Slow Money: Re-imagining Economic Exchange

Lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.

—Jane Jacobs from “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”.

One of the features of BerkShares, the local currency circulating in the Southern Berkshire region of Massachusetts, is that it fosters this wealth of sidewalk contacts.

Use of BerkShares, a paper currency, requires face to face economic exchange. The citizen/buyer must meet the merchant/owner and enter into conversation about the item purchased. In the course of these multiple transactions an understanding begins to grow of the nature of the business, how it fits in the streetscape of the town, the working conditions of its employees, availability of locally made goods, the impact of new regulations, the necessity to respond to the changing tastes of consumers, the hurdles to prosperity, the many roles the merchant plays in the community as volunteer ambulance squad member, school board official, community theater player.

When purchasing directly from a producer with BerkShares the information shared may be even more deeply sourced in the local landscape. You may learn how to detect the first signs of a blighted maple tree plaguing the maple syrup industry, or learn how heavy spring rains kept bees from pollinating the apples blossoms, resulting in fewer apples to market.

BerkShares are a “slow money” to borrow a term coined by Schumacher Center friend, Woody Tasch. It takes more time to process a transaction, time for graciousness, time for building connection with community of place.

“Inconvenient,” some will say. Yes, when compared to the hastiness and anonymity of an internet purchase. But rich with information needed for conducting public life. A democracy only thrives when its citizens are informed and engaged by public issues.

Slow money is not sleepy money but awake to the flow of economic life pulsing through a region, shaping its future, providing warning signs and creating options for public policy and private initiative. Perhaps the greatest task of concerned citizens in the twenty-first century is to reclaim responsibility for the consequences of our economic transactions—personally, institutionally, and in public spending. Slow money is the start of this process.

Photo by Jason Houston.

The function of money is to serve as an abstraction for real economic exchange. This is both its flaw and its almost mystical power.

If we did not have the tool of money, we would be we left with direct barter, limited to what we could trade at a particular place and time—carrots for cord wood. Without the carrots I could not acquire the cordwood. Money stands for a value created at a different time, stored, and used to exchange for goods needed in the present time. Money allows values to be collected together and applied to an entirely new type of venture in the future. This accumulation allows the entrepreneur to organize human initiative and raw materials and create some before-unrealized product for healing the sick, producing energy, transporting goods. Quite wonderful.

However this tendency in money to abstract actual exchange can rapidly escalate unchecked, so that ultimately money begets money through sheer movement of capital. The living consequences of the working of capital—the conditions of laborers, the processes used in manufacturing, the effect on eco-systems to obtain raw materials, the fossil fuels used in transportation of goods to consumers, the pockets of accumulation—all tend to be obscured.

Our private discussion and public debate accordingly narrows to cost of goods and return on investment—shaping personal habits of consumption and public policy that drive a global economic system unimpeded by environmental, social, or cultural concerns.

Slow money again makes us conscious of the impact of our economic transactions—not just as purchasers, but as tax-payers, investors, and philanthropists.

In December, BerkShares, Inc. took out a full page ad in a local paper listing the seventy-one non-profit organizations that would accept year-end donations in BerkShares. These ranged from the volunteer fire department, to arts groups, to social service agencies, to the plethora of environmental organizations in the Berkshires. By accepting BerkShares, these groups were committing to re-circulate the BerkShares back in the community by purchasing needed goods and services locally.

A woman in the area, known for her generous support of many different initiatives, called to ask exactly how would someone make a donation in BerkShares. We explained that you would walk or drive to the project’s office, call staff together, look them directly in the eyes, tell them what important work they were doing for the community, explain that you wished to thank them for this good work, and hand them an envelope with a big stack of BerkShares. To calculate the tax value of your gift, you would use the BerkShares exchange rate with federal dollars—10 BerkShares equals $9.

Such direct acknowledgement of good work exponentially increases the value of the gift by inspiring staff. Slower, yes. It would take more time to deliver the BerkShares in person than to simply write a check. Inconvenient, yes. In the short run that is, or so it seems.

I recall the wonderful scene in The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in which the prince encounters a salesman extolling the benefits of a pill to quench thirst. The salesman explains that by not having to collect water for drinking, people will have more time to do other things. The prince responds by saying that if he had more time there is nothing he would rather do then locate a well from which to draw water to quench his thirst.

As residents of the Southern Berkshires shift to trade in slow money, they are at the same time re-imagining their local economy. It is fair to say that everyone in the Southern Berkshires knows what BerkShares are—that they are in fact a currency that can be spent only in the region. And it is fair to say that at least fifty percent of the people in the Southern Berkshires have already engaged in long conversations about BerkShares in coffee shops and other “sidewalk contacts.” BerkShares have ignited a community discussion about local businesses and their problems, about local trade and the reasons for it, about the economic role of non-profits, about local currencies in general and their importance, about the role of local banks, about establishing import-replacement business, about economic sovereignty, about changing deeply engrained financial habits, and about a sustainable future.

These small/slow exchanges are balancing the abstract tendency of money by reconnecting financial transactions with the people, culture, and landscape of a particular place, while at the same time building the community wealth which is the foundation for a newly imagined economic system.