Thursday, January 12, 2012

99. Credit Card (European Union, 2009)

Modern finance.
MacGregor uses a credit card as his penultimate object to continue the story that began with Croesus, the one that continued with Alexander coins and Ming banknotes and Spanish pieces of eight and, more recently, suffragete-defaced pennies. (I love how, by this point in this series, he has a few basic topics of human history—sex, money, PR—which come up again and again.) Developed in the 1950s along with modern electricty, telephones, and early computing, what’s fun about a credit card is that no one who uses them really understands how they work. MacGregor even got into a little paranoia about ‘they know more and more about us while we know less and less about them,” which is probably true. On the other hand, you could pay in cash. Heck, you could pay with coin. It’d just be as cumbersome as biking everywhere.

An interesting thing about the particular credit card that he chose is that it’s issued by a bank in United Arab Emirates and is thus sharia (Islamic law) compliant. He didn’t really dwell on it throughout the series, but with the history of money comes a complicated history of attitudes toward usury (interest); all the Abrahamanic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have much to say, and complicated relationships with, the lending of money. Sharia law, today, restricts the kinds of investments an entity, such as the bank that issued this card, can make; Islam prohibits alcohol, for instance, so no investing in wineries or any related industry. (Restaurants? Hello?) And of course religions have long gotten on people’s cases about living beyond their means, indulging too much in sensual pleasure or heat-of-the-moment experiences at the expense of saving for the future and thinking about your immortal soul, etc., and credit cards change the rules quite a bit when it comes to that. On the other hand, credit cards developed in the 2nd half of that most secular of centuries, and now, in the 21st, it turns out that the pendulum has swung, that religion is once again playing a bigger role in politics and finance and in people’s lives, and that things are likely to develop in an unexpected direction. Common sense indicates that finance, even super-complicated global finance, will continue to be about what it’s always been about: trust, whether or not you think you’re really going to get your money’s worth from whoever you’re trading with. That’s the constant that never changes.

On another note, when I was actually in the museum (was it really over half a year ago now?) I got confused by which credit card was the one in the podcast (which I hadn’t at that point heard). The British Museum, like many of us, has several. So I photographed the above card, since it reminded me of my first job, summer of ’94, when my fellow interns and I at the Glimmerglass Opera ticket office would make fun of patrons who called to order opera tickets and still referred to their “Mastercard” (the name in 1994) as “Mastercharge.” (Patron: “I’d like two tickets to The Incoronation of Pompey, and put them on my Mastercharge, please.” Dopey kid employeed by the Box Office of the Damned: “I'm sorry, ma'am, but there’s no such opera, and no such financial institution. If you like, I could charge you for tickets to The Coronation of Poppea on a Mastercard...”) But, as often happens with opera patrons, that’s just history at work; these people started calling their card by that name when it first came out, in the ‘50s, and damned if they were going to use a different name now. I hope I’m like that someday. I probably already am.

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