One summer’s evening in 2017, Kai Ryssdal’s familiar, sonorous voice filled my car. It’s a great voice, deep yet warm, amused and insightful. That voice and Ryssdal’s radio persona are so appealing that one of my colleagues named his son Kai.
I looked at the clock – yup, Marketplace time. Business and economics are not great interests of mine, but I’m always up for that show’s particular brand of econotainment. As I turned onto the freeway, Ryssdal started a story about American banking.
“You know what’s not changing in the American economy?” he asked. “The not very up to the technological minute practice of using checks – paper checks that you have to fill out and sign and all that.”
After introducing his guest, an Australian journalist who’d written a recent article on the topic for Bloomberg, Ryssdal asked, “Who, ah, besides my mom, I guess, is still using checks out there?” His “I guess” was accompanied by a small chuckle that suggested embarrassment, ridicule and apology.
“You know,” Robertson replied, “you’d be surprised. There’s a lot of Americans still using checks.” She specified that rural Americans in particular still commonly use them to buy basics like groceries and gas.
In the next half minute, Ryssdal and Robertson described the American system using words including ‘stubborn,’ ‘bullheaded,’ and ‘Stone Ages.’ Finland changed to online banking only in 1993, and shortly thereafter, a string of European countries followed suit, some more quickly than others. Denmark had only recently converted. Unique among the citizens of other developed countries, Americans still write an average of thirty-eight checks a year.
Striving for his customary balanced reporting, Ryssdal then asked, “Is there an advantage? I mean, are [checks] safer or do they just make us feel better?”
Those are, of course, just two options, but important ones. When hacking and leaks, identity fraud and data breaches are in the news weekly to daily, when everyone from Hollywood moguls to the British National Health Service can be infiltrated, security is a legitimate concern. Comfort and familiarity matter too; we all have habits we could give up but prefer not to.
Robertson answered that a lot of it does have to do with self-protection. “Specifically,” she explained, “in older generations there’s a lot of fear and unease about using online banking… a lot of people also like to have the check information written down right there on paper… it feels less like it’s going to be hacked.”
But then their conversation shifted. It turns out the primary reason for change in banking practices elsewhere and for the enduring use of checks in the United States is differences in our banking systems. The countries that made the switch did so by mandate from a central bank. In what Ryssdal referred to as “our fractured banking system,” that isn’t possible.
Robertson noted that the Federal Reserve, which doesn’t “have the power to mandate a change in payment types,” set up a taskforce in 2015 to investigate faster payments. The resulting report recommended the U.S. switch to a real-time, secure payment system by 2020. She added that since they can’t enforce that recommendation, chances are it won’t happen.
At this point, I understood the persuasive structural and economic reasons for American’s ongoing use of checks. So what happened next surprised me.
Ryssdal said, “Yeah, and it’s also one of those where – and this is going to sound terrible – but you have to wait for the check users to age out of this economy, if you take my meaning, right? And for people who are used to electronic payments and Venmo and all that to become the majority.”
This comment echoed the earlier one about his mother, and it was also entirely different. The echo came from the parenthetically added comment which, like the earlier chuckle, betrayed his awareness that he was making an unseemly, perhaps even immoral, comment. It was clear that Ryssdal recognized his words as discriminatory and disparaging, and that he felt somewhat badly about it. It was also clear that he didn’t feel badly enough about it to not do it, or to edit it out (we are all human and products of our culture, after all,) or to question his own thinking. He assumes, rightly no doubt, that many listeners share his biases, and he’d be a lesser journalist if he covered this topic without addressing them. Yet he comes at them by using his authority to reinforce a hypothesis about check use not supported by the real explanation he just presented – it may well be that some Europeans preferred checks but when their central banks abolished them, they had to find other ways of making payments. Robertson had already made clear that waiting for the older generation to die off would solve only a small part of the larger, systemic problem. By bringing the story back to “stubborn and bullheaded” older check users, Ryssdal both undercuts his piece’s main economic lesson and unsympathetically disrespects the old, poor, and rural people who use checks out of preference, security, or necessity. Imagine him making similar comments about females, blacks, Latinos, Asians, disabled people, or children. Imaging public radio broadcasting that. It’s unthinkable. He’d lose his job. They’d lose subscribers, donations, and stature.
As the piece continued, it became evident that many people still write checks. Robertson explained that her interest in the topic arose shortly after she moved to the U.S. and was told she had to have a checkbook to get her first apartment. As it happened, a few days before I heard this story, despite my family’s usual preference for online payments, I had written a check. On leave from my job, the only way I could pay our health insurance in the huge University of California system was via check.
Robertson continued. “I’m from Australia. I had never written a check, never seen a checkbook. That just wasn’t done. It wasn’t a thing…I had to physically get a checkbook which to me was a throwback to the eighties.”
This too gave me pause. Kai Ryssdal and I were each 53 when this piece aired. We both remembered the eighties. If I don’t want to return to those years, it’s not because of our culture and practices then; it’s because of how hard it was to be a late teenager and young adult, trying to figure out who I was and what I’d do with my life, worrying I’d never do or be enough. And there was this too: How, I wondered, was Robertson’s take on checks different from me saying that I had been surprised on a recent European trip to find that many restaurants served meals heavy on meat and potatoes and light on vegetables. To me, that plating could be considered a throwback to the seventies, before healthy eating became common knowledge and many of us had year-round access to fresh vegetables. But many people don’t like vegetables as much as I do, and Europe is not California – each place wonderful and worrisome in its own ways, and meat-and-potato lovers are no less entitled to their preferences than I am.
Ryssdal laughed at Robertson’sthrowback comment, and the show ended with the suggestion that newer is always better – in other words, with another flawed assumption.
Like Kai Ryssdal, I have made elderly mother jokes, almost always in reference to technology. Lately I’ve begun to wonder whether I do that to emphasize the distinction between the aging me and the already-old her, and also whether I’m most likely to make such jokes when speaking to a person the same age or younger than I am. That reminds me of white people who, speaking to other white people, lower their voice to speak the word “black” in reference to a person not present. It also reminds me of the young techies in San Francisco who consider thirty-five old, a standard that renders both me and Ryssdal ancient.