Billfold Essay About Italian Austerity

New essay by me at The Billfold, “Social Trust in a Cash Economy” — a collage of cultural anecdotes about Italy and money, and the way a very calm Austerity crisis feels. It’s about a six-minute read. It starts like this:

There is a recurring bill I pay in Italy, in person, with a credit card. When I finish the transaction, the secretary makes a handwritten note in a small book. She makes the same note on a card-sized piece of notebook paper which I carry. One time, I forgot to bring the card-sized piece of paper. The secretary urgently retrieved an identical card and wrote down the entire history of our financial transactions, so that if she ever tried to cheat me, I could say, no, look here, in your handwriting it says I paid, because this ballpoint numeral is more meaningful than a credit card statement.

Something I didn’t know when I wrote the essay (because I just found out about it today) is that Italian banks get robbed a lot. A lot a lot a lot. (In the essay, I don’t write about banks at all, which probably wouldn’t have changed. But by coincidence, the essay came out the same day I knew this new thing.) Between 2000 and 2006 (the last timeperiod for which there is comprehensive data), Italian banks were robbed an average of 2771 times a year. That’s “walked in with a sack and robbed” robbed. For comparison, Germany’s number is 838. Spain’s is 523. Greece’s is 144. It is a pain in the ass to go into an Italian banks, with lots of, essentially, nested delayed airlocks you have to pass through solo. I figured this was the usual Italian security mania, but in this case it seems warranted