Celebrating 'The End of Money'

Currency is truly an anachronism. We continue to hold on to our paper money and our coins because - well because why?

July 25, 2012

The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers--and the Coming Cashless Society by David Wolman

Publication Date: February 14, 2012

"U.S. Economy Grinds To Halt As Nation Realizes Money Just A Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion"  

2/16/10 - the ONION

"The U.S. economy ceased to function this week after unexpected existential remarks by Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke shocked Americans into realizing that money is, in fact, just a meaningless and intangible social construct.

What began as a routine report before the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday ended with Bernanke passionately disavowing the entire concept of currency, and negating in an instant the very foundation of the world's largest economy.

Though raising interest rates is unlikely at the moment, the Fed will of course act appropriately if we…if we…" said Bernanke, who then paused for a moment, looked down at his prepared statement, and shook his head in utter disbelief. "You know what? It doesn't matter. None of this—this so-called 'money'—really matters at all."

"It's just an illusion," a wide-eyed Bernanke added as he removed bills from his wallet and slowly spread them out before him. "Just look at it: Meaningless pieces of paper with numbers printed on them. Worthless."

It is this quote from the ONION that animates much of Wolman's thoroughly enjoyable and mildly informative The End of Money.

Currency is truly an anachronism. We continue to hold on to our paper money and our coins because - well because why? Traveling in South Korea this spring was like jumping a few years into the future, at least when it comes to how we will pay for things (and hopefully what our infrastructure will look like).   Smart phones payment technology is ubiquitous in this nation of 50 million  From subways to snacks, tickets to cab rides, the smart phone is the easiest and fastest way to pay for goods and services.

Wolman begins The End of Money by asking why it is if money really is only a promise (exchanged for goods or services), and if paper and metal currency is merely a physical embodiment of this promise, then why haven't we gotten rid of the stuff? 

His answer is to forswear the use of paper bills or coins for an entire year, an experiment he almost pulls off. (And would have been able to do so with no problem had he restricted his residency to South Korea - and perhaps some other places).   

Maybe the easiest place to live without cash is on one of our campuses. I remember back in 1987 how my college ID worked to buy meals, groceries, and bookstore items on my freshman campus. Truth be told, I've never really broken the habit of not carrying around much of anything in the way of cash - good thing I never really left campus.

In The End of Money we learn some disgusting things about how truly dirty paper money is, and some interesting things about the separation of our money supply from the gold standard. Along the way we meet some gold hoarders, currency refuseniks, electronic money experts, and specialists in foiling counterfeiters.  Some of the most interesting sections of the book are about how different nations have approached designing their national currencies to preempt counterfeiting (including changes to the U.S. currency).

Wolman is not optimistic that the U.S. will give-up its paper and metal currency anytime soon. Too much of our economy seems to be based on cash transactions, and our culture of tipping would make this difficult. (No tipping in South Korea). I'm more optimistic, as I could see an acceleration of smartphone based payments as smart phone penetration grows to 100%.

The End of Money is a book I recommend that you spend some of your hard earned cash.

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