Tidequistadors In Search of Sound Money

A laundry soap has developed as much legitimacy as the dollar to serve as currency. What's going on?


Since phosphate bans started, the third world is the only place you can get clean laundry.

Over the past few months, the police force in Prince George's County, Maryland has been dealing with a strange rash of robberies. Thieves have been going into grocery stores and drug stores, loading their carts up with stacks of money, and then rushing out the door where they have a get-away car waiting. A sane man may ask why CVS and Wal-Mart are stocking piles of cash where the peanuts and greeting cards should be. But these thieves are not taking U.S. legal tender—they're stealing Tide laundry soap.

It turns out that the detergent is not just good for making your clothes brighter than the imitation brand. It's also street currency for buying pot and cocaine. Briefcases full of cash are being cast aside in favor of blaze-orange containers of laundry soap.  Yes, there's liquid gold in dem dar bottles.

There is some debate over whether this is a new trend, and perhaps our more nefarious readers might enlighten us to the commonality of this practice. But reports suggest the Tide thefts are a nationwide phenomenon. And a former FBI agent explained to ABC why it might make a good commodity for barter: "Tide is highly recognizable," said Brad Garrett. "It's very difficult to trace and it's easily resold."

Tide, as the money gods would have it, carries nearly all the characteristics of sound money.

To start, it is widely used. Tide detergent is sold in every major city and most places in between. It can be found in the laundry room of both Upper East Side penthouses (the ones where residents don't just throw away their dirty clothes to buy new ones) and "quaint" fixer-uppers of the South Bronx.

Next, it is readily recognizable. Even if the classic orange bottle is not something you frequently doodle, its iconic "Day-Glo" logo is difficult to confuse with another product. If you're planning to use Tide to score an ounce, you're dealing with an unambiguous product.

Critically, it is durable. Tide can be stored in a range of climates for a long period of time and still hold its value as a commodity. Bottles are going from $5 to $10 on the black market, which is about half the retail price. But you can wait a while before having to unload.

It is also difficult to counterfeit. A bottle could certainly be filled with water to dilute the product. So buyers would want to test the goods in the same way a bank teller might hold a $20 bill up to the light. But try and replicate that orange bottle on a large scale without heavy manufacturing equipment.

There is even a measure of scarcity in that there are only so many bottles of tide in any given city. Inflationary risks would certainly become a concern if Tide were really used to buy all your dish and hand soaps. Recall the woes of King Philip the II of Spain, after his realm was flooded with gold from the new world. Joy would only be temporary for the 21st century Tidequistadors raiding nearby towns, like  Hernan Cortes, and flooding their own local stores with the new liquid gold.

The analogy is not without challenges. Tide does not covey a nominal value as readily as a $10 bill, but then again neither does a brick of gold. More problematically, it is difficult to transport. Large amounts can easily be moved by truck. But for smaller purchases, anything costing above two or three bottles is going to be difficult to purchase with any kind of stealth. Imagine inconspicuously slipping a 20-ounce blaze orange soap bottle into the palm of your local smack dealer behind a city park bench without drawing the attention of cops, or worse yet, the bums sitting beside you eager for your product and detergent cash.

The comparison ultimately breaks down on what is perhaps the most distinctive feature of sound money: it is not "honest" money. By this I don't mean that the Tide was most likely pilfered and is used to purchase an illicit product. Rather, it is not a readily trustworthy currency. The skepticism some might have with the argument being made here is understandable because a manufactured product simply is not a reliable store of value.

This is one of the strongest arguments for a gold standard, since a dollar linked to gold has a reliable store of value where paper bills backed by nothing more than Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's good faith is unstable. 

When you think about it, there actually isn't much difference between Tide and dollar bills these days. Dollars are widely used, are readily recognizable, are fairly durable, and are difficult to counterfeit. But without anything backing the dollar, its scarcity is a relative concept. And the way the dollar is treated right now, rolling off paper reams faster than Charmin at a Chipotle, it is a blessing from the gods of finance that the Euro is in the midst of crisis. It also helps that Asian currencies are not widely accepted as usable alternatives either.  

A few drug communities just may have found their solution to the weak dollar though. The Federal Reserve may not see inflation as an issue when referencing problematically manipulated consumer price index data, but it is apparent that those who experience real value changes of a dollar buying less and less dope by the day have become concerned. Just another example of how people are growing tired of Ben Bernanke's dirty laundry.

Anthony Randazzo is director of economic research at the Reason Foundation.

NEXT: Debt and Loving It, Fiscal Year 2012 Edition

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  1. Does this count as money laundering?

  2. "More problematically, it is difficult to transport. ... [F]or smaller purchases, anything costing above two or three bottles is going to be difficult to purchase with any kind of stealth." Two words: Zimbabwean Dollar.

    What happens when it takes a brick of bills twice the weight of a bottle of Tide to buy a bottle of Tide?

    1. If only there was some way of handling transactions without paper notes.

      Maybe, a type of written draft that could be created on site at a moments notice for any amount. Or better yet, some type of mechanism to digitally transfer money, maybe a card of some sort.

      1. That doesn't come close to solving the problem. And there are credit card and checking fees too.

        1. I get the point though, it isn't terrible.

    1. Most of the info on Snopes is opinion or inference, js.

  3. Maybe Tide is being stolen because that sh-t is the most expensive detergent on the shelves. We've switched to Arm and Hammer, which is cheaper, often on 2 for 1 sale, and cleans fine.

    The should keep tide behind glass at the grocery store, like they do with baby formula.

  4. With respect to costs of transport, someone could begin amassing a soap reserve and issuing deposit receipts saying something like, "We promise to pay the bearer one regular size bottle of Tide on demand in Ellicot City, Silver Spring and Beltsville."

    There would have to be some sort of seignorage, of course, to make this profitable.

  5. Am I alone in suspecting that this is hogwash, an Onion story escaped from its keepers? I just don't see how anything as bulky as laundry detergent can be a medium of exchange in the Grey economy.

    1. Indeed. If I were in charge the currency would be Toblerones.

    2. I don't have a problem believing thieves are stealing and reselling an expensive product. That's why most expensive products have a security chip or locked up. The whole tide as currency for drug deals sounds pretty bogus. It's possible that there could have been a trade or two made. In those cases its really the drugs that are the currency. Just like strippers for coke.

      1. Nope. It's actually real, but not quite at the scope reported. I, for the life of me, can't figure out why Tide. I don't think it's that great a product and have found off-brands just as good.

        Generally, it was the sale to mom and pop stores and a cash currency. The drug dealers and users involvement was, as I understand, greatly exaggerated, and use(d) this type of arrangement to...wait for it...launder money, albeit in smaller, under the radar transactions.

        1. Re: Groovus Maximus,

          I, for the life of me, can't figure out why Tide.

          Think about why gold, G, and you will figure out why Tide:

          a) Gold is highly recognizable. So is Tide with its day-glo package.
          b) It is almost impossible to counterfeit gold, because it would be unprofitable (you can certainly debase an amount of gold, but not offer a perfect forgery). It is also unprofitable to counterfeit Tide if in its original, unopened package.
          c) Gold is very transportable. So is Tide, as long as it is in its package, unopened.

          d) Gold is universally desirable. So too is Tide, as it happens.

          Tide may not be as perfect a form of money as gold, but it still meets enough of the criteria for being money as far as the black market is concerned.

          1. I actually agree with this. And it has intrinsic value, unlike our fiat currency.

            1. There is no such thing as intrinsic value. All value is subjective. Tide and gold just have uses beyond their monetary uses as they are commodities.

              1. Exactly.

              2. I want private currency.

                Hmm I still like the term I used.

              3. At least you can use it for its intended purpose. Most people can place some value on having clean laundry.

          2. The one problem with Tide that gold has going for it is density, both in mass and in value. Anyone know the actual going rate for Tide per ounce?

  6. "since a dollar linked to gold has a reliable store of value where paper bills backed by nothing more than Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's good faith is unstable"

    Dollars backed by a gold standard rely on precisely the same good faith, since the government can change at any time the amount of gold that a dollar is backed by.

    1. The difference is that people value gold in itself. The same cannot be said of a slip of paper.

      1. People value the promise of future payment. Whether the promise of future payment is in gold or commodities or services makes little difference.

        1. Re: The Derider,

          People value the promise of future payment.

          Only when it comes to the greenbacks, not gold. Gold is valued in itself, people exchange goods and services for gold because of the gold, not because of "future payments." That is how money is supposed to work, D.

          1. The author is advocating backing greenbacks with gold, not replacing them.

        2. You're think of a gold exchange standard, not a true gold coin standard.

          1. So is the author.

            "This is one of the strongest arguments for a gold standard, since a dollar linked to gold has a reliable store of value "

            "A dollar linked to gold" not "gold coins"

  7. Soooo.....You sell a shit ton of dope, that cost you real money to get. Then what? You never have to buy laundry detergent again, ever? You trade 400 gallons of detergent for a PS3 to someone who's just really, really into clean clothes?

    1. Re: Cowboy,

      Soooo.....You sell a shit ton of dope, that cost you real money to get. Then what? You never have to buy laundry detergent again, ever?

      C, do you really think people trade detergent just to have clean clothes? Money comes to be because of desirability, transportability and durability. Tide, so far, more or less meets these requirements as far as the black market is concerned and, whether YOU like it or not, it is the market that decides what will be money and what will not, not the government.

      1. This is a sound point.

    2. No, fool, you open a laundromat! As soon as you can steal some washers & dryers to go with it.

    3. More like a crackhead gives you 2 bottles for a rock and you give the bottles to your woman to do some laundry.

    4. Hey Cowboy, it is a way to launder drug money, and probably helps facilitate sales in neighborhoods where genuine US greenbacks are in short supply. An example:

      A guy steals $50 (retail price) of Tide.

      A drug dealer charges that guy $50 of Tide for a fix. That same fix would be $10 in US greenbacks.

      Drug dealer can then sell $50 of Tide (retail) to the local bodega/mini-mart for $25.

      The drug dealer covers the cost of sales for the fix, and makes a nice return on selling the "currency" to the bodega.

      The bodega gets a nice product ($50 of Tide) at 50% off ($25). As long as the local bodega is able to keep it's Tide protected from theft, everyone wins.

      Wal-Mart, Target, etc. will eventually catch on, and take security precautions against Tide theft. But here's the kicker, any product in Wal-Mart or Target could be used as currency, if all three parties agreed to it's value, and agreed to trade in it.

  8. i like Tide, it is so cheap riem armani

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  10. I thought the new log-in system would get rid of the link spammers. If anything the amount has gone up.

    1. Maybe there is less noise generally so it seems like there are more spammers.

  11. They stock a lot on the shelves, it's worth a decent amount, and it's a single product that everyone (hopefully) uses. A drug dealer doesn't want to be a pawn dealer.

    Of course it's been way overblown by the media. It sounds like it's something a couple crackheads have stolen and then resold to their local drug dealer. I'm sure there will be more than a few overzealous soccer moms who will start looking for signs of drug use whenever their son or daughter asks for an extra bottle of Tide at their dorm though.

  12. Interesting that the powder product is not of interest, only the liquid.

  13. Anthony Randazzo,
    I don't remember seeing you around here before. And I hope you don't show up again. You must have just fell off the turnip truck. There's a dozen obvious reasons why laundry detergent can't possibly be accepted currency.

    This article is so retarded it infects the whole Reason senior staff with stupid.

  14. Detergent for drugs, eh? So is that where the phrase "high tide" comes from?

  15. I wonder if Tide is a precursor to any drug that is sold on the street, these days. I imagine that sudafed could once have served as a currency, for example.

  16. Why limit it to one currency linked to one commodity? Better to have free banking and allow many currencies to bloom. And it shouldn't be difficult to design some of those currencies to be linked to a basket of commodities, including metals like gold and silver but also some counterbalancing commodities. You could end up with a product that better reflects a store of value without wildly fluctuating, which any one commodity will tend to do.

    Gold made sense when people had far less trust in the economy and the idea of a bank would only be useful to the top aristocrats and merchants. Today we all rely on banks for our purchases and our lives, so we don't need to be so narrow as to focus on only the shiniest commodity as a store of value. And more than that, with credit cards and debit cards, our currency no longer needs to be a commodity that fits in our pockets.

  17. So how long before a trip to the grocery store to get laundry detergent results in asset forfeiture since Tide is apparently now "Drug Currency"?

  18. Tide is being used as a banking note. The small stores must pay a high market if they buy Tide via the official marketing channel. Big box collusion. Tide is crap anyway. I use 'Method' which is concentrated and removes spots with pre-treat.

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