By Mira Luna
Guillaume Le Bleu, co-initiator of Bernal Bucks, presented his “currency” project at Bay Area Community Exchange’s Project Roundtable meeting last Tuesday. His neighborhood money tagging project, started only 6 months ago, has strong community support and has caught the attention of the Transition Towns movement. Guillaume, with a background in financial services technology, has strong inclinations towards the gift economy, but sees exchange on a continuum, not a polarity of good gift economy vs. bad US dollars. Context again is everything. More gifts and local currencies could help bring balance to a grossly unbalanced economy. Tagging money with legal, removable stickers that brand communities of exchange is one way to bridge community currencies, US dollars, and gift economies.
Communities branding their money, helps control the flow of money like local currencies do, re-circulating it through local business and keeping it from filtering profit to corporate banks and other unaccountable, nonlocal businesses. In fact, the community can decide who benefits from the donations that back the tags (funds go to the local community center and school). However, unlike local currency, tagged money is relatively cheap to implement ($300/5000 stickers), comes with no risk to businesses and few other barriers to business participation. After all it’s just money with a removable, branded, trackable sticker. 18 merchants are currently participating and giving away anything from a free beer to free fluorescent light bulbs for use of Bernal Bucks. No merchants have dropped out of the program so far. It is unclear how much commerce has been redirected to local businesses due to the program, but Cole Hardware noted significant usage of the tagged money.
There are some challenges however. Tagged money comes with legal restrictions - no advertising of any kind (no urls, advertising for nonprofits, etc) and no defacing of bills (solved by the removeable glue). Businesses, banks and individuals to keep the bills circulating locally should separate them from regular cash lest they leak out of the local economy – not the easiest thing to do given the stickers are only on one side. Clerks may not be enthused enough to make sure this happens if they live outside the community. Individuals and businesses aren’t too interested in the code that helps track the currency’s circulation, even though this is very valuable information for creating better local economic flows. However, as the project moves to VISA debit card functionality, all of this will be much easier and more automatic.
Part of the community enthusiasm for the project comes from its direct benefit and responsiveness to the community. Stickers get into circulation through donations to the local community center and school, which is an obvious noncontroversial benefit. Bernal Bucks also regularly talks with business owners, nonprofits and residents (through hosting community economic forums) to get feedback on the project and its future direction. Guillaume and his partner, Arno Hesse, live in the community, which helps create a sense of community ownership of the project. Any future community tagging projects, Arno insists, should be initiated and implemented by those communities and not by outsiders.
Eventually, they hope they may be able to filter Bernal Bucks through a special account that will draw interest and fund more community projects and make the administration of Bernal Bucks self-funded. What other innovations are possible? Bernal Bucks is only the first baby step in getting the public and business community excited about alternative currencies without the usual fears and technical challenges that come up.
Still the program is limited in building local economies. It is only as abundant as US dollars, and people have to buy the stickers at $1/sticker, though currently all $1 goes to nonprofits. It has all the challenges of the centralized monetary system without some of the benefits of a real local currency. But just like Berkshares may be laying the foundation for a new kind of regional currency in Massachusetts, so may Bernal Bucks be laying the foundation for local currencies to take over the San Francisco Bay Area. One can hope – we may be closer than we think.