As long as you’re willing to assume that the world will end some day and that the end will be known in advance, it’s a simple matter to prove by induction that money is worthless.
Consider the last minute of the world. If you were living in that last minute, would you accept money as payment for anything? Of course not. You wouldn’t have time to spend it, so what good would it be to you? In the world’s last minute nobody will accept money as payment and therefore it will have no value to anyone: it will be worthless.
Now consider some minute in time where it is known that money will be worthless a minute later. If you were living in that minute, would you accept money as payment for anything? Of course not. You wouldn’t have time to spend it before it becomes worthless, so what good would it be to you? A minute before money is to become worthless, it will already be worthless.
Therefore, according to the principle of mathematical induction, money is always worthless. It will be worthless at the world’s last minute; it will therefore be worthless a minute before that; it will therefore be worthless a minute before that; and so on. Go back as many minutes as you need to go back, and you can get to any point in time and show that money is worthless at that point in time.
Thus, fundamentally, money is worthless right now. But even people like me, who are well aware of this proof, are willing to accept money as payment despite its fundamental worthlessness. Money is valuable to us because we expect it to be valuable to someone else. And since we are reasonably confident in the monetary authorities’ ability to recruit new generations of victims in this endless Ponzi scheme, we willingly allow ourselves to become victims. All of which is very convenient because it allows us to use money as a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and sometimes even a store of value. And it allows authorities to manage the supply of money so as to minimize the frequency and severity of economic downturns.
It’s a nice con game, one where we may rightly cheer the operators, given that the success of their game normally results in benefits for everyone involved. Sometimes, usually in small countries where monetary authorities have limited credibility, we see the con game fail, and generally we lament that failure.
But the other danger is that the game can be too successful. If people become too confident in the value of money relative to other assets, the result is hoarding of money and eventually deflation. And since money is neither productive (like a factory) nor useful (like food), the hoarding of something unproductive and useless supplants the creation of productive and useful things. Accordingly, the operators of the game always suffer from a very rational fear of success. And today, it would appear, their fear is coming true.
But this is crazy. There must be a way to stop rational people from hoarding endless amounts of an asset they know is fundamentally worthless. There must be a way to blow the whistle on this con game.
The solution, it seems to me, is to have the operators come clean – not come clean entirely, not admit that money is completely worthless, but declare in no uncertain terms their intention to cheat us out of quite a lot if we persist in having so much confidence in their scheme. Of course even that approach may not work – it’s possible that our collective gullibility has no limits – but it certainly seems worth a try.
What I’m suggesting is something that has already been suggested – in rather less shocking terms, perhaps – by various other economists (as for example in these posts by Greg Mankiw and Nick Rowe): the Fed should announce a price level target for some point in the future. And it should make that target high enough to scare people (and institutions) out of hoarding money.
It’s still a game of chance. Nobody can be sure that the Fed will be able to hit its price level target, or even get anywhere near it. As I said, in terms of the Ponzi scheme, there may be no limit to our collective gullibility. But let’s shift metaphors here: when you’re playing five card stud and you see that one of the other players has four hearts showing, even if you know the odds are against that player’s having a full flush, you’ve got to have a fair amount of guts to make a big bet on your three aces. And guts are in short supply these days. Nobody will know whether the Fed is bluffing; even the Fed itself won’t know whether it’s bluffing; but if the price level target is high enough, if the player with the four hearts throws enough blue chips into the pot, a lot of today’s ultra-risk-averse investors are going to fold.
And if enough of them fold – OK, here I have to shift the metaphor a little bit again, or maybe you have to think about hundreds of poker games being played at once, with some kind of arrangement where the house is allowed to pass cards from one game to another when the players in the first game fold – if enough investors fold, the game is over. If enough investors give up thinking that their three aces, a.k.a.money (or zero-yield T-bills), are a safe asset, if enough investors start instead buying assets that are productive or useful, then the slack in the economy will diminish and eventually give the Fed a chance to push up prices by creating excess demand. And then the Fed can hit its price target and win the pot.
DISCLOSURE: Through my investment and management role in a Treasury directional pooled investment vehicle and through my role as Chief Economist at Atlantic Asset Management, which generally manages fixed income portfolios for its clients, I have direct or indirect interests in various fixed income instruments, which may be impacted by the issues discussed herein. The views expressed herein are entirely my own opinions and may not represent the views of Atlantic Asset Management.