Did you know it’s legal to print your own money? You can’t print money that looks like government money, of course, but as long as it looks different, you’re clear. Why would anyone do this? Just ask the hundreds of communities all over the world that print their own local currency.
At first sight, local currencies are just plain fun. Anyone that’s ever played Monopoly remembers the thrill of handling those colorful little dollars. Imagine being able to make your own money! Now you find that grownups are actually doing just that.
Upon reflection, of course, fun isn’t exactly the recompense for a hard day’s work. In fact, “Monopoly money” is a term that already carries certain negative associations in the world of finance. Money has to be based (in one way or another) on real wealth or it breaks. Most of us have a deep mental image of some German somewhere (in Germany, 1922-1923) pushing a wheelbarrow full of nearly useless cash. Won’t a “local currency” suffer the same fate?
In a word, no. In fact, local currencies are often begun precisely to avoid that fate.
One of the longest and most successful local currencies in America is the Ithaca HOUR, based in Ithaca, NY. As has always been the case, Ithaca HOURS aren’t backed by gold, silver or any other commodity. “Ithaca HOURS is backed by our relationships,” said Rebecca Nellenback, HOURS board member. “That’s what we want our town and our community to be.”
Sound impractical? Consider: what is the national currency based on, but our relationship with the national government? We get paid in piles of green paper because we trust that if the Federal government says it’s worth something, it is. Unfortunately, that same government is now in trillions of dollars in debt.
U.S.A. National Debt on February 4th, 2011: $14,099,823,671,305.
There’s enough talk in the major media about looming recession (or worse) that I’ll skip all that; the point is, there’s nothing conspiratorial about questioning whether the current national government is the best place to invest your work.
(Incidentally, that debt works out to about $44,900 per American. Apparently including each of my kids.)
When people consider alternatives to money, their minds seem to run to gold and real estate. In researching this article, I found a website where you could buy about 10 gold coins for—about $2000. The site had a lot to say about inflation, and Germans wheeling around their life savings to buy a loaf of bread. What I didn’t find was any mention of what the smart Germans did with their 10 gold coins apiece when hyperinflation struck. Try to buy bread with a gold shaving? Use one coin to buy the whole town?
In the real world, I’m not sure that 10 gold coins, or 1000, will get you very far in an emergency, unless you figure out how to ingest metal. Local currencies are one way of considering the whole picture; we need each other to survive, not to mention flourish. No matter what happens in Washington, you and your neighbors can still produce, and trade the fruits of your labor. You can still trust each other.
Local currencies are more than a hedge against disaster; they’re another tool that communities can use to weave connections among themselves and flourish. Here I’ve spoken mainly from the “looming disaster” perspective, because that’s the tone the media’s taking, but your loss of local freedom is always a disaster, whether the numbers are going up or down.
I don’t mean that distributists are against having a national currency. Of course we also need ways to trade with those outside our town. So why not have both currencies? Right now, the American economy is still functioning well enough that local currencies in this country are still “complementary”; I don’t know of anyone getting paid exclusively in Ithaca HOURS. But many people do choose them as part of their paycheck, and many Ithaca businesses accept them. And Ithaca is only one of hundreds of such currencies around the world.
Whether or not all this recession talk comes true, we already have this little-known mechanism for beginning to take back control of our cash, which is to say, our work and our time. Let’s use it.