Sunday, November 29, 2009

Psychology of the New Economy

I have come across many people in working on the new economy, mostly in currency work, that bring to the work both lots of hope and just as much fear.

The timebank is probably the most idealist currency project I have been working on, second only to the Really Really Free Market. The Really Really Free Market requires gestures of unreciprocated generosity, but in a way the risk is low for most people. They put in usually only a small amount that they feel comfortable giving away without asking anything in return. The rules of the game are pretty clear and expectations of conviviality are high, but most people don’t come and expect to get lots of high quality services and goods. Though sometimes they are pleasantly surprised by a nice wool jacket or a professional massage or some organic vegan soup. Trust actually doesn’t need to be that high since the risks are low. If someone comes and takes half the stuff being given away, well it needed a home and people wanted to get rid of it anyway. The disproportionate take is not too big of a deal and we all might think to ourselves, “this person probably needed this stuff badly, probably to sell.” Let us not judge too harshly. Though even at the RRFM, I’ve had a few fear-based, distrusting interactions, usually around people having to clean up other people’s junk or accidental theft (people taking things that thought were free but were personal belongings). However, it seems the event builds trust over the long term through positive interactions and generous exchanges.

A significant amount of fear came up when the timebank, still in pilot phase, had its first beta launch party and orientation for testers for the online system. The timebank is a somewhere between an organized gift economy system and a more rigid accounting reciprocity system. We keep score with everyone’s hour of service being equal, but we don’t enforce balance limits on accounts. We only flag high or low balances so we can contact these members and help them spend or earn if they are able. People are putting in anywhere from very low (pet sitting) to very high (plumbing) skilled services and they don’t know for sure how or when they will be reciprocated. The members on the system don’t all know each other and no certifications for performing any services are required to post, as with craigslist, although we ask people to be clear about their qualifications.

During the timebank launch party all kinds of fear-based questions came up. How do we know we will be able to get things we want out of the system if we put a lot in? How do we know people are qualified, certified, experienced, etc? How do we know people on the system are safe? How do know if they are Muslim- or eco-friendly? At the Money Fix screen and alternative currency presentation similar questions came up about counterfeiting (a very common question), legal problems, corruption, etc. People immediately jump to questions about potential problems, usually around breeches of trust, rather that the hopeful possibilities of using the system. You could feel all their past economic and other related traumas bubbling up to the surface and they needed to be urgently heard. While their concerns are useful to hear, I am concerned that we will get stuck in the old paradigm of fear, distrust and alienation.

We can create systems that offer some reassurances that facilitate some trust through integrating reputation systems (ratings, reviews, thankyous, references, certification requirements, etc.) Although sometimes this can provide a false sense of security or undermine the use of other interpersonal, individual assessments of safety, quality and trustworthiness. I think part of where we want to be going is towards a more village or tribal model, where people know each other well enough to make their own judgments in addition to or instead of these abstracted online reputations, though they can be helpful in metropolitan areas. There is really no good substitute for real life interpersonal relationships with trust, compassion, and love. Although creating online reputations systems can help build a bridge from extreme alienation and lack of trust to building caring community, but we need more.

I’ve been talking with some investors who might want to donate or invest in alternative currency projects and they wonder “what’s in it for me" an "what will my return be?" I usually answer, you will be helping your community, then your community will be healthier and help you, directly or indirectly. Usually when people invest in the stock market, they expect high risk and also high returns. There is quite a lot of risk in investing in community projects, unless you known your community well enough to know on a personal basis who to trust (this seems less risky than an abstract stock rating), and also high returns, but they are long-term, slow and ten d to be indirect. But in slow money or local investing, the trust does not usually come from ratings, it comes from first-hand knowledge of the businesses or community projects they are investing in. And the desire to invest comes out of love and compassion and other personal values, like justice and sustainability.

Trust, love and compassion, can be built through interpersonal interactions. Sharing food, conversation and touch can create these feelings. Sharing goods and service can, too. It seems at least as important in these new exchange systems that people pay as much attention if not more to the quality of the interactions with people – being as nice, generous, reliable, etc – as with the quality or quantity of things exchanged. This is how we can shift the real economy.

However, we also need healing from the trauma of the old economy - prenuptial agreements, aggressive telemarketing and credit card company calls, “rip-offs”,divorce settlements, ruthless market competition, manipulative advertising, thefts, commodified relationships, commodified life. People can continue to act in these new systems, even in worker cooperatives, in the old pattern of maximizing individual gain, competition, feelings of economic fear and scarcity. We need to retrain people to legitimately trust each other and care about each other. Every call, every trade, every economic interaction is an opportunity for creating a new economy and healing from the old.

To some extent, we do need opportunities for people to recognize and express and address their legitimate fears around the economy and lack of community. We also need to create many opportunities for people to connect in positive ways that are less commodity based and take care of each others’ needs through activities like: potlucks, community gardens, yard sharing, childcare clubs, tool sharing libraries, community healing centers, swap parties, gift markets, timebanks, and other forms of direct community service. Focusing on sharing food and healing and meditation could be especially helpful for people coming from a very wounded place.

We need to pay more attention to all of our interactions and focus on listening, caring, compassion, rather the person we are serving or who is serving us as just a client or just a service provider in a role. We are all human beings deserving of love and until we jump out of our alienated roles, we will never have this new economy or strong community bonds. We just won’t feel that motivated or even know how to take care of each other. Ask people how they are doing, what their dreams are, if they need help or a hug. The world is transformed greatly by people who care and people who feel sincerely cared for. It helps people get out of the mindset that they have to earn money until they can’t any longer at any cost in order to have a safe and happy life. It helps shift people from the me to the we consciousness.

I helped with some Food Not Bombs servings at different locations with different cooks and servers (different chapters). Some provided food with much conviviality, care and conversation and some provided food with a no conversation and a snarly face - servers very separated from people being served. I don't see how the latter is changing the world. People knowing that there is one more place they can get vegan soup once a week will not have nearly as much impact as group that engages and tries to understand and help in other ways the people that they are supposedly helping. (Of course I also understand it's a form of protest.) Reproducing an alientaed charity service doesn't seem very transformative to me.

On another front, if we are going to have some large scale currency systems like the Fureai Kippu time exchange elderhcare system in Japan or possibly for healthcare here in the US, perhaps we do need a reputation system built in. In a large scale state, national or international systems with high stakes like a persons’ health, reputation could be extremely important. I think it’s great to know that that our food is most likely organic through reputation systems like quality assurance international, although it’s better to know your farmer and know how s/he treats the animals, soil, and whether s/he needs help also. And it’s better to know the person who is taking care of your elderly mother or at least a friend who knows that person. They will also probably feel more responsibility of being a good helper if they are connected in some way other than online.

At some point though, you have to have to let go and hope enough to trust people (you can often do this by getting to know them in low risk situations). And if they don’t completely meet your expectations, you have an opportunity talk to them about it and try again. Give people the benefit of the doubt, and realize that they are coming from a wounded place and we need to try to understand that. If an exchange doesn’t work out with one person, that doesn’t mean it won’t work out with everyone. If there are repeated systemic problems (like here in the Bay Area people are notoriously flaky), then we need to address this issue repeatedly in our work so that problems are reduced and people can start to sincerely trust each other again. And we need to be conscious to not repeat these patterns ourselves. Every new pattern you create has the potential for the butterfly effect. Be kind and generous to one person and they make be inclined to reciprocate indirectly to three more people and so on.

It is a long road to change our consciousness and cultural patterns. New systems of exchange other forms of economy can go a long way, but we need to deliberately create ways of thinking and being together, to heal, and to make that great leap of faith that we could build a new economy based on love, trust and compassion. Every day and every interaction is a precious opportunity to make the shift. Have block parties, share food, share healing, offer to help those in need, help build a garden for a neighborhood park, school or clinic, lend someone your car or a ride or a spare room when they need it. All these things help build the new economy one small step at a time.

It's not just about how many organic apples you trade or give away it's also about how you give them away.

1 comment:

  1. Heather!

    What an insightful post! Thank you. I've linked to it from our yard sharing site... Hopefully folks will read!
    LiZ aka @hyperlocavore on twitter...