In this enlightening chat, Scott Morris, an expert in community currencies, breaks it down for us. He talks about the impact of community-backed currencies and what they can do, and offers his insight into time banking, cryptocurrencies, and the future of community currencies. Scott will be giving a TEDx talk about this topic at TEDx Ithaca College on March 22th, 2014. His talk is entitled, “Putting People and Place Before Paper Wealth.” If you’re in the area, go check it out!
Alex: Hi there, change-makers. My name is Alex Cequea, and I
interview the people who are making the world a better place. What are
alternative currencies and how do they work? Our guest today is Scott
Morris. He is an expert in alternative currencies, and he has been working
with communities to help implement alternative currency systems for the
last five years. He’s currently the CEO of AmeriQoin, a North American
agency that helps organizations design and implement community currencies.
Scott, thank you so much for being here.Scott: Hey, Alex. It’s a total honor. Thanks.Alex: So first of all, what is an alternative currency?Scott: Well, actually, one thing that I want to go ahead and shift a
little bit in the language-ing there, they have been called alternative
currencies for a long time. Nowadays I think a more fitting term is
community currency or cooperative currency. And I like both of those a
little more because alternative currencies kind of sounds like you’re
trying to dodge taxes or do all those things. And there are those people
who participate in these things for those purposes, but in large part, a
lot of the work that’s being done, at least where I’m putting my attention,
is in working with actual communities of people on the local level and
creating currencies that work in tandem with national monies to help people
meet their needs better, to protect the environment, and to otherwise make
life a little easier.Alex: So you’re saying they’re not meant to necessarily replace
current currencies, and that’s part of the reason why the term alternative
currency might be misleading, so you prefer community currencies.Scott: Yeah.Alex: Why do we need them? Why do we need them?Scott: Great question. Well, I mean, if I offered to give you 100
bucks, would you say yes?
Alex: Yes. And thank you very much.
Scott: Yeah, totally.
Alex: Done. Just send to me on PayPal.
Scott: Yeah, exactly. Or Venmo or Dwolla or any of the other great
options out there today. The funny thing is that we could all use a little
bit more money in our lives, right? Money is like this stuff in between us
and the things that we want, and so we spend a lot of our time going out
there into the world hunting down this money thing so that we can get the
stuff that we want, not really because we want money. Some people do and
most of them work on Wall Street, but the rest of us really just kind of
want to enjoy life and get by, feed ourselves healthfully, enjoy a healthy
lifestyle, do the things that we want to do like going to movies and ice
skating and whatever else that we’re into.
Scott: But the lack of that intermediary stuff keeps us from going out
there and enjoying life, which is funny because I’m pretty sure there’s
plenty of empty seats in a lot of theaters and there’s a lot of space on
the skating rink that can still be taken up by people. It’s like not like
these things aren’t available for us to go do. But we’ve become fixated on
the means and it’s started to become an obstacle to the ends.
And so what community currency people look to do are to find
cooperative or community-based needs or means that can help people get to
those needs and enjoy that lifestyle without always having to go out and
hunt for the one predominant kind of money.
A very important part of getting into this work is understanding
there are different types of money, and I think that the population at
large is in for a big surprise as more people start to understand that, of
what money can actually do. Money isn’t just some dead medium in life.
There’s a lot of values that are wrapped up into money, a lot of karma, you
could say. And so when you use a particular kind of money, you’re tacitly
approving the value set that it represents.
Alex: I see. So how does it work, exactly? Take me through an example
of how. You talked about filling empty seats at movie theaters, filling
skating rinks, things like that. How does a community currency fill that
Scott: Mm. Well, let’s see. There’s a whole range of different kinds
of currencies, right? Just kind of following in as I’ll lead into that
answer. There’s barter which is my stuff for your stuff. So let’s say I own
a movie theater, and you’ve got great speaking skills and I want to have
you speak, and so I’ll let you come and see some movies as my payment for
that, right? So it’s like the thing that I have in my world an abundance of
and a thing that you have in your world an abundance of, we can freely
trade with one another that way.
Now if we want to introduce a third or a fourth or a fifth party,
that can get kind of complex. I mean, barter is a very simple kind of
system, but it actually requires that you meet three conditions before that
trade can take place. It has to mean that I want you to come speak and you
want to come see movies that I have at my theater, and we want those
things around the same time.
So you know there are a bunch of barter exchanges out there. Barter
exchanges are a pretty common thing. Many local chambers of commerce also
can kind of dabble in this space. But they just offer a medium into that
community that can facilitate that kind of exchange in a multilateral kind
of way. So I don’t have to want your speaking, you don’t have to want to
come see my movies, but there’s a whole network of people who all put in
the things that they have and they all agree to accept these barter credits
as a trade unit, as a token that gets them what they want. And that makes
it easier for them to get the things that they’re after.
So barter has been very popular. It’s gotten mildly regulated, so
it’s kind of a tried and true method, but these exchanges have grown over
time. Especially in cases like in Chile or Argentina, one of the two, where
the banks closed for a period of time and they saw that membership in
barter clubs skyrocketed. And you actually saw the barter clubs printing
those things, they call them creditos, to help facilitate trade. So where
there was no national currency available, people came together under their
own agreements, and they traded with one another with some commonly
identified and accepted unit of value, and they all enjoyed a better living
as a result.
Alex: Yeah, that’s fascinating. So in the example of the movie
theater and let’s see me giving public speaking tips, how would that work
in a barter system in having an additional currency? So if I’m
understanding correctly, it would be something like I say I’m putting up
this skill set and then I’m getting some sort of certificate or something
that I can use to then exchange for an equivalent value somewhere else.
Scott: Yeah, exactly. And so the terms under which you enter those
agreements can vary, depending on the network and who’s organized it. In
the barter scenario, you’ve really got kind of two options that could be
purely time-based where you’ll come and do an hour of speaking coaching and
I’ll let you go see a movie, and who cares if it’s a little longer, an
hour, whatever. But we agree one hour is one hour and my hour is worth your
Alex: Got you.
Scott: So we can trade that. Now that principle is called time
Alex: I see.
Scott: There was a big growth in that. It actually just got some
coverage in the mainstream press as well because some big-name author or
big-name anchor’s hometown has a time bank in it.
Alex: Got you. So just to make sure that I understand that, so what
that does is it makes the value equal so that you can exchange. So let’s
say for example I want to give tennis lessons and I’m going to exchange it
for tips on community currencies. We’re saying that one hour of tennis
lessons is equivalent to the worth of one hour of community currency
knowledge. Something like that.
Scott: Exactly. Here’s another example: you’re a low-income avatar
who’s working in a totally under-served portion of the community, and you
can go rake leaves in your neighbor’s yard and maybe go see a dentist.
That’s the kind of equalizing force that having time-denominated currency
can have out there in the economy.
Alex: I see.
Scott: So it really has broadened an opportunity for people who are
currently denied it.
Alex: So things that are currently very different in terms of their
value can be brought to the same level, and that’s a benefit that the
community can take.
Scott: That’s right. And so the other way that you can go around this
or go about this is by kind of sticking with dollar valuation. We say,
okay, an hour of raking leaves is $10’s worth, and I’ll pay you ten bucks,
kid. Sure. Versus the dentistry which can be, like, 200 bucks an hour. Who
knows? Then if that’s the system that you’re engaged in, then you would get
that much credit into the system. So that’s why it’s important to kind of
differentiate between the two.
Alex: Cool. So tell me a little bit about how these systems are
regulated. How are they organized and regulated?
Scott: That’s a great question, especially with all of the coverage.
That thing that your one friend on your news feed won’t quit posting about
called Bitcoin? It’s gotten a lot of attention in the recent past because
it’s just kind of exploded onto the scene as a new kind of money that
showed up. It’s this whole cryptocurrency thing, right?
Alex: Would you consider Bitcoin a community currency? How do you
Scott: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. It is a community currency. A currency is
anything that is accepted within a community of any size or number of
people as a medium of exchange. That’s it. It’s just a commonly accepted
item. Bitcoin has a couple of things going for it. Primarily it isn’t
really so much the currency itself that’s the innovation here. It’s the
whole thing called the block chain. The block chain is this shared history
of everything that’s happened within Bitcoin, and it’s a way that every
user inside the network can kind of compare their own notes with the notes
that everyone else out there, make sure that they’re all in sync with one
another. And that’s what actually happened. There’s a lot of innovations
that can come out of that.
But, yeah, I would define Bitcoin as a community currency, but more
specifically, underneath the very large umbrella of community currencies,
it’s over here in this new category called cryptocurrencies. And there’s a
lot of these things coming out these days. There’s Bitcoin and there is
Litecoin, and Dogecoin came along. You remember Doge, the meme of the year
from last year? You know, like, Wow! Such great! Very awesome! Very
inspire! These two-word, one-word little phrases. A little Shiba Inu.
Anyway. A hate it or love it thing, and I kind of love it. It’s just
funny. So somebody coined it. They literally made a currency out of it. So
it’s Dogecoin. Dogecoin just came and even passed Bitcoin in terms of the
volume of them out there or whatever, and it’s gaining value. And it’s just
this total thing out of nowhere. It just goes to illustrate that, again,
it’s just a community of people who are all willing to do it. Although I
just saw an interesting article that the Jamaican bobsled team is going to
be going to Sochi, funded by Dogecoin.
Scott: I saw that. Some people have even seen, there’s a Coinye West,
the coin named after Kanye. All kinds of stuff out there. So after Dogecoin
came along, now there was maybe a couple a week of cryptocurrencies that
would come out after Dogecoin. It’s up to, like, five to fifteen a day.
Alex: That’s insane.
Scott: Right? That’s totally crazy. So the last time, I think, that we
saw this kind of expansion in an area, put your head back in 1994 and 1995
when we started getting the dotcom boom, right?
Scott: If you were anybody who had any kind of sense of what the heck
was going on, what were you doing? You were starting an Internet business
and trying to sell it off before it all collapsed.
Alex: Right. So you feel like it’s a bubble? It’s a big bubble with
all of these . . .
Scott: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. And look, there’s a lot of
people on the planet. There’s a lot of places out there that have a need
for money. Money’s something that we all like having and is very useful.
It’s a very useful technology. Like I said, there’s more to it than meets
the eye, for sure. It’s not just this inert stuff out there. There’s value
systems and all kinds of human shadow that’s wrapped up in this. So getting
into this area is kind of heady, you can imagine.
Alex: Yeah, totally. Totally. So let’s get back to the benefits of
it. Because I’m interested in like, someone who’s out there saying this
sounds really interesting, it’s the first time that I’ve really heard about
this and known more about it. How do I benefit from I and how could I maybe
introduce something like this in my community, and what are the benefits of
it so that I can tell my friends and family, and I can go from there?
Scott: Right. Well, the first thing is that it actually makes your
community stronger in terms of social cohesion but then also in terms of
Alex: How does it do that?
Scott: Let’s say that all of your, this is a hypothetical scenario.
Depending on who you ask, it’s more likely or less likely, depending on
their own beliefs about how the economy works and what’s going to happen.
But let’s say that next week or tomorrow the dollar decided to just totally
hyper-inflate. Like what has happened in Weimar, Germany, and a number of
other places on the planet under certain conditions. Like I said, I’m not
making that forecast. Some people do.
But if that were the case, what would you do if all of the money in
your bank account and all of the money in your wallet were completely
useless at getting you what you needed to live, much less wanted to be able
to go and do and enjoy? So these monies offer a substitute way for you to
go about the course of daily life and living as we’ve come to know it. I
mean, of course all of those dollars could just poof! Vanish into this air.
And then you could go and engage in barter, direct barter. Things would
happen, communities would come together, but eventually money would be
And so what we are doing as people who are active in this field, kind
of thinking ahead in that regard, and going ahead and creating these
currency units, not only so they can hedge risk economically and protect
communities on the local level, but so they can do a lot of social and
environmental good in the local community.
So what we’re about to see on the other end of the dotcom bubble, can
you name any of those websites that came out back then? No, because it
didn’t matter. They weren’t worth anything. They were just these poof
things. Like, who cares? Same thing’s happening in the currency space, in
the cryptocurrency space at least. And what we’re going to see coming out
of that evolution is a better understanding of the available
infrastructure, and we’re going to start seeing people getting a little
more intentional with these currencies as tools and strategies for social
And so I’m going to be able to say yes to a currency system that is
actively creating the world that I want to go live in and that I want to
leave behind for my children when I pass on. So we’re actively going to
subscribe to these things like blogs or YouTube channels or RSS feeds
because we want to use those to the ends that they’re taking us to. They’re
Alex: So correct me if I’m wrong. I’ve read that one of the benefits
of having an additional currency that kind of stays in the community is
that, for example, when you go and buy something at your Walmart, your
local Walmart, that money you put in, it goes to Walmart and then most of
it goes to Walmart headquarters.
A little bit stays in because it goes to pay the employees and
whoever the people are directly involved with that Walmart. But most of it
goes to China to pay for products, goes to headquarters and all that. If
you have a community currency, you’re paying that money to a friend or
somebody that you know, and then they’ll pay you for something else and the
money kind of circulates in the community for a little longer. Is that
Scott: Yeah, you totally nailed it. And there’s a great graphic that
illustrates that. It’s like you’ve got $100 and in this case you go and you
spend that at Walmart. In this case you go and you shop at the local
business. And then those are pie charts and it shows you what percentage of
each pie stays in the local community versus heads out of town.
So there’s a big difference in that. And that’s just for using the
national currency. So trying to inspire this local loyalty is definitely
one of the big outcomes of currency systems. And you can see that value set
being manifest through all these local business networks that are showing
up. There’s a national network of networks known as BALLE, B-A-L-L-E, the
Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. And they support those kinds
of networks and their local-first messaging.
You’ll see American Express does this shop small campaign around
Black Friday and Small Business Saturday and those kind of things. It’s all
about pushing the money back locally because that money sticks around in
the community for a longer time and allows more people to get business done
before it leaves and you lose that opportunity.
When you have a community currency in the mix, it’s not a pie chart
anymore, man. You get the whole thing. All of that money recirculates and
it just sticks around like a baseline level of liquidity.
Alex: Very cool. So what is the reaction of a local government or the
government at a state level and national level? Because I can imagine some
people saying is this really legal? Can I do this?
Scott: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. That’s right. We never got to that when you
asked earlier. Depending on where you’re at and how big you are, and what
type of system you are, barter is pretty clear-cut and there’s rules that
are already in place. They have to issue you 1099-B’s and you’ve got to
report that barter, those credits and that trade as a revenue of some kind
or another, and then you have to pay taxes on it. If it’s a time-based
system . . .
Alex: I’m sorry to interrupt. Is that a state regulation, at the
state level or national, it’s at the national level?
Scott: Yeah. And again, that varies by country even. But if it’s a
time-based system, we’re talking about here in the U.S., so if it’s a time-
based system, you don’t have to report any of that. And so if you really
want to get a lot of goodies out of participating in networks this way
without having to worry about the tax man coming for you, then time banking
is your system. But in community currencies such as in the case of Ithaca,
Ithaca actually has a really famous local currency called the Ithaca HOUR.
Scott: And you’ll see it here on the back that it says TIME IS MONEY.
Scott: And it’s got this great little paragraph there. It’s a
beautiful thing and it was created back in 1991. But they pegged it to the
dollar so there is actually a ten to one parity, $10 to one Ithaca HOUR
parity there. And because it’s a commercial currency with a parity and it
recirculates, meaning that when I take it to the business, the business
owner can accept it and then he reuses it as well, then the business owner
has an obligation to report that as revenue in U.S. dollars to the IRS and
to pay taxes on it.
Alex: I see. So time-based, is that true for all time-based
Scott: Time-based currencies are tax-free. The ones that have a dollar
valuation have to be reported. That’s what it boils down to. Yeah.
Alex: Got you. Okay. So tell me a little bit more about some
successful examples of communities. You mentioned Ithaca, where you’re at,
Ithaca, New York. Some other examples of places that have used alternative
Scott: Great. Depends on when and where you want to go, and what kind
of system you want to illustrate. There are a lot of really great examples
out there and I’m happy to see that there’s a little bit more attention
being paid. So more recently, Bristol in the U.K. and Brixton, which is a
part of London, have their own currencies. These are called transition
currencies these days. There’s just one Bristol pound or Brixton pound per
pound sterling, and these are really nice currencies. Like this is live
right now. You can go over to London and go buy something with this.
But they aren’t playing around, man. They’ve got reflectivity there.
There’s some texture and stuff. These are hard to counterfeit bills. They
are professionally made. So this isn’t just funny money they we’re talking
An example that’s a little bit more close to home, we’ve got the
Baltimore BNote. These guys are active and doing a great job. So you’ve got
Edgar Allen Poe here on the five, the oriole and a raven there on the back.
This is really nice-feeling paper. And you actually get a buy-in bonus for
these. So if you trade in $10 you get 11 BNotes back. That’s a 10% bonus.
Alex: Got you.
Scott: And then we’ve got another social system from here in Amsterdam
called the De Makkie. You notice the little guy on there meditating, right?
Scott: So you can see the map of Amsterdam there. This is one-half
hour, that’s one hour.
Scott: Yeah. So this is structured a little bit like the system that
we did out there in Fairfield.
Alex: And how big are these communities, and how many local vendors
are accepting these kind of currencies? Like can I go to any place or how
do I know which places accept it and which don’t? How does that work?
Scott: Yeah. Right now most of these things are functioning on a very
localized level. And so you’ll just kind of know based on the system that
you’re in, where you can go. Sometimes you’ll see window clings like in the
windows of the businesses. Or a lot of times you’ll have a directory. This
is a map of Boulder kind of thing. You can have certain businesses that are
marked on the map. They’ll usually pay a little premium for that and
And nowadays we’re starting to see more of that kind of activity on
mobile apps. So when you bust out an app to go see where you want to go and
eat that night, then you might open up your local currency app and be like,
oh, okay, I’m going to go to business X and not business Y because business
X accepts my Ithaca hours. And you just know that you get a little easier
there, that’s all.
So in terms of communities that are seeing a lot of success, Bristol
in the U.K. is doing great. Their mayor over there has really showed up and
has recognized the opportunity that is a local currency for himself, even
politically. He accepts his full mayoral salary in Bristol pounds.
Scott: They also have the transportation authority on there, the local
government started to accept Bristol pounds as payment on certain kinds of
fees. That’s great progress. Those are all great signs.
Another excellent example, and I’m not really sure what the current
status of this is, but in Curitiba in Brazil, you had a local governor
there, Jaime Lerner, who realized that he could utilize the city’s unused
buses. They had a whole bunch of buses that were going around totally
empty. And he had this problem with trash being all over the hillsides,
down in the slum-y areas where the regular garbage collection couldn’t get
out there and collect the trash.
So what they started doing was they started offering bus tokens to
people and families and whomever who would go and collect that trash and
bring in pre-sorted bags of trash. And what they found was that the kids
would go and pick the hillsides clean of garbage, get the bus tokens.
They’d give the bus tokens to their parents. Parents would take the bus
into the city, find work, and increase the household income.
Alex: That’s fantastic. Yeah.
Scott: That’s very fantastic, yeah. And so it actually, Curitiba won
the UN’s award for sustainable city development a few years after that,
perhaps 2012. And they have a higher income GDP, or income per capita,
that’s right, that’s, like, 30% to 40% higher than the national average.
Once you factor in all these systems. Because they didn’t stop there. They
did the same thing with food baskets to families who kept their kids in
school. They offered the same tokens to fishermen who would fish garbage
out of the bay, which let in more fish.
So these are practical examples and applications of these currencies
in action and the kinds of impact they can have on quality of life that for
the most part almost entirely fall outside the scope of the one thing we
look to to measure the effect of the economy on human living and the gross
domestic product. That’s a very small lens through which we looked to
measure economic values. It’s time to widen out of that and start to
include people and place back in our systems of measurement.
Alex: Right. And you can really see how it can improve the quality of
life and all the other things that surround the things that we’re supposed
to be doing, earning money for. So I think that’s really exciting. So tell
me about AmeriQoin. AmeriQoin is your company. You’re the CEO. What do you
guys do in this field?
Scott: Well, I’m effectively a mirror of another organization that’s
based in Amsterdam. They run the Makkie from earlier. Their name is Qoin,
with a Q. And they are an agency for community currencies. They offer
expertise and technology to support communities that want to execute on
these currency programs. So I effectively do the exact same thing.
I’ve been looking at the co-op model for a long time. I really love
multi-stake holder co-ops and how they offer a path to ownership for
anybody, and a stake of the governance table for everybody. Just by default
it’s a total inverse of classic corporate structure. But I think for the
time being I’m going to run with the foundation or some other non-profit
entity there so there so that it is more of a philanthropic work.
And as a part of that, I’d like to be doing research around the
impact of currencies on communities, and also be doing development of
different business modules of using currencies as business models where
people can say wow, I really love the Hero Rewards program. I really want
to go in, negotiate Hero Rewards and get a paycheck. And that can happen.
There’s totally a path to that for people. We just need a little bit of
time and support. We’re developing it all and fleshing it all out.
So that’s pretty much where we’re at right now in Ithaca. But we had
a fun time down in the Dominican Republic last year, and I think there’s
some interest in doing a project there, so here’s hoping.
Alex: Nice. Anytime you can work in the Caribbean, I say do it.
Scott: Yeah. It would be nice if I could fly down there right now.
It’s like negative two outside. It’s insane.
Alex: I know. It’s so cold everywhere. It’s crazy.
Scott: It is.
Alex: So if people want to find out more about AmeriQoin, how can
they do that? Where do they go?
Scott: Facebook.com/AmeriQoin. Sounds like it’s with a C but it’s with
a Q. And you’re also welcome to go to my last website which is
MyLocal.Coop. C-O-O-P, that has our clip from Money & Life and a little bit
about our currency there from Iowa and all of that fun.
Alex: Very cool. So I have one last question for you, and that is
what is your vision for the future? How do you see community currencies and
alternative currencies evolving into the future, and what do you hope that
that would look like?
Scott: Mm. That’s a great question. Well, the days of living with only
one kind of currency are over. And the sooner that we wrap our heads around
that and we learn the new mode of being, I think the easier it’ll be on all
So I can see this whole cryptocurrency thing continuing to explode. I
see a whole bunch of useless currencies coming to market and trying to make
like they’re the Bitcoin killer. Bitcoin could go either way. I’m not going
to make any forecasts about that. Effectively, any that are out there
presently, with a few exceptions, are only instruments of speculation, just
like any other kind of investment on Wall Street. They should be treated
with caution if you want to go and trade, then know what you’re getting
yourself into. It’s cool. There’s a lot of resources out there. And you
know, hey, there’s a lot of money to be made.
So if you want to go into that, go for it. I’m not trying to stand in
the way there, but what I’m looking forward to is us getting on the other
side of this new dotcom bubble and starting to find out who are the Amazons
and who are the eBays and all of these other great things that we enjoy on
the Internet that evolved from that infrastructure that supported those
dotcoms but is farther down the maturity curve and started to serve deeper
human needs and purposes.
So I’m really excited about the kinds of currency programs that we’re
going to start to seeing coming out there like Curitiba and like some of
these other places where people are realizing hey, wait a second. The
economy and this market thing that’s supposed to self-regulate itself into
this blissful, perfect state, that’s not really happening so well. At least
in the current design. We need more pathways to get us there, and we can
use these currencies as vehicles to take us into a place where people and
the places where we live are valued just as much, if not more, than our
financial profits and bottom lines.
Alex: That’s beautiful and very interesting. Thank you so much,
Scott: Thanks, Alex.
Alex: And once again, if you want to find out more about what Scott’s
doing, AmeriQoin, check out his website. I’ll put the links below,
somewhere over here. So check them out. Have a good day, man. Thank you so
Scott: See you guys later. Thanks so much for having me, Alex.