Sep 3, 2021

Bitcoin’s a Thing, All Right. But What Kind of Thing?

Tracking a financial trend that no one quite understands

By Ed Goldman

A number of you (three being a legitimate number) have asked if I plan to write about Bitcoin. The no-longer-dewy-fresh crypto-currency may very well be the harbinger of a new era in money or the financial equivalent of the low-rise jeans trend—which proved a major disappointment for fashion designers and retailers. (As I continue to be, on a daily basis. But I digress.)

Even though I like the basic idea behind Bitcoin, I don’t deal in it and have no immediate plans to. I’m tech-savvy enough to know how tech-savvy I’m not. With just one misplaced click I’d end up either embezzling the Dalai Lama’s Roth-IRA or wiping out the already iffy economy of Fallujah, the fabled City of Mosques.

Edgy Cartoon

Baby, Wad I Say?

But my hesitancy to engage in the brave new world of bucks comes down to a tactile rather than practical consideration: I just love the feel of paper money in my hands, as elusive and transitory as that sensation has been throughout my life.

As a kid, I used to enjoy folding and shuffling the faux cash in board games such as Monopoly or the less-remembered Careers, which featured larger bits of currency than Monopoly—not just the face value, but also the actual dimensions of the paper. In fact, all of the cash in Careers looked like the thousand-dollar bills James Garner-as-Brett-Maverick had paid someone to sew into the lining of the black blazers he wore over a brocade vest, whose design for black-and-white TV in the late 1950s I now recognize as a silver tapestry pattern. It looked great on Garner, who was tall and lean at the time. If I wore something like that, I’d look like an animated version of my Grandma Gussie’s hassock. (Gussie, my mom’s mom, favored rather ornate interior design. That sentence was an example of possibly prosecutable understatement. And I continue to digress.)

While TV and movie imagery informed my fascination with the look and feel of paper money—like the slimeball cocaine buyer in Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City” who kept a huge wad of cash wrapped in a rubber band on his wrist—I also loved watching grownups manipulate cash in their hands in real life.

As a kid in New York City, and later, in Southern California, credit cards were still far from pervasive for purchases, even though the Diners’ Club card was first introduced the year of my birth, and an early version of the American Express card—whose TV commercials exhorted us, “Don’t leave home without it”—eight years later. But in those days, and as I grew up, most people left home without either of them—mainly because they never applied for them. 

We still had a cash economy. Blue collar workers in particular (and as a firefighter, my Dad was one of them) lined up at pay windows to collect their weekly salaries, which were given mainly in 10s, 20s and 50s. My Dad once brought home a hundred-dollar bill and it made my Mom so nervous she insisted he go to the bank right away and have it broken into smaller denominations, lest someone spot my parents spending it, assume they carried more of them in their pocket or pocketbook, and rob them.

Credit cards changed all that, of course. And seeing people flip through a collection of them in their wallets just didn’t have the sensory allure that watching someone hold up a fan of fivers did.

Looking for a Great Gift?

The Bitcoin lets people transfer money and pay for things, where it’s accepted, electronically and instantly. It can eliminate the need for a financial institution to wedge itself in the middle of a transaction and, according to the popular crypto-money site, Coinbase, “Every transaction involving Bitcoin is tracked on the blockchain, which is similar to a bank’s ledger, or log of customers’ funds going in and out of the bank. In simple terms, it’s a record of every transaction ever made using Bitcoin.”

The site claims to have “56 million verified users, 8,000 institutions, and 134,000 ecosystem partners in over 100 countries.”

Maybe so. And maybe I’m willing myself into extinction by not hopping on board. But nobody can make me do it, just as nobody, you’ll be pleased to know, can make me wear low-rise jeans.

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).