Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Use of Money to Maintain Connection (and Toilet Paper)

Pandemic Insights
Bill Maurer in Anthropology News, American Anthropological Association(AAA)

When I received an email containing one of the first Covid-19 payment memes—“How do you wish to pay?”, with an image of Visa, MasterCard, and a roll of toilet paper—I thought, OK, there might be some interesting payment and money things I should pay attention to during this pandemic. Students and colleagues sent me lots more toilet-paper themed memes and made jokes: about scenes of barter, the transactors trying to determine an exchange rate; toilet paper on a golden platter; stores accepting toilet paper rolls for one cup of coffee or one scoop of ice cream (“must be new; one roll per visit”). A satirical (I think!) account of a churchgoer placing a roll of toilet paper on the collection plate. One Sunday afternoon my family ordered delivery. Every order over $40 came with a free roll of toilet paper.

In between all the new kinds of work involved in transitioning a large university to fully-online operations, I filed away the toilet paper stuff in a special email folder. Toilet paper economies.

But when the University of California, Irvine Graduate Division announced that it would henceforth accept scanned forms and digital signatures (it has long been a preserve and holdout of paper) and more than that, suspend all fee payment associated with those forms—which heretofore had to be paid with paper check—I thought, game on! This pandemic is changing payment.

Some establishments—my local ice creamery, for instance—have suspended all in-store payments and require customers to pay online for curbside pickups. Some places ask you to Venmo. CNN aired a segment on cash as a possible vector for viruses, and a company offering contactless tap-and-pay card readers has launched a marketing blitz. But cash is still there, too. In fact, cash demand is way, way up. It is at the restaurants offering take-out whose proprietors prefer the one-way transmission of cash to the back-and-forth passing of card or card terminal between customer and vendor. It is in the cash stashes people are starting to build up. A reporter from the Financial Times called me asking why people are stockpiling cash (not just toilet paper) when the cash distribution system is not likely to be disrupted the way it has been when hurricanes and floods knock out servers or the electricity grid.

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