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Opening Arguments

Going in debit

Sweden is just slightly ahead of the curve -- the whole world is succumbing to this change:


AP) STOCKHOLM - Sweden was the first European country to introduce bank notes in 1661. Now it's come farther than most on the path toward getting rid of them.

"I can't see why we should be printing bank notes at all anymore," says Bjoern Ulvaeus, former member of 1970's pop group ABBA, and a vocal proponent for a world without cash.

The contours of such a society are starting to take shape in this high-tech nation, frustrating those who prefer coins and bills over digital money.

In most Swedish cities, public buses don't accept cash; tickets are prepaid or purchased with a cell phone text message. A small but growing number of businesses only take cards, and some bank offices — which make money on electronic transactions — have stopped handling cash altogether.

"There are towns where it isn't at all possible anymore to enter a bank and use cash," complains Curt Persson, chairman of Sweden's National Pensioners' Organization.

I've experienced the change in my own life. Until the last few years, I felt unprepared for the day unless I had at least $100 in cash on me. Who knows what can happen, right? Then I finally got a debit card after years of resisting the idea, and it's been one of the most transformative decisions I ever made. You always feel ready for anything, whether you've got any hard currency on you or not. You can slip that card into the slot at the gas pump, and even fast-food places will accept it in the drive-thru.

But having the card has also made me a little more careless in my spending habits. When I actually had to pull a $20 bill out of my pocket or go to the trouble of writing a check for something, it made me think about what a transaction meant in the overall scheme of my life. Currency is a tangible reminder of what the whole concept of money is about -- an exchange of time. When we buy something, we are trading the time we spent earning the money for the time others spent producing what we want to buy. But when you buy something and all it means is that somebody changes some numbers on your electronic record, the idea of "spending money" gets a little blurred.  "Debit" is just "debt" with one more letter.

I think that increased carelessness is a problem for the whole world, one that will get bigger. The story mentions some of the obvious results of  going digital.  Some crime becomes less of a problem, for example, such as bank robberies, but some becomes more of a problem -- such as skimming money from accounts. But it doesn't even hint at the overall effect, society's collective amnesia about the connection between work and reward. How casually we already read about the government adding billions or even a trillion or two to the debt. That's not real "money," it's just decimal points being moved around on a computer screen somewhere.

How far ahead of the curve is Sweden? Not very:

Bills and coins represent only 3 percent of Sweden's economy, compared to an average of 9 percent in the eurozone and 7 percent in the U.S., according to the Bank for International Settlements, an umbrella organization for the world's central banks.