"It's not a question of money, but of cash," a friend of mine explained to his parents years ago, when we were still university students and planning an evening out together before ATMs. He was, of course, reassuring his parents that he hadn't done anything dumb that would require them to find thousands of dollars to support him for months to come; he was merely lacking the physical representation of the numbers in his bank account.
Just as Bill Clinton thought 'sexual relations' meant specifically intercourse, a lot of people think cash is money, rather than just one representation of it. In his book The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers — and the Coming Cashless Society and in his recent talk at the Digital Money Forum, David Wolman has made it clear that he understands the difference — it's just the title that's provocatively confused.
The genesis of this book seems to have been two years ago, when Wolman proposed in Wired that cash should be euthanised. Apparently this is a quick way to get hate mail from all directions: from Christian evangelists who believe that cash is our last defence against the End Times, to privacy advocates who deplore the tracking built into all official electronic payments systems, to the quaint group he calls 'tactilists' — who can come up with no better argument than that money's physical manifestation is emotionally satisfying. I am, to some extent, one of these.
In The End of Money Wolman takes this premise and does a journalist's trip through cash's past and present: why it's so hard for the US to dump the penny; the costs and burdens of cash; and the systems that might replace it. Along the way he travels to meet colourful characters such as Kristen Thorkelsdottir, the artist who designs Iceland's bank notes; Bernard von Nothaus, the owner of the Royal Hawaiian Mint Company — currently fighting federal conspiracy charges; Abhishek Sinha, the entrepreneur behind a mobile banking system in India; and Britain's David Birch, the organiser of the aforementioned Digital Money Forum.
Wolman begins by visiting Glenn Guest, who makes the fundamentalist Christian case against electronic payments. He's not the only one to fear them. A female friend reminds me that centralised electronic banking was how the women in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale lost control of their lives: the government just turned off access to all accounts labelled 'F' and banned them from employment.
Yet, as Wolman writes (and Birch convinces him) there are legitimate arguments against cash. It is expensive throughout its life. It must be manufactured, repeatedly transported, guarded, counted and eventually either melted down or shredded and disposed of. It has a substantial carbon footprint. And — the heart of the argument — its costs fall disproportionately on the poor, who have little access to other options such as bank accounts or credit cards, and for whom cash represents risk as well as security. These are large prices other people pay for our affection for coins and notes.
In the course of writing this book, Wolman spends a year avoiding the use of cash, failing on only three occasions (both India and the New Jersey Transit are cash-only societies). He quickly comes up with another argument against it: it is, he says, 'germ-ridden'. That's just silly.
The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers — and the Coming Cashless Society
By David Wolman
Da Capo Press