Monday, August 11, 2008

That’s a Lotta Zeros

I have always loved studying really big numbers. I mean really big. Like the number of grains of sand on a beach. Or on all the beaches in the word. Or the number of hydrogen molecules in the sun.

Or the price of a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe.

This third-world African nation is in the midst of some truly world-class hyper-inflation. The rate is somewhere between 2.2 million percent and 12.5 million percent, give or take a few million percent. When it gets that high, it’s hard to imagine.

Currently, the country with the next highest rate of inflation is Myanmar/Burma (I don’t want to start any arguments here about the official name of that country), with a rate of 39.5%. Not much of a challenge for the inflation gold medal, huh.

A loaf of bread costs around a hundred billion dollars. (When Zimbabwe achieved independence and renamed itself from Rhodesia, they adopted the “dollar” as the name of their currency. Any resemblance to the American dollar is strictly comical.) Next month, it could cost a lot more. Or a lot less, depending on whose math you choose to believe.

The Zimbabwe government, in typical federal government fashion, attempted to stop inflation by making it illegal. Such price controls didn’t work for Richard Nixon in the 1970s and they didn’t work in Zimbabwe, either. It’s funny how the free market demands that it remain free — however rowdy and insane that may be.

So a couple of years ago, they attempted to control inflation by ignoring it. They just lobbed three zeros off the currency and declared the problem fixed. That didn’t work, either.

Last week, they took more drastic action. Gone are ten zeros. Ten. What used to be ten billion dollars is now just one.

Yeah, like that exudes confidence in the federal government.

To understand how they got into this mess would require a study of a complicated history of civil wars, border wars, and generally lousy government. Add to that some over-zealous printing presses in the government capital turning out worthless paper currency with zeros that multiply like rabbits and you have a recipe for disaster.

Through it all, President and resident idiot-for-life Robert Mugabe is clinging to power. He got the job in 1987 by simply abolishing the position of Prime Minister and assuming power. Pretty convenient. He managed to get himself re-elected in 1990, 1996, 2002, and 2008. Apparently, there are more dead voters in Zimbabwe than in Chicago.

Now there is some debate over whether it’s Mugabe or the military who is currently running the county. Whoever is in control has a lot of explaining to do.

It is said that the Illinois Republican Senator Everett Dirksen invented the quote, “A billion here, a billion there; pretty soon, you’re talking real money.” Obviously, Dirksen never went shopping for a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe. He was off by about a dozen zeros.

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