Alan Greenspan spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations earlier today, and what was his advice? That central bankers should be doing what these columns, among others, have been rattling on about, namely that they should be paying attention to gold. “Fiat money has no place to go but gold,” the former Fed chairman said at the Council, according to economist David Malpass, who quotes Mr. Greenspan in one of Mr. Malpass’ emails on the political economy. Mr. Malpass writes that the former chairman of the Federal Reserve’s board of governors was responding to a question in respect of why gold was hitting new highs.
Mr. Greenspan replied that he’d thought a lot about gold prices over the years and decided the supply and demand explanations treating gold like other commodities “simply don’t pan out,” as Mr. Malpass characterized Mr. Greenspan. “He’d concluded that gold is simply different,” Mr. Malpass wrote. At one point Mr. Greenspan spoke of how, during World War II, the Allies going into North Africa found gold was insisted on in the payment of bribes.* Said the former Fed chairman: “If all currencies are moving up or down together, the question is: relative to what? Gold is the canary in the coal mine. It signals problems with respect to currency markets. Central banks should pay attention to it.”
To which, forgive us, one can only say, “Now he tells us.” The fact is that if Mr. Greenspan governed the Fed with an eye on gold, it wasn’t a particularly steady eye. He might argue that when he left the chairmanship of the Fed, in January 2006, he left a dollar worth a 400th of an ounce of gold, slightly more valuable than the 461st of an ounce of gold that it was worth when he came in nearly 20 years before. But in the first five years of the 21st century, when he was in the last quarter of his years as chairman, the value of the dollar started its long collapse, plunging from the 282nd of an ounce of gold that it was worth on January 4, 2000. In the years since, it has cratered to record lows once imagined only by such sages as Ron Paul.
Mr. Greenspan’s remarks at the council were not the first time he gave us a glimpse of his views on gold. He discusses gold on several pages of his memoir, “The Age of Turulence,” reminding that he once told a Congressional committee that “monetary policy should make even a fiat money economy behave ‘as though anchored by gold.’” He wrote that he had “always harbored a nostalgia for the gold standard’s inherent price stability.” But he confesses that he’s “long since acquiesced in the fact that the gold standard does not readily accommodate the widely accepted current view of the appropriate functions of government — in particular the need for government to provide a social safety net.”
The American people, he asserted in his book, have for the most part “tolerated the inflation bias as an acceptable cost of the modern welfare state.” And he claimed, “There is no support for the gold standard today, and I see no likelihood of its return.” We’ll hazard a guess that the statement makes him a man more of the past than of the future. But at least some politicians are hearkening to his advice about the price of gold. They’re people like Congressman Ron Paul and his son, Rand, who may yet be a senator, and Governor Palin, who was one of the first to warn about the gold price, and Congressman Paul Ryan, who asked Mr. Greenspan’s successor, Ben Bernanke about gold.
And, by the way, a few journalists, like Glenn Beck, who are students of history and just can’t believe their eyes that the dollar has plunged to the level it has with so few people raising an alarm. We are in a period when gold is more than a canary — to cite Mr. Greenspan’s bird of choice — it’s a full-throated rooster, cock-a-doodling at the top of its lungs. It was nice to see Mr. Greenspan mark the point at the Council. Would that he’d taken more of his own advice. And nice to see Mr. Malpass mark the Greenspan comments so prominently in his letter to his economic clients. He is more for a gold price rule in monetary policy than a gold standard, but we hope he makes another run for high office at the first chance, and presses the principle for all its worth. It’s what we need in the national debate, and none too soon.
* Not just in World War II did the special role of gold come into focus. Covering the fall of free Saigon for the Wall Street Journal in April 1975, your editor witnessed a bank run in which panicked Vietnamese citizens, in the streets outside the financial institutions, bought, when they could, gold that had been pressed into sheets the size and approximate thickness of cigarette paper.