Charged Up! podcast: Going from a cash-based to a cashless society

Episode 73 with BBC journalist, author, filmmaker Jacques Peretti

Charged Up! with Jenny Hoff


Your spending habits have changed dramatically over the last 15 years and it's not by accident. In his book, "The Deals That Made the World," BBC journalist, author and filmmaker Jacques Peretti outlines exactly what went down behind the scenes to move us from a cash-based to a cashless society. Trends aren't always by accident and new habits are often pre-designed.

So, let's get charged up! about learning how certain deals changed the way we live our lives!

See related: How "cashless" trend affects those who rely on cash


So, let's start with your background. This is a fascinating book, "The Deals That Made the World," and you go over lots of different topics and we're going to concentrate today on the system of cash and credit how we use it now, but first tell me a little bit about your background and how you did this book in the first place.

Peretti: Yes so I've been a BBC journalist for 10 maybe 15 years and I've made many many documentaries. What I've began to notice- I started to look at a kind of common theme with all the films that I've been making and I realized that essentially, whatever I looked at, there was always the kind of deal that was at the heart of what had happened, and it was often a business deal. And so, I started to think, well, business really has been the kind of the motor for how our lives changed, and that's what I want to do examine.

Hoff: So how did you choose the deals that you chose?

Peretti: Well I looked to all the wide ranging aspects of human behavior, so, our day to day lives from the moment we wake up, to toothpaste we choose to use, the cash we spend, the jobs we go to, the leisure time that we spend, our consumer habits; all of these things. The very sort of integral nature of the way we live our lives has been affected by these things and I want to look at how wide ranging those have been.

Hoff: Absolutely, and I love it because you take us in the back room behind every deal and how the choices that we make we think we make independently, but of course, in a way it was orchestrated that we would be making those choices. So, it's very eye opening when you think, well, I just got that new cellphone because I wanted to, but really everything is motivated. So we tap into the psychology of human beings, and you go through several deals involving tech upgrades, food, drugs, work, risk, tax, wealth, robots and cash, and we're going to concentrate on cash, and the deal that you say brought us from a physical currency world to a cashless world and how that will affect how we live our lives and how we spend our money. And you say in the book that PayPal was a catalyst for this ever increasingly cashless society. Can you go into that a little bit?

Peretti: Yeah of course. What was really interesting was two things happened at the same time. So, Elon Musk, Peter Taylor, Max Levchin, who were three, at that time, entrepreneurs starting out in Silicon Valley that they got together and started PayPal. But at the same moment that they were doing that (the idea at that time in Silicon Valley was the gold rush was all about finding a secure online payment, and whoever could do that would monetize the internet which hadn't been monetized)- at that same moment, there was a guy at MIT called Drazen Prelec, and he was looking into pain of payment. So, he was looking into the neurological process that takes place when we actually pay for something with cash.

And those two things came together at a crucial moment. So, what he discovered with his MIT experiments was that when you pay with cash, you actually feel physical neural pain. You know that flinch but when you hand over money? There's a sort of moment where you actually don't want to hand it over; that's a neurological process. And so, what the guys at PayPal discovered at the same time was the faster you make the payment, the less there is the neurological pain, the less pain there is. And as a result, the faster the payment, the more you are inclined to spend.

This was kind of like a road to Damascus experience. There was a moment where they discovered that once you start making payments contactless or online, then you're free to spend without that pain, and you will spend whatever you will spend. What was really amazing was Draven did an experiment at MIT with some of the students where he put together an auction for a fictional basketball game. He said this could be a final, and basically you bid for the game. And what he found was that people who bid with cash would just bid up to the face value of the ticket, so they wouldn't bid beyond that. But he found that when people paid with credit cards or Contactless, they would literally bid six times the amount of the value. So, he said that, literally, once you don't see physically the cash in front of you, you become untethered from the reality of spending, and so you're prepared to spend whatever it takes to get what you want. And this revelation came at the same moment that PayPal were launching a version of online payment. And so, it was an extraordinary moment where you basically would be able to spend without that neurological pain, and it transformed payment.

Hoff: And then you go in the book about how eBay and PayPal teamed up, and that eBay tapped into even a more infantile part of our brains where it is a game that you're playing, or it's gambling at a casino, and even if it's nothing that you ever wanted or ever thought that you wanted, suddenly you want to win that bid and people went out of control when it came to using this online currency that was nothing more than a touch with the button, and then at the same time in this very gambling moment game. Can you go into that a little bit?

Peretti: Yeah. So, it's basically like the reinfantilization of the consumer. So, when you're a child, you say, 'I want that and I want it now.' There's no sense of any pain. You want an object. You want it instantaneously. And so, what you had with credit cards, first of all, far more effectively with contactless payment and so, was the idea that essentially you could have that childhood experience. I want it and I want it now.

And so, we became reinfantilized as consumers by this behavior. And what eBay was about was very cunningly recreating the idea of the- it came about at the same moment as online gambling took off, and here was this idea of a kind of addiction to the idea of spending just as you would with gambling. So, it was a really interesting moment with the internet. And I think what they did was they kind of cunningly recreated the idea of the bizarre, so it was the idea of a kind of marketplace. That's all eBay was- a platform, rather like Google's platform or Facebook's platform, it's a platform for basically anything with any variable of value added to it. And I think what was interesting was that when you start to bid, you get into that gambling mindset; it has a kind of addictive quality, and that was what they knew about when they launched it. And so that tied to PayPal becomes a kind of intoxicating combination.

Hoff: Yeah. And it's amazing, you did mention credit cards as well, and how actually these students subjected themselves to MRI scans that showed that there is an actual neurological event that takes place when you have to pay with cash versus when you have to pay with card. Can you talk about credit cards and how it has now evolved into these online payments? Obviously at we talk about controlling your cards but there you still have to physically take out a card. There is some sort of emotion involved. And now when you move it to where you don't have to do anything about it, what do you see changing as far as our habits go?

Peretti: Well, when credit cards first arrived, they were a business card. So essentially, if you see the early ads for American Express and so on, what they are is, you see a sort of suave, white male businessman sitting on a plane, and a stewardess walks down the aisle. He flashes his card. And it's a bit like he's saying, 'I'm James Bond,' you know. It's an aspirational thing. I have this wealth, and it's tied up in this card. But what happened with credit cards was they moved from being a business tool to being a consumer tool. So they moved into the space of all of us using them.

What's kind of interesting is that all of the evolution of payment has been about making it ever more seamless, and so now you're going into a space where, when you have the Amazon stores where basically you just walk through, and essentially, the very fact that you walk through the store means you have paid for it (there's a store where there is no cash, there is no till, there is no need to pay for anything, you just walk out of the store). And so, we're in a space where payment becomes organic; it becomes evolutionary to the point where you make the payment without there being any neurological process whatsoever, and credit card companies are aware of this. And so, when you talk to Visa or MasterCard and so on, they say, 'Yeah, the seamless transaction is dangerous, actually.' And so, what we need to do is we need to almost put in what they describe as speed bumps in the process. So rather than just accelerating down the road to the consumer decision, you have various bumps at which the brain kicks in and says, 'No, hang on a sec. I'm paying for something, I do need to think about this.' And so, credit card companies are aware of that and the responsibility that comes with that and they are actually actively doing something to put those speed bumps in place.

Hoff: That's interesting, and have you heard any of what those speed bumps might be? A warning on your phone that says, 'You just purchased this,' or, 'You're thinking about purchasing this?'

Peretti: Yeah. So actually, the clunky things that first happened when you first started to pay online and so on, putting a number in, whatever that might be, they might reintroduce those things in order for you to feel like, actually I have to do something clunky which makes me start to think about what it is that I'm buying.

Hoff: Yeah absolutely. I mean, I know people who even sign up for the services through Chase or whatever bank it is that they sign up with that sends them an SMS the minute they buy something. So, in a way, even though you've already bought it, it is a reminder that you just did spend this much money, and maybe the next time you just remember it.

Hoff: Let's talk a little bit about credit card debt. I thought it was interesting that you talk about in the chapter that a lot of times people think that more low income people are just being irresponsible with money and they're not really financially agitated. You say that's not necessarily the truth. And again, you talk about how this little neurological trick is really racking up credit card debt for all Americans.

Peretti: Yeah, so that went from being a luxury to being a necessity and being actually the engine of the economy. So, when you look post 2008, post to crash where you're looking at is the deliberate policy on the part of banks and governments to increase the level of debt because debt becomes the engine for growth. I think we're slightly seeing a turnaround now because we're seeing a rebirth of manufacturing; interesting moment in the economy. But at that moment, what you were looking at was literally more debt as the solution to debt. And so what you have is instead of debt being a luxury thing where you would say, 'Oh I'll buy this consumer good, a new car or whatever it might be,' what you were looking at was credit cards being used to pay for electricity bills, for gas bills, for food, and so debt became normalized as a way of just literally the week to week budget. And I think at that moment when debt became normalized that was a real shift in terms of our attitude toward what debt is, and of course government is the macro version of that. So, the level of debt which governments are prepared to accept becomes -- You know, when Donald Trump was first elected, and he said, 'We have a lot of power as America, and the power we hold is the amount of debt we are in to other nations,' that is actual real power. And so, in the modern world there is power in a sense.

Hoff: Interesting. And you know when you think about it, when the banks have been offering no interest, essentially, there's really little incentive to save your money for a lot of people. So, they say, 'Why would I put the money in the bank, I'm not making anything off this,' which is the reason why you're not having any interest.

Peretti: Absolutely. Debtors are rewarded, savers are penalized for saving. And that goes back to "blackened shoals," the idea of that notion of debt risk being the motor of Wall Street rather than safety. So you had this notion in the mid-70s where there was a sort of philosophical shift in the way business was done where risk was seen as the way that you would be rewarded; the more you risked, the more you were rewarded down the line, whereas if you play it safe as a business, you're going to ultimately die. And so that kind of notion underpins debt in a way that underpins the modern economy.

Hoff: Absolutely. Interestingly, the game Monopoly I think was originally invented to show how dangerous debt can be and how dangerous, in a sense, capitalism could be when it's abused, when people buy up all the railroads and they can charge whatever they want. But I often play Monopoly with friends, and I'm a saver, and so I like money and my bank account and I never mortgaged my properties, and I'm always out very quickly because everybody else will totally mortgage their properties and buy the most expensive ones, and they are rewarded for that. So, it's interesting, the whole concept it's built into us from children almost because you play games like that, and you learn very quickly, 'OK, if I go into debt and if I take a lot of risk, I'm going to actually end up more successful than other people.' It's interesting, and now we're getting back to very high debt levels that we saw before 2008, so lessons aren't necessarily always learned.

Peretti: That's absolutely right.

Hoff: How do you think tech companies are gonna displace banks, if at all, or are they just going to work with them?

Peretti: Yeah, I think when we call them tech companies that's kind of a misnomer. They started out as tech companies, but ultimately what they want to be is the new banks, and they're quite clear about that, actually, because what they're about is sort of encroaching into every element of our lives. So, in a way, all the history of capitalism is one of monopolies being created and broken up by governments. We're at a point now where what we have is actually the creation of monopolies through the Silicon Valley companies, and the inability of government to be able to break up those monopolies. The Facebook crisis, there are things that in a put a bit of a jugger into the system, but they haven't really ultimately changed anything.

I think what you see with these companies is there's no limits on their ambition. That's what's so fantastic, and perhaps terrifying, but also fantastic about the way they operate. You know Bill Gates has his famous line about, 'No tech company now that is worth its salt is doing what it was doing six months ago.' i.e., it's target should always be something other than what it was doing six months ago. And I think when you look at Apple, you look at Google, Google's pay systems, Apple's pay systems, Facebook... Looking at, you know, when Mark Zuckerberg last year flew to Kenya, no one could quite understand in Kenya what he was doing there. What he was doing what he was looking at M-Pesa, which was a mobile money system which had entirely transformed the Kenyan economy. And what it had done was it had meant that poor Kenyans who had no bank accounts were able to leapfrog at a moment the whole system of banking to use mobile money. Now what Mark Zuckerberg was interested in was he was thinking, 'Well if we co-op M-Pesa on Facebook, we essentially become de facto the Bank of Africa. And one of the businesses that I talked to is very fascinating saying that mobile money is transformative for small businesses in Africa. Somebody carrying cash would have been mugged, would have been bribed in the past. She said, "Now all of a sudden I got my money on my phone and no one can do that to me." And she said, "I would never get a loan from a bank." And so, in a way it's kind of an interesting moment where tech companies are looking at the world and they're saying, 'Well actually, we don't even have to look at the top of the pyramid, we can look at the bottom of the pyramid.

The developing world is the real cash cow. We become the de facto bank for these emerging economies and for these emerging businesses and we own capitalism, and so, I think ultimately (and they make no secret of this), this is what we are about- we're about becoming the new banks. And at the moment I think there's a kind of cooperation between the traditional banks and the tech companies, but ultimately, the tech companies don't need the banks, but the banks need the tech companies.

Hoff: Hmm, interesting. Do you think there's going to be a backlash at all or a government regulation that comes down?

Peretti: When Donald Trump was elected he made a phone call famously to Rupert Murdoch and said, 'What can we do about regulating Silicon Valley?' And Rupert Murdoch laughed and said, 'Are you joking? Obama's been in their pocket for the last eight years.' It's interesting how the Facebook crisis around Cambridge Analytica played out because it's ultimately played out just like you know when you look at Mark Zuckerberg standing there in front of the Senate committee or whoever, they are in awe of him, and I think quite rightly so, because they sense intuitively the power shift. They know that the power lies with them. And so, I think what we're seeing is a kind of polite request for there to be some policing of what they're up to, but ultimately, Silicon Valley own the keys to the New World, and they know that.

Hoff: Interesting. And of course, they even own the ability to influence people, right? So, you as a politician, I mean, there's always probably going to be that fear in a politician's mind, 'If I go too hard on Silicon Valley they'll punish me in some way.'

Peretti: Yeah, I mean what we've seen the last 30 to 40 years is a kind of gradually in a way what the left would call corporate capture, but what we could quite rightly call the diminishing of the state, just in financial terms, and the stepping in of corporations to the space that the state would have occupied in the past. And it's gonna be a very interesting next 40 years where we see how the state evolves in terms of its relationship with these corporations, because I think when you talk to people like Paul Polman, who runs Unilever, or Indra Nooyi who runs Pepsi, what they talk about is corporate responsibility, not as some kind of lip service to, you know, oh we must do more for society, but actually they literally say global warming, poverty, inequality, these are real things that will affect our businesses unless we do something about it, and they realize the power that they hold transnationally that governments simply don't have. And I think they know that that space is the space they now occupy, and what they choose to do with that power, that's the question really.

Hoff: Yeah absolutely. I thought it was also interesting in the book when you talked about how we do see that a lot of the countries in the developing world, just as a necessity, and because their cell phones are kind of their life that there's a lot of smaller developing countries and cities that are going cashless faster than they are in the western world, and that there are some cities and countries in Europe that are going cashless very quickly. And you mentioned Sweden and Holland, Holland with the homeless people wearing certain jackets, and then in Sweden how bank robberies have diminished so fast because there's no money in the banks. Can you go into that? What are we seeing? What are those cities and those countries starting to look like?

Peretti: Yeah well that story was just a great story where a guy basically goes in with a shotgun into a bank and says," Give me all your money," and they go, “We go to have any money. We literally don't have any cash, I'm really sorry." And the guy sort of walks out really deflated. This is the new world. It's kind of phenomenal. I mean the homeless coat thing's really interesting. So, university developed this idea of, you basically swipe your card against the guy's coat, and that gives cash to their account. Now actually that's been developed. So, there's been a homeless community that put together this idea that they can sort of crowd fund their own accommodation if they all get the same swipe through their coats. It's an interesting moment where you sort of look at that and you think, 'Is that brilliant or is it terrible?' The technology is amazing but socially you think, 'Is that right or is it horrendous? I can't work out which one it is.' But there's no doubt, when you talk to all the tech companies, they all say that the developed world is hampered by its 20th century infrastructure.

The architecture, the road the planning, all the laws are pre-internet laws, and so they say when you try to get anything done, it's really cumbersome and unwieldy and it takes too long. Whereas when you look at the developing world, they can leapfrog all the 20th century infrastructure because they never had it to start with. And so, they can become digital automatically, and that has created a kind of level playing field where places like Singapore and Taiwan and South Korea- you see Asia suddenly sort of grow to head of Britain, Europe, America and so on. It's a really interesting moment of a power shift because countries that aren't encumbered by all that pre-internet stuff, they can suddenly motor in the fast lane to the future. And so, I think that's where we're at. That feels to me the space we're in now.

Hoff: Yeah absolutely. It's a fascinating space to be in because we go to a lot of conferences and we hear a lot of fintech conferences about developments that are happening with apps or with payment systems, and to see which one is going to be the one that actually takes over will be interesting. And in fact, talking about that, I want to talk about a blockchain a bit. If you go into a little bit of history of blockchain and how it works, and then what role it is playing in our currency today.

Peretti: I think block chain is going to be basically as important as the internet. Blockchain I think is quite simple. What it started out with was a security system. It was a way of making fantastically big financial deals secure. So, when you talk to bankers, finance people, they talk about it as a digital handshake. And what they mean by that is, in the past, security was an issue because you would have various people holding the information in place, whereas what you have with blockchain, the analogy is with a nuclear submarine. When you get the nuclear key in a submarine, there's no one person to hold the code. The code is held by six or seven different parties, and those parties have to come into the conversation of the deal at specific moments to write the close. So, in a way, this blockchain technology was used to make multibillion dollar deals secure, and in a way that was the genesis of blockchain.

But what blockchain has evolved into, I think, is it's evolved into a potentially revolutionary tool for us, for ordinary people, to be able to fight in a way the power of Silicon Valley and the tech companies. And I think that's because what it gives us potentially is the ability to understand every single nanobyte of information about any one thing we are doing. So, in the first place where blockchain is being used is in food. So, say you want to buy a piece of chicken from your supermarket. Now currently you go to the supermarket, you look at the package, and it has information on the back of the package which has been given to you by the producer. It will say it comes from Texas, or whatever it says; it's organic. And you think, well, I only have the word of the producer that it is organic and that it comes from Texas. With blockchain, you take a picture of that piece of chicken that you buy, and whatever you access that information, and it will tell you from the field to the fork every single aspect of that chicken, where it's come from, who handled it, how long it took to get there.

So, it's basically the opening up of data on a new level, and I think once we access it then it gives us a tool for fighting back in a way. And what people talk about with blockchain now is they say that it's almost like the internet before the browser. So, we're at the browser moment; we're at the moment where the browser has been invented, and where we are able to access the internet for our own purposes, and I think that's where blockchain is at, and it has the potential to revolutionize everything. That's kind of where we're at.

Hoff: I want to go into blockchain talking also about cryptocurrencies, because right now it's the Wild Wild West of cryptocurrencies. There's tons out there, people are trying to get in fast. I think everybody knows that at one point this bubble's going to really explode, maybe one currency will be decided upon per country, or the government will start regulating it. What do you see happening with cryptocurrencies? I did talk to somebody (I did an episode on gold) and he said, you know, crypto currencies might be a good idea right now, but eventually they will be regulated by the government. Probably the government itself will take one cryptocurrency that will become the new currency instead of the greenbacks that we have now. What do you think about that?

Peretti: I think we're kind of at a bit of a moment like before the dollar was created. You have an interesting moment in America before the dollar. You had something like, I mean, have a guess, how many currencies do you think were in operation in the United States before the dollar?

Hoff: I think it was like a couple of hundred?

Peretti: Yeah. So, you're talking about 200 currencies operating concurrently within the United States. And this was everything from supermarket vouchers to things you would buy from the shop. Basically, the dollar was created as a way of unifying currency. So, what you are going to now is a sort of pre-dollar world, a world where you have bitcoin and every single God knows what, and these are all currencies, they're all currencies of a sort. And crypto currencies are part of that jigsaw. I think what you're seeing obviously, Switzerland, Sweden, various countries are actually trying to launch "legitimate" crypto currencies of their own, national currencies that are cryptocurrencies. So, you're seeing a moment where there is an attempt to bring the cryptocurrency under national control, and I think what you will see is a fight, and you'll probably see an accommodation between the two.

So, you will see underground crypto currencies continue because there is a need for them. The crime world needs them, the shadow economy requires them, and also national governments require them, and I think cryptocurrencies will just move into that space. You will see a new jigsaw, and I think you'll see a jigsaw that mirrors, in a way, the cash economy. So, you'll see a jigsaw that has both above the board national government signing up to crypto currencies, and you'll also have a dark side, an underside of cryptocurrency that still operate in the way that they have when they first began with bitcoin and so on. And I think that's the space I think it'll go into. I think that's inevitable really.

Hoff: And finally, what do you see happening within the next 10 years 20 years as far as us transforming into a totally cashless society? Do you think that's going to happen?

Peretti: Oh, I think it's interesting. Ken Rogoff was kind of a big advocate of the end of cash, and he said it's a fascinating thing. He said the more governments try to kill cash, the more cash is in circulation. The Freakonomics guys reckon that it's something like a quarter to a third of global business is basically run through the cash economy, and so it provides a very real need. And what's interesting is that the more the governments try to control cash, you know they are unable to collect tax from corporations so they look to the bottom of the pyramid, they say, can we make a cashless economy so we can tax everyone at the lowest level, it's not going to work. The amazing thing about cash is it's been around for 2000 years, and it's not going to disappear tomorrow. And the need for it, or the need for some version of a shadow economy, continues. So, I think you write off cash, as Ken says, you write off cash at your peril.

And you know what's extraordinary is they say in business that the more ludicrous the idea, the more legitimate it could be. And so, you see people now trying to invent crypto currencies based on gamified versions of it. You know, what kind of bonkers thing will become the new currency? And I think you'll enter a world where we'll have a thousand different currencies running concurrently, and actually there'll be an attempt to kind of centralize and control that, but it will fail ultimately because capitalism is about human endeavor, and it's about trying to find ways through the system, ways that haven't been thought of before. And I think it's inevitable that it can't be controlled. I think that's the nature of capitalism. It can't ultimately be controlled, but they will try. And that's kind of my feeling about it.

Hoff: Fascinating fascinating. I think it's the question a lot of us are asking- is there going to be a backlash? Are we going to go back? What's the future going to look like? And I think it is a confusing future to know, but it's fascinating to hear what you think might happen.

Peretti: I think Wall-e, which was an amazing Pixar movie about us all traveling to space, was an incredible movie. But a lot of people, a lot of analysts, looked at it and said, wow, could it be there is that company who runs the future? You know, one company that runs everything literally? Our food, our transport system, our communications systems.... You know is that Google, is it Facebook, who is that company that is satirized in Wall-e, the movie where we leave earth? And I think what you've seen with capitalism is an interesting kind of thing where there have been monopolies, and oil, you know, the banks, they've been broken up in the past by government because government had the power to do that. Do they have the power to do that now, that is the central question? And if they don't, that is the sort of tipping point. That's the moment at which corporations go, OK, we really do have the keys; we really do own this stuff. And I think if that's the moment we're at, then we're in a new ballgame entirely, one from which capitalism hasn't been in previously, and I think that's for me the question that we're at now.

Hoff: Yeah and it's a question that comes to mind when you read your book, "The Deals that Made the World: Reckless Ambition, Backroom Negotiations, and the Hidden Truths of Business," and the cash section is just one of the many sections you go through, so it's a fascinating look at how we do the things we do, what we consume, and the deals that went into making that happen. I always ask people at the end of my podcast, our show is called Charged Up, what gets you charged up about figuring out the deals that impact the way we live our lives?

Peretti: You know, I just think life is about understanding what's happening to you, and I think we're undergoing a revolution now in the way that people underwent a revolution in the mid-19th century. Far, in a way, more fundamental, because it's affecting everything. It's about biology, it's about DNA and mapping of the genome. You know we're at the moment of multidisciplinary revolution which is extraordinary, and I think just the very idea of understanding where we're at, you know, follow the money. What's the money about? And I think to me, we're living, in a way, in sci-fi fantasy. We're living in a moment where science fiction can't compete with reality. And to me that's very exciting. So, what gets me charged up is just the very idea of understanding where we're at and trying to decipher where we're going next.

Hoff: Fantastic. Jacques Peretti, thank you so much for joining us and for a great discussion. I highly recommend your book. Thank you.

Jacques: Thank you so much.

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Updated: 06-17-2018