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10/12/2003

Financial futurevision

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Bernard Lietaer is not what you would call a “light thinker.”

To quote his biography: “Mr. Lietaer’s very first book, the thesis of his postgraduate work at MIT, was about applying non-linear programming to global currency management for multi-national corporations.”

Call him an idea man.

Later, while working for the Central Bank in his native Belgium, he was assigned with designing and implementing a single European currency, which became what we now know of as the Euro.

At the upcoming Future of Money Summit in Denver — a gathering named after Lietaer’s 2001 book — he will be introducing his new, worldwide currency, the Terra.

“My focus is a 20-year horizon — that’s where I work,” said Lietaer, sitting in the living room of a house he’s renting in Sunshine Canyon. “Just like some people collect stamps — everybody needs a hobby.”

These days, Lietaer’s hobbies consist of working on the Terra, serving as a professor in the Wisdom and Wealth program at Naropa’s Marpa Center for Business and Economics, and promoting what he calls “complementary currencies.”

Complementary currencies act parallel to regular currency, allowing for the exchange of goods and services under a system decided upon by the community that creates the currency — not by any government entity.

“It enables us to match unmet needs with unused resources,” said Lietaer, an energetic man in his 60s.

Complementary currencies, in Lietaer’s view, will address societal needs, locally and globally, in a way the world’s current monetary systems — which he contends are based on “greed and scarcity” — cannot do.

“First of all, we’re doing that already. I’m sure you’re familiar with frequent flier miles,” Lietaer said. “It’s a currency. This is a currency issued by an airline — actually an airline consortium. This is a special purpose currency, which functions in parallel with dollars. And in this case, it has a commercial purpose.”

If an airplane is going to be making a flight with 15 empty seats on it, he said, why shouldn’t the airline let people with frequent flier miles use those seats? It is, after all, matching an unmet need with an unused resource.

Lietaer, however, sees the potential of complementary currencies on a much larger scale. In Japan, for example, a currency called “Fureai Kippu” has been developed that allows elderly people to receive care from local residents — care not covered by Japan’s national insurance.

Lietaer points to that as an example of how complementary currencies can actually create community, along with fulfilling needs.

“All economic textbooks describe what money does, (but) they never say what it is,” Lietaer said. “Money is an agreement, in my definition. It lives in the same space as weddings, political parties or a business deal.

“My belief is when you have a community, the community decides what the money is.”

Lietaer calls Japan “the largest currency laboratory in the world.” Unlike frequent flier miles, which basically have one functionality, some of the Japanese currencies have up to 27 different functions, or uses. “Everything from very low-tech, paper, to very high-tech, smart cards,” said Lietaer.

In Ithaca, N.Y., “Ithaca Hours” has been the local, complementary currency since 1991. Paper currency that can be used only within a 50-mile radius, Ithaca Hours can be used for getting a haircut, paying for child care, having plumbing installed and even getting your brakes fixed.

“We even started our own health financing system, and people can use local currency to get coverage for everyday emergencies,” said Paul Glover, who founded Ithaca Hours.

The Hours are issued by local community organizations, with a value of one Hour being equal to one hour of basic labor, or $10. According to Glover, the equivalent of millions of dollars in transactions have occurred using the currency, with hundreds of businesses and thousands of individuals having participated.

“Some of the merchants go out of their way to make it work, but I would underscore and emphasize that every business is entirely in control of how much of the local currency they choose to accept,” Glover said.

Some accept 100 percent of their payment in local dollars, others take a portion of the payment in them, he said.

Why use the currency? Glover said the money is exchanged among people and businesses who choose to participate, and it circulates — and stays within — the community.

“We are combining innovation on behalf of community power, and we’re regaining authority of our local economic destiny back from the anonymous boardrooms that have extracted wealth from our local economy over the decades,” Glover said.

Lietaer said there are 30 to 40 complementary currencies being used around this country, but they are definitely an emerging trend globally.

Between 1983 and this year, more than 4,000 complementary currencies have been launched across the globe.

Places like Japan and Argentina — a country whose economy completely collapsed not long ago — are at the forefront.

“By my estimate, about 20 percent of the systems in the world that start fail,” Lietaer said. “But for everyone that fails, five start up.

“I consider this a new social technology that solves problems in an age of budget cuts where dollars cannot solve problems. Because there are no dollars.”

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.