A Bang for Your Buck in the Berkshires | How New England Can Change the World
Here’s how it works: You walk into any branch of the five banks that offer the notes and hand the teller $95 in U.S. dollars. She hands you 100 BerkShares. You spend them at the deli, the bar, or the bookstore. The bar owner then takes her BerkShares from the till and spends them at the deli, the bookstore, or Jakob Kent Jewelry. Or, if she has to pay for something that nobody local is producing, she takes her BerkShares back to the bank and reconverts them into dollars, at the same 95 percent exchange rate.
Some people get paid partly in BerkShares; some towns are considering taking them for certain fees and taxes. It’s not an experiment anymore: The 2.5-millionth BerkShare went into circulation last fall.
It’s also not the only new approach to money under way in New England. In Greater New Haven, for instance, SHARE Haven Time Bank is busy converting spare hours into spending power. You offer something you’re good at; at press time, the Web site listed a variety of services, from cat sitting to architectural design. If you spend an hour helping someone in the network, you’ve earned an hour of someone else’s time; you can get someone to shovel your drive, or give you a massage afterwards.
Hour Exchange Portland is larger and more established. Current projects include making sure the homes of all 600 active members get weatherized with the donated labor the network can mobilize; you get spray foam insulation, caulking, and weatherstripping, and you pay it back to the system in baking, or midwifery, or whatever it is you do.
Time-dollar programs derive from old-fashioned bartering, of course, but with an egalitarian twist: Every hour is worth the same thing. Portland’s credo states it simply: “Everyone has value, everyone’s time is equal, everyone has something to offer. The real economy is people. We value work. We value the work it takes to make healthy children, a healthy community, a sustainable future.” It sounds positively Scandinavian.
If you’re a little more hard-nosed, then consider the new Marketplace program launched this past spring by Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and Vermont Sustainable Exchange. It’s kind of like barter, too, but highly computerized, and filled with excitingly business-like buzzwords. “We think of it as a recession beater–a cash-flow management tool,” says VBSR executive director Will Patten. “Every business has extra capacity, or products it’s overstocked on,” he explains. “Everyone has extra capacity.” Now other member businesses can buy that extra capacity with their own excess, no money involved.
“Say I need to buy some compost,” says Will Rapp, who often needs to buy compost because he’s the founder and chairman of Gardener’s Supply Company, an enormous mail-order house based in Burlington. “I may be short of cash, and the compost guy may have a glut at the moment. So I can transact that in the online exchange system, and the compost company can take the credits I give it and use them to buy fuel for the truck to load the compost onto. The fuel company says, ‘I need accounting services,’ and finds someone in the network to provide them.”
It works like money, but it lets you pay for what you have too little of (fuel) with what you have too much of (compost). If you had to barter point by point, not only would you have to find a fuel dealer who needed compost, but you’d have to find him at just the moment when he also had extra fuel he needed to get rid of. “Barter requires the incidence of coincidence,” says VSE founder Amy Kirschner, who runs the Marketplace software under a license from the Scottish inventors. “Instead, we’re a little bit Amazon, a little bit Craigslist, a little bit eBay.”
Kirschner started work on Marketplace’s business-to-business electronic exchange after her attempt to start a BerkShares-like local currency in Burlington had foundered. “Having a piece of paper go around is a bit of a logistical nightmare,” she says. “Burlington Bread didn’t fit into cash-register drawers, it was hard to make change, employees weren’t trained to deal with it.” She’s happier with the electronic model, in part because she’s dealing directly with businesses that are used to thinking in hard economic terms.
“We finally nailed the economic argument–it’s spare capacity,” she adds. “Would you rather pay a bill with a gift certificate to your business or with cash? There’s already trust within our network of businesses; these are the kinds of people who want to work with one another.”
Susan Witt wouldn’t argue with any of those logistical challenges, but for her they’re part of the rationale for BerkShares: The currency is literally teaching people to think more carefully about how their habits build or erode community. It’s about creating trust in a world where economists have taught us that we’re self-interested individuals and nothing more. “I’ll be in line behind someone at a store, someone who’s supported us,” she says. “And yet she’s whipping out a credit card to pay. I ask her, ‘Where are your BerkShares?’ And she’ll say, ‘It’s inconvenient. And I get airline miles with this card.’ We’re so entranced by the ease of this economic exchange.”
Witt wrote recently about another local woman, someone who had called her office to ask how to make a donation to a local nonprofit in BerkShares. She couldn’t just write a check, Witt explained to her. She’d need to “walk or drive to the project’s office, call the staff together, look them directly in the eye, tell them how important their work is to the community, and hand them an envelope with a big stack of BerkShares.”
Those bank notes would be nice, but so would the sentiment; in the end, it’s entirely about building community, and so the connection counts as much as the money. Here’s Jasmine Stine, an intern at the Schumacher Society: “My housemate was in line at Guido’s [an upscale produce market in Great Barrington], right in between two other people who were paying in BerkShares. It turns out that one guy was making biodiesel, and the other guy needed some. That’s the kind of conversation we’ve got to start having.”