Matt Taibbi and Walter Kirn discuss fiat information on their weekly podcast “America This Week.” I recommend this to anyone interested in escaping the clutches of the mainstream media. Matt is recently most famous for his work with Elon Musk on the Twitter Files (up to number 17 as of March 4, 2023). Walter is a well-known best-selling writer and screenplay author. If you click this link you should be taken directly to the March 3 podcast. The discussion of fiat information starts with about one hour left in the show.
In their March 3 episode, Walter laid out his theory of fiat information. This is very similar to fiat money. For those who need a reminder, fiat money is money that is only useful as a means of financing transactions (a medium of exchange). By contrast, commodity money has uses other than exchange. Gold is a good example. While it can sometimes be used to buy things, it is also used for jewelry and in the computer industry.
Fiat money can be created by the government or central bank. In many countries, those are the same institution. Those countries also tend to have high inflation rates. More independent central banks usually are less prone to start inflations. In the U.S. the Federal Reserve System is the central bank. It is designed to be fairly independent of the federal government. But that independence depends on how willing the managers (the seven people who are the Board of Governors) to stand up to political winds. Some, like Paul Volcker, had spines made of steel. Others, especially G. William Miller, had vertebrae similar to gelatin products.
Traditionally, central banks created new money by purchasing government securities. In the U.S. the sellers are a small group of dealers. Essentially, those dealers are given some guaranteed profits in exchange for guaranteeing liquidity in the federal government securities markets. The dealers deposit the funds they receive in commercial bank checking accounts. At that point, the funds become part of M2.
Fiat information is created by the government. Whether the information is true or not makes no difference (at least to the participants in the dissemination process). The government and its contractors keep a reserve stock of information. When needed, some new information can be leaked to the equivalent of federal securities dealers. These are the primary outlets that profit from disseminating the information. Think New York Times and Washington Post. Here’s Walter’s description [minor edit by your friendly correspondent]:
…the sort of new mission of journalism which doesn’t seem to be uncovering the truth anymore, but managing the information cycle. [They] act almost like banks that get money directly from the Federal Reserve. I call it fiat information. The government prints information, and certain favored institutions are first in line to get it and then they loan it to others. For a profit.
These outlets profit by being first to publish the information. After that it disseminates in a manner remarkably similar to the money creation process.
This whole process depends on trust (just like fiat money). And as trust in the information erodes, the government produces information (and disinformation) at a faster rate. Walter calls this information inflation.
The analogy extends even further. With fiat money and a fractional-reserve banking system, banks are always illiquid. Their deposit liabilities always exceed their reserve assets. Most of the assets are loaned out or held in less liquid forms. That can result in a run on the bank in which many depositors decide to withdraw large quantities of deposits in very little time. One purpose of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) is to boost the public’s confidence that their deposits are safe. In fact, that’s probably it’s most important job. In fact, if an otherwise sound bank is experiencing a bank run, it is the Federal Reserve’s job to lend that bank money to satisfy the depositors. If the bank is not sound, the FDIC will step in and try to arrange a merger with another bank. There are other actions the agency can take. For an entertaining description of bank bailouts, see Bailout by Irvine Sprague.
There is another similarity between fiat money and fiat information. Economists are familiar with the money multiplier process. An additional dollar in bank reserves will increase the quantity of money by more than one dollar. The ratio of the increase in M2 to the increase in reserves is the money multiplier. In the U.S. the M2 money multiplier is about 2.5. Is there a similar multiplier for fiat information?
Yes. Big mainstream media outlets syndicate their content. How many outlets buy syndication rights from the New York Times? It turns out that question is ambiguous. The Times syndicates their content in many different categories. But it’s easy to believe that the number of syndication outlets is in the thousands. Compared to the Times, the Federal Reserve money multiplier is an amateur operation.
We need to thank Matt and Walter for contributing to the economics of (dis)information. I hope this has been enlightening. Fiat information is here to stay.
- Gold, it happens, is a very good conductor of electric current. Most modern computers need to operate at fairly low voltages, making gold ideal for this use. Don’t go ripping your iPhone apart thinking you’ll get rich. The gold is actually plated onto other wiring. There’s really not very much in your devices. ↑
- Of course, no private business can guarantee liquidity in any market. The Federal Reserve is the ultimate buyer of any securities not purchased by the dealer group. ↑
- Yes, I know, loan-deposit cycle, money multiplier, etc. This is not an essay on the money supply process. ↑
- My calculations from the Federal Reserve’s H.6 report. ↑