Kenneth Rogoff: Australia contemplates moving to a less cash society

RogoffToday in our blog series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash, Rogoff discusses Australia’s exploration of a less-cash society. Read other posts in the series here.

Recently, the Australian government stirred up a great deal of controversy by announcing the formation of task force to study the role of cash in the underground or “black” economy. There is no suggestion of an impetuous overnight change a la India, but rather a slow deliberative process. (For a recent review of The Curse of Cash with a special focus on the Indian context, see Businessline). Among other ideas, the task force is going to consider phasing out the Australian $100 bill (and presumably eventually the $50 in due time). It will also contemplate restrictions on the maximum size of cash purchases (as France, Italy, Spain, Greece and other European countries have done), and to wire cash registers to transmit sales information directly to the Treasury, as countries such as Sweden have done. According to the Minister for Revenue and Financial Services, Kelly O’Dwyer, the taskforce will have the full cooperation of the Federal police, immigration authorities, the Reserve Bank of Australia and financial regulators.

Of course, the issues with paper currency and how to mitigate them are the main topic of The Curse of Cash, which also provides historical context, data and institutional detail an an economic analysis of the issues. Australia is in many ways a very typical advanced economy when it comes to cash, with huge amounts of cash outstanding and unaccounted for, and mostly in the form of very large denomination notes. Roughly 93% of the Australian paper currency supply is in the form of $100 and $50 dollar bills (versus, say, 85% for the United States, and just over 90% for bills over 50 euro in the Euro area).

(Updated from The Curse of Cash, which goes through end 2015, when large notes constituted 92% of the money supply; all the data and figures for the book are posted here).

With 328 million $100s in circulation and 643 million $50s, there are roughly 14 $100 dollar bills for every man, woman and child in Australia, and roughly 27 $50s. As elsewhere, only a small fraction of these are accounted for.

Overall, the value of cash in circulation (70 billion Australian dollars) is a little over 4% of GDP, which puts Australia in the mainstream of advanced economies, about on par with the UK and Canada, and similar to the United States if USD held abroad are excluded. (See Figure 3.4 in The Curse of Cash).   

As in the US, cash is widely used for small transactions in Australia, accounting for 70% of transactions under $20 according to an April 2016 report by the Australian National Audit office in April 2016. But as in the United States, the importance of cash drops sharply for larger transactions – and that is even considering money washing back from the black economy into retail transactions. (See Figure 4.2 in The Curse of Cash).

Predictably, the Australian government announcement met with the usual tirades that equate getting rid of the large denomination notes with going cashless. This is polemic nonsense, readers of my book will know; I have also discussed the fundamental distinction in my blogs. Any legal fully tax-compliant transaction that ordinary citizens want to engage in can be executed easily enough with $20 bills (or even $10 bills), up to very large amounts. And smaller bills are also more than sufficient to satisfy ordinary people’s needs for privacy, the loss of big bills is a far greater detriment to those engaged in tax evasion and crime. Another strand of nonsense is that there must be better ways to increase tax compliance, such as lowering tax rates. (We can recall this from James Grant’s broadside rant in the Wall Street Journal.) Of course it would be good to improve the tax system, but tax evasion is always going to be an issue, and so will enforcement. And to the extent the government can collect a larger share of what it is owed from people who now avoid taxes by clever use of cash, then rates can be lowered for everyone else.

It is also nonsense to say that criminals and tax evaders will not feel the bite of a less cash society, and that they will effortlessly turn to other vehicles such as Bitcoin. There are good reasons why cash is king and why international law enforcement authorities find that cash is used somewhere along the line in almost every major criminal enterprise. Other vehicles simply cannot replicate its universality, convenience and liquidity. (Again, all this is discussed at length in the The Curse of Cash).

Not surprisingly, there has been pushback from the Reserve Bank of Australia, which argues that 5% of the cash banked by retailers is in 100s. This, of course, hardly matches up to the 45% of the cash supply that is 100s and more importantly, does not take into account that money from the black economy is routinely spent at retail stores. Many central banks are understandably reticent that a fall in the demand for cash will hurt their “seigniorage profits” from printing cash. The book discusses different conceptual approaches to measuring seigniorage. Perhaps the simplest measure is simply net new currency printed each year as a share of GDP). By this metric the Reserve Bank of Australia earned an average of .25% of GDP annually on average from 2006-2015, a very significant sum of money (see chapter 6.) But, as the book argues, the consolidated government (including the central bank) are likely losing even more through cash-facilitated tax evasion, and that does not even count the costs to the public of cash-facilitated crime.

The Australian authorities have noted that under-reporting of cash income has also distorted the welfare system (The Curse of Cash discusses this issue including evidence on Canada). Indeed, former senior Australian Reserve Bank official Peter Maier has argued that large denomination notes are widely hoarded by pensioners who aim to evade Australia’s mean-tested pension system. There are some tricky issues here having to do with privacy and tax fairness, but all in all, getting rid of big bills mainly hits those engaged in wholesale tax evasion and crime, not the poor. The Curse of Cash suggests low-cost approaches to financial inclusion to ensure that low-income families benefit beyond just reduction in crime.

Australia’s gradual and careful approach to dealing with cash is nothing like India’s radical policy, which aims at the same problems, but has created massive collateral damage. For a discussion of India, see here, here and here. The Australian cash commission’s report is due in October 2017; it is a welcome step. Given that Australia has been a huge innovator in currency (the Reserve Bank of Australia commission the first modern polymer notes that the UK and Canada have now adopted), it is encouraging that Australia is still willing to take the lead in the move to a less cash society.

Kenneth S. Rogoff, the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton). He appears frequently in the national media and writes a monthly newspaper column that is syndicated in more than fifty countries. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Find Kenneth Rogoff on Twitter: @krogoff

Introducing the trailer for The Little Big Number

Check out our book trailer for The Little Big Number by Dirk Philipsen for an introduction to why the concept of GDP has become harmful in our modern world.

Philipsen

In one lifetime, GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, has ballooned from a narrow economic tool into a global article of faith. It is our universal yardstick of progress. As The Little Big Number demonstrates, this spells trouble. While economies and cultures measure their performance by it, GDP ignores central facts such as quality, costs, or purpose. It only measures output: more cars, more accidents; more lawyers, more trials; more extraction, more pollution—all count as success. Sustainability and quality of life are overlooked. Losses don’t count. GDP promotes a form of stupid growth and ignores real development.

How and why did we get to this point? Dirk Philipsen uncovers a submerged history dating back to the 1600s, climaxing with the Great Depression and World War II, when the first version of GDP arrived at the forefront of politics. Transcending ideologies and national differences, GDP was subsequently transformed from a narrow metric to the purpose of economic activity. Today, increasing GDP is the highest goal of politics. In accessible and compelling prose, Philipsen shows how it affects all of us.

But the world can no longer afford GDP rule. A finite planet cannot sustain blind and indefinite expansion. If we consider future generations equal to our own, replacing the GDP regime is the ethical imperative of our times. More is not better. As Philipsen demonstrates, the history of GDP reveals unique opportunities to fashion smarter goals and measures. The Little Big Number explores a possible roadmap for a future that advances quality of life rather than indiscriminate growth.

Dirk Philipsen is a German- and American-trained professor of economic history, senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, and a Duke Arts and Sciences Senior Research Scholar at Duke University. He is the author of We Were the People: Voices from East Germany’s Revolutionary Autumn of 1989. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Princeton University Press’s best-selling books for the past week

 

News of the World, March 14, 2014

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Each week we post a round-up of some of our most exciting national and international PUP book coverage. Reviews, interviews, events, articles–this is the spot for coverage of all things “PUP books” that took place in the last week. Enjoy!


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Wishing that you had a retro selfie like Colin Powell? We can relate. But what about the motivation behind acts of vanity like selfies? Are narcissism and vanity really as bad as they seem? Can we avoid them even if we try? In Mirror, Mirror, Simon Blackburn, the author of such best-selling philosophy books as Think, Being Good, and Lust, says that narcissism, vanity, pride, and self-esteem are more complex than they first appear and have innumerable good and bad forms. Drawing on philosophy, psychology, literature, history, and popular culture, Blackburn offers an enlightening and entertaining exploration of self-love, from the myth of Narcissus and the Christian story of the Fall to today’s self-esteem industry.

Mirror, Mirror was named as the book of the week in the Times Higher Education:

“Blackburn is not just a sure and supremely knowledgeable narrator in whom we can have utmost confidence, but one with a quirky ear, alert to the curious side note and irrefutable detail that can make his sometimes dusty discipline gleam with a new sheen and edge.” — Shahidha Bari, Times Higher Education

Read the introduction of Mirror, Mirror here.


The weekend is the perfect time to break out those oven mitts, and luckily, we have inspiration for your upcoming kitchen session. When Merry White’s Cooking for Crowds was first published in 1974, home cooks in America were just waking up to the great foods the rest of the world was eating, from pesto and curries to Ukrainian pork and baklava. Now Merry White’s indispensable classic is back in print for a new generation of readers to savor, and her international recipes are as crowd-pleasing as ever–whether you are hosting a large party numbering in the dozens, or a more intimate gathering of family and friends.

In this delightful cookbook, White shares all the ingenious tricks she learned as a young Harvard graduate student earning her way through school as a caterer to European scholars, heads of state, and cosmopolitans like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. With the help of her friend Julia Child, the cook just down the block in Cambridge, White surmounted unforeseen obstacles and epic-sized crises in the kitchen, along the way developing the surefire strategies described here.

Check out this recent BBC highlight about how Julia Child helped Merry White to remedy a burnt dish. You can also view an interview with Merry White on Midweek.

 

Ready to try your hand at a recipe? Try this sample recipe for tabbouleh and comment below with which recipe from the book you plan to try.


Good things come in small packages. Next up on our list is Diane Coyle’s new book, GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History. This book traces the history of this artificial, abstract, complex, but exceedingly important statistic from its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century precursors through its invention in the 1940s and its postwar golden age, and then through the Great Crash up to today. The reader learns why this standard measure of the size of a country’s economy was invented, how it has changed over the decades, and what its strengths and weaknesses are.

The book explains why even small changes in GDP can decide elections, influence major political decisions, and determine whether countries can keep borrowing or be thrown into recession. The book ends by making the case that GDP was a good measure for the twentieth century but is increasingly inappropriate for a twenty-first-century economy driven by innovation, services, and intangible goods.

 

“[A] little charmer of a book…GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History is just what the title promises….Cowperthwaite himself would nod in agreement over Ms. Coyle’s informed discussion of what the GDP misses and how it misfires…Ms. Coyle—a graceful and witty writer, by the way—recounts familiar problems and adds some new ones….[E]xcellent”—James Grant

 


How are you handling the stress? The stress of making your March Madness brackets, of course. Unsure of where to start? Is this the year you will finally use something other than jersey color to make your bracket? PUP author Tim Chartier has your answers. He was featured this week on Bloomberg’s website, and he spoke about his strategy for creating a bracket that places him in the 97th percentile of brackets submitted to ESPN.

Ready to go in on Warren Buffet’s $1 Billion basketball challenge? We want Professor Chartier on our team. In the meantime, check out his new book, Math Bytes. This book provides a fun, hands-on approach to learning how mathematics and computing relate to the world around us and help us to better understand it. How can reposting on Twitter kill a movie’s opening weekend? How can you use mathematics to find your celebrity look-alike? What is Homer Simpson’s method for disproving Fermat’s Last Theorem?

Each topic in this refreshingly inviting book illustrates a famous mathematical algorithm or result–such as Google’s PageRank and the traveling salesman problem–and the applications grow more challenging as you progress through the chapters. But don’t worry, helpful solutions are provided each step of the way. Math Bytes shows you how to do calculus using a bag of chocolate chips, and how to prove the Euler characteristic simply by doodling. Generously illustrated in color throughout, this lively and entertaining book also explains how to create fractal landscapes with a roll of the dice, pick a competitive bracket for March Madness, decipher the math that makes it possible to resize a computer font or launch an Angry Bird–and much, much more. All of the applications are presented in an accessible and engaging way, enabling beginners and advanced readers alike to learn and explore at their own pace–a bit and a byte at a time.

 

PUP News of the World, February 21, 2014

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Each week we post a round-up of some of our most exciting national and international PUP book coverage. Reviews, interviews, events, articles–this is the spot for coverage of all things “PUP books” that took place in the last week. Enjoy!


Even though this winter may feel like an eternity, we can still begin preparing for all the fun activities spring has to offer, like bird watching. Rare Birds of North America is the first comprehensive illustrated guide to the vagrant birds that occur throughout the United States and Canada. Featuring 275 stunning color plates, this book covers 262 species originating from three very different regions–the Old World, the New World tropics, and the world’s oceans. It explains the causes of avian vagrancy and breaks down patterns of occurrence by region and season, enabling readers to see where, when, and why each species occurs in North America. Detailed species accounts describe key identification features, taxonomy, age, sex, distribution, and status. This week, Parade ran a review of Rare Birds of North America. Want to preview the book? You can view a sample entry.


History is a tricky business. With so much happening all over the world every day, it becomes very easy to unintentionally downplay or overlook important events and natural disasters. One perfect example was the volcanic explosion on the island of Tambora in the East Indies. As volcanic explosions typically go, the explosion greatly  affected the environment and the lives of the island’s residents.  Gillen D’Arcy Wood, professor of English at the University of Illinois, does this disaster a great service by giving it the attention it deserves in his new book, Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World.

Publishers Weekly’s recent starred review of Tambora said:

“The greatest volcanic eruption of modern times occurred in 1815 on the small island of Tambora in the East Indies. It spawned the most extreme weather in thousands of years. In what contemporaries described as the “year without a summer,” its immense ash cloud encircled and cooled the Earth. While historians have mostly ignored the decades of worldwide misery, starvation, and disease that followed, Wood (The Shock of the Real), professor of English at the University of Illinois, remedies this oversight, combining a scientific introduction to volcanism with a vivid account of the eruption’s cultural, political, and economic impact that persisted throughout the century.”

Interested in Tambora?  You can start reading the introduction here.

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The current state of the economy is always making news. People want to know how their country is surviving and thriving economically. In discussion of the economy, GDP almost always comes into play, but what is the real significance of this economic term.  Diane Coyle’s GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History traces the history of this artificial, abstract, complex, but exceedingly important statistic from its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century precursors through its invention in the 1940s and its postwar golden age, and then through the Great Crash up to today. The reader learns why this standard measure of the size of a country’s economy was invented, how it has changed over the decades, and what its strengths and weaknesses are. The book explains why even small changes in GDP can decide elections, influence major political decisions, and determine whether countries can keep borrowing or be thrown into recession. The book ends by making the case that GDP was a good measure for the twentieth century but is increasingly inappropriate for a twenty-first-century economy driven by innovation, services, and intangible goods.  Dianne Coyle recently wrote an articles for Foreign Affairs and VoxEU in which she explains the practical, or not so practical side of the GDP and elaborates on themes from GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History. You can also read the introduction here.


Just as the economy as a whole is a critical portion of the news cycle, so are the banking systems that play a part in the economy. But why are banking systems unstable in so many countries–but not in others? The United States has had twelve systemic banking crises since 1840, while Canada has had none. Fragile by Design is a revealing exploration of the ways that politics inevitably intrudes into bank regulation. Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber combine political history and economics to examine how coalitions of politicians, bankers, and other interest groups form, why some endure while others are undermined, and how they generate policies that determine who gets to be a banker, who has access to credit, and who pays for bank bailouts and rescues.

Influential economics blogger Arnold Kling recently reviewed Fragile by Design on his Askblog. Kling critiqued the content of the book from an economics perspective, but ultimately sang its praises with “Everyone, regardless of ideology, should read the book. It offers a lot of food for thought.”  In the review, Kling also referenced attending Russ Roberts’ Econtalk  live interview with the authors, Calomiris and Haber. Kling recommends, “You might look forward to listening–the authors are very articulate and they speak colorfully.”  You can listen to the Econtalk Live podcast here.

Charles W. Calomiris, along with colleague Allen H. Meltzer, recently wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal entitled “How Dodd-Frank Doubles Down on ‘Too Big to Fail”, in which he elaborates on a specific act which attempts to undo some of the damage from the 2008 financial crisis. Read the full Wall Street Journal article here.  Howard Davies of Times Higher Education also recently reviewed Fragile by Design, saying “Calomiris and Haber offer a thoughtful counter-argument to the current received wisdom.” You can find the full Times Higher Education review here.    Interested in reading more? Get a head start on Fragile by Design with Chapter 1 found here.

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Also recently reviewed for Times Higher Education was Charles L. Adler’s Wizards, Aliens and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction.  From teleportation and space elevators to alien contact and interstellar travel, science fiction and fantasy writers have come up with some brilliant and innovative ideas. Yet how plausible are these ideas–for instance, could Mr. Weasley’s flying car in the Harry Potter books really exist? Which concepts might actually happen, and which ones wouldn’t work at all? Wizards, Aliens, and Starships delves into the most extraordinary details in science fiction and fantasy–such as time warps, shape changing, rocket launches, and illumination by floating candle–and shows readers the physics and math behind the phenomena.  You can find the Times Higher Education review here and begin reading Chapter 1 of Wizards, Aliens and Starships here.


In last week’s PUP News of the World, we featured Bernard Williams: Essays and Reviews 1959 – 2002 which is the first collection of Williams’s popular essays and reviews, many of which appeared in the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement. In these pieces, Williams writes about a broad range of subjects, from philosophy and political philosophy to religion, science, the humanities, economics, socialism, feminism, and pornography.  Bernard Williams: Essays and Reviews 1959 – 2002 has since been reviewed in the Telegraph by Roger Scruton.

Scruton’s review says, “This rigorous collection of essays and reviews reveals the brilliant and critical mind of Bernard Williams … In these reviews and essays Williams achieves something that philosophy always promises but seldom delivers: a view from the perspective of reason, on a cultural landscape where reason is only one of the landmarks.

Read the Foreword to this wonderful collection now.

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