Cash no longer king

  • February 29, 2024

You approach the cashier at the gas station with a chocolate bar, a bottle of water and a bag of chips.

Before you can pass a crisp $20 bill to the attendant, he or she tells you, “I’m sorry, sir (or madam), we do not accept cash here. Debit, credit or mobile payments only, please.” The worker then points to the sign that escaped your gaze.

Whether the citizens of this vast domain like it or not, Canada is in lockstep with many nations worldwide in becoming an increasingly cashless society, and this phenomenon is about to intensify dramatically over the next decade. Many powerful entities are also gung ho, perhaps even hell-bent, about ushering in this digital money revolution.

According to the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based think tank, more than 130 countries, representing 98 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP), are currently exploring a central bank digital currency (CBDC).

Eleven countries, including Nigeria, Jamaica and The Bahamas, have fully launched CBDCs. Pilot testing of the program in China reportedly affects over 260 million people, and Sweden, the United Kingdom, Brazil and India are also at the forefront of this sea change.

Meanwhile, the Bank of Canada (BOC) continues researching the possibility of a Digital Canadian Dollar. The BOC is approaching work on the digital dollar with the goals to “maximize privacy and give Canadians full control over their data” and “help every Canadian, everywhere, participate in the economy.” Finally, the BOC writes that a CBDC “would complement bank notes, not replace them.”

Dr. Josephine Gemson, an associate professor teaching finance and economics courses at King’s University College, a Catholic liberal arts institution federated with Western University in London, Ont., said she would welcome a CBDC if it indeed supplements the existing monetary ecosystem of cash, cards, mobile payments and cryptocurrency because of its many potential advantages.

“The main goal of the central bank digital currency is to provide businesses as well as consumers with features like privacy, transferability, convenience, accessibility and financial security,” said Gemson.

Gemson acknowledged that one of the drawbacks of cashless transactions could be that it “leaves a lot of information around wherever you go” — who you are, where you were, what you bought and from whom you purchased your goods and services. She said the blockchain-based technology that will operate the digital dollar will help with privacy as it will ensure this trail remains hidden if the consumer desires. Also, she said, it will provide financial security because “if the (currency) gets lost, is missing or there is fraud, you can track backwards,” unlike cash.

Professor Saeed Moshiri, economics department head for St. Thomas More College, a Catholic liberal arts institute allied with the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, said it “will be probably less costly to produce a digital currency than paper currencies because it does not require physical materials.”

While a digital dollar has its champions, some critics view CBDCs as a tool that could tread on individual liberties.

Michael Ryall, a Catholic professor and policy director for Florida Atlantic University’s Madden Centre for Value Creation, has noticed that uncomfortable observations he has made while examining the ties between artificial intelligence (A.I.) and business ethics apply to digital currencies. Whether it is “tech bros in Silicon Valley,” people studying A.I. or politicians, Ryall said these people in leadership “have become pretty obsessed in using these technologies to control populations.”

He cites the talking points perennially surfacing out of events hosted by international non-governmental organizations such as the World Economic Forum’s annual general meeting in Davos, Switzerland, as evidence. These summits attract influential political figures, business leaders, social activists, celebrities and journalists.

“People are focused on these digital technologies,” said Ryall, also a professor emeritus of strategic management at the University of Toronto. “Why is that? It seems to be, ‘if we could just get our populations on some sort of digital passport, a social credit score or something along these lines, then we will have Utopian outcomes where everyone will behave themselves, and we can manage things with a very refined public policy.’ ”

Ryall said the federal government’s actions during the Freedom Convoy of 2022 should give people pause about supporting a state-backed digital currency.

“When there were people who donated $50, next thing you know, the government went to the banks and told them, ‘you need to shut down these people’s bank accounts,’ ” said Ryall. “They were all shut down. The banks didn’t even pause for 30 seconds.”

Moshiri, of St. Thomas More College, agreed “this would be a major concern” if the central bank monopolized the digital dollar market. “However, if private companies create more competition with their own digital currencies, central bank currencies won’t be the only ones. Worried people can switch to another one.”

But the question arises: would such competition be allowed to coexist in this digital ecosystem?

As for the pressing question of whether Canadians will adopt a new system, Gemson, of King’s University College, said the public has tacitly approved a more cashless society by the way people have adapted to “contactless payments and social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

According to a study released in November 2023 by Payments Canada, formerly the Canadian Payment Association, there has been a “59-per-cent decrease in the volume of cash payments and a 41-per-cent decrease in the value of cash purchases” from 2017-2022, and only “31 per cent of Canadians use cash for day-to-day purchases.” However, 55 per cent of 1,500 respondents “have no desire to go cashless.”

The BOC’s Digital Canadian Dollar Public Consultation Report, also finalized last November, reveals that 85 per cent of the 89,423 surveyed Canadians indicated “I would not use a Canadian digital dollar.” A similar dominant majority (79 per cent) declared that “regulation should be introduced to require merchants to accept cash as a form of payment.”

Sixty per cent of Canadians voted “strongly disagree” to the statement, “I am confident that the Bank of Canada will consider the public’s feedback as it builds the capability to issue a digital version of the Canadian dollar.”

While the secular commentariat focuses on the legal and social aspects of the debate, what guidance is there for Catholics and Christians seeking to navigate these new waters? The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a message about the morality of economic systems. Paragraph 2426 says “economic life is not meant solely to multiply goods produced and increase profit or power; it is ordered first of all to the service of persons, of the whole man, and of the entire human community. Economic activity, conducted according to its own proper methods, is to be exercised within the limits of the moral order, in keeping with social justice so as to correspond to God’s plan for man.”

Whether or not participating in a digital dollar system adheres to the moral teachings of God and the Church is a question each believer must discern. The answer can be challenging. For example, while Ryall warned about the downsides of CBDCs, he said an argument could be made that “it could be effective at curbing crimes” like the fentanyl crisis if these dealers have an increasingly complex time accessing cash.

Of course, the Bible contains no verses that directly and unambiguously comment on money in a cashless system. Tangible assets like gold and silver were the currency standard of the day. In Genesis 12, God blessed Abraham and his household with gold and silver to go with livestock. In King’s 1:10, the splendour of Solomon was so great that he received 25 tons of gold each year.

Some of the many lessons of God’s economy are that He owns everything (Exodus 9:29), you cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:24), work hard for money (Proverbs 10:4) and glorify the Lord by giving possessions to the poor (Luke 12:33-34).

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