Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Death of Cash - and Change

Sometimes things just fade away and you never notice it until later.

You know the feeling. You open a drawer and see some piece of electronic junk that at one time you just "had to have" and now it is just useless crap.  Maybe it is an iPod, or if you are really old, the Sony Walkman, or something like that.  Today it might be an old cell phone - maybe that flip-phone that was "state of the art" but is now landfill fodder.   Time marches on, and we hang on to things because they are still somewhat new, only years later to realize they need to be tossed.

It is like your record collection - that you stopped listening to, and sold off at garage sale back in the 1990's.  Fear not - you didn't give away a trove of valuable collectibles - worn-out copies of old Beatles albums aren't worth much, particularly the drug-store pressings.  Or maybe it is the VHS collection you had - which went away along with your VHS player long ago.  Time marches on, and old stuff is just junk, particularly when new stuff is better.

I digress, but the same is true of cars.  As Jay Leno noted, a Ford Focus with the sport package can out-accelerate, out-brake, and out-corner, the narrow-tyred Ferrari sports car of the 1950's or even 1960's, even if the latter looks cooler going down the road.  You have to feel sorry for the guy who bought the C7 Corvette, because the C8 is a much better machineIt is the nature of the beast in technology.  There was only one time - a brief time - in the 1970's, when cars from 'back in the day" were arguably better than what was on the showroom floor.  That time has come and gone.  But I digress.

I am hoping that later this year, I will reach into a jacket pocket and pull out an old face mask and think, "Hey, remember these? The Pandemic? CoVid?" and then toss the mask in the trash.  I am hoping, anyway.   But I suspect I will keep the masks, if nothing else for flu season or for mowing the lawn, which kicks up a mountain of dust and pollen, which I am hacking up today, because I foolishly forgot to wear a mask when mowing.

Cash and change are two more things that I think we will realize we no longer use - long after we stop using them.   It is so easy to swipe a credit card (take that, Bitcoin!) and pay for even trivial purchases of a dollar or two.   I find that I just don't carry cash around anymore, and the cash that I do have, hangs around for months, if not a year or more.

Time was, I used to roll up quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies, and take them to the bank.  Change would accumulate during the week, because most daily purchases involved cash.  Want to buy lunch?  Pay cash. Want to get gas?  Pay cash. Want to pay a toll?  Pay cash.  Buy a beer at the bar?  Pay Cash. Buy something at the five-and-dime?  Pay cash.  Of course, since I am older now, I tend to eat more meals at home, but when we go out, I think the restaurants prefer credit card sales.  Sure, it is nice, if you are a small business, to take cash under-the-table and cheat the IRS.  And so long as you are not too greedy, you can get away with this.  But they do have forensic accounting methods that can detect tax cheats.  If you buy 500 cases of beer for your bar and show sales of only 300 cases (and there aren't 200 cases in the back room) well, either you have a big drinking problem, or you're cheating the IRS.

But most businesses prefer credit cards because it cuts down on employee theft. The local Quickie-Mart has a sign saying you will get $20 if you do not get a receipt. The idea is, the slacker behind the counter is pocketing cash sales and not putting them in the register.  That's why they have a camera aimed at the cashier - not to catch robbers, but to catch employee theft.  Or the bartender - he pours free beers for his favored customers who then give him cash "tips" in exchange, in effect selling his employer's beer under-the-table.  A little bit of this sort of thing is acceptable to most bar owners - if it brings in customers.  But too much, and you go broke.  Credit card receipts are a lot harder to "pocket" by employees.

I mentioned robbers and that is another aspect of it.  If you have a big cash business, well, there is incentive to rob the place and take all that cash.   No cash?  No robbers.   And then there is the problem of counting all that cash, rolling up the change, and then taking it to the bank - you have to pay someone to do this, and again, an opportunity to be robbed.  Some stores have stopped taking cash as a result, and so-called "activists" are up in arms about it.  "This is unfair to the poor and homeless!  How can they shop at an upper-end boutique if they don't accept cash?"  But of course, even the poor and homeless have EBT cards these days.  It is only people living under the table - drug dealers and pimps - who only have cash.   Pardon me if I don't weep for them.

So cash has a lot of disadvantages, and electronic payment methods have a lot of advantages. And of the electronic payment methods, the 600-lb gorilla is the credit card industry.  You can talk about debit cards and e-checks and "crypto" all you want to, VISA and M/C have the thing sewn up, and they are very aggressive about keeping their little "moat" going - if by nothing else, undercutting the competition in terms of pricing, when there is a threat to their business model.

But like so much else, it isn't that cash went away all at once - or indeed, is even gone just yet - only that, well, it is starting to look like an old cell phone in a drawer.   And with each passing day, I find myself using cash less and less. I keep a $50 bill folded up in my wallet behind my driver's license, "just in case" - I suspect I will never need it.

Oh, sure, there are still places that only take cash. That fantastic barbecue place with the line out the door, only takes cash.  Their only accommodation for the credit-card crowd is to have one of those tiny ATM machines in the lobby - the kind that charge $2.50 a transaction to dispense cash.  But those kind of places are one IRS audit from oblivion.  If you run a business that doesn't take credit cards, that in and of itself is suspicious.

The question is, will cash disappear entirely?  It is hard to say.  It is possible, to travel from coast-to-coast in the United States, and find food, lodging, and transportation, and not use cash for any reason, without having to make any effort, either.  In fact, it is getting harder and hard to find places that require cash.  Even trivial things like toll booths use toll-by-plate and send you a bill you can pay by check or credit card. Or, like I do, maybe you have one of those toll transponders - EZ-PASS or SUNPASS or maybe both or more. (Caveat:  Some toll roads take more than one pass, and if you have both SUNPASS and EZ-PASS on your windshield, you may be double-charged.  We need one national toll pass, but toll-by-plate will probably be that.  But again, I digress).

Did I say pay by check? Yea, that too, is becoming an anachronism - just as I got my checkbook balanced! No seriously, I have a really nice leather checkbook with a silver pen in it that was a graduation gift - and boxes of custom-printed checks that will remain unwrapped until the day I die. And deposit slips - no need for them! There just is no use for checks - or damn little.  Either the companies automatically debit your account, or you can pay by credit card, for a nominal fee - a fee often entirely offset by the "rewards" granted by the credit card company. We still carry the checkbook, as some State Parks with self-check-in kiosks, take only cash or checks (and I'll bet they go to credit cards soon - I wonder how many park rangers pocket a dollar or two from the kiosks now and again?).

It's funny, but I always used to have change in my pocket, rattling around.  In fact, every evening, I would put it on the nightstand in a little dish or a wallet-holder thing designed for that purpose (it held your "watch" too - remember those?  And no, I don't mean the iWatch).  In the morning, I would put the change back in my pocket, so I could count out exact change when buying a newspaper or buying a Coke from the vending machine.  I no longer buy Cokes - or rarely do.  And the vending machines all take credit cards with "tap and pay".

Speaking of machines, when we go camping, we used to take along a sack of quarters to do laundry. Well, we still have the sack of quarters, but most laundromats have credit card swipe machines on the washers and dryers. Many no longer offer the option of paying by coin. And if you did pay by coin, well, be prepared to put in a fist-full of quarters just to get one machine started.  The dollar coin - which is popular in Canada, along with the "Toonie" maybe was an idea whose time has come, and already gone.  We never widely adopted it - but at this point, why bother?

Car washes are another area where quarters are dying.  We like to keep the camper clean and these self-serve car washes - which now have wands for washing, brushes for foaming, a dealie that sprays "tri-color" waxy foam (why, I do not know, but the more colors the better, I guess) and even a blower to blow the water drops off your car.  Most now take credit cards and increasingly, fewer and fewer are taking quarters.   You wonder why, until you go to the bar and see the guy who services the self-serve washateria paying for his beers with stacks of quarters.  Yes, employee theft raises its ugly head, once again.

A cashless society is a less anonymous society, and this scares a lot of people.  When every transaction in your life is logged somewhere on a computer, it is harder an hard to engage in illegal activities. Drugs, prostitution, loan-sharking, whatever else that is illegal - all require cash to operate.  Cash is untraceable, unless marked or logged.   Credit cards leave a trail - a "paper" trail that is electronic.  Even "crypto" is not as anonymous as some folks like to think.  If cash disappears, what will people use to pay for illegal things?  Tide detergent?

(I digress yet again, but some claim that the majority of $100 bills in circulation are overseas.  They have little use in the United States (every try to spend one?  Many store refuse to take them!) but stacks of "Benjamins" are popular in the drug trade, the illegal arms trade, and the human trade.  Some have proposed eliminating the $100 bill, as $20 bills would be too unwieldy.  But I guess the Treasury Department doesn't want the stupid "Euro" to become the currency of choice of our underworld friends.)

A lot of the same "activists" who are outraged that some stores no longer accept cash, are also outraged that police departments are seizing cash from drug dealers and drug runners as a part of this "Civil Forfeiture" gag.  I wrote about this before and it isn't quite the outrage they make it out to be, other than perhaps in parts of Louisiana where crooked Sheriffs were shaking down motorists for awhile.  If you are traveling from New York to Miami and are caught with $250,000 in cash sewn into the back of your backpack - as recently happened near here - you probably are a drug mule. The fellow in that instance claimed the cash wasn't his and he had no idea how it got sewn into the back of his backpack. Tellingly, no one showed up in court to challenge the Civil Forfeiture.  If you show up in court and make even a half-assed argument as to why you are carrying the cash, they give it back.  Drug dealers tend not to show up in court.

But the point is, cash is by its very nature, suspicious, in this day and age. If you run an all-cash business, odds are you are cheating the IRS, or at least it isn't unreasonable to suggest such a thing.  And as I noted before, people who do this sort of thing tend to set themselves up for home invasions, as people figure out you have all that cash. There was a recent case in Virginia, where an entire family was murdered, other than two toddlers.  Turns out they were drug dealers with $100,000 cash in their house. Some gang-bangers from Philly drove down there and slit their throats and took the money, stupidly showing off stacks of bills at the local strip club. Too bad Virginia abolished the death penalty last week.  Good timing for the murderers!

Having lots of cash around is just a bad idea, all around.  Hell, $100,000 sitting around isn't earning much money for you. Put that into a mutual fund, and chances are, you've made nearly 10% on that since January!  But drug dealers and other people in illegal trades realize there is more money to be made in their illegal dealings than in investments.  And by-the-way, these are often not the brightest bulbs on the chandelier to begin with - which is why they devolve into drug dealing.

But criminals don't get that.  One of the very early examples of cold-blooded murder, as documented in Truman's Capote's In Cold Blood, involved the murder of the Clutter family.  Two ex-cons thought that since Clutter had a big farm and lots of farm hands, he must keep a lot of cash around to pay them.  Poor Mr. Clutter tried to explain to the thieves that even back then, everyone was paid by check.  So they murdered the whole family.  Like I said, criminals aren't very smart.

Of course, the lack of cash doesn't deter all criminals - but does make it easier for them to get caught. There are many cases of people being kidnapped and forced to withdraw money from their ATMs at gunpoint - or forced to give up their PIN numbers.  And of course, "cyber-crime" which usually involves snookering people out of their money through deception, is gaining popularity  You've won the Nigerian lottery!  Just wire me $1000 in transfer fees, and I'll send you the money.

And of course, people still steal things, like packages off your porch, that expensive cell phone or computer, or your car.  And then there are thrill criminals, who punch people in the head just for laughs or lure a pizza delivery driver into an abandoned house just to see what is like to kill a human being.  There will always be sickos out there.   The death of cash won't change that much.

But will there be a time when most people do not carry cash and what's more don't feel naked or vulnerable for not carrying it?  When traveling far from home, as we do, there is a nagging feeling that, if the credit card company went berserk, you'd have a hard time getting home.  My experience with Bank of America confirmed this.  While traveling in the Canadian Rockies, they decided to randomly freeze my account as they claimed they had no idea what I did for a living or what my nationality was (both of which I told them when I set up my account a decade earlier!).  Suddenly, my ATM and credit cards were worthless, and all of my automatic bill pays were frozen.  Fortunately, we had $1000 in the safe in the camper, as well as two other credit cards (from a different bank!) to use.  And a couple of weeks later (and more than a few phone calls!) it was all straightened out.  Fucksticks!

But what about a real emergency? Wouldn't cash be better if there was some serious disruption of our economy?   Some folks think that - which is why the price of gold skyrocketed during the recession of 2008 and during the pandemic of 2020 (and maybe why you are not hearing about gold so much as of late).  But funny thing, the banking system didn't collapse and credit cards and other electronic systems worked just fine.  Now, whether this would survive a major disruption to the world economic system remains to be seen.  Say, for example, Kim Jong Un drops a nuke on New York City, not only throwing the world into a panic, and possibly World War III, but blowing up most of the computers that log our financial system.  What then?

Well, I suspect that credit cards might be worthless then, but then again, $100 bills will be so much worthless paper.  Maybe then your gold coins might buy a loaf of bread, but then again, a loaded handgun would get you that bread as well.  Maybe planning for the end of the world is a crappy investment plan.  Because if something like that happened, odds are, you'd be dead anyway.  And it is far more likely that you will retire broke with an arsenal of weapons if you go that route.

Maybe money, in cash form, won't go entirely way.  But I suspect that it will become more and more of an oddity as time goes on.  Expect to see more and more stores not accepting cash - and no, they are not required to accept it.  The notation that a dollar bill is good for "all debts public and private" does not mean people have to accept cash.  Hell, they could say they only accept bartering of chickens, if that was their thing. Or just Bitcoin - if they want to go broke.   Free enterprise means just that - you can run your own business your own way.  Maybe they will pass a law in Berkeley requiring businesses to accept cash, but I doubt it will become a national thing.

But the point is moot.  I suspect people will become less enamored with cash as time goes on.  Dollar bills and clanking coins will go the way of the pay phone.

And once again, I will feel like a dinosaur.