Who still uses cash?

Feb 27 JDN 2459638

If you had to guess, what is the most common denomination of US dollar bills? You might check your wallet: $1? $20?

No, it’s actually $100. There are 13.1 billion $1 bills, 11.7 billion $20 bills, and 16.4 billion $100 bills. And since $100 bills are worth more, the vast majority of US dollar value in circulation is in those $100 bills—indeed, $1.64 trillion of the total $2.05 trillion cash supply.

This is… odd, to say the least. When’s the last time you spent a $100 bill? Then again, when’s the last time you spent… cash? In a typical week, 30% of Americans use no cash at all.

In the United States, cash is used for 26% of transactions, compared to 28% for debit card and 23% for credit cards. The US is actually a relatively cash-heavy country by First World standards. In the Netherlands and Scandinavia, cash is almost unheard of. When I last visited Amsterdam a couple of months ago, businesses were more likely to take US credit cards than they were to take cash euros.

A list of countries most reliant on cash shows mostly very poor countries, like Chad, Angola, and Burkina Faso. But even in Sub-Saharan Africa, mobile money is dominant in Botswana, Kenya and Uganda.

And yet the cash money supply is still quite large: $2.05 trillion is only a third of the US monetary base, but it’s still a huge amount of money. If most people aren’t using it, who is? And why is so much of it in the form of $100 bills?

It turns out that the answer to the second question can provide an answer to the first. $100 bills are not widely used for consumer purchases—indeed, most businesses won’t even accept them. (Honestly that has always bothered me: What exactly does “legal tender” mean, if you’re allowed to categorically refuse $100 bills? It’d be one thing to say “we can’t accept payment when we can’t make change”, and obviously nobody seriously expects you to accept $10,000 bills; but what if you have a $97 purchase?) When people spend cash, it’s mainly ones, fives, and twenties.

Who uses $100 bills? People who want to store money in a way that is anonymous, easily transportable—including across borders—and stable against market fluctuations. Drug dealers leap to mind (and indeed the money-laundering that HSBC did for drug cartels was largely in the form of thick stacks of $100 bills). Of course it isn’t just drug dealers, or even just illegal transactions, but it is mostly people who want to cross borders. 80% of US $100 bills are in circulation outside the United States. Since 80% of US cash is in the form of $100 bills, this means that nearly two-thirds of all US dollars are outside the US.

Knowing this, I have to wonder: Why does the Federal Reserve continue printing so many $100 bills? Okay, once they’re out there, it may be hard to get them back. But they do wear out eventually. (In fact, US dollars wear out faster than most currencies, because they are made of linen instead of plastic. Surprisingly, this actually makes them less eco-friendly despite being more biodegradable. Of course, the most eco-friendly method of payment is mobile payments, since their marginal environmental impact is basically zero.) So they could simply stop printing them, and eventually the global supply would dwindle.

They clearly haven’t done this—indeed, there were more $100 bills printed last year than any previous year, increasing the global supply by 2 billion bills, or $200 billion. Why not? Are they trying to keep money flowing for drug dealers? Even if the goal is to substitute for failing currencies in other countries (a somewhat odd, if altruistic, objective), wouldn’t that be more effective with $1 and $5 bills? $100 is a lot of money for people in Chad or Angola! Chad’s per-capita GDP is a staggeringly low $600 per year; that means that a $100 bill to a typical person in Chad would be like me holding onto a $10,000 bill (those exist, technically). Surely they’d prefer $1 bills—which would still feel to them like $100 bills feel to me. Even in middle-income countries, $100 is quite a bit; Ecuador actually uses the US dollar as its main currency, but their per-capita GDP is only $5,600, so $100 to them feels like $1000 to us.

If you want to usefully increase the money supply to stimulate consumer spending, print $20 bills—or just increase some numbers in bank reserve accounts. Printing $100 bills is honestly baffling to me. It seems at best inept, and at worst possibly corrupt—maybe they do want to support drug cartels?

How (not) to destroy an immoral market

Jul 29 JDN 2458329

In this world there are people of primitive cultures, with a population that is slowly declining, trying to survive a constant threat of violence in the aftermath of colonialism. But you already knew that, of course.

What you may not have realized is that some of these people are actively hunted by other people, slaughtered so that their remains can be sold on the black market.

I am referring of course to elephants. Maybe those weren’t the people you first had in mind?

Elephants are not human in the sense of being Homo sapiens; but as far as I am concerned, they are people in a moral sense.

Elephants take as long to mature as humans, and spend most of their childhood learning. They are born with brains only 35% of the size of their adult brains, much as we are born with brains 28% the size of our adult brains. Their encephalization quotients range from about 1.5 to 2.4, comparable to chimpanzees.

Elephants have problem-solving intelligence comparable to chimpanzees, cetaceans, and corvids. Elephants can pass the “mirror test” of self-identification and self-awareness. Individual elephants exhibit clearly distinguishable personalities. They exhibit empathy toward humans and other elephants. They can think creatively and develop new tools.

Elephants distinguish individual humans or elephants by sight or by voice, comfort each other when distressed, and above all mourn their dead. The kind of mourning behaviors elephants exhibit toward the remains of their dead family members have only been observed in humans and chimpanzees.

On a darker note, elephants also seek revenge. In response to losing loved ones to poaching or collisions with trains, elephants have orchestrated organized counter-attacks against human towns. This is not a single animal defending itself, as almost any will do; this is a coordinated act of vengeance after the fact. Once again, we have only observed similar behaviors in humans, great apes, and cetaceans.

Huffington Post backed off and said “just kidding” after asserting that elephants are people—but I won’t. Elephants are people. They do not have an advanced civilization, to be sure. But as far as I am concerned they display all the necessary minimal conditions to be granted the fundamental rights of personhood. Killing an elephant is murder.

And yet, the ivory trade continues to be profitable. Most of this is black-market activity, though it was legal in some places until very recently; China only restored their ivory trade ban this year, and Hong Kong’s ban will not take full effect until 2021. Some places are backsliding: A proposal (currently on hold) by the US Fish and Wildlife Service under the Trump administration would also legalize some limited forms of ivory trade.
With this in mind, I can understand why people would support the practice of ivory-burning, symbolically and publicly destroying ivory by fire so that no one can buy it. Two years ago, Kenya organized a particularly large ivory-burning that set ablaze 105 tons of elephant tusk and 1.35 tons of rhino horn.

But as economist, when I first learned about ivory-burning, it seemed like a really, really bad idea.

Why? Supply and demand. By destroying supply, you have just raised the market price of ivory. You have therefore increased the market incentives for poaching elephants and rhinos.

Yet it turns out I was wrong about this, as were many other economists. I looked at the empirical research, and changed my mind substantially. Ivory-burning is not such a bad idea after all.

Here was my reasoning before: If I want to reduce the incentives to produce something, what do I need to do? Lower the price. How do I do that? I need to increase the supply. Economists have made several proposals for how to do that, and until I looked at the data I would have expected them to work; but they haven’t.

The best way to increase supply is to create synthetic ivory that is cheap and very difficult to tell apart from the real thing. This has been done, but it didn’t work. For some reason, sellers try to hide the expensive real ivory in with the cheap synthetic ivory. I admit I actually have trouble understanding this; if you can’t sell it at full price, why even bother with the illegal real ivory? Maybe their customers have methods of distinguishing the two that the regulators don’t? If so, why aren’t the regulators using those methods? Another concern with increasing the supply of ivory is that it might reduce the stigma of consuming ivory, thereby also increasing the demand.

A similar problem has arisen with so-called “ghost ivory”; for obvious reasons, existing ivory products were excluded from the ban imposed in 1947, lest the government be forced to confiscate millions of billiard balls and thousands of pianos. Yet poachers have learned ways to hide new, illegal ivory and sell it as old, legal ivory.

Another proposal was to organize “sustainable ivory harvesting”, which based on past experience with similar regulations is unlikely to be enforceable. Moreover, this is not like sustainable wood harvesting, where our only concern is environmental. I for one care about the welfare of individual elephants, and I don’t think they would want to be “harvested”, sustainably or otherwise.
There is one way of doing “sustainable harvesting” that might not be so bad for the elephants, which would be to set up a protected colony of elephants, help them to increase their population, and then when elephants die of natural causes, take only the tusks and sell those as ivory, stamped with an official seal as “humanely and sustainably produced”. Even then, elephants are among a handful of species that would be offended by us taking their ancestors’ remains. But if it worked, it could save many elephant lives. The bigger problem is how expensive such a project would be, and how long it would take to show any benefit; elephant lifespans are about half as long as ours, (except in zoos, where their mortality rate is much higher!) so a policy that might conceivably solve a problem in 30 to 40 years doesn’t really sound so great. More detailed theoretical and empirical analysis has made this clear: you just can’t get ivory fast enough to meet existing demand this way.

In any case, China’s ban on all ivory trade had an immediate effect at dropping the price of ivory, which synthetic ivory did not. Before that, strengthened regulations in the US (particularly in New York and California) had been effective at reducing ivory sales. The CITES treaty in 1989 that banned most international ivory trade was followed by an immediate increase in elephant populations.

The most effective response to ivory trade is an absolutely categorical ban with no loopholes. To fight “ghost ivory”, we should remove exceptions for old ivory, offering buybacks for any antiques with a verifiable pedigree and a brief period of no-penalty surrender for anything with no such records. The only legal ivory must be for medical and scientific purposes, and its sourcing records must be absolutely impeccable—just as we do with human remains.

Even synthetic ivory must also be banned, at least if it’s convincing enough that real ivory could be hidden in it. You can make something you call “synthetic ivory” that serves a similar consumer function, but it must be different enough that it can be easily verified at customs inspections.

We must give no quarter to poachers; Kenya was right to impose a life sentence for aggravated poaching. The Tanzanian proposal to “shoot to kill” was too extreme; summary execution is never acceptable. But if indeed someone currently has a weapons pointed at an elephant and refuses to drop it, I consider it justifiable to shoot them, just as I would if that weapon were aimed at a human.

The need for a categorical ban is what makes the current US proposal dangerous. The particular exceptions it carves out are not all that large, but the fact that it carves out exceptions at all makes enforcement much more difficult. To his credit, Trump himself doesn’t seem very keen on the proposal, which may mean that it is dead in the water. I don’t get to say this often, but so far Trump seems to be making the right choice on this one.

Though the economic theory predicted otherwise, the empirical data is actually quite clear: The most effective way to save elephants from poaching is an absolutely categorical ban on ivory.

Ivory-burning is a signal of commitment to such a ban. Any ivory we find being sold, we will burn. Whoever was trying to sell it will lose their entire investment. Find more, and we will burn that too.