Welcome to the final furlong!
Co-authors of the
Money and Society MOOC
Matthew Slater & Jem Wendell
Welcome to lesson 4 of the Money and Society MOOC, narrated by me, Professor Jem Bendell. We’ve worked you hard, so congratulations on getting to this point, where we will now look at alternatives to mainstream monetary systems.
You may recall that in previous lessons we didn’t seek to summarise and conclude things for you, but to encourage new perspectives and critical thinking on the nature, history and impact of money systems. The assignments were not about demonstrating correctness, but sought to stimulate reflection and encourage you to share and discuss with others on the forum. Before we begin lesson 4, let’s recap on what we intended for the last 3 lessons.
In Lesson 1 we attempted to understand what money really is, and we broke through the notion that money is some kind of special commodity allowing a high tech version of barter. Credit and fiat monies make no sense when viewed as commodities; all designs of money are social agreements, sometimes freely agreed yet oftentimes assumed or imposed. We see that modern money is a very peculiar hybrid. We could argue that fiat legal tender money is used to clear balances between banks who charge producers for guaranteeing their promises. Modern money is issued as credit, yet traded and hoarded like a commodity. We gave you the assignment on Ven so you could apply your insights from the lesson to a new alternative, which claims value on the basis of being connected to commodities. It is not a new source of liquidity as it is purchased into existence with existing money.
In Lesson 2 we presented a range of insights on the history of money that are often hidden from mainstream monetary histories. We sought to show that, before recent times, money has been a far wider variety of different arrangements between people, and between people, authorities and bankers. We showed how money need not only be defined by the state. We debunked persistent delusions about money solving difficulties with barter or precious metals being the original money. We gave you many examples of the role of power, of elites and of general misunderstandings in allowing money systems to be evolve as they have. We set you a really tough assignment to think about what all of this means – what factors are key in driving this evolution of money? What might this mean for our future? To encourage your own thinking, we held back our own view, which is that the key factor behind the history of money is the balance between, on the one hand, the level of cooperation between different incumbent elites and, on the other, the level of awareness and cooperation by the rest of society. The dominant social institution of money arises due both to processes of co-operation of productive citizens and the conspiracies of incumbent elites. The history of money reflects a dynamic interplay between these two processes in the context of changing technologies. It is a theory we will return to later in this lesson.
In Lesson 3 we focused on how some features of modern money shape our society, our biosphere and our minds. In the creative writing assignment, we hoped you might explore how money is a critical technology in our society yet it is our forms of governance that need to be informed and accountable if we are not to create the same problems with newly invented currencies. In the assignment where we asked you to have a go at us, our main aim was so that in the forum you could see a diversity of views on the pros and cons of mainstream money, and therefore be prepared for future discussions with others.
In lesson 3, you may have sensed our sober outrage. Why is something so imaginary, now so sacrosanct that nations are now being crippled by the burden of it? Rather than seeing their role as including the control of money systems, today’s politicians treat monetary issues like a force of nature, and appear to think it proficient not pathetic, to issue warnings of possible storms ahead. I would speculate that this blatant ignorance might be because people in senior positions are the most afraid of exploring issues that would embarrass them for lack of knowledge and might challenge the basis of their world view. I say that because I myself felt nervous when I started down this intellectual path in 2009 – and I wasn’t senior in anything. The nervousness was about what this insight might mean for my work and life. Basically, what should I do? Fortunately I discovered there are people everywhere stepping up and trying to act on their knowledge about the monetary system in pretty much every way they can think of.
Having understood the situation, this lesson addresses possible responses to the modern money system which drives most of human society, and which appears to be so harmful. We have identified three broad categories of responses:
1. working with the government to design and implement a better system
2. using existing money more effectively, ethically and compassionately
3. finding and using alternatives to money, either collectively or personally
We present monetary activism and currency innovation as experiments, campaigns, discourses, and prototypes for you to consider and question, but we will not evaluate them. Some are politically possible strategies but perhaps likely not to change very much, and others are more utopian approaches which would make a difference but fewer people would be persuaded to pursue them.
If you feel like a recap on all the issues in the past 3 lessons, and didn’t listen to it at the end of lesson 3, an 18 minute speech I gave at a conference recaps on that and then introduces possible avenues for action, so it is a good primer for this lesson.
Bendell, 2012. The Future of Finance, Speech to Rebuild21
2. Banking Crises
As we saw in lesson 2, banking crises have been recurring feature in history, so we have had many opportunities to learn how to respond. When the banks close their doors, usually because they are insolvent, depositors are unable to access their money. This can happen partially, as in Greece 2015; banks didn’t close, but withdrawals were limited. So how have populations and businesses responded when cash supplies are constricted? While poverty and stagnation are frequent, sometimes ways are found to workaround the lack of (access to) money. Here are 4.
1. In a series of banking strikes in Ireland in the 1970s, the population worked around the lack of cash and bank deposits by circulating cheques as money for some months. Wages were paid in cheques of varying denominations to increase their usefulness in transactions. This reminds us how ‘money’ rarely needs to be actually moved. What is moving most of the time is claims on money – and money itself can be seen as a claim. (Martin, 2013)
2. In Argentina 2001 speculators destroyed the currency which was pegged to the dollar and the banking system stopped for some months. A new kind of market sprang up for the middle classes to sell their stuff or exchange it for food. Each market would have its own currency or ticket system to act as an internal means of exchange. They quickly aggregated into a few large, private networks tickets and there were major abuses of the ticket issuing power!
3. After the 1929 there was a depression across the developed world, and there were many experiments in locally issued ‘scrip’ currencies as we touched on in lesson 2. Though the designs were different, they were usually issued by local government, sometimes by a large local business such as utility company. US economist Irving Fisher favoured them enough to write a short book on them, but in Europe and USA they were banned in favour of more centralised approaches to tackle the depression.
4. In modern times governments attempt to step in to prevent ‘too big to fail’ banks from closing. With quantitative easing (QE) new money is borrowed into existence and made available cheaply to banks to encourage them to continue business-as-usual. In many cases the money is used to buy government bonds from the banks. The QE money finds its way into financial markets, particularly stock markets, and therefore favour the already-wealthy, rather than into the ‘real’ economy where it might address the original problem. With the original problem remaining unsolved, tax revenues are unable to repay the QE money which then adds to the national debt burden, fuelling future austerity.
In this lesson we cover many other alternatives but it is important to distinguish between those which have been implemented and those which, for whatever reason have not. These implemented solutions had major drawbacks, but in a crisis, any solution is better than nothing.
Stamp Scrip, By Irving Fisher
What is QE? The Guardian
Martin, F (2013) Money: The Unauthorised biography, Bodley Head, UK
3. Banking Reform
A wealth of political cartoons reflects the attention that banking reform has in the mainstream
Without an understanding of money, it is easy to call for a reform of the institutions which required bailing out. It is easy to point to malpractice, fraud, conspiracy, money-laundering, embezzlement, tax evasion, and other macro-criminal acts. It is obvious that neither the letter of the law, nor the arm of the law, are up to the task of reigning in institutions of such complexity and scale.
It is true that governments work constantly to regulate, legislate and monitor banks. They employ the best people from the banking sector, many of them with something to gain from the health of their former employers. We can’t know what didn’t happen because a regulation succeeded, but we can assert that all the regulation put in place did not cause substantially curtail the misdemeanors just listed, nor the systemic risk. The risk however has moved away from the government and towards shareholders, bondholders and depositors (in that order).
According to Zerohedge, “any money you deposit in a bank now is no longer yours but makes you an investor in the bank and subject to lose that money if a banking crisis takes down the bank.” (Zerohedge, 2014)
That means, depending on how much your bank have overstated its assets, and depending the kinds of risk it is taking, liquidators within the EU may reduce bank obligations to depositors over €100K by at least 8% before requesting government support (Guardian 2013). Having done lesson 1 of this MOOC you will notice the “now is no longer” is a mistake by the author of Zerohedge.
Yet we have explored in this MOOC that the root of the problem lies far below the day to day practices of globalised banking institutions, psychopathic though those practices appear to be. Even if banks broke no laws they would still be stewards of a constant transfer of wealth and power from the poor to the rich, the commodification of everything, and the consumption of every resource.
Consequently banking reform could be seen as a distraction, since progress in that field over decades has been minimal at best. There are two approaches though, that are worthy of consideration.
California Lawyer Ellen Brown started the Public Banking movement which calls on every US State to own a bank in the public interest, like the Bank of North Dakota. A state owned bank would recycle the interest into state projects rather than paying it to shareholders in dividends where it might not re-enter the economy or re-enter the economy as an unrepayable loan on top of a loan. The publicbankinginstitute.org records chapters in 18 US states.
In the UK in 2015 the New Economics Foundation published a detailed proposal for turning state-owned RBS into a network of 130 local banks modelled on the German Sparkassen, whose shareholders are usually single cities or numerous cities in an administrative district.
Also there are attempts in some countries to prove in court that national central banks are unconstitutional. These cases do not receive wide media coverage. While ‘End the Fed’ is a common rallying cry amongst activists in USA, we are not aware of any serious legal attempts to do so. A recent attempt in South Africa failed but one case against the central bank and government in Canada is ongoing (Comer, 2014).
Guardian 2013 EU agrees banks’ bail-in deal http://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/jun/27/eu-agrees-banks-bail-in-deal
NEF (2015) Reforming RBS: http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/reforming-rbs
Zerohedge 2014 The Destruction Of The Middle Class Is Nearing The Final Stages http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2014-12-23/destruction-middle-class-nearing-final-stages
Comer, Lawyer Rocco Galati Targeting Federal Appeal Court Vacancies 2014, http://comer.org/archives/2014/COMER_NovDec2014.pdf
4. Islam & Credit
Bernard Von Nothaus his liberty.
Congressman Ron Paul questions Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke – “Do you think gold is money?
In the USA, sober progress is being made within some states towards re-monetising gold. (Bloomberg 2013) However some people have preferred to create rather than legislate. The Liberty Dollar was a project in US which had gold and silver coins minted, to be used as both a store of value and medium of exchange. The founder Bernard von Nothaus used to run the Hawaii mint. With gold doubling and silver increasing 5 fold in the first decade of this century, the project gained too much attention and von Nothaus was bizarrely convicted of counterfeiting crimes in 2011. In a press release after the verdict, the U.S. attorney’s office pontificated, “Attempts to undermine the legitimate currency of this country are simply a unique form of domestic terrorism.” (US Attorney‘s Office, 2011).
The US government is concerned, as we have discussed, to shore up the value of the dollar and this might imply actively suppressing gold and silver prices and initiatives. The Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee was organized in the fall of 1998 to expose, oppose, and litigate against collusion to control the price and supply of gold and related financial instruments (GATA). The perennial problem is that, just as in the earliest days of banking, even while gold isn’t money, there are more promises than there is gold, by some estimates, a hundred times more. That’s why some financial advisors talk about holding real gold and ‘paper gold’.
But some interests have gone further to antagonise the US. In addition to pricing his oil in Euros, President of Libya Muammar Gaddafi held a series of Anti-imperialist (Mathaba) conferences in Tripoli in which he outlined how the African Union, could like Europe create its own currency, but from gold. Some commentators including the broadcaster Russia Today, have speculated, with no direct evidence, that these initiatives were the real reason why he was toppled from power (RT, 2011)
While many people trust gold, especially in the wake of a crisis of trust, what actually gets traded is promises of gold, and consequently the problem of trust is not practically solved by a policy of backing money with precious metal. Gold can also be cornered by the powerful, thus compromising the money supply. This dichotomy of gold vs fiat is the first level of the monetary reform debate. Both approaches have problems; both depend on proper government; both have worked perfectly well in history, but both can be abused.
21st Century Wire (2014) http://21stcenturywire.com/2014/11/22/isis-coin-islamic-state-steal-gaddafi-plan-to-mint-gold-dinar
RT 2011 Gaddafi gold-for-oil, dollar-doom plans behind Libya ‘mission’? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GuqZfaj34nc
U.S. Attorney’s Office (2011) Defendant Convicted of Minting His Own Currency, Western District of North Carolina, March 18, 2011
6. Free market money
In his 1976 paper ‘Choice in Currency’, Friedrich Hayek wrote “I have no objection to governments issuing money, but I believe their claim to a monopoly, or their power to limit the kinds of money in which contracts may be concluded within their territory… to be wholly harmful.” (Hayek, 1975)
To paraphrase, a really free market would not have a government supported legal tender monopoly, but a range of currencies and issuers.
If national government monies inspired no confidence, then people and institutions like business, unions, silver miners, football teams, local councils and churches could issue currency, and let the market decide the relative value of each. Such a situation is reminiscent of free banking where each bank’s notes, though probably using the same unit, such as dollars, would function as a different currency.
It is interesting to note that the British economist Keynes and Hayek lived contemporaneously and thus were trying to solve the same kinds of economic problems with the same tools. Though often viewed as polar opposites, as in the rap you may have watched in an earlier lesson, it can be argued that both have been tried and both have failed. 100 years on, and with our situation of debt saturation, over-production, environmental collapse, and with fully computerised nanosescond trading and national sovereignty being lost to international banks, it is time to review the whole paradigm, to understand the common assumptions rather than the differences between the two poles, and find some way to think out of the box.
Hayek (1975) Choice in Currency: A Way to Stop Inflation http://mises.ca/posts/articles/choice-in-currency-a-way-to-stop-inflation/
Hayek, Friedrich Denationalisation of Money: An Analysis of the Theory and Practice of Concurrent Currencies (1976) – http://mises.org/books/denationalisation.pdf
7. IMF Global Currency?
Current SDR composition
Some like to think big, and wonder if a new global currency might help. Already the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has a facility called the Special Drawing Right (SDR). According to one analyst, “SDR’s aren’t an actual currency. They are more like a basket of currencies that act as a claim on real currencies. SDR’s were originally created in 1969 when the Bretton-Woods system was breaking down, to replace gold and silver on international transactions. SDR’s were called “paper gold” at the time. The advantage of using SDR’s for creditor nations like China is that it diversifies their currency reserves and functions as a “transitional reserve currency” until a new currency can take the dollar’s place.” (Johnson 2011)
Some do suggest that the SDRs could be scaled up to make a global replacement currency, in much the same way that the Euro replaced all the currencies of Europe. IMF First Deputy Managing Director John Lipsky has explained that for this to work “The SDRs would have to be delinked from other currencies and issued by an international organization with equivalent authority to a central bank in order to become liquid enough to be used as a reserve.” (Bloomberg 2009)
In a globalised marketplace, it could be argued that only a global currency can meet the regulatory challenges of the global market; furthermore the argument could be made that SDR redistributes world power away from the dollar, which would be meaningful if the IMF and Federal Reserve were controlled by different interests!
We, your authors of this lesson, are very cautious about ANY global currency. There is a problem if one currency becomes the dominant or only currency across a diversity of economies, as then, as we see in the Eurozone, it can prevent countries from setting their own policies. But the main problem with a global currency is governance. The IMF is not a democratically accountable body to all governments or citizens of the world. A global currency could centralise political power, more so if and when it became global legal tender.
Johnson, G (2011) No Love for Uncle Buck, Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/garrett-johnson/no-love-for-uncle-buck_b_318782.html
Bloomberg 2009, IMF Says New Reserve Currency to Replace Dollar Is Possible http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aUYeJEwZaQrw
8. Neo-Chartalist Solutions
When considering alternatives, we are choosing HOW alternative it is necessary to be. Too extreme and you will be isolated and lumped in with other extremists, but too mainstream and you’ll never affect meaningful change, except perhaps through small increments. A context of growing environmental degradation, social decline and economic instability, make some more radical but others more prepared to compromise for quick wins.
The austerity / stimulus debate we covered in the last lesson seems to have petered out and no other approaches have yet entered into popular discussion or the constrained realm of the politically possible. Perhaps the most respectable alternative is Modern Monetary Theory, sometimes called Neo-Chartalism. Fiat money, properly governed, is a solution any government could embrace. In the USA Zarlenga’s American Monetary institute has drafted a bill calling for something similar. In UK Positive Money (PM) are calling for an update of the 1844 law which prevented banks from issuing their own banknotes. Positive Money argues that the spirit of the law would have prevented the subsequent development of credit-money and the payment network in which bank issued credit-money works just like government issued fiat money, yet at a constant cost.
2014 was a remarkable year for Positive Money. The Spring edition of the Bank of England quarterly report admitted that most economists were wrongly taught about money and supported the description made by PM. Secondly, for the first time in over 100 years, the UK parliament had a debate, though poorly attended, on money creation. PM are using modern social media to get their message across and lately also joining with similar groups across the world.
A proposal called the ‘Green New Deal’ takes this further and says that a Keynsian stimulus should be spent on greening the economy, rather than recapitalising banks. Most formulations of this proposal don’t specify whether the money should be new fiat money or borrowed further (NEF 2008; UNEP 2009)
Wray, L. R. (2013). Modern Money Theory: A Primer on Macroeconomics for Sovereign Monetary Systems. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin Q1 2014 http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Pages/quarterlybulletin/2014/qb14q1.aspx
NEF, A Green New Deal (2008) http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/a-green-new-deal
UNEP Global Green New Deal (2009) http://www.unep.ch/etb/publications/Green%20Economy/UNEP%20Policy%20Brief%20Eng.pdf
Dyson, B. (2014, pers com) Personal communication with Jem Bendell
Ryan-Collins, Josh and Tony Greenham, Richard Werner, Andrew Jackson (2012) Where does money come from? New Economics Foundation.
UNEP (2014) “Inquiry on the Design of a Sustainable Financial System.” http://www.unep.org/inquiry/
9. Challenges for Monetary Reformers
- What kind of reforms would be needed to ensure the government could be trusted with monetary policy?
- How would the banking industry respond to losing the income stream from creating credit?
- Government issuance, banks at 100% reserve and onward lending guidance for money from government
10. Basic Income
There are other arguments. Paying people who are not working because they are not working is unfair on those who do work, and disincentivises working people whose low wages are barely better than those on benefits. Furthermore there is a stigma associated with receiving ‘benefits’ and a high cost of administrating complex benefits systems (‘Will Work For Free’ 2013).
Most advocates for Basic Income envisage that it would come from corporate taxes, wealth tax, military spending cuts and so on. That can lead to a range of criticisms. But there is another way to get the money – by issuing it in the first place by fiat, as a Basic Income.
Most new money is issued now is into property bubbles, speculation in derivatives, or the military, none of which much benefits the working or middle classes. It can be argued that Basic Income is the democratic way to issue money, because citizens would decide through their spending which enterprises would benefit from the new money.
Will Work For Free (2013) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SuGRgdJA_c
11. Monetary Ignorance
Think: While engagement in public policy can and should continue, given the limited prospects for deep analysis and informed policy debate on monetary policy today, where else might reformers put their attention?
The last few slides may sound unlikely proposals. How possible is radical monetary reform? In our analysis of monetary history, apart the election campaign of US president Andrew Jackson, hundreds of years ago, we were unable to find major monetary reforms that were made with informed citizen participation and aimed at achieving the common good. Maybe now, with the internet, it’s different, since at least these ideas are accessible to the public, for example, in this course.
However we see no indications that senior people in finance and politics will engage these issues sufficiently, and in concert with a sufficiently informed general public, to drive real changes. Currently, all mainstream inquiries into national or global financial systems that we know of exclude the perspective presented in this MOOC, and draw only upon bankers and careerist economists for their insights. The list of participants in the Global Agenda Councils of the World Economic Forum highlights this. The IMF, World Bank and OECD are governed by Western interests, and only once in a while they publish something that raises deeper questions. The UN secretariat gave up its leadership role on monetary issues many decades ago, and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is therefore unlikely to lead a global reform agenda in this field. In 2014 the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) launched a two year “Inquiry on the Design of a Sustainable Financial System.” The first phase of the Inquiry asked for proposals for papers, but refused one from the Positive Money campaign (Dyson, 2014, pers com). Most work in the ‘sustainability’ field since 1992 has sought to append social and environmental concerns to existing economic systems, rather than taking the time to analyse and seek change in core elements of capitalism, such as credit issuance. The UNEP inquiry risks doing the same in order to be inclusive of a diverse constituency of member states, banks and environmental groups.
While engagement in public policy can and should continue, given the limited prospects for deep analysis and informed policy debate on monetary policy today, where else might reformers put their attention?
Dyson, B. (2014, pers com) Personal communication with Jem Bendell
Ryan-Collins, Josh and Tony Greenham, Richard Werner, Andrew Jackson (2012) Where does money come from? New Economics Foundation.
UNEP (2014) “Inquiry on the Design of a Sustainable Financial System.” http://www.unep.org/inquiry/
12. Complementary Currencies
An Ecopesa workshop in Kenya; local traders are holding up EcoPesa to see the watermark.
Some people who want to see change in monetary systems are turning to what they can implement themselves – their own innovative currencies.
Economist and former central banker Bernard Lietaer coined the term “complementary currencies” phrase because he acknowledged the usefulness of existing money and the futility of local groups to replace something with such magnitude and force. Instead ‘complementary’ currencies seek to find and exploit economic niches which are not best served by globalised commercial credit money, they are small enough to be governed, and they enable us each to work on our own thing, rather than competing to each to create one instrument which will be the next global medium of exchange, store of value and measure of value.
Another term that is widely used is “community currency,” which stresses the importance of community as the basis for any agreement and habit for what constitute a unit to enable exchange. My colleague Matthew Slater explains this well in a tutorial he wrote for the ‘Council of Europe’ project: “If a community currency was simply a printed note or an accounting system, then you could make a 1 2 3 recipe for starting one in your community, like boiling an egg. However this approach is unlikely to succeed, because a currency is more than just tokens and symbols. Currency is a social construct made from trust relationships; creating a currency involves deep work in your community. Because the Necessary Transition [to environmental sustainability] cuts across all areas of life, and because money is a symbol of value and not value in itself, a currency project should be an integral part of a wider … agenda in your community.” (Council of Europe, 2013)
We believe complementary or community currencies are important because these are social processes that YOU can put in place to help insulate yourself and your community from financial instability. When there is more than one currency available through which to sell the value you create, you start to see how each currency represents a different ethic, a different marketplace, with different items, different people, and a different culture. For a currency to be useful, people have to be prepared both to accept the currency for the value they create, and to spend that currency on items that it will buy. When local currency projects grind to a halt, and they often do, one reason is that people were willing to earn but not spend, or vice versa. So the management of a local currency is mostly about bringing products and services into the marketplace, which gives people on the margins the confidence that they can earn and spend too. Remember Metcalfe’s law – The bigger the network, the more useful it is.
Examining complementary currencies can make even economics an accessible and interesting subject. One project, a babysitting circle amongst high flyers in Washington which used a system of tokens to ensure reciprocity between members, produced a very helpful account of how different ways of token issuance affected the efficiency of the system. (Sweeny 1977)
Complementary currency projects exist in global commerce, local government, local enterprise, between friends, and in many scopes. We will now whizz through many examples, grouped by the monetary model. So we will look at localized legal tender, collaborative or mutual credit, self-issued currencies, and then, what some of you may have been waiting for, crypto-currencies.
Council of Europe, (2013) Responding Together: https://respondingtogether.wikispiral.org/tiki-read_article.php?articleId=173
Sweeny (1977) The capital hill baby sitting coop: http://cda.morris.umn.edu/~kildegac/Courses/M&B/Sweeney%20&%20Sweeney.pdf
13. Localised legal tender
Sometimes called ‘local currencies’. By exchanging legal tender notes for locally issued notes, value is thus trapped in the local economy.
This could have beneficial effects on the local economy via the ‘local multiplier affect’ and it could aid with the narrow Transition relocalisation agenda, but does nothing for monetary reform.
A popular approach in the West in the last few years has been the localisation of legal tender money, through exchanging it or selling it, sometimes at a discount, to locals so that it can only be spent and re-spent with local independent businesses who support the project. The legal tender money collected is kept safe for redemption, usually with a small disincentive penalty.
Sometimes digital systems run in parallel. In the UK two schemes gained attention in the media – the Brixton Pound and the Bristol Pound – and have influenced thinking about what complementary currencies might involve.
Aside from being financed with public money, cost recovery in their model can happen in at leasr four ways: the localised notes have an expiry date, after which they are invalid and cannot be redeemed and so the legal tender value of expired notes is therefore available for administration costs. Second, it is easy to add a transaction charge on digital payments of these currencies, for instance by sms. Third, the organisations that manage these funds can charge fees to organisations like a council for the processing of tax payments. Fourth, the original legal tender money that bought the local money can be invested and earn interest.
There have been several such local pound projects connected to the transition movement in the UK, and many projects in France, Germany, Italy, and USA. In our opinion, most of these projects are done without foresight, expertise, or learning from the mistakes of the others, and so initiatives like a new Guild of Independent Currencies could prove useful. Aside from the Brixton and Bristol pounds, there are two well established schemes, one in Massachusetts, USA started by aficionados of EF Schumacher, author of the seminal book ‘Small is Beautiful’, started in 2006 and has 400 businesses.
The other is Cheimgauer in Bavaria which has grown consistently slowly since 2003 and is also innovating in many ways such as with micro-lending. The Cheimgauer also uses something called demurrage, which is the name of a storage fee paid by traders while their goods are waiting in port. You may remember from Lesson 1 that monetary theorist Silvio Gesell is remembered for his formulation of demurrage, or rotting money. He said that money should be a medium of exchange and nothing else, meaning that the other functions should be performed by things other than money. He knew that interest caused people to withdraw the medium of exchange from circulation, hoarding it and throttling the free flow of economic exchange, so he proposed instead of interest, a negative interest. During the Great Depression in Austria the town of Worgl included demurrage on its scrip currency, and was a roaring success. The national currency was in short supply. If not, then users with a choice between money which holds its value and loses its value are likely to choose the former. Today, the demurrage on the Cheimgauer has not helped it become widely adopted. The Stroud Pound is the only one of the transition currencies in UK to try it, and one of the less successful ones.
In the paper ‘Currencies of Transition’ I argue with Thomas Greco that while these localized legal tender initiatives focus on the localisation agenda, they might miss the larger and more important issue of money as debt which must be addressed for the goals of the Transition Movement. We argue that unless these local money schemes find a path towards local issuance of currency without needing to be purchased with national money, they may be diverting attention effort from the greater work (Bendell & Greco 2012).
A similar model though, in a different context was much more encouraging, EcoPesa currency which ran for 2 year in an informal settlement in Mombassa, Kenya. Ecopesa were paid to the community’s youth for trash collection and then circulated very fast amongst local traders who had agreed to accept them as payment. This was possible because the organisers had donor funds to promise to redeem the Ecopesa for national currency at the end of a specified period. The shortage of legal tender in the local economy made the injection of this alternative money into the slum economy very noticeable. The limiting factor was that it required donor funds. It therefore stopped because donors who understood and valued that work could not be found. (Ruddick 2012)
Further Reading: Local currencies in France (French)
Bendell & Greco, Currencies of Transition (2012)
CCIA 2013 Susan Steed interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=eWtkbYqwE5Q#t=221
Ruddick, Will, Eco-Pesa: An Evaluation of a Complementary Currency Programme in Kenya’s Informal Settlements (2012) http://ijccr.net/2012/05/29/eco-pesa-an-evaluation-of-a-complementary-currency-programme-in-kenyas-informal-settlements/
Gesell, Silvio. The Natural Economic Order, Translated by Philip Pye. Berlin: NEO-Verlag. 1906. chapter 4.1
14. Collaborative Credit (mutual credit)
Collaborative or mutual credit is about balancing giving & receiving.
We explained the mechanism of mutual credit systems in Lesson 1, alternatively known as collaborative credit (Bendell, 2014). To recap, the simplest mutual credit system consists of one transaction: I owe you 1 unit. And when I pay you back, the system returns to balance, to zero.
In these systems the problem of the quantity of money which plagues commodity and fiat systems, is removed from the equation, and the supply of goods and services will always equal the demand, because I owe you 1, I want to supply 1 to return to zero and you want to acquire 1 to return to zero.
When money is promises rather than a commodity, it works better as a medium of exchange, to give liquidity, rather than as a store of value, because any promise bears an increase risk over time. For mutual or collaborative credit, the system is far better than a direct swap, or barter, as all members are trading with each other, and so my debt to you can be repaid by my providing an equivalent amount of value to others in the system.
In the West, there are three popular models of collaborative credit networks.
Business to Business (B2B) barter networks or ‘trade exchanges’ are membership organisations in which members sell to one another using each other’s credit rather than paying in national currencies. Sometimes termed “reciprocal exchange,” some estimates put the amount of world trade that occurs through such commercial barter at over 20% (Y/Zen report). A range of private firms run these systems. For instance founded in 1982, ITEX is a publicly traded company and is one of the largest trade exchange networks in the United States, with about 24,000 cardholders in the North American market.
These aren’t attempts at monetary reform at all but bring direct benefits to the members. First of all they have an extra market for their capacity they can’t sell for legal tender money. That’s why this is sometimes called ‘capacity trade’. When legal tender is in short supply, members often shift more stock not for legal tender but for credit within the network. Secondly anything they buy on the network effectively costs them less, because they pay, effectively, with their own stock, for which they paid wholesale prices. B2B networks are well established legally and there are no tax loopholes for participants. In fact it can be argued that there is a tax disincentive because legal tender taxes are paid on all outgoing exchange transactions (IRTA 2014).
High membership and transaction costs create a drag on these systems. In addition, their lack of interoperability means that they are only as useful as the scale and diversity of members on any one single separate platform. One system achieved major scale, with over 65.000 businesses in one country. That is the WIR in Swizerland which was started around the same time as Worgl in 1934, but wasn’t banned because it wasn’t a scrip currency. Its scale has been found by one study to make it counter cyclical, being more widely used during economic downturns when bank credit-money becomes less available or more expensive to borrow. (Stodder)
For individuals, rather than businesses, Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS) became popular in the 1990s around North America, Europe and Australasia. These were self-organising local communities who printed and distributed a directory of all they could do, and kept a central ledger of transactions, writing cheques or keeping account books. (Linton, 1994). Many LETS still exist today though hardly any use paper, but groups rarely grow above 150 people, with only a small core trading regularly.
Time Banks came a little later. The idea was very similar but the context was amongst the poor or disadvantaged. Many Time banks work very well today in inner cities and they partner with local government, grant making trusts and voluntary organisations to help the poor to help themselves. Many timebanks are built inside local caring institutions such as drop-in centres. Part of the ethic of working with the poor is that everyone’s time is equal, which means traders do not set prices, the only record how long they spent doing things. (Community currency Info 2015)
All mutual credit systems can freeze up if overall deficits or savings are too imbalanced. Abuse of mutual credit currencies typically happens when the government spends ignores the credit limit on its own account; Spending credit without intention of earning it back throws the system off balance. I hope we have stressed often enough in this course the importance of good governance of any money system.
IRTA, Legal Liability for Trade Dollars in a barter Exchange (2014) http://www.irta.com/index.php/library/legal-liability-for-trade-dollars-in-a-barter-exchange
Linton The LETSystem Design Manual 1994 – http://www.gmlets.u-net.com/design/home.html
Community Currency Info, 2015 – http://community-currency.info/en/glossary/timebanks
Suplizio, Paul. Application of the quantity theory of money to barter exchange management (2014) http://www.irta.com/index.php/library/advisory-quantity-theory-of-money-to-barter-exchange-management
Stodder, J. (2009). Complementary credit networks and macroeconomic stability: Switzerland’s Wirtschaftsring. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 72(1), pp.79-95.
15. Case Study in an Informal Settlement
To illustrate how collaborative credit can work well if they are well designed and involve productive members of a community who want additional means of exchange than the availability of national money provides, we will look at one case study from Kenya.
Local businesses regularly fall under the international poverty line. Yet they have the capacity for much more.
• Lack of Social Services
• High levels of excess capacity
• Population below poverty line
• Extremely poor health conditions
16. Concept and Theory of the Banglapesa
Will Ruddick is a US citizen, resident in Kenya and with a Kenyan family. He initiated the ecopesa project we mentioned earlier, but wanted to implement the ideas of Tom Greco. Therefore, working with local community leaders, he brought together micro-entrepreneurs in the informal settlement of Bangladesh, on the edge of Mombassa, Kenya. Together they developed a system for creating a group credit for their goods and services. That is where each business in the group would be given an amount of credit that is backed by the commitment of the other businesses. This credit would be represented by coupons printed with high security features, to act as a local currency that is backed by excess capacity of the business community.
The system was named BanglaPesa. Will Ruddick explains the socio-economic benefit thus.
“Imagine you are a mother of three selling peanuts. Your stock will go bad after a certain period of time, so, if members of your community don’t have sufficient funds to purchase peanuts, you will lose the money spent to purchase your stock, & you will not have money to purchase the goods you need. Now, imagine a complementary currency is introduced into this situation. You use this voucher to purchase maize flour. This voucher is essentially a promissory note or IOU promising to pay an amount in peanuts equal to the value of the flour. The person selling maize flour can then use the voucher to buy well water. The water vendor can use the voucher to buy vegetables & the vegetable dealer can use the voucher to buy charcoal for cooking. The women selling charcoal can then return to you and exchange the voucher for the peanuts you promised to repay when you used the voucher to purchase maize flour. In this situation, excess stock that might have gone bad (maize flour, vegetables & peanuts) & excess services that might have gone unused (well water collection) were purchased through the exchange of a voucher which represented those excess capacity goods and services.”
17. Bangla Pesa Launch
What’s really interesting is that as Will had worked in development for a while, he understood how people, if they are going to support things with donor funds, want data – they want things to be evaluated, so we worked together on a baseline study to see and a way of collecting data to see what the impacts would or wouldn’t be. So there was a study done of the participating businesses very soon after the launch, after just a couple of weeks.
Here are the results:
18. Initial Impact of the Banglapesa
Average daily sales in Bangla-Pesa represent 22% of the average daily sales reported by businesses in the baseline survey. At the very least, then, businesses were doing around 22% of their trades in Bangla-Pesa.
However, this number remained the same for those businesses who reported that their sales in Kenyan shillings had remained stable. This suggests the 22% of daily trades done with Bangla-Pesa represent additional sales which might not have happened without this means of exchange (at least for those 12 people whose sales in Kenyan shillings remained the same).
Since most people reported an increase in total sales, it’s likely they are experiencing a similar increase in sales due to the use of Bangla-Pesa. Given that we estimate businesses have an excess capacity which represents 144% of their average sales, just one week of Bangla-Pesa usage may have helped businesses owners achieve 15% of this potential increase.
Read more at:
Ruddick, W., Richards, M. and Bendell, J. (2015) ‘Complementary Currencies for Sustainable Development in Kenya: The Case of the Bangla-Pesa’ International Journal of Community Currency Research 19 (D) in press <www.ijccr.net> ISSN 1325-9547
19-20. Banglapesa – continued
This is Will and his colleague Alfred in geol. He had been arrested and spent the night in geol. There had been an article in a local newspaper which suggested that this new token or voucher was somehow a separatist plot as if somehow the slum in Mombassa wanted to separate and use this local voucher somehow as a means of doing so, and therefore the word “terrorism” was used. So there ensued a big international campaign. The complementary currency movement is quite well-connected worldwide, people come together in a way – there are strong bonds because people have done their own research and thinking, they have very independent minds, and are morally strongly-driven people. So many people wrote letters and there was a letter from the United Nations also sent to the police and to the central bank, and to relevant ministers and also within Kenya there was a domestic campaign with very senior business people writing saying this was ridiculous – this was a great grassroots initiative……..The good news was
that after some months the case that was being brought for fraud and counterfeiting was dropped. More than that, what happened was that this case created national media attention and brought a lot of people to actually support the initiative. It helped the police, the ministry, and the central bank, and others to realise that this was a really interesting grassroots initiative. It’s also interesting to see that similar problems happened in Thailand and Brazil where innovators of similar local countries were also prosecuted, and in both cases won, and in Brazil the central bank of Brazil then decided to start working with Banco Palmos to start replicating the system across the country.
21. Credit Commons
MOOC authors with Tom Greco
at local currency summit, Crete, 2012
The Commons is an old concept that refers to those resources and forms of wealth that are the common property of all. It includes the gifts of nature—the land, the air, the seas, the sunlight, the genetic material of plants and animals, and all those things that human kind did not create and has not yet brought into private ownership. It also includes the social, cultural, and intellectual treasures that we have inherited from past generations, including our accumulated knowledge and creative works. Finally, it includes all those phenomena that are co-produced and co-maintained with the unpaid contribution and restraint of many people. For instance, a village green is maintained by the local people using it, and by not overgrazing it (ref Ostrum).
The enclosure of commonly owned assets, into private property, is a well-documented process since just before the industrial revolution, with some historians showing how this was destructive, unfair and widely protested, while others suggesting it enabled greater investment, specialisation and innovation (ref ostum).
One crucial but overlooked aspect of the commons is the “credit commons.” Few people understand that money today is simply a credit instrument, i.e., a claim against the resources of the money issuer, be that a government, a bank, or a private issuer of currency. Thus, the users of a currency provide credit to the issuer when they accept it as payment for real goods and services.
I’m reminded of the tally stick, from lesson 2, which could be created by anyone with a chisel, and of tradesmen in Elizabethan England who would issue their own hyper-local tokens; Now though, all credit is mediated through private banks, and we pay for the use of it. Greco proposes a solution…
“We can do it peacefully and without attacking the entrenched regime. It only requires that we each take control of our own credit and give it to those individuals and businesses that merit it and withhold it from those that do not, and for us to apply our talents and energies to those enterprises that enhance community resilience, sustainability, self-reliance, and the common good…
In brief, any group of people can organize to allocate their own collective credit amongst themselves, interest-free. This is merely an extension of the common business practice of selling on open account—“I’ll ship you the goods now and you can pay me later,” except it is organized, not on a bilateral basis, but within a community of many buyers and sellers. Done on a large enough scale that includes a sufficiently broad range of goods and services, such systems can avoid the dysfunctions inherent in conventional money and banking. They can open the way to more harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships that enable the emergence of true economic democracy.” (Greco 2015)
We concur absolutely with Greco’s vision, and his work has been critical to the thinking of myself and Matthew Slater. But what would it mean to implement this today?
First, it would require a different approach from the exchanges that currently carve up what would be the commons into many enclosures based on their own software platforms which are too small to be transformative. We have been addressing this question for some years by encouraging innovators to use free open source systems, that could interface with each other. It is why we organized a summit of the collaborative credit currencies in Greece in 2012, with Thomas Greco, and agreed the Drapanos Declaration with participants. Matthew is now seeking funding for a software project which would make the major software packages for B2B barter systems, LETS, and Timebanks interoperable. That means the several networks which exist could become one much larger network and people could use their complementary currencies to trade with people that participate in other complementary currency systems. The sad thing is most traditional donors and new philanthropists have got the first clue about money systems, let alone what constitute far-sighted and scalable projects.
A second key move to help reclaim and revive the credit commons would be for governments both local and national, to support appropriate systems. That not only means funding open source systems and interoperability, but also reviewing tax laws, so they would accept taxes in the collaborative credit currency, not a national equivalent, and perhaps even reviewing legal tender laws so that payment could be demanded in these currencies, not national equivalent.
22. Self-Issued Credit
The original Deli Dollars financed a change of premises. They sold for $8 and were redeemable for $10 in the new location. In the 1970s the Coop supermarket customers would collect ‘dividend’ stamps from purchases and redeem them a book at a time for discounts.
The Digital Coin proposal you’ve just seen from Money as Debt video maker Paul Grignon is an elaborate system that might only be possible to create from the top down since it strongly implies a common software infrastructure. However it is instructive as the logical conclusion of Grignon’s way of thinking. Note that the government is absent, this is a free market that Hayek would approve of. Currencies are supposed to be issued in lieu of future production, however that may not be enforceable. It would be difficult to implement on a small scale.
Most self-issued currencies or proposals are not whole systems but single currencies issued and redeemed by corporations. Most of them take the form of loyalty vouchers like air miles. In the UK, the Cooperative supermarket used to issue stamps to be collected in books which were redeemable as a discount. Perhaps this was the original loyalty scheme, except that it was called profit sharing. A similar idea, Deli Dollars, are vouchers sold at a discount in advance in order to raise investment capital from existing customers. Deli Dollars are just pieces of paper and could be used as a medium of exchange between customers before being redeemed, though that is not their primary purpose. (Independent, 1999
But we are now venturing slightly away from alternatives to exchange media and towards alternatives to finance and investment.
Further reading. An account of the Irish Banking crisis by Michael Linton
Independent, Deli-dollar offers route to business funding (1999) http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/delidollar-offers-route-to-business-funding-1071370.html
In the last few slides we have focused on alternative approaches. Meanwhile the mainstream payments industry is becoming more innovative in ways that could offer potential for scaling complementary currencies.
The payment system we have now is slow, expensive, inconvenient and unreliable. Each of the major banks has its own proprietary payment system, and they are joined together using a standard called SWIFT, while systems like VISA manage payments between banks from point of sale systems. Everything is privately owned.
Folks from the financial technology industry, dubbed fintech, often argue that better payments means more spending which is good for the economy. The offer a wide range of payment technologies any of which would be an improvement on the arcane systems in place today. But incumbent banks are slow to change IT systems in which they have invested decades and also to use technologies they don’t control.
Payments infrastructure is like a railway network because whoever owns the ‘rails’ gets to charge the toll, gets a copy of all the data, rent out the rails to dependent service providers, and even has blocking power. The more extensive the rails, the more payments can cancel each other out and the less money has to move in and out of the system and the cheaper the payments are to process. So most of the innovations in the FinTech sector can barely be used unless they are bought up by banks or unless they can attract clients who will pay and receive entirely on the new rails i.e. without having go across the established rails.
Apart from the economic benefits, some optimists believe that there are social justice dividends from improving our payments infrastructure – for instance citing the high costs paid by foreign workers to send their wages to their families via Western Union.
Most of these technologies would work equally well for complementary currencies, but most such currencies are small and have little money for, or cultural interface with, the payments industry. And if they did, many advocates would be unhappy using private infrastructure for what they see as a public service. Consequently most complementary currencies have very limited payment technologies.
24. Blockchain Basics
Bitcoin is very hard to explain to your grandmother. here are two ways to think about how Bitcoins are ‘created’, which the white paper calls ‘mining’.
As ecommerce arrived on the internet it became painfully apparent how ill-equipped the global banking system was to facilitate quick cheap payments authorised via web sites, especially between countries. PayPal was a first step, but it was soon bogged down in anti-money laundering laws and high transaction fees which were made possible because it had no meaningful competition.
A lot of people wanted to bypass privately owned payment networks altogether, and make international payments directly from computer to computer. But that’s very different to sending an mail because it must be possible to prove that the money exists in one and only one wallet at a time. That implies all the wallets should live on the same, universal ledger, and that shifts the problem onto how to maintain a definitive ledger without having to trust any one institution. In other words, how do you maintain a database of transactions on the internet, to which ANYONE can add a valid transaction but nobody can can change the history of?
Several cryptographers spent several years on this problem. Cryptography is mainly about using maths to protecting data from unauthorised people, but it has a lot of uses. In 2009 a white paper by one Satoshi Nakomoto (a false name), brought several components together and described what it called a blockchain. (Nakomoto, 2009). Participating computers would all store a copy of the ledger and form a network; every ten minutes all the new transactions were bundled into a block and each computer would validate the block and append it to their copy of the ledger. Every block was connected cryptographically to the previous block – hence a block-chain going all the way back to the Genesis block. If you wanted to change a transaction in the past, you would have to change not only the block the transaction was in, but all the blocks mined after that. But in a proof-of-work blockchain like Bitcoin, making each block so difficult that all the computers in the network are engaged on it full time. So changing history is possible only by controlling more than half of the network – which means not only owning lots of computers, but running them on full power!
All that calculating takes time and resources so the computers (or miners) doing this work were rewarded with newly created tokens.
The rate of the token release was built into the protocol, and could never be changed. The white paper used the metaphor of Bitcoin as the digital equivalent of gold, because it was easy to find at first, but got progressively harder, until it was all ‘mined’.
Bitcoin’s genesis block contained a reference to UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s quantitive easing program. (http://www.thetimes03jan2009.com) This implies that Bitcoin, with its deterministic money supply was an answer to meddling politicians devaluing existing money by creating it out of thin air.
The system worked beautifully. Crypotographers, mathematicians and other geeks joined the network and started mining coins, and persuading people to acccept them as payment. On May 22nd 2010, one geek triumphantly announced he had exchanged 10,000 Bitcoin for two pizzas! (Bitcointalk, 2010)
Many early adopters believed they were creating a new financial system without (central) banks (bitcoin.com 2015). They devoted themselves to improving the software and telling other people. They created an exchange (called MtGox) so people could buy Bitcoin for dollars. Some early adopters had many thousands of the early, easily mined, coins and by the time the media picked up on the story they were laughing. But that was only the beginning of the frenzy. Media exposure multiplied the price again and again, which only added fuel to the media fire. The ensuing years have seen much drama and the price has been very volatile, leading some to say that Bitcoin is useless as ‘money’ because you don’t know what it will be worth tomorrow. But various events like the 2013 bank failure in Cyprus in increased demand, and slowly slowly the big, conservative, financial institutions are starting to see it as a rare place in a stagnant economy, to park money where it will grow. This in turn pushes the price up. In August 2017 the price jumped from $3000 to $4000 dollars.
While it is true that, as a payments network, Bitcoin puts the incumbent banks to shame, payments is only one function of banks. Vanishingly few of those cryptographers & software engineers (and later, financial professionals and economists) actually understand how the money system works. That’s one reason we created this MOOC. They don’t understand that money is much more a social construct, and not simply a convenient commodity for sophiticated bartering. They don’t understand how monetary policy can be a Good Thing, or why trust, if you have it, is much more desirable and efficient than trustlessness. Their solution to not trusting monetary policy makers, was not to change the policy-makers (which we grant is hard) but to automat monetary policy.
Bitcoin Talk, 2010; https://bitcointalk.org/?topic=137.0
Nakomoto, Satoshi, 2009; Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, https://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf,
Bitcoin.com, 2015, “Revolutionary Protocol: The Emergence of Bitcoin” https://news.bitcoin.com/revolutionary-protocol-emergence-bitcoin/
Current Bitcoin price – https://coinmarketcap.com/currencies/bitcoin/
Matthew Slater (2014); What happens after the crypto-revolution? https://cointelegraph.com/news/what_happens_after_the_crypto_revolution
25. Questioning Bitcoin
Vinay Gupta – Bitcoin has a governance problem (3 mins)
Think: Many people say Bitcoin is in a bubble. How can we know what is the right price for Bitcoin?
When it first appeared, Bitcoin was an intellectual shock. This new phenomenon intersected not only monetary theory, but also payments, networks, computing and cryptography. Russia Today pundit Max Kaiser is an extreme example, but many of Bitcoin’s early proponents were far from intellectually rigourous or impartial. (Slater, 2014)
Even now Bitcoin’s celebrated property of being ‘decentralised’ has fed into a much wider ideology that decentralisation per se is good and somewhat revolutionary, fitting into a strategy to empower individuals and break centralised institutional and political power. As a database, Bitcoin is designed to be de-centralised: there are many equally authoritiative copies of it. But as a currency it is not: there is ONE currency, with ONE ledger, running on ONE protocol.
But understanding is growing – especially in the field of finance which best knows how to profit from financial instruments. Satoshi’s characterisation of Bitcoin as digital gold, ignores a critical property of gold, that it is useful not only as money, but for jewelery and electronics. But Bitcoin ONLY has value as money. Using our categories in lesson 1 (credit, commodity or acknowledgement), Bitcoin clearly falls into the last, since it is not a promise of value, nor is it valuable in itself, but is issued as an acknowledgement for doing the expensive work of making blocks. Some people even call it a fiat currency. Note that ‘fiat’ seems to be a colloquial term, lacking in an authoritiative definition.
We said above that there was no governance of Bitcoin, and this is true for monetary policy, but not for the development of the protocol. The protocol is continuously improved and there are governance issues about what the protocol should allow. For example should Bitcoin have more anonymity, to strengthen the anarcho-free market, or should it ‘sell out’ and support ‘Know your customer’ standards required of money transmitters post-911, thus increasing its appeal to the mass market? Another example was the blocksize debate which raged for over two years. There was a limit of about 2200 transactions per 10 minute block, which was an obvious barrier to bitcoin taking over the world. So some wanted to increase the block-size four or eight times, meaning that the blockchain, 1.3TB at time of writing (https://blockchain.info/charts/blocks-size) would grow 4-8 times faster. This bulk makies it harder for ordinary people to mine, and therefore concentrates the mining in fewer hands. (Caffyn 2015)
This in turn affects governance – decisions about which version of the (mining) software to run are ultimately made by the miners themselves. Satoshi intended miners to be a vast multitude of users but things have gone rather differently. More than 50% of the mining power is now ‘centralised’ in the hands of a few companies in China with access to cheap or even stolen electricity. (Quentson 2016)
Nobody wants to talk about the energy issue. In January 2017, the whole network consumed about as much electricity as Sri Lanka (Bitcoinist 2017) and continues to rise at an alarming rate as higher prices increase incentives for mining. (See https://digiconomist.net/bitcoin-energy-consumption for current rate). Newer consensus algorithms have been designed such as ‘proof-of-stake’ which is not energy intensive at all, and does not issue all the new coins to the biggest miners. But miners, who remember have all the consitiutional power, have made massive investments in equipment; their choosing PoS would be like turkeys voting for Christmas.
Several technically superior alternatives wait in the wings, but so far they are a long way from replacing Bitcoin which continues to become more trusted and more established.
Matthew Slater 2014; Max Keiser’s muddled money speak; http://cointelegraph.com/news/111127/max_keiser_s_muddled_money_speak
Grace Caffyn 2015; What is the Bitcoin Block Size Debate and Why Does it Matter? https://www.coindesk.com/what-is-the-bitcoin-block-size-debate-and-why-does-it-matter/
Andrew Quentson, 2016; Chinese Bitcoin Miners Busted for Electricity Theft; https://www.cryptocoinsnews.com/chinese-bitcoin-miners-busted/
Bitcoinist 2017; Bitcoin is So Hot It Takes the Energy of Sri Lanka to Power It
26. Will Bitcoin take over the world?
As blockchains find more and more uses, it is hard to find anyone who doesn’t believe blockchains of various sorts and functions are here to stay.
In the wake of Bitcoin, a host of clones sprung up, some of them technically superior (NXT), some of them aiming at certain markets (SexCoin), some of them (in our opinion) shameless ponzi schemes (OneCoin).
Some issued tokens backed by fiat money (Stablecoin) or gold (Eldorado, OneGram) in order to stabilise the price, but maybe their failure was because most people wanted to speculate on the price.
Some blockchains have been created to provide uninteruptable services, in which the tokens actually had a use value, to pay for those services, Examples are domain name registration (NameCoin), file storage (MaidSafe), or smart contract execution (Ethereum), but again if a token has a concrete use then high prices are absurd – if a token has no use other than money, high prices just make it more desirable.
Some created currencies aimed at particular countries, (Auroracoin for iceland, Scotcoin for Scotland), but all of these failed to engage the populations, and were destroyed by gangs of teenagers who maraud from market to market pumping and dumping.
You might enjoy my 2014 introduction to cryptocurrencies at a conference in Amsterdam. http://player.vimeo.com/video/90734582 (17 mins)
Some powerful interests are surely concerned about blockchains disrupting the payments industry, but blockchains cannot simply be blocked in the same way that web-sites can. There is no easy way for anyone, even governments to suppress it:
• owning more than half of the mining power, and then breaking the blockchain.
• spreading fear, uncertainty & doubt (FUD) about it in the media,
• buying up a lot of coins and manipulating the markets to wreak havok and destroy confidence,
banning transactions by law, which would be about as successful as preventing file sharing over torrent networks.
None of these seems to be happening though. What we see is the banking sector investing heavily in closed, blockchain-like technologies. At the moment banks involved in complex transactions keep their own records and must hire auditors to ensure the records in each organisation match up. This is very expensive. Blockchains would allow all parties to access the same records and know they were same. (Bloomberg, 2015).
We expect that blockchains being created today will do the day-to-day accounting of the future, whether using fiat monies or their own native currencies. We see Bitcoin finding a niche function as a globally mobile and somewhat private store of value. This function will become more important after the next financial crisis heightens the present currency wars, deflation and capital controls. We regret that the main beneficiaries of Bitcoin, aside from the early adoptors whose gains are already astronomical, will likely be the wealthiest few.
Which brings us to our main criticism of Bitcoin – the monetary model. In our analysis, a fair money system is one which grants the power of credit to those who use it to create wealth. Credit is not a thing, but a relationship and as such is completely absent from the Bitcoin ‘Austrian economics’ framing. Put it this way, if money is a kind of stuff that you own, then it exists only in one place at one time. You can’t have minus stuff in your wallet. If I want to ‘borrow’ Bitcoin, the blockchain has no way to record or enforce my obligation to return Bitcoin to you at a later date. That is the function of the very institutions that Satoshi deemed unneccesary. Those institions could do with Bitcoin what they have always done with Gold and with government fiat, keep it in reserve and offer customer accounts containing ‘promises of Bitcoin’. Satoshi would turn in his pseudonymous grave!
We can’t say this too often – when money is limited in supply, control of it always reverts to the wealthing hoarders who naturally collude to keep its value high. In the bonus lesson we’ll explain how we think a blockchain of credit should work.
Bloomberg 2015 “Blythe Masters Tells Banks the Blockchain Changes Everything” https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2015-09-01/blythe-masters-tells-banks-the-blockchain-changes-everything
27. Crypto Regulation
• Recall the social and cultural importance of accounting technologies
• Regulation lags behind technology – what if some technologies undermine power to regulate?
• Regulation can be useful or not, depending on the interests represented in its negotiation – more stakeholders needed?
• A challenge for incumbents and innovators alike
We have described how blockchains were invented for accounting, and yet may evolve into distributed databases of smart contracts. If blockchains evolve in this way, then it would be the latest in a long tradition of technological progress. Archaeologist Oates asserts that “Writing was invented in Mesopotamia as a method of book-keeping. The earliest known texts are lists of livestock and agricultural equipment. These come from the city of Uruk c.3,100 bc. (Oates 1979, 15). He concludes “the invention of writing represented at first merely a technical advance in economic administration” (Oates 1979, 25). It seems that accountants have more to be thankful for than we realise.
Does the importance of clay tablets to creating writing and culture, imply that innovations in accounting capacities today might once again lead to a major innovation in how society and culture functions? Seem strange? Well think about how many institutions find their primary role in keeping records – banks, law firms, government agencies, communications firms. How should societies respond to the potential of these functions to be replaced through innovative applications of blockchains?
Political scientists have shown how there is always a regulatory lag behind technology, as governments seek to understand implications and integrate general public concerns, expert views, and vested interests (which affect the former), into a legislative proposal (Shrader-Frechette, 1991). This lag is also due to regulators not imagining what criminals might do with new technologies, and therefore it is usually law enforcement and court cases that bring issues to the level of political and regulator attention i.e. after damages have already occurred.
But what if some technologies could undermine the potential agency of polities to act to regulate them? Could crypto currency innovation be such an area? In Lesson 2 we saw how innovations in money can affect whole nations, and how if governments don’t shape money, it shapes them. Innovation in finance is already widely recognised as presenting risks to society and regulators. Daniel Hardy warned in an IMF paper before the Western Financial Crisis that “Finance and in particular, banking is necessarily characterized by asymmetric information between banks and their clients, and by systemic effects. Moreover, risk is an inherent feature of the industry.” (2006, p 3).
After studying innovations in digital currency in the context of regulating the effects of technologies on society, Wessel Reijers (2014) concludes the key risk is how the trajectory of financial innovation towards “ever-greater automation, mobility and magnification” is reducing the potential agency of societies through their polities to regulate them, if and when they decide to do so. “Just as many other technologies in our life-world, digital money needs to be subjected to limitations either by means of legal or technological constraints. Consider an analogy with traffic regulations, where speed limitations can be applied both by devising law and by technology in the form of speed bumps in the road or a limiter in the car’s engine… In the public sphere of democratic deliberation, these limitations of digital money might be contested from different sides and arguments for functionalization (on efficiency, cost-reduction) should stand on equal footing with arguments for the conservation of human agency.”
We see that there tend to be two types of market regulation. Those that protect the incumbents and are the result of lobbying, and those that seek to shape markets for the benefit of society. We also see that the current debate about regulating currency innovation is involving the central bankers, private bankers, fintech start-ups and the cryptocurrency start-ups. We do not see any wider consultation of stakeholders, and yet developments with currencies and their regulations will affect everyone, from a local currency initiative, to a large manufacturer, to a pensioners concerned about the value of their savings.
What is the incentive for banks to support useful change in monetary systems? Little. But what was the incentive of the music industry to support digital music files? Change was made inevitable by technology and they had to adapt. Some may challenge threats to the existing monetary order by fair means or foul, such as internet hacking, sabotage from moles, and negative PR. The question is one of individual ethics and whether sufficient numbers of banking, central banking and monetary authority professionals will accept their responsibility to seek public interest outcomes rather than defend incumbent interests.
The same personal ethical challenge faces currency innovators. Changing money is just one thread to the transition our societies need to make towards a more fair and sustainable world. I hope that people working as employees of, or those who own the future money-issuing organisations will awaken to the importance of their work and do it as a service to society rather than as a scheme to appropriate value from productive people. In our Institute (IFLAS) we describe this this need as an opportunity for sustainable leadership, basically to look at ways that you relate to society through your profession, to keep that in mind, and advance society’s interests rather than just those of your employer or your profession. Of course it’s clear we cannot rely on that, which is why I repeat again that we should see many more stakeholders involved in discussions about monetary reform on the one hand but also about the regulation of currency innovation as the other hand.
Think: Given the problems with the current monetary system, would you argue for some freedom from regulation for cryptocurrency innovators, or do you think the risks are even greater?
Hardy, DC (2006) Regulatory Capture in Banking,IMF Working Paper, WP/06/34
Shrader-Frechette, K. S. (1991) Risk and Rationality: Philosophical Foundations for Populist Reforms, University of California Press.
Wessel Reijers (2014) University of Twente, Master Thesis
28. ‘Backed’ by nature?
properties of money. How good would electricity be? What would be secondary consequences of, say, your country announcing that electricity was legal tender, both nationally and internationally?
29. Designing Currencies for Life
“In this course we have sought to demonstrate that money issuance is not neutral. Money is a social design that then designs the social. Therefore if we work in currency innovation we need to think about what kinds of behaviours we want to support and then design mechanisms for that into the currency system.”
“In a digitally enabled world, if all the collaborative economy systems interface with each other, then a high score in a reputation currency might be as good for accessing value as having a positive balance of a more traditional currency that represents a claim on future value.”
When we hear people speak of bitcoin as having intrinsic value, or comparing it to gold, and then seeing the way huge amounts of human time and energy supplies go into bitcoin and its forks, it appears that this latest innovation in accounting could further separate us from the biological reality of our existence.
I’m reminded of author HG Wells wondering in 1931 why “mankind was getting gold out of mines in South Africa and elsewhere in order to bury it again in treasuries—and to no other perceptible end.”
Our money is a reflection of what we value. Our tradition of backing money by gold has led to a great deal of polluting production of gold, a commodity for which we have little use, and which is expensive to preserve. With an understanding of how commodities are affected by their monetisation, perhaps we could be monetizing other commodities that we value in order to see their value reinforced. To give a simple example, what would happen to the tree population if every $10 were issued for every tree planted? What if money was pegged to organic food production in order to keep pace with population growth?
One suggestion is to monetise electricity generation. This would have the immediate effect of stabilising energy costs because 1 unit of money would equal 1 unit of electricity. It would provide another long term incentive to make renewable solutions work at scale. It would allow decentralised money production just as many forms of renewable electricity do not need massive power stations to create. As a commodity we all use, energy tokens would be readily redeemable and thus widely acceptable.
NEF points out, “The primary purpose of energy money may not itself be monetary. For our credit based energy currency models … the primary function is to provide investment in renewables. Thus, whilst this necessitates that they fulfil a monetary function (in this case store of value) the ultimate purpose of the currency was not to reform money, but to reform energy. In other cases – such as the global reference currencies – the provision of a new form of money is the ultimate purpose of the proposed system.” (2013)
Ideas about backing money with other forms of natural capital are less well explored, but we know new renewable energy-backed currencies will be launched in the next few years.
HG Wells, 1931, The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind
Douthwaite, The Ecology of Money Chapter 4
NEF Energising money 2013 – http://neweconomics.org/publications/entry/energising-money
30. Currencies in Context
- For establishing or upgrading a community currency initiative, we recommend reading this warning, looking at the book People Money, then consider the free software available from Community Forge, who host this MOOC platform.
- If you are interested in monetary reform, join the Positive Money campaign, which is based in the UK, or one of its affiliates worldwide.
In this course we have sought to demonstrate that money issuance is not neutral. Money is a social design that then designs the social. Therefore if we work in currency innovation we need to think about what kinds of behaviours we want to support and then design mechanisms for that into the currency system.
In our current design of money, the people with money command economic resources including the people without money. They are revered and obeyed and celebrated and envied. Unless youre a subsistence farmer, you have to do what people with money want, or you can’t eat. If you go to college and work hard, or are highly born, you too will be able to command economic resources unto yourself. This is because our current design is where money is a claim on future value. Yet money could be designed as a measure of anything we think is important – not just economic purchasing power.
What if money was issued to the most needy people and everyone who held money had either helped someone in need or helped someone who helped someone on need? If you scoff, Id argue such scoffing arises from assumptions about ‘human nature’ and the ‘real world’ that have been designed into society by the current monetary system, which rewards certain attitudes and behaviours not others. I’d also point to how a combination of the Positive Money proposals and the basic income proposal would make such an outlandish concept quite real quite soon.
Here’s another idea. What if there was a definitive system for publically tracking your contribution to society and you might receive the generosity of others according to it? That is not so outlandish if we look at the growth in reputation currencies in various digital platforms that facilitate the sharing, borrowing and exchange of real goods and services. Think of reputation metrics in the companies ebay or airbnb, for instance. Could these be scaled up and made portable, where your reputation in one systems means you can access more value from another platform?
In this course we have used the terms money and currency interchangeably. But the term money doesn’t lend itself to exploring this frontier of currency. The term currency is more easily used to describe a wider array of metrics. In a digitally enabled world, if all the collaborative economy systems interface with each other, then a high score in a reputation currency might be as good for accessing value as having a positive balance of a more traditional currency that represents a claim on future value.
The challenge is therefore for more analysis, information sharing and informed design choices, including on matters like software. It is shocking that while so many experiments have failed that in the process they did not contribute to a common movement and toolkit, because they were not using, adapting and adding to popular open source software systems that others could use in turn. I also find is depressing how much useless research is being done on these topics, driven by intellectual disciplinary interests rather than seeking to address the knowledge needs arising from practice.Developing movement-thinking is key for work in this field, and why my co-author founded Community Forge to provide free open software for community currencies.
If you are interested in establishing or upgrading a community currency initiative, we recommend looking at the book People Money, and the free tools available from www.communityforge.net
To continue your studies in the direction of crypto currencies, you could consider Coin Academy.
To continue your studies on other complementary currencies and the potential for new currencies in collaborative platforms, you could consider the IFLAS course in sustainable exchange. This also offers the benefit of allowing you to meet your fellow students, tutors, and to gain a qualification on this topic. If you are interested in research, you could join the online research network on complementary currencies. If you are interested in monetary reform, you could join the Positive Money campaign, which is based in the UK but growing via affiliates worldwide.
32. Final Assignment
Consult the grading grid in the next slide to see how your assignment will be assessed by your peers on this course. (The list of references at the end of your paper is not included in the 800 word limit and you should include the details specified in section 4 of the grid).
We, your tutors are pleased and honoured to have kept your attention this far. We hope that what you’ve learned will affect how you see the world. We believe that all activists and innovators can benefit from understanding the range and types of problems that current money causes.
By coming this far, you have entered a community of knowledge and potentially a community of practice, if you aren’t already engaged. If you complete your assignment for this lesson, which I will describe in a moment, you will then automatically be in the Money and Society Alumni Forum, so you can continue to interact with other members of the MOOC, as well as participants of future offerings of the course.
The conclusion we your tutors have made after studying this area s that only by working to reduce commercial bank mediation of our trust, and turning to each other, and becoming responsible to each other, will the power of money be flipped to work in our favour. While we, your tutors, feel the oppressive power of money on our minds, careers, and wellbeing, we are very far from the worst victims. This MOOC was directed at people living in the West, because the worst affected by the systems we have described would not have been able to participate. When we inquire into and strive for change, let’s remember that making our own lives better should not be our yardstick for success.
33. Grading Grid
Now to your final assignment, which we are proposing to you in a more traditional academic format than the previous ones.
Consider carefully the content of the first four lessons of this course. Identify an issue that you feel is important in relation to money and society but that has been overlooked or insufficiently analysed so far in these four lessons. Write a short paper presenting a convincing argument describing your chosen issue, explaining why it is important and discussing how it relates to key ideas introduced in the four lessons. You should cite relevant sources to support your argument. The main body of your paper should be no more than 800 words; give your paper a short, clear title and add your name.
Consult the grading grid in the next slide to see how your assignment will be assessed by your peers on this course. (The list of references at the end of your paper is not included in the 800 word limit and you should include the details specified in section D of the grid).
34. Peer Assessments
After submitting your assignment in the forum, chose one other submitted assignment that has not yet been graded and attempt to grade it fairly based on the grid. Complete the feedback table below and post it on the forum. In the sections for written comments describe in a concise sentence the strengths of the paper you have graded and use two or three more concise sentences to explain how you feel the author could improve specific aspects of their paper to reach a higher standard.
So it’s time to get more “academic” with you. Here is a grading grid for how your assignment will be assessed by your peers. This grading grid is typical of those used in Universities to guide the assessment of assignments. You can use it to see what is looked for in a good assignment, and also to prepare for grading your fellow students.
Your assignments are going to help us think about what to include in a potential 5th lesson for this MOOC. After submitting your assignment in the forum and discussing with those who comment on it, you could consider sending one proposed powerpoint slide to me, Jem Bendell, at email@example.com clearly stating that it is creative commons. Then if Matthew and I prepare a 5th lesson and use your slide, though probably editing it a bit, we will credit you as coauthor of that slide and contributor to the lesson as a whole.
Because, isn’t it time we all started teaching this subject?
After submitting your assignment in the forum, chose one other submitted assignment that has not yet been graded and attempt to grade it fairly based on the grid. Complete the feedback table below and post it on the forum. In the sections for written comments describe in a concise sentence the strengths of the paper you have graded and use two or three more concise sentences to explain how you feel the author could improve specific aspects of their paper to reach a higher standard.
35. Further reading
Money and Life documentary
The Money Fix documentary on mutual credit with permaculture slant
Peter Joseph creator of ‘Zeitgeist’ interview
Wizards of Money Podcast 6 – Democratizing the money system.
Hearn, Mike, Turing Festival 2013: Future of Money (and everything else)
If you happen to be wealthy, and would like us to turn these 4 lessons into beautifully recorded video lectures with graphics and video excerpts, then film makers would typically quote about 15,000 pounds a lecture. If you happen to be highly skilled in video editing, and could animate the slides, add graphics and video clips and re-master the audio, then we would also be interested to hear from you.
In any case, please tell your friends about the MOOC and ask them to register for the next one, by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org
Money and Life – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VB5HOYdlGE8
The Money Fix – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwmM5Nb6hiE
People money (required reading for the sustainable exchange module
Wizards of Money Podcast 6 – Democratizing the money system. http://www.robinupton.com/people/WizardsOfMoneY
Hearn, Mike, Turing Festival 2013: Future of Money (and everything else) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pu4PAMFPo5Y#t=255
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