Funny Money or the Death of the Cheque Book by Trevor Plumbly

The Demise of Cash and Cheque Books

I’ve just heard that Australian banks are making yet another effort to remove cheque books from the banking system. It is, I suppose, a natural progression from the push for a ‘cashless society’. And if that moves across the Tasman, as I suspect it will, we’ll all be a lot poorer as a result. Looking askance, as is my wont, I can’t help wondering what effect this increasing dependency on electronic economics will have on people’s ability to manage their affairs. It seems to me that, over the last few years, financial institutions have made a concerted effort to distance us from actual money and in doing so look like taking total control of our spending habits. I suppose the original aim was to enable banks and Inland Revenue to monitor transactions and minimise under-the-counter deals, but in some cases, the move simply made cash deals more attractive.

Beware the Plastic Society

Cheque books and cash were easy to handle and control. Cheque books could be balanced, overdrafts were aligned to income and bouncing a cheque was a social no-no. It’s not that long ago when people actually carried cash and budgeting was a quite simple affair: if there were only a couple of notes left it was time to reduce spending. Whilst being in debt was part of business life for the wealthy as was borrowing for the poor, looking back it seems to have been more carefully controlled than is currently the case. Then came hire purchase and cash took its first step backwards. All sorts of goodies could be had without actually going through the pain of parting with real money. Business loved it, it meant they could keep producing and selling regardless of the economic climate. Governments loved it, they had a paper trail at last, and the people were all happily eating cake. Then came the proliferation of credit cards and the introduction of internet banking. Suddenly you didn’t need to leave home to conduct your financial affairs or concern yourself about budgeting, the computer did all the work. The banks achieved total control, able to dictate the extent and terms for credit, then charged us for using the cards they’d substituted for cash.

Thirty Pieces of Plastic

The thing is that there’s always been something reassuring about cash, it’s been a constant in an ever-changing world and we can’t let these greedy buggers bury it. Throughout history it’s caused wars, murders, divorces and all manner of mayhem, but still most of us secretly envy those with truckloads of the stuff. Those with full wallets paid cash on the nail and those with cheque books were considered reliable people of substance, but not these days. The mind boggles at a future without cash; how will we explain biblical events to our children? “Direct credit Judas?” What about the kids’ pocket money? They won’t get too thrilled about doing odd jobs for intangible rewards; for ages they’ve been lured into unwilling service by the clink of coinage, I can’t see the promise of triple fly-buys having the same appeal. Songs and literature? Somehow “Transferred Credits from Heaven” doesn’t work for me any more than Long John Silver hunting for a box of buried plastic cards does. Charles Dickens’ beggars would all clutch EFTPOS terminals between withered limbs. But joking aside, let’s be careful about what we allow to be dictated to us. Remember wage packets? Shop assistants who could add and subtract? Remember how people with full wallets weren’t presumed to be dodgy or looking for a discount?

Let’s recall the words of Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, ‘Progress for progress’s sake must be discouraged, for our tried and tested traditions often require no tinkering. A balance, then, between old and new, between permanence and change, between tradition and innovation because some changes will be for the better, while others will come, in the fullness of time, to be recognised as errors of judgement.’

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