Travels in Time

Column by Paul Hein.

Exclusive to STR

The idea of time travel has always fascinated me. If I could step into a time machine and go back to some earlier date, which one would I choose? And what would I take with me?

At one time, I thought the farther back in time I could go, the better. How I could dazzle the ancient Romans, or Greeks! But wait! With what would I dazzle them? Perhaps my watch, or my clothes. But the amazing inventions of our time--television, airplanes, computers, photographs--wouldn’t work. Where would I plug in a TV or a computer? If the computer was battery powered, it would amaze—until the battery was dead. but once that happened, a laptop would mean nothing to them. Where would I get fuel for a jet, or a place to land? Whom could I call on my cell phone?

I’ve decided the ideal time to return to would be the early years of the 20th Century. At that time, people would be aware of telephones, movies and airplanes, but modern cell phones or jumbo-jets would astonish them all the more because they had the artifacts of their own time to compare to those of the 21st Century. If the movie-goers of the 1930s were impressed with the special effects of King Kong, for example, how flabbergasted they would be with modern special effects: “Star Wars,” for example, or the Indiana Jones movies.

And what would the small percentage of people who had flown on a DC-3 think of a jet that could fly at 40,000 feet, carrying 500 passengers at 500 miles per hour, while serving them food and drinks, and even providing bathrooms!

Then, suddenly, perhaps because of my years as a Monetary Realist, I thought of something that was profoundly and radically different today from past generations, but not in a better way: money! Whereas the items I’ve mentioned would demonstrate the progress that had been made over the years, our money would demonstrate just how far our society has deteriorated during the same period.

Consider one of our modern billionaires--a Bill Gates or Warren Buffet--transplanted into the year 1900. He could face starvation! His wallet, of course, might contain an assortment of credit cards. Of what use would they be in 1900? It might contain large-denomination Federal Reserve notes, but who would take them? Any alert businessman would be quick to note that the “notes” didn’t actually promise payment of anything. And what was the “Federal Reserve”? He could probably sell his watch, which would be a real curiosity. Maybe some wealthy individual in 1900 would offer him $100 for his Rolex.

All around him, our transplanted billionaire would find people going about their businesses--buying and selling without a single credit card, and few bank notes for most of their day-to-day transactions. Yet he, one of the world’s (one-time) richest men, had no money at all!

If he was going to survive, he realized that he had to convince the rulers of the place to allow him a monopoly to issue non-redeemable notes without penalty. They could pass a law making his notes legal to tender. In return, he would provide the rulers with as many of his notes as they wanted, with no requirement that principal be returned, only interest. On that interest alone, he could live in a lifestyle reminiscent of that which he enjoyed in the 21st Century.

A preposterous idea! Would he succeed? Of course he would! It had all been done before. History repeats itself. While no one, then or now, would confuse a hat check for a hat, everyone today (well, almost everyone) will accept a “promise” of payment for the very payment promised! Everyone agrees: the Emperor’s new clothes are splendid! And every bit as tangible as modern money!

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