Paper money offers the benefits of anonymity, immediate payment, no identity theft, and no transaction charges. Government also benefits by printing notes with much greater value than the cost of the paper. However, some economists argue that cash has social costs that outweigh these blessings, and advocate the reduction and eventual elimination of paper cash. Several countries are planning to discontinue their largest currency notes. The European Central Bank is phasing out its 500-euro note; it will stop issuing new ones in 2018. The Scandinavian countries are reducing their paper cash.|
Kenneth Rogoff, professor at Harvard University, has written a book, The Curse of Cash, in which he argues that the elimination of large-denominations of paper money would be good for society. Cash is a curse, he says, because criminals use the large bills, and because it limits the ability of central banks to have negative interest rates.
The use of cash by the underground economy is a symptom of bad policy, and the elimination of cash treats the effects rather than the causes. The reason economic activity goes underground is that governments have prohibited economic transactions.
Although some U.S. states have decriminalized medical marijuana, the substance remains illegal in federal law, which prevents the sellers from using the normal banking system. Therefore they use paper money. The prohibition of drugs generally drives the industry towards the use of large denominations, especially “Benjamins,” the US $100 bill depicting Benjamin Franklin. The elimination of Benjamins would make it less convenient to sell illegal drugs. The higher cost would raise the price of illegal drugs, but since the quantity demanded by addicts is not very responsive to a change in price, the drug dealers would find ways to do their transactions.
The legalization of drugs would eliminate the cause of the high demand for paper cash. Just as with alcohol, producers would then use the normal banking system.
The underground economy uses cash also for activities that are legal if taxes are paid on the income and sales. Again, the elimination of cash would make tax evasion less convenient, but not eliminate the incentives to evade having substantial amounts of gains taxed away. Rogoff thinks that if the government prohibits the legal use of Benjamins, the remaining notes would lose value, as they would no longer be legally convertible into small denominations and not be legally payable for goods. But large notes could circulate as a medium of exchange within the underground economy as an alternative currency. Moreover, there are underground currency traders in all countries with artificial currency exchange rates.
The problem originates in evadable taxation. The remedy that eliminates the cause is to make taxation unevadable. The main resource that cannot hide is land. The taxation of land value, based on its best possible use regardless of current use, cannot be evaded. The elimination of all other taxes would bring production, trade, and consumption above ground and eliminate the current high demand for paper cash.
Another “curse of cash” argued by Rogoff is that paper money prevents central banks from lowering the transaction rate of “interest” much below zero. Suppose a bank has a negative 5 percent charge on deposits, so that the depositor has to pay $5 per year per $100 deposited. Many people would withdraw the money and hold it in paper cash. Companies would offer to securely store your cash in insured vaults. If all notes above $10 were made illegal, the storage and insurance costs would rise substantially, and the banking system would be better able to have the negative rates.
The alleged benefit of negative rates is that, because the banks also pay negative rates on their deposits with central banks, financial institutions would scramble to loan out the money to investors who would pay a positive rate, or become partners in ventures.
It is bad enough now that savers, especially retired folks, are getting close to a zero return on their retirement savings. Negative returns on, say, large certificates of deposit would further ruin those who depend on income from savings. Again, the artificial device of pushing the nominal rate of interest below zero is an attempt to treat the symptoms rather than cure the causes.
Some blame a glut of global savings for the low rates of interest. But technology is marching forward, to artificial intelligence, robots, medical advances, better batteries, and many other frontiers. There is no shortage of possible investment projects. But governments world-wide stifle investment with taxes and restrictions. The USA, for example, has choked investment since 2008 with tighter banking restrictions and higher costs such as medical mandates.
What is needed is the ultimate supply-side policy, cutting marginal tax rates on labor and investment yields to zero, with a prosperity tax shift, replacing all other taxes with a single tax on land value. The land-value tax would also push land to its most productive use, stimulating productive investment and employment.
As to money, attempts to skew markets almost always fail, so it would be best to eliminate central banks and their manipulations of nominal interest rates. Let markets set the money supply and restore the positive natural rate of interest based on the human-nature tendency to prefer to have goods sooner rather than later.
Controlled market manipulations are failing, and so statist advocates propose even more artificial controls such as eliminating paper money and pushing interest rates below zero. But the further we get from economic freedom, the worse the outcome. Interest rates and money evolved in markets; let them return to their natural base.
© Text Copyright 2016 Fred Foldvary, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fred Folvary is an economist and has been writing weekly editorials for Progress since 1997. Foldvary's commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and currently teaches at San Jose State University. Foldvary is the author of The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary's areas of research include public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics. Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.
Per Caps, Basic Income, and Learning from Tribal Nations
This article was originally published in
Basic Income, 17 October 2017
under a Creative Commons License
Per capita payments, or ‘per caps’, as they are known in Indian Country, function as a kind of basic income for tribal nations that have them. In this piece, I want to examine the distinct difference between the thinking about such a basic income in Indian Country and the United States in general.
The other day, I was talking to a small group of non-native Americans about basic income. One of them said to me, “Basic income seems like something like that would take a long time to gain ground.”
In the United States in general, the thinking about basic income is not as far along as it is in Indian Country, where per caps have been a staple for many tribes for several years.
One of the first questions, for tribes that gained discretionary income in the last decade, has been, “What do we do with this money?”
Many tribal nations have tribally owned businesses and, unlike the general thinking in the United States, no one worries that this may be a form of communism or socialism. It is simply, for many tribal nations, in keeping with their tribal values to have a collectively owned business.
The revenue from such businesses, as well as the revenue from natural resources and other ways tribes gain money, provide the discretionary income that tribal nations work with.
The answer to the question, “What do we do with this money?” is answered differently by different tribal nations. Some provide services to their citizens, such as childcare, early childhood education, hospitals, and so forth. Others provide per caps to their members.
I do not want anyone to come away thinking that tribal nations are flushed with cash or that Native people are, in general, rich from per caps. Rather, I want to look at the differences between the tribal way of thinking and the United States’ way of thinking
From the tribal point of view, when you have a collectively owned business, it makes sense that one option would be to divide the revenue up and disperse it among citizens of the tribe. In general, what to do with the money is voted upon and the decision about what to do with the money is decided that way.
For non-native people, we do not have collectively owned businesses to decide how to divide the revenue. A large portion of people in the United States would rebuke such a business as socialism or communism.
However, we do have other ways of gaining access to a basic income without having collectively owned businesses. Some have suggested taxing pollution, for example.
For tribal nations, some of the arguments that are familiar to people in basic income have been espoused, both for and against. One worry, for example, is that people will not attend college because the thinking What’s the use? is in effect. That is, if you don’t need to attend college for future employment, why go? This thinking saddens many tribal people, who have a pre-colonial history of being interested in education, contrary to stereotypes.
But the biggest issue for tribes, which has become a real problem, is that of disenrollment. Disenrollment is, in effect, making people ineligible to be tribal citizens. While many tribal nations are growing as of late, some tribal nations with per caps have closed and/or tightened up their citizenship requirements to make per caps go further, and to allow each individual to have as much money from per caps as possible. If a tribal nation is doing pretty well economically, it does even better when the tribe is small.
With the large population of the United States, as well as our open citizenship requirements, where people may become citizens after completing various acts and learning about our government and founding documents, what we can afford to give our citizens depends on how we collect that money.
Because the issue of having collectively owned businesses seems to be less compatible with the values of the United States than of tribal nations, we of the United States have to be creative in how we decide to fund a basic income.
No matter the problems that tribal nations have experienced due to per caps, what is clear is that tribes that have the ability, and vote accordingly, can provide a basic income for their citizens. This should make us wonder why the United States, which has more wealth, opportunity, and so forth, cannot.
Looking over the state of per caps in Indian Country has made me, at least, realize that it can be done, and that we should do it. After all, if we had a basic income, I might be able to be in Standing Rock right now, standing with my Native brothers and sisters against the Dakota Access Pipeline—or engaging in other activist or cultural activities.
There is much that Indian Country can teach us. The issue of basic income is one we should look into further.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jennifer Lawson studied philosophy and psychology at Stetson University and the University of North Florida. During graduate school, she suffered several psychotic breaks, and now lives on disability. Jennifer has been an advocate and activist for over twenty years. She wrote this article as a guest contributor to the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN).
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