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23 May 2017
Afternoon Sedition

The Five-Finger Discount

Winona Ryder In Court After Being Found Guilty of Shoplifting

Winona Ryder In Court After Being Found Guilty of Shoplifting

I'm sorry for what I did. My director directed me to shoplift for a role which I was preparing.

"Security guard says Ryder admitted stealing to prepare for movie role," CourtTV.com

Shoplifting — also known as racking, boosting, jacking, gaffling, ganking, by the bland retail trade terms of "shrink" or "Organized Retail Theft", and by Winona Ryder as "research" — is an old word, dating to 1673. It was, naturally enough, formed from by combining "shop", for retail establishment, with "lifting", meaning to steal. ("Lifting" as a slang term for theft dates to 1595; amazing it took over a hundred years to join the two concepts.) The 1673 form only described the noun version, however; to "shoplift" as a verb was not in use until 1698.

Interestingly enough, the concept of shop as the verb form of engaging in the act of purchasing — shop 'till ya drop — wasn't in use until 1764. (Some say 1820.) The related term "five-finger discount" dates to 1966. (Five-finger as a component of a slang term for anything involving the hand is common; witness the innumerable list of terms for masturbation.) Anyway, whatever you or Winona call it, retail theft is a serious problem in the United States:

Organized retail theft (ORT) is a growing problem throughout the United States, affecting a wide-range of retail establishments, including supermarkets, chain drug stores, independent pharmacies, mass merchandisers, convenience stores, and discount operations. It has become the most pressing security problem confronting retailers. ORT losses are estimated to run as high as $15 billion annually in the supermarket industry alone – and $34 billion across all retail. ORT crime is separate and distinct from petty shoplifting in that it involves professional theft rings that move quickly from community to community and across state lines to steal large amounts of merchandise that is then repackaged and sold back into the marketplace. Petty shoplifting, as defined, is limited to items stolen for personal use or consumption. Listed below are links to resources that will provide you with the information you need to help prevent ORT.

Food Marketing Institute - Retail Operations - Loss Prevention

So what are the most popular items? Oxycontin? Nope, that's locked up so only pharmacists can steal it by shorting prescriptions. Ok, it's gotta be Robitussin DM? Nope, it seems teenagers actually pay for that. All right, then it surely must be rolling papers. Naaah. They keep those behind the counter. So, what is it? Advil. Fifty count, not a hundred. Yeah, go figure. Here's the list of rather surprising list of the most popular items for shoplifting, starting with most stolen:

Advil tablet 50 count
Advil tablet 100 count
Aleve caplet 100 count
EPT Pregnancy Test single
Gillette Sensor 10 count
Kodak 200 24 exp
Similac w/iron powder - case
Similac w/iron powder - single can
Preparation H 12 count
Primatene tablet 24 count
Sudafed caplet 24 count
Tylenol caplet 100 count
Advil caplet 100 count
Aleve caplet 50 count
Correcountol tablet 60 count
Excedrin tablet 100 count
Gillette Sensor/Excel 10 count
Gillette Sensor 15 count
Monistat 3oz tube
Preparation H Ointment 1 oz
Similac w/iron concentrate 13 oz
Tavist-D decongestant tablet 16 count
Trojan ENZ 12 count
Tylenol gelcap 50 count
Tylenol gelcap 100 count
Tylenol tablet 100 count
Vagistat 1 tube
Advil caplet 50 count
Advil gelcap 50 count
Advil gelcap 24 count
Advil tablet 50 count
Aleve tablet 50 count
Anacin tablet 100 count
Centrum tablet 60 count
DayQuil liquicaps 20 count
Dimetap tablet 12 count
Duracell AA 4 pk
Ecotrin tablet 100 count
Ecotrin tablet 60 count
Energizer AA 4 pk
Excedrin tablet 50 count
Femstat 3 app
Gillette Atra 10 count
Gyne-Lotrimin 3 app
Monistat 7oz tube
Motrin caplet 50 count
Motrin tablet 24 count
Oil of Olay 4 oz
Preparation H Ointment 2 oz
Schick Tracer FX 10 count
Gillette Sensor/Women 10 count
Sudafed tablet 24 count
Visine drops 1 oz

"Most Frequently Shoplifted Items in Rank Order" from the Food Marketing Institute

I can sort of understand why Sudafed is a popular choice, since it is used in the production of cold-process methamphetamine (pseudophedrine is a readily-available precursor) and your average meth-head isn't known for his judgment, especially when it comes to getting a much-needed fix. (And stores are on the lookout for large-volume purchases.) But Advil and Tylenol? What's up with that? I would think that a shoplifting conviction is a far bigger headache than whatever the thief could possibly be suffering from. And if it's a repeat offense for a male offender, well, he'll surely need that Preparation H for his trip to the Big House.

Shoplifting is a topic that is practically relevant to many and it should therefore not become an exclusive craft confined to a small shoplifting elite. On the contrary, shoplifting is an art that deserves the widest possible dissemination. For your convenience we have printed below a step by step guide to shoplifting. Good luck.

"The Art of Shoplifting," NoName, September 1995, Page 10

Leather Lanyard or Marble Madness?

Cover of Boondoggle Book

If we can "boondoggle" ourselves out of this depression, that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of the American people for years to come.

— President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Speech, 18 January 1936, to the New Jersey State Emergency Council

The word "boondoggle" refers to any fraudulent or dishonest undertaking, usually associated with wasting huge amounts of money on an enterprise of dubious value, typically as a result of political patronage. (This is the third political term we've dissected, the first being filibuster and the second red tape.) But where did it come from? It turns out the etymology of boondoggle is still unknown, it apparantly having become common circa 1935 to describe the money spent by Roosevelt's New Deal alphabet programs (CCC, FDIC, FERA, NRA, SEC, TVA, WPA, etc.) The quote above is Roosevelt's response to his critics. But first, a short skip to the origins.

The term "boondoggle" existed with the boyscouts long before it was used to describe Roosevelt's programs, supposedly being coined in 1927 by Robert H. Link, a scoutmaster, to describe the braided leather lanyards made by boyscouts to fritter away time at the campfire, and then worn as decoration. Link died in 1957, so nobody can ask him where he picked up the term. (Neither can anyone ask him if he used those amazingly strong braided cords for nefarious purposes.) Evidence, however, suggests the term may have been in use before Link; so much for "Scout's Honor." (Then again, how much "scouts honor" is there in persecuting gays, lesbians, and atheists or in raping young scouts? I mean, this is about the same amount of honor as one would find in the Roman Catholic Church...)

Now, the word came to prominence on 4 April 1935 when The New York Times ran a story about how jobless workers were being paid by the government to make lanyards from leather, rope, and canvas:

Boondoggle burst into the world with something of a bang, becoming an attack term immediately after its first recorded appearance in print. This occurred on April 4, 1935, in an account in The New York Times of an investigation into public-relief expenditures. Testifying the previous day before a committee of the Board of Aldermen (predecessors of today’s gender-neutral City Council), a Robert Marshall of Brooklyn said that he had been paid to teach “boon doggles.” Asked what he meant by this, he explained that “boon doggles is simply a term applied back in pioneer days to what we call gadgets today… . They may be making belts in leather, or maybe belts by weaving ropes, or it might be belts by working with canvas, maybe a tent or a sleeping bag.”

Mr. Marshall’s testimony, together with that of other witnesses who told of teaching tap dancing, manipulating shadow puppets, and building “A Temple of Time” (a watch and clock collection) for New York University, inspired the story’s headline, which began: $3,187,000 RELIEF IS SPENT TO TEACH JOBLESS TO PLAY, with the subhead, “BOON DOGGLES” made.

The word was off and running. In the next presidential election, in 1936, boondoggle was employed widely as both a noun and a verb by Republican critics of New Deal relief agencies. Boondoggling became a general term for what the GOP perceived as governmental wastefulness, and the responsible administrators were boondogglers. Nor could President Roosevelt pass this one up. He turned the word back upon the Republicans, describing international loans made under the GOP as foreign boondoggling.

"Why Do We Say That? 'Boondoggle'" Hugh Rawson, American Heritage

The big question, however, is where Link got the word or the idea for it. Another potential etymology is from Scottish, where boondoggle refers to winning a marble without any effort or receiving it as an outright gift. This has some plausibility, since "doggle" or "dogle" is the slang term for a marble, and it could easily have been combined with "boon" meaning gift or favor. The only problem is that the OED doesn't have any evidence the word was compounded in this fashion.

Some claim the word is drived to the Tagalog (Phillipine) word "bundok" for mountain, which was picked up by US soldiers during World War II and morphed into "boondocks" meaning any remote or wild area isolated from civilization. (Like, say, New Jersey.) The sense is allegedly that money was spent in remote areas according to the whims of the Roosevelt administration. The problem is that boondocks didn't show up in common parlance until about eight years after boondoggle. So this etymology shouldn't be given any credence.

The ultimate answer is that nobody really knows where the word originated. The only way Congress would fund a study of this boondoggle is if a congresscritter had an institute for etymology in his district. And, given the boondoggles Congress has funded, this one isn't so farfetched.

"Labour Isn’t Working"

"Labour Isn't Working" Billboard

Billboard for 1979 Tory Campaign, "Labour Isn't Working (Britain's Better Off With the Conservatives)"

It became the benchmark for political advertising. It has influenced all political advertising since and effectiveness is measured against it.

— Martyn Walsh, creator of "Labour Isn't Working" Campaign

In my tax day entry about the IRS and what a joyous day April 15th is, I mentioned how the Wilson's labour government led to the election of Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, in 1979. The real force behind her campaign was the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi. It created the "Labour Isn't Working" advertising campaign that is widely credited as winning the election. This is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant ad campaigns ever. (What's interesting is that Charles Saatchi, who gets credit for designing it, apparently didn't create it and was initially skeptical about it.)

"The Conservative party's 1978 poster of a snaking line of people queuing for the unemployment office under the slogan "Labour isn't working" has been voted the poster advertisement of the century.

Created by the Saatchi brothers, the poster is cited as instrumental in the downfall of James Callaghan's Labour administration in the 1979 election and the rise of Margaret Thatcher, partly because he rose to the jibe and complained. It also marked a sea-change in political advertising as, aiming at traditional Labour supporters who feared for their jobs, it was the first to adopt the aggressive marketing tactics which characterise modern elections.

Judged the poster of the century by a jury of advertising creative staff for the trade magazine Campaign, Labour Isn't Working beat a first world war recruitment poster into second place."

"Tory Advert Rated Poster of the Century" by Janine Gibson, Guardian, 16 October 1999

Now, there's nothing like mixing advertising and politics. On the one hand you have a cesspool of lies and on the other you have... Wait just one minute! I can't tell them apart! The best part of the "Labour Isn't Working" campaign is the lies it portrays as fact. First, consider the sanitized, and self-serving Saatchi & Satchi version of their political work:

In 1979 Saatchi & Saatchi London became the first agency to be appointed by a British political party to help them win an election. The Conservative Party did precisely that, with Margaret Thatcher becoming Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. Indeed, the Conservatives won an unprecedented four consecutive terms in office. This didn’t go unnoticed by Boris Yeltsin. With some help from Saatchi & Saatchi, he went on to become Russia’s first democratically elected President.

"Who We Are" by Saatchi & Saatchi

Now, some truth from the BBC:

A new form of political advertising was created for the election campaign which was original, slick and a benchmark for the future.

The now infamous slogan 'Labour Isn't Working' was borne from it and is credited with helping the Tories to power in May 1979.

Labour had postponed the election until May 1979 by which time the 'Winter of Discontent' was in full swing and campaigning for voters took place against a back drop of strike action.

Saatchi & Saatchi later developed the slogan 'Labour Still Isn't Working' but it caused controversy when it was revealed its depiction of people queuing at the dole office was actually of actors.

Many were Tory workers and their images had been superimposed to give the illusion of hundreds of people, although in reality there were only about 20.

"On this Day 1978: Tories Recruit Advertisers to Win Votes", BBC, 30 March 1978

And the difficulty in making the ad — in the days before computer graphic programs like Photoshop or (my favorite) PhotoPaint made this trivial — is interesting:

"Immediately there was a problem. Instead of the 100 volunteers promised to the ad's designer, Martyn Walsh of Saatchi and Saatchi, fewer than 20 turned up - far too few to create the desired effect.

"It was a problem," Walsh remembers. "At one point I though briefly about calling it all off. But the deadline was very tight and it was a case of 'it's now or never - we've got to do it today'."

Rope trick

Walsh then hit upon the idea of photographing the same group of people over and over and then striping the photos together back in his studio.

A long rope was used to mark out the shape of the queue and the volunteers, over a period of hours, had to move along it in a tight group.

"Because of budget we could not use a lot of extras," Walsh remembers.

"And we could not use the real unemployed. They might have objected to appearing in Tory publicity. We wanted people who would not object - which is why we used the Young Tories. But we still made them sign a form to say they wouldn't sue us if they didn't like the result."

Bottom of the pile

The end result, after the pictures had been superimposed on each other, gave the impression of far more than one hundred people standing in a queue."

"'Epoch-making' poster was clever fake" BBC News Online, 16 March 2001

Amazing, isn't it? Advertising people lie! Shocking! This campaign was so famous and so ingrained in British thought that the Labour Party co-opted the concept a few years back for Tony Blair — a Labour Party candidate:

"The Labour Party has rehashed Saatchi & Saatchi's highly successful "Labour isn't working" poster campaign which helped Margaret Thatcher's pre-election bid in 1979.

Labour is running a colourful poster and ad campaign proclaiming the reverse - "Britain is working" under Tony Blair."

"Labour in Cheeky Rehash of Tory Ad Campaign" Politics.co.uk, 30 November 2004

Ad Campaign for "Britain is Working" Under Blair

It's a pretty lousy ad, though, since it really says nothing about who deserves credit and why. (Way too subtle.) Meantime, the Tories decided they needed to repeat their earlier success by going after Blair in a big way. (Make the big, bad labour monster go away, mommy!) Unfortunately, the new campaign has no heart at all, as you can see.

Ad Campaign for "New Labour, New Danger"

The real genius — and I don't use that term lightly — behind Saatchi & Saatchi was Charles Saatchi. (The firm was started by two brothers, Charles and Maurice. Charles was the creative talent and Maurice the businessman. Together they built an advertising powerhouse. After huge excesses in the eighties and nineties, leading to a loss of about a hundred million dollars (tough to spin that), they were forced out of the company that bears their name. They started M & C Saatchi right down the street and there was a massive lawsuit when their old clients deserted the now-braindead Saatchi & Saatchi for M & C Saatchi. (But that's a story that probably only interests advertising people.) Anyway, you know Charles; he's the man behind Sensation, an art exhibit he paid a million dollar bribe to the Brooklyn Museum to host. This rather boring art exhibit was marketed as "offensive" in order to drum up interest and thereby inflate the values of the pieces, all so that Saatchi could liquidate his collection, which was long past its freshness date. Too cynical? Mmmmm-hmmmm.

Between Chris Ofili's "Dung Madonna" and Damien Hirst's readymade shark, the furor appears to have been carefully scripted to inflate the value of worthless "art" so Saatchi could sell it (unlikely) or donate it (likely). This is part of how rich people shelter income; they take a fundamentally worthless piece of "art" purchased for relatively little, get a huge valuation slapped on it by curators with an incentive to enhance their own importance (or maybe bribed), donate it to a museum eager to have a "valuable" work (or possibly bribed), write off the fake valuation on their taxes, and get 40% of the "value" back as a refund in dead presidents. What a great deal! Like Leona says, only little people pay taxes.

There was no feeling that we were making history. In a way it was a pretty routine job. A question of we've got to whistle something up quickly.

— Martyn Walsh, creator of "Labour Isn't Working" Campaign

Happy Tax Freedom Day!

Chart Showing Tax Freedom Day by Calendar Year

Chart of Tax Freedom Day Dates by Year, "Tax Freedom Day to Arrive April 17 in 2005", National Tax Foundation

At the beginning of the 20th century, taxes accounted for 5.9 percent of income, and the nation celebrated Tax Freedom Day on January 22.

"America Celebrates Tax Freedom Day", National Tax Foundation Special Report, No. 134, April 2005

Today is Tax Freedom Day; that is, today is the day that marks the demarcation of the period worked to pay for federal, state, and local taxes and that where Americans work for themselves. (Yay!)

The report compares the number of days Americans work to pay taxes to the number of days they work to support themselves.

“Despite all the tax cuts that the federal government has passed recently, Americans will still spend more on taxes than they spend on food, clothing and medical care combined,” said Hodge.

In 2005, Americans will work 70 days to afford their federal taxes and 37 more days to afford state and local taxes. Other categories of spending measured in the report include housing and household operation (65 days), health and medical care (52 days), food (31 days), transportation (31 days), recreation (22 days), clothing and accessories (13 days), saving (2 days) and all other (42 days).

"Tax Freedom Day to Arrive April 17 in 2005", National Tax Foundation

Chart Showing Tax Freedom Day by Calendar Year

Chart of Taxes vs. Expenses, "Tax Freedom Day to Arrive April 17 in 2005", National Tax Foundation

The full, and quite detailed, report is interesting, but mostly disturbing. Once again, the red staters are like lampreys that have opened up a vein into us blue staters. Sigh.

Overall, the largest importers [of federal tax dollars] are Florida (+$1,478.5 million), Washington (+$1,275.2 million), Virginia (+$1175.8 million) and Georgia (+$999.7 million); and the largest exporters [of federal tax dollars] are California (-$2,686.31.3 million), New York (-$2,076.3 million) and New Jersey (-$1,885.0 million). The District of Columbia is a net tax exporter with -$125.3 million.

"America Celebrates Tax Freedom Day", National Tax Foundation Special Report, No. 134, April 2005

So, celebrate the fact that you're working for yourself today. And remember the secrets of success: Be your own boss, run a cash business, and don't extend credit.

The Annual Mugging of Americans

IRS Form 8302: Electronic Deposit of Tax Refund of $1 Million or More

IRS Form 8302: "Electronic Deposit of Tax Refund of $1 Million or More"

We don't pay taxes. Only little people pay taxes.

— Leona Helmsley

When I were a lad — and we walked uphill to school both ways, in the snow, while dragging hundred pound cinderblocks and fending off ravenous sabre-tooth tigers and rabid voles — there were virtually no enterprising capitalists extorting money, I mean, soliciting donations from their fellow students using the threat of dire consequences if a suitable contribution was not made. Most, instead, went after the less-risky, an immensely profitable, upscale market by providing substances that were, shall we say, unavailable at Deliah's Liquors. (Deliah's was the place in town to buy if you were, ahem, underaged. I'm revealing no secrets here as they sold the business many years ago and the statute of limitations has long since run out.) But back to extortion.

Not that I'm complaining about the lack of regular muggings, of course, but the funny thing is that if more outright coercive theft had been committed in school it would have better prepared us for the joys of dealing with the IRS. For what is the IRS but a big bully that siezes our assets and puts us in jail if we don't cough up our lunch money? (Oh, wait. The breakfast, lunch, and dinner money. These days the average American works for the IRS until April 17th.)

The form above — "Electronic Deposit of Tax Refund of $1 Million or More" — is absolutely, 100% genuine, by the way. You can see it at www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f8302.pdf if you don't believe me. I'm uncertain which disturbs me more; that the Bush tax cuts have returned such vast sums or that so many are receiving them that a special form exists to receive the largess as quickly as possible.

Oh, sure, taxes are the price we pay for civilization. Except, as we know, rich people don't pay taxes. And neither do the red states; they get back vastly more than they send to Washington. The report from the National Tax Foundation has all the gory details. It seems, in short, that we in the blue states subsidize the bad behavior and fiscal irresponsibility of the red states. But isn't that what compassionate conservatism is all about?

Federally Favored States

“During fiscal 2003, taxpayers in New Mexico benefited the most from the give-and-take with Uncle Sam,” said Sagoo. New Mexico received $1.99 in federal outlays for every $1.00 the state’s taxpayers sent to Uncle Sam. Other big winners were Alaska ($1.89), Mississippi ($1.83), and West Virginia ($1.82). (See tables below).

The District of Columbia’s Special Status

Though not comparable as a state, the District of Columbia is by far the biggest beneficiary of federal spending: In 2003 it received $6.59 in federal outlays for every dollar its taxpayers sent to the U.S. Treasury.

“The District’s share of federal largesse amounted to $60,109 for every man, woman and child,” said Sagoo. “That’s more than ten times the national average.”

States That Help Others

If some states are beneficiaries, then naturally some must be benefactors—those states where so much is collected in federal taxes that any federal spending they receive is overwhelmed.

New York has often been the biggest payer in the Tax Foundation’s annual comparison of taxes to spending, which inspired Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the Kennedy School of Government to launch their annual reference book comparing state taxes with spending (www.ksg.harvard.edu/fisc99) more than 25 years ago. In recent years, however, other states have eclipsed New York for the “blessing” of being the state that gives far more than it receives.

Combining the third highest tax burden per capita with the ninth lowest federal spending, New Jersey had the lowest federal spending-to-tax ratio (57¢). Other states that had low federal spending-to-tax ratios in FY 2003 are New Hampshire (64¢), Connecticut (65¢), Minnesota (70¢), Nevada (70¢), and Illinois (73¢).

"Federal Tax Burdens and Expenditures by State", National Tax Foundation, Report No. 132, December 2004

Hard to believe it was forty years ago that the Beatles complained about the 95% marginal rate — no kidding! — that forced many successful people into tax exile. That's the meaning of the line "There's one for you, nineteen for me." in Taxman — the Beatles were able to keep only five percent (one part in twenty) of their income above a certain level. Revolver was the Beatles' seventh album, so they were, by this point, rolling in filthy lucre. The "Mr. Wilson" and "Mr. Heath" in the song refer to Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister (Labour Party) and the opposition leader Edward Heath (Conservative). The Labour Party had just won the 1966 election; the mess they made of the country would later lead to Margaret Thatcher's election.

Taxman

One, two, three, four...
Hrmm!
One, two, (one, two, three, four!)

Let me tell you how it will be;
There's one for you, nineteen for me.
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

Should five per cent appear too small,
Be thankful I don't take it all.
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

if you drive a car, car;
I’ll tax the street;
if you try to sit, sit;
I’ll tax your seat;
if you get too cold, cold;
I’ll tax the heat;
if you take a walk, walk;
I'll tax your feet.

Taxman!

'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

Don't ask me what I want it for,
(ah-ah, Mister Wilson)
If you don't want to pay some more.
(ah-ah, Mister Heath)
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

Now my advice for those who die,
(taxman)
Declare the pennies on your eyes.
(taxman)
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

And you're working for no one but me.

Taxman!

"Taxman" by George Harrison, Revolver, The Beatles, 1966

When Ya Got Money Ta Burn!

Hell Bank Note #1

Burning Hell Money

There’s always a particular smell of burning incense when one walks through the gates of a Buddhist temple. The smoke looms around in a mist-like form. The air is difficult to breathe and some of the people’s eyes burn from the ashes around. The faithful continue to add more to the already huge amount of incense of all shapes and sizes — the little flames on the top of the incense glows through the misty smoke. Before these incense lays the deities, to whom some ask for divine guidance for their cause.

Today, a girl was burning something else in the temple. I looked down at what she was burning — some form of paper money? It appeared so. She was dropping them into the flames one by one. I had seen something like this before — somewhere in a Chinese movie, a man was dropping paper money in a makeshift grill for his brother who had died. Curiously, I approached the girl.

"May I see one of those?" I asked.

"Of course," the woman replied.

I looked at what the paper money said. "Hell money," it read on the bottom.

"Hell Money", The Anthropology of Money in Southern California, by Alex Adair, Joanne Choi, Ceasor Dennis, Clara Lin, Lambert Yuen

Wads and Wads of Hell Money

Wads and wads of Hell Money waiting to be purchased and burned.

Bank of Hell Checkbook

Ian Whitney's travel photos of Bank of Hell checkbook

So, what the Hell — no pun intended — is this stuff, anyway?

When i was child, growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, a friend of mine's family ran a grocery store. They were Chinese, and although almost everything in their store was exactly like the stuff in all the other small groceries in Berkeley, they also carried a few Chinese specialty items up by the counter. One of these was Hell Money. The word Hell was introduced to China, my friend's parents told me, by Christian missionaries who claimed that non-converted Chinese folks were all "going to Hell" when they died -- and the Chinese, thinking "Hell" was the proper English term for the afterlife, adopted the word. Thus, Hell Bank Notes are simply Afterlife Monetary Offerings or Spirit Money.

As they explained it to me, when people die, their spirits or ghosts go to an afterlife where they continue to live on, doing the same sort of things why did while alive, eating, drinking, wearing clothes, playing with their children, and so forth. In order to ensure that they have lots of good things in the afterlife, their relatives send them presents, and one of the best things to send them is Hell Bank Notes -- money to spend in the afterworld. In addition to Hell Bank Notes, some Chinese grocery stores also sell elaborately-made and multi-coloured paper watches, clothes, cars, Hell Credit Cards, and even refrigerators for the purpose of burning in the belief that doing so sends their essence to the afterlife world, where the recipient will be glad to receive such material goods.

Hell Bank Notes (Hell Money)

Hell Bank Note #2

Special furnace for burning Hell Money

Special furnace for burning Hell Money.

The question I have is what can you buy with fake money? (In the United States, the answer is quite a lot. That's why the Secret Service takes counterfeiting so seriously.) And what about inflation? Does burning more money make your ancestors richer, even if it makes you poorer? Anyway, this is no joke for the Chinese; they take this very seriously:

According to Chinese folklore, there is an increase in the incidence of accidents and deaths during the seventh month of the lunar calendar, an occurrence attributed to underworld spirits visiting the earth during this time. During Ghost Month, people prepare big feasts to indulge the many roaming ghosts.

Festivities to stop the troublemaking ghosts from disturbing the living were held island-wide yesterday, although the rituals have been attacked for polluting the environment.

Tables of offerings and urns of burning ghost money blocked many sidewalks in Taipei yesterday. An estimated 220,000 tons of ghost money is burned every year around Taiwan.

"Ghost Month Rites Calm Scientists' Consciences" The China Post, 15 August 15, 2000

Couple burning Hell Money

Couple on the street burning Hell Money

Wow! Did you catch this part: "220,000 tons of ghost money is burned every year around Taiwan." Just imagine if that were, say, old newspaper. How much air pollution would it cause? A lot, it turns out. So much that the government came up with a solution: (I'm quoting more of the article since their Website may not always be available.)

With the arrival of the arrival of the traditional Ghost Month, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) again urged urban residents to burn spirit money at municipal waste incinerators to prevent air pollution.

Yesterday in Kaohsiung City, an unusual ceremony was held at a newly cleaned municipal waste incinerator in Sanmin District.

In an address to the souls of the dead, Kaohsiung Deputy Mayor Yao Kao-chiao (???) sincerely informed roaming ghosts that the incinerator would be the best place for them to "withdraw" spirit money this year.

"We hope residents cooperate to burn all spirit money at the incinerator on the 29th day of the seventh lunar month," Yao said.

Kaohsiung City environmental officials said that last year 109 communities supported central-ized burning, and that 28 tonnes of money paper were burned in the incinerator. They estimated the move prevented about 3 tonnes of air pollutants from being released in the city.

Officials said that the participation of 408 communities in the program this year might boost the amount of centrally burned spirit money to 100 tonnes. A free service is available to deliver spirit money to the incinerator until the scheduled burning date.

Officials said that burning spirit money outdoors causes a substantial amount of air pollution and could result in fines ranging from NT$5,000 to NT$100,000 for residents and NT$100,000 to NT$1 million for factories and companies.

To attract more residents to use the service, officials have arranged for eminent Buddhist masters to be in charge of the month-end burning ceremony, ensuring a successfully delivery of people's respects to the gods.

"UNSEEN AUDIENCE: Kaohsiung officials invited spirits to `withdraw' spirit money offered for them at incinerators, where the smoke can be scrubbed for human lungs" by Chiu Yu-Tzu, Taipei Times, 16 August 2004

Hell Bank Note #3

But I like this description better than the "official" one:

The first report comes from Taiwan, where people traditionally burn paper "ghost money," which somehow reaches their dead ancestors, providing them with spending money in Heaven. But thanks to our huge balance of trade deficit, the Taiwanese apparently have so much money to burn that it is causing an air pollution problem.

So the city officials of Taipei came up with a brilliant alternative to ghost money. No doubt taking a cue from us Americans, who are experts in using credit cards to send our money up in smoke, they are now offering citizens a flammable "Kingdom of the Dead" credit card, which burns without creating pollution. A spokesman explained, "Like people, ghosts will find credit very convenient." Yes, they can now order their sheets direct from the Home Shopping Network! Frankly, when I heard about a government issuing a credit card that provides total security for your dead ancestors, I was incredulous. I couldn't believe that the Clintons hadn't thought of it first.

"The Skeptic&quot: The Newsletter of The North Texas Skeptics" Volume 7, Number 12, December 1993

Hell Bank Note #4

Most of the money images seen above comes from Randall van der Woning's blog.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Hell Bank Notes for Sale
  2. "Ghost Month Rites Calm Scientists' Consciences" The China Post, 15 August 15, 2000
  3. "UNSEEN AUDIENCE: Kaohsiung officials invited spirits to `withdraw' spirit money offered for them at incinerators, where the smoke can be scrubbed for human lungs" by Chiu Yu-Tzu, Taipei Times, 16 August 2004
  4. Randall van der Woning's blog entry on Hell Money

Buy Land, ‘Cause They Ain’t Making it No More

Monopoly evokes a unique emotion, the surge of thrill you get when you know you've wiped out a friend.

— Shelly Berman

Early Parker Brother's Monopoly board

Early Parker Brother's Monopoly Board

The board game Monopoly is an institution. It is available in in many variants (link, link link, and link) and even some parodies (Ghettopoly and Anti-monopoly). Versions exist for most major cities, and even for such specialized areas as football, the military, and the space program. Even the Franklin Mint has a version. (You know something has hit the bigtime when the Franklin Mint has an edition.) All teach the joys of unfettered capitalism and world domination, not to mention a little math, too. (I can picture how none of the other children wanted to play monopoly with a young Bill Gates.)

T-Shirt with parod of Monopoly showing Microsoft

Microsoft Monopoly Parody

The "official" origins of Monopoly are on the Hasbro Website, but these are, to be blunt, absolute lies. And therein lies a tale. First, consider the official, and fraudulent, version of the origins:

Today, it's the best-selling board game in the world, sold in 80 countries and produced in 26 languages including Croatian. But where did the game come from? How did this phenomenal pastime get its start? tells the legend best.

It was 1934, the height of the Depression, when Charles B. Darrow of Germantown, Pennsylvania, showed what he called the MONOPOLY game to the executives at Parker Brothers. Can you believe it, they rejected the game due to "52 design errors"! But Mr. Darrow wasn't daunted. Like many other Americans, he was unemployed at the time, and the game's exciting promise of fame and fortune inspired him to produce it on his own.

With help from a friend who was a printer, Mr. Darrow sold 5,000 handmade sets of the game to a Philadelphia department store. People loved it! But as demand grew, he couldn't keep up with all the orders and came back to talk to

History of Monopoly, Hasbro

New York version of Monopoly

New York Version

Parker Brother has always asserted that the inventor of Monopoloy was Charles Darrow. He does, in fact, hold United States Patent number 2,026,082 for it, and the rights to the patent were sold to Parker Brothers. The fact is that Parker Brothers invented a nostalgic history to cover up a fraud. First, the history:

His is a nice little story, with an appropriately capitalist theme. An unemployed Depression-era radiator repairman invents a game in which down-on-their-luck Americans trade pricey properties and connive their way to fantastic riches. The game catches on with a cash-starved public looking for cheap entertainment. The unemployed repairman fills his pockets with wads of real money.

National Public Radio report on Monopoly

The fact is that Darrow had nothing to do with Monopoly, as it is based on an earlier game called the "Landlord's Game" by a Quaker named Elizabeth Magie; she even holds the 1904 United States Patent on the game. (How could Darrow invent a game that had been patented 31 years earlier?) Magie's goal was not entertainment; it was education:

It was from Ralph Anspach, the inventor of Anti-Monopoly, that I learned that Monopoly itself had begun as a critique of the very system it has done so much to promote. The official history of Monopoly, recorded in endless Reader's Digest-like articles, holds that Charles Darrow, an unemployed Philadelphia worker, invented the game in 1933, and sold it to Parker Brothers, who in turn have sold Darrow's pro-business inspiration to the world. Anspach's research shows that the real inventor of Monopoly was Elizabeth Magie, a Quaker follower of the Single Tax economist Henry George. She invented the game in 1903 and called it the Landlord Game; Its squares carried such inspired names as "Lord Blueblood's Estate" and "The Soakum Lighting Co."

A 1925 version of her game, by now called Monopoly, which was made by Louis Thun, states in its Introduction, "Monopoly is designed to show the evil resulting from the institution of private property. At the start of the game, every player is provided with the same chance of success as every other player. The game ends with one person in possession of all the money. What accounts for the failure of the rest, and what one factor can be singled out to explain the obviously ill-adjusted distribution of the community's wealth, which this situation represents? Those who win will answer 'skill'. Those who lose will answer 'luck'. But maybe there will be some, and these, while admitting the element of skill and luck, will answer with Scott Nearing [a socialist writer of the time] 'private property.'"

BALLBUSTER? True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman by Bertell Ollman

New York version of Monopoly

Original "Get Out of Jail Free" Card

Magie's version is surprisingly similar to the game we know today:

The board for Lizzie Magie's game bears a striking resemblance to the one now labeled "Monopoly", except that names, drawings, colors and the like are different. It is painted with blocks for rental properties such as "Poverty Place" (land rent $50), "Easy Street" (land rent $100) and "Lord Blueblood's Estate " ("no trespassing - go to jail"). There are banks, a poorhouse, and railroads and utilities such as the "Soakum Lighting System" ($50 for landing on that) and the "PDQ Railroad" ("fare $100"). And of course there is the well known "Jail" block.

The properties on Lizzie Magie's board were for rent only, not acquisition. Otherwise, the game was played much like the Monopoly of today.

Adena's History of Monopoly

When a Quaker from Indianapolis moved to Atlantic City in New Jersey, she customized Magie's version for her new surroundings. Players typically manufactured their own boards, pieces, and cards, so customizing was only a minor step beyond copying. It makes sense that when he went to Parker Brothers he would claim that the Atlantic City variant — the only one he'd seen — was his creation.

Since the game was being played in Atlantic City, it no longer made any sense to have properties named after places in Indianapolis or parts of Pennsylvania.

The discussion came up that the names were for the most part unknown to us ... Why not use Atlantic City names? ... We named them out in honor of people who belonged to our group. For instance, well, Boardwalk was first. Everybody knows that, Boardwalk. But the Joneses were living on Park Place and the Claridge was being built across the street and the Marlborough Blenheim was right there. That was obviously a very expensive part of the town and one that we wanted to honor.

"We were living on Pennsylvania Avenue ... The Copes lived on Virginia Avenue at the Morton Hotel ... So it developed gradually.

"... I know that there were the utilities and I know that the four railroads were there ... We had 'Free Parking' and we had 'Go to Jail' and we had tickets to get out of jail and you got $200 as you passed 'Go'."

Adena's History of Monopoly

What's interesting about Monopoly is how it was a boon for both Darrow's and Parker Brothers' fortunes. Darrow ended up a millionaire and Parker Brothers continues to reap huge rewards, even though their patent and copyrights have long expired. All from a game they didn't invent. But much of the success is due to George Parker's considerable business acumen:

In accordance with his ninth principle—bet heavily when the odds are long in your favor—George Parker urged [Parker Brothers President Robert] Barton to put all the company's resources behind the Monopoly game and forget making other games. It was better to apply everything Parker Brothers owned to maximize Monopoly shipments given the marketplace's insatiable appetite for the game. He was convinced that every dollar wagered would return a windfall. Unlike his vacillation with Mah-Jongg, this time he would not hesitate and give his opponents a chance to compete. He would redeem himself.

The "flood" began after New Year's Day. The post-Christmas trickle of orders for the Monopoly game turned into a torrent. It seemed that every Monopoly game purchased for Christmas had been played by many people—all of whom wanted their own copy, no matter what their financial plight. So many orders for the Monopoly game arrived in the mail and by telegraph that the firm had to store them in wicker laundry baskets in the hallways. All the workers sent home in December were quickly rehired.

How Parker Bros. Created Monopoly Mania, by Philip Orbanes

New York version of Monopoly

Redesign of Monopoly money ala US Currency to prevent counterfeiting

Not everyone, however is a fan. Not only does the game encourage bad behavior, but it presents a distorted view of how economies function:

The problem is that the game seriously misrepresents how an actual market economy operates. To review, in the free market, Mises wrote, "Neither the entrepreneurs nor the farmers nor the capitalists determine what has to be produced. The consumers do that. . . . Their buying and their abstention from buying decides who should own and run the plants and the farms. They make poor people rich and rich people poor. They determine precisely what should be produced, in what quality, and in what quantities. They are merciless bosses, full of whims and fancies, changeable and unpredictable."

That’s the real world. In the game Monopoly, owners of land and houses and hotels, through acquiring their possessions by luck, are flattered into believing they are masters of the universe, extracting profits from anyone who passes their way. There is no consumer choice and no consumer sovereignty. This is not a small detail. The entire raison d’etre of the market is missing, and thus the real goal and the guide of all production in a market economy.

Consumer choice is replaced by a roll of the dice. The player then becomes passive. Landing on property owned by another person creates not a mutual gain but a loss. In this way, trade is portrayed as "zero-sum." The elimination of consumer choice leads to the belief that businesses profit only at the consumers’ expense.

...

Monopoly may be fun to play but it leaves us with two unpleasant choices. The game either misrepresents the nature of trade in a market economy, or if slightly reinterpreted it glorifies rent seeking by making it the object of the game.

Monopoly: Parker Brothers Gets It Wrong, by Benjamin Powell and David Skarbek

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Detailed History of Monopoly
  2. History of Monopoly
  3. All things Monopoly
  4. National Public Radio report on Monopoly
  5. Collectable Variants
  6. Collectable Variants (large collection)
  7. Collectable Variants (large collection)
  8. Collectable Variants (older games)
  9. Ghettopoly
  10. Anti-monopoly
  11. Probability Analysis for Each Property
  12. Straight Dope piece on variants of official rules
  13. Animated Probability Analysis for Each Property
  14. Redesign of money ala US Currency

A Suitcase Full of Dead Presidents

Hundred-thousand dollar bill with Woodrow Wilson

"A single Federal Reserve note–of any denomination–weighs one gram. Ten thousand $100 bills weighs 10 kilograms: roughly 22 pounds. It’s bulky but manageable."

William Bryk

The briefcase full of money is a movie cliche familiar to all. But exactly how much money fits into a briefcase? Would a million dollars really fit? Consider this famous story told about Frank Sinatra:

Another story that made the rounds, then and now, and later portrayed in the film, The Godfather, was that Rocco Fischetti had several travel bags stuffed with two million dollars, the proceeds from dope sales that was owed to Lucky Luciano. Fearing that he was being tailed by narcotics agents, which he was, and terrified that he would be stopped and searched as he left the United States, Fischetti had brought Sinatra along to carry the bags into Cuba because Fischetti knew that, traditionally, starstruck customs agents didn't check celebrities' baggage.

None of it was true. The money in the suitcase story was spread by a writer named Lee Mortimer who disliked Sinatra intensely and at one time the dispute brought the two men to blows. Years later the FBI expanded on Mortimore's story who said that Sinatra carried the money to Lansky in one briefcase.

For decades Sinatra denied the story saying, "If you can show me how to get two million dollars into a briefcase, I'll give you the two million dollars."

The Short Return of Charlie Lucifer

Hundred dollar bill with Ben Franklin

Ok, so the game is on. Can a million bucks fit into a suitcase? Packing a suitcase full of enough bucks to buy an election used to be a lot easier. Until 14 July 1969, specifically, when the Federal Reserve announced that the "$500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 would be discontinued immediately due to lack of use." Mmmm-hmmm. I think we all know the real reason: density. It's a lot harder to lug around multiple suitcases of $500 bills without being noticed. (I doubt criminals would want to use larger bills; how would you change them or use them to pay a bar tab?) But back to our question: what about the suitcase full of retirement money?

Actually, a million dollars’ worth of $100 bills weighs a lot less. A single Federal Reserve note–of any denomination–weighs one gram. Ten thousand $100 bills weighs 10 kilograms: roughly 22 pounds. It’s bulky but manageable.

Still, it would have been easier half a century ago, when the United States still looked beyond the Benjamin. Imagine peeling off a $500, $1000 or $5000 bill. Today we might refer colloquially to $500 bills as "Williams" (for William McKinley), to $1000 bills as "Grovers" (Grover Cleveland) and to $5000 bills as "Jameses" (James Madison). There was also a $10,000 bill we would have had to call "a Salmon" (after Salmon P. Chase, secretary of the Treasury under President Lincoln). The last of these was printed in 1945, according to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the Treasury Dept. agency charged with engraving Federal Reserve notes (and White House invitations, incidentally). They were withdrawn from circulation in 1969, supposedly due to declining demand.

At one time, the United States issued a note in an even higher denomination: a Series 1934 gold certificate, bearing a portrait of Woodrow Wilson, for $100,000.

Bills: Big Money by William Bryk

Stack of Bills

Rather than just do gedanken experiments this fellow did the math:

The largest U.S. bill in circulation is the hundred dollar bill, and it takes 10,000 of those to make one million dollars. Ten thousand bills. That is the smallest size you can get a million dollars in cash.

...

Next I visited Kinko's copies, where they have an industrial paper-cutting machine. I asked them to cut the 8?x11 sheets of paper into bill-sized mini-sheets. They asked about my intentions, and when they found out about my counterfeiting plans, they reminded me that I would not be able to pay for the cutting service with fake bills.

...

After separating the paper, I designed and printed some paper bands for my counterfeit cash. The bank teller had told me that hundreds are wrapped with purple bands. She asked me about my intentions, and when she found out about my counterfeiting plans, she reminded me that I would not be able to deposit fake bills.

How Much is Inside a Million Dollars

So, to answer the question: "can you cram a million bucks into a briefcase?" Yup, you can if you use a reasonably-sized briefcase. If this turns out to be of practical use to you, pop a few dead presidents over to me.

Uhh, uh-huh, yeah
Uhh, uh-huh, yeah
It’s all about the benjamins baby
Uhh, uh-huh, yeah
It’s all about the benjamins baby
Goodfellas, uhh

— Puff Daddy, "It's All About the Benjamins"

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