Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
From Bitcoin to barter networks, more people are finding ways to pay without bucks
Money is a funny thing -- a piece of paper, metal or even a computer byte that can be the difference between living in a mansion or on skid row.
When you think about it, the currency we rely on so much is valuable only because our governments assure us it is. Our confidence that it works makes it work.
These days, however, a lot of people wonder if a good ol' dollar will actually be worth much at some point as central banks -- the keepers of currency -- work the printing presses, pumping out more cash to keep economies of the world afloat.
As a result, gold has reclaimed its old lustre -- for some, it's the one true currency. But even it has lost its shine lately. Others have taken matters into their own hands, creating their own alternative currencies. Some have done so out of inflation fears. Others have created their alternatives to generate wealth of a different kind.
Though not a new phenomenon, alternative currencies are increasingly in vogue and have taken many forms, from Bitcoin to online bartering exchanges. Not all are true currencies in the sense they're printed money, but most are aimed at providing an alternative to the cold, hard stuff we love, hate and often can't live without.
To get a feel for the different dollars out there, consider these alternatives.
Bitcoin -- cash, digitized
Bitcoin is only a couple of years old and it's already notorious, making headlines because it's allegedly been traded for drugs, guns and sex. Invented by a mysterious hacker going by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, this form of digital cash has been in circulation since 2010 and about $50 million worth trades online daily, says Joseph David, CEO of VirtEx, Canada's only licensed exchange for Bitcoin.
Calgary-based VirtEx started shortly after Bitcoin began circulating, and David says it's been a struggle to legitimize it as a recognized currency for goods and services in Canada.
Many big banks have shut down business accounts trading in Bitcoin, and no business in Canada yet accepts it as payment.
But Joseph says he expects Bitcoin will grow in popularity because it has some very redeeming properties.
For one, it's anonymous. Although you have to register with VirtEx when buying Bitcoins or converting them to cash, once withdrawn, you can send them over the Internet anywhere in the world and no one knows anything about you and what you're buying, unlike other forms of online payment.
Another benefit is you can transfer Bitcoin across the globe without fees. Exchanges, however, do charge fees to buy Bitcoins and convert them to real currency. David says VirtEx charges three per cent to start and as low as 0.5 per cent for large volumes.
Another benefit is no central bank can devalue your Bitcoins by creating more Bitcoins.
"There are only 21 million Bitcoins in existence." As its value grows, each Bitcoin can be broken down by decimal points -- as many as necessary -- to buy goods and services, David says.
Although David argues Bitcoins are immune to inflation, they are prone to wild swings in value. Since it started trading on the first exchange -- Mt. Gox in Japan -- Bitcoin's price has been as high as about $266 last month, only to fall to about $76 within hours. Today, it trades around the $110 to $130 range. That's still a substantially inflated price from when it first began trading at five cents.
This meteoric rise in price has made some people very rich, David says.
While its pricing is volatile, proponents argue Bitcoin's promise is its security, especially for vendors, because it is allegedly fraud-proof. Still, many people buying Bitcoins today aren't consumers looking for an alternative way to purchase goods and services online. About half of Bitcoin buyers are speculators, trying to cash in on its frequent price spikes and its equally steep declines.
Time banks -- where time really is money
Law professor Edgar Cahn has an illustrious resum©. A civil rights lawyer and former speechwriter for Robert Kennedy, among many other accomplishments, he achieved more than most folks by age 40, when he suffered a massive heart attack.
"I realized that I might not live that long and whatever time I had -- even if it was only two good hours a day -- I didn't want to be useless," says Cahn, now 78 and teaching law at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia.
"(U.S. president Ronald) Reagan had just come into power at the time and was cutting all the social programs, so I thought, 'Why can't we create new kind of money, since we're not going to have any of the old kind?' "
He did some research, including a stint at the London School of Economics, and discovered market economics overlooked a staggering amount of contributions by people whose skills were deemed of no monetary value.
According to some economists, at least 40 per cent of economic activity takes place outside the realm of cash and GDP, he says.
Cahn's solution to this problem was time banks.
"Time banks have a core principle that all hours are equal, and it gives people who may not be regarded as having marketable skills something to contribute as much as those who do have marketable skills."
Unlike other alternative currencies, time-bank dollars don't mirror market pricing.
"What makes time-banking different is it's not trying to expand the monetary economy in that sense," Cahn says.
Instead, time banks aim to build an economy around community -- families, neighbourhoods and civil society -- where the elderly, children, the disabled and unemployed can contribute.
Time-bankers list their skills -- whether it's shovelling walks, raking leaves, walking dogs or providing care -- and they earn time dollars that can be traded for other services and even goods.
Cahn says most time banks follow one of two models. The first is basically neighbours helping neighbours, such as walking the dog for someone in exchange for babysitting. The other model is more specialized, generally involving community groups.
For example, at 27 Chicago schools, fifth-graders help third-graders learn to read, he says. "We have a time-bank program here in Washington, D. C., where folks returning from prison earn time providing safe passage for kids across gang territory."
Since the first time bank started in the U.S. in 1986, it's spread to 34 countries, including Canada. (Winnipeg even appears to have a time bank, though it may be out of use because its website's last post was in 2011 and its administrator did not respond to an email request for an interview.)
Cahn says he created time banks to "reweave" a sense of community, which has dissolved in the modern age. "How many people know their neighbours these days?"
And he hopes they will also help establish a renewed sense of value for the most universal of human qualities.
"Particularly as we begin to hit budget constraints, we are starting to understand that money has built into it a value system called price, which means that if a thing is scarce, it's valuable," he says. "If it's abundant, it's cheap and if it's very abundant, it's worthless."
Considering the abundant potential all of us have to help each other, Cahn says this capacity is anything but worthless.
LETS Winnipeg, helping put the local back into currency
Here in our own backyard, LETS Winnipeg is a fairly recent incarnation, providing an alternative to the loonie.
Although LETS (Local Exchange Trading Network) Winnipeg has been around about a decade, it never truly caught on and remained dormant for a long time until recently, says Paul Chorney, one of its founders.
"I felt guilty about not resurrecting."
Then he met John Corley, a computer programmer, who took an interest in LETS and took over as administrator for the online exchange. About two months ago, LETS started up again, providing a network where individuals can provide goods and services to earn LETS Dollars that can be used to purchase goods and services from other users.
"For people who are a bit tighter on cash, LETS gives them the opportunity to work for what they want or need," says Corley.
So far, LETS has 17 members in Winnipeg, but it is also part of the Community Exchange Network, which has global reach.
"This allows you to exchange our currency with someone in Africa if you're going on a trip, for example," Corley says. "You could look up people who are on that exchange, and there would be a conversion so you could obtain barter dollars on that exchange to buy nights at a bed and breakfast."
Though LETS Winnipeg is small, which limits its viability, Corley, along with Aida Strocovsky, are actively promoting it to community and church groups and even educational institutions to expand its user base.
Corley says he'd like the network to grow to more than 3,000 members.
"The benefit of having it that size would be variety, and again, if you need something you can't afford, because you don't have a job or you're living paycheque to paycheque, this is a way to attain that good or service by giving somebody something else they need."
To learn more or sign up as a member, go to letswinnipeg.org.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2013 B12
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