The Money Culture, Part 4

Transition Santa Cruz will be discussing the money culture and alternatives at their monthly potluck tomorrow.  One of the proposals they plan to discuss is the New Earth Exchange, a variant of the local currency phenomenon.  (I can’t make it to the meeting, so I’ll just blab about it here.)

I probably started hearing about local currencies in the late 90’s.  The notion with these is not to replace the money culture and fiat currency already in place, but simply to run another one alongside it.  The design intention is that this parallel currency will work better, as it will encourage local community interactions and resilience.  There are well-known working examples, including one in Humboldt, CA and one in Ithica, NY. Much like microfinance (e.g., I like the idea because it’s much less bad than the dominant system, but I’m not convinced that it’s really good because it retains the mindset of the dominant paradigm.

As I started talking with Judy about these, she gave me a book called No More Throw Away People: The Co-Production Imperative by Edgar Cahn.  I’ve only had time to read the first section (introducing the inspiration for the idea of “Time Dollars” and “Time Banking”, but I wanted to share a few thoughts:

1) Cahn proposes that one of the biggest hurdles in getting social programs to work (things like drug rehabilitation, poverty alleviation, senior services, etc.) is that often the people who are served by the programs do not participate in helping themselves to the extent that program planners expect or hope.

I am reminded of one friend who often chides me that “you can’t just tell people what to do,” when I start to talk about strategies of culture change for sustainability.  This is a real problem if we think of people mostly as “consumers” making choices, instead of “citizens” who participate in making and then following policies and laws.  As Erik notes, while some traffic laws are violated regularly, the fact that many are usually upheld (e.g. “Don’t enter the intersection if your light is red and people are traveling perpendicular to you”) is what makes driving around town possible.  So you CAN tell people what to do, and they will do it, especially if it seems to be in their best interest.  And, for people who want a healthy world in the future, I think sustainability-motivated policies would fall into this category.

2) To compound the problems with implementing social programs, some will assert that attempting to help people makes them more inclined to become “defective” or “dependent” in order to qualify for help.  I am skeptical that this goes beyond a tiny minority, but I know it happens – for example, I personally know two people (who will go unnamed) who actually worked to gain weight so that they would be sufficiently obese to get their insurance to cover their stomach-stapling procedures.  Now, anecdotal data is not a reliable basis for policy (though news/talk shows want viewers/listeners to believe otherwise), so what I’d like is some solid statistical research on how intense and widespread this phenomenon might be.

3)  Like Riane Eisler in The Real Wealth of Nations, Cahn is focused on how to support the care work that is so essential to everyone’s well-being and happiness, but is so under-rewarded in our current money system.  Time Dollars, where an hour of work by anyone can be exchanged for an hour of work by someone else, is one way to get around the skewed values represented by work-for-pay in the dominant money culture.  I’m not sure if or how Cahn addresses these, but there are three concerns I have about the functioning of Time Dollars.

  1. One Hour = One Hour makes perfect sense on one level, but it doesn’t take long to think of examples of work, even care-work, that seem much more valuable than other kinds of work.  In particular, what about work that required a big investment of time (and fiat currency/debt) up front before it could be done properly – say, medical care.  Part of the reason a doctor’s time is more valuable than a plumber’s is that she had to spend several years in medical school before becoming a trustworthy practitioner (or, if you’re lucky, at a school of osteopathic or holistic medicine).  It occurred to me that one way of dealing with this discrepancy would be that, rather than making people pay to get an education, people should be paid while getting an education – for hours spent in classrooms, hours doing research, reading, completing homework problems, etc.  Now, maybe the Time Dollar – type payments people earn while getting an education would only be available if their schoolwork was of adequate quality, and/or might only be available after the education was completed and once it begins to be applied.
  2. Any evolutionary biologist can tell you that one of the requirements for reciprocal altruism (the kinds of helping behaviors that things like Time Dollars should represent) is that, to be successful, you need to be able to identify and exclude cheaters.  In the 1990’s, Anne Pusey and Craig Packer investigated how lions manage this, allowing a certain amount of laziness in some of the members of a group hunt, but not so much that it had an impact on hunting success.  Not everyone can give 100% all the time, but people who consistently give less in their work must be recognized, and ways must be found to keep such “laggards” (in Packard & Pusey’s terms) from sapping the overall productivity of the community.  I don’t have a clear idea of how this would work without being anti-egalitarian or overly punitive, but I do think it warrants consideration.
  3. Time Dollars works for services, but what about materials?  One thing I would want from an improved currency is a way to make extracting non-renewable resources much less favorable, and creative reuse plus careful stewardship of renewable resources much better rewarded.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Cahn’s book, and more to say about alternative/local currencies, in the future.  Meanwhile, I’d love to hear/read your ideas.


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