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how does gold affect the cultures of the world?

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Gold Continues to Subjugate the World

30.10.2008 For millennia, gold has been a symbol and a store of wealth. But why does gold hold such allure? What makes this precious metal a valuable commodity in its own right? Matthew Rees looks at gold from a historical perspective.

Social elites in nearly every society have sought gold as a way to advertise their rarefied status. Among more ordinary citizens and merchants, gold has facilitated business transactions where no common currency has existed. The quest for gold has driven people deep into the earth to extract the metal from barely accessible veins. It led Europeans across the seas in search of undiscovered and abundant sources of gold that could enhance the global stature of kings and queens. It spurred Americans (and explorers from around the world) to California in the mid-19th century to scoop tiny specs out of rushing rivers.

But why does gold continue to inspire confidence when many other commodities are intrinsically more valuable? Why, in an age of increasingly sophisticated and innovative currency markets and vast global trade, do many investors, some politicians, and a few economists continue to believe that a return to the gold standard – making currencies "as good as gold" – would benefit national economies? The simple answer to these questions is that gold has served as a benchmark of stability throughout history. When trouble loomed for local currencies, gold quickly emerged as a bulwark against eroding wealth. Accepted nearly everywhere and easy to transport, gold has not been vulnerable to a loss of confidence that would render it worthless.

Greenspan, an Advocate of Gold
Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve (Fed), has been a long-time advocate of gold. "Gold and economic freedom are inseparable," he wrote in 1966. "In the absence of the gold standard, there is no way to protect savings from confiscation through inflation. Gold stands as the protector of property rights." In his best-selling book "The Power of Gold," economic historian Peter Bernstein traces humanity's interest in gold from the earliest ages. Ancient Egyptians mined gold from the Nubian territories to their south – indeed the place-name Nubia is thought to derive from the Egyptian word for gold. The Lydians, whose culture existed in what is today Turkey, were reported by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus to be the first civilization to use gold coins, around 600 B.C., spurring the growth of a thriving trade culture. Since that time, countless societies have used gold or silver as a medium of exchange or as a support for other forms of currency, notably paper notes.

A Rare and Stable Metal
Gold's universal appeal is rooted in several factors, chief among them its rarity and stability. Since 1492, the supply of gold has never increased by more than 5 percent per year, and over the past century the annual increase has remained steady at around 2 percent. Today, there are about 4 billion ounces of gold in existence; central banks hold about 25 percent of the total supply and private citizens hold the rest. From the standpoint of political economy, the relatively stable supply of gold, when linked to a national currency, has served as a check on inflation and a moderating influence on balance of payments accounts.

No less important, throughout history gold has functioned as a de facto global currency, since countries (or merchants) had no other common medium of exchange. As such, it has been growth catalyst for cross-border trade, contributing to economic efficiency and greater global prosperity. Gold also has appealing physical attributes. As Nathan Lewis points out in "Gold: The Once and Future Money," it comes in only one form and it does not chemically combine with other elements. It does not tarnish or rust ... Because of its extraordinary density, it cannot be counterfeited." The fact that gold also has relatively few alternative uses is another benefit. As Bernstein posits, "Gold ... has always been useless for most practical purposes that call for metal because it is so soft." Gold can't be used for building, nor can it be consumed. Given the choice of using corn or gold as a currency, it makes sense to eat the corn and trade the gold.

A Metal With No Real Utility
At the same time, gold's general lack of utility makes its value something of a mystery. Compared with a commodity such as oil, which has real worth to an energy-dependent world, gold can only be valuable if people find something inherently appealing about it. Its shine and luster – which led to its early association with luxury and wealth – have rendered it desirable across cultures. The use of gold coins as currency – often in conjunction with silver – was popular until recent centuries. Metallic coins represented tangible wealth. They didn't rely on the value assigned by sovereign authorities, but they could be traded within towns and across borders beca

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