Econ 101 or What Happens when the Bills Come Due

I believe it is a fundamental, unchanging law: there are no free lunches in life or nature. What gets bought must be paid for, eventually, by someone.Members at Your Legal Leg Up know very well that that law applies to daily personal purchasing decisions, and many have paid very steep prices indeed. But it also applies at the national and international level, and politicians who have long ignored the fact are soon going to be reminded of it.

As one economist puts it, in order for one person to get something for nothing, someone else must get nothing for something. So what happens to our current government debt of 21 trillion dollars (more or less, and growing rapidly) in a world of debt jubilee? Eventually it must be paid, right?

This is part of a series of articles on Occupy Wall Street, Debt Jubilee, and our future. Click on the links for the previous articles, but this article should stand on its own, also.

Debts Used to be Paid in Gold

Up until the 1930s, debts all the world round were settled, ultimately, in gold. A “dollar” was a fixed amount of gold, and for over a hundred years there had been essentially NO inflation. There had been occasional “runs” on banks that got overextended, and banks (and people with savings in them) got wiped out from time to time, and there had been occasional booms and busts. The Federal Reserve was put in to deal with those problems, and so it did. Thirteen years after its founding in 1914 the Great Depression began, and we’ve been on a boom and bust cycle ever since then.

But I digress.

Private Debts were Paid in Gold until the 1930s

The point is that Gold was first removed from actual circulation within the United State by Franklin Roosevelt and made illegal for persons to own. At the same time, the dollar was devalued (against gold on an international basis) by about thirty percent. International debts were still settled in gold until 1971.

So what does “settled in gold” even mean? When a businessperson in the U.S. buys a Japanese widget, he pays either dollars or yen. That is, either he sells dollars to buy yen, or the Japanese business ultimately does so. In any event, some dollars are transferred to Japan. Of course this happens in a gazillion ways and times throughout any given year, but in the final analysis one side is holding more of the other side’s currency. Mostly, that is allowed to persist, but at some point the side holding more of the other side’s currency may want to settle up in something else. Until 1971 foreigners could trade dollars for gold.

Dollar Window is Closed

Then there was the Vietnam war along with various U.S. policies that cost more than the government was taking in. That caused the dollar’s actual value to go down, but the official dollar value in gold stayed the same. That meant that gold was too “cheap,” and the French (in particular) decided to trade large amounts of dollars for gold. In 1971, the U.S. dollar was cut free of any specific relationship to gold and the government stopped giving foreigners gold for dollars.

At that point, the U.S. deficit was a few billion dollars and causing a lot of anxiety. Since then it has grown to 21 trillion (and adding, at current rates, another trillion or more per year) and causing very little anxiety. People on Social Security are hoping to get paid, and yet there are fewer and fewer workers to support them, so they are being paid out of taxes (or, realistically, government debt). The deficit is going to grow, inevitably.

Still No Free Lunches

What happens when the law against free lunches kicks in, finally? What happens when those trillions have to be paid? And what happens if, along the way, a lot of student loan and other debts are also wiped out by legislative act?

Right now, the dollar’s value is established by the free market (which isn’t to say it isn’t extremely manipulated). It’s worth what people all over the world say it’s worth without reference to any fixed point (gold, historically). When the law against free lunches kicks in, people will decide they would rather have things than dollars. They’ll say the dollar is worth less as they try to recuperate some of the resources they’ve been sending over in exchange for U.S. debt, in other words. This process has happened many times to various other countries. It is happening right now to Venezuela, whose inflation rate was, unofficially, approximately 1 million percent in 2018. It’s happening in Turkey right now. It happened in Germany, where one U.S. dollar was ultimately worth 4 trillion German marks in 1921.

Current Deficit is 21 Trillion Dollars and Growing

You can buy a lot of stuff for $21,000,000,000,000.00. If people try to buy stuff with that much money it’s going to cause prices to zoom higher. Many factors have held that result in check for the time being, but it will not last. If history is any guide, the change will be sudden and happen with incredible, bewildering speed. When adding straws to camel backs, one never knows which one will be the one that is too much. All that is certain is that currently over a trillion straws are being added every year. I think the one too much will happen within the next decade or two.

The havoc caused by currency destruction is almost unbelievable. Historically, it has meant the destruction of the middle class and all economic security. It has devastated the poor and led to widespread starvation and disease, and it has led to oppressive government and foreign wars. Without going into further details, I hope that the millennials will try to prevent it from happening. That’s going to mean some very tough choices.

As an aside to the reader, although I think the value of the dollar may, at the point foreseen, be among the least of your problems, it would probably be smart to try to keep it from being a problem at all. You should consider buying things of actual value no with whatever money you can afford. Talking about gold, silver, land, food… I’m not saying hoard cans of food like a survivalist. I’m saying it makes sense to recognize what seems to be coming our way and take rational steps to prepare where possible. There seems to be no telling when things will hit the fan, but that they will hit the fan is guaranteed by the law against free lunches.

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