Time is Money
Can you imagine life without cash? What if communities around the world voluntarily chose to end their dependency on money and implemented an economy based on time, labor and strength of community ties? What if we started a local economy based on the barter system—and then this localized, community-based economy became independent? Viable? Robust?
Sounds pretty good. It’s the kind of idea Colorado College students would embrace with gusto in the classroom. But in practice? Nearly inconceivable. Life without the dollar is daunting—we have never known anything else. However, Colorado Springs, Colo., might soon find out what it’s like thanks to the recent introduction of a communal alternative currency system.
The principles of sustainability and community strength form the foundation of a progressive-minded economic experiment happening in the Springs right now: the Justice Exchange Network (JEN), also known as the Hour4Hour Time Bank, which launched in June 2012. The Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission (PPJPC), a local nonprofit for social justice, runs JEN, which is currently open just to PPJPC members. “We thought this would be an exciting service to offer our members,” Executive Director of the PPJPC Steve Saint said.
A time bank is a variation on a bartering marketplace. Generally, time banks use an alternative currency known as the “Time Dollar” (which PPJPC simply calls “Hours”) to barter for tasks and services from other time bank members. An hour of time equals another hour of time, no matter the difficulty of the task. PPJPC’s version also has a second form of alternative currency know as the “Loco,” which has a market value roughly equivalent to one U.S. dollar. Participants choose which form of currency their payment will come in. Both currency systems aim to reinforce the local economy.
The concept of time banking originated in the 1980s, but it was during the 90s that time banks became more common. Today, time banks can be found in communities worldwide, with the strongest presence in the United States and the United Kingdom. According to the national time bank organizing foundation TimeBanks USA, there are over 200 time banks currently active in the United States alone.
Time banks use a “labor-based” theory of value, generally speaking. Unlike the capitalist system currently used in the United States, which assigns price primarily based on supply and demand, the labor-based theory of value assigns price by the amount and difficulty of the labor needed to produce an item.
The idea is to value human work, to reward exceptional skill or willingness to do unpleasant tasks, and to hold everyone accountable for their work. Ideally, in a market system with labor-based valuation, no one gets to profit off of another’s work. In practice, of course, it can be more complicated.
Time banks take the labor-based theory of value a step further, getting rid of the dependence on a national currency altogether. To simplify a sometimes complicated process, members of time banks sign up to do a variety of tasks for others and, in doing so, earn Hours to spend on favors. The tasks that members trade range from babysitting, gardening and household tasks to more skill- and talent-based tasks such as tutoring or giving piano lessons. One of the most common services traded through time banks is “respite care”—a highly sought-after service focused on providing much-needed breaks for primary caregivers of live-in, incapacitated relatives. Respite care can be prohibitively expensive due to the training required, and time banks make it much more accessible for many people.
The variety of services traded in time banks allows the system to be viable. A problem arises, however, when the skills that members trade are less commonplace; for example, many professionals who take part in time banking systems hesitate to trade their services for others that wouldn’t be considered equivalent in the dollar system. Many participants don’t value an hour of lawn mowing the same as an hour of legal advice. PPJPC’s double-currency system presents a solution to this problem. Payment in Locos takes these concerns into account, providing a locally-based alternative currency payment without requiring the full commitment that the Hours system does.
In recent years the time banking movement has developed a set of five simple, arguably revolutionary guiding principles (or “core values”) designed to clarify the movement and make it accessible to the average citizen. TimeBanks USA lists these five values in their online mission statement:
1. We are all assets (Assets).
2. Some work is beyond price (Redefining Work).
3. Helping works better as a two-way street (Reciprocity).
4. We need each other (Social Networks).
5. Every human being matters (Respect).
These principles are simple. “Help each other out. Use the economy to do good. Provide a service and you will be rewarded.” Some would argue that these are naïve ideas, that this alternative economy could never replace a cash system, especially when our culture, politics and lifestyles are so inextricably, profoundly entrenched in the dollar’s domain. But time bank enthusiasts believe that they’ve struck gold, so to speak, in creating an incentivized system to implement the kindergarten-level morals so often steamrolled by the global economy. The key here is that time banks encourage community spirit and reciprocity through real rewards—guaranteed. Instead of feeling a vague sense of moral superiority and satisfaction as a reward, participants get a reliable, tangible one.
There is certainly a progressive agenda behind the time banking movement. Though it’s not explicitly political, time banking has a long-standing association with Marxism, anarchy and political liberalism. Time banks are designed to strengthen local economies, but they’re also socially progressive: they provide payment alternatives for pricey services to low-income citizens who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them.
For the PPJPC time bank, progressivism also means redefining sustainability. “In our view, sustainability means local economy,” Saint said. “Practically speaking, if you want to have a sustainable region, you have to have a strong local economy.” According to Saint, creating a localized system is the first step toward a long-term economic change in how Colorado Springs interacts with the global economy. The city government has a long tradition of openness towards “big business” in the Pikes Peak area, a tradition that Saint views as a betrayal of the talent and power of local workers, professionals and innovators. He takes issue with the city council’s decisions over the years, citing Walmart and the Pentagon as two major outside organizations with unfair control over the local economy. The way Saint sees it, these big businesses and organizations do nothing for us; their presence in our community failed to keep us afloat during the recession.
Saint provided an example of just how ridiculously inefficient the global economy’s processes can be, even on a slightly smaller scale. The Energy Resource Center, another progressive-minded group based here in town, works to provide affordable solutions for energy efficiency to low-income people in Colorado Springs. One of their focuses has been eco-friendly insulation made out of recycled newspapers. Saint traces the journey of an issue of The Gazette or The Independent from dumpsters like those at CC to the Bestway Material Recovery Facility, the plant used by most of the city’s recyclers. At the facility, the newspapers are compressed and packed, shipped to Denver, Colo., and then shipped again to a plant in Utah, where they are made into usable insulation. The Energy Resource Center then buys the old newspapers back in their converted form, completing the circle of inefficiency. “Why aren’t we making it [here]?” Saint asked. “Our civic leaders have their eyes glazed over.” It’s up to the groups like PPJPC to pick up the slack so that Colorado Springs can continue to have a sustainable, healthy economy moving into the next few decades.
Saint thinks we’re headed towards a new economic order that will rectify wealth imbalance and poverty on a global scale. The recession isn’t a “temporary blip in a globalized economy,” Saint said. Instead, we’re undergoing a “major economic realignment” after which we’re “going to have to produce what we need locally.” PPJPC wants to provide us with the tools we’ll need to be successful at that.
The PPJPC project still faces some logistical problems. Its time-banking community is still small right now, with about 40 members. Saint says that members have been hesitant to initiate trades at first, perhaps because they have to go into debt in order to initiate a trade. Everyone starts out with a balance of zero in both currencies, with an empty bank account; taking that first step can be hard. “In our cash-based system,” Saint said, “responsible people feel like they need to earn something in order to spend it.” So Saint took the plunge, asking a member who does landscape design to come over and spend a few hours looking at his garden. At the end of their meeting, Saint had a lengthy written report full of ideas for making his garden sustainable and for planting seasonal, native species that would thrive in the local climate and use as little water as possible. His cost? A hundred and fifty Locos, which the JEN debited to the landscape designer’s account, ready to be spent. Hopefully, once more people take that first step, growth will be rapid.
Right now, the PPJPC bank uses an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of transactions. So far, this has sufficed, but as the bank gains members the PPJPC will need to turn to software. There are some free, open-source software programs available online for time banks to use to keep track of transactions. Saint says that once the PPJPC website upgrade is complete in the next few weeks, they will be able to focus on choosing a new platform. There’s also a sophisticated recordkeeping program available online from TimeBanks USA. The catch, of course, is that it requires a subscription fee paid in U.S. dollars. For practical reasons, their fee makes sense. However, it’s yet another example of how deeply ingrained we are in the dollar system.
As Saint himself admits, “There are some things [for which] you have to pay cash.” He cites rent, utility bills and cellphone bills as examples. But the PPJPC time bank project will allow people to decrease their reliance on cash and provide a way to bolster the local community against negative effects of a highly volatile global economic atmosphere.
No, the Time Dollar will likely never replace the U.S. dollar (I’ll bet you $50). Time banks probably won’t become as common as post offices, and I highly doubt Walmart’s going to pull out of Colorado Springs any time soon. But time bank members present their idea with the audacity and zeal of the truly converted, and I for one think we should listen. Let’s see what PPJPC is able to do here in the Springs. Perhaps their fervency can be prophetic, after all.