Sunday, September 23, 2012

Consumerism and its complexities (abridged)

Ban the Barcode (2012) Kodakotype by Pants

I half-heard an item on the radio recently about the possibility that Australia might dispense with coins entirely in the near future. The problem is that few people now pay in cash, even for a couple of supermarket items or a coffee. The Australian Mint is teetering on the cusp of viability. It may be reduced to producing coins for other nearby countries and collectible limited editions for the local market. No wonder ads for these seem to be showing up in my letterbox rather a lot lately.

We've already lost the 1c and 2c coins and prices are 'rounded' if you're paying in cash. The 'rounding' is a bit strange, calling to mind a couple of memories. On my first trip to Italy in the early 1980s, the nation was in the grip of that strange phenomenon of the period, stagflation. The lira denominations were all in thousands and hundreds of thousands. You sure had to keep an eye on the number of noughts on your notes. I actually don't remember any coins, but surely there had to have been some. Rome without coins would be like a movie without popcorn. I do remember handing over a fistful of notes in the supermarket and receiving a couple of boiled sweets as change.

The other memory I have from around the same time, and this really speaks to my general distrust of the mechanisation of human transactions, is that there was a celebrated case in Britain of a bank employee who diverted fractions of interest-earned pennies that would normally go to the bank into his own account. Because there is no such thing as 'a bit of a penny', the bank didn't miss what it didn't think it had. That fractions of a unit that is fixed and finite can add and multiply was just too weird to trust at the time. That was the eighties and this is now. People are making fortunes on any number of things that don't exist.

I like cash. I like to pay in cash. I budget even when I don't need to. This is very likely a self-delusional game that I play to convince myself that I am pious and spartan when, in fact, I could have anything I want within the scope of middle-class reason. But, then again, for someone with a work history for which 'chequered' would appear to be a supreme compliment, I seem to have rather a sound asset base. I must be doing something right. I suspect that something might be a parsimony that frequently topples into meanness.

Not everyone who pays by card instead of cash is doing so to incur debt. A lot of people who could pay with cash use their cards for the 'rewards'. The price paid in lost privacy for a minuscule discount seems absurdly high to me. But I'm one of those people who thinks that someone, somewhere will find a way to use all that data in ways that are contrary to the common good. In my mind, it's entirely possible that, in the future, decisions may be made about a person's entitlement to care or treatment based on this kind of data. 

Paranoid? Very likely. But, market-based economies don't tend to tolerate loss-making activity. Already Australians are beginning to fret about how all those baby boomers are going to be looked after once they stop contributing to the tax base. You see the logic deficit? That's what worries me. I'm at the tail end of that demographic. By the time I reach old age, believe me, they'll be looking for reasons not to care. They won't find them in my credit card bills.

But that's not why I like coins. I have a fair collection of foreign coins, many of them no longer in circulation. I like them as objects. I sometimes use them in artworks, most notably in my only piece of 'public art' back in 2007. Coins are the bones of antiquity and the precious metal of childhood. Oh the joy of filling a Commonwealth Bank money box! It was all so much more seemly when wealth could be weighed.

There is nothing that pleases me more than to spend the last couple of dollars in my purse on something worthwhile, like a second-hand book. When I lived in London I often used to empty all the coins left in my purse in a piece of our shared garden where the children played and listen for their glee as they found them.

In a nation obsessed with an individual's net worth, I make it a point not to care about mine or anyone else's. In any case, one's true wealth is measured in small change.