17 March 2010

Complementary currencies

Filed under: Economics, sustainability, vision, Zeitgeist — David Wood @ 11:49 pm

Recently, I mused about a world economy without money.

Two replies – from Peter Jackson and from Marios Gerogiokas – independently drew my attention to a different notion: complementary currencies.

In brief:

  • Rather than seeking to fix our current economic and social dilemmas by reducing the number of monetary systems from one to zero – as proposed by the Zeitgeist Movement – this alternative idea proposes increasing the number of monetary systems, from one to more-than-one.

Marios drew my attention to a TEDxBerlin talk by Belgian economist Bernard Lietaer, “Why this crisis? And what to do about it?“:

The talk takes a bit of time to get going, but it makes an increasingly interesting series of points:

  • We need resilience in our economic structures, as well as efficiency;
  • One way to achieve resilience is to avoid mono-culture;
  • Having “complementary” currency systems running in parallel is one way to avoid monetary mono-culture;
  • Without adoption of complementary currencies, we risk repetitions of the recent economic crash.

Here’s one quote that struck me:

Complementary currencies are now where open source software and microfinance were 10 years ago.

And another:

It would be crazy to believe that we’re going into the information age, and the most important information system – our money – will not change.

Personally, I see it as much more likely that our monetary system will evolve and improve rather than it will be removed altogether.

Of course, there are risks in any such evolution (just as there are risks with the status quo).  Some of the reasons for the recent economic crash, after all, were the innovative financial systems (with an alphabet soup of acronym names) that turned out to be insufficiently understood.

Footnote: There’s more about the concept of complementary currency on Wikipedia.

15 March 2010

Imagining a world without money

Filed under: Economics, futurist, motivation, politics, Singularity, vision, Zeitgeist — David Wood @ 11:48 am

On Saturday, I attended “London Z Day 2010” – described as

presentations about futurism and technology, the singularity and the current economic landscape, activism and how to get involved…

Around 300 people were present in the Oliver Thompson Lecture Theatre of London’s City University.  That’s testimony to good work by the organisers – the UK chapter of the worldwide “Zeitgeist Movement“.

I liked a lot of what I heard – a vision that advocates greater adoption of:

  • Automation: “Using technology to automate repetitive and tedious tasks leads to efficiency and productivity. It is also socially responsible as people are freed from labor that undermines their intelligence”
  • Artificial intelligence: “machines can take into account more information”
  • The scientific method: “a proven method that has stood the test of time and leads to discovery. Scientific method involves testing, getting feedback from natural world and physical law, evaluation of results, sharing data openly and requirement to replicate the test results”
  • Technological unification: “Monitoring planetary resources is needed in order to create an efficient system, and thus technology should be shared globally”.

I also liked the sense of urgency and activism, to move swiftly from the current unsustainable social and economic frameworks, into a more rational framework.  Frequent references of work of radical futurists like Ray Kurzweil emphasised the plausibility of rapid change, driven by accelerating technological innovation.  That makes good sense.

I was less convinced by other parts of the Zeitgeist worldview – in particular, its strong “no money” and “no property” messages.

Could a society operate without money?  Speakers from the floor seemed to think that, in a rationally organised society, everyone would be able to freely access all the goods and services they need, rather than having to pay for them.  The earth has plenty of resources, and we just need to look after them in a sensible way.  Money has lots of drawbacks, so we should do without it – so the argument went.

One of the arguments made by a speaker, against a monetary basis of society, was the analysis from the recent book “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  Here’s an excerpt of a review of this book from the Guardian:

We are rich enough. Economic growth has done as much as it can to improve material conditions in the developed countries, and in some cases appears to be damaging health. If Britain were instead to concentrate on making its citizens’ incomes as equal as those of people in Japan and Scandinavia, we could each have seven extra weeks’ holiday a year, we would be thinner, we would each live a year or so longer, and we’d trust each other more.

Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett don’t soft-soap their message. It is brave to write a book arguing that economies should stop growing when millions of jobs are being lost, though they may be pushing at an open door in public consciousness. We know there is something wrong, and this book goes a long way towards explaining what and why.

The authors point out that the life-diminishing results of valuing growth above equality in rich societies can be seen all around us. Inequality causes shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives; it increases the rate of teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction; it destroys relationships between individuals born in the same society but into different classes; and its function as a driver of consumption depletes the planet’s resources.

Wilkinson, a public health researcher of 30 years’ standing, has written numerous books and articles on the physical and mental effects of social differentiation. He and Pickett have compiled information from around 200 different sets of data, using reputable sources such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organisation and the US Census, to form a bank of evidence against inequality that is impossible to deny.

They use the information to create a series of scatter-graphs whose patterns look nearly identical, yet which document the prevalence of a vast range of social ills. On almost every index of quality of life, or wellness, or deprivation, there is a gradient showing a strong correlation between a country’s level of economic inequality and its social outcomes. Almost always, Japan and the Scandinavian countries are at the favourable “low” end, and almost always, the UK, the US and Portugal are at the unfavourable “high” end, with Canada, Australasia and continental European countries in between.

This has nothing to do with total wealth or even the average per-capita income. America is one of the world’s richest nations, with among the highest figures for income per person, but has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence – murder, in particular – that is off the scale. Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality – within a country, within states and even within cities. For some, mainly young, men with no economic or educational route to achieving the high status and earnings required for full citizenship, the experience of daily life at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy is enraging…

The anxiety in this book about our current economic system was reflected in anxiety expressed by all the Zeitgeist Movement speakers.  However, the Zeitgeist speakers drew a more radical conclusion.  It’s not just that economic inequalities have lots of bad side effects.  They say, it’s money-based economics itself that causes these problems.  And that’s a hard conclusion to swallow.

They don’t argue for reforming the existing economic system.  Rather, they argue for replacing it completely.  Money itself, they say, is the root problem.

The same dichotomy arose time and again during the day.  Speakers highlighted many problems with the way the world currently operates.  But instead of advocating incremental reforms – say, for greater equality, or for oversight of the market – they advocated a more radical transformation: no money, and no property.  What’s more, the audience seemed to lap it all up.

Of course, money has sprung up in countless societies throughout history, as something that allows for a more efficient exchange of resources than simple bartering.  Money provides a handy intermediate currency, enabling more complex transactions of goods and services.

In answer, the Zeitgeist speakers argue that use of technology and artificial intelligence would allow for more sensible planning of these goods and services.  However, horrible thoughts come to mind of all the failures of previous centrally controlled economies, such as in Soviet times.  In answer again, the Zeitgeist speakers seem to argue that better artificial intelligence will, this time, make a big difference.  Personally, I’m all in favour of gradually increased application of improved automatic decision systems.  But I remain deeply unconvinced about removing money:

  1. Consumer desires can be very varied.  Some people particularly value musical instruments, others foreign travel, others sports equipment, others specialist medical treatment, and so on.  What’s more, the choices are changing all the time.  Money is a very useful means for people to make their own, individual choices
  2. A speaker from the floor suggested that everyone would have access to all the medical treatment they needed.  That strikes me as naive: the amount of medical treatment potentially available (and potentially “needed” in different cases) is unbounded
  3. Money-based systems enable the creation of loans, in which banks lend out more money than they have in their assets; this has downsides but also has been an important spring to growth and development;
  4. What’s more, without the incentive of being able to earn more money, it’s likely that a great deal of technological progress would slow down; many people would cease to work in such a focused and determined way to improve the products their company sells.

For example, the Kurzweil curves showing the projected future improvements in technology – such as increased semiconductor density and computational capacity – will very likely screech to a halt, or dramatically slow down, if money is removed as an incentive.

So whilst the criticism offered by the Zeitgeist movement is strong, the positive solution they advocate lacks many details.

As Alan Feuer put it, in his New York Times article reviewing last year’s ZDay, “They’ve Seen the Future and Dislike the Present“:

The evening, which began at 7 with a two-hour critique of monetary economics, became by midnight a utopian presentation of a money-free and computer-driven vision of the future, a wholesale reimagination of civilization, as if Karl Marx and Carl Sagan had hired John Lennon from his “Imagine” days to do no less than redesign the underlying structures of planetary life.

Idealism can be a powerful force for positive social change, but can be deeply counterproductive if it’s based on a misunderstanding of what’s possible.  I’ll need a lot more convincing about the details of the zero-money “resource based economy” advocated by Zeitgeist before I could give it any significant support.

I’m a big fan of debating ideas about the future – especially radical and counter-intuitive ideas.  There’s no doubt that, if we are to survive, the future will need to be significantly different from the past.  However, I believe we need to beware the kind of certainty that some of the Zeitgeist speakers showed.  The Humanity+, UK2010 conference, to be held in London on 24th April, will be an opportunity to review many different ideas about the best actions needed to create a social environment more conducive to enabling the full human potential.

Footnote: an official 86 page PDF “THE ZEITGEIST MOVEMENT – OBSERVATIONS AND RESPONSES: Activist Orientation Guide” is available online.

The rapid growth of the Zeitgeist Movement has clearly benefited from popular response to two movies, “Zeitgeist, the Movie” (released in 2007) and “Zeitgeist: Addendum” (released in 2008).  Both these movies have gone viral.  There’s a great deal in each of these movies that makes me personally uncomfortable.  However, one learning is simply the fact that well made movies can do a great deal to spread a message.

For an interesting online criticism of some of the Zeitgeist Movements ideas, see “Zeitgeist Addendum: The Review” by Stefan Molyneux from Freedomain Radio.

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