Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Steve Forbes: The war against cash

Electronic commerce makes it easier for Big Brother to see what we're doing, thereby making it simpler to bar activities it doesn't like

Steve Forbes
Published: Mar 25, 2016 05:24:39 AM IST
Updated: Mar 21, 2016 03:50:58 PM IST
Steve Forbes: The war against cash

Gaining attention these days is the idea of abolishing high denominations of the dollar and the euro. This concept graphically displays the astonishing stupidity—and intellectual bankruptcy— of today’s liberal economic policymakers and the economics profession.

Larry Summers, a former treasury secretary and Harvard president, is pushing the US to ban $50 and $100 bills. There’s a lot of chatter, too, about prohibiting the €500 note.

The ostensible reason is to help in the fight against terrorists, bribers, drug dealers and tax evaders by making it more inconvenient for these bad guys to move around and store their ill-gotten cash.

The Benjamin is the most popular currency note in the world, with more than 10 billion in circulation. The notion that such evildoers as the Mexican drug cartels and ISIS will be seriously disrupted by the absence of the Benjamin—“These sacks of cash are too heavy now. Let’s surrender!”—is so comical that one has to wonder if Summers et al. are auditioning to write gags for Saturday Night Live.

Monetary expert Seth Lipsky pithily points out in the New York Post, “When criminals use guns, the Democrats want to take guns from law-abiding citizens. When terrorists use hundreds, the liberals want to deny the rest of us the Benjamins.”

If the Obama Administration really wants to deny resources to terrorists, why is it giving tens of billions of dollars back to the globe’s terrorism central, Iran?

The real reason for this war on cash—start with the big bills and then work your way down—is an ugly power grab by Big Government. People will have less privacy: Electronic commerce makes it easier for Big Brother to see what we’re doing, thereby making it simpler to bar activities it doesn’t like, such as purchasing salt, sugar, big bottles of soda and Big Macs.

The move to destroy cash feeds into the economic commissars’ fantasy that they can better control the economy. Policymakers in Washington, Tokyo and the EU think the reason that their economies are stagnant is that ornery people aren’t spending and investing the way they should. How to make these benighted, recalcitrant beings do what they’re supposed to do? The latest nostrum from our overlords is negative interest rates. If people have to pay fees to store their money, as they do to put their stuff in storage facilities, then, by golly, they might be more inclined to spend it. To inhibit cash hoarding—when Japan announced it was imposing negative interest rates, the sale of safes soared—the authorities will want to do away with large notes.

We kid you not. The highly credentialed author of a paper advocating the prohibition of large currency denominations declared, “Introducing negative interest rates would create a powerful incentive to hold deposits in cash, most likely in higher denominations. Eliminating high-denomination notes, so that saving in cash was more inconvenient, would mitigate this problem.”

Manipulating the value of money and controlling interest rates, i.e., the price of money, never works. Money measures value. It is a claim on services and is a tool for facilitating commerce and investing.

The reason economies around the world are in the ditch—which is fuelling anger, discontent and ugly politics—is structural, government-created barriers: Unstable money, suffocating rules and too-high rates of taxation.

Steve Forbes: The war against cash

Why They Stuck with Hitler
The Second World War was the most cataclysmic conflict in human history, so it’s no surprise that books about it keep pouring forth 70 years after it ended. The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939–1945, by Nicholas Stargardt (Basic Books, $35), brilliantly and with impressive nuance and texture deals with the astounding questions of how the most educated and cultured nation on earth could unloose such a murderous, barbarous and genocidal war and why most Germans—Nazis and non-Nazis alike—closed ranks around Hitler, even when it became clear the war was going to end disastrously.

Having combed through countless letters and diaries, Stargardt smoothly and vividly weaves together the stories of more than a score of individual Germans from all walks of life and the unfolding events of the war. Focus is largely on the Eastern Front, where most German casualties occurred. He shows how people’s attitudes and opinions evolved, one example being a young man who was sensitive and artistic yet cold and indifferent to the atrocities he witnessed in Russia. Such shocking contradictions were common. A prominent Protestant, Bishop Wurm of Württemberg, faintheartedly protested the Nazi regime’s policy of murdering “deformed” infants and the mentally ill by administering poisonous drugs or starving them to death, while Catholic Bishop Galen of Münster initially, courageously and publicly, condemned the practice. The death toll from this alone was well over 200,000. Yet Galen vigorously supported the invasion of the “Jewish Bolshevik” Soviet Union and refused any aid to Jews, even to those who had years before converted to Christianity, while Wurm privately wrote letters to the Reich in support of those converts. As this book makes clear, both the Protestant and the Catholic churches were guilty of moral failure.

A number of German soldiers and officials were uneasy or outright horrified by what was happening, but most did nothing about it. All but a handful of non-Nazis supported the war to the end because they believed defeat would lead to Germany’s annihilation.

Stargardt evokes the nitty-gritty of daily life: Complaints about hypocritical officials living high on the hog (a common gibe: “When will the war end? When [the obese Hermann] Göring fits into [the slim propaganda chief Joseph] Goebbels’s trousers”); rationing; infidelities on the home front; the movies, plays and radio shows people preferred (Shakespeare was performed more frequently in Germany than in Britain during the war); the Allied bombing; and the course of the war itself.

Some highlights:

  • Most German civilians were aware of the mass killing of the Jews and other atrocities through letters and photos sent to them by husbands, sons, brothers and friends, and from conversations when these men came home on leave.
    Goebbels was a master at making the home front complicit in what was happening, first by noting Hitler’s January 1939 “prophecy” that if the Jews launched another European war they would perish, and then letting events speak for themselves—the deportation of German Jews and the auctioning off of their property, along with what people learned from news sent by their relatives fighting on the Eastern Front.
  • Most Germans convinced themselves that the war was one of self-defence, a fight for survival, because the evil French, Russians, British and Americans and their “Jewish masters” all wanted to destroy Germany.
  • Germans also engaged in moral equivalence: The bombing of German cities by the US and Britain was in retaliation for the Reich’s treatment of Jews, but what was happening in the death camps and shooting pits was really no different from the Allies’s “terror” bombings.
  • One reason the Germans fought to the bitter end with a fanaticism exceeding that of the Japanese was the “shame” of November 1918, when Germany suddenly collapsed, even though the Fatherland hadn’t been invaded and most people believed the army was still in good fighting order.
  • Contrary to Nazi myth, the Germans were hardly a united community. Differences between regions, classes and religions were sharp and became exacerbated when millions of refugees from bombed-out cities were moved to other parts of the country.
  • Public opinion on the war oscillated. At the beginning Germans were deeply opposed. The seemingly easy victory over France made people euphoric; setbacks had the opposite effect. But even though the regime suffered bouts of immense unpopularity, particularly in the summer of 1943, most Germans never wavered in their belief that they shouldn’t give up.
  • German military casualties were horrific. In the first few weeks of 1945, for instance, German army deaths exceeded the number the US lost in the entire war. Total German military deaths were around 4.8 million.
  • In 1941, just before Pearl Harbor, Hitler’s armaments minister and longtime trusted confidant Fritz Todt told the Führer that “this war can no longer be won by military means,” because Germany couldn’t match the growing production of the US (which was providing more and more materiel to Britain and Russia), not to mention the increasing output of the Soviet Union and Great Britain. Todt recommended that Hitler negotiate the best deal he could and end the war.

Instead, Hitler maniacally went in the opposite direction. The killing of Jews was ramped up exponentially. At the beginning of 1942 most of Europe’s Jews were still alive; by year’s end the majority were dead. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hitler immediately declared war on the US.

This is an extremely interesting yet disheartening tale of a civilised people’s descent into barbarism.

Steve Forbes is Editor-in-Chief, Forbes

(This story appears in the 01 April, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)