An ABBA Star's Campaign for a 100% Cash-Free SwedenDavid Wolman
On a gray Friday morning in Stockholm, Björn Ulvaeus arrives at ABBA The Museum through an emergency exit, carrying a take-out cup of coffee. Ulvaeus doesn’t come here often—”It is kind of strange to build a museum about yourself,” he notes—but he makes an exception now and again. Dressed in a navy blue suede jacket with epaulets, a closely cropped beard, and thin black and red glasses, Ulvaeus, 69, weaves through the exhibits, humbly recounting his band’s history, as if he were talking about some college a cappella act. ”We were not really good singers,” he says in a genteel, Nordic-tinged accent. “So the melodies had to be really, really good.”
Since the ribbon-cutting in the spring 2013, more than half a million people have come here to revisit those preposterously catchy melodies and learn more about the upbeat foursome that became one of the top-grossing acts of all time, selling close to 400 million albums and singles worldwide. Clownish ’70s outfits; vinyl album covers from all over the globe; booths in which visitors record themselves singing along with the band; and a replica of the remote island cottage at which Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson wrote some of the group’s biggest hits. It’s all here. But fans should take heed: Tickets for the museum cannot be purchased with cash.
In recent years, Ulvaeus has become concerned about the hidden social and economic costs of cash money, so much so that he decided to do something about it. With the museum’s no-cash policy, media interviews, opinion writing, and a few pointed questions aimed at the country’s central bank, Ulvaeus is doing his part to make Sweden the world’s first cashless country.
“The concept of money is really a very abstract one,” he says. “It doesn’t need that physical thing attached to it, I don’t think. Not in 2014 and beyond.”
Ulvaeus first began thinking critically about cash after his son’s apartment was burgled and burgled again. No one was harmed, but Ulvaeus wondered about the downstream economics of criminal enterprises such as robbery. Eliminating cash obviously wouldn’t end crime. But wouldn’t it remove the underlying incentive for street crime?
“Funnily enough, no one has ever given me a really good answer to that question,” he says. “They just discard it and say, ‘Well they [criminals] will think of something else.’ Well I say, ‘What? What will they think of? Exactly what will they do?’” At the minimum, he would like to see some empirical analysis of what going cashless would do to the underworld economy, or even what would happen if just high-value banknotes were curtailed.
His arguments aren’t especially new. Scores of institutions, companies, and even governments have begun an incremental offensive against physical money, nudging it closer to obsolescence. Earlier this year in Israel, a special commission headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff outlined a three-step plan for the country to do away with notes and coins. Japan and South Korea are always in the vanguard of new payment technologies, while Kenya’s blockbuster success with mobile transfer service M-Pesa continues to dazzle development wonks and economists alike. And then there is Apple Pay.
Even so, if odds makers were to accept wagers on the first country to completely do away with cash, Sweden wouldn’t be a bad bet. With almost 10 million people, its own currency, and one of the most wired populations in the world, Sweden is the perfect laboratory for new technologies and frank talk about the cashless future. “We’ve never had expressions like ‘cash is king,’ so it’s culturally acceptable,” says Henrik Bergman, senior manager and transactions specialist at Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken.
Even without a deliberate government policy to phase out physical money, things are still headed in an exclusively digital direction, albeit not as swiftly as some aging pop stars might demand. Small-value coins are an endangered species in Sweden. Checks have long been eliminated. Stores in downtown Stockholm post signs saying, “We Don’t Take Cash—Cards Only.” Churches have installed card terminals for donations, and many banks now keep no cash on hand.
The outgoing head of Sveriges Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, has argued for years that society has been cheated by cash for too long, thanks to security, transportation, and production expenses, as well as less-direct costs such as tax evasion. Meanwhile, a number of local startups are pushing new ways to pay, or otherwise bypass the need for cash. There is banking startup Tink, which already has more than 200,000 users and has no real-world presence. A consortium of the country’s major banks launched a service called Swish that enables real-time transfer between accounts; in less than two years they have drawn 1.7 million customers. And payments service IZettle, sometimes referred to as the Square of Europe, is one of the fastest-growing companies on the continent.
“Our biggest competition is cash, not usual suspects like PayPal or Square,” says IZettle Chief Executive Officer Jacob de Geer. De Geer says he doesn’t necessarily share Ulvaeus’s heated opinion about tactile money but says: “Obviously, it’s good for our business if cash usage goes down.”
Ulvaeus cringes at the suggestion that he is a crusader. He prefers “curious citizen,” and he does a decent job not sounding like the cashless thing has lit a fire within his soul. Yet he is genuinely irritated by cash’s staying power. In an essay he penned for the museum website, for instance, he writes: “I challenge anyone to come up with reasons to keep cash that outweigh the enormous benefits of getting rid of it.”
When presented with some possible reasons, he has replies at the ready. On privacy: “…Obviously electronic money leaves an electronic trail. But then my counter-question is, ‘What is it that you absolutely want to use cash for? What is it that you actually want to buy with cash that you do not want to buy with a card?’ And people squirm and can’t think of anything because most people have nothing to be ashamed of.” Besides, he says, surely there will be some way to transact anonymously. (See: Bitcoin.)
What about the criticism that electronic money benefits the rich? Ulvaeus says that sticking up for and maintaining cash is a way of ignoring or deferring more systemic problems. “People ask me, ‘Shouldn’t we keep cash to have something to give to beggars?’ It’s the wrong question! It’s a social issue,” he says. What we should be doing is addressing the fact that there are homeless people to begin with, not defending the coins we occasionally drop into their cups. The same is true for people who think rectangular slips of paper promote more responsible financial behavior. “For developing countries, there might be even more benefits to going cashless than for Sweden,” he adds. In poorer countries, “it must be such a benefit for the economy if the women keep digital money, and there is never any [physical] money that the men can steal and go to the bar with.” As for the inevitable question about a massive power outage that would render all our digital devices useless, blocking access to our funds, Ulvaeus is unfazed. “If that doomsday scenario happens, will it help if you have heaps of paper money? I don’t think so.”
Ulvaeus suspects our loyalty to cash and reluctance to consider doing away with it are rooted in nostalgia. “I cannot explain it any other way than it must be for sentimental reasons,” he says. We are used to what we’re used to, to what we grew up with, and such powerful emotions are not easily undone. It’s not so unlike people who come to ABBA The Museum to look back into the ’70s and remember what life was like back then, he says. “I think that should be the future of [physical] money—in a museum.”