Tuesday, January 31, 2017

On "How Would You Like to Pay?" by Bill Maurer ***

This book is about changes in the way that we see and use money as technology increasingly replaces cash. Alas, I did not find it a terribly informative or thought-provoking book. It reminded me in many ways of BBC radio documentaries on economic topics--erudite, slightly boring, and largely retreading information that is widely available. It was in the few tidbits of information I hadn't heard about before that the book was its most compelling, but since the book is not grounded around a narrative but around ideas, it often didn't develop those tidbits very deeply. I felt like this would have been a better article than a book.

So what are we to take from the idea that people can use their cell phones to transfer money around, for example? In that question is the problem that I have with Maurer's book. He doesn't go much deeper than, Yeah, people can do this. More interesting questions are why such technology hasn't taken off.

Of course, as Maurer points out, it has--in Kenya. There, there's a company call M-Pesa. It functions as people's banks and Western Union resources in a nation where people in many places lack access to formal banking facilities. That's, of course, why it took off there. In other nations where we'd expect such a service to have more of a draw, people have access to banks and to credit cards, both of which ironically are sort of older technologies (though plastic has only really been around since the 1970s apparently). (But that still doesn't quite explain why people haven't switched over, which would be an intriguing question to try to answer.)

Another interesting idea: That it was only about 150 years ago that money was monopolized by the state. Before that, money was often issued by various vendors: railroads, banks, stores. Such money helped make transferring goods among/to people easier. But something that Maurer doesn't address is how American money, coming into its monopoly state near the beginning of the 1900s would seem to coincide somewhat closely (by two decades) with the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment, that is, income tax--an interesting coincidence that I think would be worth treating out.

With the shift in technology, specialized, nonstate money is making a bit of a comeback. We're talking not just Bitcoin but also coupons, gift cards, and discount tokens. And we're most especially talking about cell phones, for while systems like M-Pesa offer formalized ways to transfer money via phone, more informal means also exist. For example, if I buy a top-up card for twenty dollars, send the code to someone too far away for me to drive to, and then tell them to buy a book for my daughter at college there. Barter in a way has taken place, but also the top-up card has stood in place of currency. The person gets minutes but spends cash to buy a book. This usage is what has freed up people in developing countries to "bank" in a way in minutes, where banks haven't been readily available.

In the end, the author concludes, money is unlike other "technologies" because money is about relationships--how we relate to others and to our world.

One thing I can say of note here is how beautifully the book is designed. It was that--its diminutive size, its color photos, its font, and quirky chapter numbering--that first drew my attention to the work. Then the topic itself seemed like it would be something interesting.

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