ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
How much cash do you have in your wallet right now - $50, $100? How about $4,200? That is not a random number. Actually, $4,200 is the average amount of cash in circulation for every man, woman and child in the United States. So why is your wallet so light?
Well, here's another number that comes from economist Kenneth Rogoff's new book. Eighty percent - nearly 80 percent of the cash in circulation is in 100-dollar bills. And maybe those 42 Benjamins are in the wall safe or under your mattress. Is this a problem?
Well, considering that Kenneth Rogoff's book is called "The Curse Of Cash," he obviously thinks it is. His book is an argument for phasing out cash or at least most of it. And Ken Rogoff joins us now. Welcome to the program once again.
KEN ROGOFF: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: Your book documents that this huge share of cash being in high-denomination bills isn't just an American phenomenon. It's true of the euro, the pound, the Swiss franc. What does all this tell you?
ROGOFF: Well, I think that a lot of the money - these big bills - is used to facilitate tax evasion and crime. We all use cash in our everyday life, but we don't use hundred-dollar bills. We're not using 500-euro notes. And yet these account for mountains of cash out there. I think they're being used in tax evasion and by criminals of all types.
SIEGEL: Tax evasion, as in hiding the receipts from the business, but also perhaps paying the household helper without paying Social Security tax on it?
ROGOFF: Exactly. I mean, the Internal Revenue Service thinks that they're losing hundreds of billions of dollars a year from cash and businesses hiding the receipts, exactly as you say. And a lot of people pay their household help without paying Social Security - that sort of thing. And it adds up.
SIEGEL: People paying immigrants who enter the country illegally?
ROGOFF: Well, that, too. I mean, you know, if you didn't have employers able to pay off the books and off the record safely in cash, you wouldn't have illegal immigration on nearly the scale that we do.
SIEGEL: So if this is a problem, describe your solution to it.
ROGOFF: So what I propose is very slowly phasing out the larger bills - the hundreds, the 50s, eventually even the 20s - over say 10 to 20 years and leaving, you know, $10 and below so that people who do every day transactions - and lots of surveys and studies show that most legal, tax-compliant transactions are pretty small. And yet making it difficult to run a wholesale business with cash. Cash is very easy to hide. It's easy to hoard. It's easy to move, especially these large bills. And so I'm trying to find a middle ground.
SIEGEL: What about poor people - people who don't have bank accounts?
ROGOFF: That's one of the most important things to take into account. And so my proposal not only calls for leaving around the $10 bills, but in providing for financial inclusion by giving free debit accounts to low-income individuals. The Nordic countries have done this. A lot of countries have. It doesn't cost much, but that's something absolutely you have to pay attention to.
SIEGEL: You argue that if we phased out the big bills, there would presumably be more tax compliance in the U.S., and the government would realize more revenue. The government also loses money in that case if it doesn't make money, as you describe. Creating cash is a profitable activity for the government.
ROGOFF: It is. So central banks do make a lot of money printing money. You know, it ranges depending on how you calculate it from 30 to, say, $70 billion a year, but tax evasion is on the order of 500 billion for the federal government. So if you could cut tax evasion by 10 percent, you know, you'd get the high end of those estimates and at the same time, you know, be putting a blow against crime.
SIEGEL: You know, in the book, as you enumerate the various illicit or tax-evading activities in which cash makes them possible, I thought, yeah, we should be getting taxes on those things, or they shouldn't be done. You do, though, eventually find, at least in me, of some latent libertarian nerve that says wait a minute. Then must every transaction that we do - must it be somewhere digitally on the record for the government to examine and check? It's a tough sell.
ROGOFF: Fair enough, but I'm leaving around the $10 bill, so what kind of transactions are we talking about? If you want to do one to $2,000, that's really no problem. Should you be able to buy a million-dollar apartment, a $100,000 house? And you'll still be able to. You can use gold coins, uncut diamonds, other things. But should the government facilitate it? Where's the balance? That's really what the question is. I don't think it's time yet to eliminate cash, but I propose having a less-cash society, not a cashless one.
SIEGEL: Kenneth Rogoff, thanks for talking with us about it.
ROGOFF: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: Professor Kenneth Rogoff's new book is called "The Curse Of Cash." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.