"Sweden moving toward cashless economy," said a CBS report March 18.
I thought immediately of Catherine the Great, who ruled the Russian Empire from 1762 to 1796 atop her glorious perch in St. Petersburg, not far from Sweden.
In 1787 the empress journeyed into the Crimea to inspect her realm. According to what may be a mostly mythological tradition, Grigory Potemkin, one of Catherine's war ministers, had false villages erected along her route, populated by actors who gave the impression of a happy, well-stuffed peasantry who hailed their glorious ruler.
History has labeled these hamlets as "Potemkin villages." They may or may not have existed, but in today's parlance they symbolize anything that is merely a façade.
Catherine lived in an illusionary world, in splendid isolation. While real peasants in real villages starved, Catherine collected art treasures she stuffed into the monstrous halls and galleries of the Hermitage. My wife and I spent most of a day there and still didn't see them all. How sad it was, lamented our guide, that most Russians in Catherine's era had no idea of the wealth in the Hermitage because they were not allowed in.
"Only Catherine and the mice saw these treasures," said the Russian guide.
"Potemkin villages"-if they existed-were about cosmetics and appearances, not substance. And that brings us to "cashless" Sweden and other phenomena making ours an increasingly "Potemkin" world, where illusion passes itself off as the substance of living.
There are whole towns now in Sweden where cash is not accepted, according to The Associated Press. The CBS report carried a photo of a pastor pointing his parishioners to a credit card machine where they could contribute to the church.
Bank robberies are down since there's not much in the till, but cybercrime in Sweden has gone from 3,304 cases in 2000 to 20,000 in 2011. Old age obsolescence is also accelerating. The head of a Swedish retirees' organization said elderly people in the countryside don't have credit cards, and wouldn't know how to use them if they did.
But former ABBA musician Bjoern Ulvaeus celebrates the cashless wave of the future. He wants "a world without cash," says the report. "I can't see why we should be printing bank notes at all anymore," he opined.
The global marketplace functions increasingly within a Potemkin economy. The world's dominant societies operate with currency having no real standard for value. Instead, those bills in our purses and wallets are "fiat currency"-their worth fixed primarily by government policy.
American prosperity is a Potemkin façade if ever there was one. The false front hides the reality that the nation mostly spends borrowed money in the form of government deficits and personal credit card debt. Economists have long been warning that a "day of reckoning" is ahead, when Potemkin currencies will collapse as the top-heavy towering stack of debt tumbles over. They fear the richly appearing economic edifices will disintegrate like a papier-mâché set on a Hollywood backlot.
We got a whiff of this horror in the 2008 mortgage fiasco when the façade of floating loans, subprime financial schemes, paper wealth, and other economic alchemies imploded. Some experts fear we "aint seen nothing yet."
The Potemkin world is increasingly settling its economic stability on the illusionary assumption that electronics will always be infallible. Hundreds of trillions of dollars zip across the world daily on the cyber routes of world trade. Millions of information technologists make their living keeping the systems up and running.
But all it takes is a blitz of electromagnetic pulse bombs, or a monster computer virus, or sabotage of energy-generating plants to cast us back into an economy depending on trading goats.
And most of us don't have goats.
So welcome to Potemkin world, where currencies without real value are traded on clouds.
What a set-up for Revelation 18:9-11, which foresees a "Babylon" of a world system in which ultimately "the kings of the earth, who committed acts of immorality and lived sensuously with her, will weep and lament over her when they see the smoke of her burning, standing at a distance because of the fear of her torment, saying, ' Woe, woe, the great city, Babylon, the strong city! For in one hour your judgment has come.' "And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn over her, because no one buys their cargoes any more…"
As America and other nations contemplate elections and future leadership, they must choose those who know the difference between Potemkinville and the "real deal."