Friday, Nov 28, 2008
The past 30 years of economic history may have produced a daunting sequel to the original Wizard of Oz, written by Frank Baum.
People blame this crisis on cheap money and greedy bankers. They certainly cannot be exempted. But I take a more fatalist point of view. There has to be a reason for humans to die off in their 70s and 80s. I believe it is so that the memory of a generation’s mistakes is erased, allowing future ages to repeat the folly of greed and fear.
Because of this, I spend a lot of time reflecting on social mood and behaviour. Popular fiction is a particular fascination; I believe it provides a mind map of the social conscience. The Wizard of Oz is a personal favourite. I would contend that bullish markets produce feel-good films, like Disney animation; that bear markets produce depictions of horror and foreboding (think Hammer House of Horror in the 1970s and SAW, its modern equivalent); and that social mood is linked to stock market patterns.
The original Frank Baum story was written as a political allegory of America’s entry on to the gold standard in 1879. The strictures of sound money coincided with a vibrant post Civil War economy. The result was deflation: prices fell by 1.7pc pa between 1875 and 1896. The farmer, as depicted by the scarecrow, was held captive by falling agricultural prices and mortgages owed to the big banks, the wicked witch of the east. The spell of tight monetary policy cast a pall over the poor tin woodsman: every time he swung his axe, he chopped off part of his body. It was a depiction of the economy’s shuttered and rusting factories.
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The easy-money crowd, Bernanke and Greenspan’s great grandfathers perhaps, argued the responsibility for the economy’s woes lay with an insufficient monetary response. The gold market had a scarcity that choked the US economy into serfdom.
Instead, the populists’ manifesto called for the readmission of more plentiful silver coinage into the system – a point captured by Dorothy’s silver slippers (Hollywood changed them to ruby) as she skipped along the yellow brick road (the gold standard). Print more money and remove us from penury. Consecutive presidential elections were contested on such a return to bimetallism in 1896 and 1900. Surprisingly, the easy-money crowd, proved unsuccessful; they were defeated by powerful bankers such as JP Morgan. However, the story ends with the good witch of the south (the populace) prophesying that Dorothy’s silver slippers (easy-money policy) are so powerful they can fulfil her every wish. This utopia was made possible just 13 years later with the formation of the Federal Reserve. The tin man and the scarecrow would have a more forgiving lender of last resort after all and 71 years later the wizard, called Nixon, went one step further and abolished the need for gold and silver ounces (Oz) when the US reneged on its Bretton Woods commitment to sound money.
This article was posted: Friday, November 28, 2008 at 5:00 am