×

Editorial: Resist the cashless society


Sunday, December 31, 2017

Livestock are the earliest known form of money, but try paying for a sandwich with a chicken. Unless New Hampshire lawmakers act, diners and shoppers may find that paying with cash gets the same kind of response: “That currency isn’t accepted here.”

Some businesses, though their numbers are dwindling, insist on cash, in part to escape the transaction fees charged by banks and credit card companies. Lately, a growing, though still small, number of businesses are refusing cash and requiring payment by credit or debit card or phone-based applications like Apple Pay or Dig Inn. Airlines stopped accepting cash for in-flight drinks or other amenities years ago. Will the future be a cashless society? Frankly, we hope not.

Business owners who’ve eschewed cash say it saves them time in the form of counting and recounting and trips to the bank; money by increasing employee productivity; and risk in the form of robbery or theft. No doubt that’s true, but can they get away with requiring digital money?

It says right on a dollar bill “legal tender for all debts public and private,” but here’s the catch, according to the Treasury: In order to insist that a business accept cash the customer has to be a debtor. If a diner orders a sandwich, consumes it and then, when the check comes, is told that the restaurant does not accept cash, the restaurateur is in the wrong. The diner, at that point, is in debt to the restaurant for the cost of the sandwich and the business can either accept the proffered cash or the sandwich is on the house. But if the diner is told, before ordering, that cash is not accepted, the customer can either accept the restaurant’s terms or go elsewhere.

We’ll confess to mild annoyance when a shopper in the express line pays with a check. This is, or about to be, 2018 after all. And we assume that establishments that don’t accept cash don’t accept checks either. But insisting on digital money presents a few problems.

First, millions of people, most of them low-income, have no digital money. They are, so to speak, “unbanked.” A cashless establishment legally, though perhaps inadvertently, discriminates against them. At least one of the businesses on the cutting edge of the cashless economy, the Sweetgreen salad restaurant chain, may, according to one of its founders, install Sweetgreen gift card machines that accept cash to serve them. That move might also appeal to privacy buffs.

Which brings us to problem two. Americans are already tracked nine ways to Sunday by cell phone GPS locators, E-ZPass transponders, computers, surveillance cameras and other devices. Do we want to add where and what we ate or bought, or what service was rendered, to that record? We think not.

Finally, once while trying to withdraw vacation cash from an ATM, lightning hit a nearby utility pole. That apparently signaled the machine that it was under attack, so it ate the debit card. Digital currency, as the residents of Puerto Rico soon discovered, doesn’t work when the power is out. Cash does.

Massachusetts, as far as we know, is the only state that requires that businesses accept cash. New Hampshire lawmakers should consider whether to follow their lead.