The End of Cash: Electronic Banking
I've been listening to my money late at night. Perhaps I'm behind the times, but I only recently realized I could call the bank and get up-to-the-moment information about my checking and saving account balances. Well, I don't have a savings account -- haven't had one since I was accumulating great wealth as a teenage paper boy. Indiana University drained those savings, however, and the account was dissolved, never to exist again. I do, though, have a checking account. In fact, I have a difficult time imagining life without one. Its balance, given the fact that my banking card allows me to withdraw money at machines as well as purchase items from stores, is always in a state of flux. Now, I can have that balance revealed to me at any time. This means that my money, woefully small amount that it is, is being monitored constantly. It's a Sunday afternoon as I write this, and while banking employees are taking the day off, worldwide, I can still call to find that my checking account harbors some $245.08. And the voice that tells me this -- electronically generated or whatever -- is female. I would imagine that most of the banks in the world are run by men, so I think it's interesting that their voices aren't the ones barking out balances through the telephone. Regardless of the gender of the voice, however, the point is I am in constant contact with my money. My money and I are very close. If I had a lot of money, what a joy it would be to call up my balance, and listen to the lovely female voice croon my megabucks. Instead, I sometimes call in a panic to make sure the check I've just written will actually clear. Sometimes I call just to know my money still exists, that it hasn't been drummed out of existence by service charges. Occasionally, I phone the bank just to hear her voice, the woman or machine -- woman who patiently responds to me, each and every time.In regards to money matters, our culture has come a long way. In the old days, we bartered for goods and services with goods and services, or we paid for things with gold or silver or tobacco leaves or whatever it was that the particular culture found valuable. At some point in relatively recent history, money came into play, first in the form of coins, then paper money, then what we have today, a sort of amorphous wealth, globally-located and stored in great electronic conduits and cauldrons, whose balances are accessed by phones and computers -- any time of the day. Vast amounts of this mysterious money can be moved from one location to another without their owners even touching them. Mega-corporations merge with other mega-corporations to form gigantic businesses -- sometimes bigger than governments. Even on my wee little level, my pitiful hand-to-mouth existence, I frequently use my credit card. Essentially, when I use my credit card, I'm borrowing from my own, hypothetical wealth. This relationship between my credit cards and my true financial condition has an analogy found in astronomy: a black hole. The luxury of this strange and wonderful imbroglio is bought at the cost of finance charges, which accrue 24-hours a day. And so, the credit card people and the bank people are always awake, in touch with our debits and our assets. It makes me afraid, not just for myself, but for my country. As I stood in line this Christmas, waiting to use my credit card to purchase goods, I rarely witnessed the exchange of goods for cash. The cash-wielding customer was in fact an anomaly, a charmingly archaic throwback to days gone by. If everyone's using credit cards, then where's the money? Or, to put it another way, what is the money? Karl Marx once said that "Gold circulates because it has value whereas paper has value because it circulates." I wonder what ol' Marx would say about credit cards, or about the national debt, stocks, bonds, futures and other complicated oddities. What would he think about Nick Leeson, the man who boo-booed an entire bank out of existence. All this reminds of the fable about the tortoise and the hare. You remember. The hare got way ahead of the tortoise in their race, and filled with arrogance, stopped to take a nap. The tortoise lumbered by and eventually won. This story is terrifying, I think, because back in the days of this fable, the hare had to stop every once in awhile to take a nap, arrogant or not. These days, however, we have 24-hour services that never shut down, even on holidays. You see, the hare never sleeps. The hare is always moving, always accruing, always scheming. The tortoise, as they say, is shit out of luck. Except that we can call our banks, late at night, and listen to a lovely lady tell us just how much money we have. Then we little tortoises can go quietly to bed.