Filthy Lucre

I took it as a small sign of the decline of Western Civilization when Boodles stopped boiling coins before putting them in the change drawer at the bar. Many people are careful about not acquiring and transmitting illness in many respects, but few of us seem to consider how the handling and transfer of money could contribute to it.

Some criminologists are examining the impact of the increasing rarity of physical currency on crime: Muggings are less profitable and hence rarer; on line thefts are more common because increasingly “that’s where they keep the money”, as Sutton is said to have said. Inspired by the criminology research in this area, I would like analogous studies conducted regarding the incidence of influenza during the peak season in places where contactless cash cards are replacing paper and metal dosh.

I contemplate this more than most people because I often eat in the two medical centers with which I am affiliated. Think about a hospital cafeteria: All day long people who are sick or have been visiting or treating sick people fumble through their currency and coins with bare hands and then give some money to the cashier, usually getting change in return that was handled by a previous customer. This happens hundreds of times an hour at some times of day, and then of course everyone sits down to eat, usually without washing their hands post-lollyhandling.

Thought experiment: Randomly convert 50 hospital cafeterias to cashless transactions and compare the infectious diseases rate to 50 hospitals where bacteria-ridden physical cash is still in fashion. I don’t know if the effect would be large enough to be seen at the hospital level, but I’d like to see an investigator evaluate the possibility.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.