An example of tax-driven money during the greenback era

Cartoon from 1864 poking fun at politicians and greenbacks (source and explanation)

During the greenback era, the Union government issued irredeemable paper money to help pay for its war against the Confederates. What many people don't realize is that there were actually two different strains of greenbacks—those printed before March 1862 and those printed after. Although these two strains had only slightly different properties, they were not fungible with each other and would go on to have drastically different values in the marketplace. Looking at the respective properties of each type gives some insights a thorny problem: why do colored bits of paper money have value?

One classic explanation for the value of fiat money is so-called 'tax-backing.' If the government stipulates that taxes must be paid using government-issued chits of paper, then that will be sufficient to give those chits a positive value. Back in 1910 economist Philip Wicksteed was one of the first economists to champion this explanation:
The Government, then, levying taxes upon the community, may say: "I shall take from you, in proportion to your resources, as a tribute to public expenses, the value of so much gold. You may pay it to me in actual metallic gold or you may pay it to me in anything which I choose to accept in lieu of the gold. If you do not give it me I shall take it from you, in gold or any other such articles as I can find, and which would serve my purpose, to the value of the gold. But if you can give me a piece of paper, of my own issue, to the face value of the gold that I am entitled to claim of you, I will accept that in payment." Now, as these demands of the Government are recurrent, there will always be a set of persons to whom the Government paper stamped with a unit weight of gold is actually equivalent to that weight of gold itself, because it will secure immunity from requisitions to the exact extent to which the gold would secure it. - The Common Sense of Political Economy, Book II Ch 7
The idea that a tax obligation can be the basis of money, or what Randall Wray has termed twintopt, is at the core of modern monetary theory, or MMT.

Let's see how the tax backing theory holds up during the greenback period. To set the context, South Carolina had seceded from the Union in December 1860, soon followed by ten other states. Hostilities between the Union and newly-formed Confederate states began in April 1861. To help fund the Union side of the war effort, an initial $50 million issue of greenbacks was authorized in July. This was to be the first government paper money emitted since the Second Bank of the United States had been wound up.

The act ruled that these notes were to be redeemable on demand in gold, a promise that was also inscribed on the face of each note (see below). They thus earned the nickname demand notes. This promise meant that, at the outset at least, their price could not deviate from par since any movement above or below their gold value would be arbitraged away. When redemption was rescinded a few months later on December 30, 1861, demand notes began to trade at a 1-2% discount to their face value in gold.

The second vintage of greenbacks, known as legal tender notes, was authorized two months later by the Legal Tender Act of February 25, 1862. This act provided for an issue of $150 million, much larger than the first vintage. One novelty is that the second batch of notes was declared legal tender, which meant that a creditor could not refuse to receive them at par in discharge of a debt. The legal tender property was extended to demand notes in March 1862. The second vintage of notes was also irredeemable, putting them on the same basis as the demand notes, which became irredeemable at the end of 1861.

What distinguished legal tender notes from demand notes? As the tweet above shows, the two vintages had visible differences—unlike demand notes, legal tender note did not have the promise to redeem on demand printed on their face. Demand notes also had an extra promise inscribed on them: "receivable in payment of all public dues". What this meant in practice is that the government accepted demand notes in payment for all taxes, including customs dues, whereas legal tender notes were only receivable in a narrow range of internal revenue taxes—and not for customs dues—which at the time made up the majority of Union tax revenues.

Receivability for customs dues was an important point of departure between demand notes and legal tender notes. Duties were priced in gold and could also be discharged with gold coins. So if an importer was on the hook for $x in custom duties, they could certainly scrounge up $x in gold coin to get rid of the obligation, but $x in demand notes would be sufficient to "secure immunity" from the tax. Not so with legal tender notes.

A given importer might only need a small portion of the demand notes in his possession to pay customs duties. Anything above that amount would be worth less than their face value to him, since gold—not demand notes—was necessary to buy goods internationally. However, if that importer could find other importers who were themselves under obligation to pay customs duties, and who would therefore value his remaining stash of demand notes for their tax receivability, then he might sell them his remaining demand notes at a price quite close to the value of gold coins.

So all that was needed to have irredeemable demand notes trade near the value of gold was a permanent market of tax payers who demanded those notes, and a flow of new notes that did not exceed the rate of drainage provided by the tax outlet. After all, if the supply of notes overwhelmed the amount of tax that needed to be paid, then notes would accumulate in importers pockets with no one willing to bid for them. Once everyone's taxes had all been paid up, demand notes would trade at a discount to gold coins. 

Tax receivability was successful in keeping the value of demand notes close to their gold value. The chart below shows the price of both demand notes and legal tender notes relative to gold through 1862-63.  Demand notes never fell to more than a 10¢ discount relative to gold coin. Calomiris blames this discount on the risk that receivability for customs duties would be revoked by the government before notes had been paid in.

Legal tender notes, however, fell to an ever larger discount relative to both gold coin and demand notes, reaching a 40¢ discount by March 1863. While legal tender notes were receivable for domestic taxes, these taxes did not account for a very large share of government revenues. Nor were these taxes priced in gold. Which meant that, unlike demand notes, legal tender notes were not benchmarked to some real good or price index.

So what, if anything, determined the price of legal tender notes? Here I'll introduce another theory for the value of money; the metallist viewpoint. Rather than tax receivability driving a currency's value, a metallist looks to the currency's intrinsic value. When banknotes are fully redeemable, their intrinsic value is determined by the underlying gold on which the note is a claim, the value of which is set in the market for precious metals in technology and the arts.

In the case of legal tender notes, which were no longer redeemable, the realization of intrinsic value had only been delayed to some future point in time when gold convertibility would be re-adopted. This eventual re-mooring date was in turn a function of the Union government's ability to win the war, among other factors. According to this theory, the steady decline in the gold value of legal tender notes in the chart above can be blamed on the realization by the public that the war would last much longer than most originally thought, pushing the re-mooring date ever further into the future.

While the 1861 issue of demand notes had all been bought back and cancelled by the government by mid-1863, greenbacks remained outstanding even after the war had been won. Their discount to gold continued to widen till July 1864 at which point their price steadily rose. See the chart below. The steady return to par probably can't be explained by the tax-backing theory. Improved odds that the government's fiscal situation would allow it to resume gold convertibility—an event that finally occurred in 1879—is a better explanation. There have been a few interesting accounts written about the value of greenbacks over the full 1862-1879 period, including Wesley Clair Mitchell's A History of the Greenbacks in 1903, but also more recent contributions here (Calomiris), here (Smith & Smith) and here (Willard et al).

In sum, the U.S. government was issuing three non-fungible currencies by 1862. Coins and legal tender notes operated under the principles of a metallic money whereas the third, demand notes, seems to have been a purely tax-driven money as described by Wicksteed. So what about a modern dollar note? Is a Federal Reserve note like an 1861 demand note and mostly tax-driven, or like legal-tender notes and operating on a metallic basis?

I'm not entirely sure, but my guess is that it is a messy combination of both. When it comes to money, I'm not a believer in any one theory. Although the odds of a future return to the old 1972 gold redemption rule of 0.024 ounces per dollar is non-existent, the metallic explanation for the dollar's value continues to be relevant. Instead of redeeming currency with fixed amounts of metal as in days of yore, modern central banks repurchase notes with financial assets held in their vault in a manner that is consistent with hitting an inflation target. This is very much like 1800s-style metallism, except with an ever-shrinking CPI basket in the place of a fixed amount of gold.   


Wesley Clair Mitchell, A History of the Greenbacks

PS: I recently started a discussion board here. Feel free to bring up topics not covered on my more recent blog posts, suggest posts, or discuss ideas that appear on my Twitter feed. I don't like Twitter for long-form discussion; I'd much rather divert them to the board.

PPS: Nathan Tankus responds here.

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