This article in The New York Times focuses on cash in terms of paper currency, but the lessons are generalizable to coinage as well, which pre-dates paper currency by 1,500 years. Some fascinating numbers:
…In 1970, at the dawn of plastic payment, the value of United States currency in domestic circulation equaled about 5 percent of the nation’s economic activity. Last year, the value of currency in domestic circulation equaled about 2.5 percent of economic activity.
…Indeed, cash remains so pervasive, and the pace of change so slow, that Ron Shevlin, an analyst with the Boston research firm Aite Group, recently calculated that Americans would still be using paper currency in 200 years….
… Thanks to technological advances, the average dollar bill now circulates for 40 months, up from 18 months two decades ago, according to Federal Reserve estimates….
…. In 1989, the Fed replaced 46 percent of returned dollar bills. Last year it replaced 21 percent….
Steve Hsu points me to this essay which discusses ‘high-frequency trading’, How to Make Money in Microseconds. This might elicit a takfir from my friends at the Singularity Institute, but that piece makes me less ill-disposed to a Butlerian Jihad. A lot of this stuff on the margins and frontiers of finance reminds me of intragenomic conflict or cancer; entities and phenomena which are generally proposed to serve as means toward particular ends develop their own internal logic and ends through a co-evolutionary “arms race” in their own domains.
The nature and character of your financial decisions is shaped by your genes. That shouldn’t be too horrible. Many decisions are the outcome of a combination of heritable and non-heritable predispositions. But I have to honestly express a bit of alarm at this segment I just heard on Marketplace, There’s only so much you can teach your kids. Here’s the subhead:
For better or for worse, kids take after their parents — but studies show parental influence only goes so far when it comes to how your children will handle money.
I’m not one to be worried about “genetic determinism” (usually just an insult which describes very few scholars), but this is a bit ridiculous. First, the primary research, of which you can find a pre-print online, seems to indicate that around ~30% of the outcome of financial decisions are heritable. That is, that ~30% of the variation in financial decisions within the population can be accounted for by variation in genes within the population. Additionally, there’s some context missing. The researcher expresses surprise that monozygotic twins converge in behavior as they age, and that parental influence tends to wear off as people leave the home. I don’t know if the researcher was taken out of context, but this is a totally unsurprising result. Over time shared home environment, what your parents model and teach you, tends to wear off, and gene-environment correlation increases the correspondences between particular genetic makeups and behaviors (i.e., identical twins resemble each other more at maturity than in their youth). For most behavioral traits heritability increases with age.
But the problem that microeconomic analyses like this create is that they confuse the public as to the relevance of charts such as this:
I’ve been hearing about structural adjustment due to technology and gains to productivity from people since the early 1990s. The sort of dynamic which motivated the original Luddites. But this chart from Calculated Risk makes me lean toward the proposition that the time is nigh. In relation to previous post-World War II recessions the big difference in unemployment seems to be in the area of the long term; these are those whose skills will degrade, and are probably least likely to reenter the labor force at an equivalent position.
For the past year I’ve been having periodic discussions with a friend who has a nice amount of money which he invests (he’s a single male cresting up to his peak earning years after receiving an advanced science degree from an elite institution). He is pessimistic about the long term prospects for the American economy, and believes that the current run of stock market gains are simply a bear market rally. Even when he made his assertion last year I pointed out that if it was a bear market rally it was unprecedented in its magnitude. Of course I wasn’t too confident about appealing to historical precedents after what’s happened in the past few years. Look at the comments I elicited after mooting fears of a recession in May 2007. I know some of the commenters are regular readers to this day, so I hope everyone enjoys watching the frankly moronic confidence. I use the term not as an aspersion but as an accurate description of the hubris and complacency on display. I myself told a friend that the credit crisis was overblown in the summer of 2008, relying on moronic conventional wisdom from overeducated morons that the Great Moderation was in effect. I was wrong, and I don’t have a word to capture the contempt which I have for the likes of me, a fool who relied naively on the foolish. I am reckoned a young man by some, so that’s the excuse I’ll give.
Ezra Klein references the old Shaggy hit “It wasn’t me” to characterize Alan Greenspan’s testimony yesterday. It’s not just Greenspan, Robert Rubin is pulling it too. The point isn’t that these people have plausible deniability, they don’t, the issue is that there’s no real recourse anyone has to hold them accountable. They can lie to your face because there’s no consequence. I noted below that institutional investors demand risk so that they can have an opportunity for high returns. This isn’t necessarily just from on high, pension funds need the high returns to fulfill their obligations, and those obligations were entered into by labor and management. The fact is that we don’t have the economic growth to come through over the long term through a conservative investing strategy, so the managers start rolling the dice. If they fail and it blows up, they’re fired, and if they luck out, they’re heroes for the day.
It wasn’t just the big shots. Unless you’re a prodigy (i.e., you’re a 2 year old reading this weblog) and you’re an American you lived through the real estate bubble of the mid-aughts, and you know people who treated their homes like ATMs. People who bet on a “sure thing” future which never came about. Yes, there were greedy mortgage brokers and shady speculators, but if it wasn’t for the avarice of the average man and woman it wouldn’t have been so widespread. But here’s the difference: the average American has experienced a lot of economic distress or insecurity. There have been real consequences for their bad calls. The unemployment rate is high enough that anyone who isn’t a shut-in knows someone who’s been negatively impacted. Not so for Sirs Greenspan and Rubin. The high & mighty are too big to fail, they may have their reputations tarnished but ultimately their lot is one of comfort and ease. This is of course not atypical, it’s most of human history.
I think the ultimate long term problem for American society is that many Americans now perceive the elites as rent seekers and not engines of productivity. The vision of the expanding pie is starting to recede, and once the spell is broken I fear for the well being of the “virtuous circles” which economists praise.
Daniel Gross has a piece out on the rise of the cash economy, Cash Is King I found this section interesting, though not surprising:
…During the go-go years, it was common to hear theorists talk about the “discipline of debt.” On paper, high debt loads force managers (and homeowners) to make tough, swift decisions to stay solvent. Default, and you lose the company (or the house). But in reality, rather than scrimp, overextended borrowers are more likely to walk away from mortgages, or push companies into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Americans are now discovering that cash exerts a superior discipline. The real discipline of cash may be that it causes executives, consumers, and investors to think twice—and to think about the long-term consequences—before spending. The need for instant gratification is part of what created the current mess.
There’s theory, and then there’s reality. I really don’t know if cash is so much better at enforcing discipline, but I’m sure theorists can invent a new rationale for why it is superior to debt financing in maximizing economic utility. Economic behavior is the most amenable in the social domain to theorizing, but too often it seems to fall prey to false certainty and after the fact rationalization of the status quote as the timeless equilibrium. This of course does not mean that we should not think logically, or deduce inferences from what we know a priori. Rather, in the social domain we should be extremely self-aware of our uncertainty as to the validity of our inferences based on the lessons of history. For example, there’s an obvious straightforward possible social consequence in regards to the spread of cash envelope usage, more break-ins. The greater utilization of relatively concrete paper currency* and its consequent drawbacks will probably make us more cognizant of the benefits of more abstract financial tools such as revolving credit card accounts (e.g., you lose cash, you’re screwed, you lose your credit card, you’re insured).
* Paper currency is itself a relatively new invention over the scope of human history