Should the Fed be a computer program?

John Mauldin in his latest weekly commentary, quotes a 2007 interview of Milton Friedman and his idea that the Fed policy should be determined by a computer program.

When asked “Do you still think it would be a good idea to have a computer run monetary policy?” he answered:

“Yes. Of course it depends very much on how the computer is programmed. I am not saying that any computer program would do. In speaking of that, I have had in mind the idea that a computer would produce, for example, a constant rate of growth in the quantity of money as defined, let us say, by M2, something like 3% to 5% per year. There are certainly occasions in which discretionary changes in policy guided by a wise and talented manager of monetary policy would do better than the fixed rate, but they would be rare.

“In any event, the computer program would certainly prevent any major disasters either way, any major inflation or any major depressions. One of the great defects of our kind of monetary system is that its performance depends so much on the quality of the people who are put in charge. We have seen that in the history of our own Federal Reserve System. Surely a computer would have produced far better results during the 1930s and during both world wars.

“That raises a question about the desirability of our present monetary system. It is one in which a group of unelected people have enormous power, power which can lead to a great depression or which can lead to a great inflation. Is it wise to have that power in those hands?

“An alternative would be to eliminate the Federal Reserve System; to reduce the monetary activities of the federal government to the provision of high-powered money, that is, currency and bank reserves, and to constitutionalize, as it were, what is to be done with high-powered money. My preference is simply to hold it constant and let financial developments produce the growth in the quantity of money in the form of bank deposits, a process that has been going on for many decades. But that is, of course, politically impossible.”

Of course the problem of how the issuance of money should be managed is directly related to the fact that we assume a system where there is a single currency issued and accepted.

In my view, the Fed was established simply because private financial institutions have a better track record than governments at ensuring widespread acceptability of the money they issue by preserving its purchasing power and providing convenient means of payments. The single currency on the other hand facilitates tax collection, and channeling large capital amounts towards measurably profitable ventures.

The problems in such systems are several:

  • bankers must be paid for their diligence service in the form of interest on loans, which requires endless monetary debt expansion to pay for the interest on the previously issued debt.
  • there is a limit to debt expansion since debt is a claim on wealth and wealth is a physical concept, not a mathematical concept like debt.
  • as a result the system is systematically prone to booms and busts. Regulations will do little except comfort the masses that “this time is different” until the next bubble “we couldn’t foresee” blows up.
  • money issued privately by banks is in fact ultimately backed by the government, which means they have to be bailed out when peak debt is reached.

How do we design a complementary system where:

  • money issuance is interest free, because it does not require the diligence of bankers,
  • systemic risk from local default to deliver is not protected by banker’s over-leveraged capital or by the taxpayers, but by the system itself, but not by loss of purchasing power of the monetary unit.
  • money is issued in proportion to known deliverable wealth, not desired profitability.

My ideas in a coming post.

Wealth vs. money and other selected F. Soddy quotes

I just finished reading Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt (1926) by Nobel prize-winning chemist Frederick Soddy. I really enjoy reading these old books… On one hand it is depressing to see the high hopes that existed in the 1920s after what was known until 1939 as the Great War. Thinkers like Soddy seemed very optimistic that the same revolution that had happened in science was about to impact the world of economics, and with it monetary policy and positively impact the world’s poverty. As we all know, history took a very different path then.

On the other hand, reading this book fills you with optimism since one may argue that the context was not ripe for change back then. It may be now. The big contextual change since the 30s is that there is a larger awareness worldwide on the fact that earth will run out of the life-friendly deposits and environment it has offered gratis so far. We may not have reached the tipping point yet. A couple more major crisis, food and/or environmentally related, may be needed for that unfortunately. Crisis is ??????, “decisive moment”.

If I had to summarize the book in a few bullet points:

  • wealth is not the same as money. Wealth is what enables and sustains life, it is the product of available energy. Whereas money only values what is scarce. Air, water, land is wealth, but economists won’t measure it until it becomes rare enough that it will have a price.
  • wealth is limited by fundamental laws of physics. As long as we are bound to the earth, no wealth generating process is free of any waste. There is always waste, heat, loss (including for building solar panels).
  • money is wealth that does not exist, it is merely information, something that represents the wealth we gave out, without anything in return. The quantity of wealth that community participants are willing to give away against acknowledgement of community debt is the community’s wealth, since it allows the community to cooperate. The unit we use to measure this “virtual wealth” is money and obviously it’s not because the quantity of money increase, that the virtual wealth does too.
  • As far as solutions are concerned, Soddy essentially recommends issuance of money to be done at zero cost to the community, i.e. by the government, not by banks, and regulated via taxes according to a price index. He recommends that deposits at banks be fully backed with customers paying for account maintenance. He believes that it is possible to convert from a system where money is created by bank and government accumulate debts to a system where government have no debt, issue the money and banks only lend the money that their customers are asking them to lend.

And now a few quotes:

Originally wealth meant wealth – the state of well being, just as health means the state of being hale.

The century that has come and gone has seen a steady alteration in the significance of the word wealth from its original meaning, wealth, as the requisites that enable and empower life, to debt, the right of the creditor to demand wealth and the duty of the debtor to supply it. (p97)

Credit means surely that the creditor gives up to the borrower the use of the property lent. It is true that in granting bank credit the bank gives up nothing whatever, but the community does, and the borrower receives it.

Wealth has proved a quantity to difficult and too involved for analysis by the modern economist. The earlier economists did, according to their lights, attempt to deal with it;  but the modern school have more and more taken it and its origin for granted and confined themselves to the study of debt, or, as we shall see, with chrematistics rather than economics. Debts are subject to the laws of mathematics rather than physics. Unlike wealth, which is the subject to the laws of thermodynamics, debts do not rot with old age and are not consumed in the process of living.

Power over men is the essence of debt. Power over Nature is the essence of wealth. The not owing and not possessing wealth owed to one individual by another or by the community gives that individual power over the other or the community until the debt is paid. When paid, the not-owner becomes owner. The wealth he now possesses, but the power over men he loses.

Wealth is the product of useful or available energy. Economics deal not with, but entirely with the flow of useful and available energy and its transformations into useless forms, and physical wealth as a product of the control and direction of this flow.

Money is not wealth even to the individual, but the evidence that the owner of the money has not received the wealth to which he is entitled, and that he can demand it at his own convenience. So that in a community, of necessity, the aggregate money, irrespective of its amount, represents the aggregate value of the wealth which the community prefers to be owed on these terms rather than to own. This negative quantity of wealth I term the Virtual Wealth of the community because the community is obliged, by its monetary system and the necessity of having one, to act as through it possessed this much more wealth than it actually does possess.

This Virtual Wealth is thus a peculiar part of national credit, and is sharply to be distinguished from the rest, which, indeed is the only part of the national credit usually recognized, and which is in no way different from that of an individual. […] The National Debt must continue to be paid for until it is repaid. Whereas the Virtual Wealth of the community, although it is National Debt in one sense, is permanent, necessary, beneficial, normally non-repayable and non-interest-bearing debt.

The nation must act, and continue indefinitely to act, as if it possessed more wealth than it does possess, by the aggregate purchasing power of its money, but the important thing is that this Virtual Wealth does not exist. It is an imaginary negative quantity – a deficit or debt of wealth, subject neither to the laws of conservation nor thermodynamics.

It is not the amount of money people have that is of any real importance, but the amount of wealth they are in a position to obtain any time in the future on demand, and therefore go without in the present, that is of importance.

It is the virtual wealth which measures the value or purchasing power of money, and not money which measures the value of wealth.

The virtual wealth has little to do with the quantity of money. The habits of a community are essentially conservative, so that it can only change within comparatively small limits. Whereas the quantity of money, on the other hand, is absolutely and entirely arbitrary and can be theoretically be made as small as or as great as the nation pleases without any limit whatsoever.

Money is debt that need not be repaid at all, and indeed can only be repaid by the community itself obtaining possession of the money and destroying it. These are the only kind of debt that are wholly beneficial to the community. They need not bear any interest whatever.

Money = authorized token of the indebtedness of the whole community to the individual possessing the token.

Money is a debt repayable in wealth. Whereas most debts are repayable in money.

Writing about money: an indecent practice?

In his book Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt (1926), Frederick Soddy writes p.291:

Of the existence of a real conspiracy – a conspiracy of silence – on all monetary problems, in the Press and on political platforms, among editors, publishers and economists, who more than any others ought to be alive and awake to their infinite importance – there can be no question whatever. It exists, and anyone who has tried to call the attention to the evils of the present system will affirm it. Mr H.G. Wells is reported to have said: “To write of currency is generally recognised as an objectionable, indeed almost indecent, practice. Editors will implore the writer almost tearfully not to write about money, not because it is an uninteresting subject, but because it has always been a profoundly disturbing one.”

Good thing we are not in 1926 and can publish without editors and publishers.

Community issuance of money

I’ve been reading The Role of Money by Frederick Soddy, after Michael Linton inspired me by forwarding me this great Soddy quote:

Money is the nothing we take for something before we can get anything.

I hugely recommend this book and will try to condense some of his thoughts on this blog. Here’s a first thought this book inspired me:

Money must be issued as receipt for a voluntary gift of goods/services to the community, not as privately-printed counterfeit community gift receipts in exchange for forced, future larger real gifts to the private issuer. Following the latter model puts you on a course where the community’s debt has to always increase – sometimes to bail out the private money issuers – and inevitably concentrate in fewer hands, while forcing the endless privatization of formerly abundantly available resources.

The key challenge in such a model of community-based issuance of money is determining:

  1. what constitute a “gift of goods/services to the community”, and
  2. how to measure it.

2. is not big challenge. Even though gifts are made to the community, the largest part of the economy would still be free exchange based, providing a market-based valuation of gifts made.

1. is the key challenge. Certainly a gift of one’s time to clean up a nearby public park serves better the community next to this park, than the community miles away. This is where democracy – the online real-time one – and multiple currencies can really help: identifying unmet needs that the community cares most about, and validating them as worthy of community receipts when voluntarily providing gifts in the form of goods/services. Furthermore, separation of commons can be achieved by having an issuer i.e. a distinct currency in each community.

This can work at any level, neighborhood, city, county, state, federal, world, essentially allowing to pay over time the interest-bearing public debt with non-interest bearing gift receipts. Governance can be truly decentralized.

There should be currencies for those who don’t want to use the community-issued currency as medium of exchange, for instance asset-based, like e-gold.

Fractional reserve banking can be made illegal.

Many taxes could be ditched as well in generous communities. Some communities may require to have taxes paid, but would require them to be paid in their own currency, so as to ensure that not too much is issued and it gets recycled to fund new projects. Paying taxes would be done by either giving your time/goods in exchange of issued currency, or paying the taxes with local currency collected via exchanges with other local currency holders.

Banks can focus on narrow banking i.e. accounting, identity, security.

P2P lending in any currency, community or asset-based, can thrive. No problem in lending money as long as lending more than you have is illegal.

As a practical example, imagine a school in need of a bus+driver to go on a field trip. The community would vote this project as worthy of a receipt. A bus company would accept to provide the service in exchange for these receipts. They could use the receipts at accepting merchants. Merchants would be interested to collect the receipts since that’s what they could pay their local taxes with.


The inevitable change in our monetary system?

Everywhere now there is the dawning consciousness among thoughtful minds that this age contains elements not understood or contained within the working rules of the older systems of government, economics, sociology, or even religion, and that it is due to new principles that have to be introduced into the base and can in no wise be met by a change in the superstructure of society. Even more remarkable, almost incredibly to those who have been hitherto lost voices crying in the wilderness, is the swiftly growing volume of agreement that it is the obsolete and dangerous monetary system that, primarily, is at fault. […] All are agreed that here at least change is inevitable, the only doubt indeed now being whether any part of the system, which through a lack of imagination as to what might have been is still apt to be described as having “worked well in the past”, can survive into the future.

This was not written in 2008 in the wake of the great financial crisis, it was written in 1934 by Frederick Soddy in his book The Role of Money. Here are many of us, almost 70+ years later saying the same thing. I really hope we don’t have to wait another 70 years.

The great inflation/deflation debate and a message of hope

The inflation/deflation debate is raging. On one end, inflationists who are arguing that the increase in base money supply will inevitably transform itself in lost purchasing power of existing money via higher prices on the street. On the other end, deflationists who argue that in a credit based system, money is created through loans out of thin air (savings are created out of loans, not the reverse), which means that if the system has reached peak credit – no one can take on more debt – the only way out is through debt cancellation. If you are interested about this debate, I recommend the following excellent pointers: recorded debate, as well as this article and video.

In a recent twit, I said:

Continuing debt reduction implies conventional money will buy less of what we really want and more of what we don’t need.

I agree this is a bit cryptic, so I wanted to explain myself.

By debt reduction, I mean people either paying their debt down or walking away from their debt or having their debt being official forgotten. To understand what I mean you must understand that money is fundamentally about power: power to get people who want money to do whatever those with money want. Many people have this power and many others want what these people have. But not everyone can have power over everyone else. Certainly, it is not very motivating to realize that you will never ever get any of that power, while others get it by playing in the market casinos. So attitudes are changing and people will carry less and less debt. This is why I say: as debt is repaid or written off or not paid at all, there is less money in the system, hence less power to get others to do whatever we want. To get others to do something for us, in particular to care about us, money will be increasingly not enough, instead we will have to prove to them that we have done something of value to someone or something that they care about. This is why I say: “money will buy less of what we really want”. What we want is to be acknowledged, to belong, to be cared for, to be loved. All kinds of things money will buy less and less if deflation continues, and to me, this is a good thing.

On the other hand, because we live in such a productive economy, we have a potential for more abundance of what everybody needs for everyone. I am convinced we can thrive, feed everyone, lodge everyone, entertain everyone, etc. In other words, all these things we don’t need in excess (but are produced in excess and maintained in artificial scarcity). This is what I mean when I say that money will buy more of what we don’t need.

What will motivate people to do their best? because they will do what they love to do most and because they will know how well they do by getting acknowledged by those they care about for it on their social network or the whole Web.

So to conclude, I’m not too preoccupied with the concerns of the investment community whose is fundamentally scrambling to determine how to preserve the power of the wealthy. Having some savings myself, I was concerned like everyone else but my intuition tells me that there is not much one can do: anyone with anything that resembles idle money will lose some power in this deflationary process, and from that standpoint I agree with inflationists who worry about lost purchasing power. Equities, cash, gold, bonds, etc. will matter less and less until a balance between the market economy and the gift, reputation-based economy is found. The Web is deflationary and there is nothing we can do against its force. Aside from a diversified portfolio of assets, what one with assets really have to do is to put these to work while they have value to others to help change the system for the better, doing what they do best for the people and the things they truly care about.

When will payment networks open up to non-government issued currencies?

Probably sooner than later, not only because these new kind of currencies are currently popping up all over the place and represent a lost opportunity for payment networks, but especially because there are very valid business use cases.

First of all, what are we talking about?

A payment network opening up to non-government issued currency would essentially allow payments to be done non just in US dollars or any other legal tender, but in privately-issued currencies, whether it’s World of Warcraft gold coins, Facebook currency or others. In particular, multi-currency payments would be possible: say 20% of the amount in a currency and 80% in another, which isn’t possible right now.

Furthermore, non-government issued community or virtual currencies are by nature circulating within a specific group of people, with limited conversion from/to real US dollars, which reduces revenue for payment networks exclusively focused on US dollar. It would be much better for payment networks to provide their operational expertise to communities and charge for it.

What would be the business case?

Think about the following scenario: you log in to Amazon and have registered your World of Warcraft username, so Amazon knows that you are a player. You have authorized to access your WoW balance and submit transactions on your behalf (say via OAuth). You now browse to a produce page, and instead of the regular price of $100 (USD), you see $80 (USD) and 20 WoW gold coins. You press the buy button, and $80 are taken out of your credit or debit car or bank account, while 20 WoW gold coins are transferred to WoW account.

Why would do that?

  • It’s a very cheap way to target and attract a particular community of customers that they can further target with specific offers knowing what they like.
  • It’s a perfect way to build their brand using the accumulated game currency on the virtual world
  • They can use the acquired game currency to target specific players with incentives to purchase at
  • As long as they see value in using these acquired game currency to build their brand (i.e. they recirculate them), it’s really not a rebate, simply a different use of their marketing dollars.

Beyond game currencies

Beyond game currencies, the above use case would be valid for any community currency, say of a particular city or neighborhood. It may not work very well for Amazon in the case of a neighborhood since may not be willing to spend too many dollars on a particular local community, but that’s the point: if they don’t, why would the local community shop at there are probably other retailers that would be happy to collect currency that they can redeem for advertisment in a local newspaper or local Web site.

Exploring the possibility of a Rideshare currency in the SF Bay Area

Something I have been thinking about lately is a good use case / pilot for an Open Money currency in the San Francisco Bay Area. Although there is considerable effort spent discussing and developing currency tools, I feel there is a huge deficit of economically viable use cases for these currency platforms to be actually used.

After a discussion with Michael Linton on a Community Way Ridesharing project proposal he made to Credit Mutuel in France several years ago in 2008, I’ve given more thoughts to how it could be applied in the SF Bay Area. This is a topic I’d like to discuss on our next weekly SF Bay Area Open Money conference call.

There are several reasons why carpooling/ridesharing seems to be a good use case for Open Money:

  • Casual carpool shows that drivers are willing to pick up unknown passengers at a few known locations to benefit from free toll and getting across the Bay Bridge faster during rush hours. So, perhaps if drivers were given something of value in exchange for rides, they would be offering more rides.
  • Most cars during rush hours on major Bay Area highways still transport only one passenger, despite the fact that Bay Area residents are quite environmentally aware.
  • It is in the interest of companies to promote carpooling amongst their employees.
  • Public transportation is slow and if you take your bicycle on the train, it’s increasingly difficult to find a spot for your non-folding bicycle.
  • There are now location-aware ride sharing applications available on the iPhone/Facebook, which address the scheduling issue. See Carticipate or
  • Medium to long-term, gas prices are likely to go much higher, giving additional incentives for car sharing.

So, let’s go about this problem by asking questions: first, why do we need money to solve this carpool problem?

The main issue is that there is not always mutual benefit in sharing a ride. If riders need rides, it’s usually because they don’t have a car, which means that a mutual credit solution would not work: riders would quickly get large negative balances that they would not be able to repay by giving back rides to other people. So, drivers will expect to be rewarded with something else then a ride. I’m assuming here that most drivers will not go through the trouble of offering rides if they get nothing in return (some may be satisfied with accumulating these credits and donating them, but not most of them). Also, there are many Bay Area no-toll commuting routes where they would not be direct a benefit for the driver to offer a ride.

Why canshouldn’t drivers charge conventional, government-issued money?

Some web services such as Ridester do so, and the Craigslist ridesharing section contains many posts with offers to pay cash.

The main issue with using conventional money is that it does not account for the wealth created to the local community as a result of using ride sharing. The fact that someone is willing to use a ride share instead of using their own car has positive benefits for the community they live in, such as less cars on the road leading to less traffic and less accidents, as well as better air. For companies, it means less need for parking spots and more parking available.

The other issue ismay be taxation. If ride shares are offered in conventional US$, revenue will have to should be reported taxed (in practice, I’m told nobody does). If ride shares are offered in a dedicated currency in units of dollars, what it means is that it can only be used to get rides, which facilitates reporting and opens doors, with appropriate lobbying and political action, to legal tax deductibility at some point.

Why not use tax incentives or publicly-funded non-tax incentives?

Yes, one way of accounting for this wealth would be for local policymakers to offer tax incentives for those provided trusted reports of ride shares. There are actually tax incentives program such as TransitChek or CommuterCheck that allow for employees to receive up to $230 per month of tax free income as vouchers to be used to pay for local transit services. Unfortunately, as far as I know ride sharing programs do not qualify for TransitChek, only vanpools do, see for instance this program, which provides cash incentives for corporate vanpools.

Another way is to use public funds to finance non-cash incentives for those providing ride sharing. Here are examples of such programs in the SF Bay Area: the 511 Rideshare Reward$ program and the UCSF vanpooling incentives. These programs give gift cards for groceries, coffee or gas in exchange for reporting carpooling activity. There are several problems with these programs:

  • The main problem with these programs is that they are very limited in scope: the 511 Rideshare Reward$ program is only targeted at new carpoolers (if you are already carpooling or have participated in the program in a previous year, you can’t anymore – After that, there is still an opportunity to participate in the Spin the Wheel program, which essentially gives just a chance to win, but that isn’t a very strong incentive).
  • Another problem is that these programs are very underfunded: according to this article, the total amount of incentives financed is very low (roughly $16,000 in 2007).
  • Another problem is that eligibility requirements and reporting is time-consuming/clumsy: all participants to the carpool must register and report, but it does not seem that it can be conveniently done at the time of the transaction itself, which would be ideal.
  • The last problem is that the gift certificates mentioned in the program are for Amazon, Safeway and Starbucks, which may not be the best way to promote local business in the SF Bay Area.

Note that it seems that vanpool programs are more funded than ride sharing programs because they do not pose a threat to car sales revenues as ride sharing does (if you use vanpooling during the week, you still need a car during the WE). This is what this article argues. Maybe the combination of incentives is part of what explains why so many corporate vanpools have appeared on SF Bay Area highways in the last few years.

Looking for another solution: a rideshare currency.

There are many interesting elements in what I covered so far, but corporate vanpools aside, just driving on SF Bay Area highways shows that ride sharing adoption can still be improved.

As I mentioned in the introduction, a possibility might be the use of a ride share currency denominated in dollars and issued by participating businesses.

Businesses would issue them to their employees as benefits and would redeem them to whomever buys goods/services from them up to a limit % of the total transaction. For instance, a business might give every month $200 worth of ride-sharing $ to an employee instead of, say a US$100 raise in salary. To a given customer holding these rideshare dollars, for a US$100 transaction, they might accept as much as $20 in rideshare dollars. Besides employee loyalty, and conservation of US dollars in this time of recession, the benefit for businesses would be to advertise that they accept this currency as a way to attract these rideshare-friendly customers and promote their image as environmentally-friendly businesses (accepting these rideshare dollars might be particularly attractive to car-related businesses such as gas stations, garage, oil changers). As they collect these rideshare dollars, businesses may be able to re-circulate them for goods/services from other participating businesses, re-gift them to their employees, or perhaps even donate them to a non-profit of their choice that would use it to transport volunteers around or raise US dollars by auctioning them off.

Participating businesses might group into a ridesharing coalition to seek the rideshare dollars to qualify as income tax exempt just like the TransitChek or CommuterCheck.

Reporting would be greatly simplified by the use of a cellular phone-based platform for trading these rideshare dollars (maybe via a platform like Twollars or TwitBank), ideally integrated with existing payment networks for multi-currency (US$ and rideshare $) transactions at participating businesses.

A benefit of using an Open Money currency would be full transparency and integrity: at any moment, the sum of all rideshare $ account balances would always be 0.

Beyond the tradable rideshare currency – dealing with reputation

Beyond the tradable rideshare currency that is earned by giving rides and can be redeemed for goods/services at participating merchants, a reputation “currency” might be useful as well to rate riders’ experience of drivers and vice-versa. This is something most ride sharing Web services already do.

Making it practical

Besides the convenience of payment and the incentives for participants, I feel the biggest hurdle is practicality of carpooling/ridesharing.

On this topic, the way casual carpooling could be an interesting inspiration or template: the way it works is that those in need of a ride know exactly where to get one and those drivers who are willing to give a ride know where to pick up riders.

Perhaps the solution to carpooling is to set up casual carpool points at various well-known locations such as BART stations and provide riders and drivers ways to notify in real-time demand/supply at each location, possibly starting with only two locations, one in SF and one in Palo Alto for instance. Cars could advertise whether they are able to carry bicycles or not and riders would similarly advertise whether they have a bicycle or not (most riders would probably since we are talking about fixed drop-off/pick-up locations).


Bringing a currency platform is an important condition of the emergence of new currencies, but finding ways to use these platforms to solve real-world problems is even more important. It seems that ridesharing is an interesting use case that might benefit from the creation of a dedicated currency.