A Bang for Your Buck in the Berkshires | How New England Can Change the World
How New England Can Save the World, Part IIII in a series
Part I: 2011 Biathalon World Cup: Aroostook County
Part II: Vermont Neighbors
Part III: Hardwick and the New Frontier of Food
Want to encourage the local economy? Try printing your own regional money.
In Great Barrington, Massachusetts, I gave the nice man in the Mr. Ding a Ling truck a W.E.B. Du Bois for my fudgesicle, and he gave me four Mohicans back in change. I walked over to the food co-op and broke a 50–the one with Norman Rockwell on the face–and my excellent sandwich came with four Robyn Van Ens in change. If I hadn’t been so hungry, I could have spent my BerkShares on Web-site design, some septic work, a game of billiards, snowplowing, or a horseback-riding lesson. Hell, if the horse got sick, I could have taken her to the vet. But I was still hungry, so I wandered north to Stockbridge and headed over to the tavern at the Red Lion Inn, the quintessential Berkshires hostelry. And there I found waiting for me a nice glass of Berkshire Blonde ale and a burger, only a Melville all together.
Also waiting was Susan Witt, the force behind America’s most successful alternative currency. “Oh,” she said when I told her about my day, “the midwife takes BerkShares, and so does the undertaker. You can get a will done; you can build an addition to your home, fix your car … I like shoes,” she added, wiggling her toes. “These weren’t cheap.”
Money, when you think about it, is hard to explain. Where it comes from, who decides how much is in circulation, where you get a spare trillion to bail out your banking system–it’s all kind of mysterious. How can I take paper out of my wallet and use it to persuade someone in China to make me something? But most of the time we don’t think much about it, any more than we ponder the mysteries of gravity. If gravity stopped working from time to time, however, we might start wondering a little more–which may explain why the BerkShares Web site (BerkShares.org) got 3.5 million hits in the year after our financial crisis erupted.
In fact, the regional currency for Massachusetts’ westernmost county is just the most prominent of many experiments with money now taking place across New England, from New Haven, Connecticut, to Portland, Maine, to the entire state of Vermont. None of these schemes aims to supplant the greenback, but all try to mend some of its very real defects–and to serve as a laboratory for what comes next. Call it “Currency 3.0″: lean, local, and maybe very logical indeed.
Not that the idea is brand-new–just the opposite. Some of the first money that circulated around New England was local: Next door to the Red Lion Inn is a Berkshire Bank branch; the building’s original occupant, the Housatonic Bank, printed its own money in the 1800s. You can still see some of those notes hanging on the wall.
But as the nation prospered and consolidated, the federal currency became the thing we meant when we said “money.” It’s always come with drawbacks, however: the bust-and-boom cycle, for instance, that saw many communities issuing scrip during the Depression. Beyond that, the sheer power of money–the fact that you can use it to command someone in China to do something for you–can create problems just as it solves them: The folks in China, or at Walmart headquarters in Arkansas, may take away the jobs your community depends on, for instance. Through the 20th century, as consumers transacted more and more of their business at a distance, local food systems waned; then big-box stores reduced the civic engagement that came with Main Street.
It’s probably no wonder, then, that the impetus for BerkShares came from the E. F. Schumacher Society, a Great Barrington foundation formed to promote the legacy of the British author of Small Is Beautiful. The Berkshires were an early hotbed of the local-food movement: Robyn Van En, whose face graces the 10 BerkShare note, founded one of the first two CSA (community-supported agriculture) projects in the country in the mid-1980s at her Indian Line Farm in South Egremont. When the famous economic historian Jane Jacobs called for regional currencies in a talk in 1983 at the Society’s annual meeting, her plea fell on receptive ears.
“We’d started with a microloan program [in 1982],” Witt explains. “We got people to open savings accounts at local banks and pooled that money to collateralize loans for useful things. Mostly they went to women, and for products that weren’t really understood by traditional bankers.” Then a favorite local deli came looking for money so it could move. “We said, No, you have your customers; borrow from them.” And thus was born “Deli Dollars,” which let people loan money that could be redeemed in pastrami, say, once the expansion was complete.
“It got huge press,” Witt says. “People were really interested.” The local Chamber of Commerce asked the Schumacher Society to help with a summertime promotion: Whenever shoppers spent $10 at any of 70 local stores, they got a $1 certificate that they could redeem over three days in September. “People came all the way back from Cape Cod to spend $20 worth of these certificates,” Witt recalls. “Merchants loved it. And since we had an Excel spreadsheet going, they could see how interconnected they actually were.”
The leap from gift certificate to currency came in the fall of 2006, when several community banks offered to issue the money. “You have to remember,” Witt says, “local bankers are just local guys, their customers are local businesses; they’re thinking of what will work for these local businesses. They’ll stretch for them.”
Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.