The Savings Quandry


We live in a fiat currency world. ‘Fiat’ simply means government-backed. The paper that dollars are written on is pretty close to worthless, but the U.S. government guarantees its value and other countries do the same for their own fiat currencies. The U.S. dollar is worth something, more than most other fiat currencies, because it’s backed by the most powerful government in the world. There are a few implications of this:

  1. In the past, humanity has utilized a multitude of different items or elements or commodities as money, ranging from cattle to gold, beads to shells, and anything in between. Very few of history’s currency still exist as anything resembling money for one main reason, they could be produced. The most important characteristic of money, or of anything valuable, is its rarity, the difficulty (or preferably the impossibility) of creating more of it. In order for money to hold value, it can’t be producible, there must be a limited supply. If it’s producible, there’s a massive incentive for people to produce it, and when people produce more of something, that thing loses value. This has happened countless times throughout history. Some Native American tribes used Wampum beads (gleaned from shells and clams) as money and used them to trade with European settlers. European settlers, with superior technology, were able to mass-produce the beads causing a massive devaluation. Wampum beads were inflated (or devalued, they mean the same thing) to the point that they became worthless, leaving the Native American tribes using them destitute. A similar issue is presented when we try to use commodities as money (silver, coffee, copper, etc.). Commodities are valuable (many us would be lost without our morning coffee and we’d have a hard time building skyscrapers without steel), but when demand for a commodity increases, so does the production of that commodity, so its value decreases. Money doesn’t need to have intrinsic value, it doesn’t have to be useful for anything else, it simply needs to be able to reasonably hold value through scarcity.
  2. Since we use fiat currency, the government controls the dollar and consequently has the ability to produce more of it. When they do, inflation happens. The government likes inflation. Since the U.S. officially and fully entered the fiat currency game in 1971, the U.S. dollar has been inflated (devalued) by around 3.86% per year, on average. The government introduces more money into the economy through various convoluted debt instruments and stimulus packages, decreasing the value of existing dollars. The belief is that a certain amount of inflation is good for an economy because it promotes spending and borrowing, the opposites of saving. It’s definitely not helpful for saving. If you left $100k in your savings account in an average year, at 3.86% inflation you would lose almost $4k. If the money is in a savings account, maybe the bank would offer you a tiny bit of interest to offset some of the loss. If you’re lucky you might get 1%, but you would still lose $3k. In one year! Leave your money alone in a bank account or under your mattress for any amount of time and you’re out a significant portion of your savings.

So the question remains, how do we save money?

Thankfully, there’s an answer. The solution to the devaluation of our dollars is investing. Specifically, investing in companies through the stock market. All that talk about long-term investing, diversification, portfolios, the stock market, etc., that stuff all has merit. The best way to overcome inflation in our day and age is to invest money in companies, and let it grow. The stock market is the great hedge against inflation. Market returns, over time, always outpace inflation. It doesn’t happen every year, when the market is down it can definitely be worse than inflation, but if you give it time, the market will always win, and by a large margin.

Unfortunately, as things are presently constituted, saving money is not incentivized. Fiat money and inflation encourage borrowing and spending. But, saving is more important now than ever (who’s in line for a pension when they retire?), and the stock market offers an incredible store of value, one that increases exponentially over time. Don’t skimp on your investments.

Why don’t we use the gold standard anymore?


Today we no longer use a gold-backed currency. Even when the dollar was backed by gold, the U.S. government would adjust the gold-to-dollar ratio with regularity, essentially muting any effect of the currency’s gold backing. So while officially abandoned in 1971, we’ve been off the gold standard for quite a while, since about 1914.

Beginning in and around the 19th century, developed nations almost universally adopted the gold standard. Uncoincidentally, the 2nd half of the 19th century is heralded as one of history’s great economic eras. But, in 1914, at the outset of WW1, developed nations involved in the fighting began moving away from the gold standard. They were faced with two options to finance war operations: 1) increase taxes, 2) leave the gold standard and print money. Option one would have been supremely unpopular, option two would accomplish the same thing as option one just without the national outrage. Taxes are one thing, people understand what’s happening, they’re giving up their money for a government to provide services that the collective majority generally agrees upon. Fiat money is different. Instead of imposing additional taxes, fiat money allows the government power to print money, devaluing the currency and causing citizens to end up with less money via inflation. Imposing taxes and printing money grant the same outcome for governments, they end up with more money, and it also creates the same outcome for citizens, they end up with less money. The issue is that citizens have a measure of control over taxation by voting, complaining, revolting, etc. They have very little control over printing money.

It’s impossible to prove, but nevertheless an interesting thought experiment: what if governments hadn’t abandoned the gold standard in 1914? In all likelihood the war would have endured for a fraction of the time it did in reality. Taxes would have been imposed (the only way for governments to fund the war), they would have been incredibly unpopular (because ordinary people didn’t care about petty monarchical conflicts between nations), governments would have run out of money to fund their war efforts, and the war would have ground to a halt, almost certainly sooner than four years, and more probably within one year. Again, it’s impossible to prove, but certainly possible.

Since 1914 little has changed, fiat (government-issued) money is the currency of the age. Taxation has steadily decreased over the last one hundred years while government spending has steadily increased by borrowing and printing notes. A return to the gold standard at this point is all but impossible. The fact is that gold, while a great purveyor of value, is impractical for day to day use. It’s heavy, it’s hard to divide into smaller bits, and it’s costly to keep secure. These are the reasons why gold was concentrated into central banks and traded via government promissory notes in the first place.

Unfortunately, every example in history involving the utilization of soft money (money that’s easily producible) has eventually resulted in large-scale economic collapse. That’s not to say it’s impossible for fiat money to succeed, the U.S. government, while far from perfect, has not inflated the currency to disastrous levels, and may not for a long time. But no human or human institution has been able to stave off the temptation to over-print currency indefinitely.

So that’s depressing, is there a solution? We know that hard money (money that’s scarce and/or hard to produce) is foundational to thriving economies. Gold is the best example we have of hard money, but it has inherent flaws that make it difficult to use in our modern world. An interesting development in the last decade is the inception and rise of crypto-currencies. I won’t pronounce Bitcoin the ultimate salve of modern economics, but it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on. Crypto-currencies offer many of the beneficial characteristics of gold (difficult or impossible to produce, widely accepted), and avoids many of gold’s pitfalls (it’s not heavy, not hard to divide, and inherently secure). The market will ultimately decide if some type of crypto-currency is any type of answer, for now, it’s a fascinating concept. 

5 of the best books I read in 2019


1. Range – David Epstein.

Range is my 2019 winner. It was the best book I read last year, and one of my favorite books related to personal development ever. By range, Epstein refers to a set of broad experiences, inputs, interests, experiments, etc. In a world that values specialization and highlights the ‘10,000-hour rule’ (which says you must dedicate 10,000 hours to something to achieve mastery), Epstein argues that hyper-focus is actually not the path to success, far more often those who have range win. Epstein encourages us to pursue hobbies and interests, to be unafraid of making a change, to never feel behind, and not because life is more fun that way, it’s actually a more effective way to live. I can’t recommend it highly enough, read Range.

2. Atomic Habits – James Clear.

There are few personal development/self-improvement books that I consider must-read, but Atomic Habits is one of them. James Clear notes that winners and losers have the same goals, what sets them apart is their systems (habits). Humans operate by default and we relentlessly fail at improving ourselves because we fail to address our default behaviors. Goals are fine, they help give direction, but only our systems can take us where we want to go. Clear guides us through how habits operate and how to make meaningful and lasting changes by changing our defaults. It’s a fascinating and fun read, and one that has had a profound impact on how I think about behavior and pursue change.

3. Factfulness – Hans Rosling.

Hans Rosling made it his life’s mission to reinform commonly help misconceptions about our world. He penned Factfulness as he battled the cancer which would eventually take his life. Through ten chapters he addresses ten fascinating topics that we routinely misunderstand (world population, poverty, bias, etc.). He emphasizes the fact that the world can sometimes be bad, while still being significantly better than it was before. By offering clarity, thoughtfulness, and objective facts, Rosling helps us to see things they way they are. It’s occasionally mind-bending, which is a good thing, and always enjoyable.

4. Born a Crime – Trevor Noah.

Born a Crime is an autobiography. Trevor Noah takes us through his wild, funny, and unlikely childhood in one of the more engaging books I’ve ever read. It’s at times hilarious (I literally laughed out loud more than once), sentimental (his relationship with his mother is remarkable), thoughtful (interacting with apartheid in South Africa), and ultimately a completely rewarding read.

5. Billion Dollar Whale – Tom Wright.

Billion Dollar Whale consistently made my jaw drop as I read it. The story is absurd, unbelievable, scandalous, incredible, and completely true! It’s about a young Malaysian fancier/businessman (Jho Low) who cons billions of dollars from the Malaysian government in a stream of devious business deals and spends it on some of the most extravagant partying the world has ever seen. The story involves Hollywood actors and actresses, world-leading finance companies, even the president of the United States. Another interesting part of this story (as if it wasn’t interesting enough) is that it hasn’t concluded yet. Jho Low is currently a wanted man hiding out, most believe, in China, but is certainly still active. In fact, his team of lawyers aggressively campaigned to ban Billion Dollar Whale from being sold, and succeeded to keep the book off British bookshelves for a year! Truly, a remarkable read.

Thoughts on capitalism (part 4)

4: Capitalism isn’t perfect.

I wanted to finish up these thoughts on capitalism with an observation: capitalism is great, but it’s not perfect. Again, many of these thoughts are extracted from John Addison Teevan’s Integrated Justice and Equality which I can’t recommend highly enough, and a few are gleaned from Not Tragically Colored by Ishmael Hernandez.

Capitalism does not contain values, it’s amoral. It can’t distinguish anything on any basis besides price. For capitalism, there’s no difference between a missile and a bushel of apples besides its market value. This basically means that capitalism is as good (moral) as the people who are utilizing it.

Capitalism relies on the self-interest of humans, a pretty reliable foundation. However, apart from values, self-interest can quickly and easily devolve into greed. Greed is a problem, Teevan argues that it ‘flattens the soul.’ Greed changes the equation from self-interest to gross indulgence. It’s the opposite of moral, and it can wreak havoc on society.

We know that capitalism is the single greatest sociological economic force in creating wealth and alleviating poverty. But we also know it’s not perfect, it can be manipulated for greedy ends, harming people and environments. So what’s the solution? A popular conclusion is to hand over responsibility to the government to regulate and stipulate and care for the underprivileged, that personal generosity and compassion should be delegated. That’s a bad idea, for a few reasons:
(1) Government compulsion stifles generosity and compassion within society. Generosity means giving, void of any obligation or compulsion. When the government requires and stipulates giving, generosity dies. Not only do people resent the government for taking from them, they learn to resent the people to whom their proceeds are redirected. They learn to hold what they have closely. Why do you think CPA’s do so well? It’s not because they help people pay taxes, they help people pay the least amount of tax possible. People lose compassion when it’s delegated to the government.
(2) Redistribution deprives people of their dignity. Recipients of government ‘compassion’ efforts don’t receive a gift, whatever they receive becomes a right, an entitlement. Instead of gratitude, they learn to expect. Instead of self-reliance, they learn dependence. Part of a person’s self-worth is lost in all this.

Instead, in order for capitalism to work in society, shared moral values, specifically personal compassion, are required. The delegation of personal generosity and compassion from the people to the government is destructive for everyone. Capitalism is as strong as the values of the people who embrace it. “P.J. O’Rourke is alleged to have quipped that civilization is a bootstrap operation: we have to work at being civil. We cannot assume that the bounty of wealth or the freedom to enjoy it can be continually provided without continual care” (Teevan, p121).