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Ming Wong

When I read the news that Via Rail, like Air Canada, would no longer accept cash aboard its trains, even as Black Friday sales set new records for online transactions, my first thought, which ages me pretty precisely, was the bluesy 1973 Steve Miller song Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash. In it, Mr. Miller makes fun of his own songs: “Yeah, you may have heard about the gangster of love and the space cowboy, but I’m gonna whip a cat on you right now who’s had more trouble, trials and tribulations.”

It’s a song of a flush man who finds out that his cherished bills don’t mean much in the big city. They might as well be army scrip, company-store notes, Confederate two-dollar simoleons, Monopoly money or Canadian Tire bills. This was when cash money was still king, an era of money clips and fat wallets and rubber-banded rolls, but you needed a lot of it if you wanted to roll yourself.

Because I remember that, I also remember having to fill out a withdrawal slip at the bank on Saturday mornings to get my weekly grocery money, running out of cash late at night before there were ATMs and even stashing a quarter under the face of my old Timex watch so I would have enough coin to buy a chocolate bar in a pinch. For the record, a five is a fin, a 10 is a sawbuck (X for 10) and a 20 is double saw.

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Later on, as a graduate student, I recall being concerned that my single US$20 bill – we called them Jacksons – would not cover a round of drinks at a bar in Boston. I never hid my savings under the mattress or tucked a stash in my sock, but of course, like everyone, I was schooled by films that showed showers of paper money – or runs on banknotes, as in It’s a Wonderful Life – as the physical manifestation of wealth. To this day, Western Union, the expert of cashless money transfers, uses a floating greenback in a commercial as an avatar of wired wealth. It lands on a roof to replace a missing shingle. How quaint.

Credit-only does indeed discriminate against people without credit cards, such as the 25-year-old version of myself, who could not rent a car for my own honeymoon because I lacked a Visa or Mastercard. And we all know these little plastic slabs chain us to financial servitude. But who nowadays would balk at this fact of life, except those that capitalism has rendered invisible? I have three credit cards, and a debit card that I use almost every day. Sure, my local barber, some farmers’ markets, trailer-park canteens, hotel chambermaids and a few divey bars still prefer cash, but these are anomalies. (I recently got my hair cut, and had exactly $21.35 in my pocket – enough to cover, but with the meanest tip I’ve ever left.)

More significant, perhaps, is how people are using their money in the late-capitalist stage of online transaction, especially in this traditional fourth-quarter spending season we call the holidays. Shopping is as easy as a click, and unless you are very vigilant or have some sort of scaffolded block on your shopping apps, late-night impulse purchases and dumb-dumb buys are common. That new set of steak knives? The oversize cable-knit sweater in purple? The cordless power drill? The creepy model of the Queen because you like The Crown? Hmm, maybe the drill…

Cash made it harder to spend, at least a little. With household debt and personal insolvencies both on the rise in Canada, subject to variable interest rates and punitive credit-card charges, we should take stock of too-easy money reality. Cash machines are slick, but online shopping is more so. One click and done. There’s a reason Jeff Bezos is the richest man on the planet: We keep on giving him our money! Imagine walking up to him at a bricks-and-mortar store and handing over some bills. Um, no.

Of course this is a reactionary argument. Online shopping, debit and credit, aren’t going anywhere. They’re convenient, smooth and efficient: low in what economists call opportunity costs.

But let’s take a moment to appreciate the poor disappearing cash note. James Bond, in one of Ian Fleming’s novels, marvels at how beautiful the old predecimal £5 was. A work of paper art, something that required multiple folds because £5 was a lot of dosh in 1950. And then the gorgeous currency of different countries, especially pre-euro, when you had to exchange every time you crossed a border: France with Delacroix, Descartes, Saint-Exupéry and Pasteur; England with Dickens, Jane Austen, J. M. W. Turner, Alan Turing and Adam Smith (actually Scottish). Scotland, meanwhile, has Robert Burns and Jack Nicklaus (not actually Scottish). Germany had Martin Luther and J.S. Bach, Switzerland the artist Alberto Giacometti and the architect Le Corbusier.

Canada, now on synthetic polymer like Australia (not, in fact, untearable, as I found in a failed riff on an old Abbott and Costello gag), gets the Queen – again, okay if you like The Crown – plus the actually Scottish John A. Macdonald, and Robert Borden for some reason. We do have activist Viola Desmond on the 10-spot, which is great, but oddly Isaac Brock, of 1812 War fame, appears only on a Guernsey note (his family was from there). There are, courtesy Puff Daddy and Ice Cube, raps and films about life being “all about the Benjamins”: those would be hundreds in U.S. moolah. But my favourite cultural reference to money is Raymond Chandler’s repeated mantra of “a portrait of Madison,” the $5,000 note that figures prominently in The Long Goodbye (1953). I won’t give away the ending, except by personal cheque or bank draft care of this newspaper.

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Money is enduringly strange, as indeed is debt, the lack of money, present or future. David Graeber and Margaret Atwood, among others, have written illuminating treatises on the subject. Debt is actually far more powerful than money: absence as presence. I’ve never been actually poor, even in my lean grad-school 20s, when I had very little disposable income. Still, in Edinburgh, the right pub could get you a pint for under a pound, and excellent New Haven pizza, maybe even with some house red wine, was possible once a month or so. Charles Dickens’s Micawber Principle is this: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” Simple: When you don’t have it, don’t spend it.

But it’s not simple. Money is spectral, a sort of collective delusion. That makes spending it easier all the time. Cash notes provided a temporary but tactile reminder of the fact that wealth is just numbers, whether in an old-timey ledger or a new-age online interface. People like real estate, and material things, because they’re real. But even objects and land enjoy only nominal value, placeholders in a global market of potential exchange. Scrooge McDuck’s coin-fetish notwithstanding, only blankets can actually keep you warm at night.

Hard cash – moolah, bread, cake, dough, cheddar, bones, cabbage, scratch, lettuce, guap – was always just paper, if not always trash. It must be backed and redeemable to have real-world effect. Cybercurrencies bear the deep message; they acknowledge delusion without illusion. Carry as much boodle in your pocket as you like, but your net worth remains ever a hopeful fiction. Seasonal cheers to making out on the happy Micawber side.

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