Your Survival Guide to the End of Cash

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The End of Cash

I own a book called The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers–and the Coming Cashless Society, by David Wolman. I haven’t read it, but I have read a review of it at Slate. The book is about the end of cash, not the end of money, much to my disappointment.

Call me crazy, but talking about the end of cash seems kind of like talking about the dodo bird. That ship done sailed (not to mix metaphors or anything), and it’s probably too late to get it back into port.  Seriously, are you guys carrying cash on a regular basis?

I never have cash.

Why just this morning I had to scrounge dimes and nickels from under the car floor mats in order to give Virgo Man bus fare, because I forgot to buy a bus pass. Cash is just not in our daily vocabulary any more. Is there really enough to say about cash to merit a whole book?

Based on the Slate review, it sounds like not. The author makes the case against cash – it’s filthy, it’s unforgiving, it’s inconvenient, and it’s expensive to produce and circulate. Apparently, almost everyone agrees, except for people who worry about surviving a nuclear war and finding the ATMs down.

Also some religious types (the “preachers” in the subtitle I guess)  believe the extinction of cash is a harbinger of The Apocalypse. And, of course, the Gold Bugs are opposed to getting rid of cash, although they do want to tie it back to gold. Why not just tie plastic cards to gold?

What would be the difference?

Sidebar: O Psychic One asked me about Gold Bugs the other day. Mom, what is the deal with the gold standard, he says. Why do you ask? I say. Well, he answers, what the heck is the difference between paper dollars, metal coins,  and gold bars? Isn’t it people who give both a value? And therefore how is gold more valuable than dollars?

I guess O Psychic One is not voting for Ron Paul.

But anyway, here’s the thing. You can’t really think through what it means to have a cashless society unless you think through what it has meant to use cash in society, and what it means to use something other than cash. Because whatever you’re using it for now, if we go entirely cashless, you won’t be doing that anymore. It might be a good thing, or it might not be a good thing, but we’ll never know until we think about it, now will we?

Here’s where I go.

1. Money fuels commerce.
I have already written the post about the problem of hauling around a wagonload of wheat to trade for cheese, meat, and toothpaste. It’s darned inconvenient, and commerce would be crippled if we were still doing that.  So I have no complaint about money, per se, as a strategy.

2. Cash and credit — what I like to call the tactics of money — are all mixed up and upside down.
Banks have eaten away at our brains with the message that credit = trustworthiness. You can have absolutely nothing, and spend money you don’t have, but because you carry the Platinum American Express, you have been vetted by the financial industry – that paragon of virtue – and thus, you are Trustworthy.

Meanwhile, paying with cash telegraphs that you are a loser and probably a mule for a drug lord. People wash their hands after they do business with you.

Cash = bad. Plastic = good. Really?

3. Cash is more mindful than plastic, or even checks, for most people.
The Slate review cites a study that found college students would have no compunction about stealing their roommate’s soda out of the frig, but wouldn’t dream of stealing a dollar from under a sofa cushion. Have you ever had that feeling?

I have.

The only exception to the no-stealing-cash rule is when I find dollars in the washer. I wash the clothes, I get the money you so carelessly left in your jeans. That’s not stealing, that’s a tip.

But think about it. If you are in Tiffany and find yourself hopelessly in love with a diamond tennis bracelet, and you can only pay cash for it, you’re going to think about it. And actually, you probably do not have $5000 cash in your pocket, unless you are purposely shopping for a diamond tennis bracelet.

For most people, impulse buying is sharply curtailed when cash is the only available medium. It probably never occurs to you to freeze your cash in a gallon milk jug to keep yourself from spending it, but I know at least three people who are doing that with their credit cards. That’s got to say something.

4. Cash is more local than plastic.
When I pay the dairy lady  for my milk, I should pay cash. She  takes plastic, but when I pay with plastic, some of that money goes to the Big Faceless Institutional Banks that process the transaction.

I think she should get all the money. She’ll use it to feed the cows, whereas the bank will use it to pay some joker a huge bonus so he won’t quit in a huff and go work for some other big bank. O, the loss.

Like I said, I really don’t use cash. But that’s a shame, now that I’m thinking about it. Reading this review of a book I own but never got around to reading is just about enough to get me to go to the bank and GET some cash, and use it. And by the way, the author of said book apparently takes on an experiment to live without cash for a whole year.

Wow, throw that guy a medal.

The whole world is set up to discourage people from using cash, so I’m not sure where the challenge would be. I think it would be far more challenging, and more interesting, to go for a year using ONLY cash.

Where do I go to plunk down dollar bills for the mortgage? Does the electric company even have an office any more where I could pay cash? Most gas stations are just gas-dispensing ATMs, so you can’t hardly pay cash for gas these days.

What do you have in your wallet, Dreamers? Is my dream of resolving my issues around money really ready for the end of cash?