The economy is big news, and a big worry. But there are as many economies as we need. There are global, national, regional, and neighborhood economies. There are economies for greed, destruction, and exploitation, as well as for generosity, creativity, and love. And there are as many types of money as we need to operate these economies.
As the gift economies spread beyond villages to large regions, money was invented to make sharing easier. So, taking control of money again to make it serve communities, begins at home.
The brightly colored Ithaca HOURS. Photo credit: Samara's Project. Used under Creative Commons license.
Twenty-two years ago, I designed colorful paper cash for Ithaca, New York, featuring local children, waterfalls, trolleys, and bugs, printed stacks of it then convinced several thousand people and 500 businesses that it was real money. Since then, millions of dollars worth of Ithaca HOURS have been traded. Each HOUR is worth one hour of basic labor or $10. Professionals can charge multiple HOURS per hour, but we remind residents that all labor is respected. Loans up to $30,000 have been offered interest-free and grants to more than 100 local groups have been made. Community cash enables good things to happen wherever dollars are scarce.
The program made such good sense that it was embraced by Ithaca’s most conservative residents, its most liberal, and most apolitical. That’s because everybody wants more money. We wanted to create more jobs, strengthen small businesses, and stimulate friendly trade. Some of us also wanted to shift economic power to ecological enterprise, especially to organic farms. We wanted to reward peaceful labor instead of warmaking. Some of us used the money to take control of health costs by creating our own grassroots health system. Others of us were eager to trade our skills with people who could become new friends.
Today, digital trading systems like Paypal and Bitcoin transact billions; Time Dollars are flourishing; credit cards are bigger than ever; and demand for gold and silver coinage is louder than ever.
So paper money has become old fashioned — like food, air, shoes, shaking hands, and smiling. Local paper cash serves that simpler economy, where humans look each other in the eye, where we trade what we proudly create. And it’s still easier, for example, to buy a bunch of carrots at the farmers’ market with local paper than with computer chips. Repaying a favor with dollars might be rude, while thanking with HOURS can be charming.
At the same time, paper currency is a powerful emblem of local solidarity. What is a nation without a flag, or a corporation without a logo? What is a community without its own money?
Ithaca residents supporting the idea of local economy and local currency. Photo credit: Shirari Industries. Used under Creative Commons license.
Let’s look at some nuts and bolts.
One lesson learned is that volunteer labor alone has not created sustainable systems. It’s essential to hire a networker to promote, facilitate, and troubleshoot currency circulation. The greatest payment for the networker, though, is meeting thousands of people. The networker creates a mental catalog of local capabilities, then connects folks to one another.
This task is not as formidable as in 1991. Ithaca HOURS began before websites, e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter. Back then, in pre-history, we communicated by meeting in public spaces, and somewhat by landline phones. Today, smartphones, the web, texting, and e-mail have become powerful tools for strengthening local money of all types. They make easier the accounting of credits, the publishing of a directory, the broadcast of trading news, the linking of participants to one another by listserves.
Whether organizing a paper or online money system, one starts with direct outreach. Even an excellent web-based trading site may be neglected without personal promotion. For example, it’s essential to set up a display in public spaces, wherever people gather. Talk and listen — answering their questions sharpens your answers. This is how I found the first 90 pioneers willing to accept HOURS.
Your money gains respect according to how it’s issued. You can print a garage-full of money or a suitcase-full as long as it’s stored in a secure place. But people will trust it when you issue it systematically and carefully, in reasonable relation to the variety of goods and services listed in the HOUR directory.
Local money is not “given away.” It is paid to those who agree to be listed in the local currency newspaper. Traders were paid four HOURS to prime the pump, an exchange for agreeing to be listed in the directory. The serial number of each note issued is entered in the ledger with name of recipient. Complete records of issuance are public record.
When money begins circulating one must follow it around town. Without a computer to track transactions, the networker listens. This is essential to ensure that those who earn the most money spend it. My main task became assisting some of the major retailers to spend.
Every other month, 5,000 copies of HOUR Town news were distributed via bicycle to 60 locations citywide. The directory listed thousands of ways to spend HOURS and contained an invitation to join the list.
Our aim is to provide enough HOURS to help people create work they like and to fulfill the environmental and social benefits of local trading. To do this, we seek to provide the right number of HOURS. We want enough HOURS issued so people can easily trade with each other, and we want to issue these gradually enough so that businesses have enough time to learn to use greater quantities of HOURS. Each retailer sets an HOUR acceptance rate which fits their expanding capacity to spend HOURS.
As more people gradually learn more ways to spend widely — balancing the circulation — then more HOURS can be issued as grants and interest-free loans. That's how the supply expands significantly. It's an evolutionary process.
Properly managed, your cash becomes a local institution, like a food co-op or credit union. My book, Hometown Money, explains step-by-step how to start and manage this grassroots revolution.
So, to summarize: local currency is not administered by a board of directors meeting monthly, but is managed by at least one paid networker on the street daily. Although playing the game of Monopoly takes a few hours, developing an anti-monopoly economy never ends.
Paul Glover is founder of 18 organizations and campaigns, including HOURS, Philadelphia Orchard Project, Citizen Planners of Los Angeles, and League of Uninsured Voters. He’s the author of six books and a former professor of urban studies at Temple University.