A new friend of mine ran into some trouble lately. He’s one of these people who lives, for the most part, outside the cash economy, in a network of frugality and favor-doing. He gets by on a minimal budget and freelances to top up his reserves when he needs to. This works pretty well for him. But last week he overstayed his visa in Indonesia and got hit with a hefty fee. He found this out at the airport, and couldn’t access that cash immediately. So the trouble started compounding.

He had to stay in Indonesia a few days longer than expected while sorting all this out, incurring more expenses here. He had to change his flight, costing even more money. And meanwhile, every additional day he stayed added to the overstay fee.

All is now resolved, he’s back in the US and no lasting harm, he’s very capable of earning back the money this cost him. But it’s a harrowing reminder that many people live on the edge, with no slack. A position can seem stable until a small shock sets off a cascade of problems.

I’m reminded also of David Graeber’s book Debt. Most economics textbooks tell a story where cash replaced a highly inefficient barter economy, but Graeber claims there’s no historical evidence for widespread barter anywhere: our ancestors were not quite so dumb. Instead, cash’s novelty came from being impersonal. It replaced a network of relationships and favors with an objective measure of value that could be transfered between strangers. And it was implemented not from the ground up as an obvious improvement, but by tyrants. The only reason anyone used money at first was to pay taxes, or as wages for conscripted soldiers. You can try to stay outside the market – but you may at some point owe a debt to somebody else’s cold hard steel, and cash is the only way to pay.