David Wolman's exploration of the "Coming Cashless Society" is more an interesting discussion than a convincing, sustained argument.
The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers -- and the Coming Cashless SocietyPublisher: Da Capo
Length: 240 pages
Author: David Wolman
Publication date: 2012-02
In what would become a precursor to The End of Money, David Wolman wrote a 2009 article for Wired magazine arguing in favor of ending physical money. In the introduction to his book, he recounts some of the fervent reader responses to his article. Readers called him a fascist, along with accusing him of “shilling for secret lobbying groups.”
Though I don’t usually evince such extreme reactions to the ideas of people who are merely writing for magazines, I admit I approached Wolman’s subject matter with some uncertainty about my ability to remain open-minded. After all, I like cash. Cash means never worrying about whether your form of payment is acceptable. It means the transaction is finished in the time it takes to pass your money over the cashier’s counter. And if I’m honest, it means other, less practical things: the wry smile you twist out when you find a crumpled ten dollar bill in a Christmas card from your uncle, who has clearly not kept up with inflation rates, or indeed, your current age; the everything’s-going-my-way feeling of reaching into the pocket of an old jacket, and finding a $20 bill from last fall. So while I wasn’t anywhere near being ready to call Wolman a fascist, I was at a loss to imagine what he could possibly find to say against sweet, simple cash.
The most substantial, and enlightening, part of Wolman’s argument is that cash really isn’t as simple as we typically think it is. Who, for instance, regularly thinks of the cost of printing money? And who is it that pays this cost? (We do, as it turns out.) And who gets to keep this payment? (Not us. Wolman writes that simply for cranking out the recent U.S. State Quarter series, the Federal Reserve has made $4.6 billion dollars.)
How is cash made, and what is it made of? Wolman contends that the “production and secure transportation of notes is an expensive and environmentally costly business paid for by the tax payer.” He cites figures for the massive amounts of metals mined in the United States for the production of coins, and goes on to inform us that a “heavy nickel-producing area in Siberia provides a fifth of the world’s supply and emits more sulfur dioxide in a year than all of France.” He points out that sulfur dioxide is the main cause of acid rain. All this happens before the money is even transported anywhere, which of course, involves fuel.
Wolman loses ground, however, when he leaves the realm of hard fact. A side discussion about the potential of cash to transmit disease speaks more to Wolman’s personal aversions than it does to actualities. After finding out that Swiss researchers determined that the flu virus could survive for up to 17 days on a banknote, he forwards the study to a friend at the Center for Disease Control. When his CDC contact replies that the conditions required for prolonged survival of bacteria on money are highly unlikely to occur, Wolman is only temporarily relieved.
He then learns anecdotally that people in some parts of Africa store cash in their underwear. He never says whether he followed up with his CDC contact on this point, but he continues to evince a physical aversion to touching cash for the rest of the book. Later in the book, he will detract from a legitimate argument about the connection between cash and crime when he muses, “More than 10,000 bank robberies in 2009 and 2010 alone wouldn’t have happened if crooks knew there was no cash to be had. Yet never have I heard someone imagine a world without cash robberies. It’s as if our affection for Bonnie and Clyde… and so many other venerated villains makes us want to keep bank heists around like some kind of treasured pastime.” It's sarcasm, yes, but the point of intelligently used sarcasm is to hit on an element of truth, and insulting one’s target audience by implying that we keep cash around out of nostalgia for bank heists is just plain silly.
Like Wolman’s lapses in logic, his narrative arc is too choppy to add up to the cohesive argument he's clearly trying to build. His attempt to avoid cash for a year is established near the start of the book as a device that will link his various adventures in research together. But this is all but abandoned once he begins his research in earnest. Like other writers of journalistic non-fiction, Wolman centers his chapters on individuals in order to personalize broader, impersonal concepts. But he fails to bring these individuals to life in a way that is truly engaging. The only subjects that leap off the page are Glenn Guest, a pastor who believes that the end of cash is inevitable and is in fact a sign of Armageddon; and Bernard von NotHaus, one of the founders of the Liberty Dollar, “’a private voluntary free-market currency backed entirely by silver and gold.’” Here, Wolman’s personal approach to the subject matter works well, since his bemusement over the motivations of these two subjects becomes our own, and adds color to the two chapters in which they appear.
The most poignant part of Wolman’s argument should have been his discussion of how cash penalizes the poor. Since the poor in many parts of the world are excluded from bank and credit card use due to barriers like bank fees and lack of, or simply bad, credit history, they are condemned to existing in an all-cash state, and denied benefits that come with being able to save and earn interest. I admit to finding this part of his argument confusing. Everyone should have access to the benefits of virtual banking, but if the poor are prevented from having them, the problem is not cash -- it’s the banks themselves.
A fair, convenient, and democratically beneficial credit and banking system is not mutually exclusive from the use of cash, and really, it's not clear to me if this isn’t where Wolman’s argument logically leads, at least as it currently stands. I suspect that the final effect of The End of Money on readers will not be to convince them one way or the other, but to elicit real thought on the nature of money itself, and to Wolman’s credit, that’s no small feat.