DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross who's off this week.
In 2016, Donald Trump became the first major-party candidate in more than half a century to advocate a return to the gold standard for the U.S. dollar. My guest, James Ledbetter, says most mainstream economists agree the idea is completely unworkable. But for much of American history, it was an article of faith that real money ought to be gold or at least redeemable for gold or another precious metal.
In his new book, Ledbetter explores our fascination with gold as a symbol of permanence and quality and most of all a store of value. It's a book about financial panics, gold sellers who warn of impending doom and - I'm not making this up - government funding for half-baked schemes to increase the supply of gold including one relying on nuclear explosions.
James Ledbetter is the editor of Inc. magazine. His writing on business and politics has appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times. He's the author of five previous books. His latest is, "One Nation Under Gold: How One Priceless Metal Has Dominated The American Imagination For Four Centuries."
Well, James Ledbetter welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, you hear some politicians these days - even President Trump has said it would be great if we could do it to take the United States - to take American currency back to the gold standard. What does that mean exactly?
JAMES LEDBETTER: The gold standard is a way of valuing money that has been used at various points in American history, going back to the beginning of the Republic - a gold and silver standard. Gold is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution and depending on how you read that Constitution, is supposed to be the basis for our money. And what it simply means is that the value of the dollar, or any currency on the gold standard, is fixed to a certain amount of gold.
So when I was growing up, the Bretton Woods system was still in place. And the dollar was - gold was worth $35 an ounce. That was fixed. It wouldn't change, except in private markets where it didn't change very much because the U.S. Treasury would willingly buy gold at the rate of $35 an ounce or sell gold at $35 an ounce. And there was no point in anyone buying or selling it for much more than that. And the appeal that it has to Trump and to many in the Republican Party particularly, is that it fixes the value in a way that is thought to be stabilizing to the economy.
One of the reasons why I wrote this book is to point out that many of the worst economic catastrophes that have happened in American history happened when we were on a gold standard. So as a protector, it doesn't do a very good job. But on the other hand, the collapse that we saw most recently in the Great Recession arguably also demonstrates flaws in the current system we have, which is a floating currency. The value of the dollar is what people who want to buy and sell dollars say it is. It's a market-based system, and most of the major currencies in the world today are on that.
But I think the appeal is not only for financial stability, but there's a kind of psychological component to it, too, that taps into gold's rich role in American history.
DAVIES: All right, we're going to get to all of that stuff, I think. But let me just ask you one other thing. Does any country in the world today define its currency in terms of...
DAVIES: ...Gold? No, just no.
LEDBETTER: No major - there might be some tiny, you know, republic in Africa or something, but no major currency has been on the gold standard for a while. I believe Switzerland was the last to abandon it in the late part of the 20th century.
DAVIES: Your book tells the interesting story of how we got here in American history. And, you know, today we're used to having a currency that's stable, that we rely on. I mean, when I put my five bucks down on the counter at Panera, I know they're going to accept it, and their vendors are going to accept it. We don't even think about who authorizes our money and where its value comes from. But that wasn't always so.
So if you go back to, say, the first half of the 19th century, when we were an agrarian country - industrializing and plenty of commerce, what was used for money?
LEDBETTER: Lots of things were used for money. There was actually no federal legal tender currency until the second half of the 19th century. So you had states that issued currency. You had banks that issued their own forms of currency. People, of course, did use gold and silver and barter and all sorts of things. But there were - there was a kind of kaleidoscope of different types of money.
In fact, in the book, I mention the money that George Washington took on a single trip to Philadelphia - six joes, 67 half joes, two one-eighteenth joes, three doubloons, one pistole, two moidores, one half moidore, two double Louis d'or, three single Louis d'or, 80 guineas, seven half guineas besides silver and banknotes. This was currency from Portugal, Spain, France and Britain all of which could be used as currency at the time. So it was this kind of crazy quilt of different types of currency paper, metal, and many of those currencies would fail.
And so the reputation of paper money in the - particularly in the first half of the 19th century was very, very low. It was considered to be hugely unstable and would become worthless often rather quickly. And so that fueled the need for a kind of single standard that is represented by gold.
DAVIES: All right, so in 1848, we all know Sutter's Mill in California, right? There's the - gold is discovered. And there is the California gold rush. You mean, thousands of people coming and some of them getting rich in a hurry. Tell us about the impact of this - well, first of all, just the macroeconomic effect. I mean, did it affect the country's economy to have all this gold discovered?
LEDBETTER: It did profoundly. The gold rush represents a transformational moment in American history and the real development of what becomes the West. I mean, San Francisco was a dot on the map prior to the discovery of gold in 1848. And within a couple of years, it becomes almost like a second financial capital within the United States. For a brief time, its stock market actually outpaced the New York Stock Exchange. There was so much gold and commerce coming into the country out of nowhere that America now becomes a kind of world economic power.
Remember, through the middle part of the 19th century, the United States of America was a relatively new, often broke country. The War of 1812 was extremely devastating to the economy. The Mexican War that just preceded the gold rush really kind of bankrupted the country. And so - but suddenly, wealth is coming from the ground. And the gold that finds its way back east, the economy becomes increasingly dependent on this supply of gold. You have, within a few short years, also a similar discovery in Australia that has a similar effect on that.
So this is, you know, the creation of value out of nothing. And I think it also represents a sort of shift in the American character. Prior to that, the Puritan idea that, you know, the only way to make money is to work hard and believe in God. Here is, you know, get rich quick - the original get-rich-quick scheme. Go west, dig in the ground and you may, you know, strike it rich.
Now, in reality, most people didn't strike it rich. I mean, I think we tend to mythologize and kind of view through a kind of golden hue this idea of people going west and striking it rich. But a lot of people failed. A lot of people starved. A lot of people went crazy. The first mental institution in California was actually opened to deal with people who - because it took such a long time to get from the East Coast to the West Coast before the Panama Canal existed, they would go crazy on the voyages. They would literally go mad. And the state found itself suddenly having to deal with all these people and had to create a mental institution to deal with it.
DAVIES: So as you go through the second half of the 19th century, you see that gold is still important in the currency. During the Civil War, the federal government issues greenbacks - paper money.
DAVIES: And it works. It helps to finance the war, but a lot of people hate it because it's just paper, and they don't trust it. And...
DAVIES: ...On we go. I mean, there are financial panics in what, like, 1893, 1907? And then in the early 20th century, we finally have a central bank. The Federal Reserve system is established to have one central institution to regulate our currency. Are we still committed then to the gold standard?
LEDBETTER: Yes, gold becomes the official standard with silver now, you know, kind of being tossed aside. Silver - through most of the 19th century, America was what was called a bimetallic standard. That is, both gold and silver were legal tender. The creation of greenbacks in the Civil War, you know, is something that some people see as a kind of original sin because for the first time, we have a nationally issued currency that's not backed by gold. It's just kind of whatever the government says it's worth, it's worth or what the market will bear. And this goes all the way to a Supreme Court decision that is then overturned, declaring the greenbacks ultimately to be legal tender.
But it's - much of the latter half of the 19th century, you find the populist movement trying to restore silver to some kind of legal tender status because that's what was plentiful in many of the Western states. That's what leads William Jennings Bryan to deliver the famous "Cross Of Gold" speech. You will not crucify mankind on a cross of gold. So gold...
DAVIES: Now, that was in the 1896 Democratic Convention...
LEDBETTER: That's right.
LEDBETTER: That's right.
DAVIES: And he was railing against the Eastern elites who loved the gold standard, the poor farmers...
LEDBETTER: That's right.
DAVIES: ...That wanted silver.
LEDBETTER: The farmers wanted silver. So you have a kind of agrarian, populist movement that sees gold as the enemy, that sees gold as the province of wealthy East-Coast bankers. And silver is the kind of populous metal. A half-century later, it flips because now, you know, paper money is considered to be the evil, and gold is the channel of populism.
So the populist sentiment is kind of fluid. It can attach itself to different metals as necessary. But at the time the Federal Reserve is formed, gold is the official backing of all of our currency. And that remains the case until Roosevelt was elected after the Great Depression starts.
DAVIES: We're speaking with James Ledbetter. He is the editor of Inc. magazine. His new book about gold and its impact on U.S. culture, history and monetary policy is called "One Nation Under Gold." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with James Ledbetter. He is the editor of Inc. magazine and has written several books. His new one is called "One Nation Under Gold: How One Precious Metal Has Dominated The American Imagination For Four centuries."
So if we go up to the 1930s - when the stock market crashes in 1929, the president is Herbert Hoover, who you remind us was one of the most committed presidents to the gold standard in history - believed firmly in it and stuck with it as the economy began to contract and unemployment began to build. What do economists think now about the role that this adherence to the gold standard played in this economic disaster?
LEDBETTER: I think the mainstream economic position is that the gold standard acted as a kind of set of handcuffs on the economy that because Hoover was so committed - and the Republican Party as a whole - so committed to the gold standard during this time that there was simply not enough motion, not enough flexibility to be able to move the economy back in the direction that it needed to go. And in fact, you know, Hoover began cracking down on people that he believed were hoarding gold.
Again, when economies go haywire, it's very common for people to snap up gold because they think, you know, who knows where it's going? And this is the safest form of - the safest form in which to store our wealth. And that that was not helping because if people were holding onto the gold, it can't circulate through the economy and lead to recovery.
According to Hoover, we came very near running out of gold, a couple of weeks away from a kind of disaster whereby the government couldn't pay its bills.
DAVIES: Hoover was committed to the gold standard. And that meant sort of the money in circulation was limited by the amount of gold that's available. I wonder, if he had done in 1930 what President Obama did in 2009, which was to try and flood the markets with credit to try and get - to stimulate the economy and get people investing - what do we think might have happened?
LEDBETTER: Well, it's conceivable that the recovery could have come much more quickly than it did. If the Hoover administration and the Federal Reserve, critically, had methods by which to create liquidity into the economy, to sort of inject some life into the economy, it's entirely possible that recovery would have begun.
But that hypothetical, you know, demonstrates the weakness that I think the gold standard created during this period. It kind of acted as a pair of golden handcuffs on the engineers of the economy. They simply couldn't get the thing going because there was not enough wealth to go around. There was no form of stimulus available to them.
DAVIES: So when Franklin Delano Roosevelt takes office in 1933, he wants to aggressively get the economy moving. He enacts a bunch of government programs. What was his attitude towards gold and the gold standard?
LEDBETTER: So we learn a lot about the New Deal. But literally, the first thing that FDR did, the first piece of legislation was to close every bank in the United States and to outlaw the individual ownership of gold. So all the gold in the country was officially confiscated at a rate that was nicely above the market price. So people got - you know, they got a good deal. But they had to turn in their gold. It was, in theory, against the law to own gold during this time.
And broadly speaking, people complied with this because they were desperate. And, you know, the goodwill toward Roosevelt and the kind of - the need for new leadership and fresh ideas led most people to comply with this law. There were some exceptions. I don't think anyone actually went to jail for hanging onto their gold. But there were some trials and fines that were assessed.
DAVIES: You actually have a reproduction of a leaflet that was handed out. Executive order of the president, April 5, 1933, where people have to turn in their gold coin and bullion. The government paid them for this...
LEDBETTER: They did. And...
DAVIES: ...When they turned the gold in. What was the logic? What was the goal here?
LEDBETTER: Roosevelt was trying to get some kind of control over the economy. And the - what was going on in the latter days of the Hoover administration is a lot of gold was leaving the country. France, in particular, during this period, in part because of their experience with World War I, was hoarding as much of the world's gold as it could get its hands on. And people were panicking. They were taking gold out of, you know, vaults, out of banks and hanging onto it because of the fear that the economy would just get worse and worse.
Roosevelt felt he had to put a stop to this before anything could get better. And similarly, every bank in the United States had to close. And then the healthier ones were brought back to life. But the gold prohibition, which was probably never really intended as permanent, stays for 40 years. So throughout, you know, the middle part of the 20th century, it is actually illegal for Americans to own gold except for, you know, jewelry or teeth fillings, that kind of thing and certain industrial applications. But we lived for 40 years without the ability to own gold.
DAVIES: So the government kind of, in effect, bought a lot of gold and amassed it. How did that help the economy?
LEDBETTER: What Roosevelt ended up doing was to revalue the relationship between gold and the dollar. And this, you know, inflation is literally what it was actually helped the economy grow. There was more money in circulation. There were, you know, all of the different New Deal programs to get people to work and get people to spend. That is directly related to the recovery that begins in the 1930s.
Now, there's a second dip in the recession that, again, economists have, you know, various theories about what caused that second dip, as do historians, but the important thing is that the relationship between the dollar and gold changed. Roosevelt essentially took us off the gold standard for a time.
And there's a kind of comical moment where he and his administration every day fixed the price of gold to something new. So literally, one day, he decides gold's going to go up 21 cents because seven times three seems like a lucky number. This is - I'm not making this up. I mean, this is the arbitrariness for several months of how gold was managed. And then finally, by the time the 1934 Gold Act is passed, a fixed value of gold and dollar is restored, and some version of that continues until well after the World War II period.
DAVIES: The other thing that's interesting about this period is that, you know, it was a time when Roosevelt wasn't sure whether he wanted us on the gold standard or not. But the U.S. government acquired massive stocks of gold, and that led to the construction of a vault, right? That's Fort...
LEDBETTER: Of Fort Knox.
LEDBETTER: That's right. The bullion reserve at Fort Knox was they took over a portion of a, you know, military encampment, Fort Knox, and began stockpiling what becomes the largest pile of gold ever assembled, you know, by mankind. It is this, you know, massively secure and kind of famously almost comically guarded, you know, with - poison gas will come in if anybody twists the wheel and the - nobody knows the entire combination. People are given portions of the combination to the safe so that nobody knows the whole thing. I mean, it's this ridiculous level of security to guard all of this metal that has been, you know, both confiscated from individuals, amassed and bought.
And also, you know, during this time, the only gold that can be legally bought or sold in the United States is through the Treasury Department. No one else is actually authorized to do it without permission. And this - you know, presumably, this what I call the arsenal of gold is supposed to be a guarantor of economic security. But, of course, it's not that simple.
DAVIES: James Ledbetter's book is "One Nation Under Gold." After a break, he'll talk about some pretty wild schemes that got government funding in the 1960s to find or create more gold. We'll discuss President Trump's views on the gold standard, and Kevin Whitehead tells us about the jazz quartet Sexmob. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with James Ledbetter, whose new book "One Nation Under Gold" explores America's fascination with the precious metal and the many battles over whether American currency should be pegged to the price of gold. Ledbetter says despite many financial crises, the U.S. government maintained its attachment to the gold standard for much of the 20th century.
So through the '40s, '50s and '60s, the United States is more or less on the gold standard, as are other countries. And you write that there were times when there would be massive shipments of gold bullion in, like, big, military transport planes...
DAVIES: ...Like, from the U.S. to England. Why?
LEDBETTER: So after World War II, the - what's called the Bretton Woods system is - fixes the price of gold at $35 an ounce. That's what the dollar's worth. Treasury will sell gold at about $35 an ounce, buy gold at about $35 an ounce. And every other currency - every other major currency in the world is tied to the dollar and can only trade within a very, very narrow band of its fixed value to the dollar. So it's kind of a qualified gold standard. It's really a dollar standard, but the dollar is defined by gold. You know, this of course requires gold to be moved around or moved from one part of a vault to another or tagged. You know, this is now France's pile, and this is now the Netherland's pile - whatever it is.
The system works. It works. It works so well that it actually represents a kind of crisis because when Western Europe and Japan grow as rapidly as they do through the late-1940s and 1950s, you now have all of these dollars and dollar-backed securities out there in the world. And if they were all to be cash at the same time at the Treasury window, there's no longer enough gold to meet all the obligations. So this is a tremendous dilemma.
DAVIES: So at this point in time, the United States made the pledge that if you show up with $35 American currency, you can buy an ounce of gold, right?
LEDBETTER: Correct. Now, in reality, they tried to discourage people from doing that (laughter). But in theory, that was what was propping up the world monetary system. So you can either let it happen and run out of gold, and therefore, you know, people thought the world would collapse. Or you could announce to the world, hey, we're not going to do this anymore; we're going to close the Treasury window, with the same effect. Everyone - they called it the nuclear option because the feeling was that that would cause such mistrust in the global economy that everything would collapse. It's not not a sustainable system. It was going to break down one way or the other. And a lot of very strange things happened in order to prop up this system whose logic no longer made any sense.
So you have in 1967 a crisis in the U.K. where its currency devalued by about 15 percent, and there was simply no gold left in the Bank of England vault. And so in the middle of the night, these massive cargo planes - the largest cargo planes in the world carrying payloads of more than 60,000 pounds flew from Fort Knox to to England to prop up the pound at the same time that much of this gold was being siphoned off into a private market. And it was kind of crazy. I mean this was done in such a rush. They didn't even weigh the gold before they loaded it onto the planes. They really thought that the world economy was going to fall apart in late-1967.
DAVIES: And so that meant that the Bank of England then could make - had the gold to pay to people to try to redeem their pounds. It propped up the pound.
LEDBETTER: It did. But again, also, a lot of it was being siphoned off into the private market. There was a private gold market, you know, for a lot of central banks kind of, you know, selling and buying gold every day. And suddenly in the '60s, there becomes kind of a run on the private gold market. And again, if you don't back it up with gold, people begin to think, oh, there's something wrong, and then they're going to panic by even more.
So you have to keep this market alive in order to keep the monetary system alive. This is a crazy system. I mean no one would have designed a system to work this way if they knew this is what it was going to play out as. But that's kind of where we ended up in the 1960s. And that's not even the weirdest part (laughter).
DAVIES: What's the weirdest part?
LEDBETTER: So to the extent that there is such a thing as a scoop in history, I think I found one while doing the research for this book. The best way to put it is in the middle part of the 1960s, several people in - high up in the Johnson administration and some sympathetic members of Congress embarked on a top-secret - there's no other way to describe it - a 20th century alchemy quest. Again, the monetary system was running out of gold. This was a massive problem that was very well-recognized at the highest levels. But there was just nothing to do about it.
And so Donald Hornig, who was LBJ's science technology adviser and later the president of Brown, and Joe Barr, who was an assistant treasury secretary and some other folks in the administration created a top-secret project to find gold where it had never been found before. And because this was the mid-1960s, what else are they going to call it - Operation Goldfinger.
Operation Goldfinger had three major components. The first was to use state-of-the-art technology to find gold in places where it had never been looked for before. And so you have dozens or hundreds of scientists scurrying around the country. Is there gold in coal ash? Is there gold in plants? Is the gold in meteorites that hit the Earth? Is there gold an animal brains? Is there gold in deer antlers?
LEDBETTER: You can't make this stuff up. They were looking for gold in all these crazy places. And the technology was quite sophisticated. It could measure parts per million, parts per billion. And at that level, the answer to all those questions is, yeah, kind of. There's a tiny trace amount of gold in lots of things. But to extract it from deer antlers, for example, is going to cost way more than $35 an ounce, so it almost doesn't matter whether it's there.
DAVIES: So that was - finding gold in weird places was one thing. There was also this idea of, well, blowing stuff up, right?
LEDBETTER: Yeah. So think about fracking. There's oil under the ground that's just really hard to get by traditional methods, so you need to come up with a different method to get the oil out of the ground. And if oil is trading at, you know, $20 a barrel, it's probably not even worth doing. But once it goes to a hundred dollars a barrel, then it makes economic sense to do fracking. Similarly, there were plenty of places in the United States and outside the United States where all the gold that could be mined profitably near the surface had been mined. They know or strongly suspect that there's more gold down there, but they can't get at it using conventional explosives.
So why not put nuclear explosives in the ground, blow out the gold and leach it up with an acid process? And this experiment went pretty far. There were some test blasts done and lots of plans drawn up. Ultimately it didn't get off the ground because scientists realized that there would be tremendous radioactive fallout from doing this. But again, this shows the logic of a monetary system that had lost its mind. The idea that you would put nuclear weapons in the ground just to get gold to prop up your monetary system shows that there's something wrong with that system.
DAVIES: And there's more.
LEDBETTER: Yes. The third component was, let's make gold out of base metals. It sounds like a joke, but actually, you can do it. It has been done. Glenn Seaborg, who was the chairman of the AEC, actually did it a few years later after Operation Goldfinger had been kind of quietly shut down. You can take something like bismuth and very, very thin foil and bombard it with a proton beam to displace the electrons. And what's left over is gold.
However, Seaborg calculated that to create gold in this method would cost approximately 1 quadrillion dollars per ounce. And so as a economically viable system, it didn't work. But again, this shows the desperation of high-placed officials. I mean this was approved by the president. This was driven by...
DAVIES: By Johnson, yeah.
LEDBETTER: ...The Treasury secretary. This was LBJ, Eugene Rostow, his esteemed Under Secretary of Treasury who later was the dean of Yale Law School. These were highly respectable, powerful people who were driven to what seems today kind of like madness because of the centrality of gold to the international monetary system.
DAVIES: We're speaking with James Ledbetter. He is the editor of Inc. magazine. His new book about gold and its impact on U.S. history, culture and monetary policy is called "One Nation Under Gold." We'll continue our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with James Ledbetter. He is the editor of Inc. magazine. His new book is "One Nation Under Gold: How One Precious Metal Has Dominated The American Imagination For Four Centuries."
So in 1971, Nixon takes the U.S. dollar off the gold standard. Supposed to be temporary - it isn't. I mean, it - finally, the tether is broken. How'd the economy do?
LEDBETTER: Well, it was a tremendous shock to the system. There's no question about it. But on the other hand, it was inevitable. There was simply no way that the Bretton Woods system was going to survive, in part because it was so successful. It kind of collapsed under its own success because it - because there wasn't enough gold to sustain all the economic growth in the world. I'm not sure that Nixon really recognized that. I think that it was - like so many things that Nixon did in the - in the '71 period, it was really motivated by domestic political concerns and the need to be re-elected.
The economy was not in great shape in 1971. And had it not improved, it might well have led to his defeat in the election of 1972. So it was a highly calculated political move that, nonetheless, kind of had to be done. I mean, I think even had a Democrat been in the White House in the early '70s, something similar would have happened because there was simply too much pressure on the dollar from foreign trading and simply not enough gold to go around. So what we get in '71 is essentially what we still have, which is a floating currency. The value of the dollar is determined not by any particular amount of gold or metal or anything but rather, it trades freely in the marketplace. The dollar is worth what the dollar is said to be worth.
It was a tremendous shock to the system. It's certainly linked to the energy crisis that comes a couple of years later because oil is traded in dollars. We have tremendous inflation in the - throughout the 1970s, getting worse as the decade goes on, stagflation with - unemployment and inflation both in double digits at times. It was - it was great growing pains for the world. But I think most mainstream economists today would say we're better off with a floating currency than we would have been had we stuck to some version of gold standard.
DAVIES: You know, if you watch cable TV or surf the internet or look in newspapers, there are lots of people offering to sell gold as an investment. So what's the pitch? Why do these folks that are hawking gold tell you you need it? I mean, why would I want gold?
LEDBETTER: Yeah. I mean, I think there is a kind of rational pitch and a super-rational pitch, or a irrational pitch. The rational pitch is, look, as part of a broader portfolio in which you also own stocks, bonds, real estate, what have you - other types of investment - a certain amount of gold could be a good thing. It's - depending on the timing of the market, it - you might outperform other investments. It's certainly, you know, stable. You'll always be able to resell it whenever you need to put your hands on it. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I personally don't own any gold, but that just has to do with my taste as an investor rather than any kind of philosophy or ideology about it.
Then there's the less rational pitch, which can involve things like, you know, the government's going to shut down one day, and civilization is going to come to an end. I mean, there is a history of this that goes back even before gold was legal to own in this country. A massive best-seller in 1970 called "How You Can Profit From The Coming Devaluation" not only advised readers to buy gold and silver but also to bury it in your yard because who knows what's going to happen when the, you know, the cities spill over into riots and there are kind of wars going on.
These apocalyptic scenarios somehow have gold as the salvation as if, you know, when civilization is broken down, we're going to be, like, handing each other gold coins. It never has made any sense to me whatsoever, but lots of people believe it. For whatever reason, gold is the salvation from this, you know, gloom-and-doom apocalypse that is, you know, always just another year or a year away.
DAVIES: You know, it seems to me that the other reason that people have affection for the gold standard is that, you know, the monetary system we have is essentially - the currency is based on trust in the government that issues it. And people - some group of people are making decisions about the level of our money supply, and those are elites. And you worry - are they going to have my interests at heart? So you have this ability to create money in the hands of people that you don't know and may not trust. And then, in addition, there's this temptation to just print money easily and generate inflation. There's no discipline to it, whereas if you're pegged to gold, even if it's tough, there's a discipline to it.
LEDBETTER: Well, at least in theory. Again, throughout the period in which the dollar was tied to gold, you had, you know, tremendous economic panics and depressions of all kind. We were on a gold standard when the Great Depression hit, so it's not really a guarantor of anything. The discipline is largely theoretical. And I would also point out yes, I mean - look, as a critique of the existing monetary order, the idea of a gold standard is very interesting and very useful to say, well, it could look like this instead of like that.
At the same time, we don't really have meaningful inflation right now. Inflation has largely been tamed, I mean, compared to, you know, when I was growing up in the 1970s or you know, what Argentina has looked like at times or what Japan has looked like at times. You know, inflation can get really bad.
We have got that more or less under control for the last several decades thanks to - we think - prudent monetary policy and a rational basis for our currency. So I certainly think the existing order has lots of limitations and problems. It does not follow from that that a gold standard would be superior in any way.
DAVIES: What do we know about Donald Trump's views about the gold standard?
LEDBETTER: Not much. It really was not a big issue in the 2016 primaries compared to the 2012 primaries I think in part because the price of gold was much higher in 2012 than it was in 2016. And for whatever reason, you get more political discussion around this idea when gold is relatively high than when it's relatively low.
We do know - I mean, he was asked at one point in the campaign about it and said basically boy, what a great idea it would be. It would be really hard to do, but it would finally mean that our money was tied to something. It's also true, however, that Robert Mercer, a billionaire who was originally a Ted Cruz supporter and then became Trump's biggest backer and also a former employer of Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, is a big supporter of a return to a gold standard and has funded conferences and literature around this idea.
So - and early on in the Trump administration, he flirted with a treasury secretary candidate who was a banker who favors a return to the gold standard, but he didn't actually appoint that man. He appointed Mnuchin instead. I - you know, Trump has trouble just getting his executive orders filled. The idea that he would take on a topic of this level of complexity and this level of disruption to the economy, I just don't see it as very likely. It's a wildly, wildly impractical proposal despite whatever theoretical appeal it might have.
DAVIES: And so no signs that in the actual, you know, functioning of the government in its moves in the Treasury Department that...
LEDBETTER: I haven't seen anything from Treasury indicating that they're thinking in this direction. I haven't seen any proposed legislation. You've had some efforts on the state level in recent years to do things like make gold legal tender in Utah. The sticking point there being it's only for the face value of the coin. So if you have some, you know, 19th-century $10 coin that's in gold, you can take it to 7-Eleven and buy a Slurpee with it. But you'd be foolish to do so because it's worth thousands of dollars.
But you can only spend the $10, though, on its face value. These are symbolic gestures, again, usually designed to appease, you know, either the gold mining industry or a certain sector of the Republican electorate. I don't see any serious efforts on the federal or state level to truly restore a gold standard despite a fair amount of rhetoric about it.
DAVIES: Well, James Ledbetter, thanks so much for speaking with us.
LEDBETTER: Thank you for having me.
DAVIES: James Ledbetter is the editor of Inc. magazine. His new book is "One Nation Under Gold: How One Priceless Medal Has Dominated The American Imagination For Four Centuries." Coming up, Kevin Whitehead tells us about the jazz quartet Sexmob. This is FRESH AIR.
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