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Opinion: Bill Walton, Brother, can you spare a dime

'No cash – our clerks do not have change'
2-seater EV prototype (batteries not included)

This may be a leap into the space/time continuum; however, I was thinking about the evolving cashless society and my mind wandered back 90 years to the Great Depression and the song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.” (No, it was before my time). The lyrics epitomized the plight of American workers (Google says “in America” but the depression was worldwide) who had built the American economy after WW I and were now out of work, needing to beg on the streets for sustenance.

A dime, back then, bought both food and drink.

Editor's note: Hear the song below.

While we can compare the value of a dime then and now, what I was thinking about was the cashless society and how, without coins or even paper bills, the buskers and highway median supplicants will be unable to collect “dimes” for their meals and lodgings.

Added to this dilemma is the fact that some shops are no longer accepting cash. Even dimes.

To curb your curiosity, the inflationary value of a 1932 dime is about $211.00. That’s the optimistic view of what has happened over the past 90 years. The somewhat depressing side of looking back is that the Canadian dollar has lost 95% of its purchasing value in those years. A dollar today can only buy about 5% of what it could in 1932. You can see that Yip Harburg was really asking for a nice piece of change when pleading for a dime.

This transition to the cashless society has been a long time in the making: first, we bartered for goods without the coin tokens; then we offered surety for loans, usually our chattels of livestock until we devised a system of land titles; moving to printed notes and banks, where we exchanged gold-based coins and even gold itself.

Bretton-Woods was cancelled in 1970 ending the Gold Standard in favour of the mighty US dollar (which was tied to gold but the dollar became the favoured unit of exchange). Steps towards a cashless society continued with the advent of plastic credit cards and then the cryptocurrency backed by nothing but promises - Bitcoin and its ilk.

Now in 2024, more and more countries are making the digital, virtual dollar their medium of exchange. Sweden is reportedly leading the way in the cashless society.

All this knowledge-driven, computer-supported change is laudable. However, I wonder, what is happening to the people who are on the fringes of modern society who do not have the means to join the cashless society – either with money or technology? Are they the unintended consequences of being left behind in our government-supported rush into the future? Collateral damage? Did the rich, the well-endowed, simply write off the people who did not, or do not have the technology to keep up?

Do the poor who are begging for that dime in the song just have to suck it up and get a bank account, giving an imaginary house number and phone number for their tent shelter on the vacant lot? Oh, and build up a bank balance so you can get a plastic card or QR code on your flip phone because that coffee shop in the mall no longer takes cash – dimes, quarters, or loonies.

What of the people who have chosen to live ‘off-grid’ and/or shunned electronics? What do they do with that sock full of coins they were saving for a rainy day? What of the people who do not even have access to the grid – yes there are some in the remote parts of Canada.

And, what of those unfortunates who do not have the mental capacity to get their minds around the cashless society and how it works? (Take your hand down, Tom). Then there are the old farts like me who just like the jingle of a few coins in their pocket? I guess we just suck it up.

And get used to that: under the guise of climate change, your government has decreed that you must buy an electric car or park your gas guzzler. Because we are going to a gas-less society, like it or not. Technology is taking us there.

Polluting fossil fuels are going the way of the loonie. Which by the way, replaced a paper bill, in case you forgot. Even before we can build charging depots (which will replace gasoline stations even though a few diehards and poor people will still want to drive combustion-engine cars and trucks – good luck finding gas pumps in ten years) the government says you must buy an EV to save the environment although we are still not certain that these used rechargeable batteries are net zero.

The disposal of EV batteries is concerning because a number of the chemicals and components used to make EV batteries, such as cadmium, arsenic and nickel are listed as toxic and simply can't be thrown into a landfill. (The Ontario government has plans to manufacture electric car batteries but no plans for disposal of same).

The bothersome thing about this moving to the cashless and gasless society is the feeling that we are moving past the point of no return. (Sorry, that’s old terminology from the early days of flight that actually refers to the place where you are past half charge with no charging station in your future). We may have passed that point in anti-biotics as superbugs are now popping up. We seem to be past that point in global average temperatures – and the resulting weather is whomping us. We are going downhill and gaining momentum - in more ways than one.

Cashless, I guess I can adapt to that, but gasless – I like my fossil fuel-sipper and I am unlikely to need an EV in my declining years; but the Libs just kicked the legs out from under the trade-in value of my combustion engine SUV. Maybe I’ll break out my ukulele and busk (Do I need a City licence? Do they take cash at City Hall?) for coins down in front of the bank singing, “Brother, can you spare a dime, or make that a bitcoin, because I need to buy an EV, and they cost 20% more, but save the environment . . .”

Just singing.


Bill Walton

About the Author: Bill Walton

Retired from City of North Bay in 2000. Writer, poet, columnist
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