Acton Institute Powerblog

Should Christians Help Kill the $100 Bill?

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What if there was an easy-to-implement government policy that would hardly affect ordinary people but would make it substantially more difficult for criminals — from drug dealers to terrorists to human traffickers — to carry out their illicit trade? What if the policy simply required inaction from several Western governments, for them to stop doing what they’ve been doing? Does that sound like a crime-fighting policy Christians should support?

The proposal is rather simple: Eliminate high denomination, high value currency notes, such as the $100 bill (U.S.), the £50 note (UK), the €500 note (EU), and the CHF1,000 note (Switzerland).

“Such notes are the preferred payment mechanism of those pursuing illicit activities, given the anonymity and lack of transaction record they offer, and the relative ease with which they can be transported and moved,” says Peter Sands, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government:

By eliminating high denomination, high value notes we would make life harder for those pursuing tax evasion, financial crime, terrorist finance and corruption. Without being able to use high denomination notes, those engaged in illicit activities – the “bad guys” of our title – would face higher costs and greater risks of detection. Eliminating high denomination notes would disrupt their “business models”.

Sands points out that high denomination notes play a limited role in the legitimate economy but are essential for criminal markets. Eliminating such currency wouldn’t put an end to crime, necessarily, but it would make life more difficult for criminals. Without high denomination notes they’d be forced to conduct business using money that is heavier and bulkier (gold), more traceable (offshore bank accounts), less widely accepted or have higher transaction costs (Bitcoin).

Such currency notes are particularly attractive to criminals because they are easier to transfer in large quantities. As Sand explains:

To get a sense of why this might matter to criminals, tax evaders or terrorists, consider what it would take to transport US$1m in cash. In US$20 bills, US$1m in cash weighs roughly 110lbs and would fill 4 normal briefcases. One courier could not do this. In US$100 bills, the same amount would weigh roughly 22lbs and take only one briefcase. A single person could certainly do this, but it would not be that discrete. In €500 notes, US$1m equivalent weighs about 5lbs and would fit in a small bag.

It should be no surprise that in the underworld the €500 note is known as a “Bin Laden”

The need for easily transportable cash is especially important for human traffickers:

In human trafficking the revenues from prostitution or cheap labor are often in cash. Where they are not in cash, such as illegal cyber-porn paid for with credit cards, the revenues will typically be converted into cash as part of the money-laundering process. The numbers can be large: estimates for profits from sexual or labor exploitation range from US$100,000-€160,000 per adult per year and from sale of children of €20,000 per child.

In both cases, the money is often moved across borders in cash and stored in cash. Moreover, in both arenas, cash-intensive businesses are used to co-mingle cash and thus disguise sources.

There is already precedent for eliminating high denomination currency. In 1969, the Federal Reserve and the Department of the Treasury announced that banknotes in denominations of $500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 would be discontinued due to lack of use (although they were issued until 1969, they were last printed in 1945). In 2000, Canada eliminated its $1,000 note and Singapore stopped using the $10,000 note in 2014.

Would supporting an end to the printing of high denomination notes be an obvious way for Christians to love our neighbor? Or are there reasons for keeping the $100 that would override any of the crime-hampering benefits?

What do you think? Should we kill the $100 bill?

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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