Trigger Warning: This is going to be a long post, so those of you with short attention spans should turn back now. For everyone else, buckle in.
Consider the online gamblers who lost their money in overseas operations when the government froze their accounts. Now, what they were doing was indisputably illegal in these here United States, and I am not claiming that they were somehow deeply wronged. But consider how immense the power that was conferred upon the government by the electronic payments system; at a word, your money could simply vanish.
Now consider what might happen if the government made a mistake. When I was just starting out as a journalist, the State of New York swooped down and seized all the money out of one of my bank accounts. It turned out — much later, after a series of telephone calls — that they had lost my tax return for the year that I had resided in both Illinois and New York, discovered income on my federal tax return that had not appeared on my New York State tax return, sent some letters to that effect to an old address I hadn’t lived at for some time, and neatly lifted all the money out of my bank. It took months to get it back.
I didn’t starve, merely fretted. In our world of cash, friends and family can help out someone in a situation like that. In a cashless society, the government might intercept any transaction in which someone tried to lend money to the accused.
To me, this pondering highlights a basic difference between myself and what I like to call the Online People.
Online People, I should note here, are a figment of my imagination based on my own personal anecdotal experience. But as you have decided to spend a few minutes of your day inside of my head, I will go ahead and give you a brief taxonomy of this imaginary species:
Online People are men and women (but mostly men) who spend a significant amount of their work and personal time interacting with others online. As in the real world, some get along with people they disagree with better than others, but regardless, those disagreements greatly shape their online persona. Which is to say that while most people in the real world define and group themselves by what they are, Online People generally define and group themselves by what they are not. To take myself as an example: In the real world I am a father, a husband, a brother, a person lucky enough to be surrounded by scores of amazing friends, a Portlander, a writer and risk manger, etc. As an Online Person, however, I am someone who is not a movement conservative, not an ideologue, not a knee-jerk hack baiting for clicks, not a SJW, etc.
True, there are websites and bloggers that believe themselves to be about grouping people together based on who they are. But if you take a 10,000 foot view of those sites’ and bloggers’ content, you will see that the glue that holds them together is in fact what they are not. RedState, Brietbart, NRO, and the Daily Caller are among the most popular sites for conservatives, but if you hangout there you will find that their discussions of conservatism are comparatively rare; what they really sell is not-being-liberal. The reverse is true of Balloon Juice, LGF, LG&M, and D’Kos.
Another common trait of Online People is that they often drill down to startling depths on any given subject matter, from the grand to the banal. Of course, some people in the real world do this as well. My sister, an accomplished academic historian, is a perfect example of someone who drills deep, deep, deep down for a living. However, my sister drills down based on what she is. (A historian). She doesn’t drill down because she’s not, say, an econ professor. Her research is not devoted or even connected to proving that econ profs are eeeevil. This is an important difference, I think, because drilling down based on what you are often leads to wisdom. Drilling down based on what you aren’t too often leads to paranoia.
Which brings me back full circle to the post by McArdle.
There are, of course, a great many trade-offs when moving to a cashless society — just as there was when we moved from barter to cash. Personally, I have greatly benefitted from the convenience and automatic tracking of electronic banking, automatic deposit, and debit cards; I have also spent more than one aggravated afternoon on the phone with my bank, creditors, and credit agencies after having my identity stolen. You might find this trade-off to be good or poor, and I would certainly empathize either way. Where I get hung up, however, is when this tradeoff is presented as simply another reason to live in fear of a democratic government. What I find telling about McArdle’s worries, and why I think of her post as being a textbook example of Online People-ism, is the drilled down focus of that particular anxiety.
First off, while it’s true that the government can overreach and take you money in a cashless society, it’s also true that they can too in one that isn’t cashless. If you don’t believe me, ask Clyde Ross.
It is also true that I might someday get myself into the government’s crosshairs to the point where they feel they need to cut me off from all of my assets. If that’s the case, however, the least of my problems is going to be how easy or difficult it is for them to do so. I’m not Alex Jones, and I don’t have a secret plan in place to take my cash and bullion and stay off the grid for the rest of my life. If the government erroneously believes I have been running drugs, have killed my neighbors, or have scammed them out of $100,000 in taxes, probably best I confront them sooner rather than later.
But most important is this: McArdle is correct when she notes that the government could make erroneously take my money from me due to some clerical or computer error, leaving me in a lurch for weeks or months, as they did her. But so too could my bank, my creditors, and the nation’s credit agencies.
True story: When I was 22, just out of school, and (barely) living paycheck to paycheck, AT&T sent me a bill for three times the amount of my monthly rent. This billing was in error, and the error was obvious. There was one long-distanse call to my sister that was listed as being thousands of hours long. In fact, it was actually a minute or two in length, which the bill itself actually proved. There was a second call on the bill to my sister that started just two minutes after the thousand-minute call started. ((FWIW, I had left her a message on voicemail, forgotten to tell her something in that message, and called right back.)) Indeed, there were several long-distance calls in the proceeding weeks that would not have been possible if I had really has a 1000+ hour call my sister. What happened afterwards is a rather long story that takes us too far into the weeds for our purposes here, but suffice to say that it was almost ten months later that I stopped receiving threats of lawsuits in the mail, ceased having calls to my employer letting them know I owed AT&T money, had long-distance service returned, and was able to get my credit fixed so that I could buy my first car.
Another true story: I once got a collection call from an agency representing a local adult movie and paraphernalia store, saying I owed hundreds of dollars in rented and unreturned DVDs, and thousands more in contractually agreed upon penalties. I had never been to the store before, and thought if I did then I might talk to the manger and get to the bottom of what had happened. The manager was indeed quite nice and most helpful. She pulled out a copy of the drivers license they had taken a Xerox of when the account was set up, and though it had my name and address, the photo was of a young African American man. (I am white.) So the store agreed it wasn’t really my debt. But because of their contract with the collection agency, they had surrendered their rights of authority to that debt, and the collection agency still wanted to be paid. And having no idea who the actual fraudulent debtor was, they went after the bird they had in hand: me. They didn’t win, of course, but they screwed up my credit and made my life miserable for months in the hope I would eventually cave and cut them a check.
These two personal anecdotes are reflective of the risks of commerce in a non-cash-only society. Though one was before the days of automatic electronic withdrawals, both were made possible by an electronic, computerized system born of convenience, where the phone company and and the adult store gave people credit based only on what their electronic, computerized reports said was appropriate. And in both cases, it was not the government that made my life miserable, it was places of business.
I don’t know Megan McArdle, so I can’t really tell her these stories. But even if I could, I am pretty sure I know what would happen: She would explain to me how what happened to me might have been the actions of corporations, but were really the fault of government. Because Megan McArdle is an Online Person. How she defines herself online is not as a person who wants the world to work better than it does now, but as a person who is not some liberal who foolishly trusts the government. So rather than have a system of trade-offs with inherent flaws that might be looked at, we instead have have a force for good (the market) and a force for evil (the government), and all subsequent conclusions flow from that single starring point.
As I get older, I find that I can happily work in my real-life world with people of any political or cultural vantage point who say “there are many problems with this idea, we should try to determine how big they are and if there are workable solutions.” And I find too that I have no place in that real-life world for people who look at everything through the prism of what they are against.
Those people I am happy to leave to my Online People life.
Image credit: Wikipedia.