Commodity money

From Academic Kids

Commodity money refers to money whose value comes from a commodity out of which it is made. Examples of commodities that have been used as money include gold, silver, copper, salt, large stones, decorated belts, shells, and cigarettes.

Commodity money is to be distinguished from representative money which is a certificate or token which can be exchanged for the underlying commodity. A key feature of commodity money is that the value is directly perceived by the users of this money, who recognize the utility or beauty of the tokens as they would recognize the goods themselves. That is, the effect of holding a token for a barrel of oil must be the same economically as actually having the barrel at hand. This thinking guides the modern commodity markets, although they use a sophisticated range of financial instruments that are more than one-to-one representations of units of a given type of commodity.

In situations where the commodity is metal, typically gold or silver, a government mint will often coin money by placing a mark on the metal that serves as a guarantee of the weight and purity of the metal. In doing so, the government will often impose a fee which is known as seigniorage. The role of a mint and of coin is different between commodity money and fiat money. In situations where there is commodity money, the coin retains its value if it is melted and physically altered, while in fiat money it does not.

Commodity money often comes into being in situations where other forms of money are not available or not trusted. Various commodities were used in pre-Revolutionary America including wampum, maize, iron nails, beaver pelts, and tobacco. In post-war Germany, cigarettes became used as a form of commodity money in some areas. Cigarettes are still used as a form of commodity money in prisons.

Although commodity money is more convenient than barter, it can be inconvenient to use as a medium of exchange or a standard of deferred payment due to the transport and storage concerns. Accordingly, notes began to circulate that a government or other trusted entity (e.g. the Knights Templar in Europe in the 13th century) would guarantee as representing a certain stored value on account. This creates a form of money known as representative money - the beginning of a long slow shift to credit money.

Historically gold was by far the most widely recognized commodity out of which to make money: gold was compact, easy to work into more beautiful jewelry, had decorative and functional utility as a finely strung wire or thin foil leaf, and most importantly, could always be traded for other metals to make weapons with. A state could be described as a political enterprise with sufficient land, gold and reputation for protecting both, e.g. the Fort Knox gold repository long maintained by the United States, could reliably issue certificates to substitute for the gold and be trusted to actually have it. Between 1933 and 1970, one U.S. dollar was technically worth exactly 1/35 of a troy ounce (889 mg) of gold. However, actual trade in gold as a precious metal within the United States was banned - presumably to prevent anyone from actually going up to Fort Knox and asking for their gold. This was a fairly typical transition from commodity to representative to fiat money, with people trading in other goods being forced to trade in gold, then to receive paper money that purported to be as good as gold, and then ultimately see this currency "float" on commodity markets.

However, commodity money remained active in the background in some form or another, and seems to have been revived thanks to global capitalism, wherein a currency is widely traded as a commodity. One way to view such trade is that currency of resource-rich nations tends to be tied to the price of those particular commodity items until it becomes a "developed nation". Thus, one could see the nominally fiat money of say Cuba as being tied to the commodity "sugar" globally, rather than to the military power of Cuba that holds within its own borders.

Also, commodity supplies and protections of supplies by states' military fiat remain critical to trade, and there are active commodity market speculations on the stability of certain states, e.g. speculation on the survival of the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq has from time to time driven the price of oil. Some argue that this is not so much a commodity market but more of an assassination market speculating on the survival (or not) of Saddam himself.

Finally, commodity money is undergoing a more direct revival thanks to theorists of green economics, natural capitalism and global resource banking, some of whom suggest a form of money based on ecological yield. They argue that the outputs of "natural capital" are the only genuine commodities - air, water, and calories of renewable energy we consume being mostly interchangeable when they are free of pollution or disease. However, such goods cannot be held directly, and so it is common to suggest that representative money be issued based on enhancing and extending nature's services, giving one the right to receive the yield as benefit. They argue that reframing political economy to consider the flow of these basic commodities first and foremost, avoiding use of military fiat except to protect "natural capital" itself, and basing credit-worthiness more strictly on commitment to preserving biodiversity rather than repayment of debt, as in the current global credit money regime anchored by the Bank for International Settlements, would provide measurable benefits to human well-being worldwide.

Some seek to replace the B.I.S. with a Global Resource Bank to manage global resources "outside national jurisdiction" for global benefit. Others would replace the "gold standard" with a "biodiversity standard". It remains to be seen if such schemes have any merit other than as political ways to draw attention to the way capitalism itself interacts with life.

Critics of this type of proposal often note that, as with other transitions from commodity to representative money, inadequate substitutes will be made on a "just trust me" basis - as per Gresham's Law which states that bad money drives out good. Other proposals, such as time-based money, rely on the availability of human labour as a commodity, especially within a community, which is presumably harder to guarantee access to, but also harder to steal. Still others deny the utility of commodifying labour as such, and suggest making free time the standard, since physical capital used for leisure, sport, art, theatre, and other forms of play is commodifiable and possible to control.

Some, in environmental economics, argue that the life of the individual human being and the natural ecologies are already both treated as commodities in global markets. They argue that to put a price on both is the most reasonable way to proceed to optimize and increase that value relative to other goods or services. This has led to efforts in measuring well-being, to assign a commercial "value of life", and to the theory of Natural Capitalism - which focuses predictably on energy and material efficiency, i.e. using far less of any given commodity input to achieve the same service outputs as a result. An extreme example of this view is held by Indian economist Amartya Sen, who discussed the relationship between access to commodities, labour, and "the right to live as we would like" in his 1999 book "Development as Freedom", arguing that human free time was the only real service, and that sustainable development was best defined as freeing human time.

Sen's views are relatively mainstream - he won the 1999 Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (sometimes incorrectly called the "Nobel Prize in Economics").

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