One of the most reckless and cruel acts of government is the destruction of a currency.
During the hyperinflation of Germany's Weimar Republic, the number of marks in circulation went from 29 billion in 1918 to 497 quintillion in 1923. Workers were paid twice a day and given breaks to spend their money, carted in wheelbarrows, before it became worthless. Most Germans lost their life savings, leaving many prepared to blame others for their impoverishment. The Nazis blamed the Jews.
This kind of hyperinflation is rare in history, but we are seeing it once again, in Zimbabwe. Government officials claim an inflation rate of 66,212 percent (most months they refuse to release inflation figures at all). The International Monetary Fund believes the rate is closer to 150,000 percent -- about the level reached by Weimar Germany. By some estimates, about 50 percent of Zimbabwe's government revenue comes from the printing of money. At independence in 1980, the Zimbabwean dollar was worth more than one U.S. dollar. Recently, the state-controlled newspaper raised its cover price to 3 million Zimbabwean dollars. Two pounds of chicken were recently reported to cost about 15 million Zimbabwean dollars.
A Zimbabwean friend who runs a business recently told me, "If you don't get a bill collected in 48 hours, it isn't worth collecting, because it is worthless. Whenever we get money, we must immediately spend it, just go and buy what we can. Our pension was destroyed ages ago. None of us have any savings left." Zimbabwean nationals who work on the U.S. Embassy staff in Harare have seen all their retirement funds wiped out. U.S. government officials in the country carry boxes of money to pay at restaurants and must begin counting out currency at the beginning of the meal to finish by its end.
The government of Robert Mugabe has responded with the normal economic policy of tyrants: price controls. And these have naturally emptied the shelves in grocery stores and caused shortages of most basic goods. My friend's wife travels to Botswana to buy flour and sugar.
Mugabe manages to pay off his military leaders and political cronies with hard currency that comes from mining gold and platinum. He also sells farmland to Chinese and Libyan speculators -- land expropriated from white farmers, supposedly in the cause of Zimbabwean nationalism. Mugabe is literally putting his country on the block to maintain his power.
So why don't the impoverished people of Zimbabwe revolt? "The tragedy is that nobody is in the streets," says my Zimbabwean friend. "People are dying silently."
Zimbabwe's odd stability has several causes. More than 3 million discontented people have fled the country -- often the talented and educated -- leaving Mugabe with less internal opposition. Many of the Zimbabweans who remain avoid starvation with the help of international aid and remittances from relatives in prosperous neighboring countries. Mugabe's political opponents have generally been weak and divided -- when not being jailed and tortured by the government. And some residual support for Mugabe remains, particularly in rural areas, because he is an anti-colonial hero; it is hard for many to accept the idea that their founding father is also a corrupt, brutal incompetent.
There are, however, signs of resistance. My friend reports that lower-level members of the military and police seem increasingly alienated and disillusioned. At a demonstration last year, he says, "they were unenthusiastic and malnourished, with ragged uniforms. They pleaded with us to go away, because they didn't want to hurt us. And then I was saluted for the first time by the police."
And Mugabe's ZANU-PF party is beginning to fracture. The former finance minister -- who opposed the policy of printing money and price controls -- is running as an independent against Mugabe in the March 29 election. Simba Makoni is viewed by U.S. officials as a smart, honest technocrat. He clearly possesses bravery, though not much grass-roots support.
The March 29 vote, as usual, will be a fraud. Mugabe -- despite pressure from surrounding nations -- will conduct a police-state election, with tight control of the media, corrupt voter rolls and massive intimidation, including the use of food as a tool of political control. But the opposition has little choice but to participate. It may gain some support in local councils and the parliament. And if opponents abandon the electoral route, says my friend, the only alternative would be "street action, which is fraught with problems."
And so Mugabe remains on his bayonet throne as his country becomes the Weimar Republic and totalitarian, all in one.
Michael Gerson's column is distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group.