On Thursday night I was driving home from work with my radio set to NPR like the good Seattle liberal that I am. The BBC World Service was airing, and I paid partial attention as I maneuvered onto the freeway. I really enjoy listening to the BBC, even if the tone of the announcers does occasionally veer into Vastly Superior Brit-speak.
As I merged onto the freeway, the announcers began to report on a German trend towards regional currency. Apparently, there are regions within Germany where one can buy the local currency (such as Urstromtalers, rolands, or chiemgauer) by handing over the same amount of Euros. The local currencies are only usable within the issuing region, and only at participating vendors; there are currently between 40 and 50 initiatives countrywide to introduce a regional currency.
While the BBC announcers interviewed a German official about the move towards local currency, (sample question: "Isn't this somewhat protectionist?"), I listened to her responses. She stated that the regional currency was meant to be a companion to the Euro, not a replacement. Then she said something even more interesting: that the regional currency helps to support local production of goods and services.
As it turns out, the regional currencies play an important role in supporting local small and medium-sized businesses. A more appropriate term for these currencies would be scrip--you cannot invest them, and they do not earn interest. You can only spend them, locally, on local products and services. And you had better spend them fast; many of the regional currencies come with expiration dates. If you don't spend your chiemgauer before their expiration date, for example, you'll need to buy a token that costs 2% of the total value of the currency in order to extend the expiraton date.
The trend is not limited to Germany. Ithaca, in New York state, has been using a local currency called Ithaca Hours since 1991; each Hour is worth $10, considered a reasonable hourly wage. It is up to the individuals participating in the transaction to determine how many Hours a good or service is worth. Businesses and individuals who trade in Hours are also required to "spend" them on locally produced goods or services; non-local businesses are able to accept Hours as a form of payment, but they must spend them locally in Ithaca.
Some farmers' markets are also getting into the act; the Oberlin (Ohio) Farmers' Market, part of the Oberlin Sustainable Agriculture Project began selling scrip for the 1999 season; the scrip could be redeemed at any booth at the market.
Schemes such as gift cards are also considered scrip, and are obviously far more common. But just because I buy a PCC gift card for a friend doesn't necessarily mean that I'm participating in the local economy (though it's clearly more beneficial to my community than buying the same friend a gift card from Whole Foods). But a "currency" that could be used all over town, as long as I was buying something that was produced locally? That's something I could get behind. So come on Seattle--let's get in step with Germany and Ithaca and get our own regional currency. Yellow Bricks? MetroMoney? Orcas? Humpbacks (instead of greenbacks)? I don't know, but I think that it's an idea whose time has come.