Magazine | January 25, 2016, Issue

All about the Virtual Benjamins

Because Sweden is perfect and the United States is awful, we must always look to this small, dour country with its beige cuisine and ask what we can learn. The latest, according to the New York Times, is the move to a cashless society. This is not a reference to general impoverishment, but to the replacement of rectangular pieces of paper with incorporeal electronic transactions, frictionless and antiseptic. Swedes love it! They can text beggars a few krona without breaking stride. Why there are beggars in the Nordic paradise we can only guess, but come the day the government takes 56 percent of their income instead of 55.3 percent, such problems will melt away.

Anyway: As with many other changes in modern life, the abolition of paper money makes you think two distinct thoughts: 1) What a marvelous idea, and 2) How I hate it.

First, the marvelous part. I’m already accustomed to paying for things by waving my phone in the general direction of an electronic terminal. You press your thumb to the recessed divot of your pocket global-information/communication device, and invisible hands shake on the transaction. You get irritated when you have to sign something after all that. Really? You need my signature? Sure you don’t want me to enter my phone number with a signal lamp, too?

The Holy Signature, however, is one of the theatrical rituals that give meaning to the weightlessness of modern transactions. There’s an inkless pen tethered to a tablet, which has some marks on the screen because someone — possibly someone from the 19th century — tried to write “Bartleby Jehosaphat” with a real pen. You scrawl a smeary squiggled signature that looks like a snake trying to swallow some kitchen implements, then hit Accept, which sets off a complex chain of events. The signature is uploaded to a vast international database in Zurich, which decides whether it’s genuine or not, then the transaction is accepted or “declined,” to use the genteel word you’d usually employ for someone whose social status has diminished. All in a second!

Of course, that’s not what happens. Everyone knows that you’re just making your mark the way an illiterate miner scrawled his X on a receipt for his gold. No klaxons go off if you draw a Kilroy Was Here picture. It’s like the Official Scribble the TSA agents make on your boarding pass. We treat these lines like the King’s Signet pressed in hot wax.

If we can get rid of the signature and go all-electronic, fantastic. When you’re behind someone who waits until the bill is totaled to start spelunking in her purse for the checkbook, you wish everyone were cashless. Someday people will have tiny skull implants that let them pay by blinking a personal code, and using phones and thumbs will seem like bartering with chickens. But for now, it’s one of those marvels of the age that make life feel Jetsonesque.

On the Other Hand: Don’t even think of taking away real cash. Incorporeal money is simply no fun. It has no pictures, no heroes, no history. Real money has denominations, each with a peculiar psychology. If you have five twenties, they evaporate like rubbing alcohol. If you have a hundred-dollar bill, Ben Franklin stares at you with purse-lipped disappointment, resigned to being spent instead of saved, and you’re loath to fracture the note into smaller bills. Ten tens make you feel like a fellow with a roll, and you can imagine yourself peeling them off as tips to nightclub hat-check girls and racetrack touts. If you get a check for $500, you cash it. If someone gave you a $500 bill, you’d feel like you had a vial of nitroglycerine in your pocket until you got it somewhere safe.

The best argument for real money: self-protection. Paper money may be a mere symbol of our shared assumptions, but you can squirrel it away, and if the government wants to make it worthless, they have to work at it. If they decide there’s a fiscal crisis that requires your contribution, and everyone’s going to take a “haircut” — a charming financial euphemism for being barbered by a guillotine — they can’t come to your house and paw under the mattress. Electronic money? Ding! Gone.

Ah, but this is paranoid old-think, right? It must seem like a Luddite fear to people who’ve cut the cable cord, have no land-line phone, never wrote a check, and waltz onto planes and into movie theaters by waving their phones. Yet these people know that a plastic gift card has more emotional heft than a text saying “I put $35 in your account; happy birthday.” It’s something that exists. Something you can hold. Try scraping the ice off your windshield with an e-mailed transaction receipt.

Of course, the value of everything can go to zero. Years ago I bought a collection of paper notes from Latin American countries — fascinating bills, elegant and intricate, each with its own national hero and founding mythos. They resembled American banknotes. They projected solid, sober fiscal values. Simón Bolívar glared out at you, his head perched above a high stiff collar, his piercing eyes informing the world that only a fool would doubt the coming rise of the Southern Hemisphere. 

I’m not saying the money was worthless, but the dealer said he’d sell me the three-ring binder and plastic sleeves for $20 and toss the notes in for free. It’s still more fun to look at than numbers on a screen. Hyperinflation-plagued Zimbabwe’s note for 100 trillion dollars, for example, demonstrates the shortcomings of a cashless society. You’d have to carry around a ten-terabyte hard drive just to buy a cup of coffee.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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