October 11, 2016
Cash is the squirmy ferret of societal wealth—tricky to secure physically and, once liberated in the wild, almost impossible to get back—and money, as technology, has changed a lot in half a century. A day’s errands once called for bulging pockets. Now it’s possible to shop for groceries, pay rent, buy lunch, summon a taxi, and repay your sister for a movie without handling a checkbook, let alone fumbling with bills and coins. Most people think of card and electronic payments as conveniences, stand-ins for exchanging cold, hard cash. Yet a growing group of theorists, led in the United States by Kenneth S. Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, are embracing the idea that physical currency should be the exception rather than the rule. ... Phasing out big bills would make it harder for domestic currency to support corruption abroad. ... Hobbling the underground market should also temper tax evasion, a costlier problem than many people realize. The most recent I.R.S. estimates indicate a tax-payment shortfall of four hundred and sixty billion dollars a year—a disparity that’s transferred to those who pay. ... Most important for many economists, low-cash life allows for negative interest rates, in which the lender pays the borrower interest. ... In 2013, Sweden eliminated its largest-denomination bill, and demand for its second-largest bill, the five-hundred-krona note (about sixty dollars), surprisingly fell off soon afterward. By 2014, only a fifth of Swedish retail transactions were being conducted in cash. (In the U.S., it’s slightly less than half.)
Jay Peak had consisted only of a ski area and a roach-ridden lodge. Now it had three hotels, six restaurants, some 200 cottages, an indoor water park, an ice rink, a spa, and a convention center, all tended to by 600 employees. The $280 million transformation had been made possible by a U.S. government program known as EB-5, which allows prospective immigrants to invest $500,000 in hard-up areas in exchange for temporary residency for themselves and their families. Anyone whose investment creates 10 jobs can then become a permanent resident. The only faster way to become an American is to marry one. ... The EB-5 program has opened up all sorts of possibilities since it was started in 1990—mischief, abuse, and fraud among them. Initially it required investors to put in $1 million and show direct evidence that the money had led to those 10 new jobs. But after two years, Congress modified the program to encourage investment in rural and underdeveloped areas, permitting prospective immigrants to invest less money in projects and count “indirect” jobs estimated by economic models. ... These projects get sponsored by federally approved regional centers, which serve as economic-development organizations drawing on EB-5 money. There are now 861 such centers, all of which—except for Vermont’s—are privately run. ... The tangled financing they’d uncovered left more than half of the 731 foreigners who had placed their money with Stenger and Quiros vulnerable to deportation, and threw $83 million that had been invested in the biotech project into limbo.
Right now, the global bottled water industry is in one of those strange and energetic boom phases where every week, it seems, a new product finds its way on to the shelves. Not just another bland still or sparkling, but some entirely new definition of the element. It is a case of capitalism at its most hyperactive and brazenly inventive: take a freely available substance, dress it up in countless different costumes and then sell it as something new and capable of transforming body, mind, soul. Water is no longer simply water – it has become a commercial blank slate, a word on to which any possible ingredient or fantastical, life-enhancing promise can be attached. ... The global market was valued at $157bn in 2013, and is expected to reach $280bn by 2020. Last year, in the UK alone, consumption of water drinks grew by 8.2%, equating to a retail value of more than £2.5bn. Sales of water are 100 times higher than in 1980. Of water: a substance that, in developed countries, can be drunk for free from a tap without fear of contracting cholera. What is going on? ... There now seems to be no limit on what a water can be, or what consumers are willing to buy. It is no longer enough for water to simply be water: it must have special powers. ... At some point, surely, we will reach “peak” water. Perhaps it will be the moment consumers lose faith in the cellulite-eradicating powers of Buddha water or wonder if it’s really worth paying over the odds for birch sap.
My time in China has taught me the pleasure and value of craftsmanship, simply because it’s so rare. To see somebody doing a job well, not just for its own reward, but for the satisfaction of good work, thrills my heart; it doesn’t matter whether it’s cooking or candle-making or fixing a bike. ... the prevailing attitude is chabuduo, or ‘close enough’. It’s a phrase you’ll hear with grating regularity, one that speaks to a job 70 per cent done, a plan sketched out but never completed, a gauge unchecked or a socket put in the wrong size. ... implies that to put any more time or effort into a piece of work would be the act of a fool. China is the land of the cut corner, of ‘good enough for government work’. ... sometimes there’s a brilliance to chabuduo. One of the daily necessities of life under Maoism was improvisation; finding ways to keep irreplaceable luxuries such as tractors or machine tools going, despite missing parts or broken supply chains. ... More usually, chabuduo is the domain of a village uncle who grew up with nothing and can whip up a solution to anything out of two bits of wire and some tape.
This story is more about comfort than you might imagine. It's also about restlessness, and safety, and complacency. Tuna rolls are familiar, but they don't do a lot for the environment. ... Instead of tuna and salmon we'd eat weeds, jellyfish, crisped wax worms—the plants and animals currently demolishing our local ecosystems. After a trip to Louisiana, he even incorporated nutria, a large swamp rodent, into his sashimi repertoire. Early on, customers simply walked out, unable to recognize his inventions as sushi, or even as food.