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Economic History III: Seigniorage, Paying the Bills

05 Apr

Click here to be taken to Part I if you haven’t read the introduction.

There are several ways a government can finance its spending. One such method is to enact taxes upon the benefactors of the government’s services through both personal and business taxes, another is to sell government bonds to the public, and a third is to create money. Another term for printing money is seigniorage.

When the government prints a lot of money, they’re basically imposing an inflation tax upon all holders of currency. Due to the increased money supply, prices rise as money loses its value. A concise way of stating it is that this resulting inflation is like a tax on holding money (Mankiw, P.93).

Seigniorage accounts, on average, for less than 3% of America’s government revenue as opposed to other countries, especially those experiencing hyperinflation:

Source: Reid

But America didn’t always have private investors climbing over each other to loan the country money or purchase its bonds.  The 1775 Continental Congress found itself in dire straits as it explored different options for financing the Revolution. The French government, who was not particularly fond of Great Britain at the time, had lent some money to Congress, and some states had responded to the Congress’ requisitions upon the states, but even combined, this amount was not nearly sufficient (Woods).

John Witherspoon, a New Jersey clergyman and an official signee of the Declaration of the Independence, said this of the effects of the paper money in America, “For two or three years, we constantly saw and were informed of creditors running away from their debtors, and the debtors pursuing them in triumph, and paying them without mercy” (Woods). This is funny in retrospect, but one can only imagine the chaos of the time as people experienced their money losing value overnight. If only those creditors had held variable interest rates.

Wrap your mind around the actual amounts of newly issued continental currency over the years:

1775 $6 million
1776 $19 million
1777 $13 million
1778 $63 million
1779 $125 million

The continental dollar became nearly worthless as a result of this increased supply. It was thanks to Alexander Hamilton that Congress passed the Mint Act of 1792, which established gold and silver as the basis for the new system of commodity money (Mankiw, P.93). To read more about Alexander Hamilton, click here.

Sources:

  1. Mankiw, Gregory. Macroeconomics.
  2. Reid http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/2601207.pdf
  3. Woods, Thomas. http://mises.org/daily/2340
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Posted by on April 5, 2011 in Economic History

 

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