A Thought Experiment on Money
Let’s imagine a small mountain kingdom with only ten very scarce and thus highly valued seashells in circulation. These few shells are certainly valuable in terms of scarcity, but there aren’t enough of them to act as a means of exchange.
One solution to this innate problem of scarcity—money has to be scarce enough to retain value but not so scarce that there isn’t enough of it in circulation to grease trade—is for the kingdom to issue 100 slips of paper for each shell, each slip of paper representing 1/100thof the shell’s value. Now there is enough money in circulation to facilitate trade and each slip retains a store of value equal to 1/100th of a shell. The slips are paper money, i.e. currency.
This system works well, but the rulers of the kingdom aspire to consume goods and services in excess of what their share of the shell-backed money can buy in the open market. The kingdom’s leaders print another 100 slips of paper without acquiring a shell to back the new slips with intrinsic value. Nobody seems to notice, and so the leaders print another 100 slips. Note that the kingdom didn’t produce more goods and services; its leaders simply produced more money.
Eventually this excess of paper slips reduces the value of each slip in circulation. What once cost 10 slips now costs 20 slips. This reduction in the purchasing power of money is called inflation, as the price of goods inflates as the money supply is increased while the production of goods and services remains unchanged.
Let’s assume the kingdom’s leaders avoid the temptation to expand their consumption by printing money rather than first increasing the production of goods and services.
As the kingdom expands its production of goods and services and its population, the original 1,000 slips of paper are no longer enough to facilitate trade: lacking money, people revert to the clumsy alternative of bartering goods and services or issuing letters of credit. The purchasing power of the existing money might well increase due to the imbalance between the demand for money (high) and the supply (limited); what once cost 10 slips now costs only five slips.
The value of each slip has now detached from the underlying value of the shell. It’s not the scarcity of the shell that is creating the paper’s value—it’s the scarcity of paper money itself which is creating the paper money’s store of value.