Do-It-Yourself Cash: Dollars With Good Sense - Time Banking

Author // Judith D. Schwartz

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Do-It-Yourself Cash: Dollars With Good Sense
Time Banking
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Time Banking

Time Dollars, now used in settings as varied as small towns, retirement homes, schools and prisons, respond to conventional currency’s limited capacity to measure worth. “Dollars don’t measure value very well,” says David Boyle, a fellow at the New Economics Foundation in the United Kingdom. They are good, he says, at measuring “the instantaneous value of Microsoft or currencies on the international exchange. But not the value of, say, a local shop, or of me if I’m very old or young. I might have skills, but not those that are conventionally marketable.”

Time Dollars were developed in 1980 by law professor Edgar Cahn, who lamented that crucial work to improve people’s lives—such as child and elder care—is much needed but little valued. He saw that many who could do these tasks were idle and felt useless. To get people economically engaged, Cahn proposed a system where people earn credit according to the number of hours they work. These Time Dollars can then be “cashed in” for services, like yard work, tutoring, etc.

Not only does Time Banking promote social justice by connecting people, promoting reciprocity, and improving neighborhoods—it has also proved quite versatile: People have exchanged Time Dollars for wool spinning, “rune making” and having a baby delivered by a midwife. And there’s always an ample supply, since no community is going to run out of hours.

TimeBanks USA offers a startup kit that includes instructions and software for starting a Time Bank anywhere. Rose-Marie Pelletier is working on launching a Time Bank in her town of Pownal, Vermont, an economically diverse rural community of 3,500. At a town meeting, Pelletier looked at the listings of delinquent taxes over recent years and saw that they had increased geometrically. She’s a math teacher, and the numbers spoke to her; she saw the extent to which people were hurting. “People want to help each other—when we know how to do it,” she says. “I see Time Banking as a way of building community, one hour at a time.”

Chiemgauer Regional Currency

Conventional currency excels at serving as a store of value—so much so that use of money for actual trade slows down, leaving some local economies stuck. Coin and paper currencies do not lose value like the products one buys with them can, which makes hoarding and speculation attractive, particularly with the enticement of interest. Argentine economist Silvio Gesell described this phenomenon in 1913 and said that money also should lose value: that it should “rust” or go moldy like other commodities, and suggested a penalty, or demurrage fee, for holding onto it. Nearly 75 years later, then-teenager Christian Gelleri read Gesell’s work and was fascinated. As a high school teacher, he saw the chance to test the model with a local currency. This is how it works: Each quarter, every Chiemgauer bill loses 2 percent of its value. In order to spend the money later, the consumer needs to put a special sticker on the paper currency.

In the beginning, Gelleri got complaints. Then people figured out how to make the model work for them. For instance, one cinema owner said that business went way up at the end of the quarter when people wanted to shed their currency. Increased cash flow at quarter’s end was helpful for accounting, he said. The 2 percent loss, he added, was insignificant compared to the advertising he’d have to buy to secure the same level of customer loyalty he has from accepting the Chiemgauer.

A consumer can exchange euros for Chiemgauers at 50 offices in the region. Three percent of the purchase price goes to a nonprofit the buyer chooses. So far, more than $100,000 euros have gone to charities such as school athletic programs and environmental groups. The “good cause” component reinforces people’s investment in the currency, and in their community.

Maybe we’re asking national currencies to do too many things. As Thomas H. Greco Jr. points out in his new book, The End of Money and the Future of Civilization, some functions are inherently contradictory: If money is for trading, you want to use it; if money is to store value, you want to save it. Greco and others such as David Boyle say that people could be better served by separating out the functions of money—and using different currencies, depending on whether you are, say, meeting friends at a local café or saving for college.

Back on Main Street in Great Barrington, Matthew Rubiner, of Rubiner’s Cheesemongers & Grocers, says the issue of local currency has shifted quickly from the theoretical to the here-and-now. “When BerkShares started, we talked about what would happen if the economy falls apart and we were really forced to look local.” The economic downturn, he says, has “brought the question into bolder relief.”

How BerkShares Boost the Local Economy

Everyone benefits from using BerkShares. Consumers benefit from receiving a 10 percent discount on purchases. Businesses benefit from increased patronage. Local nonprofit organizations can also benefit by purchasing BerkShares at the 5 percent discount rate and selling them at full face value to their supporters.

It will take citizens working in their own communities, region by region, to create the kind of systemic change that will lead to sustainable economic practices—practices that foster ecologically responsible production of goods and a more equitable distribution of wealth. Local currencies are a tool to bring about such change. BerkShares are about building community while building the local economy.

Pathways Issue 33 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #33.

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