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Choice in Money


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A Brief Look Into the True Nature of Money

How many times a day do you deal with issues that somehow involve money? It seems nearly as ubiquitous in our lives as oxygen. We spend much of our lives working to earn it. We use it to buy the things we want and need. We dream about what we would do if only we had more of it. And yet surprisingly, few of us understand very clearly what it really is.

Two common phrases illustrate some of our confusion over money: “Money is the root of all evil,” and “Money makes the world go around.” Is money really at the heart of everything evil? Or is money something that facilitates much of human achievement and progress?

In order to figure out if money is good or evil, it is important first to define what good and evil themselves are. People often disagree about this important philosophical question which forms the basis for religion and morality. Perhaps one reason we have so many different religions and schools of philosophical thought is because people have such a wide range of opinions about what constitutes good and evil, right and wrong.

For purposes of this discussion, we will focus on a very basic definition of good and evil which is centered on the concept of free will, or choice. The hope and expectation is, a large majority of people, at least in western cultures, will identify with this ethical foundation—particularly when they have been given a chance to consider it thoughtfully.

The idea is a simple one: Policies and practices which respect the ability of individuals to make their own choices and direct their own lives are generally good. Activities which would rob people of their agency and choice are generally evil. Now it is possible you have not really considered the matter from that point of view before. So before you decide if you agree or disagree, consider some examples.

Let’s consider three things nearly all of us can agree on as being evil: rape, theft and slavery. Hopefully, that assertion is not too controversial.

One of the most vile forms of evil is to force another person to engage in a sexual act against his or her will. However, most of us also recognize that sexual relations between informed and consenting adults can also be among the most joyful and fulfilling of all experiences. In each case, the same activity is taking place. The fundamental difference is, in the case of rape, one of the parties is not allowed to exercise choice in the matter.

In a similar example, most of us have had something stolen from us at one time or another. Throughout history, society has had little tolerance for thieves. And yet, most of us have experienced the joy that comes from giving to a worthy charitable cause or person. In each case, we lose something and it is given to another person. But the charitable gift is given by choice and this makes all the difference.

Finally, nearly everyone recognizes slavery to be evil and wrong. Yet, there are few things in life that bring as much self respect and satisfaction as having a good job and being able to provide for your own needs. What is the difference between having a job and being a slave? Only that one arrangement is voluntary and the other is not.

So we see, the freedom to make choices and to determine our own associations and activities forms the very basis of our moral and ethical framework. Whether or not you have thought of it in these particular terms before, you should be able to recognize: good people respect the agency of others while evil people do not. The “Golden Rule,” incorporated in one form or another by nearly every religious tradition, is one embodiment of this principle. We all want to be free to choose and to direct the course of our own lives. Clearly we should afford this same freedom to those around us.

So back to the question originally posed: Is money good or evil? Just like sex, wealth transfer, and labor, it is not automatically good or evil. Rather, it can be a very good thing when it occurs as a result of informed, voluntary choices. Or, it can be a very wrong and evil thing when it comes about in a non-consensual way.

The distinction being made in this case is not that money itself is neutral and can be used for good or for ill. Certainly that is true, but it is not the point here. Rather, it is asserted that there are literally two different kinds of money: good money and evil money. In order to understand this better, we should explore what money really is and how it is created.

First, let’s cover some misconceptions about money. One of the first is that money is just an arbitrary unit of measure of value which we all have somehow decided to trust and honor. As long as we all value the money, it will have value. But the minute we suddenly decide we don’t like it anymore, it will lose its value. Although such monetary systems can be conceived, and indeed, some have actually been implemented, most money does not work this way—even under a central banking system such as the Federal Reserve.

Another misconception is that in the United States, the Federal Government is the only entity allowed to create money. While it is true, the Constitution empowers Congress to “coin money and regulate the power thereof,” it is clear that Congress does not have the exclusive right to create money. As we will demonstrate below, money is regularly created by banks, companies and even private individuals, and the federal government makes no effort to prevent this activity.

What the Constitution empowers Congress to do is to create coinage, define its metal composition, and thereby determine its value. It is worth noting how this power is enumerated, literally in the same sentence, as the power to establish a uniform standard for weights and measures. In other words, the role of the Congress, as it applies to money, is to create a standard of monetary value and to issue coinage which serve as a reference for that value.

As further evidence that the power to create money is not exclusive to the Congress, we see the Constitution later explicitly prohibits the States from coining money (making their own monetary standards), issuing bills of credit (notes payable), and declaring anything but gold and silver coinage as legal tender (forcing everyone to accept some form of payment in commerce). The notable phrase here is the second one concerning “bills of credit.” As we will see, this is really how most money is created. Note that the Constitution deals separately with the creation of coins and the creation of credit. In other words, they are two distinct and separate things. And while states are prevented from issuing bills or notes, individuals and corporations are not. The founders clearly expected people and companies to create notes payable regularly in the course of commerce. So this brings us to the point where we can describe what most money really is.

Money is credit, or in other words, debt. It is that simple.

Other things, which we might call money, such as gold and silver coins, are really a different kind of thing we typically refer to as a commodity. A commodity is really anything you can buy or sell, own, touch and feel. Some commodities we consume like milk, eggs or corn. Other commodities last a little longer such as a car, a boat, or a washing machine. Some commodities last quite a long time like a home, a gold necklace, or a rare work of art. Interestingly, our very bodies are a commodity in that we have the ability to work and do labor. That labor can be used to create value for people who want to buy things like milk, corn, cars, and homes.

So while gold and silver coins are indeed a type of money, this is really something typically called “commodity money.” In contrast, most of the money circulating in our economy today is really something very different. It is an abstract representation of a commodity rather than the commodity itself. It represents a promise to pay up or to deliver some amount of that commodity at some later time. In this way, it represents a debt or an obligation on the part of the issuer. And this is the reason it is accepted as having value—not simply because we all choose to believe in it.

Who makes this kind of debt-backed money? You do. That notion may come as a surprise to many readers. But it is true. Every time a regular consumer borrows money from a bank to buy a house or to start a business, he is really creating new money. Remember, money is debt. So creating new debt is equivalent to creating new money. Conversely, when you create new money, you are creating new debt. And someone, somewhere is eventually going to have to deliver on the promise.

Most people assume a home loan is what it sounds like: borrowing money from a bank. But the real truth in our fractional reserve system is, the money you borrow doesn’t really exist in the bank until you borrow it. In a very real sense, you are not borrowing it at all. What is really happening behind the scenes is, you are giving a note payable to the bank and they are giving you a note payable right back. The note from you to the bank says you will pay them principal and interest over a set number of years until the debt has been fully repaid. It is only as reliable as you, the issuer and your ability to deliver on your promise. But it is typically also backed up by some asset like a home or other real estate. If you fail to keep your promise, the bank may have to take that collateral and sell it to make good on your commitment.

The money you get back from the bank is also a note payable. But it is more universally recognized and respected in the economy because it is a Federal Reserve Note. These notes, whether they exist as paper currency or merely as a number in a bank’s computer somewhere, are backed up by the American banking system. A merchant who chooses to accept this note as payment should know that somewhere, a bank holds a note payable issued by a homeowner who promises to go to work each day and earn money so he can pay his mortgage. If that promise breaks down, the bank can take the home and sell it to produce value to back up the obligation. And if that fails, the notes are guaranteed by the full faith and credit of the American people. This means ultimately, all of us could be on the hook to honor the obligation through the payment of our taxes.

So to reiterate a critical point: Just because you borrowed $100,000 from a bank, doesn’t mean the bank had $100,000 before the transaction. Sure, the banking regulations require the bank to have some reserves on hand, but not the full $100,000. In reality, it might be only 1/10 of that value. The value of the loan, or the credit amount, represents new money that is created in the act of the loan being executed. It didn’t exist before the loan. And it will cease to exist once the loan is paid off.

Another interesting thing to consider is: The current fractional reserve banking system operated in the United States by the Federal Reserve is only about 100 years old. How did the country manage its money in the years prior to the federal reserve act of 1913? One answer to this is, things were a lot less centralized. Regional banks often issued their own currencies and people found other abstract ways to represent value besides a centrally managed reserve note.

In one sense, people were probably a lot more aware of the notion that they could create their own money through instruments of debt. For example, many people who wanted to get to America, but couldn’t afford it, entered into an arrangement called “indentured servitude.” Under this system, the person would execute a contract which required him to work for some employer for a set period of time, such as 5 years, for example. In exchange for this contract, the employer would pay the fare for travel to the new world and might also provide room and board during the period of the indenture.

Although indentured servitude is frowned upon today, it is really not much different from taking out a modern home mortgage. In both instances the issuer becomes obligated to work for many years in order to pay off a debt. The primary difference is, indentured servants were obligated to work for a single employer for a fixed period of time, while today’s indenture obligates the issuer to a debt denominated instead in dollars which can be paid off as quickly as the debtor is able to earn the money. A modern debtor can change employers all he wants, but he needs to continue to earn at least enough to make the agreed upon payments. However, even indentured servants could typically end their debts early by making a pre-determined cash payment. So again we see, they were not so different from those indebted by today’s mortgages.

Another critical part of the pre-1913 economy involved private merchant accounts. In local economies it was often commonplace for merchants to carry receivable accounts for the various credit-worthy consumers of the community. Today, most short-term consumer credit is managed by specialty companies such as Visa and American Express. But in earlier times, the local general store would have managed its own credit accounts. As an example, a farmer might buy seed in the spring without providing any cash at all. Instead, he would sign a credit agreement with the general store, promising to make payment at a later time when his crops had been harvested. In some cases, the general store might be willing to take some or all of the payment in crops—not money at all. Or, in cases where the farmer could sell his crops elsewhere for cash or other instruments, these could serve as acceptable payment for the previously purchased seed.

The point is: the account kept by the general store represented a debt payable by the farmer. In a very real sense, it constituted the creation of money. The store held a receivable, redeemable by the issuer (the farmer) at some point in the future. That note itself had value and in some cases, could be traded to other merchants for things the general store might want to buy. Any time someone agrees to a debt by executing a note payable, that note becomes a form of money. It may not be as widely accepted as a Federal Reserve Note. But it has value for anyone who knows how to collect the debt. And as such, it can be traded as an abstract representation of value, just as any other type of note.

So now we are finally able to return to the question of whether money is good or evil. Or more appropriately, what is “good money” and what is “evil money?” Before answering, let’s use our new understanding that money is debt and debt is money. We will substitute the word “debt” for “money” and see if this makes the answer a little more obvious: What is “good debt” and what is “evil debt?”

Clearly the distinction comes right back to the idea of free will. A debt which is incurred in an informed, voluntary way is perfectly good and ethical. Once agreed to, the debtor has a moral duty to make good on the obligation and the creditor is rightly justified in collecting the debt according to the agreed upon terms. But if the debt was established without the free will and choice of the debtor, or if he was somehow tricked into incurring the debt, we would all agree it is not moral or ethical. In this case, the debtor should not be bound by the obligation.

So this is the difference between good and evil money. Good money is debt, voluntarily incurred and evil money is debt which was not agreed to or properly understood by the debtor.

We already mentioned the older method of creating private debt through indentured servitude and how this is roughly equivalent to today’s home mortgages. This helps us understand that any debt which is guaranteed by individuals is ultimately backed by their labor—just as with an indentured service contract. In other words, someone is going to have to go to work at a job somewhere in order to pay it off. So when we combine this notion with the concept of involuntary debt, we see the result is involuntary indentured servitude. When the debt is not freely incurred, someone somewhere is going to have to work, against his own free will, in order to service the debt.

There is a word for this: “slavery.” And it is right up there at the top of the list of things we all recognize as evil.

Now let us explore some real-world examples of how good and bad money gets created. To understand this better, we will examine the Federal Reserve system in the United States. But the principles can be applied to nearly any centralized banking system.

It only takes a simple search of the Internet to discover a number of conspiracy theories about the Federal Reserve. Some of the more popular ones take issue with the fact that US dollars used to be backed by gold, but since going off the gold standard, now the money is totally unbacked. Another popular term for this is called “fiat money,” or money which has been created out of nothing. While there are some true fiat currencies, such as Bitcoin, for example, Federal Reserve dollars are not unbacked. As we have seen, they are backed by millions of individual private and commercial loans which themselves are secured by real estate and other business holdings. Another big portion of the money supply is generated by public, or government borrowing. This credit is guaranteed by the American tax payer so individual citizens are indentured to make continual payments against the debt.

So the real problem with the Federal Reserve is not that their currency is insufficiently backed. Rather it is that they can create obligations of servitude without the consent of the debtors they bind into the indenture. To understand this better, let’s review how and why the Federal Reserve was created in the first place. The fundamental argument was that economic conditions without a central bank were too volatile—subject to booms and busts. What government sought was a way to control the money supply. What we have now is called an “elastic money supply.” The theory is, a board of really smart people at the Federal Reserve can decide whether there is too much money or not enough money in the economy. If there is not enough, they can employ certain controls which will expand the money supply, providing the liquidity to keep things moving along properly. If there is too much money, they can employ other controls which will shrink the money supply back down to the proper size.

This seems pretty sensible on its face value. After all, we wouldn’t want to run out of money. That would be bad, right? Doesn’t it make sense to have the government regulate that process so we always have the right amount?

Once again, let us substitute the word “debt” for “money” and see if it helps us find the answer. Should we have a centralized body that decides how much debt there should be in the economy? If not enough people are borrowing money, this body can decide to make them borrow more—incurring a debt which they might not otherwise agree to voluntarily? It is pretty easy to see that money created by force is evil money and should not have a place in a free society. Yet it happens every day in economies operated around centralized banking systems.

So this brings up an interesting question: What is the “right” amount of money? Well, what is the right amount of debt? What is the right amount of indentured servitude? The answer is easy. If we want only good money and no evil money, the perfect amount of money is exactly equal to the amount of debt people and companies decide to enter into by their own free will and choice. Anything less is a liquidity shortage and anything more is slavery by degrees.

But what about the arguments that the “economy” will suffer if there is not enough liquidity, or money in the markets? The truth is, some investment bankers on Wall Street might not be able to make all the money they want. Or some big companies, dependent on government subsidies for their survival might also suffer. Most significantly, politicians may suffer. But regular people—the ones who back the national debt with their labors—will enjoy the greatest amount of freedom and prosperity when the only money that gets created is money they want to create, and not a penny more.

Another argument for a centrally managed money supply is, the extra liquidity is necessary in order for government to accomplish great works such as space exploration and the construction of mass transit systems. In ancient Egypt, the pyramids probably could not have been built without using slave labor. It may possibly still be true today that certain public works will not be accomplished unless people are forced to donate the labor necessary for their accomplishment. Does that make it right or moral?

Proponents of centrally managed borrowing will cite section 8 of the US Constitution which says, Congress has the power to borrow money on the credit of the United States. In all fairness, we need to admit, the Federal Government does have the power to create money through this mechanism. Just like an individual who borrows, a government can create a note payable which can be used in trade as money. And it is true, this debt is backed by the people through the taxing authority of that government. So just as taxes are a necessary reality in any social construct where government is to be a part of the solution, that government will become a burden upon the people for its support. So what is the proper role and scope of government borrowing and how do we keep it from growing to the point that it becomes a slave-master to the people?

One important point to understand is: the Federal Reserve is not the same as Congress. Yes, Congress has the power to borrow money. But our current central banking model goes way beyond that. Under the Federal Reserve act, the central bank is an independent entity unto itself. While it derived its charter from Congress, no elected official today has any power over it. The Federal Reserve sets its own policies independent of Congress and the President. Congress does not seem to have the power even to audit the Federal Reserve. And no election can unseat any officer of the Federal Reserve.

By the Federal Reserve act, Congress gave the power of a monopoly in the business of money creation to a single bank which is not managed by government and is not accountable to the people. Furthermore, the notes produced by the Federal Reserve have been declared by Congress to be legal tender, which means, individuals and businesses are forced by law to accept these notes as payment of all debts. If we don’t accept Federal Reserve notes, the government will not enforce our contracts of indebtedness. So we could be forced to use them if we want to do any kind of trading involving payment after the fact.

The idea of a private monopoly, sanctioned and empowered by government is very unfriendly to the concept of individual choice. But does that mean all money created under the Federal Reserve evil money? No, not all—but much of it is. As mentioned, the stated purpose of the Federal Reserve is to manage an “elastic” money supply. They have several specific mechanisms available to do this. First, they have the power to set the “official” interest rate, or the rate at which banks can borrow money from the Federal Reserve. These dollars represent the official notes, or promises your bank trades to you in exchange for the mortgage, or private note you execute payable to the bank.

If the Federal Reserve decides we need more money in the economy, they can lower the interest rate. Theoretically, this lower rate will result in a lower borrowing rate for consumers. Since borrowing becomes cheaper, the theory is, more people will voluntarily borrow more money. And this will increase the money supply. So far, it would seem this is primarily “good money” because, for the most part, the decision to incur debt is still made by the free will of the debtors.

A second, and sometimes more potent measure, is to adjust the reserve ratios. This tells banks how much money they can lend out (i.e., how much new money they can allow to be created) in relation to how much money they need to have on hand as actual deposits or equity in the bank. As mentioned, they might be able to lend as much as 10 times their reserves in new loans. The higher that ratio is, the more new debt money is likely to be created because banks will be able to write that much more in new loans. Again, in this case, no one is being forced to borrow money. The Federal Reserve is just using incentives to try to get people to borrow more and create the needed liquidity.

But in recent years, we have seen that these two methods are not always enough. Part of the reason for this is, a centrally managed, fractional reserve system such as the Federal Reserve can only exist if the money system is always increasing. In spite of the concept of an elastic money supply that can expand and contract, real-world economic forces require that it nearly always expands. It hardly ever can be allowed to contract. This is primarily due to the fact that money created through debt must be paid back with interest. But if the entire money supply has been lent into circulation at interest, where will the money come from to pay that additional interest? The answer is, the money supply needs to gradually expand in order to create the new money in the future to service the debt represented by the current supply of money. It is an ever expanding pool of debt that can never really be fully repaid.

What has become more obvious since about 2007 is an ever increasing appetite in the government-managed economy for liquidity. We are told by the financial wizards of the banking industry that without sufficient money in the system, we will see a massive financial failure on a scope never before witnessed. Lowering interest rates and reserve ratios have not been enough to tempt people into incurring additional debt. So the Federal Reserve has resorted to more desperate measures. These include massive, ever-increasing levels of government debt and spending as well as an even more desperate measure called “quantitative easing.”

Government debt works like this: The federal government borrows money from the Federal Reserve. This money is then spent—on anything really. For the most part, Congress does not protest because a lot of this money can go to favored constituencies and a fair amount of that finds its way back into campaign coffers to fund upcoming elections. It is a win-win for Congress and the banking monopoly. The increased government spending gets counted into the GDP so it appears as a stimulus to the economy and makes the economy look better than it really is. And the extra money can get traded around through business and individual bank accounts so people feel like they are doing well—even though their long-term debt, or liabilities are ever increasing. As of this writing, the Federal debt is around 18 Trillion dollars. This amounts to around $56,000 of debt for every man, woman and child in the country. Even though that principal may never be repaid, the population of 319 Million people will still have to go to work every day and devote a good portion of their productivity just to pay the taxes to service the ever increasing interest payments.

In other words, every single person in the country is in a contract they did not agree to for indentured servitude. Theoretically, their indenture would involve several years of service where maybe half of their total productivity would need to be donated to government in order to retire the debt. The problem is, the debt is increasing at a faster rate than they can possibly pay it down. So sadly, the indenture will never end. They will just have to keep paying and paying and will never be free of the ever increasing obligation.

In our current political climate, roughly half of the population thinks they are free of the burden of this taxation because they do not pay personal income tax. But this is not the case. In addition to the tax on individuals, we also have a national income tax on corporations. This means profits which would otherwise pass through to sometimes wealthy shareholders to be taxed at their personal rates, instead get taxed first at the corporate rate. This extra tax money has to come from somewhere so the companies take it from the only place it can come from—the people who work to earn it, the consumers. This is done by raising the prices for goods and services above what they would otherwise be so there is enough money to both pay the tax and to provide a return on investment sufficient to raise the necessary operating capital to stay in business. Corporate taxes don’t come from corporations, they come from the customers of corporations. In a very real sense, they are just like a sales tax—we all pay it when we buy the things we want and need.

So when government taxes, it goes to where the money is. And as good as it sounds to “tax the rich,” there really aren’t enough of them to amount to all that much money. The real money, or debt, is with the people who do most of the work—the middle and lower classes. Make no mistake, if you work, you are paying for the national debt one way or another.

Recently, the Federal Reserve has been employing quantitative easing in an attempt to increase liquidity. Under this method, new money is created by the issuance of the electronic equivalent of Federal Reserve notes. But this new money is used to purchase securities in the stock or bond market. The securities then become assets of the Federal Reserve. The theory is, by purchasing securities that would otherwise be in much lower demand, the prices for those securities can be held artificially high. At the same time, billions of dollars of new liquidity is injected into markets by way of Wall Street. As this money is spent, again an artificial stimulus is recorded to make the economy look more healthy than it really is. Theoretically, when it is time to shrink the money supply again, the securities could be sold back into the market. The question is: will that time ever come? Will the markets ever be strong enough to withstand the Federal Reserve pushing billions of dollars worth of securities back out at true market prices?

If not, this artificially created money will certainly dilute the pool of money created through legitimate borrowing activities. As it is released into the economy, it steals value from the already existing money and so, constitutes a kind of theft of value. It is a way to effectively tax the entire money supply and then move that value into the hands of those fortunate enough to be able to sell off their devalued securities to the Federal Reserve.

So it is true, the government must have the power to borrow in a responsible way in order to fund the legitimate, duties outlined by the constitution. Even though this is not completely “good” money, it is a necessary price to be paid by people who want to live under a government which can protect their rights and freedoms. But when government begins to borrow for the sole purpose of creating new money so it can inject artificial stimulus into the economy, at the expense of future tax payers, this is clearly in the realm of “evil money.” Tax payers are being conscripted for forced indenture to repay an ever-increasing debt for which they have not given their informed consent.

When the Federal Reserve artificially inflates the money supply by injecting new dollars into the securities markets through quantitative easing, they are diluting the money supply in a way that cannot be undone without the burden also falling upon the very same tax payers who are guarantying the national debt. Either way you look at it, working citizens will carry the burden. We will all pay the price with our labors.

Conclusions

Everyone wishes they had a little more money. Now that we understand what money really is, it is instructive to say it a different way: Everyone wishes they had other people a little more in debt to them. Yes, that is really what it means to have money. It means to hold notes or obligations from other people. When people owe you something, you can redeem those obligations to buy what you want and need. That is one of the ways we store value, by holding the obligations of other people who are willing to exchange future work for the goods and services they want today.

This brings up a question asked by many: Is money a zero-sum game? Or is it an “expanding pie” where everyone can have all they want and need?

The answer is, when it comes strictly to money, the size of the pie can change, but it doesn’t necessarily increase just because we are all working hard. In an economy where there is only good money, the amount of money around could even become very small. Remember, money is debt, so if people decide they don’t need to borrow, there may not be a lot of money. This means the money pie might grow or it might shrink but there is definitely not enough for everyone to have all they want. When you understand that money is a debt owed by one person to another person, you can see why everyone can’t have all the money they want. This would mean everyone would be a creditor but no one would be a debtor and that is impossible.

Now when it comes to wealth, rather than money, the pie can increase to whatever size we want to make it. We can produce all the milk and corn we want. We can build as many homes as we are willing to work for. We can make all the new cars we need, and we can mine gold and silver for all the earth will give. If we are willing to do the work, we can achieve any standard of living we want badly enough. This will involve the accumulation of all the different commodities we want and need to live comfortable, safe and happy lives.

So is money good or evil? We clearly see that money ill-gotten is evil. When we cheat, lie or steal in order to obtain it, what we are really obtaining is the servitude of other people. So a love of money which leads us to obtain it by dishonest means truly is the root of all that is evil.

By the same token, good money is the means by which an able-bodied person with no wealth at all can leverage the asset of his own labor to obtain goods and services today which he can then begin to pay for over time. Without debt, very few younger people would be able to purchase a home. Few would be able to start a business or engage in trade with each other. Good money is clearly the means for mankind to achieve and progress. It is the means to obtain the food, clothing and shelter we all want and need. It is the means to raise our standard of living by obtaining the commodities which will make all our lives more comfortable.

So we don’t need more money and we don’t need less. What we need is more freedom to choose how we will each use our labor to provide for the wants and needs of our lives. It is time to get rid of the obsolete notion that only a centrally managed, government-sponsored monopoly can make the decisions for us about how much debt to take upon ourselves. It is time we learned to resist the continual urge to enslave each other. Then life can really begin to improve for the masses—the people who do the real work in the economy. And the size of the money supply can take care of itself.