Currencies and Markets
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Currencies and Markets
Currencies are mechanisms to facilitate the exchange of goods and services (though they can also serve other purposes, which are sometimes at odds with this basic purpose). Markets are the sites where these exchanges occur; they can either be physical places like a market square, or they can be virtual spaces as on the Internet. One cannot exist without the other, which is why they are listed as a single cluster of organizational forms.
Currencies and markets are able to coordinate the activities of multitudes of people with relatively little central direction, and ideally allow resources to be employed in order to meet people's needs. However, as they exist today, they seriously distort our picture of needs (of humans versus other living things, of rich versus poor people, of individuals versus entire communities, of needs that can be satisfied through markets and those that cannot) as well as of resources (of resources that are owned versus those that are not, resources that can be produced by humans versus those that cannot). This leads to a situation where many needs are not met even while a few people's wants are satisfied to excess, and resources are used wastefully and unsustainably. It is therefore of vital importance to our future that currencies and markets be fundamentally transformed.
Context within NORA
Relationships to Needs
Often, it seems that all our “important” needs are met by buying things using currencies in markets. However, all too often, needs are defined as important because they are satisfied through market mechanisms, while needs that cannot be satisfied through the market are neglected. Hence, it is important to review which needs are met imperfectly or not at all through currencies and markets, as well as the ones that are.
Markets are not required to satisfy the need for air. However, market activities can have serious impacts on the quality of the air.
The need for water, especially piped water, is often provided through paid services and thus involves currency and some kind of market.
Food, security, shelter, mobility, and clothing are all provided through currencies and markets, though they can, and very frequently are, providing by other methods as well (e.g., self-provisioning, community solidarity).
A sense of being at home, health, opportunities to learn, self-expression, and meaningful livelihoods all may be supported by market activities (e.g., paying for medical treatment or an education, making money at a job), but it takes more than market transactions to fully satisfy these needs. The houses, health care, education and jobs provided through the market often fail to satisfy our needs fully, and require non-market activities to be developed to a point that provides real satisfaction.
Supportive relationships, spiritual connection, and time to devote to relaxation, imagination, play etc. all cannot be bought, and in fact the pursuit of money very often interferes with satisfying these needs.
Participation in economic and political decision-making involves discussion, deliberation, and the consideration of alternative courses of action. Market transactions can give some sense of what people with money want, but are highly imperfect even in that regard (it is often impossible to express certain desires through the market). They give no sense at all about what people without money want, nor are they useful for deliberations concerning the needs of future generations of humans, or the needs of other living things. Therefore currencies and markets, at least in the ways they are currently constituted, typically interfere with good collective decision-making.
Relationships to other Organizational forms
Self-provisioning and community solidarity are often undermined by the spread of currencies and markets. This is often referred to as the “enclosure of the commons,” or the “commodification” of things that were formerly produced, exchanged, and consumed outside of market institutions.
Free knowledge institutions resist the prevailing types of currencies and markets. However, different kinds of currencies and markets could actually support them.
Individual sales types of transactions are generally the ones that are most suited to market logic. Committed sales or services (where there is a long-term relationship between producers and consumers) can be performed through market institutions, but the prevailing forms of currencies and markets are less well-suited to these kinds of transactions. Sharing and renting can be performed with (renting) or without (sharing) the use of currencies and markets.
Since nature accepts no currency, natural resource management using currencies and markets as currently constituted tends to lead to unsustainable resource use. It is therefore necessary to fundamentally change the rules governing currencies and markets so that they can support sustainable resource use.
Currencies and markets have often been imposed through institutions of the coercion and denial of choice cluster, and it sometimes takes their use to ensure that participants abide by market rules.
Market participants form networks through their interactions with each other.
Relationships to Resources
Under the rules that now govern currencies and markets, natural resources are regarded as “free gifts of nature.” Instead of regarding such gifts as things to be treasured and cared for, they are treated as lacking in value, and are therefore used wastefully and unsustainably. This leads to the mismanagement of the resources of air and atmosphere, water, land, energy, living things, and minerals. Different kinds of currencies and markets need to be devised in order to promote sensible use of all these natural resources.
Intangibles are either treated as lacking in value in a very similar way as the “free gits of nature” mentioned above (e.g., trust, love, the knowledge of people considered inferior), or they are made artificially scarce in order to imbue them with value (e.g., patentable knowledge). Both strategies lead to serious distortions in the way these resources are valued and used.
Physical, human-made assets are the resources that are generally most suited to the types of currencies and markets that are currently dominant. However, since these are all made using natural resources and intangibles (e.g., knowledge), their valuation gets seriously distorted as well.
Understanding current patterns of abundance and scarcity
Any exchange process requires a shared understanding, established through conventions, customs, rules, laws, treaties and the like, about what kinds of things can be exchanged and how, and how quality and quantity of these things are to be determined. These conventions can be established by a community (such as a network of merchants), by a political authority, or some other entity. Depending on who gets to determine the rules governing the creation and circulation of a currency, these rules may favor specific players in the market; they may be more or less democratic, and they may favor a small elite. If markets are to be governed as commons, it is vital that all stakeholders be able to have a similar voice in the conventions governing market exchange. In the global market regimes, this is not the case.
As the goods and services that are traded become more complex, involving extended commodity chains, the production and exchange processes become increasingly opaque to market participants. Therefore, more rules and regulations are needed in order to prevent fraudulent and exploitative practices. Furthermore, if the rules governing the circulation of currency, goods and services generate increased competition (rather than cooperation) among market players, there are greater incentives to disregard rules of fairness. This means that more effort has to be put into enforcing rules and penalizing transgressions. This can be illustrated by analogy to sports: kids picking around a ball in a neighborhood playing field need no referee and very few rules, but the more competitive the match (up to the level of a World Cup), the more precisely defined are the rules, the more referees are needed, and the more sophisticated technology is used to track every move of the players and the ball. This means that, all the rhetoric to the contrary, more “free” market competition requires more state involvement and regulation, not less.
An endless variety of currencies, exchange systems, and markets have been devised over the millennia, with a large variety still in existence today. New ones are being invented all the time. Although many such systems have been investigated in detail by economic anthropologists and historians, their work is usually ignored by mainstream economists, who therefore crassly misrepresent how those systems function or functioned. I fexamined without ideological blinders, many of these systems can offer us valuable lessons about how to align individual interests with the interests of a larger community, or how to foster sustainable use of natural resources.
This discussion, however, will begin with the currently dominant type of currency, namely central-bank-issued, interest-bearing fiat currency, which creates a growth imperative and enforces a very high degree of competition.
The dominant money system
The currencies that dominate the world today, such as the US dollar, the euro, the pound sterling, the Japanese yen, and so on, are mostly created as debt by central banks. That is, a central bank is empowered to lend money into existence – it has come into the world as a loan to another bank. “Fiat” means “let it be” in Latin, and the term “fiat currency” alludes to the god-like process of declaring unilaterally that a certain amount of money exists. The borrowing bank then treats this money as an asset, and can lend it to other banks or to businesses or individuals. All the borrowers have to pay interest – but the money to pay the interest is not created at the same time as the principal! This means that the amount of debt exceeds the money in circulation; it can never all be repaid. The only way for everybody to remain solvent is to continuously create new (debt-based) money, and the only way to do this without inflation is to have a corresponding increase in the amount of goods and services offered in the real economy – i.e., to have the economy grow at a rate that equals or exceeds the prevailing interest rates. Otherwise, some businesses will remain solvent only by virtue of others going bankrupt, which sets up intense and unrelenting competition. When growth falls seriously short, a vicious cycle begins: many businesses go bankrupt or downsize their workforce, which leads to reduced spending by the unemployed, which leads to reduced sales, leading to an increased number of bankruptcies. The money system that makes growth compulsory thus also leads to recurrent depressions when the growth rate cannot keep up.
Production of goods and services can only continue increasing if consumption likewise increases. According to the ideology of mainstream economics, humans by nature have unlimited wants, so consumption will automatically increase if production increases. This is far from the case, however. New needs, whether real or imagined, have to be created in order to keep the growth machine going. A lot of times, non-market methods of providing for a need are destroyed so that people have no alternative but to buy commodities in the market. For example, when farming families are driven off the land and into cities, they now have to buy all or most of their food. When cities are redesigned for car transport, people can no longer rely on walking or cycling to where they need to go, and even the option of public transport may be undermined. The demand for many goods is also created by heavy advertising, promoting the perception that one has to have this new thing in order to be up to date or to show one's wealth or for the “convenience” (which sometimes turns out to be illusory). Once everyone has it, it becomes socially obligatory to have it too. A lot of this growth contributes little or nothing to actual production, instead transferring it from (uncounted) non-market production to (counted) market production, as when more food is prepared in restaurants rather than at home.
The business need to obtain ever greater profits cannot be realized through greater revenue alone – it also demands cutting costs, what is referred to as greater “efficiency.” Businesses will reduce their use of scarce commodities, which is supposed to economize on those things which are scarce and focus consumption on those things which are more abundant. However, this assumes that “commodities” and “things” are the same! Commodities are scarce if demand exceed supply, and prices therefore rise. This can occur with labor treated as a commodity, for example, particularly when there are conditions approaching full employment. However, things that are not bought and sold on the market are not commodities, and markets do not recognize their scarcity. Instead, they are treated as “free” goods of nature, and because they cost nothing, the “efficient” thing to do is to maximize their use in order to minimize the use of those things which cost something. Hence, the growth imperative leads businesses to pollute the air, water, and land; to over-exploit living things and mineral resources; and to produce enormous amounts of waste. Meanwhile, workers (particularly the ones who do not have specialized skills that are in high demand) are paid as little as possible in the name of efficiency, and laid off as soon as they are no longer needed. This burdens the families of the workers or society at large with the costs of caring for the workers when they are sick, old, or unemployed.
Interest rates on money in addition lead market participants to discount the future. In this practice, a revenue stream from an investment is compared with the revenue from putting the same amount of money in a bank and earning interest on it. For example, if the interest rate is 5% per year, then an investment must yield more than 5% per year in order to be considered worth while. This virtually precludes long-term investments which will yield a return decades later (at an interest rate of 5%, an investment yielding returns after 50 years would have to yield a return of 1000% in order to be regarded as “economic”). Under these conditions, “free market” players will never make the really long-term investments that are needed to maintain ecosystems in a viable state. They do not have that freedom because competition will force them to be short-sighted.
The short-sightedness of business decision-making is further reinforced if shares of the business are put in the market (i.e., in the case of publicly traded corporations), and the CEOs are rewarded according to short-term fluctuations of share prices. The shareholders know nothing about the sustainability of the company's resource use; the only thing they know are the quarterly or annual reports with their financial data. Neither do the shareholder have any responsibility whatsoever for the long-term sustainability of the company, or the livelihoods of its employees. Since they enjoy ownership devoid of responsibility, they can, and do, sell shares at a moment's notice if they think that the immediate profitability of the company is declining. This means that CEOs are forced to make decisions taking into account only short-term profitability and not long-term sustainability; they do not have the freedom to act responsibly. That is the “freedom” of markets as they exist today.
The intense competition created by this market system tends to lead toward increasing concentration of market shares in the hands of a few companies – the unsuccessful ones fail, and the large ones take over their share of the market. The companies dominating the market make sure to increase the barriers to entry for new players, both by underselling them where necessary, and by influencing government to create market regulations that favor the big established companies. Hence, the “free market” is usually a mirage (particularly in the most profitable markets) – a free market in the terms of Adam Smith requires that no buyer and no seller can manipulate prices because their competitors will prevent them from doing so. This means that the benefits of the existing market system accrue disproportionately to a very small number of companies and their CEOs and major shareholders, in addition to the banks that crete the money that we use.
All this leads to exponential growth of “the economy” (where only market transactions are counted as part of the economy) at the cost of environmental sustainability as well as social cohesion and equity, while ignoring the real needs of most people. That fuels insecurity, as well as greed (get what you can now, in case something bad happens tomorrow).The “standard of living” (as measured by the sales of market commodities) increases, while happiness remains stagnant. Numerous studies have shown that since the 1970's, happiness in the affluent countries has remained the same or declined despite economic growth. If the efficiency of an economy is measured by the amount of resources that are needed to obtain a certain amount of human happiness, then the global economy has become increasingly inefficient over time.
Approaches to creating greater abundance in the realm of currencies and markets may involve fairly small measures to try to yield more fair outcomes without changing the system itself, or attempts to change the overall structure itself. The former approaches are easier to implement but can achieve only relatively limited objectives, while the latter, if successful, have the potential to lead us toward a fundamentally much more sustainable future, but face much greater resistance in implementation. This review starts from the relatively more modest approaches to the more fundamental ones.
There are various attempts to regulate markets to avoid their worst excesses, without changing the kinds of currency used. For example, environmental regulations are used to prevent the despoliation of the natural environment, social regulations are used to prevent over-exploitation of workers or discrimination against certain classes of people (women, racial minorities, people of low castes). The limitations of these approaches include that the financial benefits of violating the regulations are high, and hence constant vigilance and strict enforcement is needed in order to get businesses to observe the regulations. In addition, in a market that is globally integrated while environmental and social laws and regulations are passed nationally, industries that cause a lot of pollution or depend on cheap labor simply locate in those countries with the most lax regulations. The resistance against expanding regulations to a worldwide scope is enormous.
Taxes, Fees and Subsidies
Taxes or fees and subsidies can be used to increase the costs of environmentally or socially destructive activities, and create financial benefits for the kinds of activities that are desirable for the common good – tax what you don't want, support what you do want. For example, the use of natural resources can be taxed, while reducing or eliminating taxes on labor; the revenues of those taxes can be used for sustainable management of natural resources, paid out to taxpayers on an equal per capita basis, or used for other projects for the public good. Taxes or fees can be increased or decreased in order to achieve the desired amount of pollution or resource use, and can work without outright prohibitions. In order to work effectively, it is important that both taxes/fees and subsidies focus on activities that can be easily monitored, such that administrative costs are kept to a minimum. Taxes and subsidies can also create trade distortions similar to the ones described for market regulations, though the fact that they include incentives as well as disincentives means that they can help ensure that desired industrial activities move into a country while the undesired ones move out.
Creating markets in “ecosystem services”
A primary approach to creating incentives to preserve natural resources within the neoliberal framework is to create markets in such things as “pollution rights” (“cap and trade” systems) and “ecosystem services.” The idea is that if these things are made into scarce forms of property, their value will rise and therefore market efficiency will demand that they be used more sustainably. Major limitations of this approach include that there are often “grandfather” clauses that give most pollution rights to the biggest polluters, there is often great political pressure not to make the property rights as scarce as they need to be if resources are actually to be preserved, and poor and marginalized people usually do not get any of the new property rights even though they are often the ones who did the most to preserve the natural resources (they pay the bills but don't get any benefits).
A fundamental problem about ecosystem services as a commodity is that they first have to be made scarce before they can have a market value, and we actually want the benefits provided by intact ecosystems to be abundant, not scarce!
“Buy local” campaigns
Many groups use moral appeals to motivate consumers to “buy local,” which may mean literally within a locality or small region, or more broadly products produced in their own country. The motivations include the attempt to increase the local recirculation of money as a means of economic revitalization, the attempt to reduce carbon footprints by reducing transportation demands, as well as economic nationalism. Limitations of this approach include that local in many cases is more expensive (otherwise a campaign would not be needed to promote the local), and hence only those people with a reasonable amount of disposable income are likely to heed this call. In addition, producers outside of the local area who are dependent on sales in that area may be hurt.
Fair trade, organic and other certifications
Efforts to certify products as being fair trade (giving a fair deal to producers, usually in majority world countries), organic (agricultural goods grown without the use of harmful chemicals and with proper attention to sustainable use of the soil), sweatshop-free (produced with fair labor practices), union-made (produced in unionized workplaces) and so forth are based on the hope that, if given the choice, consumers will opt to buy those products which have been produced in a socially and environmentally sustainable way. The limitation is that, because socially and environmentally sustainable production means that important costs are not imposed on other people or nature, these businesses typically face higher production costs. These costs are passed on to the consumers. In addition, the certification that they are doing things right costs money. Finally, because the total trade volumes are less, there are fewer economies of scale in the entire commodity chain, including transportation and processing. The costs of the certified products are thus generally significantly higher than those of non-certified products, again limiting the market to consumers who have sufficient disposable income as well as being highly environmentally and socially conscious. This is a niche market. However, it does enable new business models to be developed and perfected, which would further thrive if accompanying measures such as listed below would be implemented.
New business models
There is a profusion of new business models being created for various forms of social and environmental entrepreneurship, or for facilitating entrepreneurship among poor people (microfinance is prominent in the latter domain). Limitations include that often, a social enterprise has to make its money on something that is a sideline to its main aim, which can detract energy from what they really want to achieve. In the area of microfinance, the market opportunities for the kinds of things produced by individuals in micro-enterprises may be very limited. Microfinance has also been extended into areas (such as health care and education) where for-profit models are hardly applicable; the result is to throw the borrowers into serious debt. Finally, in many cases the people dispensing the loans are paid salaries that are very high in comparison to the sizes of the loans dispursed, meaning that interest rates or fees have to be very high to cover the costs. This can lead to unsustainable debt burdens and defaults.
Not only banks, but also community organizations, businesses, local governments and numerous other types of organizations can create means of exchange. Currencies need not involve interest; they can have zero or even negative interest rates (demurrage). They can be designed for specific purposes, e.g. in such a way as to discourage accumulation, or to facilitate greater cooperation and cohesion in a community. Examples include Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS), time banks, regiogeld, scrip currencies, among many others. Limitations include that they usually cannot be used to pay taxes, or suppliers from outside of a local network, which makes it difficult to build participation. However, an increasing number of successful initiatives have successfully addressed problems that are intractable with conventional money.
The giving of gifts can work without currency. If people expect that their giving of gifts will not only contribute to creating a healthy community, but will in some way be of benefit to themselves eventually (in part because they are members of that community), then gift giving can play a major economic role. Examples of gift giving include donations to non-profits, freecycling, “really really free markets,” and all kinds of informal, uncounted acts of generosity. Limitations include that gift-giving usually makes an important impact only within close-knit communities, or involves things that are considered worthless that would otherwise be thrown away. Scaling up is therefore difficult.
Common property rights
A major problem with markets as they now exist is that property rights are typically vested in individuals, companies, or the state, but not in communities. That is, “commons” are typically not regarded as an alternative. However, local resources (such as grazing lands, riparian lands, forests, local fisheries, land as such, and many others) can be held by the communities of resource users, who can deliberate on the rules that will allow for equitable and sustainable use. They can raise fees for the use of the resources, and use those fees for community development and resource conservation, or pay out the revenue among the custodians of the resource. At a larger scale, all natural resources (land, air, water, mineral resources...) could be seen as the common heritage of the people of a nation, with every user paying into a fund based on the amount of resources they extract, and that fund being used to maintain the quantity and quality of those resources and to support the welfare of the entire community (with equal benefits to all members of that community, because they are equal shareholders of the commonwealth). This would allow the drastic reduction or elimination of taxes on labor (income taxes, payroll taxes) and sales/value added taxes, thus providing a stimulus to provide jobs. These kinds of solutions could lead to more sustainable resource use while also promoting social equity (in contrast to the markets in ecosystem services mentioned above). The main limitation is that these kinds of solutions face huge opposition from powerful owners of natural resources and industries that are major users of natural resources. In the absence of reforms of the currency system, they also do not eliminate the compulsion of continued economic growth.
Revisiting traditional forms of exchange and community solidarity
All over the world, local communities evolved various forms of mutual aid and exchange as forms of community solidarity. Many of these have declined with the expansion of the money economy, and in their old forms they may not be suitable for the present times (for example, due to excluding people of low status in those communities). However, where they still exist in some form, or are still present in collective memory, they can be adapted for present conditions. Many of them involve gift exchanges and commons in some form.
None of the above approaches alone will solve the systemic problems of interest-bearing currencies in competitive markets leading to unsustainable resource use while many people's needs are not being met. However, a combination of widespread currency reform with common property rights in many natural resources could be the key elements of a sustainable system, accompanied by market regulations (the need for which will never go away), a well-thought out regime of taxation, revitalized local economies that include a substantial element of gifting, long-distance fair trade networks, and a host of new business models devised by entrepreneurs who are not just motivated by the prospect of making money, but who also want to work in service of the larger community and of harmony with nature. All of these strategies, but especially the more locally oriented ones, can be informed by culturally diverse forms of mutual aid, exchange, and community solidarity.
Approaches to creating greater abundance
Revisiting traditional forms of exchange and community solidarity
Taxes and Subsidies
Cap and trade systems
Tax and dividend systems
Buy local campaigns
Organic and sustainable resource use certifications
Social and environmental entrepreneurship; new business models
Common property rights
Bernard Lietaer. Currency Solutions for a Wiser World. This site is a highly useful reference and provides links to a wealth of further sites on complementary currencies.
Center for Fair and Alternative Trade, Colorado State University.
DYNDY: An effort to create a pattern language for alternative and complementary money systems.Includes links to numerous additional complementary currency sites.
Initiative Internationale pour Repenser l'Economie. Currency and Finance.
Our World Is Not For Sale. Network of organizations "fighting the current model of corporate globalization embodied in global trading system."
Socioeco. Finance and Money at the Service of Society. A bibliography with links to many pdf files.
Sustainable Economies Law Center. Community Currencies Law. Legal information, best practices, and supporting tools for time banks, local currencies, and barter exchanges.
Member Publications and Links
Group on Commons Backed Currencies
Stephen Hinton. September 2013. Case Study: Using complementary currency to drive volunteering and collaboration (summary article).
_____. August 2013. Complementary Currency Trial Shows How Communities Can Prosper (more detail on the same case as above).
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