Solving the crisis in Spain’s public finances, part LXXII: It’s time to ban socks

The Spanish government is determined to retain the 500€ note as a crucial weapon in the fight to reduce tax evasion and money laundering. Getting rid of socks would achieve that same goal effectively without inconvenience to honest citizens and would also provide a stealth-protectionist boost to the economy.

Bar chat turned last night to the British prohibition on exchange bureaus selling 500€ notes, implemented “because 90 percent of them were linked to serious crime, tax evasion and terrorism … The high value of the note means 20,000 euros can be hidden in a cigarette packet, while an adult male can stuff and swallow up to 150,000 euros.”

One might have thought that such a ban would also be under consideration in Spain, following the discovery in 2006 that the country hosted a quarter of all 500 bills (I think Spanish GDP is slightly less than 10% of EU) and in 2009 that substantial shipments of the note were taking place to Colombia, indicating respectively that Spain is a major centre for tax evasion and organised crime. But apparently the official view is that decirculation would simply drive criminals to seek less traceable means, which argument may or may not be related in one way or another to the regular discovery of large stashes of notes in the homes of mayors.

So if we’re not going to dump the 500, what else can we ban in order to encourage the belief that we have even the vaguest interest in combating corruption and putting our public finances in order? Our panel had a think, and the best we could come up with was the sock.

Socks are not generally a must-have in a country as warm as Spain, and while we are open to licensing sock ownership and possession for individual able to demonstrate a genuine need (mountain shepherds, corporate lawyers), we believe that even they will be prepared to cleave to the spirit of moral renewal and abstain. For, as the Romans knew, a socked man is a shameful thing:

The Socci were a slight kind of covering for the Feet, whence the Fashion and the Name of our Socks are deriv’d. The Comedians wore these to represent the vility of the Persons they represented; as debauch’d young Sparks, old crazy Misers, Pimps, Parasites, Strumpets, and the rest of that Gang: For the Sock being proper to the Women, as it was very light and thin, was always counted scandalous when worn by Men. Thus Seneca … exclaims against Caligula for sitting to judge upon Life and Death in a rich pair of Socks adom’d with Gold and Silver. (Basil Kennett, Romae antiquae notitia: or The antiquities of Rome (1695))

And, as the Taliban recently noted, socks (particularly white ones) on a woman, along with “TVs, kite-flying, football, music, [and] cage-birds”, are just as dangerous. (Taliban imperialists with thoughts of Welsh valleys, take note: people in Merthyr Tydfil buy more white socks than anywhere else in the UK.)

If socks in Spain have no demonstrable physical or aesthetic merit, it still may be said that they serve a practical end. Adam Smith (The wealth of nations) defined as natural and valuable (the Marxist hordes made that nurtural and damaging) the cradle-to-the grave impulse to save:

[T]he principle which prompts to save, is the desire of bettering our condition, a desire which, though generally calm and dispassionate, comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us till we go into the grave. In the whole interval which separates those two moments, there is scarce perhaps a single instance in which any man is so perfectly and completely satisfied with his situation, as to be without any wish of alteration or improvement of any kind. An augmentation of fortune is the means by which the greater part of men propose and wish to better their condition. It is the means the most vulgar and the most obvious; and the most likely way of augmenting their fortune, is to save and accumulate some part of what they acquire, either regularly and annually, or upon some extraordinary occasions. Though the principle of expence, therefore, prevails in almost all men upon some occasions, and in some men upon almost all occasions, yet in the greater part of men, taking the whole course of their life at an average, the principle of frugality seems not only to predominate, but to predominate very greatly.

And the OED suggests that one of the key depositories adopted by Smithian savers was the stocking:

2. A stocking used a. as a purse or receptacle for storing one’s money; hence, a store of money; also with qualifying word, as big, fat, long stocking.

1873 A. G. MURDOCH Lilts on Doric Lyre 90 (E.D.D.) He wi’ him had brocht A stocking weel padded wi’ siller. 1876 S. R. WHITEHEAD Daft Davie iii. 57 She had a ‘stocking’ gathered to meet the wants of an evil day. 1899 G. FORD ‘Postle Farm xxxvii. 192 Granfer’s got money laid by in a stockin’ up the chimney. 1903 FARMER Slang s.v., Long-stocking (common), means in plenty; resources.

As Mick Brown discovered, this approach is still favoured in economies without a sound banking system:

How the rich and famous handle their own day-to-day expenditure is always a subject of interest. The Queen, of course, never carries any cash, and most celebrities seem to have a minder on hand to heft the platinum credit card and small change. Mick Jagger employs a more novel approach.

I once went to interview Jagger at the Stones’ office on a quiet street in Chelsea, but Jagger, who was dressed in a pair of jogging pants and a T‑shirt, suggested we should adjourn to the pub. I made to pay for the round. “No, I’ll get it,” he said. I expected him to reach for his pocket. Instead, bending down, and untying his trainer, he retrieved a thick, and distinctly sweaty, lump of £50 notes from inside his sock, and passed one to the barman, who handled it gingerly.

This kind of thing used to go on in Spain too, with Spanish and French armies tearing up and down the country. But Spanish banks are nowadays as safe as houses, so that there’s absolutely no legitimate reason to continue do as an acquaintance does and fill his jacket pockets with hosiery every time he goes into town: one sock for the butcher, another for the baker, and a large stocking to be shared between the mayor and his planning director.

It will be said that if socks are banned, criminals will simply turn to other suitable undergarments, eg cinchable corsets, draw-stringed spanky pants and zip-up codpieces. This may be true, but, while socks are generally made in China, Spain is still home to a few kinky-as-fuck specialised and bespoke lingerie producers, and the measure will thus have a modest positive impact on our balance of payments without probably falling foul of WTO rules.

Next week we hope to provide solutions for cases like that of a Gujarati one of us once met whose granny allegedly used to smuggle Congolese diamonds out of Kenya and into the UK in her fanny.

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  1. I heartily applaud your plan to stop Spain’s politicians, civil servants and businessmen from engaging in bribery and corruption by banning socks. It actually ties in quite neatly with an initiative of my own.

    I intend to attach the confiscated items to the muzzles of dogs, in an attempt to stop them sniffing their own shit.

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