Caucus 2012: Economists debate Paul's gold standard policy


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Along with anti-corporate banners, "End the Fed" signs have begun sprouting up at protests in New York and across the country, pushing to get rid of the U.S. Federal Reserve.

But long before anyone ever though to occupy Wall Street, one Iowa caucus candidate was railing against the U.S. central banking system.

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas — a high-profile libertarian-Republican in the U.S. House for more than a decade — says the gold standard is the solution to America's growing economic crisis.

"Money comes out with real value," Paul said in an interview with Forbes magazine Editor-in-Chief Steve Forbes in 2010. "[I]f you want to restrain government, you restrain the power to create money."

But inside an abstract argument, vying for a return to the gold standard is an old debate between economic ideologies.

Returning to a gold standard

Patrick Barron, a University of Iowa adjunct lecturer teaching Austrian economics, believes Paul's idea is viable.

"Under a gold standard, the people are the masters, [and] the government is the servant," Barron said. "If you have an entity that can print, actually manufacture as much money as it wants, and you have legal tender laws… now the government is the master, and the people are the servants."

Behind the issue of the gold standard rests a clash of ideals between two schools of economic thought. Austrian economics, which calls for freedom in the private sector (no government regulation) in order for money to come from the marketplace, is countered by the more popular Keynesian economics, which theorizes the private sector needs some regulation from the public sector in order to produce more efficient outcomes.

U.S. leaders such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama have implemented Keynesian economics through government stimulus programs in efforts to assist the economy.

Barron says there is nothing magic about gold in terms of it being a value often tethered to currency.

"It's something that is desirable by the market," he said.

In Barron's, Paul's, and many libertarians' view, the current economy is dysfunctional. Paul says the current paper-money system is the cause of the inflation of the U.S. dollar.

Barron says paper money is of little tangible value.

"[Paper money] means … 'it is because I say it is.' Gold-backed money… cannot be inflated. [It is] based upon actual gold that is there," he said.

Not all economists think alike.

UI economics lecturer Stacey Brook, a backer of Keynesian policies, disagreed with the views of Paul and Barron.

Brook said paper money is not necessarily soundless money.

"Currency, as Paul notes, is backed by an asset," Brook said. "It doesn't allow nations to get too far into debt. But deficit spending isn't always bad. Under this current fiscal policy, the government can go into debt and maintain debt for some time, much like a college student."

Paul's argument is that currency backed by gold would prevent the Federal Reserve from spending deficit money.

A paperless system has flexible rates that allow government to fund wars and pay off older debt.

But Paul's advocacy for the gold standard is centered on his belief that the Federal Reserve, with its ability to print more money when needed, is actually inflating the U.S. dollar.

Is inflation the problem?

According to Keynesian economists, it's bad fiscal policies — enabled by a paper currency system — that are the problem.

Brook noted that the nation suspended the gold standard during times of war to fund military spending and debt reduction.

"[The gold standard] worked because everyone was on it," Brook said.

In a 21st century in which nations observe fiat policies, Brook said, Paul's call to end the Federal Reserve would be catastrophic.

"We'd be recklessly poor without the Fed," Brook said. "If you look at the data of when we were on a gold standard, we had booms and huge busts."

How the United States would transition back into a gold standard is a challenge Paul and his supporters have an answer for.

"Step one is to eliminate legal tender laws … allow citizens to use anything they want as currency," Barron said. "When you have freedom of the market place, good money drives out bad money." 

Barron said the government would have to reinstate the gold standard to tie it to the dollar.

But Brook said this transition would cause our economy to plummet.

"If you think gas prices are bad now, just wait," Brook said. "This 'fiscal discipline' Paul is calling for is too strict."

And while Barron agreed the U.S. would go into a recession, he said he thinks it would be necessary.

"You'd have massive bankruptcies in the U.S. because a lot of businesses depend on an ever-expanding money supply," he said. "[It would] throw the country into recession — but that's the cure." 

For Brook, the problem rests at the feet of Congress. Rather than return to a gold standard, which he believes is harsh and unfeasible, Brook says individuals must save more money, taxes must be raised, and government needs to reduce spending.

"I understand the argument," Brook said. "But it does not line up with economic realities."

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