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December 5, 2016


Making Sense of Dollars, Part I

A 1969 short on the BBC's Tomorrow's World made bold predictions about where computers would take banking. If you haven't seen the clip, I encourage it. It's fascinating, especially if you bear in mind that at the time, computers were still more the stuff of science fiction than reality while banking was staid and stubbornly unchanging. In the barely four minute segment, a card was "dipped" (not to mention authorized with a PIN) and a check was shunned—presuming its disfavor in the face of auto-charging and other electronic payment options. The obsolescence of paper filing systems was projected and branch/conventional banking was guaranteed to diminish if not utterly fade away. Among all the prescient predictions, they tossed in this throwaway: "If cash is to become the first major casualty of the computer revolution,…" Oops.

Amid relentless predictions of its demise, folding money remains. Prognosticators have left off predicting cash's downfall since its resilience has repeatedly put to lie such ideas. Instead, folks have taken to advocating against it. Even there, anti-cash champions seem willing, for now, to settle for us just agreeing to "less cash" rather than forcing us to go "cashless" in a lurch. Listed below are the main arguments of anti-cash advocates:

  • Paper-based transactions are inefficient, making cash expensive as a cost of acceptance for merchants. While I see this argument less often than the others below, it pops up enough to earn a place on the list.
  • Cash makes tax evasion pervasive and simple. For businesses that are cash intensive, it's difficult to verify sales and income. In some of the articles I've read, tax evasion deserves its place among the most heinous of crimes. It's stealing, no arguing about that, but for this post's purpose, the main point is that cash is at the heart of tax evasion…or so I've heard.
  • The latest evil that cash has foisted off on the unsuspecting is it complicates monetary policy. Cutting interest rates below zero is made difficult by the existence of cash because savers can withdraw and hold cash outside of the banking system. This hinders if not fully defeats the purpose of taking interest rates into negative territory.
  • I've saved the biggest for last: cash enables and encourages crime like racketeering, drug and human trafficking, terrorism, to name the headliners. Paper money underpins the vilest criminal enterprises because, among other things, it defines liquidity, is almost universally accepted, and provides absolute anonymity.

So there it is. Case closed, yes? Well, let's not say that quite yet. If you're interested in the other side, you will have to wait until next week's post. I rarely see the counterpoints other than for them to be mentioned and dismissed. Critical thinkers may be interested in seeing both sides before deciding the fate of cash.

Photo of Julius Weyman By Julius Weyman, vice president, Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

December 5, 2016 in currency | Permalink

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