It was a humid and hazy summer afternoon in New Orleans, and I needed a caffeine jolt. I went to one of my favorite local joints, Café Luna, located on the corner of Magazine and Nashville in Uptown. It’s an area well-known for its unique local flavor – restaurants that relied on their secret family recipes, year-round costume stores in preparation for Mardi Gras, and galleries home to one-of-a-kind artwork with a Creole flair. In other words, this was not chain-store row.
As I walked into Café Luna, something caught my eye – something new that was unusually progressive for this mom and pop area. A Bitcoin ATM.
I had to do a double take. In fact, I walked up to the machine to make sure it wasn’t just a regular ATM with a Bitcoin ad on the screen.
CONFIRMED. It was a Bitcoin ATM.
I asked the barista if they actually take bitcoins, and he said yes. Then we got to chatting about the Bitcoin presence in New Orleans. He informed me that there are 5 machines throughout the city. But, he mentioned, the difficult part is not finding a Bitcoin ATM…it’s finding places that accept this crypto currency. Café Luna was one of the few places that took bitcoins.
As I paid for my fresh, cold brew coffee with a 5-dollar bill, I got to thinking about a conversation I recently had with my colleague about the future of currency. In his mid-50s, he said to me something along the lines of, “You realize that in your generation you’re going to see a world of cashless currency, right?” And my initial reaction was one of disbelief. “Wait what? You mean Apple Wallet and bitcoins aren’t just a fad?”
It’s still taking me time to conceptualize this. There is something reassuring about holding coins and bills. It’s like ownership of a tangible asset – owning real estate vs. stocks. Being able to touch it makes it feel more real. We know that our paper currency has an arbitrary value, but still, it just feels like we have control over it. Fun fact about value: Do you know how much it costs to print a U.S. one-dollar bill? Roughly 5 U.S. cents.
There is a novel, Handmaid’s Tale, which is about a dystopia where a paperless currency is a reality. Citizens provide their account number to debit or credit their accounts. And the part that stuck with me the most was what little control the people had over their money. The women in this book aren’t paid directly for their work. Instead, any payment that they earn gets credited directly into their man’s account. It drove me crazy for a few reasons. One is the lack of ability to access funds whenever and wherever. And then the thought further developed that this paperless currency may not just be in a dystopia – it is already in the real world now.
Today, a majority of us have our salaries paid via direct deposit into our bank accounts, and from there we decide to save, withdraw, invest, or spend. This is already a step towards a cashless society. Now imagine there are no ATMs, and everything is done by just adding and subtracting numbers from your account on a screen. Every transaction you make is tracked since you can’t withdraw any paper currency. It’s like Uber. No cash needed and there is a record of your every trip. Everything is done right there on your phone, which is linked to your credit or debit card. It’s convenient though, right? Today we’re all about convenience, even if that means giving up privacy.
Now the wheels are really turning. Think about this…what happens to the Fed if we stop creating paper bills? How do we control our national spending if, conceptually, the total really is just an abstract number behind a screen? How many more zeros would be added to the end of the national debt bottom line? Is gold going to matter, or are we going to revert to a bartering system? No one knows the answers, although there are a handful of theories out there.
My friend, Mike Cobb, wrote this great article about modern portfolio theory and a popular way the ultra-wealthy mitigate risk. I’d recommend reading it if you’re unsure of what’s going to happen in the future. At the end of the day, what it really comes down to is being prepared and having options.
Seeing this Bitcoin machine got me thinking about even more than just the spread of crypto currency. It had me thinking about what the world is going to look like in 20, 30, or 50 years. Half a century ago, in the year 1967, an iPhone was unfathomable to the Average Joe. Now the iPhone is commonplace. Everyone from my kid cousins to our grandparents have one.
As I reflect on what I saw in Café Luna, I realize it makes sense that a Bitcoin ATM was located in this coffee shop. It’s a local establishment, not tethered to the regulations of any large corporations, and they have the flexibility to experiment a little. One question that I didn’t get to ask the barista is how often people actually paid with bitcoins. I’ll add it to my list for my next visit.