A ‘new urgency’ is how the New York Times, in a marvelous editorial this week, describes the rush to redefine the official kilogram. That famous weight and measure turns out to be what the newspaper describes as a cylinder of platinum and iridium maintained by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. It is kept there under three glass domes accessible by three separate keys. It is, the Times notes, more than 130 years old and is what the paper calls “only remaining international standard in the metric system that is still a man-made object.” The “new urgency” comes from the discovery that the official cylinder may be losing mass, which, the Times says, “defeats its only purpose: constancy.”
Of course, we could let the confounded kilogram just float. After all, we let the dollar just float, its creation and status as legal tender a matter of fiat, its value adjusted by the mandarins at the Federal Reserve depending on such variables as they from time to time share, or not, with the rest of the world and, in any event, as would have floored the Founders, who granted the Congress the power to coin money and regulate its value and did so in the same sentence in which they also granted the Congress the power to fix the standard of the other weights and measures, like, say, the aforementioned kilogram.
The Founders, many of whom promptly went into the Congress, turned around and regulated the value of the dollar at 371 ¼ grains of pure silver. The law through which they did that, the Coinage Act of 1792, noted that the amount of silver they were regulating for the dollar was the same as in a coin then in widespread use, known as the Spanish milled dollar. And they said a dollar could also be the free-market equivalent in gold. They never expected the value of the dollar to be changed any more than the persons who locked away that cylinder of platinum and iridium expected the cylinder to start losing its mass.
But here in the modern age, the members of the Federal Reserve Board don’t worry about how many grains of silver or gold are behind the dollar. They couldn’t care less. And when the value of a dollar plunges at a dizzying rate, the chairman of Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, goes up to Capitol Hill and, in testimony before the House, declares merely that he is “puzzled.” No “new urgency” to redefine the dollar for him. The fact is that we’ve long since ceased to define the dollar, and it can float not only against other currencies but against the 371 ¼ grains of pure silver.
So why not the kilogram? After all, when you go into the grocery to buy a pound of hamburger, why should you worry about how much hamburger you get — so long as it’s a pound’s worth. A pound is supposed to be .45359237 of a kilogram, of course. But if the Congress can permit Mr. Bernanke to use his judgment in deciding what a dollar is worth, why shouldn’t he — or some other PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology — be able to decide from day to day what a kilogram is worth? Why, not to put too fine a point on it, is the New York Times so concerned about the consarned constancy?
No doubt some will cavil that the fact that the dollar floats makes it all the more reason for the kilogram to be constant. But we would say, what’s so special about the kilogram. Maybe they should both float. If the fiat dollar floats, one has no idea what it will be worth when it comes time to spend it. If the kilogram — that basic unit of weight of all that we buy by weight — also floats, it will be twice as hard to figure out what whatever we’re buying will be worth. So what if, when we unwrap our hamburger, the missus has to throw a little more sawdust in the meatloaf.
To those who would say that would be unfair, if not completely deconstructionist, let us compromise. Let’s go to a fiat kilogram, that is, permit the kilogram float, but apply the new urgency to fixing the dollar at a specified number of grains of — and we might as well pick something essentially inert — gold. To those who say it would be ridiculous to fix the dollar but let the butcher hand you whatever amount of hamburger he wants for a kilogram or a pound of the stuff, we say, what’s the difference as to whether it’s the measure of money that floats or the measure weight.
For that matter, one could go whole hog and fix the value of both the kilogram and the dollar but float the value of time. You say you want to be paid $100 an hour. That’s fine by your boss. But he gets to decide how many minutes in the hour. Or how long the minute is. You know you’ll get a kilogram of meat for the price a kilogram of meat costs. But you won’t know how long you have to work to earn the money. It strikes us as a risky deal. But speaking here for The New York Sun, we say if people are going to insist that the whole point of the kilogram is its constancy, then we’re going to say that there’s no point to it without, as well, a constant dollar.