Cultural Studies: Cash Is King No More

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Cultural Studies: Cash Is King No More

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I had a strange experience the other day. I tried to pay for something with cash.

It was sort of like going back to writing with a pen. My thumbs, made opposable by evolution so that humans could grab things and not just tap on a screen to acquire them, weren’t working the way they were designed to.

I had taken my son to our local stationery store to buy him a pack of Pokémon cards. The pack was $5, and the store would not accept credit cards for any purchase under $10. It wasn’t set up for Apple Pay either. So I took out my wallet and found that, though packed with plastic, the pouch where cash goes was empty. I plunged into my pockets and emptied them out on the counter in search of change.

One penny, a type of coin that I had not thought much about for years, stuck stubbornly on the counter. I tried all sorts of moves, including quickly sliding both my thumbs toward it from opposite sides as if trying to catch it off guard, but it just slid around the surface. The cashier finally scooped it up with a business card. After I separated the coins from the lint in my pocket, I was able to put together $2.34. In the end, I had to buy two packs of cards so that I could pay with Visa.

Cash. Remember? It’s what people used to exchange for things. You can see it sometimes in old movies on TCM. I think Gibbon mentions it in “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” An old song, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” was actually about a dime. It was not “Brother, Can You Spare an Amazon Rewards Card.”

A dime was 10 cents. Two nickels were a dime. Ten dimes were a dollar. A dollar was a buck. A few bucks were dough. No one ever heard “Your PayPal password or your life!” The word was “money,” and money was tangible.

These days, when the very idea of using a type of payment that is not also a type of investment in the form of points seems unthinkable, cash has become as rarefied as a public phone booth.

Only a sucker would pay with concrete, tangible, material cash. Especially when there are so many forms of money available that, simply by using them, earn us more money.

Purchasing an item or service is no longer a terminus. It’s the beginning, or rather, the continuation of one long transaction. Buying something used to be the goal of labor. Now it is another form of labor. Abstracted from our wallet into a zillion means by which we accrue rewards, our dollars roll up their green sleeves and go to work harvesting points as if they were grapes.

Money has evolved into its own autonomous existence. It has its own style of dress: Custom-designed credit cards and cool modes of pay-by-gadget are money’s fashion world. It even collides with art: Who would have dreamed that a hit musical could enshrine the $10 bill?

This “moniverse” has had a long gestation. At the dawn of what would become our modern economy, in the 17th century, the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote that “money has presented us with the abstract of everything.” What he meant was that money had become the consummate medium for the human desire to possess.

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Now, 400 years later, everything has become the abstract of money. From the way we read to the way we eat, travel and entertain ourselves, just about every human experience has become monetized. Money itself, earning points in winding fugues of accumulation, has become monetized.

Of course, along with all the many conveniences, pleasant surprises (a friend just made over $3,000 in American Express reward points) and brave new perks, the abstraction of money has its dark side. I glimpsed this as a child.

My father, a jazz pianist turned real estate agent, was on a draw at his company; he was paid a salary that he would have to repay out of future commissions. This worked for a while, but when the recession hit in the mid-1970s, rising interest rates made the booming housing economy go bust. My father found himself owing his company $50,000 (about $300,000 today). In short order, he lost his job, his marriage to my mother, and his house. He had to declare bankruptcy and live off the few piano lessons he was able to put together.

Aside from a love for expensive shoes and the need to lease a new Buick Electra every year, my father was not an extravagant man. The reason he kept taking the draw, even as he knew he was accumulating piles of debt, was that though the salary was real, both the source of it, and the consequences of continuing to accept it, were abstract.

In a sense, we are all in the abstract world of the draw now. The process of indebting ourselves is so stylish, so convenient, so fun when we use our gadgets, and so far removed from the actual, physical process of handing over money for merchandise or services, that we don’t in any way feel part of a cold transaction. It is all too easy to lose a fortune.

You used to want to make enough money to be able to have leisure time in which you could get away from money altogether. Now the very process of spending and buying is part of the experience of leisure. Why eat dinner in a restaurant in some distant corner of the world as a silver moon rises over a platinum sea if you are not paying for it with your platinum card, so that your shiny new points — filling up your future like stars clustering in the night sky — can lead you to ever more silver experiences?

Perhaps we have become so used to substitutes for money, and to money as a dense forest of obscure processes like the packaging of derivatives, that there is now a high threshold for the counterfeit and the unknowable at the top levels of politics.

Maybe the increasing abstraction of money holds the key to our painfully abstract presidency. A derivative is a security, like a stock, that derives its value from an underlying asset, like a mortgage. If mortgages fail, the stocks they supported come crashing down. What if the assets underlying President Trump are phantasmal, or corrupt? Only the I.R.S., tasked with keeping money real, knows for sure.

Societies seem to need tangible money the way lovers must touch each other. Since money is the foundation of security, people seem to have a need to feel it with their hands.

In retrospect, no one should have been surprised that Britain pulled out of the European Union. It was the one member of the union that refused to give up its own currency. There is a palpable nostalgia for being able to make a physical connection between your country’s historical figures printed on paper bank notes and your personal portion of happiness and security.

Perhaps the need to make this primordial connection between the presentness of money — they call it currency, after all — and past events and emotions that lie beyond money’s reach is why Harriet Tubman is (on the books, at least) destined for the $20 bill. But will it come to the point where the Tubman 20 actually “changes hands,” a phrase that in our disembodied economy seems both quaint and fraught? It very well might. In a country as consumed with money as ours is, it is only natural that money itself should become a collector’s item.

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