Thursday, January 17, 2013

Free Platinum! (Or, The Coin That Wouldn't Die)

Back in the Day, c. 1896
My grandfather was born about the time that the Free Silver movement got under way, and my father was born at the tail end of it. So Free Silver lasted about a generation, and it never seemed to accomplish its aims.

Nevertheless, it got unanticipated results, many of which are with us today.  The Fed, for example...

I doubt that many of the Platinum Coin enthusiasts know -- or care -- much about the Free Silver movement after the Civil War (from about 1873 up to about 1900), but it was a very high profile populist effort that ultimately involved the Democratic Party and Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, whose "Cross of Gold" speech of 1896 remains one of the most important American political speeches of all time.

So far, the Platinum Coin effort hasn't produced anything close to the populist fervor of the Free Silver Movement, or anything like the eloquence of William Jennings Bryan, nor has it even begun to generate  a populist movement itself, primarily -- I'd say -- because it is a fairly esoteric strategy discussion confined to portions of the internet and television "news."  It could turn into a populist crusade, but it hasn't yet.

Much as happened with the Free Silver Movement, the Platinum Coin effort might lead to completely unforeseen and unintended consequences for good or ill.

When I was first learning about Free Silver, I did not understand it at all. It seemed to make no sense. At the time I was first hearing about it, sometime in the 1960's, silver coins of all denominations and genuine silver dollars were still in circulation, and I had a few silver dollars, some of them minted between 1879 and 1900, and from that evidence, it seemed to me that silver was being coined extensively throughout the period of the Free Silver movement, just as the Silverites were demanding.

But it wasn't so. In fact, there was far less coinage of silver during the period of the Free Silver movement than advocates were demanding. The situation was not unlike the current economic and financial conditions in which a handful of hyper-wealthy individuals and their chosen financial institutions have almost complete control of the economy and can exploit and prey upon any population segment they choose.

Through their control of the economy, they also control the government.

The People have little or no say in policy decisions affecting them.

Americans seem to have little or no understanding of the circumstances of most Americans' lives during the Post Civil War period. I don't claim to understand it completely myself, but what I do know is that most Americans at the time were barely getting by if they were doing well (enough), and many were not doing well at all.

Bluntly, this was a Third World country -- with a Frontier. The Frontier made a number of things possible: nearly endless natural resources for extraordinary exploitation at very little cost; somewhere for people who were not making it in the city to go and try their luck on the land; convenient dumping grounds for all sorts of experimental, marginal and rejected people and ideas. Oh yes, and "freedom" -- which in the case of the Frontier too often meant liberty to slaughter humans and animals at will.

Without the Frontier, the pressure of the economic exploitation of the 19th century corporate class would have likely led to continuous revolt and revolution; as it was, the People endured a lot of suffering and bloodshed as part of the constant -- and very violent -- efforts of the Overclass to suppress popular movements and uprisings which were ongoing throughout the period.

By the end of the 19th century, the Frontier was officially "closed." There was no longer that particular outlet for discontent on the one hand and extensive "free" exploitation of resources on the other. Yet even while there was an apparently open Frontier, the American People were heavily burdened by debt and by constant economic boom and bust cycles that put millions of Americans in economic and physical peril.

The Free Silver movement was intended to relieve some of the debt that kept so many American bound and in poverty, particularly farmers, and it was hoped that Free Silver would begin to tame the wild fluctuations in the economy that had raised up a few to enormous wealth and left most in poverty and misery. Ultimately, it was even believed that Free Silver would be the mechanism by which the government would finally be put in the hands of the People themselves rather than solely functioning on behalf of financiers and corporate interests who owned and controlled it.

Free Silver was never successful directly, and yet, in a way no one anticipated, many of its objectives were achieved indirectly, at least for a while.

Free Silver was  one of the many elements of 19th century Populism, a phase of American political history that is not well understood, and which is often confused with the rise of Progressivism.

Progressivism, rather than being a populist political movement, was a reaction against the rising tide of populism in the 19th century, and it arose out of a mostly Republican and corporatist framework. Rather than continuing to battle the People and Populism, the Progressives saw that the way forward was to adopt some of the elements and demands of the Populists, adapt others, and ensure that a technocratic class of experts would be charged with governing on behalf of "what is best."

Free Silver was deemed not to be "best," and instead a complete overhaul of the financial and monetary system was undertaken which resulted in the establishment of the Federal Reserve among many other changes, efforts undertaken in reaction to the ever worsening cycles of boom and bust and the social and political dislocations and disruptions they caused.

The Frontier was closed, immigration was restricted, worker protections began to be implemented among many other changes.

Free Silver was never adopted, but when the Sherman Silver Purchase program got under way, coincidentally the economy promptly went into a tailspin (the Panic of 1893), which was the worst economic depression the nation had experienced up till then. It was a traumatic event. Some Americans blamed the adoption of some Silverite demands for the Panic and the subsequent depression, and this belief led to the widespread rejection of Populist and Free Silver economic demands. That in turn left a wide opening for the acceptance of Progressivism as an alternative.

All of which led to many intended and unintended consequences.

The Platinum Coin hasn't reached the level of popular interest and advocacy that the Free Silver movement did, and it may never reach that level. It may not have to. By breaking the thrall of the financial interests -- at least for a moment -- that own and control the government, by pointing out that there are viable alternatives in the economic and political spheres, that bold action to change the situation on behalf of the People is possible, the Platinum Coin has the potential to open up a wide range of alternatives for consideration.

The Coin itself may never be minted -- and it may never have to be. An alternative more like the advent of Progressivism may well arise, providing some of the relief sought by advocates of The Coin, but leading ultimately in another direction.

If the Debt Limit issue is allowed reach international crisis levels, we may be surprised at what is done... May be sooner than we think, too.

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