September 2nd, 2013

A Purple Straw Hat

_The End of Money_, David Wolman, kindle edition

Subtitled : Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers--and the Coming Cashless Society

The hardcover of this came out in 2012. The current kindle and, one assumes, the paperback edition include additional information written after the publication of the hardcover.

There's a whole genre of non-fiction out there where someone lines up a publisher for a book idea wherein the author will do ... something ... for a year and write about how that turned out/made them feel/what they learned. There's some amount of background research included, but it is more about personal reporting and personal experience than it is about conveying a detailed or comprehensive body of knowledge.

I have mixed feelings about this genre. In a way, it's my Very Favorite Kind of Non-Fiction, when it's something the author is really obsessed about and they write in an engaging way and they're really good (and somewhat brutal) at describing their feelings. Alas, because it is a Genre, there are more and more of these books where the author isn't actually all that obsessed and they don't come across as honest about their feeling experience or, worse, they come across as kind of judgy in a not-good way (there is judgy in a good way).

Wolman does a decent job. The goal was to not use/touch physical (paper or metal) money for a year. He does describe some incidents where that was Not Possible and how he dealt with that (notably, during the visit to India, he just got cash and spent cash). He recognizes that spending a year using only cash would likely have been much more difficult, but because he allowed his family to preserve some sense of privacy, we don't really get a sense of just how much his domestic arrangements helped him get around some of the need-cash moments. We only hear about the ones where an interview subject picks up the tab.

His background research was decent, and altho there were points where I felt he could have been a little more critical of his sources, he did spend a little time getting into whether people really carry around an average of $79 dollars.

Wolman started and ended the book in roughly the same place: paper and metal money will become increasingly marginalized, and that is a good thing. Traceability, when handled sensitively, can better balance individual and group values. For most of us, a loss of anonymity is already accepted, because we have switched so many of our payments to more traceable/less anonymous systems. He spent time talking to people who felt very strongly that paper and metal money should go away, and people who considered that part of End Times, and a variety in between; most seemed to believe even more strongly than him that cash was on its way out.

I wished at times that Wolman had framed his comparisons more explicitly as comparisons between payment systems, and did a more thorough exploration of how much various systems cost and who bore those costs. He got so wrapped up in seigniorage, that he only glancingly mentions the other costs borne by the government in producing paper and metal money -- he acknowledges that if you did a complete job of analyzing the costs, things would look a little different, but he never really gets into how the government's willingness to shoulder the cost of providing the worst kind of payment system (universal, small payments) is part of why cash hangs on: no one else would willingly take that burden on.

Because this was written/researched at a point in time when things looked particularly dire for the Euro, some of Wolman's commentary already seems a bit dated. However, he does recognize the trend towards regionalization of currency and does a nice job of sketching that trend. He even recognizes Krugman as being an strongly anomalous opponent, without letting that turn into a general attack on Krugman.

Wolman spends some time on specifically physical aspects of currency (wearing out, germs). I felt his analysis here was quite weak; it just felt like he was so grossed out by even touching the stuff, that he really couldn't bear to get into all the other disturbing things people do to/with currency (also, not once do those penny souvenir things get mentioned! For why?!? Probably his kid is/was too young to be in love with them yet).

All in all, an enjoyable read on an important subject, in which the author takes a relatively nuanced but non-neutral stance and defends it well. Worth your time but may not age well.
A Purple Straw Hat

_New Life at Ground Zero_, Charles J. Orlebeke, not a review

I bought this when it came out, in 1997. I have a long-standing interest in cities, the built environment, land use, development, blah, blah, bleeping, blah. This is subtitled:

New York, Home Ownership, and the Future of American Cities

You can sort of see why I picked it up. Optimism about the future of cities and people living in them; it was really my thing then and it continues to be my thing now despite my extended, perhaps permanent, interlude in suburbia.

Anyway. This is "not a review", because I haven't and will not read it start-to-finish, page by page. I have a new project to go through the extensive sections of the library that I've never successfully read, not necessarily by reading them, but at least by understanding _why_ I've never been able to read them.

Orlebeke and the various people he worked with over the years and is writing about in this book are advocating for a particular style of old-school Republican housing policy: people should own homes ("decent" and "new" homes, specifically). Renting isn't good. Old homes aren't good. Density isn't so great, but if we're going to have Decent, Middle-Class people in the city again, we'll have to subsidize (because otherwise they will be too expensive and they'll just go out to the suburbs) "decent", "new" housing for them.

I did not understand any of this at the time I bought the book. Obvs, that strain of thinking about housing has never been strong and has since been mostly folded into the more-ignored parts of the Democratic Party, having no home in the current, smaller-tent version of the Republican Party. Equally obvs, private production of housing in NYC has always been more successful by virtually any standard, certainly since this book was published. Less obvious may be all the damage done by the ideals pursued by Orlebeke and the people he describes. You can see that damage in the two photos on the cover. The "decent", "new" housing on the bottom is low density, two story townhomes on streets populated by SUVs and station wagons, not buses, pedestrians and bicycles.

As a general rule, attempting to provision nice things for people of fewer means is not best done by supplying new things. New tends to involve a bigger markup, and people of more means frequently tire of their homes, cars, clothes, books and toys long before they've seen much wear at all. We all knew this growing up, and shopped at garage sales, bought used books and cars, etc., etc. If you run a taxpayer funded housing program focused on the middle-class, and on subsidized new housing, I just don't see how you create good land-use policy, foster beneficial development, improve the tax base, create social justice or meaningfully help those who actually need it.

I extensively sampled _New Life at Ground Zero_, and I only see more to convince me of what a bad idea this all was, especially in conjunction with some googling about What Happened in the ensuing decades. This is just another round of people with Bright Ideas who Don't Want to Negotiate, who Just Want to Make It Happen Fast, who are Convinced of Their Own Brilliance -- and who do damage wherever they are allowed to act. Which, fortunately, isn't that often.