What would a more balanced and diverse money-system look like?
One feminist’s take on what might be missing in our money system.
By Jennifer Buffett, NoVo Foundation President and Co-Chair
(The NoVo Foundation funds strategies to empower girls and women to become partners with boys and men, promotes “whole child” education with an emphasis on social and emotional learning in nurturing environments for children and relationship, place-based “local-living economies”.)
As President of the NoVo Foundation (Latin for “to create change”), whose mission is to foster a transition from systems of domination towards a global society based on partnership and collaboration, I spend a lot of time thinking and learning about the present systems at work in our world - how they are constructed and what they are based on – in order to address systemic root causes. Like fish in water, people often forget the water - “the systems” - they are swimming in.
One might think that as a person who has financial resources to deploy toward social problems, I wouldn’t be questioning our money and financial systems. But in my life and work, I constantly run up against the limits of a monetary system that breeds fear, scarcity and competition. Important long-term human and planetary needs seem to be forgotten in the rush for short-term gain.
In our society and in philanthropy, the “haves” are systemically incentivized to hold on to “corpus” in order to earn positive interest on that money - using any means possible - rather than deploying all of the resources that could be offered for the greater collective good.
One result is that non-profits working on similar issues compete for scarce grant dollars rather than work together toward their common goals. We might blame this on people and institutions, or we could look deeper and take a hard look at the invisible money system we live with and how it is incentivizing or dis-incentivizing perfectly reasonable and good people to behave against their better judgment. Is there another option? What if we saw more clearly the design and limitations of our current financial system and started to create alternatives that were designed to support all of us? We’ve moved out of the industrial age into the information age, so why can’t our money system also change paradigmatically and evolve to reflect our evolution and changing needs?
One problem with our present financial system is the pressure to turn everything around us into profit - due to a spectrum of situations from survival to greed. This has lead to extreme forms of exploitation of human beings, such as sex and human trafficking, exploitative labor-practices, the blowing up of mountain-tops, the cutting of social programs that benefit the poor, the privatization of the world’s “commons” - resources for our children and grandchildren - and the the destruction and depletion of the world’s natural resources. (And we call this “civilization and progress”?). To me this is putting a price tag on the sacred.
I am reminded of what the great Chief Seattle said:
“When all the trees have been cut down,
when all the animals have been hunted,
when all the waters are polluted,
when all the air is unsafe to breathe,
only then will you discover you cannot eat money.”
The question at the heart of this for me is, “What is it that we value?” Our participation in the global financial system would suggest that we value profits over people and the planet. But as feminists, we have the opportunity to apply knowledge that springs out of our deepest experiences and longings in life. We know that what is of greatest value lies in our relationships. We feel most fulfilled when we are in positive connection to others around us – family, neighbors, even the natural world. By shifting our sights toward what is ultimately most important to all of us, we can begin to imagine a different kind of economy.
While transition will require new thinking of all sorts, history has shown us some powerful practices that offer inspiration for the road ahead. For example, there have been demurrage systems in societies based on negative interest that produced very different societal decisions and real-world results. Negative interest isn’t necessarily “negative.”
In ancient Egypt (during the time when the Isis cultures flourished), negative interest – “demurrage” on stores of grain -- dis-incentivized citizens from hoarding grain and encouraged them to share. If they came back 16 months later to collect their stores of grain, a percentage charge for guarding and storing it (plus losses to rats and mice) made it less attractive to hoard assets over long periods of time.
Bernard Lietaer, a global currency design expert, goes so far as to say that where “the sacred mother archetype dominated in cultures, money systems based on abundance and sharing (not greed and scarcity) prevailed.”
In Europe where the Great Mother “Black Madonna” archetype abounded, local lords issued unique, limited, local currencies that were from time to time taken back and replaced by new ones. So instead of hoarding currency under one’s bed, people put as much money as they could into long-lasting stores of real and high-value – hence the great cathedral building and high-artisanal ability that spread across Europe. Evidence exists of the highest quality of life for the peasant class in Europe in recorded history (including art and well-built infrastructure). This ended when the local currency systems were abolished and replaced by empire-building “nationalism” with centrally-controlled, scarcer currencies serving as the only legal-tender.
In terms of complementary currencies in this day and age, you may not be aware of it, but every time you use your soon-expiring airline frequent customer miles for a free flight or hotel room, you are using a “complementary currency.” The Swiss credit their “WIR” business-to-business currency system as the reason for their stable financial system (the WIR is a currency the business community uses in complement to the Swiss Franc that has greater flexibility and does not earn or accrue interest). The Mayor of Curitiba – a Brazilian slum - issued a local currency that incentivized community members to pick up disease-breeding garbage in exchange for school supplies and bus tokens. In a 20 year period, an urban favela was transformed into a model of innovation and economic growth -- and an award-winning green city! He harnessed the energy and currency of people’s will to transform themselves and their surroundings.
The Japanese have developed thousands of complementary currency models during their historic struggles to revive their national currency. One of the most inspiring examples of a complementary currency to me, as someone who cares deeply about how we become “a caring economy” here in the United States, is a successful Japanese currency called a “Caring Relationship Ticket.” This system of currency was created to address the care of Japan’s revered elderly population.
It works like this: I take care of the elderly woman in my apartment building. I shop for her, cook her meals, and help her to the doctor’s office. I build up credits in a “time banking” account (a product of the information age we live in) that I can at some later date retrieve and cash in to receive assistance from someone else. I don’t have to pay for these hours of service, but I have stored them up based on the giving of my care and time. I can also cash in the hours I have put in for the elderly woman and give them to my mother who needs help hundreds of miles away.
In the United States, as we face serious economic and job-creation challenges and a future with an unprecedented aging population without government dollars to provide high-quality care, might we look to this Japanese system of complementary currency?
An interesting fact about the Caring Relationship Ticket system in Japan is that, when polled about whether they would rather use money for the care giving instead of the Tickets, an overwhelming majority of people reported that they preferred the Tickets to cash. The complementary currency system ensured a level and quality of care that was too high to risk losing, because, in essence, caregivers thought of the care they were providing in terms of what they themselves would directly receive when it became their time to need care. Or, if they were caring for someone near them, they thought of the relationship as though they were caring for their own parent who could also be using this system of caring relationship (not just a monetary transaction), as well.
So here lies our opportunity…. What if we started to create complementary currency systems – alongside our present centralized national currency - that worked to balance our present day money system? We could address problems like care giving for the elderly and cleaning up our environment and inner-cities while matching available resources of people’s spare time or surplus goods with real needs. We could shift from a world of scarcity to one of abundance and encourage healthy vibrant relationships where isolation and disconnection in our communities has arisen, rather than affirming a system of impersonal or exploitative and harmful transactions (which is more and more what our participation in our money system is doing to us ).
Inspiration from Nature
We know that bio-diversity plays a vitally important role in maintaining and enlivening healthy natural ecosystems on the planet. Planting diverse varietals of seeds and foods (Indigenous people around the world know this and plant hundreds of varieties of potatoes or rice in different terrain so that if one strain is picked off by pest or disease, others in the diverse mix don’t suffer the same fate) helps create vibrant and resilient environments - versus mono-cropping, which can leave a crop completely vulnerable to decimation and actually deplete or destroy eco- systems. Might the same be true in diversifying and balancing the designs of our monetary and financial system?
What we face now in “mono-cropped” systems - based on domination, high centralization, and competition for scarcer resources - actually presents us with an opportunity to think about alternatives - as a rebalancing of the masculine and feminine, the yin and yang energies that exist in the world.
We could think of this as being given a chance to plant new seeds for a system that actually nurtures what we value and lasts beyond the next quarterly report or election cycle. By attaching our values to our work with money, we ensure that our currency – our shared and unlimited energy - works for people and the planet.
PRESIDENT AND CO-CHAIR
As President of NoVo Foundation, Jennifer is responsible for the day-to-day creation and oversight of vision, strategy, and program development. She also serves as chief liaison in NoVo’s partnership building with other foundations and nonprofits. Jennifer Co-Chairs the Foundation’s board with her husband, composer and producer Peter Buffett.
Jennifer works passionately advocating for girls and women worldwide and to end violence and exploitation against them. She serves on the boards of the Nike Foundation to promote the Girl Effect, the economic and social empowerment of adolescent girls that results in a ripple effect of positive change; the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to promote “whole-child” education practices based on what kids need from schools, from their teachers, and one another in order to learn and thrive; and V-Day.
Jennifer began her work in philanthropy in 1997 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, primarily as a funder of social service organizations, with a focus on early childhood education for at-risk children and families.
In September 2008, Jennifer and Peter received the Clinton Global Citizen Award for their “visionary leadership and sustainable, scalable work in solving pressing global challenges.” Presenting the award to the Buffetts, former President Bill Clinton said, “The Buffetts are leading an inspirational campaign to improve the status of women and girls across the globe. Their innovative approach to philanthropy has leveraged the capacity of existing organizations to affect real, positive change.”
Jennifer and Peter were named in Barron’s list of top 25 most effective philanthropists in 2009 and 2010.