Jim Grant is one of the more astute financial observers out there. He’s also an excellent writer. Here he takes on Ken Rogoff, who advocates abolishing cash in his recently published book, The Curse of Cash. Grant’s review, at wsj.com:
If there is a curse between the covers of this thin, self-satisfied volume, it doesn’t have to do with cash, the title to the contrary notwithstanding. Freedom is rather the subject of the author’s malediction. He’s not against it in principle, only in practice.
Ken Rogoff is a chaired Harvard economics professor, a one-time chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and (to boot) a chess grandmaster. He laid out his case against cash in a Saturday essay in this newspaper two weeks ago. By abolishing large-denomination bills, he said there, the government could strike a blow against sin and perfect the Federal Reserve’s control of interest rates.
“The Curse of Cash,” the Rogoffian case in full, comes in two parts. The first is a helping of monetary small bites: a little history (in which the gold standard gets the back of the author’s hand), a little central-banking practice, a little underground economy. It’s all in the service of showing where money came from and where it should be going.
Terrorists traffic in cash, Mr. Rogoff observes. So do drug dealers and tax cheats. Good, compliant citizens rarely touch the $100 bills that constitute a sizable portion of the suspiciously immense volume of greenbacks outstanding—$4,200 per capita. Get rid of them is the author’s message.
Then, again, one could legalize certain narcotics to discommode the drug dealers and adopt Steve Forbes’s flat tax to fill up the Treasury. Mr. Rogoff considers neither policy option. Government control is not only his preferred position. It is the only position that seems to cross his mind.
Which brings us to the business end of this production. Come the next recession, the book’s second part contends, the Fed should have the latitude to drive interest rates below zero. Mr. Rogoff lays the blame for America’s lamentable post-financial-crisis economic record not on the Obama administration’s suffocating tax and regulatory policies. The problem is rather the Fed’s inability to put its main interest rate, the federal funds rate, where it has never been before.
In a deep recession, Mr. Rogoff proposes, the Fed ought not to stop cutting rates when it comes to zero. It should plunge right ahead, to minus 1%, minus 2%, minus 3% and so forth. At one negative rate or another, the theory goes, despoiled bank depositors will stop saving and start spending. According to the worldview of the people who constitute what Mr. Rogoff fraternally calls the “policy community” (who elected them?), the spending will buttress “aggregate demand,” thus restore prosperity.
You may doubt this. Mr. Rogoff himself sees difficulties. For him, the problem is cash. The ungrateful objects of the policy community’s statecraft will stockpile it.
What would you do if your bank docked you, say, 3% a year for the privilege of holding your money? Why, you might convert your deposit into $100 bills, rent a safe deposit box and count yourself a shrewd investor. Hence the shooting war against currency. If the author has his way, there will be no more Benjamin Franklins, only Hamiltons, Lincolns and George Washingtons. Ideally, says Mr. Rogoff, many of today’s banknotes will take the future form of clunky, base-metal coins “to make it even more difficult to carry large quantities of currency.”
To continue reading: Hostage to a Bull Market