Rhetorical misdirection, truth bending and ideological entrapment have long been at the core of political speech and even though the modern tacticians have considerably upped their spin game, it is clear that the body politic has naturally evolved a certain cognitive resistance to most of their platitudes, their emotional hot-wiring ploys and their worn out buzz words. Perhaps it is just another sign of the wider sense of mistrust and skepticism of the average citizen towards the powers that be, or maybe we are just tired of being patronised and talked down to. Whatever the case may be, we have developed a substantial immunity to government messaging and propaganda, and we generally respond with a healthy dose of suspicion to the political sales pitch of the day.
When we know what the message really aims to achieve, we can be very hard to fool. Election promises are consumed with ever larger pinches of salt, selling wars on “humanitarian grounds” is more challenging than it once was, and wiggling out of political blunders, or the occasional criminal misconduct, by simply pointing the finger at everyone else while protesting “I’m not a crook”, is also much less effective these days. Much like conventional advertising, when the intentions behind the ad are transparent, i.e. they want to sell us something, then the modern voter and the modern consumer alike are pretty tough to deceive. The simple “cui bono” litmus test is a great filter to trigger our critical thinking, and most of the time it works. Problem is, “who benefits” is not always apparent at first glance. And it gets even muddier when the message itself contains a hefty dose of rhetorical trickery and misdirection.
A tale of two continents
A couple of months ago, Mario Draghi announced that he wants to scrap the 500 euro note, the highest denomination available in the eurozone currency. His reason for doing that, is to help the fight against all the militant jihadists and the vile criminals who mainly use this note to facilitate their various villainies. Also, another added bonus would be that nominal interest rates would be further cut, since the physical storage of cash in smaller notes would become more expensive and impractical.
Fair enough, makes sense. At first glance, it does sound reasonable. It also sounds rather familiar. It evokes an echo of a similar sales pitch from a long, long time ago. From 1933 to be precise.
It was then that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, introduced his Executive Order 6102, precursor to the Gold Reserve Act of 1934, which forbade “the Hoarding of gold coin, gold bullion, and gold certificates within the continental United States”.
Again, it also made sense at first glance. Most people, especially at that time, held no private gold stocks and felt they had absolutely nothing to lose by this law. After all, it didn’t concern them, it only affected the “Hoarders”, portrayed and perceived as Dickensian caricatures of misers who stock up on their precious gold while the rest of their community still goes hungry after the great depression. Everybody supported the President’s decision to rightly go after those Scroogey villains and punish their antisocial greed.
Digging a little deeper, however, it is interesting to note the sharp contrast between the packaging of the law and the actual contents. The main selling point was that this measure was designed to defend society against the selfish hoarders, (or “the 1%”, in contemporary terms), who sabotaged economic growth and prolonged the human suffering caused by the depression. Let us not forget, that in a Keynesian universe, declining to spend one’s money hinders consumption and sales, it shrinks the economy and it is simply toxic to the total social income. In practice, however, what this law effectively did, was to criminalise the possession of monetary gold by any individual or company. It also paved the way for the following year’s Gold Reserve Act, that made the US government the biggest hoarder of them all, and gave the President the authority to devalue the gold dollar, as well as for the inevitable final nail in the coffin of the precious metal and the support it provided for the monetary system, that came only a few decades later. President Roosevelt opened the floodgates by tampering with the real values and the fundamentals of the economy and the historic evolution of this interventionist thinking lead to the ultimate decoupling of gold and paper money, which in turn meant that the government could freely print money, with no constraint or anchor to real value. With gold and all its inconvenient restrictions out of the picture, there is no limit anymore on how many unbacked pieces of paper can flood the economy and used as legal tender, to give the overall impression of a solid recovery and economic robustness.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”
The parallel of the two cases is pretty straightforward and the common denominator of both political marketing strategies is clear, even if not immediately obvious. In both instances, the measures were purposefully misrepresented to the public. At the core of such tactics lies rudimentary misdirection, the same principle stage magicians use for their tricks. For the trick to work, the audience needs a distraction that would make them look the other way. For the government’s purposes this is easy: they just shift the attention and the blame to the most popular villains of the time. It once was the greedy hoarders, now it’s the terrorists.
In the midst of a weak and asthmatic recovery from the crisis of the Eurozone, much like their american historic counterparts under Roosevelt’s presidency, few european citizens would miss the €500 note. Indeed, just like Mario Draghi claims, the average European seldom comes across this denomination in his or her daily life and the move to scrap it, stirs no mass objections. And if it’s going to help destroy ISIS and drug lords and human traffickers too, well, then it’s quite the bargain; one gets to stand proudly on the side of the angels and help fight evil, at no personal cost.
At almost no personal cost, that is. Because what mr Draghi forgot to mention, is that the €500 note is not used exclusively by horrible people. It is also used by small business owners and decent employers to ensure the smooth daily running of their operations. And it is used by ordinary, law-abiding citizens who simply wish to keep their savings outside the banking system. But even if we dismiss such petty concerns, in favour of the greater good, we are still faced with the direct and indirect consequences of this faulty logic. Truly horrible people deal not only in cash, but they use a variety of different “currencies” too, to facilitate and finance their criminal activities: art, diamonds, precious metals, oil; merely getting rid of the €500 paper note will hardly make a dent in their shady operations. Terrorists and drug lords really aren’t bothered if they deal in denominations of €500 or €200, or any other form of “illegal tender” they agree upon. Mr. Draghi’s strategy will therefore make not an iota of difference to them. What it will surely achieve, however, is to force many other large, yet perfectly legal, transactions to migrate online and it will “encourage” depositing more or even all of one’s savings in bank accounts, smoothening the way for the wider application of negative interest rates. As an additional consequence, even more of the daily financial activities of any ordinary citizen will be on the radar of the government and their savings and private assets will be firmly within the grasp of the authorities.
“You have nothing to fear, if you have nothing to hide” is the automatic establishmentarian response that seems to play on a loop whenever the conversation gets anywhere near privacy concerns. Putting common sense and ethics aside, even from a legal and constitutional point of view, this argument is impossible to seriously defend. And yet it still circulates, and it is still used to justify a wide variety of institutional transgressions. Perhaps it says more about us, the public, than it does about our leaders, that such outrageously absurd statements continue to ruffle no feathers. Because, if we’ve already come this far, if we’ve consented to live in a society that operates under the presumption of guilt and if we have already agreed to bear the burden of having to prove our own innocence, then it hardly matters anymore if this argument stands or not.