The case for soft money
Money is a tool to facilitate exchange. It follows, like everything else here on this physical plane, the principles of yin and yang. There is "hard" (yang) money and there is "soft" (yin) money. At this time, the world is dominated by yang money. My purpose with this article is to convince you that we need to find a better balance in matters of exchange and economics. We must find a way to put the yin back into money and the economy.
Money is a tool to facilitate exchange.
Money follows, like everything else here on this physical plane, the principles of yin and yang. There is "hard" (yang) money and there is "soft" (yin) money. At this time, the world is dominated by yang money. My purpose with this article is to convince you that we need to find a better balance in matters of exchange and economics.
Do we need money at all?
There are two systems that have historically been used and that are - to varying degrees - still in use today, that allow us to exchange the fruits of our toil and those we appropriate from nature, without the use of money.
There is the gift, which does not require an immediate return. Actually, it's nuanced. Some gifts are freely given without any expectation of return, but if we are talking about a "gift economy", usually the expectation would be that everyone, in some way or another, plays ball. That means, you can't just be a freeloader. Even in a gift economy, there is some expectation for all participants to pull their weight, meaning to participate in the giving. People who only receive and never give will find themselves marginalized, and rightly so. Flows do need to be balanced. If you only inflow (receive) and never get to the outflow part (the giving), things tend to get stuck. The inflow will stop sooner or later. The point is that, even in a gift economy, the principle of exchange cannot be violated with impunity.
Then there is barter. In a barter economy, we also need no money. The exchange is direct. The needs of one are matched with the offerings of another. It is rather cumbersome at times to find a match, and it isn't always successful, but barter has been with us throughout history. It has served us well where money was not available or its use was not practical. Today, there are various initiatives to revive the barter economy. Computers allow us to provide better tools to match offerings and needs. Some of those tools merely let you choose from a larger number of diverse offerings. Others extend the barter concept from a one-on-one exchange to a circle of linked exchanges. A gives to B, who gives to C, who gives to D, who in turn gives to A. Circle closed. Barter has one big problem though. It generally has no time dimension. It is not easy, in a barter economy, to receive something today and to give maybe next week, or to provide your fruit to someone today when you actually don't need anything of theirs right away. That is where money comes in.
Money is a placeholder in the business of exchange. It is a little reminder to everyone that you have already given and that, tomorrow, you are within your rights to ask that the exchange be completed. Money allows us to add the missing time dimension to barter-type exchanges.
How did money develop?
At first, it was a little object, anything commonly available, not of great value itself, but sufficiently distinct so that it could be given from one person to another to signify there was an open cycle of exchange. Sea shells, pieces of metal, wooden tally sticks ... there are thousands of forms money could and did historically take.
As time passed, money was formalized. The form of money became different. The material used was something more scarce, and the creation of money was restricted to the ruler of the day, the king, the duke, the emperor. Gold and silver as money came into use when scarcity of the physical form of money became important. At the same time as money became scarce and its issuance became the prerogative of the ruler, a caste of assistants or "money handlers" developed who, at first, used to have their banks (tables or market stalls) in the places where people went to buy and sell, the markets. Gradually, money handlers became a respected profession and we had bankers.
In the hands of the bankers and over a period of time, money was transformed. What started out as a soft, rather commonly available means of exchange, became - without anyone paying much notice - a more and more scarce "resource". Money itself became a commodity. It hardened. It transformed, in almost imperceptible steps, from yin to yang. Today, money is highly controlled, it is scarce, and it is firmly in the hands of the bankers. Its control passed from the hands of the ruler, into the hands of the banks. We didn't really notice, because the central banks, which control the issue of money today, are a clever fig leaf. Politicians were fooled into a belief that the central banks are actually emanations of the governments. But nothing could be further from the truth. Every country has a central bank, but central banks do no longer respond to politics. They are independent, privately owned institutions that jealously defend their separate nature, their independence from political "meddling".
And with that independence came a price. Money all of a sudden had a price. Those who had money used the banks to defend their "property". Yes, money has become property. So much so, that today, economists tell us that that money has a dual function. It serves as a means of exchange, but it also serves as a "store of value".
The price of money
The price of money, you may have guessed it, is called "interest". If you want my money, you have to pay for using it. Every year, you have to give me a percentage of the money you are using, and unless you can repay me, that price of money is added to increase what I originally gave you. Not only has money turned into a resource, a property, it acquired a quality of life, it could now grow. And grow it did. It became one of the few industries that kept growing and growing. But of course it did not, by itself, produce anything. It only "allowed" us to produce - for a price.
Money's growth, like a cancer, started out slow but then it took off. The tumor got a life of its own. It started growing exponentially. And in the process, it changed our economy, that started out as a happy state of production and exchange between and among ourselves, into a war economy. It forced us into using ever more of our precious natural resources to chase a mirage ... continuing growth for its own sake. Economists today tell politicians that in order for everyone to survive, in order to avoid certain collapse, the economy must grow. And so here we are, in this present time, doing our darndest to "make the economy grow". But all we are doing is feeding the monster. We are feeding a vicious cycle of wars, of environmental destruction, and ultimately the destruction of ourselves as a species.
The arrangement is so clever and so pervasive that it is actually at the verge of destroying itself. Someone has likened the economy to a pump, a giant machine that is transferring both our resources and our products into the hands of a tiny moneyed elite. Here is how it works:
The wealth pump
95% or more of all money existing today is not in the form of cash. It is bank created "credit" for which interest has to be paid as long as it exists. Banks are credit mediators. Anyone who needs money first needs collateral. You have a house, a car, a regular paycheck, a factory. You go to the bank to take a loan. The bank takes ownership of your collateral and now calls that an asset of the bank. Against that asset, the bank issues a loan in the form of an account entry on your account. The bank has the asset, you have the money. You work. If it takes you 10 years to pay back what the bank gave you, you have just paid twice the amount of the original loan to the bank. The bank made a clean 100% profit on that loan in a relatively short ten years. Not bad for merely providing some digits. Remember, the bank had nothing to lose, it owned your house, until you finished paying.
Now apply that to a whole economy, a whole country's economic activity. As I said, and you can check into that, some 95% of all money in circulation is bank originated loans and it circulates not as cash but as digits in computer systems. Consider that 95% as one big mortgage. It is really made up of millions of loans that constantly get issued and re-paid, but for the purposes of a country's economy, we can say it is a loan from the commercial banks. Let ten years pass, and the economy-as-a-whole must pay to the banks that provided the loan a sum roughly equivalent to the amount of the loan. Do you start to see the wealth pump at work now?
As the economists are telling us, the economy must grow. That means, the economy's mortgage with the banks also must grow. That mortgage is our constant companion. There is no way to pay it back - ever - unless we want to shut down the economy, which clearly we don't want to. So with every per cent of economic growth, we are digging a larger hole. We must now pay more for the privilege of using money, or face disaster. We must cut more trees, extract more oil, grow more food, produce more consumer goods, all in the name of keeping going. It is the end stage of growth, brought about by our continued ignorance of some important facts about economic affairs.
And what if the banks get in trouble by giving "bad loans"? Don't worry. Our governments are ready to "bail them out" by putting a government-backed mortgage on our future... we have seen that in these last few years.
So what is the solution?
Clearly, "hard currency" has become an unsustainable proposition.
So - drum roll - enter ...
We cannot change the situation overnight. There is neither the necessary political agreement nor the will to do so. We must continue to toil under the hard money yoke for some time. But do not despair. There IS something we can do. We must find a way to put the yin back into money and the economy - slowly.
With politicians unable and economists and the holders of all that money unwilling to change, it is encumbent on us to do that, any way we can.
Lucky for us, much of the change we are looking for is already well underway. A friend on facebook put it in a nutshell. His comment was in reply to an item, which says that continuing robotization of production will put us all out of work soon. It was introduced with the following quote:
"Too often we treat things as separate subjects, not realizing the interconnected nature of our reality. This mistake has made us weak and vulnerable. Over the last 70 years, we have set the stage of our own demise, we have become increasingly discontent, the quality of our relationships has fallen, and we have lost track of what really matters. Today, everything is amazing, and nobody is happy. It's time to take a step back and think about where we are going."
The Item: Robots will steal your job, but that’s okay: How to Survive the Coming Economic Collapse
The comment which nails it, was put in these words:
scenario 1 : the rich get everything, made by robots, protected by robots. everyone else dies.
scenario 2 : p2p production transforms our economy into one where things are made on-demand, locally and sustainably. Everyone is an independent artisan and owner-operator of their specialised fabrication technology.
The crucial point is right now we get to CHOOSE one or the other of these scenarios. But there's no historical / technological determinism which makes one of these scenarios the "right" one. If we want 2, then we have to fight for it. Starting right now.
We need to work - through inventing the technology in a p2p friendly manner; creating the institutions like hackspaces that support p2p learning and making; promoting local currencies and resilient manufacturing; ensuring local food; resisting laws that try to use "intellectual property" to lock up the ownership of all production processes in the hands of the rich; resisting laws that try to take our general purpose computers and 3d printers away from us because they're "too dangerous" for the general public. And resisting companies that do the same by telling us that the public is too stupid to manage their own computer. Etc. etc.
There is NO technological determinism that makes any prediction of the future the right one. As Alan Kay (almost) said : "The ONLY way to predict the future is to MAKE it" Your responsibility starts here.\
We already have soft money - to a degree. There are a myriad of local exchange systems springing up, the reformers are busy. Yet, it is easy for all those efforts to be marginalized. For one, they are split into many small initiatives, none of them set to take on the juggernaut. So I think something is missing: a universal standard for soft money that allows us to all work together seemlessly, regardless of distance, regardless of what we are putting our efforts into in our quest to bring about that new world, and that new economy.
When the hard (yang) logic of programming languages proved inadequate for complex jobs, someone invented a different kind of logic: Fuzzy logic. And it turns out fuzzy logic is much better suited to run appliances and a number of complicated jobs than the rigid logic of yes/no that came before it.
So the question arose: If fuzzy logic is superior to the yes/no binary type, could this same principle apply to money? Could fuzzy money with no fixed value be better suited to constructing a p2p world than our normal, government-backed "hard" currencies?
How can we put that fuzzy quality into money? So far, most of the efforts to make a local currency have tried to compete with hard money, capturing some of the transactions that fell by the wayside because there was no way to give them value in the context of today's economy. Most of them struggle to, in some way, emulate the "value" part of the hard currencies, even to the extent of fixing their own value in terms of a dollar, a euro or at least something similar like an hour of work's worth.
It seems to me that it would be best to get away from that kind of thinking, that we should let the value of our yin currency float freely. Let it be worth whatever we think it should be worth, in whatever local context we find ourselves. No fixing of value, as that would inexorably draw us back into the world of yang, of banks, of profits, of having to increase economic activity for its own sake. Not that we should not be busy, that we shouldn't produce. But that should be everyone's own decision, not one forced by the kind of money we use.
We need a name for our new money. I was thinking to call the units "fuzzies", being that the whole idea is for the currency to incorporate the quality of being many-valued. But I am not so sure about that either. Since most local currencies are made by people giving each other credit, there is a good case for just calling them "credits". There is also a precedent in some of the stories of science fiction, where credits were in universal use. So for now, I will use credits as a working name. A better one may come along, and there is no resistance to changing, if that is what emerges.
How to keep track of those credits?
There already is an emerging standard for keeping track of, and for easily exchanging ... credits. It is called Web Credits.
The initiators of Web Credits have joined in a W3C Community and Business Group.
"The purpose of the Web Payments Community Group is to discuss, research, prototype, and create working systems that enable Universal Payment for the Web. The goal is to create a safe, decentralized system and a set of open, patent and royalty-free specifications that allow people on the Web to send each other money as easily as they exchange instant messages and e-mail today. The group will focus on transforming the way we reward each other on the Web as well as how we organize financial resources to enhance our personal lives and pursue endeavors that improve upon the human condition."
Manu Sporny, one of the initiators of the Web Payments Community Group explains in more detail what the purpose and vision behind the initiative is.
While Web Credits are not specifically geared to be a currency, they may well be the future infrastructure that is needed to make credits a workable reality.
There is a principle in monetary economics: Bad money will drive out (replace) good money. The thought goes back to Sir Thomas Gresham and the principle is generally referred to as Gresham's Law.
How does this apply in our case? Sir Gresham said that "When a government compulsorily overvalues one type of money and undervalues another, the undervalued money will leave the country or disappear from circulation into hoards, while the overvalued money will flood into circulation." This means that money that is useless as a "store of value" (the compusorily overvalued money) will circulate, while the money that is correctly (exactly) valued will tend to disappear into the coffers of those who wish to use money to store value. Credits, having no fixed value, are the ultimate "bad money". They will circulate like crazy while the "good" money that is guaranteed by the government will be used for speculation and hoarding. Actually that is exactly what we are seeing today. The Euro (good money) is leaving the poor countries and in the absence of "bad" money to take its place, the economies of Greece, Spain, Portugal and to some degree Italy and Ireland, are in shambles, threatening to pull down the whole works with them. So it would actually be in the interest of the countries that are struggling economically to make their own "bad" money and let it circulate, at least the people would have jobs and food.
So the objective, with credits, would be to make real "bad" money.
How could credits work?
Here are my first thoughts, gathered from a recent email discussion, on how to do that. Note that I am not calling them credits yet, in those early exchanges.
February 14, 2012 5:48:03 PM GMT+01:00
There are, as you are well aware of, large numbers of efforts to solve the "money question" with local currencies, bitcoin and others weighing in. All of these, I believe, are making the same mistake: they are too close to the current system, which is tit-for-tat, goods for money, money for my service, etc.
And on the other hand, even a "gift economy", while it seeks to escape from that paradigm, is firmly linked to it by our understanding of gift, which is something that is NOT exchange, i.e. a thing freely given without anything expected in return. So we have the capitalist system of exchange (rigidly regulated either as barter or as money-mediated exchange, and we have its apparent opposite, the gift economy, where ostensibly there is no expectation of any return.
In reality, the natural economic behavior would be a mixture of the two. We do like to give, at times, and we'd give all the time, if we could afford it, but we would like to know that at least in some way we can expect someone (doesn't have to be the same person) to reciprocate and give something to us. That got me thinking of an inbetween-type economy, that is partly gift and partly exchange, but really is neither in a rigid sense.
We do not need money in the traditional sense, but we need something that brings the idea of exchange into a free-flow economy, where people are routinely given things and services like in a gift economy, but where there is still a balancing factor, something that tells me someone is more worthy of receiving my attention than someone else.
How could that be organized?
I propose we need a new kind of "money" that isn't like today's money. Its value is not fixed, yet it eventually becomes ubiquitous. It is a kind of fuzzy money, a point system of sorts. I give something away, and in return I start accumulating units of that fuzzy money. The amount to be determined by the recipient. There is no guarantee that I can ever buy something for it, but that isn't really what I'm after. All I want is for there to be an approximate record that shows that I did my part in sharing, meaning I gave things away (or I gave my time to help, or whatever).
The value of "fuzzies" (I am calling them that for lack of a better term) isn't fixed anywhere, but it will evolve and stabilize with time. Yet it will float freely and it could change. It's the worst kind of currency you could imagine. No guarantee that you can get anything for it at all. No claims can be made for it. Yet people will flock to it and use it all over the place, if someone creates a mechanism for it. According to economists, "bad money will drive out good money", so I am proposing to make the ultimate bad money. Ridiculous and worthless, if looked at from the capitalist point of view, but quite workable in stimulating exchange where there is a willingness to give, and a fuzzy expectation of return.
It will start out like a game, something attached to the "gift" economy, but also something that can act as the "exchange" for any operation. Eventually it will become an accepted exchange mechanism in its own right, and I believe it would give a tough time to official currencies. It would give a minimum of structure to a "gift" economy, but it is soft enough to not be a burden. The only thing is - it can't be attached to any commercial or semi-commercial exchange network. It would have to be open source, free and simple to use.
Perhaps the Web Credits standard could serve as the basic mechanism for keeping track of it. Web Credits is basic and simple enough, it's an open effort, and I believe it would be malleable enough to accomodate the "fuzzies" that could constitute that worst yet in time perhaps most successful of all currencies.
and here another message, trying to expand on the argument...
February 16, 2012 5:16:16 PM GMT+01:00
The problem is that, from the standpoint of the individual user, we are no longer used to "go out and do an exchange" like in past times they went to the market with whatever they had to offer, to try and barter it for something they needed. We are used to thinking about inflow (buying, acquiring) and outflow (producing, selling, working) as time-separated activities. We work for hours and even days, and then we go out shopping. We don't do the two things at the same time. Money, as much as we might hate it, is what allows that time separation between inflow and outflow in our personal lives.
Money, even all of the alternative kinds, seems to always be attached to something else that determines its value, and exchanges then tend to be evaluated all in relation to that value.
Yet the time delay factor between inflow and outflow must be taken care of if an exchange system is to work properly. The exchanges to be mediated must be more than just the relatively few that can be perfectly time matched.
When we hear of money, it is always an accounting unit, and it has a certain value. We hear of "hard currency". It's very exact, and it has VALUE. That seems to be the nature of money. So actually, soft money is not really money at all. It is a convention that is renewed with each transaction, a promise to "pay back" ... if not to the person we acquired something from, then to another member of the circle of exchange.
That is where the idea of fuzzy money (or soft money) comes in. "Fuzzies" aren't really money so much as they are promises. They are the incorporation of a time-storable promise I receive when I give (sell) something but want nothing in return just at the moment. You could look at them as a flexible point system that allows time storage of promises.
If you look at fuzzies from the viewpoint of money, they are the absolute *worst* incorporation of the money concept you can imagine. But perhaps that is not so bad. After all, we want to get away from a centralized currency with a fixed value. Their value floats freely and is determined newly for each exchange. The value is based on the willingness of the buyer, to accept the request of the seller. The value of the thing being bought/sold is freely determined between the two at the moment of the transaction.
I like to call those things fuzzies, but we could just as well call them promises or - why not - credits.
Fuzzies (or promises) are created by the people transacting. The seller accepts (a fuzzy future promise) in exchange for a valuable thing or service he gives. The buyer puts his reputation on the line, promising to give something of value to anyone who will accept it. The transaction creates a promise, a debt by someone, that is now sitting on the account of the seller, who can in his turn find something (or not) to buy with it.
Seen from the point of view of the system as a whole, anyone willing to provide goods or a service for a fuzzy promise of future return is actually providing a loan to the system as a whole. He injects 'life' into the circle of commerce by providing something without demanding an immediate return. He gets credit(s), a promise, a "fuzzy" for that. Probably the longer time he lets pass between supplying the value and demanding a return, the more his reputation should grow, because he's subsidizing the life blood of the circle of commerce.
On the other side, someone who receives something without immediately giving in return should feel that in their reputation. They are in the negative on promises (and therefore have a lower reputation) until they do provide something to the community that's worth as much or more than they received.
Now what's the value of a promise? There really is no fixed value. It's all up to people freely agreeing on a transaction. With time, promises will have an approximate (known) value and people will routinely use them. But in essence they will always remain just "a promise" or "a credit".
Now that you have seen my ramblings on this, you can get the idea of where this is intended to go. Perhaps I am completely off my rocker. I don't believe I am. Perhaps we need to experiment. People could just send each other credits for what they received, with the idea that someone else, in time will give them something for that worthless thing. We have to take the dive into the unknown. We have been conditioned to think of money as value since the time Kings and Dukes and Archbishops issued funny pieces of metal with their faces stamped on them. We now think that money is a pre-condition for us to work at all. It need not be that way. We can make our own money, fuzzy as those credits might be. Let's try it out!
Oh yes, if you are a programmer and you are into open source, or as Stallmann says, "free" software, consider joining the effort at Web Credits
to polish up that standard and put some meat on the bones of an actual workable payments system on the web.
And if you are into LETS or any other local or alternative currency, please consider whether the principles outlined here could perhaps be applicable to your efforts.
This needs to be a community effort.
And yes, I declare this work to be in the Public Domain.