When Money Dies by Adam Fergusson

When Money DiesWhen Money Dies by Adam Fergusson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I got this book in October 2010 based on a recommendation from either BullionVault.com or another website devoted to providing a dissenting view to mainstream economics. It was first published in 1975, just four years after the Nixon administration had severed the last tie between gold and the U.S. dollar by closing the international “gold window” and terminating the right of foreign governments to exchange dollars for gold. At that time the prospect of an American hyperinflation seemed far off, even as inflation was rising fast, and those scratchy old silent-film clips of forlorn Germans pushing wheelbarrowfuls of banknotes to the bakery to buy bread were quaint and unreal-looking.

As I type these words the price of gold is US$1,818 per ounce, an increase of 4400% since 1971, and last week Switzerland, long a bastion of monetary probity, gave up on maintaining the value of its franc and pegged it instead to the moribund Euro, joining the other major currencies in a death-spiral of competitive devaluation. For those aware of what hyperinflation is, the possibility of experiencing it for ourselves is becoming ever more plausible and imminent. Adam Fergusson’s book gives a detailed picture of how hyperinflation—the death of a paper currency—played out in a modern industrial economy in the 1920s. It’s not a pretty sight.

I never knew much about the Weimar hyperinflation, but assumed that it had something to do with the payment of war reparations imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. And while Fergusson’s topic is not really the cause of the hyperinflation, he does eventually come out and say that war reparations probably had nothing to do with it. Instead we see a fledgling republic facing severe social and economic problems, but whose leadership throughout remains stubbornly timid and ignorant. The leaders of both the government and its central bank, as well as newspaper editors and other leaders of opinion, were almost unanimous in asserting that the inflation had nothing to do with the runaway printing of banknotes, which they saw as an effect rather than as a cause of rocketing prices.

Hyperinflation inflicts severe suffering on almost everyone except those able to profit by making bets on the collapse of the currency. The suffering, though, is very unequally distributed, and the injustice of the whole process is one of its most striking features. With a whole generation of children malnourished, women selling their bodies for a pork chop, and retired civil servants dropping dead on the street from hunger and cold, you also have farmers hoarding bumper crops, unwilling to sell for worthless paper money, and industrialists in a frenzy of factory-building to make use of cheap credit. Some of the best parts of the book are extracts from the journals and letters of housewives describing what they see around them. They witness mob violence and exchange their pianos for potatoes.

In other ways though I found the book to be a dry read, and I felt that it was really addressed to people who were already students of this period of German history and had a grasp of the people and events of that time. The author assumes a knowledge of the time and place that in my case was lacking, which made the reading tougher going. I also found that his style lacked fluency, which made things harder as well. A sentence taken at random: “The uncertainties to which these postponements gave rise in large measure accounted for the wild fluctuations of the mark during the year.” Another writer would have put this is a more readable way.

All of that said, this book was for me very readable because of its relevance to the events unfolding around me in the world. The enormous federal budget deficits in the United States are starting to look like the Weimar deficits, and although printing presses are no longer used to create money, dollars are being created by the trillion—a figure that became familiar in Germany in the early 1920s. When I go shopping I’m struck by how much less my money buys than even a year ago, and I fully expect that prices will only accelerate upward from here.

But does that mean we’re headed for actual hyperinflation? According to writers like James Turk of GoldMoney.com and John Williams of ShadowStats.com, yes we are. Williams, a longtime statistician with the U.S. federal government, thinks it will be in the next year or two.

But are our governments as timid or as deep in denial as the Weimar republic? I’ll leave that question with you. Another thing I’ll leave with you is a favorite quote from another writer, Henry Hazlitt, an American journalist on economics and finance. In 1946 he wrote these words:

Inflation discourages all prudence and thrift. It encourages squandering, gambling, reckless waste of all kinds. It often makes it more profitable to speculate than to produce. It tears apart the whole fabric of stable economic relationships. Its inexcusable injustices drive men toward desperate remedies. It plants the seeds of fascism and communism. It leads men to demand totalitarian controls. It ends invariably in bitter disillusion and collapse.

If you’re looking for a refutation of Hazlitt’s points, you won’t find it in When Money Dies.

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