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Disparate collections of people around the world may find an unlikely common cause in 2017. They include Indians struggling with the effects of demonetization; Chinese currency speculators; Swedish pensioners; and desperate Venezuelans.
These groups are all enemy combatants in the war on cash being waged by governments around the world. Cash has the advantages of being accessible, inclusive, and largely surveillance-free. It also has a tendency to leak into unexpected places, which makes governments uncomfortable. They say killing off cash plugs the leaks, and besides, it’s technological progress.
But that means outsourcing the mechanics of money to banks, payments companies, and the growing coterie of fintech firms. And killing cash hurts not only black-marketeers but also ordinary peoplewhose livelihoods depend on its flexibility and simplicity. If simple cashless alternatives, such as Kenya’s M-Pesa mobile money, were more widely available, those people would probably embrace them. But they aren’t.
Hence these groups of unlikely allies may also share an interest in an unlikely solution: cryptocurrencies, which enable secure, anonymous payments uncontrolled by any government or bank. Bitcoin, the oldest and most widely used cryptocurrency, has been rising steadily in value (even if it’s not entirely clear why). This week it almost hit an all-time high, only to suddenly crash; but overall its bull run looks way more solid than in past years.
Yes, the total value of bitcoins is still miniscule compared to a country’s money supply, and its wild volatility and arcane mechanics have led naysayers to predict its death many times over. But whether they’re Indian smugglers or Swedish pensioners, the people on the sharp end of the war on cash might be starting to find the idea of a stateless cryptocurrency controlled by no-one a little more attractive.—Joon Ian Wong and Akshat Rathi
FIVE THINGS ON QUARTZ WE ESPECIALLY LIKED
What TV sets teach us about globalization. The decline of American TV makers has become one of Donald Trump’s case studies for the evils of globalization. But what killed the industry, as Ana Campoy explains, wasn’t “bad trade deals or competition from cheap labor abroad,” but its own failure to see and act on global opportunities.
Chinese NGOs are battling for survival. As of Jan. 1, China has followed Russia’s example in imposing tough restrictions on foreign and foreign-funded NGOs. Zheping Huang reports on the possible consequences of the government’s “manufactured xenophobia,” and how it fits with a wider crackdown on civil society under president Xi Jinping.
Asian elections to watch in 2017. China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand, and Malaysia: Some of these elections are more like “selections,” point out Isabella Steger and Zheping Huang, in a guide to the changes (or more likely non-changes) in power we can look forward to in the region.
America explained, for billionaires. Though you don’t have to be a billionaire to benefit from this reading list compiled by Kira Bindrim. Including classics both old (Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed) and more recent (Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow), it’s a guide to the vast swathes of the country that decades of prosperity have left behind.
Salad-eaters of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your mixed greens. Olivia Goldhill directs a well-aimed broadside at the idea of salad-as-meal, which, she argues, is “just the side helping to the constant diet of guilt our culture feeds women about their bodies.”
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FIVE THINGS ELSEWHERE THAT MADE US SMARTER
Death without expectations. B.J. Miller, a triple-amputee since youth, operates a San Francisco hospice that aims to “de-pathologize death.” Jon Mooallem tells the moving story in the New York Times magazine of Miller’s care for a cancer-stricken young man. Where venture capitalists seek Miller out to exploit the “death space,” Mooallem instead finds an American end-of-life experience that is radically quotidian.
Time to quit sugar. Imagine if there were an inexpensive, easily accessible drug that paired well with every food and could be incorporated into every social occasion… In a lengthy investigation of sugar’s place in the historical, scientific, and emotional annals of addiction, Gary Taubes argues in The Guardian that our favorite sweetener may also be controlling our lives.
The dangerous dullness of authoritarianism. Cornell professor Tom Pepinsky observes that real authoritarianism looks more like life in Malaysia—a prosperous, democratic nation but with a fettered press and weak political opposition—than the Western vision of jackbooted thugs and all-powerful elites. That apocalyptic vision is a dangerous distraction to the actual erosion of democracy.
The de-Islamization of Rumi. The works of 13-century poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi have inspired countless Americans. Yet, as the New Yorker’s Rozina Ali writes, most English translations have removed all references to Islam (paywall), brushing away the fact that Rumi was a highly regarded scholar, theologian, and sharia judge. One commentator calls it “spiritual colonialism.”
Inside the cutthroat doula industry. At Buzzfeed, Katie Baker dives into the controversial business of ProDoula, which made $1.25 million in 2016 offering training, business lessons, and placenta encapsulation kits to would-be doulas—women who make a living helping other women give birth. The company is worshipped by disciples, but criticized by others for its aggressiveness, and its founder draws unflattering comparisons to Donald Trump.
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