Did you know that it isn’t illegal to print your own paper currency? It’s a fact! (You cannot, however, mint your own coins, though.) Just as long as the notes don’t actually resemble greenbacks, are pegged to US Dollars, and tax is collected, alternative (or community) currencies are legal to trade for goods and services (and really good for local economies).
Initiatives like “Buy Local” and the annual “Small Business Saturday” (sponsored by American Express) are designed to get people to shift a portion of their spending away from big-box retailers in order to keep more of that money in the area (rather than being siphoned off to various corporate headquarters elsewhere).
For example, one of the first CityTargets opened while I was living in Portland and I went and marveled at its shiny newness, fresh produce, and the bird that they stuck on the signage. To the casual observer, all of this might seem relatively innocuous (quick groceries, prescription refills, and/or a new toaster on the way home from work, just blocks away from your office). But the pristine coolers and trendy-ish house wares (invariably made in China) were built at the expense of independent grocery stores that used to be in downtowns across the country that were put out of business by the Target and the Wal-Mart “super”centers thrown up on the outskirts of cities years ago. Plus, the majority of the money spent at these big-box retailers is counted, bundled, and then shipped out of town (to Minneapolis, in this example – Nothing against Minneapolis, of course).
“’Bay Bucks,’ used in Traverse City, MI, is ‘our own local stimulus program,’ says the currency’s administrator” (in an article on CNNMoney.com by Blake Ellis). One of the biggest benefits for small business owners who decide to accept complementary currencies (“complementary,” as they’re not meant to replace federally-issued banknotes) is the member directory, which provides additional marketing opportunities with producers and creatives who also want to keep money circulating in the local economy.
One of the most robust complementary currencies in the US (if not the most successful) exists in Massachusetts. BerkShares are available from community development banks with a built-in 5% bonus for residents of Pittsfield, Great Barrington, and North Adams, in Berkshire County, who exchange US Dollars for the local bills (as $95 will yield 100 BerkShares). The program is run by the Schumacher Center, which is charismatically overseen by Susan Witt, who hugged me at a conference in Manhattan (“Mainstreaming New Economic Models,” sponsored by The Guardian) after I told her that Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, by E.F. Schumacher, had profoundly influenced the way I perceived the world after reading it in high school.
Inspired by the Transition Town Movement, started in the UK, one of the primary goals is to produce more of a community’s basic necessities, like agricultural products, rather than “importing” them from elsewhere. A brochure for the BNote posed the question, “What goods does Baltimore source from out-of-state that could be produced closer to home?”
The potential for these alternative currencies is exemplified by the scope and creativity of their uses in South West England and in Midwestern Canada. In Bristol, residents can pay their taxes with Bristol Pounds and in Alberta, Calgarians can pay for monthly transit passes with their Calgary Dollars. In both cities, the community currencies are also used to provide modest start-up loans for new small businesses and to bridge gaps in arts funding.
The philosophy behind community currencies, however, runs counter to larger economic development programs, like the Buffalo Billion(s), in that they are designed to promote local commerce without much government involvement (again, above-or-beyond required taxation) and/or associated scandal(s). By keeping money local, there are economic, and ecological, benefits to restricting the outflow of capital from a city (or from a region). Because you couldn’t spend it in Albany, a complementary currency, like Buffalo Bucks (proposed back in 2008) encourages trade between small businesses, and their like-minded customers, who have agreed to accept it, to spend it, and to keep it closer to home.
Lead image: Buffalo Buck features F Scott Fitzgerald
Michael Allen Potter is a huge fan of The Central Terminal and founder of The Hydroelectric Press.