Havilah, where there is gold : a post-Sinaitic theology of gold

The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one which flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. Genesis 2:11-12

Economist Nouriel Roubini says that gold has no intrinsic value.  He like many others, including Warren Buffet, take a utilitarian approach whereby the value of something is only what the market will bear at any given moment.  So in a Black Swan event, such as when all are dying of famine, a bag of gold could potentially buy a loaf of bread to stave off starvation.  In such cases, gold is only worth what people are willing to trade for it–so the thinking goes.

Others argue that silver is a better investment because at least silver has an industrial use.  But the gaping hole in this entire utilitarian argument is it misses an important aspect of gold: its aesthetic value.  Now, aesthetics is about an appreciation of beauty.  The gold-has-no-intrinsic-value cult thus downplays the ornamental and the artistic value of gold in jewelry, in works of art, and in religious artifacts. But since the dawn of history, these qualities have made gold one of the most desired elements in creation.  I would argue further, that God actually created gold to have this aesthetic value.  But let’s not make the opposite mistake as Roubini et al. and downplay the utilitarian value of gold.  Genesis 2.11-12, the first mention of gold in the Bible is making an implicit statement about why God created gold.

My very first undergraduate class in Bible was on the Pentateuch.  Prof. Darrel Hobson at Northwest College taught that the theology of the entire Pentateuch was post-Sinaitic.  If Moses is the essential author of first five books of the Bible–a traditional view–then he wrote everything from the vantage point which occurs after the Exodus and after his experience of God’s presence at Mt. Sinai.  The Creation narrative tells us that God made the heaven and the earth and everything which is in them.  He thus made the gold of Havillah and that gold was good–like everything else he created (see Gen 1).

This says something implicit about the function of gold in Moses’ time.  In those days, gold had its obvious aesthetic value to make beautiful things.  But it was also used as money.  Therefore, Genesis 2.11-12 implies that the utilitarian function of gold as a intermediary of exchange and a store of value, i.e., the monetary use of gold was good and an aspect of the creational purpose that God had for gold.

Intrinsic value and the world-wide Nouriel Roubini bubble

Nouriel Roubini warned the world one year ago that gold was very likely in a bubble at just below $1200.

Gold prices, you will have noticed, have been rising sharply, breaching the $1,000 (U.S.) barrier and, in recent weeks, rising toward $1,200 an ounce and above. “Gold bugs” argue that the price could top $2,000. But the recent price surge looks suspiciously like a bubble, with the increase only partly justified by economic fundamentals.

Roubini has a PhD and is a professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. But still he writes that gold has no “intrinsic value”:

But, since gold has no intrinsic value, there are significant risks of a downward correction.

I found it remarkable that an economist didn’t have the slightest clue of the meaning of the term “intrinsic value”: an instrument of currency is said to have “intrinsic value” based upon the market value of the medium on which it is transmitted.  Since gold had a market value of nearly $1200 per oz, it had an intrinsic value of nearly $1200 per oz.  Since paper on that day had much less value, then dollars printed on paper had less intrinsic value than had it been minted on gold.  I therefore responded on the Globe and Mail forum as follows:

There seems to be a world-wide Roubini bubble. All his cautions are justified because in a bull market any asset class may be overbought and enthusiasm will temporarily wane. But it remains a long-term bull market for gold because there is already inflation, quite the opposite of what Roubini claims: Food, energy, and real estate (at least in Canada) are on the rise because of the “liquidity”. A “massive wave of liquidity” is a sudden excessive supply of money itself, which is another way of saying “inflation”.

Roubini is misguided about the meaning of “intrinsic value”. Gold is and has been, throughout human history, the very essence of intrinsic value; gold has never needed anything to back it, but has been used to back other kinds of money, and it maintains its value better than many other asset classes.

He is mocking us all and seeing if anyone out there will believe him. Ha ha, very funny Mr. Roubini.

A certain Anton B. Nym responded in agreement with Roubini:

Gold truly has very little, almost no, “intrinsic value”. It isn’t used in daily life; you can’t eat it, burn it, wear it to stay warm and dry, build a shelter from it, or even make much in the way of tools with it. (Though it is handy in the manufacture of electronics and a few esoteric processes.) Historically gold’s value comes from its malleability and lustre as well as its ease of refinement and relative scarcity. Whatever value we invest in gold is mainly esthetic and traditional… and thus subject to change by whim and fad. At a grand an ounce, and with the world economic situation gradually improving, I don’t see the current fad lasting much longer.

I responded to this reader of the Globe and Mail as follows:

Anton P. Nym: Your view of “intrinsic value” is far too utilitarian. Roubini is an extremist who’s gone off the deep end on this point. Gold has no intrinsic value? Give me a break.

Gold is beautiful to look, easy to forge, very malleable, and never tarnishes. It is rare and is the subject of metaphor and poetry. Many things that you can’t eat, burn, build a shelter or even make tools with have great value. Consider the song, “Happy Birthday” has made the owner of its rights millions of dollars in royalties. And what value has that except that it has become the tradition to sing it at the joyous occasion of celebrating one’s passage into another year of life. Small amounts of gold next to my wife’s heart have reminded her of my love for her and have made her feel good about herself. That is invaluable to me. Try giving your wife a barrel of oil on the occasion of your wedding anniversary and see if she says, “O thank you so much for giving me something with intrinsic value!”

Well, with gold at over $1370 a year later, I suppose Roubini is still waiting for the gold bubble to pop.  Don’t get your hopes up Prof. Roubini!

I guess the opinion editor thought that my rebuttal of Roubini and his ilk was witty (page no longer available at the globe, here is a screen snip).