by Joseph T. Salerno
Under cover of its multiplicity of fabricated wars on drugs, terror, tax evasion, and organized crime, the US government has long been waging a hidden war on cash. One symptom of the war is that the largest denomination of US currency is the $100 note, whose ever-eroding purchasing power is far below the purchasing power of the €500 note. US currency used to be issued in denominations running up $5,000 notes). There was even a $100,000 note issued for transactions among Federal Reserve banks. The United States stopped printing large denomination notes in 1945 and officially discontinued their issuance in 1969, when the Fed began removing them from circulation. Since then the largest currency note available to the general public has a face value of $100. But since 1969, the inflationary monetary policy of the Fed has caused the US dollar to depreciate by over 80 percent, so that a $100 note in 2010 possessed a purchasing power of only $16.83 in 1969 dollars. That is less purchasing power than a $20 bill in 1969!
Despite this enormous depreciation, the Federal Reserve has steadfastly refused to issue notes of larger denomination. This has made large cash transactions extremely inconvenient and has forced the American public to make much greater use than is optimal of electronic-payment methods. Of course, this is precisely the intent of the US government. The purpose of its ongoing breach of long-established laws regarding financial privacy is to make it easier to monitor the economic affairs and abrogate the financial privacy of its citizens, ostensibly to secure their safety from Colombian drug lords, Al Qaeda operatives, and tax cheats and other nefarious white-collar criminals
Now the war on cash has begun to spread to other countries. As reported a few months ago, Italy lowered the legal maximum on cash transactions from €2,500 to €1,000. The Italian government would have preferred to set a €500 or even €300 maximum limit but reasoned that it should permit Italians time to adjust to the new limit. The rationale for this limit on the size of cash transactions is the fact that the profligate Italian government is trying to reduce its €1.9 trillion debt and views its anticash measures as a means of cracking down on tax evasion, which "costs" the government an estimated €150 billion annually.
The profligacy of the Italian ruling class is in sharp contrast to ordinary Italians who are the least indebted consumers in the eurozone and among its biggest savers. They use their credit cards very infrequently compared to citizens of other eurozone nations. So deeply ingrained is cash in the Italian culture that over 7.5 million Italians do not even have checking accounts. Now most of these "bankless" Italians will be dragooned into the banking system so that the notoriously corrupt Italian government can more easily spy on them and invade their financial privacy. Of course Italian banks, which charge 2 percent on credit-card transactions and assess fees on current accounts, stand to earn an enormous windfall from this law. As controversial former prime minister Berlusconi noted, "There's a real danger of crossing over into a fiscal police state." Indeed, one only need look at the United States today to see what lies in store for Italian citizens.
Meanwhile the war on cash in Sweden is accelerating, although the involvement of the state is less overt. In Swedish cities, cash is no longer acceptable on public buses; tickets must be purchased in advance or via a cell-phone text message. Many small businesses refuse cash, and some bank facilities have completely stopped handling cash. Indeed in some Swedish towns it is no longer possible to use cash in a bank at all. Even churches have begun to facilitate electronic donations from their congregations by installing electronic card readers. Cash transactions represent only 3 percent of the Swedish economy, while they account for 9 percent of the eurozone and 7 percent of the US economies.
A leading proponent of the anticash movement is none other than Bjorn Ulvaeus, former member of the pop group ABBA. The dotty pop star, whose son has been robbed three times, believes that a cashless world means greater security for the public! Others, more perceptive than Ulvaeus, point to another alleged advantage of electronic transactions: they leave a digital trail that can be readily followed by the state. Thus, unlike countries with a strong "cash culture" like Greece and Italy, Sweden has a much lower incidence of graft. As one "expert" on underground economies instructs us, "If people use more cards, they are less involved in shadowy economy activities," in other words, secreting their hard-earned income in places where it cannot be plundered by the state.
Fortunately, the free market provides the prospect of an escape from the fiscal police state that seeks to stamp out the use of cash through either depreciation of central-bank-issued currency combined with unchanged currency denominations or direct legal limitation on the size of cash transactions. As Carl Menger, the founder of the Austrian School of economics, explained over 140 years ago, money emerges not by government decree but through a market process driven by the actions of individuals who are continually seeking a means to accomplish their goals through exchange most efficiently. Every so often history offers up another example that illustrates Menger's point. The use of sheep, bottled water, and cigarettes as media of exchange in Iraqi rural villages after the US invasion and collapse of the dinar is one recent example. Another example was Argentina after the collapse of the peso, when grain contracts (for wheat, soybeans, corn, and sorghum) priced in dollars were regularly exchanged for big-ticket items like automobiles, trucks, and farm equipment. In fact Argentine farmers began hoarding grain in silos to substitute for holding cash balances in the form of depreciating pesos.
As has been widely reported recently, an unlikely crime wave has rapidly spread throughout the United States and has taken local law-enforcement officials by surprise. The theft of Tide liquid laundry detergent is pandemic throughout cities in the United States. One individual alone stole $25,000 worth of Tide detergent during a 15-month crime spree, and large retailers are taking special security measures to protect their inventories of Tide. For example, CVS is locking down Tide alongside commonly stolen items like flu medications. Liquid Tide retails for $10–$20 per bottle and sells on the black market for $5–$10. Individual bottles of Tide bear no serial numbers, making them impossible to track. So some enterprising thieves operate as arbitrageurs buying at the black-market price and reselling to the stores, presumably at the wholesale price. Even more puzzling is the fact that no other brand of detergent has been targeted.
Menger identified the qualities that a commodity must possess in order to evolve into a medium of exchange. Tide possesses most of these qualities in ample measure. For a commodity to emerge as money out of barter, it must be widely used, readily recognizable, and durable. It must also have a relatively high value-to-weight ratio so that it can be easily transported. Tide is the most popular brand of laundry detergent and is widely used by all socioeconomic groups. Tide also is easily recognized because of its Day-Glo orange logo. Laundry detergent can also be stored for long periods without loss of potency or quality. It is true that Tide is somewhat bulky and inconvenient to transport by hand in large quantities. But enough can be carried by hand or shopping cart for smaller transactions while large quantities can easily be transported and transferred using automobiles.
Just like the highly publicized war on drugs that the US government has been waging – and losing – for decades, it is doomed to lose its surreptitious war on cash, because the free market can and will respond to the demand of ordinary citizens for a reliable and convenient money.
March 21, 2012
Joseph Salerno [send him mail] is academic vice president of the Mises Institute, chairman of the graduate program in economics at Pace University, and editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.