Reimagining Money

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Atlantic on 7 March 2016

Bitcoin was conceived as a modern solution to an ages-old problem: How can two parties agree on and verify an exchange of value? In this sense, Bitcoin is an effective technology, in that it trains the massive processing power of distributed personal computers on the same situation that paper currency was built to resolve.

But in important ways, Bitcoin transposes some of the shortcomings of traditional currency onto the digital realm. It ignores a whole host of questions about the potential to reimagine what money can be designed to emphasize: What sorts of money will encourage admirable human behavior? What sorts of money systems will encourage trust, reenergize local commerce, favor peer-to-peer value exchange, and transcend the growth requirement? In short, how can money be less an extractor of value and more a utility for its exchange?

Around the world, people have proposed experimental, tentative answers to these questions. What follows are three ways that people have toyed with rearranging the priorities of transactions—all of which would encourage a radical reimagination of what money is and can do.

The simplest approach to limiting the delocalizing, extractive power of central currency is for communities to adopt their own local currencies, pegged or tied in some way to a central currency. One of the first and most successful contemporary efforts is the Massachusetts BerkShare, which was developed to help keep money from flowing out of the Berkshire region.

One hundred BerkShares cost $95 and are available at local banks throughout the region. Participating local merchants then accept them as if they were dollars—offering their customers what amounts to a 5-percent discount for using the local money. Although it amounts to selling goods at a perpetual discount, merchants can in turn spend their local currency at other local businesses and receive the same discounted rate. Nonlocals and tourists purchase goods with dollars at full price, and those who bother to purchase items with BerkShares presumably leave town with a bit of unspent local money in their pockets.

The 5-percent local discount may seem like a huge disadvantage to take on—but only if businesses think of themselves as competing individuals. In the long term, the discount is more than compensated for by the fact that BerkShares can circulate only locally. They remain in the region and come back to the same stores again and again. Even if nonlocal stores, such as Walmart, agree to accept the local currency, they can’t deliver it up to their shareholders or trap it in static savings. The best Walmart can do is use it to pay their local workers or purchase supplies and services from local merchants.

Many other communities—Detroit, Santa Barbara, and a few places in Europe—are experimenting with variations on the BerkShare model. Most of these local currencies are still more fad than utility. In some cases, it’s because only economically conscious progressives are willing to employ them. In others, it’s because the central monetary system is still strong enough to serve a majority of people—or dominant enough to minimize the apparent viability of alternatives. Moreover, by pegging themselves to central currency, these local discount currencies can isolate themselves only so much from the chronic monetary problems of inflation, deflation, bubbles, and debt.

Unlike local discount currencies, cooperative community currencies don’t need to be pegged to the dollar at all. They are not purchased into existence but are worked into circulation. They are best thought of less like money than like exchanges.

The simplest form of cooperative currency is a favor bank, such as those founded in Greece and other parts of southern Europe during the Euro crisis. Incapable of finding work or sourcing Euros, people in many places lost the ability to transact. Even though a majority of what they needed could be produced locally, they had no cash with which to trade. So they built simple, secure trading websites—mini-eBays—where people offered their goods and services to others in return for the goods and services they needed. The sites did not record value amounts so much as keep general track of who was providing what to the community and coordinate fair exchanges. This casual, transparent solution works particularly well in a community where people already know one another and freeloaders can be pressured to contribute.

Larger communities have been using “time dollars,” a currency system that keeps track of how many hours people contribute to one another. Again, a simple exchange is set up on a website, where people list what they need and what they can contribute. The bigger and more anonymous a community, the more security and verification is required. Luckily, dozens of startups and nonprofit organizations have been developing apps and website kits via which local or even nonlocal communities can establish and run their own currencies.

Time exchanges tend to work best when everybody values their time the same way or is providing the same service. Time dollars are extremely egalitarian, valuing each person’s time the same as anyone else’s. An “hour” is worth one hour of work, whether it is performed by a plumber or a psychotherapist.

The Japanese recession gave rise to one of the most successful time exchanges yet, called Fureai Kippu, or “Caring Relationship Tickets.” People no longer had enough cash to pay for their parents’ or grandparents’ health-care services—but because they had moved far away from home to find jobs, they couldn’t take care of their relatives themselves either. The Fureai Kippu exchange gave people the ability to bank hours of eldercare by taking care of old people in their communities, which they could then spend to get care for their own relatives far away. So one person might provide an hour of bathing services for an elder in her neighborhood in return for someone preparing meals for her grandfather who lives in another city. As the Caring Relationship Tickets became accepted things of value, people began using them for a variety of services.

Time-dollars systems, and those like them, don’t encourage extractive profiteering because they are really only good for exchanging labor and services with other people. Unlike bank-issued currency, hours are not borrowed into existence, nor do they collect interest over time. They don’t actually accumulate. Instead, everyone’s account starts at zero. When Sylvia babysits for Joe’s kid, her account is credited three hours, and Joe’s is debited three hours. Since they both started at zero, Sylvia now has three hours in her account, while Joe’s account is in the red for three hours’ worth of work. He will remain owing those three hours to the system—to the community—until Mary hires him to fix her refrigerator. The net result of the exchange is even. The net total of the system is still zero. It is not a growth economy but a transactional economy.

Although a person can do a bunch of work in order to bank enough hours to get a whole bunch of services, most time exchanges put a limit on how many hours members can accumulate. They also put a limit on how many hours a person can owe. This way a freeloader can be removed from the system, and the entire community can absorb the cost of the unearned hours pretty easily.

How might traditional banks participate effectively in the financial rehabilitation of the communities they serve? Here’s just one possibility:

Sam’s Pizzeria is thriving as a local business, and Sam needs $200,000 to expand the dining room and build a second restroom. Normally, the bank would evaluate his business and credit and then either reject his loan request or give him the money at around 8 percent interest. The risk is that he won’t get enough new business to fill the new space, won’t be able to pay back the loan, and will go out of business. Indeed, part of the cost of the loan is that speculative risk.

In another approach, the banker could make Sam a different offer. The bank could agree to put up $100,000 toward the expansion project at 8 percent if Sam is able to raise the other $100,000 from his community in the form of market money: Sam is to sell digital coupons for $120 worth of pizza at the expanded restaurant at a cost of $100 per coupon. The bank can supply the software and administrate the escrow. If Sam can’t raise the money, then it proves the community wasn’t ready, and the bank can return everyone’s money.

If he does raise the money, then the bank has gained the security of a terrific community buy-in. Sam got his money more cheaply than if he borrowed the whole sum from the bank, because he can pay back the interest in retail-priced pizza. The community lenders have earned a fast 20 percent on their money—far more than they could earn in a bank or mutual fund. And it’s an investment that pays all sorts of other dividends: a more thriving downtown, more customers for other local businesses, better real-estate values, a higher tax base, better public schools, and so on. These are benefits one can’t see when buying stocks or abstract derivatives. Meanwhile, all the local “investors” now have a stake in the restaurant’s staying open at least long enough for them to cash in all their coupons. That’s good motivation to publicize it, take friends out to eat there, and contribute to its success.

For its part, the bank has diversified its range of services, bet on the possibility that community currencies will gain traction, and demonstrated a willingness to do something other than extract value from a community. The bank becomes a community partner, helping a local region invest in itself. The approach also provides the bank with a great hedge against continued deflation, hyperinflation, or growing consumer dissatisfaction with Wall Street and centrally issued money. If capital lending continues to contract as a business sector, the bank has already positioned itself to function as more of a service company—providing the authentication and financial expertise small businesses still need to thrive.

The bank transforms itself from an agent of debt to a catalyst for distribution and circulation. Like money in a digital age, it becomes less a thing of value in itself than a way of fostering the value creation and exchange of others.

This article has been adapted from Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity.