The question of wealth is confusing. To an individual it appears to be the amount of money he or she possesses; but to a nation it would be the goods and services they produce in a given period of time, usually a fiscal year measured in terms of dollars and cents. This is the Gross Domestic product, the GDP. Which is the actual wealth? The productivity or the money?
Looking at a small area of United States’ history should answer this question.
On Tuesday, Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929 the New York Stock Market collapsed. Over a period of time the value of the Market dropped from 89 billion dollars to 18 billion dollars. (This was when a one ounce gold coin was a $20 gold piece and was officially worth $16.) That event was concurrent with downturns in all the other industrial nations. The rest of the U.S. economy would follow the stock market with massive unemployment, part time employment, and underemployment. Unemployment would drop to 25% of the working population. The President, Herbert Hoover, and his Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, believed that the Market Mechanism would eventually bring the Market back to where it had been before the crash. It did not.
From October 1929 until the end of 1932 the country sank into deeper and deeper depression. The President and his Secretary of the Treasury kept stating that “Prosperity was just around the corner.” That corner was never reached.
John Maynard Keynes, an English economist, developed the theory of Keynesian Economics. Government, during times of recession and depression must spend more than they collect in taxes. During times of prosperity it can pay off its debt. Some of this was attempted on a small scale by President Hoover.
In 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States. He began, what he called, The New Deal; a process of massive spending that it was hoped would bring about recovery.
Roosevelt funded this in a very interesting way. Money at that time was gold and silver coins. All the gold coins in the country, with the exception of a small number held as souvenirs, were collected, melted down into gold bars, and stored in depositories like Fort Knox. Gold certificates, equaling the value of the gold coins, were issued to the Federal Reserve. The value of the gold was then by Act of Congress doubled from $16 an ounce to $32 an ounce. The ounce of gold had traditionally been the $20 gold piece. Each one was replaced by two $20 dollar paper bills marked Federal Reserve Notes. In one simple act the money supply of the United States had been doubled.
We were actually off the gold standard but the fiction of its continued existence remained. The money was as good as the gold that stood behind it. Roosevelt could now easily fund the early New Deal. All it took was a simple act of Congress and the money supply was doubled.
As the New Deal progressed, from 1933 to 1940 shortly after World War II broke out, Congress authorized spending by the Roosevelt Administration far beyond the amount of taxes that were collected or the extent of the money supply. The government followed the principles of Keynesian economics. This did not get the country out of the depression. In order to do that the money supply would have had to have been more than quadrupled. But it did allow recovery to begin. It took World War II for complete recovery to occur.
From the outbreak of W.W.II in 1939 to the end of 1941 when the U.S. became directly involved in the war the country could not meet the demands of Europe and Asia for goods. The depression ended; there was full employment. The Allied nations shipped their gold (money) to the U.S. to pay for their purchases of goods (food and assorted war materials) until they ran out of money, then purchases were made on credit until that became too large. At this point the Roosevelt Administration evolved the concept of Lend Lease, which was a fiction. From this point on the United States gave the necessary war materials to the Allied Powers.
World War II was a very expensive enterprise. How great was the cost to the United States? The best we can do is an approximate answer to this question. According to the Oxford Companion to WWII the cost to the U.S. was $306 billion. President Truman in an address to a joint session of Congress stated that the U.S. contributed $341 billion to World War II. This did not include the $50 billion given out in Lend Lease.
During WWII the United States became the “Arsenal of Democracy,” supplying all the allied nations with food and the materials of war. Within the country all efforts were aimed at fighting and winning the war. Practically all manufacturing was for the war effort. Farmers could not produce enough food. Many people set up “victory gardens,” growing vegetables on their lawns, while those in apartments used window boxes. Virtually everyone on the home front was involved in the war effort. Children collected scrap metal and old newspapers that could be reconstituted and used again. Housewives saved their used grease from cooking and turned it in to their butchers. It was used in the production of munitions.
With everyone on the home front employed, men, high school students after school, and women, and many people working double shifts money was readily available but there was little upon which to spend it. People could not freely spend money; most items were rationed or not produced; everything was focused upon the war effort.
The government, presumably to raise money for the military effort, sold war bonds. They could be bought in numerous denominations. The smallest was a $25 bond which cost $18.75 and was redeemable after ten years. School children bought 50 cent war stamps that they collected in books, until they saved $18.75, then turned them in for war bonds. All the resources in the country was focused upon the war effort.
Where did all this money come from? What was its effect upon the economy of the United States? Obviously Congress passed bills and the President signed them. And the money was created. Also all this currency that the country created was spent upon goods and services in the U.S. It was all this spending that took the country out of the depression and into a new level of economic prosperity. During the war people had money, many for the first time in their lives, but could not spend it.
In 1944 the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act (G.I. Bill) was passed by Congress and signed by the president. It was a law that provided a range of benefits for returning WWII veterans: low cost mortgages, low interest loans to start a business, cash payments of tuition and living expenses to attend college, high school, or vocational training, as well as up to one year of unemployment compensation. It was available to every veteran who had been on active duty during World War II for at least 90 days and had not been dishonorably discharged. Combat was not required.
By 1956 about 2.2 million veterans had used these benefits to attend colleges and universities. An additional 6.6 million had taken some kind of training program. This does not count the number who started small businesses with low government interest loans or who bought a house with a low interest VA loan.
In April 1948 Congress passed the European Recovery Program, generally called the Marshall Plan. In this bill the United States gave economic support to help rebuild European economies after the end of WWII in order to prevent the spread of communism. During the four years that the plan was operational the U.S. donated $13 billion in economic and technical assistance to help the recovery of the European nations.
If we consider the inflation factor in terms of the value of gold, then an ounce of gold was worth $32; today an ounce of gold is worth in the area of $1,300. If you divide $32 into $1,300 you get an idea of the level of inflation since 1948.
How was all this paid for? The answer is by an acts of Congress. The government legislated the funds into being. What then is the real wealth of the United States? The goods and services it produces.
What happened to all this debt that Congress generated? How did the U.S. pay for the depression, WWII, the GI Bill, and the Marshall Plan? Of course the answer is obvious. Congress approved the expenditures and the government printed and issued the money.
Before we consider the National Debt there are some other factors to consider. First the population of the U.S. in 1930, several months before the census was taken, was 122,775,046. By 1940 it had gone up approximately by ten million people; and by 1940 by another eighteen million. By 1960, the year of the next census the population was 179,323,175 Americans, an increase of over twenty-five million. While the executive in each introduction to the official census has apologized for the sloppy enumeration, this number of individuals was actually counted.
With the constantly increasing population the economy needs an ever growing amount of money in the National Cash Flow. In no year, from the beginning of the Great Depression on, did the economy increase by less than one million people, generally the number was larger. If money had not been added to the economy there would have been mad inflation and total economic collapse.
What the Federal Government did was to add by acts of fiat multi-billions of dollars to the national economy. The initial cost of the New Deal was covered by doubling the money supply and creating the fiction of gold being behind every dollar. Later paper money was simply created for the latter part of the New Deal, Lend Lease and W.W.II, the G.I. Bill and the Marshall Plan. There was never any real gold behind the dollar. In fact, there was never enough gold in existence to make up an adequate gold supply for money.
What was the advantage of using this token money? It allowed full productivity to occur within the United States and the industrial world. World War II, forgetting for the moment its horrors, put everyone back to work. The G.I. Bill made this country into a middle-class nation by educating millions of people with college and providing for them to start their lives on a more secure level than their parents had lived. The Marshall Plan, in addition to allowing European nations to recover from the devastation of war, was also a six plus billion dollar checkbook of funds to be spent in the U.S. creating an endless number of well-paying jobs.
The wealth all this paper money produced was the production of goods and services that allowed America and a good part of the world to emerge after the Second Great War.