money from the sky

In 1986 I was living in (then) West Germany as an exchange student. I was lucky enough to get a visa to visit (then) communist East Berlin with my German and American classmates. Exchange rules were very strict, and the amount of money (and type of currency) you were allowed to change were very tightly controlled. I changed a fair amount of Deutschmarks, not knowing how much I would need for a day trip. We had to return to West Berlin each night – presumably for security or because 16-year olds posed a threat to the regime.

mayakovsky moscow

So after paying the equivalent of $1.50 for a massive lunch and buying the few souvenirs we could find (I never did locate any good t-shirts with the logo “I went to a Warsaw Pact country and all I got was this lousy t-shirt”) I was left with a fair pile of change. Because of the currency exchange rules, it couldn’t be changed BACK into West German currency, so as we boarded the train our chaperone came around and told us we’d better not be holding any currency, because we’d get in trouble with the border guards. Since I had already endured one frightening yell-down from the East German guards while crossing back into West Berlin because of my (apparently banned) souvenirs, I decided to comply.

We hurriedly bought Fanta and assorted snacks but still had some change left. We then noticed that there was a throng of people shouting and gesturing at us on the end of the platform, yelling at the train. We noticed a shower of glittering coins flying out of the windows ahead of us. Assuming this was the thing to do, we chucked our coins out the window, too.

This was the first intimation I had, despite East Berlin’s immaculate, clean and very pleasant appearance that communism’s rosy presentation of economic stability might be a false front. Today, it also gives me pause when I reflect on the fate of one of the world’s mightiest, and shortest-lived, empires.

When I first returned from Russia I was invited to give a lecture on the Russian economy at a local university. At the time I was considered somewhat of an “expert” (please take careful note of the quotation marks) on the accounting theory surrounding foreign currency translation – particularly regarding the ruble – and the difficulty in making a true “translation” of Russian accounting information into Western accounting standards. For this class of beginning accounting students, I started with an anecdote: imagine if you walked into your local McDonald’s today and bought a Big Mac for $3. Your salary might be, say, $40,000 per year.

Now imagine you walk into that local McDonald’s a year later and a Big Mac now costs $200, but your company upped your salary to $2.6 million per year to keep pace with hyperinflation. You can still manage a Big Mac. Two months later your salary is still $2.6 million – the company’s not going to readjust monthly, only annually – but hyperinflation continues apace. Now a Big Mac costs $25,000. It has become an impossible luxury, almost 1% of your gross salary. That’s as if it cost $400 when you were making $40,000 per year. And your savings? Your lifetime savings of $2 million are now barely enough to pay for 80 Big Macs.

Does that sound ridiculous? Yes, but that’s exactly what happened in Russia in the early 90s. Prices changed daily, even hourly. Savings effectively disappeared. With private ownership of land impossible, all net worth other than STUFF disappeared. A good TV was a better investment than a savings account. A freezer could preserve more value than a bank. Banks were offering 100% interest rates or more and it wasn’t a good deal.

That can never happen in America, could it? Chances are it won’t. But if you think about it, the conditions that created hyperinflation are possible in the US. Don’t believe me? Imagine another oil embargo. How much will your food cost if the trucks that deliver it have to pay $12 per gallon for gas? What if a terrorist attack in a US port causes the US borders to be closed? Many of the fruits and vegetables in your local supermarket this time of year are imported from Latin or South America. How much will a tomato cost if the borders close? What happens if major institutions like Citigroup start collapsing? Do you think it’s impossible for the US to attack Mexico to gain access to its oil? I know you are picturing me wearing a tin foil hat, but bear with me.

This is the worst possible case. For the record, I don’t believe it will happen. But then I remember my friends in Russia, who grew up during the last years of the Soviet Union. When they were children the twin cancers of a bloated, inefficient and incompetent central government and a disastrous, expensive foreign war were eating away at the core of their nation. The Soviet Union was a country so powerful in the late 1960s that the United States felt it had to fight wars all over the globe, not to stop but just to slow its spread. The “evil empire” had gone from a backwards agrarian dictatorship to the second-most advanced military and technological power in human history in two generations; there was no reason for the average Soviet citizen to doubt that rate of advancement could last forever. They heard it on the news – calming words from the central government that it could avert a depression. The total collapse of their country in less than a decade caught every single person in the former Soviet Union (and in the world) by surprise. I don’t think even the most optimistic anti-Communist hoped for this in their fevered dreams. Today only the most rabid anti-American would hope for a collapse of the world’s largest economy, but now I think it is imaginable. I hope history will not repeat itself, but that hope has been futile since history began.

When I think of my friends in Russia and their hoarding of US dollars under mattresses and their almost complete and utter distrust of every single financial institution, I also remember that odd sensation in East Berlin in 1986. I remember throwing money out of the window, almost seeing it melt into nothing as it flew through the air. I hope I never see that again, but I particularly hope I never see it in my own country.

photo credit by me)