order to deal with payments imbalances, the United States turned to capital controls. The Department of Commerce limited foreign direct investment and the Fed limited bank lending abroad. In 1968 central banks stopped buying or selling gold in the open market. Only foreign central banks could then ask the US Treasury for gold. This changed the Bretton Woods system from a de facto gold standard anchored by a fixed dollar price of gold into a dollar standard.”


So the picture seems to be more complicated than the flat statements that the US was off the gold standard as of 1934 and that monetary policy was not influenced at all by the convertibility of gold. At least, the Fed thinks so.

I appreciate your willingness to discuss these issues – I’m obviously nothing more than an interested reader, and I learn a lot from you – from what you post, and from what you provoke me into reading on my own.


Trivial 02.02.16 at 7:41 pm

For clarification on the significance, and insignificance, of formal semantics in initiatives and law: Bordo and Humpage argue that “the designers of the Bretton Woods system envisioned a cooperative international monetary arrangement that would foster exchange-rate stability, but would still allow countries to pursue key domestic economic objectives, notably, full employment. As desirable as fixed exchange rates might be for promoting international commerce, countries would not long maintain parities at the expense of full employment, economic growth, or price stability. Domestic economic stability had now become a prerequisite for international cooperation and exchange-rate fixity. In the United States, this ordering of policy preferences found expression in the Employment Act of 1946…”

On the late 1950s/early 1960s: “U.S. policy makers also appreciated that with the maturation of the Bretton Woods system–economic recovery abroad, growing currency convertibility, and an adequate pool of liquidity–short-term financial flows could henceforth be more sensitive to international interest-rate differentials and exchange-rate uncertainty. They seemed to believe, however, that once the transitory adjustments to the U.S. trade and long-term financial accounts were complete, credibility in the dollar would strengthen. Renewed credibility in the dollar would lessen the problem of the short-term financial flows. In response to the turmoil in the in the London gold market and the underlying balance-of-payment shortfall, the United States undertook a series of stopgap policy initiatives designed to strengthen confidence in the dollar and, thereby, Bretton Woods.”

From their conclusion: “These [post-1965 stopgap devices] not only gave monetary policy the latitude with which to focus on domestic-policy objectives, but also shifted responsibility for international developments from the FOMC to the Treasury.”


bob 02.03.16 at 12:07 am

“But the US was not in 1934, nor would it ever again be, on a gold standard.”
It is incautious to say things like “never” – other than in sentences such as “never underestimate the idiocy of Republican candidates for President.” Should we ever have the misfortune to get Rand Paul or Ted Cruz as President, they would very possibly push to put us back on a gold standard.


Kurt Schuler 02.03.16 at 3:47 am

A gold standard simply means that the monetary authority redeems the currency for a set amount of gold. There are many kinds of gold standards, ranging from those where anybody can redeem anytime for any amount to those where who can redeem, when, and for how much are greatly restricted. Roosevelt put the United States on one of the variants whose restrictions made the constraints on U.S. monetary policy loose. It still qualified as a gold standard, though, otherwise there would have been no point in operating the Gold Pool in the 1960s or closing the gold window in 1971. Bernstein, and you, have taken the valid point that the constraints were loose and have stretched it to the incorrect maximalist position that they were absent or nearly so. J.P. Koning’s Web post that he linked to offers some of the evidence to the contrary, showing the free-market gold price.


Bruce Wilder 02.04.16 at 8:49 pm

I think it is kind of mind-boggling to many people both that the monetary regime should (be) change(d) so radically from one era to the next in (U.S.) history, and that such changes should matter profoundly, without much in the way of a collective memory. Exactly how those changes matter is hard to explain, partly because that kind of meta-level view of the economy is unfamiliar territory and partly because the economics people are taught deliberately obscures both the (theoretical) mechanisms and the historical events and their effects.

A common but ultimately unsatisfactory framework for explaining the how relies on a quantity theory of money and references to an impliedly quantitative “supply of money”. Money is used simultaneously as a medium of exchange in transactions and for denominating debts and credit, used in hedging; the former use suggests a quantity theory of money that then fails to explain much of anything when applied to credit creation. (This implications of this dual role is the insight one is supposed to gain from the famous IS/LM interpretation of Keynes.)

The U.S. went thru radically different monetary regimes — with concomitant changes in banking — at a furious pace over the course of the 19th century. But, that was true worldwide. Unfortunately, the history of that monetary evolution is much harder to write and to teach than is the history of military battles and conquests, say, or the evolution of institutions of representative, electoral democracy.

Even for contemporaries, who lived thru the failure of one monetary regime and the construction of another, the experience can seem mysterious to the point of being inexplicable. Did anyone in Germany fully understand what was “causing” the hyperinflation of 1923? And, it doesn’t get much clearer, I think, in retrospect for scholars. It is really hard to come up with a crisp explanation that is true to the mechanics and also summarizes the moral importance and policy responsibility.

Around 1930, the United States entered into a deflationary spiral, driven by the Federal Reserve’s adherence to the gold exchange standard. The potential for that spiral had been setup by the instability built into European post-war international economic regime with its enormous reparation debts and debts to the U.S., by the innovations of the New Economy of the maturing Second Industrial Revolution, as well as an easy money policy and the innovation of consumer credit during the late boom of the 1920s, the boom that ended with the stock market crash. (I know, I know; the Austrian economists are right, kinda sorta.)

The deflationary spiral 1930-1933 in defense of the gold standard was a catastrophe on an almost unimaginable scale for the U.S. 25% unemployment is an oft-cited statistic. Full-time employment was down to close to 25% as well; two-thirds of those still working, were working part-time, as many firms struggled to keep families that depended on them, eating. Practically, every bank mortgage in the country was foreclosed. Industrial production plummeted and agricultural commodity prices left crops unharvested.

And, still Hoover (and many others) clung to the gold standard as the totem of “sound money” throughout downward spiral. It wasn’t a casual clinging either; they were passionate in their conviction that the way thru was the gold standard and more deflation. Purging the rottenness from the system is how it is sometimes phrased though I don’t know that was Hoover’s personal view; the quote is usually attributed to Mellon.

Things were desperate when FDR came into office in 1933. But, it was still the kind of crisis that takes place without much clarity in the common discourse. I think Eric’s story is remarkable in part for making it clear that FDR himself seems to have known what he was doing and had confidence in his own analysis, an analysis that he never actually revealed explicitly as he worked thru others, herding together his team of advisors and his political allies, like a mix of cats and dogs on the prowl.

I am not sure what thought processes welds someone to the gold standard, but that many people were attached just that strongly was part of the political reality that FDR faced. The catastrophe of the deep, deep downturn in the business cycle that accompanied the deflation of 1930-33 gave FDR the full panoply of Presidential power that the Framers had intended. Like Lincoln in 1861, he was clothed by crisis with the immense authority of a Roman dictator. He did things, sometimes on his own mere motion in proclamations and executive orders complemented by legislation and the acquiescence of the Supreme Court, that are breathtaking in their radical depth. He closed the banks, he outlawed private ownership of monetary gold, etc.

I think it is fair to say that he “ended” the “gold standard” pretty completely in the sense that he severed completely the roots of the gold standard in the exchange of bank notes for specie — gold coins and the legal capacity of private persons to enter into debt contracts payable at the creditor’s option in specie.

In terms of political art, he kept a symbolic attachment to gold, operative only in international transactions. I think that symbolic attachment to gold — specifying a round number ($35) value of the dollar in terms of gold bullion — was important politically, because it headed off the resurrection of a political movement for reinstating a gold standard. Since the U.S. remained nominally on “a” gold standard, there would seem no point. Given how fiercely some people clung to gold even in the dark depths of 1933, that there was no effective gold standard faction after 1935 is a remarkable poltical achievement.

As for the role of gold under Bretton Woods, it was necessary that the huge pile of gold accumulated in the U.S. be dispersed gradually and without disrupting the pace of commerce and trade.

That the U.S. never changed the nominal gold value of the dollar under Bretton Woods may denote something of a shortcoming in FDR’s vision, or in Keynes’. Underwriting the international monetary regime was the role of the U.S. as hegemon and consumer of first resort. The developed world was able to attain full-employment, with only the U.S. and its rival the Soviet Union involved in an arms race.

Ultimately, FDR’s vision of a “managed currency” or a fiat monetary regime backstopped by the regulatory state was gradually undone by conservative libertarians and neoliberals. But, gold bugs can still be marginalized as nutcases for the most part, which is a valuable political legacy, and maybe there’s enough clarity now for political reform without the necessity of a charismatic moment like the crisis of 1933.

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