Thursday, April 12, 2007

Just Money and Social Finance

Just Money and Social Finance

[Written as the introduction to “There Is No Wealth But Life,” a special issue on money for Resurgence magazine, Issue 240, January-February 2007]

Money is a source of great pleasure and pain. How it is used heals and harms both individuals and societies. But, money is not a thing. It is symbolic. It serves a broader and deeper economic system embedded with rights, values, and intentions. On a simple level, money was invented to account for value in the production and exchange of goods and services. Such an accounting system inevitably reflects the values, priorities and flows of human activities. Dig a little into the system, whether your checkbook or a national budget, and you will find a mirror of your economic self, or the character of a national economy. Through financial transactions, expenditures and revenues, you will see what you, or a country, really care about. Dig deeper again and you may awaken an awareness of what was created and sacrificed of human and natural resources in order to make those transactions possible. Step back far enough, and you will see a hyperkinetic field of money, currencies and material that transcends political boundaries. In our current global economy, the circulation in this field is permeated with greed and “never-enoughness,” and generates enough friction to overheat our societies and environment.

This brilliant accounting system we call money has been corrupted and exchanged for a profit-driven endgame of control over natural resources and human manufacture. At the center of this exchange are the functions of debt and interest. Debt, of course, makes it possible to start enterprises and own homes. The lender’s and borrower’s mutual interest in each other’s success is a central tenet of social finance, an approach to finance that places primacy on social benefit in financial affairs. Lending and borrowing have gone on for millennia imbued with culture-specific values and mores. But interest charged for the debt is another matter all together. What first served as a system of compensation for “giving up the money” for a time, became a system of compensation for an absence of trust or “risk mitigation.” While both of these approaches to interest continue to be at play, the demand for immediate financial return on money and the rapid increase in predatory lending practices on a local and global scale have turned financing and debt creation into an extractive industry—extracting wealth out of the seemingly limitless supply of debt. Debt and interest have become the tools for creating wealth while increasing poverty—though many who control the wealth would not frame it that way.

Only a small and privileged percentage of the world’s population can define their economic lives in terms such as investing, saving, or consumer choice. Those who control wealth have arrogated the right of ownership over the right of use through raw financial power or the ability to control policy and law. Water is a glaring example of this as a basic necessity. It has existential but not economic value until it is transformed through production into a commodity. By this logic there can be no private right of ownership of water, only a right to use it granted by those who own it in common. Claimed “economic rights” are imposed primarily for the purpose of the control of production and creation of wealth, not for stewardship and sustainability. This example of natural resource appropriation is symptomatic of having lost sight of the original and higher purpose of economic life—making sure that each human being’s physical needs are sufficiently met in order for her or him to be a contributing member of society. This is the economic base of a free society. But, economic life is simply not simple.

There is increasing awareness of the injustice and corruption of our current global money system, and increasing attention being paid to innovative economic systems that respect human dignity and the social value of local economies and currencies. But changing the destructive patterns of over-consumption, over-production, and degradation of community and environment will require concerted and sustained action including transforming how we work with money in purchasing, investments, and philanthropy.

Throughout history, the darkest of times have spawned enlightened innovation. The same power of consciousness that gave rise to money and money systems is fully capable of new thinking when it recognizes that the present-future is grim without radical change. As we become more conscious economic citizens and realize how deeply interdependent we are, the social reality of finance will become not only more palpable but also more desirable. The principle of altruism—working to meet the needs of others in trust that others are working to meet mine—will replace the current drive of self-interest and accumulation.

The successful emergence of fair trade practices and certification is one outward manifestation of redirecting economic systems to more just and associative ones. Such practices include the voices and needs of all parties to the economic process from farmer to consumer. International fair trade has taken over an increasing share of the coffee market and is expanding to other foods as well. Consumers are willing to pay more for the product because they understand the value and values in the transactions. On a more localized level, the rapid growth of the community supported agriculture around the world indicates that consumers want to participate in the economic life of the land, farmer, and food. In this model, shareholders divide the total annual cost of the farm with the result that the farmer will be supported regardless of the amount of food grown. “Community supported” also means a community of shared risk. Though this is a purchase model, it has a parallel in the field of micro-loans pioneered by Grameen Bank. This approach allows small loans to enterprising individuals who are part of a guarantee community. This group of peer-guarantors assumes responsibility for the success of their colleagues such that the others will guarantee them when they have a need for such an investment. This simple powerful form fosters individual initiative, economic collaboration, and community building.

Conventional currencies are issued by centralized authorities such as a government bank. As soon as this money is issued someone or an institution owes interest on it to pay for its use. This triggers the inhuman debt-interest cycle. However, in recent years, complementary currencies and other leveraged currencies have been developed and implemented as a way to engage and enliven local economies, and to demonstrate that a community can create its own agreements around its value and use. The basic concept of a complementary currency is to facilitate a link between unused resources with unmet needs. These currencies circulate as a true accounting system as people meet each others’ needs within the system’s jurisdiction. Such a concept could include critical aspects of life, such as companionship or managing a home, which are not normally considered to have economic value. In some ways complementary currencies are harbingers of a true gift economy. What is awakened through them is an awareness of others’ needs and a capacity to meet those needs outside the conventional money system. Imagine a whole economy operating and no “money”! There are many complementary currencies active around the world, and they are increasing rapidly as local solutions to the global monetary crisis. Time Banks and BerkShares are but two examples in the United States and much more can be found internationally. Along with the growth of complementary currencies has come the concept of leveraged currencies such as Interra which allows members to collectively allocate profits from transactions across the economic community of producers, suppliers, and consumers, toward charitable programs and community projects.

In a single magazine issue focused on money, it is impossible to cover all the innovations and new thinking about money and financial systems. Rather, we invited a few practitioners to articulate their views and approaches as a selection from a much broader emerging field of social finance. In her article, “How Money Creates Poverty,” Vandana Shiva articulates the powerful and painful pressures of debt on developing economies, communities, and individuals created by some of the major global industries and financial institutions. She addresses the societal consequences of the abuse of natural resources, particularly in the realm of agriculture, and the relationship between what she terms nature’s economy, people’s sustenance economy, and the market economy. James Vacarro writes from the perspective of banking and investment. He argues for the value of investing in a way that has direct social benefit. Depositors can know that their money is being used in alignment with their personal values and is helping to accomplish things they themselves would like to see happen. He moves beyond “ethical” investing to “holiscient” investing which includes not only the reality of the financial return, but also the qualities of intentions and consciousness on the part of the investor and the borrowing projects. Woody Tasch has looked at the consequences that stockholders have had on the economy by demanding high and immediate returns on their investments. He is wisely recommending “Slow Money” that would allow businesses to make decisions with a long-term perspective and investors to appreciate value by participating in sustainable social transformation. He lays out the investment landscape of venture capital, patient capital, and slow money. Finally Jacob Needleman takes us on a philosophical and personal journey through the inner dimensions of money. He argues that because we no longer experience the inner world as strongly as we do the outer, the two worlds tend to become disintegrated. Thus, we are ruled more by our desires than by our higher ethical selves. He recommends work on one’s relationship with money as a gateway to integrating more fully with outer experience.

We trust that you will find much in these articles to stimulate you to rethink your relationship to money and how you use it. At its heart, money and its many forms are tools to empower each of us to improve the quality of local and global economic life. Without recognizing our inextricable connection to the whole world through our economic lives, to our dependence on others’ capacities whether growing food, making clothes, or educating children, we miss an important and daily opportunity to connect more deeply with ourselves and to work in whatever way possible to practice social finance toward a more just economy.

John Bloom © 2007