In the bribery case against embattled Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon, the allegations revolve around gift cards. The prosecution says she misused “dozens” of gift cards originally meant for needy families. She says she thought the cards were meant for her all along.
Gift cards are becoming a shadow economy, not quite credit but not as liquid as cash, where the anonymity provided by the arm’s-length nature of the deal makes it easy to create deniability. Gift cards are a popular method to pay for illicit transactions ranging from prostitution to drugs to graft.
It’s unlikely that gift cards – which are really just hyper-convenient gift certificates or traveler’s checks – will go away. Indeed, as the recession-lengthened holiday gift giving season begins and retailers are pinning some of their hopes on the continued popularity of the plastic ducats. Consumers spent $24.9 billion with them last year.
This is an example of new technologies outstripping society’s rules. In public life, we too often watch idly as this happens. Instead of playing catch-up, public leaders need to be thinking around the next corner and imagining what kinds of new rules we will need to deal with the new ideas bombarding society’s fabric. New ways of banking, new ways of communication, new meanings for the word “community” – we know all these things are happening. Yet there are few serious efforts to predict, understand, or take into account what these changes will mean for the way public life ought to look.