Sunday, January 6, 2013

Yap stones and chartalism

Rai at the Bank of Canada - part of Canada's foreign reserves

As I pointed out in my previous post, all sorts of economists have incorporated the example of Yap stones into their monetary discourse. One of the more peculiar uses of these stones can be found in neo-chartalist L. Randall Wray's Understanding Modern Money (1998).

In Chapter 4 of his book, Wray claims that an economy becomes monetized by the introduction of state-issued tokens (what I call coupon instruments). To provide empirical support for his claim, Wray repeats the story about German administrators marking all Yap stones with paint (see previous post, #9). The Germans did so in order to motivate the Yapese to build roads. After all, in order to get the state to remove these markings from their valuable stones, the Yapese were required to provide their labour. The implications of Wray's chapter are that instead of requiring labour, the German government could just as easily have required payment in government-issued paper coupons. Thus Yap, which up till then had never been a monetary economy, would have suddenly become monetized.

Wray is in some difficulty here since Yap stones already circulated as media of exchange (see Goldberg in previous post). Thus the emergence of a monetized economy came prior to any German state-inspired monetization. This possibility is particularly harmful to Wray since he has adopted throughout his book an extreme, or "vulgar", version of chartalism in which the only way to monetize an economy is to introduce a state-issued coupon instrument. In a note, Wray tries to wriggle out of his predicament, claiming that:
Furness, almost certainly in error, called these 'stone currency' and imagined that they were used as some sort of primitive 'medium of exchange'; however, his description uncovers no evidence that there were any markets. (73)
Wray is contradicted by the anthropological evidence provided by Gillilland and Furness, who list all sorts of examples of rai acting as media of exchange. Rai were used to purchase fish, housing materials, yams, labour, women, coconuts, and many other valuable items. Yap stones original circulation as commodity media-of-exchange therefore prove Wray wrong  in his extreme view that an economy can only be monetized via state-issued coupons.

Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland's Michael Bryan wrote a paper called Island Money (2004) in which he adopts the chartalist idea that "money" is a marker, or a credit/debit, in order to explain rai. Owning a stone meant that one possessed a credit on the rest of the Yapese or, put differently, that Yap was in debt to the stone's owner. In this way rai functioned as "memory", a means by which to tabulate who owes whom. This is an old idea going back centuries but most popularly reincarnated in Narayana Kocherlakota's Money as Memory.

Now it is certainly true that credit IOUs have and continue to serve as some of society's most liquid instruments. Bank deposits are a great example. But to assume that only credit can qualify as "money" is to commit the same sin of monetary extremism that Wray commits. Bryan maintains that
rai are not known to have any particular use other than as a representation of value. The stones were not functional, nor were they spiritually significant to their owners, and by most accounts, the stones have no obvious ornamental value to the Yapese. If it is true that Yap stones have no nonmonetary usefulness, they would be different from most “primitive” forms of money... Usually an item becomes a medium of exchange after its commodity value—sometimes called intrinsic worth—has been widely established. Lacking intrinsic worth, Yap stones may be an especially useful object of study for students wishing to understand the significance of U.S. dollars, which, after all, have no value other than as a monetary unit; they’re what economists call an “fiat” money.
But as Goldberg has pointed out, Yap stones did have significant intrinsic value. There is no need, therefore, to accept Bryan's fallback view that within the so-called vacuum of intrinsic worthlessness, money could only earn value from its status as an IOU, or as so-called "memory".

The other problem with the Bryan's rai-as-credit story is their sheer size. Why choose something so awkward as a three meter wide stone to record an IOU? Any small token can be used to represent either smaller or larger debts. Casinos issue chips of the same size and shape representing amounts from $1 to $1000 — no casino deems it necessary to issue human-sized intrinsically valuable (gold plated?) $1000 casino chips. Rather than using huge stones as IOUs, the Yapese could have easily used verbal promises to record debts (see #8, previous post), or coconut shells emblazoned with markings. The simpler explanation for rai's value is Goldberg's: rai were intrinsically valuable for religious and aesthetic purposes.

I'm not saying that chartalism is wrong. I've pointed out before that I think the idea of coupon "money" makes some sense—even McDonald's could create chartal coupon instruments. So while you can count me in as a soft chartalist (I'm also a soft metallist, a soft monetarist, a soft Keynesian, a soft Austrian, etc), I'm not persuaded by the extreme versions of chartalism. The contortions its advocates are forced to undertake in order to explain monetary phenomena like Yap stones lead them astray.


  1. The sheer size of the stones does make them hard to steal. You can transfer ownership without transferring physical possession, but the only way to transfer ownership was with the seller's public consent (or at least recognition).

    1. Yes, mind you there are stones on record that are only 3-5 cm in diameter too.

  2. Your posting is very interesting, but only dips its toe into the Yap currency history, which goes to the original stones quarried in nearby Palau by Yapese warriors and canoed, suspended on poles in between canoes, hence the holes in the center, with great risk and casualties (thereby acquiring value) back to Yap. Later, in the 19th century, an entrprising shipwrecked American who became known as, "His Magesty O'Keefe," had a square-rigged ship and sailed to Palau to quarry the stones, thereby taking the risk out of the equation. Today the "O'keefe money" is not as valuable as the original stones and one can tell the difference from the way the stones were quarried. Yap also had another, less valuable form of currency in former times, known as "shell money." I must confess I don't know that much about that, but it seems to have been based on the difficulty of harvesting certain kinds of shells. No mistake about it, stone money even today sitting there immovable by the side of the road, retains very significant value in terms of land transactions, wedding dowries, and more. Thanks for your interesting observations. Jim Stovall

    1. Jim, thanks for adding some more colour to the story. You are right, I'm only dipping my toe into the story. An anthropologist could probably spend years investigating Yap money and still never reach a satisfying conclusion.