Making Sense of Payments Policy in the Information Age

Ronald J. Mann, Columbia Law School


This is a substantially revised and focused version of Payments Policy in the Information Age. This essay in its new form explores how we should design a coherent payments policy, focusing on the incoherence of existing policy related to credit and debit cards. The central point of the essay is that previous analysis has failed to recognize the importance of the underlying transactions in which payments are made to issues ordinarily treated in the legal rules that regulate payment systems. Generally, I argue that issues of payments policy need to be separated into two categories: those for which determination of the appropriate rule is heavily influenced by the technology of the payments system; and those for which determination of the appropriate rule depends for the most part on the nature of the underlying transaction. Among other things, that suggests that issues of finality should be driven more by transactional considerations, while issues about unauthorized transactions should be driven more by the nature of the technology.

To illustrate that framework in application, I turn in the remainder of the essay to the most rapidly growing payment systems in our economy, credit and debit cards. I generally argue that concerns about an imbalance of leverage between merchants and consumers justify broader inroads on finality of payment than existing law contemplates. At the same time, the essay emphasizes the importance of permitting different types of payments so that merchants and consumers can choose from a menu of payment options.