Stephen Burke

Cash money in commercial use has been declining for years, and in some places can be used hardly or not at all, in some cases by ignorance and in some by design.

In Ithaca you might be at a clothing store and approach the checkout with two shirts to purchase, and when the cashier sees you take green paper from your wallet rather than a charge card, she might panic.

“You want to use cash?” she might say.

“Yes,” you might reply.

“Um — do you have exact change?”

“Well, I won't really know till I find out the exact price, which will include tax, but I probably don’t, because I don’t have any coins, so the odds are 99 to 1 against it, at least.”

“Can you wait while I call a manager?” she might say, and then she’ll relievedly learn that there is a cash register on the premises that actually contains cash, so the two of you can go there.

It suggests that the terms “cash register” and “cashier” are now misnomers, practically. Maybe it should be “sales register” and “scanier,” although of course one activates the card oneself. Maybe “scanier” will prove enduringly useful when we can’t use cards anymore and have to have a commercial account number embedded on a chip in our bodies for businesses to scan.

If not strict correlation, one at least sees connections between disinclination towards cash and penchant for authoritarian attitudes, or at least illiberal ones.

Last month I was at a minor league baseball game in Scranton. The entrance lines were long, as they were using airport search methods: pockets emptied for inspection, arms outstretched and legs spread for wand-waving. Did they think someone would hijack or blow up the game?

On the way in, one then sees signs: This is a cashless facility. Concession stands and food vendors accept credit cards only.

In other words, just as you can’t enter the park without a full body search, legal tender is no good here. If you are one of the 25% of seniors or 50% of low income Americans who don’t have a credit card, don’t get hungry or thirsty here. What are old and poor people doing trying to enjoy themselves at a ball game anyway?

Another outing to a game, in Binghamton, showed the New York town to be a comparative bastion of liberty.

There was a long line to get in, but just because it was a big Friday, with a special promotion honoring Girl Scouts, and fireworks after the game.

At the box office, the worker seemed unperturbed by the idea of selling tickets for U.S. dollars. He chatted as he did it and even made change.

At the entrance there were no searches, only smiles.

In Scranton, one of my group had a purse, and was forbidden to bring it in. She had to return to the parking lot and lock it in the car trunk.

In Binghamton, one of my group also had a purse, and it occurred to me to mention the Scranton experience before we got in line. My friend asked a staffer about the situation there.

“Oh, of course you can bring that in,” the staffer said. “They might ask to look in it at the gate.”

They didn’t.

Inside, people and vendors exchanged cash money for hot dogs and beer like it was a normal thing to do. Bank of America, American Express, et al. were not involved and did not get a cut.

Proponents of credit cards have long encouraged businesses to promote credit card use because then people don’t feel the impact of their spending, and spend more.

In this highly focused yet broadly illustrative exploration of cash and credit use at minor league ballparks, I can attest this is true. I know I spent exactly $15 in Binghamton because I extracted that much from my wallet: the amount the vendor requested. I don’t know what I spent in Scranton, because I never looked at the screen, just touched my card to it. I know it was high, but I didn’t care, as it was just vapor, not money.

Credit cards do have a bona fide business value, in transferring money safely and quickly.

Of course in prior times businesses worried less about cash security because people used checks for large purchases. When I relocated to Ithaca in the 1990s, GreenStar Co-op, for one prominent example of a big, consumer-oriented business, didn’t even accept credit cards, just cash and checks.

But the credit card companies made their products faster to use, eliminated annual fees, and offered premiums for use. Now they’re ubiquitous and have basically obliterated checks for consumer use. If the Scranton ball club had its way, they’d replace cash too.

In baseball, a pitcher’s “control” is fundamentally important. It’s important in finances and life, too.

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