Hold your hats, friends, because the gold bugs are coming, and they have an ally in the White House named Ronald Reagan. Under pressure from ultraconservatives who want a return to the gold standard, Congress has appointed a 17-member "Gold Commission" to determine what role gold should play "in the domestic and international monetary systems."
Senior members of the Reagan administration privately imply they are just going through the motions on this commission, with no serious or immediate thought of restoring the link of gold to the dollar--a link that was severed by former President Nixon just 10 years ago.
But they may be underestimating the steam being placed behind this drive by the gold aficionados, who believe that you should be able to take your dollar bills and turn them in for gold --either bullion or coins--thus returning "control over money" to the people.
Even more important, they may be under estimating the president's long-held views on the subject. So far as I know, Reagan's most explicit public declaration on the subject of gold was in an interview he gave me in August l976, in Fort Worth, Tex., during his unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination.
"The increase in the money supply has been part of the whole inflationary spiral," Reagan said. "When the government can't borrow as much as it needs, then it simply increases the money supply. Once upon a time, (U.S. money) had a solid backing--gold or silver. Now it depends on the judgment of men."
I asked him directly if he was suggesting going back to a gold-based system. "No," Reagan answered, "but I don't really know of any monetary system that has survived it." Although the monetarists inside the administration and most of the old-fashioned old-guard Republican economists outside the administration, are bitterly opposed, Reagan doesn't appear to have changed his mind.
The arguments advanced by gold bugs like Arthur Laffer, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and New York businessman Lewis Lehrman have gained force in the past few months as a result of the phenomenal upward course of interest rates, the product of financial market disenchantment with the deficit implications of the Reagan program.
But even beyond that, the attention the Gold Commission is attracting, in the view of economist Alan Greenspan, "has a lot to do with things other than gold." Greenspan thinks that the commission will stimulate "a dialogue showing general dissatisfaction on the way the whole financial system is working."
Office of Management and Budget director David Stockman has won acknowledgement of the Reagan White House team that additional budget cuts of up to $70 billion must be found if there is to be a remote chance of balancing the budget and bringing down interest rates.
That's where the gold bugs come in. They contend Reagan and the Federal Reserve, despite a well-meaning effort at austerity, have not been able to stop the value of the paper dollar from eroding. Despite the tax and budget cuts--which they applaud--they see continued inflation and high interest rates unless the nation latches on to the "discipline" of gold.
"What America needs," says Lehrman, a member of the Gold Commission, "is a policy of financial order." This can be accomplished, he argues, by going back to a system in which the value of the dollar is defined by its weight in gold.
Lehrman confidently predicts that a gold standard would push interest rates down to about 5 percent, calm the chaos in bond markets, and enable the government to finance its huge deficit at a cost of $50 billion instead of $100 billion next year. "The road to the balanced budget is paved with the gold standard," Lehrman wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial-page piece.
But as the more moderate of the Reagan ad visers well know, the gold standard is no such cure-all. It didn't work to save the world from the Great Depression, or the inflation that followed. Tying our money to a commodity controlled mostly by Russia and South Africa would make us--and the rest of the free world if they followed along--hostages to political systems antithetical to democracy. Even the gold bugs don't challenge the fact that the gold supply increases by only 2 to 3 percent a year. To limit world monetary expansion to such a low figure would guarantee rising unemployment, social upheaval, and in all probability, revolt by the have-nots against the haves.