Although the United States is hurtling toward a time when paperless transactions will replace most cash transfers anyway, that change cannot occur fast enough for David Wolman, author of “The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers—and the Coming Cashless Society.”
In a provocative online essay for “Wired” (he is a contributing editor), he asserted, “In an era when books, movies, music, and newsprint are transmuting from atoms to bits, money remains irritatingly analog. Physical currency is a bulky, germ-smeared, carbon-intensive, expensive medium of exchange. Let’s dump it.”
Both the Federal Reserve and private banking systems take a piece of the currency action and the United States Treasury spends increasing effort and large sums of money to counteract increasingly sophisticated counterfeiting that threatens to undermine confidence in the United States dollar. (Wolman describes the “supernotes” North Korea produces in its own effort to battle the United States.)
In preparation for this book, Wolman attempted to go “cashless” for an entire year. And while he insists that it is largely the poor who suffer from dependence on cash, he still most clearly demonstrates that it is “wireless,” conspicuous consumers such as him who will benefit most as our commerce approaches cashlessness.
For even as technology finds a way for everyone who uses a cell phone to make payments and deposits electronically, for small fees, to online accounts (as Wolman reports is occurring in Kenya and India, for example), in the United States the Federal Reserve will still find a way to control the loan rate of interest. And that perennially low loan rate of interest is what likewise keeps the interest rate down on savings accounts, a key obstacle to the poor and working poor accumulating sufficient money to improve themselves financially.
It seems inconceivable to Wolman that citizens who prefer cash in their daily lives—whether they have bank accounts or not—aren’t up to something, like avoiding taxes, for which all the rest of us pay. It does not occur to him that for some folks who think of themselves as deliberative humans and even citizens before “consumers,” cash might be simpler, even virtuous. (And if you’re a Wendell Berry, say, barter might be even closer to godliness.)
Plus, as Wolman keeps reminding us, cash is germ-laden. Ewww!
This work has significant merits in its explorations of not just currency and its future (or lack thereof), all around the world, but in its plumbing of governments’ monetary policies and in accessible explanations of “money” versus cash versus currency. Wolman also has interviewed numerous individuals whose largely unconventional opinions stir the pot of cash versus cashlessness in a diverting way. (One Georgia man sees the death of currency as a favorable portent of the coming Apocalypse.)
This sometimes devil’s-advocate quality of “The End of Money” is most attractive, although one may wonder if the author had also dedicated a year to going without plastic might have yielded other, more interesting results—something more like truth and less simply a techie’s screed.
That said, the author’s disparate, frequently informative threads fail to knit themselves into a cohesive fabric that is of much use from a public-policy standpoint. (A wrap-up chapter would have been most beneficial.) Further, the author’s glib style, while engaging and most congenial to the blogosphere, makes him too easy to dismiss when he takes occasional stabs at philosophizing.
Grammatically, an irritating, repetitive lapse is his use of the plural possessive “peoples’” when the plural possessive of person — “people’s” — is meant. Also, here throughout, “under way” instead of “underway” is the correct usage, although that is a memo that most American publications who are not the New York Times seem not to have received. Where are those old-school copy editors when we need them? (Martin Northway)
“The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers—and the Coming Cashless Society”
By David Wolman
Da Capo Press, 228 pages, $25