I have tried in the past, with some success, to explain how economies work with the help of The Model Village, so let me try again. This time I will try to explain how the American Economy got into the situation it is in. These, by the way, are the fundamental reasons that I will be explaining. There are many, equally valid and mutually consistent ways of looking at the situation. I will be explaining just one aspect of it, which I hope, cuts to the heart of the matter.
So, in The Model Village, there was a huge Zamindari. By huge, I mean really huge. It was a mini-economy by itself. Many crops grew on its lands, it had cattle, goats and chicken. It also had small factories that processed the produce of its land into finished goods that could be sold outside.
Of course, this Zamindari, while enormously productive, did not produce everything it needed. What it did not, it would buy from the traders of The Model Village. And while the Zamindari was extremely rich, it still needed credit to smooth out its consumption cycle – it needed to borrow early during the planting cycle and repay when the harvest came in. Also, the Zamindar was focused on making improvements in his lands and factories, and he needed credit for that.
The way the Zamindari got credit was to issue IOUs in return for whatever they needed, and those IOUs could later be redeemed for fixed quantities of wheat, rice, etc. (And oh – by the way – this was a primitive model village, so no one had bothered to issue currency yet. They were still using barter.) But the IOUs suited the traders just fine. They knew that they’d get something of value later in return for those IOUs, so they applied the time value of money to calculate how much they could offer in return now. The Zamindari was extremely well-run, so its IOU was seen as extremely stable. It would soon perform the function of money. People in The Model Village traded Zamindari IOUs among themselves, their savings consisted of these IOUs, and so on.
After a time, the Zamindar announced a change. He said that these IOUs would no longer be redeemable against fixed quantities of wheat or rice. Instead, the Zamindari would buy whatever it wanted against the IOUs, and when it came to redeeming the IOUs, he’d auction the produce of his estate, and the price, in IOUs, would be determined by the results of the auction. When asked why he was introducing this change, the Zamindar gave an honest answer – he needed the flexibility to print IOUs to finance his estate’s expansion, and he found the constant need to worry about making sure that the IOUs were good constraining. But surely, the traders did not need to worry about? In any case, the IOUs were backed by the good credit of the Zamindari, and as long as the Zamindari’s lands were fertile and its people hardworking, there was no need to worry – after all, if the Zamindari was too reckless in issuing IOUs, it would not be in a position to buy what it needed next time round.
The traders saw the logic of this – and in any case, they had no choice. The Zamindari was the biggest deal in The Model Village, and not trading with it was not an option.
Things went fine for a while. The Zamindari continued to be well-managed, and the Zamindar was prudent in issuing IOUs. The IOUs continued to strengthen their position as the de facto currency of The Model Village. Its value began to be determined less by what the Zamindari could pay for it and more by what other traders would. Traders in turn began to measure their success by the number of IOUs they could accumulate. The rest of The Model Village got prosperous and began to produce a lot of stuff, much of which was sold to the Zamindari in return for IOUs.
The prosperity of The Model Village grew so much that very few took notice of the fact that the output of the Zamindari was in fact slowing down. The old Zamindar had died and his son had taken over. The new Zamindar was, compared to his father, a reckless man, and he had not failed to notice that the traders’ willingness to accept his IOUs was rather out of proportion to his ability to repay. His lands were turning infertile and his workers older, and he needed to keep issuing IOUs to keep up the expenses of his Zamindari, and so he did.
From the point of view of the traders, they were behaving prudently. While they intellectually understood the views of those who pointed out that this was a classic bubble, the fact was that they were working hard, making sales, making money (they no longer thought of it as IOUs) and saving. Everything they were doing was exactly what their wise men had told them to do. How could that be wrong?
But of course, things were bound to go wrong. Very, very wrong. It was just a question of how.
By now, most of you would have understood the elements of the allegory. The Zamindari is the United States of America. The IOUs are dollars. The Zamindar’s decision to cease setting the value of his IOUs is analogous to Nixon’s decision to take the dollar off the gold standard. The traders are those countries who, over the past few decades, have run an export surplus with the US – Japan, China, India, to name a few.
You will notice that it is rather difficult to fix the blame here. Was going off the Gold standard the mistake? Perhaps, but it also presents advantages – and which other country is on the Gold Standard? Was the Zamindar too reckless? Well yes, he was, but not too much. He issued the IOUs because there were always greater fools to buy them. Were the traders at fault? Yes, but it isn’t easy to notice at first glance, because, after all, they are doing what they should be doing – selling stuff, making “money” and saving it – the problem of course is that they shouldn’t have treated those IOUs as money.
You will also notice that this edition of The Model Village was not particularly difficult to understand. It is not even very controversial. In many bubbles, you will find many sensible people disagreeing over whether we are in fact in a bubble – if there weren’t such people, we wouldn’t have bubbles. But you won’t find that to be the case here. If you stop two mainstream economists who are vehemently arguing over the Debt ceiling debate and ask them if they, in essence, agree that the parable of the Zamindari is a valid model of the US economy, they will agree before moving on to argue over the specifics of how long the bubble will last, whether the bubble will burst or slowly lose steam and how to deflate it. And yet, we ended up here.