Laundered money

A bright orange bottle of detergent has become the underworld equivalent of prison cigarettes.

The Daily has a story which would be unbelievable, were it not accompanied by pictures backing it up. Tide-brand laundry detergent has become a makeshift currency in the criminal underworld.

M.L. Nestel reports:

One Tide taker in West St. Paul, Minn., made off with $25,000 in the product over 15 months before he was busted last year...

Tide has become a form of currency on the streets. The retail price is steadily high — roughly $10 to $20 a bottle — and it’s a staple in households across socioeconomic classes.

Tide can go for $5 to $10 a bottle on the black market, authorities say. Enterprising laundry soap peddlers even resell bottles to stores.

"There’s no serial numbers and it’s impossible to track,” said Detective Larry Patterson of the Somerset, Ky., Police Department, where authorities have seen a huge spike in Tide theft. “It’s the item to steal"...

"We sent in an informant to buy drugs. The dealer said, 'I don’t have drugs, but I could sell you 15 bottles of Tide,' " [Detective Harrison] Sprague told The Daily. "Upstairs in the drug dealer’s bedroom was about 14 bottles of Tide laundry soap. We think [users] are trading it for drugs."

Police in Gresham, Ore., said most Tide theft is perpetrated by "users feeding their habit."

"They’ll do it right in front of a cop car — buying heroin or methamphetamine with Tide," said Detective Rick Blake of the Gresham Police Department. "We would see people walking down the road with six, seven bottles of Tide. They were so blatant about it."

Tide does appear to meet all the requirements for a heavily traded commodity. Crucially, one bottle of it is identical to any other, a quality economists call "fungibility", putting it in the same class as oil, precious metals, or currency itself. If someone lends me a bottle of Tide, I don't have to return the same one to them when my debt is called in – in fact, because there are no serial numbers, it would be impossible for them to tell even if I did.

Based on what Detectives Patterson and Sprague say, it sounds like Tide is also a highly liquid commodity, frequently traded, which will allow a natural, and relatively stable, value to emerge for it. If it is going to be used as a currency replacement, however, the price spread will need to narrow from the $5 it stands at now – although the fact that dealers are storing large quantities suggests that a healthy arbitrage market is growing up around the detergent, which should prevent too much price volatility and guard against supply shocks.

There will be some interesting effects of the unique situtation, however. If thieves are able to resell the detergent to stores, that suggests that a price floor has been put on the market (assuming these stores are buying believing they are part of legitimate trade, and not a black market). There is already a price ceiling as well, since if the black market price of Tide gets too high, it can just be bought legally at the recommended retail price.

There are downsides to using bottles of soap as an underworld currency, though. The price of an average dose of crystal meth is $20 in much of the US, about two to four bottles of Tide – or 14 kilos of the stuff. A credit card might be easier to track, but it's also considerably lighter.

Bottles of Tide on a store shelf, with a "street value" of $20-40. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.