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Metaphors, similes, analogies—we know they’re not the same thing, but they can do pretty much the same job when illustrating what monetary policy is like (or what anything is like). Here are a few such monetary policy comparisons from some notable economists and commentators. For some reason, they all seem to involve physics. More exist, of course.
Note that monetary policy encompasses a range of concerns, not just a single issue. Therefore, the metaphors and analogies illustrate different phenomena.
On June 24, 1968, thousands of people swarmed assay offices in the United States, anxious to unload their holdings of silver certificates. The U.S. Treasury had deemed this the final date on which the certificates could be exchanged for silver bullion. People camped out overnight to ensure that they would beat the deadline, and the resulting lines stretched for hours. Life Magazine covered the story, and offered a history of silver certificates in the United States.
From 1793 until 1861, when the U. S. Treasury Department was given exclusive rights to produce legal tender, thousands of different styles of bank notes were created by U.S. banks. The banks all based their currencies on standardized units, but in most every other way the notes differed wildly—colorful versus monochromatic, and graphics ranging from stock images to almost any concept one could imagine.
Prior to 1876, there was fierce competition among engraving firms and private bank note companies for contracts to print U.S. Treasury bank notes. Then, in 1877, congressional legislation established the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) as the exclusive printer of U.S. government currency.
Does the Federal Reserve or the government care about pocketbooks? Not literally pocketbooks (except perhaps for the role of handbag manufacturing in the economy). But yes, if “pocketbook” is meant to refer to the spending capacity of the country’s citizens. It is easy to find phrases like this opening statement in the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond Monthly Review for October 1968: “In 1967, the consumer emptied his pocketbook of more than $492 billion on various goods and services.” A more recent article in the Wall Street Journal put it this way: “One worry, however, is that rising food and energy prices could hit households in the pocketbook and make them less willing to spend on other goods and services, weakening the recovery.” The budget of the U.S. government for 2009 proposed that “total discretionary spending rise no faster than the size of the economy, to prevent day-to-day government spending from consuming an even larger share of the nation’s pocketbook.” “Nation’s purse” is more commonly used in reference to government spending, whereas “nation’s pocketbook” refers to consumer spending. (In Britain, they actually use the phrase “nation’s handbag.”)
Lauren DiCioccio, a mixed media artist, sews (in the sense of embroiders) money. She has created a remarkable Colombian 5,000 peso bill, a Hong Kong 20 dollar bill, a 10 euro bill, and various versions of U.S. paper currency (when it was still just green). Her creations cannot be used as legal tender and, although quite realistic, could never be confused with legal tender—She leaves the uncut colored threads hanging out from behind each piece as if to say, Yes! This is sewing!
In a May 2014 Historical Echoespost, Marja Vitti describes what happened to money too old to be left in circulation: it was incinerated by the Federal Reserve Banks until passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, after which the money was shredded. Paper money incineration by a Federal Reserve Bank employee was the subject of a hilarious broadcast of the famous TV quiz show What’s My Line? In this broadcast, which aired on June 12, 1960, Thomas Hull, in charge of burning the money for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, steps onto the set, writes his name on the chalkboard, and when asked by John Daly, the show’s host, where he comes from, needs to repeat “Lake Ronkonkoma, New York” three times before he is understood clearly. You might think that this is why Mr. Daly answers so many of the panelists’ questions himself rather than letting Mr. Hull answer them. But you’d be wrong—he does this for pretty much every contestant to ensure that communications are clear and the game remains fair.
We’ve already talked about clams being used as money as late as 1933, but some genuine clam shells found during the construction of the New York Fed’s building at 33 Liberty Street sparked both geological interest and many witty remarks about “clams” being fossilized under a bank.
Caricatures of Alan Greenspan and Warren Buffett in the National Portrait Gallery? Are we hearing correctly? The National Portrait Gallery indeed collects and has great respect for caricatures. The Gallery had a 1998 exhibition and post entitled “Celebrity Caricature in America.” Caricature is quite an old art form: According to Werner Hofmann’s 1957 “Caricature from Leonardo to Picasso,” caricature in the Western world dates back to Leonardo da Vinci. Caricatures of bankers and financiers have been around probably as long as bankers and financiers.
There are many methods by which financial institutions can ready themselves for worst-case scenarios: they participate in the federal deposit insurance system, they follow a variety of banking regulations, and they prepare for natural disasters, for starters. But what about bank robberies, which typically strike their targets with little or no warning?
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