High-denomination currency joins together two seemingly unrelated subjects: macroeconomics and crime. Criminals love high-denomination paper money because it’s valuable and largely untraceable. Payments in cash can also be made off the books; indeed, it’s easier not to record such transactions than to record them, which enables tax evasion.

But high-denomination paper money is also where a great deal of the total cash of any economy will tend to reside. Regulations on this type of money can have macroeconomic effects that may harm lawful consumers and businesses. There’s a trade off, then, between law enforcement and crime deterrence on the one hand, and monetary policy on the other.

Joining us this month are four economists who have examined this problem. Finance journalist J.P. Koning writes the lead essay, in which he argues for large notes that gradually depreciate relative to small notes or bank deposits; this would discourage people from holding them for too long. Doing so would also capture the value now being lost to tax evasion, and in effect it would tax criminal transactions. Responding to him will be James McAndrews, formerly of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; Professor Joshua R. Hendrickson of Mississippi State University; and Cato adjunct and Professor William J. Luther of Kenyon College.

By William J. Luther
Response Essays

William J. Luther argues that we shouldn’t tax currency at all. We should modestly reward holding it, through a bit of deflation. Luther doubts the extent of tax evasion and other crimes committed though the use of cash. He also argues that many prohibited uses of cash, including off-the-books employment, are ubiquitous, harmless to others, and do not merit any punishment or disincentive.

In a provocative essay, J.P. Koning argues that the U.S. government should issue supernotes—in denominations of $500 and $1,000. His proposal stands in sharp contrast to those offered by the demonetization crowd, which would see existing large denomination notes scrapped entirely and small denomination notes replaced with bulky coins. Koning claims supernotes would preserve the “ability of U.S. paper money to provide censorship resistance, data protection, and to act as the globe’s back-up monetary system” as inflation continues to erode the real value of the dollar. He also attempts to appease demonetizers by subjecting these supernotes to a supertax, which might be levied at the point of redemption.

I completely agree with Koning in the abstract. There are good reasons to issue supernotes. And, if these supernotes are primarily used to break just laws and to evade optimal taxes, it makes sense to tax them at a higher rate than lower denomination notes. When it comes to the real world, however, Koning and I part ways. Although I agree that the U.S. government should issue supernotes, I believe taxing these notes at a higher rate is unjustified. Supernotes (along with all other denominations) should be subsidized, in the form of a steady and gradual deflationary policy, under which nominal prices would tend slowly to decline over time.

For starters, it is anything but clear that large denomination notes are primarily used by criminals and tax cheats. Let’s start with the high-end estimate offered by Ken Rogoff in his 2016 book, The Curse of Cash (Princeton University Press), which I have described at length elsewhere. Rogoff claims 39 percent of all U.S. notes in circulation are employed by criminals and tax cheats in the domestic economy. The Federal Reserve reports $1,571.1 billion worth of U.S. notes in circulation in 2017, of which $1,251.7 billion was in $100 bills. If we assume that criminals and tax cheats only use $100s, Rogoff’s high-end estimate implies that roughly 49 percent of $100s in circulation facilitate illegal transactions in the domestic economy.

If, instead, we were to take the larger estimates Rogoff reports for currency held abroad (70 percent) and what is admitted to being held by domestic consumers in surveys (10 percent), the estimated shares of all cash and of 100s employed by criminals and tax cheats in the domestic economy fall to just 14 and 18 percent, respectively. And, if one suspects that some law-abiding cash users under-report their cash holdings in surveys—perhaps to keep those balances secure or because they are especially concerned with financial privacy—or that criminals and tax cheats use lower denomination notes as well, the estimates fall further still.

Even if one takes the high-end estimate offered by Rogoff at face value, it is important to realize that some crimes are welfare-improving. We do not live in a world where only just laws make it onto the books. Some laws are bad laws. And circumventing bad laws is good for society.

Paying an undocumented immigrant to mow your lawn, clean your house, or watch your kid is illegal. But it is also a mutually beneficial exchange with no obvious externality. If taxing supernotes discourages these kinds of transactions, society is worse off than it otherwise would be.

The stakes are even higher for those living under repressive regimes. “Money is coined liberty,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky observed, “and so it is ten times dearer to a man who is deprived of freedom.” It might be illegal to bankroll an opposition newspaper or purchase supplies for a peaceful protest. But it is certainly not immoral. Indeed, to the extent that the proposed supernotes undermine illiberal governments, they should be subsidized—not taxed.

How about tax evasion? As I have explained elsewhere, the social costs of tax evasion, which stem mostly from the misallocation of resources, are relatively small. Moreover, there is an offsetting benefit to tax evasion: it limits the extent to which governments can overtax. Tax evasion, like circumventing unjust laws, is especially important for those living under repressive regimes. Supernotes would give citizens around the world a peaceful way to express their discontent with climbing tax rates—a way that their profligate governments would have no choice but to acknowledge.

Taxing supernotes is not a narrowly tailored policy to deal with the social welfare reducing criminals and tax cheats in our midst. Such a tax does not discriminate among users. It is akin to spanking all of your children when one of them misbehaves. Sure, the criminals and tax cheats are punished by the tax on supernotes. But all of the well-behaved users are punished too. And, as I have argued above, there would likely be a lot of well-behaved users.

The case against taxing supernotes at a higher rate is even stronger when one realizes that the tax on existing notes is already too high. As Koning points out, inflation is a tax on cash. And, as with any other tax, it prompts users to switch to less desirable alternatives to avoid the tax. That is a problem. If we are holding too little cash, we are less well-equipped to make transactions. Some transactions—and the gains from those transactions—will go unrealized as a result.

In a much-cited article, Milton Friedman argued that setting the rate of return on cash equal to the rate of return on risk-free bonds would induce people to hold the optimal quantity of money. Today, the real rate of return on a 1-month Treasury bill is around 0.45 percent. Hence, Friedman’s analysis suggests that the optimal tax on currency is not 2 percent, the Fed’s current inflation target, but something in the neighborhood of negative 0.45 percent.

Koning’s proposal to issue supernotes taxed at a higher rate than lower denomination notes is half right. The U.S. government should issue supernotes. A century of inflation under the Federal Reserve means that the largest denomination notes in circulation today can purchase a fraction of the goods they would have commanded a hundred years ago. To match the buying power of a $100 bill in 1918, we would need a note equivalent to around $1,714.21 today. The $500 and $1,000 notes proposed by Koning would go a long way toward bridging that gap. They would preserve the currency’s ability to promote financial privacy and offer refuge to those living under repressive regimes.

Taxing supernotes at a higher rate than lower denomination notes, however, is unwarranted. Indeed, there is a strong case for subsidizing all notes in circulation—setting the rate of return on cash equal to the rate of return on risk-free bonds, as Friedman recommended. Such a policy would not require cutting checks to users at the point of redemption. Rather, the Federal Reserve need merely commit to a policy of mild, productivity-driven deflation. Subsidizing notes in this manner would also negate the need to issue even larger denominations—super-duper notes—in the future.

By Joshua R. Hendrickson
Response Essays

Joshua R. Hendrickson says that maybe high-denomination notes aren’t creating externalities in the proper sense of the term. The fact that some people don’t like off-the-books transactions does not mean that they impose actionable costs on bystanders. But if we grant the claim for the sake of argument, then a two-tiered currency with depreciation of higher-denomination notes would indeed be wise.

In J.P. Koning’s lead essay he outlines the costs and benefits of large denomination currency and proposes the introduction of a high-value “supernote” that would be taxed to deal with the externalities imposed by high denomination users. Koning’s proposal is similar to the optimal policy suggested in my own work with my colleague, Jaevin Park. It should therefore come as no surprise that I would support his policy proposal on the condition that we accept the premise that there are externalities imposed by the use of currency.

However, I am not completely convinced by that premise. As such, I would like to organize my response around three points. First, I will push back on the idea that the use of currency creates an externality in the traditional sense that we use the term. Second, I will argue that the elimination of high denomination notes would do little to reduce illegal transactions. And finally, I will argue that even if we accept the premise that currency creates an externality, the optimal policy would not be to eliminate high denomination notes, but rather to enact the sort of policy that Koning proposes.

A common argument made by those advocating the elimination of high denomination notes (or currency, entirely) is that currency is used in illegal trade and therefore creates an externality that needs to be corrected by public policy. This argument is predicated on a different view of externalities than is typically found in the literature. For example, pollution is a textbook example of an externality. A firm that generates pollution as a byproduct of production does not bear the full cost of the pollution. Since the pollution can affect air quality and/or the health and production of others in society, the firm is creating an external cost above and beyond the cost of its own production. It is important to note that the cost to society is not the mere annoyance of seeing clouds of smoke or murky water, but rather the health and productivity consequences of pollution. It is unclear whether the sort of illegal activity that is facilitated by currency fits the same model as something like pollution.

An externality is not simply any action that imposes a cost on others. If a new restaurant opens up across the street from an existing restaurant, the incumbent might incur a cost in the form of lower profits. However, this is not an externality that requires a public policy solution. Thus even if an activity is made illegal precisely because a vast majority of the population considers the transaction to be morally abhorrent, this does not necessarily imply that there is an externality. Pearl clutching, like foregone profits, are an external cost. Nonetheless we do not compensate firms for foregone profits, and therefore it is unclear whether mere distaste requires any sort of compensation. To the extent to which illegal trade is said to generate an externality, the external costs of such transactions are likely overstated.

Even if we accept the idea that the sort of illegal trade facilitated by currency generates an externality, there is no guarantee that eliminating currency (or the large denomination variety used in large-scale illegal transactions) would eliminate such trade. With respect to illegal trade, currency is a means to an end. Eliminating the means hardly guarantees an elimination of the end. Instead, those who are already engaged in illegal transactions are likely to look for substitutes. The recent emergence of cryptocurrency would likely get a boost from the elimination of large denomination conventional currency. Furthermore, those engaged in illegal activity might be inclined to create their own media of exchange or payment system.

All of this is not to mention the fact that currency (even large denomination currency) is used by many people for legal transactions. Eliminating large denomination currency therefore imposes a cost on the law-abiding members of society. This subtracts from any perceived net benefit of eliminating illegal trade. Overall, this suggests the net benefits of eliminating large denomination currency are likely exaggerated as well.

This brings me to my final point. Suppose that we simply take as given that illegal trade reduces social welfare, and that large denomination currency facilitates that type of trade. What should be done? What is the optimal policy? A typical Pigouvian response to this sort of problem is to levy a tax on the activity that creates an external cost. The proceeds of the tax can then be transferred to the harmed group. The problem with this type of policy solution is that illegal trade tends to be hidden and unreported and is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to tax.

The fact that large denomination currency has desirable properties for engaging in illegal activity, however, allows for a possible solution. As my colleague Jaevin Park and I show in our paper “Breaking the Curse of Cash,” the optimal policy in this sort of environment is to have two types of currency with a flexible exchange rate between the two currencies. Policymakers can then vary the rates of return (or the rates of depreciation) on each currency to induce legal traders to hold one type of currency and illegal traders to hold the other type. The seigniorage earned from depreciating the currency used by illegal traders can then be used to finance a transfer to legal traders. By introducing a separate type of currency, policymakers are able to engineer a Pigouvian policy.

The policy suggested by J.P. Koning in his original post is precisely the sort of policy consistent with our model. He argues that the United States should create a supernote and institute a surcharge (tax) on this supernote such that it depreciates faster than smaller denominations. If the tax is set optimally, this scheme would effectively replicate the result from our paper. To the extent to which we want to reduce illegal activity facilitated by cash, this is an appropriate policy to do so.

By James McAndrews
Response Essays

James McAndrews suggests that issuing paper money with a high but gradually decreasing value might not work out well. The demand for high-value paper is large, but much of it comes from illicit enterprises, who might be willing to use force to extract value from their clients. Confusion could lead to disuse at best and to fraud at worst. But the $100 bill isn’t worth what it used to be, and in response he suggests issuing a $200 bill.

Does the United States need to provide a high-denomination “supernote” of $500 or $1,000? In a stimulating essay, J.P. Koning suggests that such a note, combined with a means to tax it, could improve economic outcomes. His proposal derives from his recognition that currency provides a flow of services by facilitating transactions that are valuable to society. Currency has a dark side, however, in its use as an untraceable way of evading taxes and prohibitions on criminal activities. Currency’s services are threatened by the steady onslaught of inflation that has eroded its value over time, effectively limiting the range of transactions, both good and bad, that it can best facilitate. In terms of its buying power, the $100 bill just ain’t what it used to be. Koning’s proposal to introduce taxed supernotes is a way both to arrest the erosion of currency’s services and to discourage excessive use of high-denomination notes.

Koning’s proposal has two parts. Rather than simply issue a new high-denomination note, the new note would be taxed. Let’s consider these two separate aspects of the proposal in turn: the introduction of the supernote and the taxation of high-denomination notes.

Koning provides a sound characterization of the services provided by currency in its transactions role: censorship resistance, data protection, and the ability to act as a backup for the global monetary system. These attributes allow currency to provide unique transactions services. If currency weren’t available, many transactions simply would be foregoneso providing currency is an important public service. With positive but low inflation in most of the advanced nations in recent decades, the real value of fixed nominal denominations has declined significantly, though gradually. The gradual reduction in real values, combined with the introduction of convenient credit and debit cards, allowed people to adjust to the lower value of particular denominations by using alternate means of payment.

Koning is nonetheless rightly concerned that the reduction in real value of current denominations may cause society to lose some of the benefits of currency. Again, if the largest U.S. note 50 years ago was seven times the value of today’s largest note in real terms, it is worth asking what we have lost or gained in the transition. To stop the inflation-induced reduction of services provided by currency, Koning suggests a bold remedy: introduce a high-denomination note. This could be something like the $100 bill of 50 years ago, equal in today’s dollars to a $500 or $1,000 note.

The suggestion that the U.S. introduce a $500 or $1,000 note draws our attention to an important question: what is the best system of denominations for U.S. currency? Relative to fifty years ago we have had the unprecedented development of credit and debit cards, the introduction of the internet and online banking, and more recently, innovations of convenient person-to-person mobile payments. All of these changes have certainly assisted people in substituting away from currency as its denominations have diminished in real value. Over the same period, however, the demand for currency and its services has risen as inflation and economic growth have tended to increase nominal transaction sizes, income inequality has widened, and the absolute number of people without bank accounts has grown. It is plausible that a denomination system with some higher denominations would provide a better match to today’s transactional demand for currency, although that proposition is far from certain.

The intention of a tax on high-denomination currency would be to reduce illicit and illegal activities. High-denomination notes are especially useful in currency’s illicit and illegal uses—a $100 note is a hundred times more valuable than a $1 note but is equally cheap to carry and store. This trait, along with the untraceability of currency, makes high-denomination notes more convenient for large transactions and for storing ill-gotten gains. A tax on high-denomination notes would tend to diminish their quantity demanded. People engaged in transactions that would otherwise use high-denominations notes would either forego the transaction, or find some less convenient workaround, using another means of payment, such as cybercurrency.

All currency is subject to an implicit tax, since currency earns no interest and suffers a reduction in value from inflation. Koning proposes adding an additional tax on supernotes by issuing them at par and redeeming them for lesser amounts. For example, it would cost $1,000 to obtain a $1,000 note, but whenever in the future the note would enter the banking system, it be redeemed for something less than $1,000, depending how long it has circulated.

Taxing high-denomination notes has significant drawbacks. First, the specific form of taxation that Koning suggests, namely a lower redemption value over time, assessed whenever a note enters the banking system, relies on market participants to correctly gauge and enforce the current value of the note. That calculation is a difficult one in the decentralized circumstances in which cash transactions occur. It is also unlikely that the tax would be widely enforced as currency changes hands in decentralized transactions, especially in circumstances in which there is coercive power on one side of the deal, something that is common in illegal activity. Furthermore, note-holders could simply avoid depositing the notes in the banking system for years and years, thereby effectively avoiding the tax.

It is important to state that a tax on high-denomination notes is not a Pigouvian tax, one that taxes a noxious activity, such as imposing an excise tax on the output of a factory that creates pollution. Instead, it is a tax on an input to activities, only some of which may be noxious. That is akin to taxing the labor that could be used in the polluting factory or in a nearby nonpolluting garden. Taxing inputs that can be used for good or bad purposes will regrettably impose taxes on some good uses of the input, in this case high-denomination notes.

The combination of a high-denomination supernote and a way to tax that note is an intriguing proposal, as it attempts to reckon with both the falling real value of currency and the service that high-denomination notes provide to some tax-evasion and criminal activities. Whether a supernote is warranted is difficult to determine, but to introduce a $500 or $1,000 note would represent a relatively dramatic change in the current denomination structure and would require more convincing evidence than we have at present. Taxing different denominations differently would tax beneficial uses of currency along with the unsavory ones, and the form of the proposed tax makes it unlikely to be widely enforced in practice. Perhaps an alternative proposal with the same goals as Koning’s would be to introduce a $200 denomination note, and to increase expenditures devoted to detecting violations of our nation’s laws and on enforcement of those laws, especially those related to money-laundering, tax evasion, and terrorist funding.

By J. P. Koning
Lead Essay

J. P. Koning looks at the world of high-denomination currency. Per American, there’s way more of it in circulation than even very rich Americans typically see. Much of it is undoubtedly used in crime and under-the-table transactions, which escape the tax system and impose in-effect taxes on the rest of us, who must make up the shortfall as fraudsters evade taxes. Koning proposes to issue high-value notes that would gradually depreciate as a way of tackling this tricky problem.

When a shortage of coin prevented him from paying his troops, Jacques de Meulles—the administrator of the French colony of New France—resorted to using playing cards. Thus in 1685 the Western world’s first paper money was created. De Meulles only intended his playing card money to be a temporary back-up to specie. When coin arrived in the next boat from France, he promptly redeemed the entire issue. But over the years, Quebec’s administrators would resort to ever larger amounts of playing card money to meet citizens’ demand for cash.

Little did de Meulles know that hundreds of years later, his paper-money invention would be serving as a different sort of back-up system. Banks and credit card networks are processing a growing proportion of society’s transactions. These financial institutions are privy to an ever-expanding slice of our lives. Do we trust banks to do a good job guarding this information? Perhaps they may accidentally allow hackers access to it, or they may be forced to give the government a quick glance at what we’ve purchased over the last month. Cash, on the other hand, leaves no trace of what we’ve bought or sold. No other payments medium allows us to be 100% sure that our personal information can never be seen by someone else.

Not only does cash protect our data, it provides us with irrevocable access to the payments system. Electronic payments systems are run by central authorities with the power to censor users. In 2010, for instance, Bank of America, MasterCard and VISA embargoed Wikileaks, effectively cutting it off from receiving payments. Or consider the case of UK-based NGO Interpal. After it was accused of terrorist financing by the U.S. government and sued by families of the victims of bombers, Interpal accounts at a succession of UK banks were shut, despite the fact that the Charity Commission for England and Wales—a government department that regulates registered charities—cleared the NGO three separate times of the accusations.

More recently, U.S. banks have been unwilling to open accounts for marijuana firms. Even though many states have legalized marijuana sales, federal law continues to treat marijuana as a drug on par with heroin. Like Wikileaks and Interpal, the marijuana industry has been able to fall back on cash to survive. Cash is decentralized. Banknotes move from hand to hand rather than requiring permission from a central processor. The advantage of this is that there is no third party that can insert themselves between two willing transactors and prevent them from consummating a deal. In a sense, cash is society’s payments-system-of-last-resort.

U.S. dollars are not only used by Americans but are also a popular means for foreigners to protect themselves from inflation of the domestic currency. The most marked example of this is Zimbabwe. In late 2008, with inflation hitting 79,600,000,000% per month, Zimbabweans spontaneously threw their Zimbabwe dollars into the trash and started buying and selling things with U.S. dollars. The economy’s galloping price level suddenly came to a halt.

U.S. banknotes are also popular in countries with corrupt banking systems. In early 2016, lineups began to grow outside of Zimbabwean banks as locals tried to withdraw banknotes. Lacking enough reserves to meet these requests—a large chunk of the banking system’s resources had been confiscated by then-leader Robert Mugabe—the banks began to set strict daily withdrawal maximum of around $30. By late 2016, all deposits would be unofficially redenominated. Sadly, this meant that any Zimbabwean who had funds stuck in the domestic banking system had had a significant chunk of their wealth stripped from them. Those who held their wealth in U.S. dollar form preserved their purchasing power.

Zimbabwe’s example illustrates how the U.S. dollar serves as the world’s backup monetary system. When people’s wealth is arbitrarily threatened by those in power, U.S. banknotes serve as an escape hatch.

The ability of U.S. paper money to provide censorship resistance, data protection, and to act as the globe’s back-up monetary system has steadily declined over the years. Low-denomination banknotes like the $1 and $5 are excellent for providing small amounts of the above services. But to enjoy larger flows of these services, $1s and $5s are too bulky—higher denomination must be brought into service. Here’s the catch. Inflation has been eating away at the purchasing power of the U.S.’s highest denomination banknote, the $100 bill. Back in 1969, one $100 could buy 700 dollars’ worth of 2018 goods. Put differently, in 2018 it takes seven bills to do the work of just one.

Aug%202018%20fig%201_0.png

Figure: Real value of the $100 bill, log scale

At inflation rates of 2% or so, by 2047 the $100 bill will buy as much as a $50 bill does today. By 2090, it will be capable of purchasing the same amount as today’s $20, and a hundred years from now its purchasing power will be the same as a modern $10 bill. That’s right—in 2118 the highest denomination note would be good for just two big Macs.

Introducing a new supernote, say a $500 or $1000, would stabilize this trend. With a new highest denomination banknote, U.S. cash would be able to provide society with the same convenient data protection that it did in the past. And by reducing the monetary workload that cash users must endure, a supernote would continue the U.S. dollar’s long tradition of providing both Americans and foreigners with a low-cost alternative to those who have been censored or face the threat of wealth confiscation.

If there are good arguments in favor of a new supernote, there are also good arguments against it. In his 2016 book The Curse of Cash, Kenneth Rogoff ignited a fiery debate by calling for an end to high-denomination banknotes. Rogoff’s refrain has been taken up by others, notably Peter Sands, a former bank executive, and economist Larry Summers.

There were some 12.5 billion $100 bills in existence at the end of 2017, or thirty-eight $100 bills per American. This simply doesn’t reflect the personal experience of most citizens. Indeed, 2012 survey data shows that consumers generally report holding just $56 per person. This number is bloated by the large amount of U.S. currency circulating overseas. But even in Canada, which does not issue an internationally accepted currency, there are thirteen $100 Canadian bills outstanding per citizen, far in excess of the amounts that most Canadian keep in their wallets or their cookie jars.

Proceeding from this observation, Rogoff reasons that high denomination banknotes are primarily used by criminals and tax evaders. By removing these denominations and forcing criminals to rely on smaller denominations like the $5, Rogoff contends that crime would become a less profitable endeavor. As for tax evaders, they would be pushed into the formal economy. This, he contends, would be beneficial for government finances. With less tax evasion, government revenues would rise.

The current U.S. policy of allowing the purchasing power of the $100 bill to wilt rather than introducing new higher denomination notes is a drawn-out version of what Rogoff advocates. Instead of cutting the highest denomination note’s purchasing power in one fell swoop, this same effect is occurring slowly via inflation. Rogoff would oppose the introduction of a new supernote for the same reason that he calls for a ban on the $100. A new supernote, say a $1000 bill, would be a boon to tax evaders and organized crime. According to Peter Sands, $10 million one-hundred dollar bills weighs 10 kilograms, an amount that a drug dealer could fit into seven briefcases. Using $1000 notes, that amount would fit into one briefcase with plenty of room to spare. Avoiding taxes by paying a contractor in supernotes would be easier too.

A number of arguments have been mounted against Rogoff’s proposal. William J. Luther, Larry White, and Jeffrey Rogers Hummel have all pointed out that much of the goods and services that are exchanged in the informal cash-using economy occur between consenting participants and do no harm to third-parties. This includes goods and services like prostitution and marijuana. Just because high-denomination banknotes help facilitate these activities does not necessarily mean that society would be made better off if these notes, and the trade they facilitate, were not provided.

James McAndrews contends that if high-denomination banknotes were to be removed, organized crime networks might launch an effort to create an underground payments system of their own. Without recourse to the courts, the mob would use force to manage this system. So by ceding the anonymous high-value payments business to criminal enterprises, the central bank would actually be responsible for increasing the amount of violent crime in society rather than reducing it. McAndrews’s criticism focuses on a “one fell swoop” scenario in which the $100 and $50 are removed. But assuming the United States refuses to issue a new super note, and inflation continues to eat away at the value of the $100, the scenario he criticizes will emerge with time.

These objections somewhat reduce the appeal of crime suppression as a motive for quashing high-denomination banknotes. That leaves tax evasion. Tax evasion creates equity problems. For instance, if contract workers can evade their taxes by accepting banknotes but an otherwise equivalent salaried employee cannot, the salaried employee bears the burden of making up for the tax gap caused by the contract employee. This hardly seems fair. A supernote would only increase this inequity. Cash-induced tax evasion can also lead to economic distortions. A project with high returns might lose funding to a low-return project only because the latter can avoid being taxed thanks to greater reliance on cash sales.

If there ever was a tough balancing act, this may be it. Providing civil society with consistent levels of censorship resistance, freedom from data snooping, and a fully functioning back-up monetary system are all important. But these services will inevitably be abused.

But there may be a way to provide a new highest-denomination note while also developing a mechanism for coping with some of the negative externalities created by that note. The idea is to tax the new note.

This may come as a surprise, but banknotes are already taxed, albeit not explicitly. Anyone who holds a $1 bill is forfeiting around two cents per year in interest. This tax could be removed if the Federal Reserve paid interest on banknotes (say in the form of a serial number lottery), or if it set nominal rates at zero so that owners of notes needn’t lose out on any interest. Although notes are taxed, this hasn’t hurt their popularity. In the U.S., the quantity of banknotes in circulation continues to grow at 6.8% year, in line with the 35-year average growth rate of banknotes and well above nominal GDP growth.

The current tax on banknotes is a flat tax. Owners of large denomination $100 notes pay the same tax rate as owners of small denomination $1s and $5s. This doesn’t seem fair. If illicit usage of notes becomes more prevalent as the denomination of notes rises, it makes sense for the tax rate on high-denomination notes to be higher than that on low-denomination notes. Under this tax regime, those engaged in the sorts of illicit activities facilitated by high denomination notes will also bear the costs of the externalities they create.

It is relatively easy to set a higher tax on supernotes than on other denominations. Say that an extra 5% surcharge is deemed adequate to offset the externality caused by supernote users. On the first day that the supernote is issued, the Federal Reserve sets the value of the supernote at $1000. It does so by promising to redeem all supernotes with $1000 worth of other notes and/or electronic reserves. On the second day, it reduces its redemption rate by fifteen cents, to $999.85, and the day after to $999.70. By the end of the first year, the supernote would be worth around $950, fifty dollars less than its initial value.

The effect this has is that anyone who had held one thousand $1 bills over that period would have been taxed at the regular rate of about 2% per year, or $20 in real value. But anyone who had held the supernote would be taxed not only the $20 but an additional $50. This $50 would be used by the government to plug the hole caused by supernote-facilitated tax evasion and the extra work required on the part of law enforcement officials.

To get the Federal Reserve’s exchange rate for the supernote on any particular day, people could simply check the Fed’s website. To make things less complicated, the Federal Reserve could print the new notes without a denomination, just like how medieval coins were issued. The new note would be nicknamed the (Susan B.) Anthony, or the Lincoln, or whomever, depending on whose face was printed on it.

The tension between the important services provided by the highest denomination note and the potential for those properties to be abused make this issue especially complex. The monetary authorities have currently settled on a “Rogoff-lite” policy of slowly reducing the ease of accessing the vital services provided by U.S. cash. As time passes and inflation eats away at the $100, the risks of reducing the convenience of the array of U.S. banknotes will grow. A supernote, one that bears an extra tax relative to other banknotes, is one option for settling some of these tensions. It ensures that U.S. paper money continues to provide the same services as before while also trying to capture a toll from abusers.

Coming Up

Conversation through the end of the month.

Related at Cato

Conference: 35th Annual Monetary Conference, November 16, 2017

Discussion: Marijuana: An Unbanked Industry,” May 10, 2018

Briefing Paper: Should Cryptocurrencies Be Regulated Like Securities?” June 25, 2018

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