Milton Friedman and Money Mischief

I have just finished reading Money Mischief, Episodes in monetary history by Milton Friedman published about 20 years ago.

Friedman is remembered for his interest in the economics of money and banking. However, I have two concerns about omissions from this book.  The first is that he places too little emphasis on the T or Q in the quantity theory formula and the second is that he has missed the significance of interest in the creation of money.

Any discussion of money in economics has to include the formula MV=PT because this shows how the real and financial sides of the economy are connected.  This formula states that the stock of money times the velocity with which it changes hands is equal to a price index times the total of transactions or the quantity of goods and services exchanged.

Friedman uses this formula to support a claim that inflation is purely a monetary thing.  Prices go up when there is too much money in the economy and governments control the total amount of money.

My concern is that he does not appear to recognize the potential of T (or Q) to disrupt the economy.

In the chapter on money he suggests T could go down because workers are “paying less attention to their work and more to the stock ticker.”  A few pages later he states: “What happens to output depends on real factors: the enterprise, ingenuity and industry of the people; the extent of thrift; the structure of industry and government; the relations among nations; and so on.”

He may be excused on the grounds that throughout recorded economic history downward changes in T have not been an obvious problem.

However, there is some evidence that the resource base is now being depleted, or at least the most easily extractable, of the resources are gone.  This is certainly going to impact on the T in the formula.  Other things which could impact the formula are climate change, natural disasters or disease epidemics.

MY second concern relates to the role of interest in the creation of money.  Friedman didn’t see this and I have not come across any other economist who has recognized it.

During the 20th century there was a change in the nature of money from that based on a commodity (gold or silver) to money based on fractional reserves and credit.  (For a more detailed discussion of fractional reserve money and its problems, please see my essay “LETS go to market.”)

So long as money was based on gold the total supply was limited by the amount of gold and could be increased only as more gold was dug out of the ground.  If you look at the formula it is easily seen that this could cause problems in a growing economy.

With the switch to fractional reserve money the problem became reversed.  Now there is the potential for too much money to be available.

One of the differences between commodity money and fractional reserve money is that with the latter as new money is created the creators (the banks) demand that interest be paid on that new money.  I see this as a  built n force requiring that even more money be created to pay interest.  I see this as a sort of Ponzi scheme which from time to time collapses into a financial crisis.

Friedman provides a different take on why the money supply is increasing.  “Whatever may have been true for money linked to silver and gold, with today’s paper money it is governments and governments alone that can produce excessive monetary growth, and hence inflation.”

I have to take issue with him.  Fractional reserve money is not paper. It is entries in the computers of the banks.  Governments are involved in its creation when their bonds are purchased by central banks.  It might be good for governments to stop issuing bonds but I am not sure it is fair to blame them for inflation.

However we create money, the formula makes it clear that if the goal is price stability the money supply or its velocity must be easily variable.

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