Lately, there has been a lot of talk about changing the federal minimum wage in America. I wanted to take a quick look at how it has changed, over time. The minimum wage was instituted in 1938, so I looked at it from it’s inception to 2012. I wanted to compare it to the size of the economy, so I compared it to the US gross domestic product.
In order to best visualize the change, over time, I calculated the percent change in each value since 1938. It looks like the two values increased by roughly the same amount until 1950 and then dramatically diverged. I am not sure what value can be taken from this comparison, but it is interesting.
As early as 12,000 BC, Anatolian obsidian was distributed as a raw material for stone-age tools. In the 9th millennium, organized trading appeared. Items like this could be considered the earliest instances of money. In 350 BC, Aristotle wrote:
When the inhabitants of one country became more dependent on those of another, and they imported what they needed, and exported what they had too much of, money necessarily came into use. For the various necessaries of life are not easily carried about, and hence men agreed to employ in their dealings with each other something which was intrinsically useful and easily applicable to the purposes of life, for example, iron, silver, and the like. Of this the value was at first measured simply by size and weight, but in process of time they put a stamp upon it, to save the trouble of weighing and to mark the value.
These early monies were in themselves useful, valuable things. You do not need to trust that your copper coin or piece of obsidian had value because it was made of a valuable material. You just needed to make sure that it was indeed made of that material.
If we fast forward to the birth of the United States, in 1690, the Massachusetts Bay Colony issued the first paper money in the colonies. On April 2, 1792, the United State Congress passed The Coinage Act Of 1792. This act created eagles (worth 10 dollars), dollars, dismes (now known as dimes), and cents. The values of the coins were based upon the value of the materials they were made of. An eagle, for instance, was to “contain two hundred and forty-seven grains and four eighths of a grain of pure, or two hundred and seventy grains of standard gold.”
On July 17, 1861, the congress passed an act permitting the Treasury Department to print and circulate paper money. These “demand notes” were commonly referred to as “greenbacks”. Greenbacks were replaced by United States notes in 1862. Beginning in 1865, gold Certificates were issued by the Department of Treasury against gold coin and bullion deposits. They circulated until 1933. Under Congressional Acts of 1878 and 1886, the Treasury produced silver certificates until 1923, as an alternative to silver coins.
On December 23, 1913, Congress passed the FederalReserveAct. It created the Federal Reserve System and authorized it to issue Federal Reserve Bank notes. These notes are what you carry in your pocket today.
On March 14, 1900, President McKinley signed the Gold Standard Act. The act valued the dollar at 25.8 grains of gold. This was the Gold Standard. The value of the dollar was pegged to the value of that amount of gold. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. On January 30, 1934, the Gold Reserve Act nationalized gold and prohibited private gold ownership except under license. It also empowered the president to devalue the gold dollar by up to 40%. The price of gold was set to $35 per ounce and the federal government began selling confiscated gold on the international market. US citizens would not be allowed to posses gold legally until 1974.
Even though US citizens could not exchange the dollar for gold, foreign governments still could until August 15, 1971. On that day, Richard Nixon eliminated the dollar’s convertibility into gold.
After Richard Nixon’s 1971 elimination of the dollar’s convertibility, it was no longer backed by any sort of government reserves. Fiat money is a currency that has been declared to be legal tender but does not have any intrinsic value. It only has value because people have faith that it has value. All modern paper currencies are fiat money (as are most coins). Instead of a currency’s value being pegged to the value of an asset, it is essentially pegged to the strength of the issuing nation’s economy.
I skipped over the Bretton Woods system for the sake of brevity. If you want to dig further into the history of post-WWII monetary policy, I would recommend checking it out. The gold standard still technically existed until 1971 but in my eyes, it died at the hands of FDR in 1934.
I recently listened to a rather interesting episode of the NPR podcast, Planet Money. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, NPR received a report from 2000 entitled Life After Debt. At the time, it was estimated that with the current budgetary surpluses, the US federal government would have the national deficit paid off in the year 2012. The report was not originally released and since then, we have developed a record deficit. This change of course was partially because of two simultaneous wars and partially because of high tax cuts and stimulus spending. The podcast primarily asked why things changed so dramatically since 2000.
The podcast is worth listening to but, I found myself asking another question: “How long have we had a national debt?” There has been a lot of talk about management of the national debt but how long have we had it? Have we always had it. I found a governmental source that shows historical outstanding national debt figures going back to the fiscal year starting on January 1, 1791. For some context, the first fiscal year for the US Government started January 1, 1789 and George Washington gave the first State of the Union Address on January 9, 1790.
In 1791, the national debt was $75,463,476.52 (source). The GDP is 1791 was $204,000,000 (source). This means that in 1791, the national debt was 37% of GDP. Another way of looking at it is that (based upon a population of 4,048,000 (source)) the the debt was $18.64. In an attempt to compare see the changes in the nation debt over time, I looked up the same information (using the same sources) for the years 1891, 1991, and 2010. You can see the results below.
So, there appears to be a very jump in the national debt, when you look at the numbers in this admittedly narrow way. More to the original question, we have had the national debt since the dawn of the nation. I think that it is an excellent goal to eliminate the national debt. I am just not sure that it will be possible in our current economic climate. The republicans insist that revenue can not be increased and the democrats insist that expenses can not be decreased. Maybe by 2091, we will have a new party that knows better. 🙂