postings by Bill Maurer and Stephen Rea

Platform, Infrastructure, Utility?

posted by Bill Maurer & Stephen Rea

While we’ve been blogging, Stevie has begun his dissertation fieldwork in Korea. He emailed Bill the other day: “Yesterday I opened a bank account here in Seoul, and conducted the entire interaction in Korean. For some reason, I don't get an ATM card, which is really strange. But in all likelihood I had no idea what the teller was trying to say to me, so I might end up getting a card in the mail next week or something. As ‘technophiliac’ as this culture seems to be, cash is still king; outside of the large department stores and global restaurant chains, I don't see any POS terminals.”

There’s hype, there’s reality, and there’s possibility around all the cashlessness claims that follow on the heels of mobile and other digital payment platforms. We want to conclude our guest blogging with a gesture toward some of the possibilities of mobile money--and a challenge for the Credit Slips community.

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Cash as Social Infrastructure

posted by Bill Maurer & Stephen Rea

Sticker in San Francisco: "Of course it's cash-only, it's the Mission."

Overheard: "Oooh, yeah, no, we don't take cards. Because the coffee is, like, local?" (both items courtesy Lana Swartz)

The word “cash” derives from Latinate words referring to “a chest or box for storing money,” not the money itself. The term originally meant the practices of storing, and the objects used to store items of value – not just money -- as well as the act of going to those storage devices to receive money (to “cash” a bill of exchange,, meant to go to the specific box where the money was). Cash as we know it today is more than a store of value and a medium of exchange; it has symbolic, pragmatic and artistic functions. In the US, even before Durbin, small merchants placed an extra surcharge on credit or offered discounts if customers used cash. Research being conducted at the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI) is bringing to light a host of social, ritual and religious uses of cash and coin beyond their economic functions. What's their relationship to, say, mobile money? For us, they are design challenges more than anything else (see, e.g., the Royal Canadian Mint's MintChip, or discussions among developers about Google Wallet). Building an infrastructure for digital payments, especially in places that have been cash-only, entails some connection to the existing social infrastructures of cash.

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Cash: Killing It, or Building Bridges to It?

posted by Bill Maurer & Stephen Rea

Much has been written about the inherent riskiness of cash. It is dangerous because it can be lost, stolen, eaten, destroyed, etc. It is dangerous because it is difficult to track, thereby helping to facilitate crime. Many a potboiler plot hinges on a cache of unmarked bills. Anyone remember Trixie Belden? “‘That governess of yours won’t argue when I tell her to leave a fat roll of unmarked bills under a stone at the Autoville entrance tonight. She won’t notify the police either.’ He reached up a grimy hand and touched one of Honey’s shoulder-length curls. ‘Not when I send her a lock of your pretty hair with the note, eh?’” (Julie Campbell, Trixie Belden and the Red Trailer Mystery, New York: Random House Children’s Books, 1950, p.180).

In the comments on our last post, we can clearly see two poles of the cash debate: cash is for criminals, but digital payment will welcome Big Brother into our wallets. Why so stark a choice? Last year, the Fletcher School held a conference titled, “Killing Cash.” It was framed explicitly in terms of the possibility that “mobile money”—mobile phone enabled payment and money transfer services, like Safaricom Kenya’s much vaunted M-PESA—heralds the possible end of cash and coin. Most of these services work on a prepaid model via the mobile telecommunications network – basically like prepaid airtime minutes for a top-up (not subscription) phone (nice article here on e-money in Central Africa by Andrew Zerzan; short piece here on mobile money regulation). I put cash into the system by visiting an agent. The agent sells me “e-money” in exchange for my cash, and gets a commission. I can now send e-money to another client on the network, who goes to another agent to cash it out (usually without a commission). Or, I leave the value in my mobile wallet, for a little while or for a long time. This is not an “end of cash” scenario, however. It’s an addition of e-money to what had been—for the poor, without access to financial services and digital financial platforms—a cash-only world.

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Toward Cashlessness?

posted by Bill Maurer & Stephen Rea

One of my students came across a humorous blog post from February, 2012. Titled, “What your payment method reveals about you,” the author listed a series of unlikely payment actions and a line on the presumed personal characteristics of the payer. The humor appeals to… well, us, anyway, and probably you, too.

Slinging your card down: You've definitely shoved a dog's face away from you because "move."
Slinging cash down: You've consumed alcohol that's involved whipped cream in the past week.
Using your Hello Kitty-themed card: You have many other credit cards.
Handing a bag of nickels and dimes, uncounted: You are nine.

Around the same time, the United States Agency for International Development launched an initiative to replace the use of cash in aid efforts with electronic forms of value transfer:

"If you care about reducing poverty, then you must also care about reducing the reliance on physical cash. We begin a movement to do just that.  USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah is announcing a broad set of reforms [in order to] reduce the development industry’s dependence on cash.  This includes integrating new language into USAID contracts and grants to encourage the use of electronic and mobile payments and launching new programs in 10 countries designed to catalyze the scale of innovative payments platforms."

The USAID “Better Than Cash” program was the culmination of at least a year’s discussion internally and with major donor agencies over the costs of cash for the poor--the heightened risk of theft associated with physical currency, the anonymity of cash, the difficulty in transporting and storing cash for those without access to formal financial institutions. Our own work has been enlisted in this effort, yet we are a bit more circumspect: although there are  very real problems associated with cash, there are also virtues. One of these virtues is that cash is publicly issued, not privately enclosed and tolled like most electronic forms of value transfer, and almost always accepted at par value. We’ll return to this topic as we examine some mobile phone-enabled money transfer and payment systems in the developing world, and regulatory responses to them, that might provide useful models. Over the course of the week, we will look closely at cash and how the debate over cashlessness—at times downright silly—is getting more serious, as at least some major actors shift from “the evils of cash” to “the benefits of an agnostic digital payment platform.” We think this is a consequential shift.

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