A Cashless Society Looms: Cui Bono?

Authored by Virginia Fidler via The Gold Telegraph,

You love your credit cards, right? Handy and easy, you just whip it out and purchase whatever you want. No cash; no hassle. And everyone makes it so easy for you

Before you bask in all this convenience, consider just who is gaining from this war on cash.

The banks, of course, are charging as many fees as they can think of. More importantly, your cash card leaves a wide data trail detailing your buying preferences, used by merchants and advertisers to entice you into more buying. How convenient. These thoughtful companies even offer reward points every time you use the card. Cash offers the ultimate in privacy. Your cash card might as well be a walking billboard.

The government, of course, is extremely interested in your spending habits. The taxing authorities use an electronic money trail to monitor your spending and ensure against tax evasion. In addition, cards save the government the cost and trouble of printing and storing additional currency.

Your electronic purchase trail is nirvana to large corporations. Knowing your spending habits allows them to customize their ads to an ever-larger consumer base. They know what you need before you do and are ready to entice you with specials, sales and “act now” deals.

Monitoring against illegal habits, tax evasion, and money laundering may be considered a positive move. Increased spending can give the economy a boost (even as it depletes your bank account). No one, however, discusses the insidious dangers inherent in the move toward a cashless society.

One of the largest perils is that it all but eliminates financial prudence. You’re not handing over cash, but a mere card. The psychological difference is enormous. Cash forces you to consider your purchases as your wallet is depleted. Will there be enough green to purchase dinner? A cash card handily removes that mental obstacle and skews your perception of precisely how much of your hard-earned money is leaving your possession. Bank statements and easy credit terms are far off, so they don’t merit a great deal of consideration.

Millennials, who have embraced card purchases with considerable enthusiasm, can also be lacking in financial knowledge. They are the major group being targeted by lending institutions, and almost half of them don’t know what their interest rates are or about late fees. Easy spending without adequate financial acumen can be a dangerous combination. Greater financial education would be a positive move toward wiser spending and saving habits. However, retailers have much to gain by keeping consumers in the dark as they continue to entice with “special offers” and one-click online shopping.

Cash transactions are declining globally, and the poorest members of society are feeling the backlash.Approximately 7 percent of Americans do not have bank accounts, and the number of homeless has increased for the first time since 2010. The lack of cash has marginalized those who are most vulnerable.

One country that is making strides toward a cashless society in India. To crack down on the country’s huge black-market trade, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is attempting to lure consumers with no bank accounts into the formal economy. That is approximately 40 percent of people in India, who are without access to banking services. The first step, in November 2016, was to withdraw the 500 and 1,000 denominations of rupee notes from general circulation. This accounts for 86 percent of India’s cash. The move has hurt Indian’s poor, some of whom are unable to buy simple fruits and vegetables. Small businesses have reduced their staff by 35 percent. While India’s economy is thriving, the elimination of cash is expected to hurt its future GDP.

Big ticket items have suffered in India, as many consumers remain wary of cash transactions. As Indians are depositing more money into banks, it is banks that are profiting from Modi’s efforts. Major lending institutions have been hiring wealth managers to handle this new influx. It is expected that the number of money managers will double within three years. At the same time, the poor, who have limited access to the new banknotes, have no mean of buying needed food. This is a genuine problem for rural Indians, who have no nearby bank and need the liquidity of cash to survive. They are paying a high price for the government’s efforts to eliminate tax evaders.

India is only one of the countries moving toward a cashless society, with many emerging African and Asian markets developing apps for even the smallest payments. Australia and Scandinavia are also encouraging cashless transactions by making them easier and more convenient. Globally, our every purchase of an ice cream cone is being watched and recorded.

Cash in hand has always represented freedom, and that is now being eroded at an alarming rate. Private, legal transactions will become illegal or impossible in a cashless society when every financial transaction is being monitored and scrutinized.

Without cash, people become purely dependent on big banks. What happens when the banks fail? During times of crisis, banks could shut their doors and prevent depositors from accessing their money. The lack of genuine cash shifts the power from the individual to corporations and government authorities.

If we are relinquishing freedom and power for the convenience of cashless transactions, perhaps we need to consider who is on the receiving end. Banks and governments are amassing the ultimate power by gradually removing the last vestige of freedom – cash. Those who are ready to give up their cash will surely pay the price.