by Justice William W. Bedsworth
I got a quadrillion dollars for Christmas.(1) My wife is so generous, it was a stocking gift. Talk about marrying well!
Unfortunately, they’re Zimbabwean dollars, and the Zimbabwean dollar has . . . well . . . kinda fallen on hard times. So the purchasing power of my ten one hundred trillion dollar notes is not as impressive as it sounds.
In fact, they won’t even buy anything in Zimbabwe. In 2009, the government of Zimbabwe just abandoned the whole monetary part of governing. It announced all foreign currencies would be acceptable as a medium of exchange in the country and the Zimbabwean dollar pretty much disappeared—displaced in commercial transactions by rands, pula, euros, and Necco wafers.
As I understand it, this happened because the whole “We are not Rhodesia anymore, we are Zimbabwe,” thing turned out to be every bit as tough as it sounds. Just imagine changing your name from Smith to Rzepczynski,(2) and you can imagine the problems Zimbabweans ran into. They spent a lot of time giving money to people who looked at it and said, “Zimbabwe? What in hell is a zimbobby?”
What’s more, Zimbabwe ran into serious inflation at the turn of this century. Actually, “serious” is the wrong word. According to the Cato Institute, in November of 2008, the inflation rate in Zimbabwe was running at what the Institute called “an astounding monthly rate of 79.6 billion percent.” When the inflation rate is nearly 80 billion percent per month, “hysterical” seems like a more appropriate adjective than “serious.” Even “hyper” seems inadequate.
I don’t understand what 79.6 billion percent per month inflation means. I mean I literally don’t understand it. I can’t comprehend how that works. How can something that cost a dollar on November 1 cost 800 million dollars when my wife’s birthday rolls around on December 4?(3)
How do you buy anything? How do you make change? How do you carry it around? How big a wheelbarrow do you have to buy to carry enough money to buy a wheelbarrow?
You order a burger for a million Zimbabwean dollars. By the time it arrives, it costs two million five hundred thousand. You eat the burger and give the guy a five million dollar bill. He brings you back a million dollars with the explanation the burger now costs four million. You tell him to keep the change and he tells you there isn’t any—inflation just forced the price up again.
This is the kind of economic lunacy I usually associate with bankruptcies and incorporeal hereditaments. No wonder the Zimbabwean treasury threw in the towel and walked away.
The upshot, of course, is that my lovely Christmas banknotes, blue with a picture of a bunch of rocks on one side and a water buffalo on the other(4)—and zeroes all over the place—have no value other than as a bright, shiny opening sentence to suck you into violating your New Year’s resolution not to read any more of my stuff.
When they fell off the radar screen in 2009, Zimbabwean dollars were worth one septillionth of an American dollar. That is
1/1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000—one followed by 24 zeroes. These are numbers only mathematicians, astronomers, and baseball general managers can comprehend.
I mention this because I think when you read the next part of the column you’re going to need to reassure yourself that money isn’t everything, and it can’t buy happiness, and it’s the root of all evil, and all those other clichés you resort to when you read about someone undeserving getting rich. Just pretend as you read the ensuing paragraphs that we’re talking about Zimbabwean dollars.
Here’s what it said in The Week magazine, a mainstream publication not given to stories about alien abduction, conspiracies to elect Kenyans to the Presidency, or CEOs whose salaries are commensurate with their value: “Bank robber has last laugh.”
That was the hook. That got my attention just like the quadrillion dollar Christmas present snared you a few minutes ago. The story went on to quote the London Daily Mail—another mainstream publication—to the effect that, “An Austrian court has ordered that stolen cash be given to a bank robber because it ‘can’t find anybody else to take the money.’”
So help me, that’s what it says. They gave the money back to the bank robber. True story. If I could make this stuff up, I wouldn’t need to read your briefs and the Supreme Court’s opinions. I’d be writing screenplays for Spielberg and Cameron.
According to The Week, an Austrian bank manager named Otto Neuman absconded with $240,000 in cash and gold bars in 1993.(5) By the time Interpol—or La Surete or James Bond or whoever the FBI-less Euros count on to investigate bank heists—caught up with him, only $82,000 and some gold could be recovered.
So the question was, “Who gets the recovered loot?”
“Not us,” said the bank. “Insurance paid us.”
“Not us,” said the insurance company. “All we get back is what we paid out, and the gold you recovered has gone up so much in value that it more than covers our loss.”
“Us!” said Neuman’s lawyer, “Give it to us.”
“Okay,” said the Austrian court. “That makes sense. We order the money returned to the bank robber.”
“What?!?!!?” said everybody else on the planet. “Are you kidding us? You’re giving the money back to the bank robber because you can’t figure out who else to give it to?”
“Give it to me. Give it to charity. Give it to Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchett. Give it to millions of poor Rhodesians stuck with worthless hundred trillion dollar pictures of rocks and water buffaloes.”
“But for crying out loud, don’t give it back to the bank robber.”(6)
Actually, defense counsel not only did not suggest they give the money to his client, he was flabbergasted when they told him they were doing it. Said attorney Herbert Eichenseder, “I really didn’t believe what the court were(7) telling me, but I checked it and it was correct.”
Bless his heart, the guy called both the bank and the insurance company before contacting his client. Unlike the Austrian court, this man’s grasp on reality was so firm that he was convinced a mistake had to have been made somewhere. He was confident a few phone calls would clear it up.
He was incredulous when he was assured by all involved that no one was claiming the money, and that the only solution anyone could come up with was that it escheated to his felonious client. I dare say his client was as dubious about this news as people were when first told a zimbobby was a country and the money with the rockpile pictures was actual cash.
But according to a dozen news outlets, he took the money.
If you’re a Republican, this is just more proof that the socialist European model President Obama is dragging us toward is lunatic. If you’re a Democrat, this is just more proof that the rich have so much money they actually—literally—don’t know what to do with it.
If you’re me, this is just more proof that the whole danged planet is going to hell in a handbasket. To paraphrase my southern forebears, “Save your Zimbabwean money, boys, the South is gonna rise again.”
Me and my quadrillion dollars (Zimbabwean) will be ready when it does.
(1) Thought I’d start right out with a sentence that’s probably never before appeared in print.
(2) That’s an actual name. Polish I think. Pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals. His nickname is “Eyechart.”
(3) I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to buy her something with that quadrillion dollars she gave me.
(4) Honest. Rocks. Four or five rocks, stacked one on top of another. And the other side has a water buffalo and a waterfall. My understanding is that the ten trillion dollar note had watercress and a water pistol.
In fairness, Zimbabwe had just emerged from decades of oppression as Rhodesia; they didn’t have a lot of admired old white heads of state to put on their currency.
(5) Kinda hard to get excited about something with only three zeroes while I’m fondling my $100,000,000,000,000 Zimbabwean bank notes. But I’ll give it a go. After all, you’ve read this far, you deserve some kind of return on that investment.
(6) This is why they don’t let me write too many dissents. I tend to get a little worked up over perceived injustice.
(7) Apparently, because the Austrian court involved was a panel, attorney Eichenseder referred to it in the plural. We approve.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at email@example.com.