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Silvio Gesell and Stamped Money: Another Thing Fisher and Wicksell Knew that Modern Economists Have Forgotten

Greg Mankiw in 2009, in the New York Times:

It May Be Time for the Fed to Go Negative : The problem with negative interest rates... is... it would be better to stick the cash in your mattress. Because holding money promises a return of exactly zero, lenders cannot offer less. Unless, that is, we figure out a way to make holding money less attractive.

At one of my recent Harvard seminars, a graduate student proposed a clever scheme to do exactly that.... Imagine that the Fed were to announce that, a year from today, it would pick a digit from zero to 9 out of a hat. All currency with a serial number ending in that digit would no longer be legal tender.... That move would free the Fed to cut interest rates below zero. People would be delighted to lend money at negative 3 percent, since losing 3 percent is better than losing 10....

The idea of making money earn a negative return is not entirely new. In the late 19th century, the German economist Silvio Gesell argued for a tax on holding money. He was concerned that during times of financial stress, people hoard money rather than lend it. John Maynard Keynes approvingly cited the idea...

Ummm... Greg... You make it sound as though Keynes noted it in an obscure footnote somewhere. But Silvio Gesell is the topic of part VI of chapter 23 of Keynes's flagship work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. And it's not just Keynes in his flagship work. There are 55,000 google hits for "Silvio Gesell." Patinkin (1993) reports that Irving Fisher advocated Gesell-based "velocity control" in his 1932 Booms and Depressions. Nobel prize-winning Maurice Allais was an advocate as well. Gerardo della Paolera and Alan Taylor are Gesell's biggest boosters today in their book Straining at the Anchor: The Argentine Currency Board and the Search for Macroeconomic Stability, 1880-1935, a University of Chicago Press book that is part of the NBER's series on "long term factors in economic development." Willem H. Buiter and Nikolaos Panigirtzoglou writing in the Economic Journal in 2003: "Overcoming the Zero Bound on Nominal Interest Rates with Negative Interest on Currency: Gesell's Solution."

This is, I think, yet another example of how much economics has lost by cutting itself off from its moral philosophical and historical roots. Something that Keynes and Fisher and the other founders of monetary economics seriously wrestled with is today seen as something unknown and new to be thought of by clever graduate students. Once again the answer to Olivier Blanchard's question "What Do We Know that Fisher and Wicksell Did Not?" is that Olivier is asking the wrong question: what did they know that we have forgotten?

Here is John Maynard Keynes writing in 1936, summarizing Silvio Gesell writing in 1916:

J.M. Keynes, General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, chapter 23: It is convenient to mention at this point the strange, unduly neglected prophet Silvio Gesell (1862-1930), whose work contains flashes of deep insight.... [T]he English version (translated by Mr Philip Pye) being called "The Natural Economic Order". In April 1919 Gesell joined the short-lived Soviet cabinet of Bavaria as their Minister of Finance, being subsequently tried by court-martial.... Professor Irving Fisher, alone amongst academic economists, has recognised its significance. In spite of the prophetic trappings with which his devotees have decorated him, Gesell's main book is written in cool, scientific language; though it is suffused throughout by a more passionate, a more emotional devotion to social justice than some think decent in a scientist.... I believe that the future will learn more from the spirit of Gesell than from that of Marx.... Gesell's specific contribution to the theory of money and interest is... that the peculiarity of money, from which flows the significance of the money rate of interest, lies in the fact that its ownership as a means of storing wealth involves the holder in negligible carrying charges.... [H]e had carried his theory far enough to lead him to a practical recommendation, which may carry with it the essence of what is needed... the prime necessity is to reduce the money-rate of interest, and this, he pointed out, can be effected by causing money to incur carrying-costs just like other stocks of barren goods. This led him to the famous prescription of 'stamped' money, with which his name is chiefly associated and which has received the blessing of Professor Irving Fisher.... [C]urrency...would only retain their value by being stamped each month, like an insurance card, with stamps purchased at a post office. The cost of the stamps... should be roughly equal to the excess of the money-rate of interest (apart from the stamps) over the marginal efficiency of capital corresponding to a rate of new investment compatible with full employment. The actual charge suggested by Gesell was 1 per mil. per week, equivalent to 5.2 per cent per annum.... The idea behind stamped money is sound...

UPDATE: Ah. Here's the original draft of Greg's New York Times column http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2009/03/reloading-weapons-of-monetary-policy.html, with Alan Taylor weighing in. And here is Bruce Champ of the Cleveland Fed writing about this a year ago http://www.clevelandfed.org/Research/commentary/2008/0408.cfm.