When I was in the fourth grade at Central Elementary School in Kearney, Nebraska, our teachers ventured to help us grasp what a “million” was. The challenge was to collect a million bottle caps, piled into a big chickenwire cage in the school hallway. As I recall, the cage/dump was about ten feet square, and in two years we had a five foot deep pile, officially one million caps. So I have some feel for what a million is, although I still can’t envision a town of 20,000 drinking a million bottles of anything.
But I can’t grasp what’s happening in Zimbabwe right now. They just issued a one-hundred billion dollar bill. (For reference, the United States doesn’t even have a million dollar bill.)
By last Sunday, the new bill wasn’t enough to buy a loaf of bread. That’s because inflation in Zimbabwe is 2.2 million percent (officially) or 12 million percent (really). Either way, prices are doubling faster than I can type each word on this page. (I know what you’re thinking: “So stop typing then!”) One unexpected problem is that ATMs can’t give out any money because the screens are too small for that many zeros.
I suppose the good news is that minimum wage must be around 25 million dollars an hour. Maybe you could go there, work an hour, send the money home to the U.S. and retire.
Gideon Gono, their central bank reserve governor, said he would introduce new measures in the coming days. His master plan is to “remove zeros.” Gono says, “We will make sure those zeros that would come knocking on the Governor’s window will not return.” They’ll just scratch zeros off everything, and call it good. And really, zero means nothing, three zeros is just triple-nothing, so lopping them off should be nothing, right? Actually, it seems like it could work, especially if you get to keep your old 100 billion dollar bills. That’d be sweet!
What brought it all home for me was that Zimbabwe nightclubs are canceling shows. Audiences stopping coming out after a 2000 percent increase in beer prices. I own a bar. A music venue, actually. Our admission to see great touring artists rarely breaks $5 measly bucks. Our drink prices are average, but our pours are especially generous. Really, the only bad thing about it is that we can’t break a 100 billion dollar bill, so you might want to get change before coming.
As I sit here sipping a $3.50 local pint, I try to imagine what a $73 beer would taste like. No wait—in the time it took me to write this sentence, the Zimbabwe price would have gone up to $1,533. It better be good beer.
Follow up: I wrote the above on a Tuesday. In the following Thursday’s paper I read that Zimbabwe indeed lopped zeros off its currency. Ten zeros, gone. That is, ten billion dollars is now one dollar.