Tuesday, June 23, 2009

No Cash in Theater

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Ever since I was first mobilized in 2006, the Army has been trying to discourage me from using cash. Since I am somewhat stubborn and old fashioned, I have resisted. But they have finally forced my hand.

The military has a stored-value card they call the “EagleCash” card that is accepted at the PX and all other venues on military installations. You can either go to the finance office and put money on it manually, or you can link it to your bank account and put money on it directly from there. There are kiosks all over the place where you can put in your card, enter a PIN, and move funds back and forth between the card and the linked bank account.

The idea behind this is that we carry less cash around and use this card for everything. And in a purely practical sense it is more convenient. Managing cash involves a lot of work on the part of the finance office, AAFES, and the other businesses that operate over here. The AAFES POGS were an early attempt to reduce this workload by mostly eliminating US coins. But you could still get paper currency (albeit in limited amounts) from the finance office and from the ATMs that local banks had located on the bases.

When I came back from leave, however, this policy had changed. Now there is no more cash being dispensed by the finance office, and the ATMs will not be restocked when they run out of US cash. If you spend cash at the PX, they say they will still give US cash in change, but if you are here on base and want to get money, the only way to do it is to either get an EagleCash card or use your debit card. Since not all the venues are equipped for debit cards (and the system for processing them goes down all the time anyway), the only real solution is an EagleCash card. Here in Qatar you can still get Qatari Reals (the local currency) for use off post. I have no idea what the policy or practice will be elsewhere in Theater.

I already had an EagleCash card, even though I didn’t want it. I had to get it to pay for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation representative to eat in the DFAC back in March, since that is the only way to pay for meals there. But since then it just sat in my wallet. Now I have to use it all the time.

The Army finance office has a really ludicrous little propaganda blurb posted near the “cash” registers that says something about how they want to “increase choices” and therefore are eliminating cash. Talk about Orwellian NewSpeak! What a bunch of crap. But there’s nothing you can do about it.

If you really, really want US cash you will have to go off post to a local bank, which as far as I know is only possible here in Qatar. It’s hardly worth it, and probably not even possible anywhere else in the CENTCOM AOR. So they’ve got us captive.

All this may seem like a silly thing to get worked up about, but I am very sensitive to issues of financial privacy. My objection to using electronic means of payment has nothing to do with convenience and everything to do with anonymity. Where I shop and what I buy is nobody's business but my own, and I don't care to have some government bureaucrat or other busybody snooping through my transaction records, for whatever reason they may have. ("Dear Citizen: You have exceeded the maximum recommended allowance for high-fat food purchases, and have therefore been reclassified into Citizen Lifestyle Category 4C. Your insurance company has been notified so that your premiums may be adjusted to reflect your increased risk of heart disease. We recommend that you consult the list of government-approved food vendors at http://www.fda.gov/ so that you may transition to a government-approved low-fat lifestyle. If you wish to contest this finding, fill out USDA form 2752-3A, and a government inspector will call on you at your home to ensure that the following items have been removed from your pantry....")

I still remember most of the essential attributes of money as a means of exchange from Econ 101 – in order to be useful as a universal medium of exchange, money must be: portable, fungible, divisible, recognizable, and indestructible. These attributes make it useful not only as a medium exchange, but as a standard of value and a means of storing wealth. Money is a fundamental element of a free society, because it enables individuals to deal with each other voluntarily on mutually-acceptable terms independent of outside authority, without having to rely on the barter system.

Money is absolutely essential for true liberty. For this reason, authoritarian governments hate money (at least real money, such as gold or silver). They do not like it when people can deal with each other without government intervention or government visibility. Our own government has systematically undermined the institution of money since the early 20th century, starting with the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913 and following up with the eventual elimination of gold and silver as the basis of the US currency and as a medium of exchange.

I still remember 1965, when the US government eliminated silver coins and replaced them with the debased “sandwich” coins. My dad brought home bags of coins from the bank and we went through them taking out all the silver coins. Then he’d take back all the “sandwich” coins, get more bags of coins, and we’d go through those taking out all the silver. Many other people did the same thing, and silver coins disappeared from circulation almost overnight.

People aren’t stupid – they understand what is valuable and what is not. What many (most?) people today are, however, is not stupid but ignorant. We have been conditioned and educated (or un-educated) to believe that the ephemeral stuff in our bank accounts is “money” when it’s actually just fiat currency that relies for its value on people's confidence in it, and on the government’s ability to tax us to replace it.

The government has even been messing with the currency for the past several years. How many times have they changed the paper money in the last 20 years? They justify the changes as a way to stop counterfeiters and drug dealers from moving large quantities of cash, but those are just the easy people to demonize. They want to be able to detect large concentrations of cash via the magnetic strips they’ve put in the recent versions of our currency. They really hate financial privacy – they have even been attacking Switzerland and other off-shore financial havens and pressuring them to loosen their bank secrecy laws. Big Brother wants to watch you, whether you like it or not…

I prefer to store as much value as possible in the form of true money (e.g. gold and silver) or other tangible items that will have value regardless of social conditions. My primary vehicle for this is guns and ammunition. I collect firearms and ammunition as a means of preserving the value of my money from both inflation and government confiscation through excessive taxation or other means. Ammunition in particular embodies all the key characteristics of money (although it is "durable", rather than "indestructible") with the additional advantage that it has inherent usefulness. You can't eat a silver coin, but you can eat a squirrel or rabbit that you shoot with a .22 caliber bullet. In a serious economic and social crisis, I believe that the very best store of wealth will be ammunition in popular calibers, especially .22 Long Rifle, .223/5.56mm, .308/7.62mm, .30-06, .30 Carbine, .30-30, .38/.357, 9mm, .44 Special/.44 Magnum, and .45 ACP.

(Yes, I know – announcing that here on the internet may seem incompatible with financial privacy, but there is a value in public discussion of these issues that transcends the potential danger. If we are afraid to speak out against bad or unjust government policies or actions then we’ve already lost our freedom. Besides, I bought most of it from private individuals using cash so there aren't any specifics on record, and I still have it and can trade it or sell it anonymously, which is the whole point.)

Think I’m some kind of nutcase? Well, the Obama administration is messing with our financial system at its roots, and people are worried. Now, get up from your computer and go to the local gun store and try to buy some military-caliber rifle or handgun ammunition (or primers, if you are a hand loader). Good luck with that…there is virtually none to be had, and what little there is has skyrocketed in price. It’s all been bought up, and there are long supply-induced waiting periods and limitations on what they can or will sell to an individual. I’m sure this is due in large part to the noises the administration is making about gun control, but I believe it’s also a reaction to their economic policies. Of course, the current administration hates private civilian firearms ownership for many of the same reasons they hate money, but that’s a different discussion.

On the wall of my office at home I keep a little montage to remind me of the potential consequences of bad government policy. It consists of three items: A Luger pistol (German WWI design), a framed German banknote from August 1923 in the denomination of 5 Million Marks, and a P-38 pistol (German WWII design). In the 1920’s the hyperinflation in Germany led people to take their pay and run to buy something on the way home, anything tangible, just as a way of trying to preserve the value of their “money” before it became worthless. It got to the point where a wheelbarrow full of cash could barely buy a loaf of bread (which is why the money was dated by the month and why I could find a basket full of 5 Million Mark notes in a German flea market in 1983). The message behind my little wall display: Bad policies in post-WWI Germany led to uncontrollable inflation and economic collapse, which set the stage for the rise of the Nazi Party and the incredible misery and destruction caused by WWII, the greatest catastrophe in human history.

So back to the present – in our little part of the world, we are no longer able to get cash or engage in anonymous financial transactions. Everything is stored electronically, everything is traceable, everything is visible to Big Brother. How long before they do that to us at home as well?

Mood: Concerned
Music: Altan – Germans (no kidding, I just went to look at iTunes to see the name of the Celtic reel that happens to be playing right at this exact moment as I finish this posting, and that was the name…I couldn’t have made that up if I’d wanted to.)


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