Colorado's Holistic Journal

July August 2003

An Interview with Bernard Lietaer

By Ravi Dykema


      What is money? And how well does it work to solve society’s ills? Bernard Lietaer, author of the upcoming book Access to Human Wealth: Money beyond Greed and Scarcity (Access Books, 2003), has made a life’s work of exploring these questions. Lietaer has been involved in the world of money systems for more than 25 years, and his experience in monetary matters ranges from multinational corporations to developing countries. He co-designed and implemented the convergence mechanism to the single European currency system (the Euro), and served as president of the Electronic Payment System in his native Belgium. He also co-founded one of the largest and most successful currency funds.

      Lietaer is the author of nine books on money and finances, including The Future of Money (Random House, 2001), The Mystery of Money (Riemann Verlag, 2000) and a book for kids, called The World of Money (Arena Verlag, 2001). Formerly professor of international finance at the University of Louvain, Lietaer is currently a fellow at the Center for Sustainable Resources at the University of California, Berkeley. Beginning this fall, he will be a professor at Naropa University. Here, Lietaer shares his views on the shortcomings of our conventional currency system, the benefits of creating a complementary currency, and ways to effect lasting social change.


RD: You’re very experienced on the world stage with currencies and money—it’s the world you’ve moved in much of your life, right?

BL: Yes, both in the area of conventional money such as the Euro and more recently with less conventional money systems. Below the radar beams of official thought, there has been a resurgence all over the world for the last 15 to 20 years of what I call complementary currencies, currencies that are operating on a smaller scale than the national level, and that can solve social, environmental and education problems.


RD: People think of someone who works with currencies as being a materialist. Yet it sounds as if your interests are towards social change through complementary currencies. How did you come to be interested in this other dimension?

BL: The reason I went to the Central Bank in the first place was to check whether it was possible to improve the conventional money system from within. I had been working for a number of years in South America, and I had seen the damage that the existing money system has created on a huge scale in Latin America.


RD: You thought it was the money system and not just the governments?

BL: It’s a chicken and egg story: unstable currency equals unstable government. There is practically no way today for a developing country to have a reasonable monetary policy within the current rules of the game. Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate in economics and formerly head economist at the World Bank, makes the same claims in his book Globalization and Its Discontents (Penguin, 2002). Whether you fix your currency to the dollar or let it float, you end up with an unmanageable monetary problem, like Brazil, Russia or Argentina have experienced. Eighty-seven countries have gone through a major currency crisis in the last 25 years. Their fiscal policies are imposed by an International Monetary Fund (IMF). I am afraid that if the United States had to live by the rules that are imposed on, say, Brazil, the United States of America would become a developing country in one generation. It’s the system that is currently unstable, unfair and not working.

      The majority of humanity has gone through a recent monetary crisis at least once already. We’re living here, in America, in an island of perceived stability. And even that is an illusion. We could have a run on the dollar under the current rules.

      We are dealing with an unstable system, an ailing system. Back in 1975, I had come to the conclusion that there would be a systemic series of monetary crashes, starting with Latin America. And that’s why I wrote my book on how the money system was not working and its impact on Latin American development, Europe, Latin America and the Multinationals (Praeger, 1979). I predicted that the first crash in Latin America would be in the early 1980s. It actually happened in 1981 in Mexico. Since then we have had more than 80 other countries undergoing similar monetary crises.


RD: So someone’s not connecting the dots—or are they?

BL: Let me put it this way. The powers that be have no interest in connecting the dots. If a new international monetary meeting like Breton Woods were held, the first point on the agenda would be the role of the dollar. So the United States has no interest in such a meeting. The dollar is in a very privileged position.


RD: But it would be anyway, wouldn’t it, because we’re a dominant economic player?

BL: I don’t want to spend a lot of time and energy attacking the existing system. It is an obvious fact that America is the sole super power. But when people say, “Well, there are fiscal crises in other countries because the governments are less stable,” my question is, “How long would any government last in a country if you had to repeatedly cut back on education programs, social programs, building roads and all other programs?” How could that make a stable democratic government possible? Like I said, it’s a chicken and an egg sequence.

      There is no way of winning in the current monetary game, particularly for the less developed countries. It’s not accidental that investments in the Third World have dropped proportionally by a third since 1975. Currently, investments happen mainly between developed countries, and that trend isn’t going to create a sustainable world anytime soon.


RD: So the Third World is just being abandoned?

BL: Yes. Entire continents. Africa for instance has been dropped off the world economic map for most practical purposes.


RD: And re-envisioning and re-engineering money itself could change this?

BL: Correct. And the good news is that such re-engineering of money has started to happen if one knows where to look.


RD: Do a lot of other people share your views?

BL: Most people haven’t looked at what’s happening in monetary innovations today. What do you think a frequent flyer mile is, but a currency issued by an airline? In Britain, you can go to J. Sainsbury, the largest supermarket chain, and use British Airway miles to buy your goods. Initially, it was only designed as a loyalty scheme for people taking planes. Today, you can earn this currency without ever taking a plane. On Visa cards you get miles. And you can use them to pay long-distance telephone calls, taxis, restaurants, hotels.

      First, let’s define what a currency is, because most textbooks don’t teach what money is. They only explain its functions, that is, what money does. I define money, or currency, as an agreement within a community to use something as a medium of exchange. It’s therefore not a thing, it’s only an agreement—like a marriage, like a political party, like a business deal. And most of the time, it’s done unconsciously. Nobody’s polled about whether you want to use dollars. We’re living in this money world like fish in water, taking it completely for granted.

      Now the point is: there are many new agreements being made within communities as to the kind of medium of exchange they are willing to accept. As I said, in Britain, you can use frequent flier miles as currency. It’s not a universal currency, it’s not legal tender, but you can go to the supermarket and buy stuff. And in the United States, it’s just a question of time before privately issued currencies will be used to make purchases. Even Alan Greenspan, the governor of the Federal Reserve and the official guardian of the conventional money system, says, “We will see a return of private currencies in the 21st century.”


RD: In other words, private currencies are coming back. How would that change the circumstances for poor people, for the Third World?

BL: I gave you that first example—a commercial loyalty currency—only because it would be familiar to most of your readers. But in addition to those commercial private currencies, there are now more than 4,000 communities around the world that have started their own currency for social purposes as well.

      For example, there are about 300 or 400 private currency systems in Japan to pay for any care for the elderly that isn’t covered by the national health insurance. They are called “fureai kippu” (caring relationship tickets). Here’s how they work: let’s say that on my street lives an elderly gentleman who is handicapped and cannot go shopping for himself. I do the shopping for him. I help him with food preparation. I help him with the ritual bath, which is very important in Japan. For this help, I get credits. I put those credits in a savings account, and when I’m sick, I can have other people provide such services for me. Or I can electronically send my credits to my mother, who lives on the other side of the country, and somebody takes care of her.

      Here is an agreement within a community to use as medium of payment something other than national currencies, to solve a social problem. And it makes it possible for hundreds of thousands of people to stay in their homes much longer than they otherwise could. Otherwise, you’d have to put most of these people into a home for seniors, which costs an arm and a leg to society, and they’re unhappy there. So nobody’s winning. In contrast, Japan has created a currency for elderly care.

      In the United States, Florida is the only state that has the same density of elderly people as Japan does—18 percent of the population is more than 65 years old. But Florida is a model for our collective future. Colorado will be there in 2020. Germany will be there in 2006, France in 2008, Britain in 2012. Partly because of the baby boom generation, and partly because of the fact that health care has improved and people live longer. If you put all of these elderly in homes for seniors, you’d go bankrupt. Japan has been looking for another way, and has found it by introducing a monetary innovation.

      Let me give you other examples, already operational here in America today. There are now several hundred “time dollar” operational systems in the United States. The unit of account is the hour. I do something for you. I have a credit for an hour, while you have a debit for an hour. If I can use my credit with someone else, this creates a currency between us. For those people who are willing to give some of their time, the money manifests automatically. It doesn’t quite work that way with dollars, does it? One of the two of us has to get dollars by competing for them somewhere outside of our community.

      Time dollars are helping in a lot of communities where conventional money is scarce: in ghettos, retirement communities, high unemployment zones, student communities. There are 31 states in America that are paying employees to start such time dollar systems, because it solves social problems. There are some operating in Chicago, fairly big ones in Florida. For example, in Chicago, there are entire neighborhoods that used time dollar systems to create a neighborhood watch system that got rid of drugs and gangs. It’s working, it doesn’t cost anything to the taxpayer, it doesn’t create a huge bureaucracy, and it encourages the solution of the local problems by and with the very people who know most about them.


RD: What do they use their time-dollar credits for?

BL: Well, it’s a closed circle. If I do something for you, I have a credit, which I can use with any member of the community that is part of the system. I can’t buy cars or pay my telephone bill with this system because the suppliers of such items don’t participate now in such systems; but I can obtain services—so I could have my car repaired, my house painted, my kids mentored.

       The inventor of the time dollar system is Edgar Cahn, who’s the author of No More Throw-Away People (Essential Works Ltd, 2000). He claims that if you can’t compete in the dollar economy, you’re thrown away. He shows how a time dollars system provides a solution to this process, because it operates in parallel with the conventional competitive economy, and it creates an environment where everybody can contribute.


RD: So you envision a world where there are a lot of these alternative currencies?

BL: I don’t call them alternative, because they aren’t intending to abolish or replace the national currency. I’m not claiming that we could or should abandon national currencies or the competitive economy. This is a complementary currency system. It facilitates exchanges additional to the normal system. It makes it possible to match unmet needs with unused resources.


RD: I can’t see how you’d be able to pay your rent with that.

BL: Well, in Ithaca, New York, there is a currency called Ithaca hours, and some people pay part of their rent with it. Not all of it: for some it is 50/50, for others it is 80/20. And the landlord or lady can go to the farmer’s market and buy his vegetables and his eggs.


RD: So the big things—transportation, housing, food—are those covered in the concept of complementary currency?

BL: It all depends on the agreement you’re making, and whom you are succeeding in including in that agreement. Let me give you a real-life example. In Curitiba, the capital city of the State of Paran in Brazil, if you bring pre-sorted garbage, you are given bus tokens. So in Curitiba, public transport is clearly part of their complementary currency system.

      It depends on the agreements you have with your landlord, with the transportation company, with the university, with the business community. It just depends on who wants or is willing to participate. You can’t force anybody to accept this currency. They are not what is technically called “legal tender.” I call them “common tender”: commonly accepted as payment for debts without coercion of legal means.


RD: I understand that the government wants to get its chunk out of barter transactions, just as if they were a cash transaction.

BL: Yes, and those taxes will need to be paid in “legal tender”, i.e. dollars. The tax issue has nothing to do with the currency you use in an exchange, but with the kind of transaction you’re performing.

      Say I’m a plumber. I come to your house and fix the plumbing. And you give me a nice cake in payment. I’m supposed to declare the value of that cake and pay taxes on it, because I’m in the plumbing business. Now say I am a professor at a university. I come to your house. I fix your faucet. You give me a $100 bill. I’m not obliged to declare it because I’m not in the plumbing business. As I said: it is not the currency used that determines whether a transaction is taxable or not, but the nature of that transaction.

      Interestingly, there is one complementary currency, the time-dollar system that we talked about earlier, that is officially tax-free in the United States. It’s used only to resolve social problems, and the IRS has ruled that time-dollar systems are tax-free.


RD: I think complementary currencies, barter included, should be tax-free, because they offer solutions to a social problem.

BL: Then I suggest you go and lobby for passing such a law. Currently that’s not what the law says in the United States.

      The use of complementary currencies is fairly recent. It took off only in the last 15 years. Even in 1990 there were less than one hundred complementary currency systems worldwide. Today there are over 4,000. It’s definitely catching on.


RD: And you would like to see it continue to expand?

BL: I think it is a useful tool to solve a number of our problems. It makes it possible to truly create a more gentle society.

      I spent last summer in Bali. People are remarkably artistic in that island. Their communities are unusually strong. They have festivals that are totally mind-blowing, and can last a month. They’re having a good time. It’s a comparatively non-violent society. And what I found is that it isn’t a simple coincidence that they have been using a dual currency system for many centuries. All these unusual characteristics of Bali turn out directly to be nurtured by their dual money system. I am publishing a detailed paper on how this mechanism works in the forthcoming issue of Reflections, the journal of the Society of Organizational Learning at MIT.


RD: How does the money system lead to those outcomes?

BL: Practically all Balinese participate in a dual currency system. The first is the conventional national currency (the Indonesian Rupiah); the second is a time currency where the unit of account is a block of time of approximately three hours. This second currency is created and used within the “banjar”—this is a community entity consisting of between 50 and 500 families. It is in each banjar that the decisions are made democratically to launch any big community project. It could be to put on a festival or build a school. For each project, they always make two complementary budgets: one in the national currency, and one in time. That second currency—called “narayan banjar” (meaning work for the common good of the community)—is created by the people themselves. They don’t have to compete in the outside world to obtain that second currency, and it fosters cooperation between the members of the community. I call it a yin currency—it’s more feminine in nature. And it complements the national currency, which is a competitive currency and therefore of a yang, or masculine, nature.

      Here’s why it works: poor communities don’t have a lot of national currency, but they tend to have a lot of time. In rich communities, the opposite tends to be the case—people have more national currency, but less time. In either case, each banjar is capable of creating extraordinary events just by budgeting and using more of the kind of currency—national or time—in which they are rich. This balance is a key contribution to the unusually strong community spirit that prevails in Bali. And it’s not just because they’re Hindus. There are almost a billion Hindus in India, and they don’t behave that way. Here is an example of how a currency can make a difference.


RD: We have a strong emotional attachment to money, and we worry about it. So how we relate to money influences who we are and how we think of ourselves.

BL: Yes, you’re right. But it is interesting that societies that are using different kinds of currency have also very different collective emotions concerning money. The generally accepted theory—dating back to Adam Smith—is that money is value neutral. Money is supposed to be just a passive medium of exchange. It supposedly doesn’t affect the kind of transactions we make, or the kind of relations we establish while making those exchanges. But the evidence is now in: this hypothesis turns out to be incorrect. Money is not value neutral.

      Let’s return to the example of the fureai kippu that I was mentioning earlier, the elderly care currency in Japan. A survey among the elderly asked them what they prefer: the services provided by people who are paid in yen, the national currency; or the services provided by the people paid in fureai kippu. The universal answer: those paid in fureai kippu, “because the relationships are different.” This is one example of evidence that currency is not neutral.

      Another example: there is typically a reluctance among friends to pay for help provided by using national currency. If a friend is helping you move or paint and you pay him with national currency, it just doesn’t feel right. Interesting isn’t it?


RD: So people feel differently about complementary currencies than national currencies?

BL: Yes, there have been surveys in several countries that prove this to be the case. Conventional currencies are built to create competition, and complementary currencies are built to create cooperation and community, and it’s important to be aware that both can be available to make our exchanges.

      According to Paul Ray’s (author of The Cultural Creatives, Harmony Books, 2000) study, 83 percent of Americans believe that the top priority should be to re-build community, and yet the kind of currency we use in our transactions is precisely one that eliminates community. The word “community” comes from Latin, “cum munere.” “Munere” is “to give,” and “cum” is “among each other”—so, community means “to give among each other.” In short, it turns out that dollar exchanges tend to be incompatible with a gift economy. Complementary currencies are.


RD: Are you saying that you can’t have community if you’re using dollar exchanges?

BL: I’m saying that exclusive use of a competitive programmed currency in a community tends to be destructive for the community fabric. This isn’t theory. We’ve seen this happen at the tribe level, with the collapses of traditional societies. I’ve seen one happen myself in Peru among the Chipibo in the Amazon. That tribe had been in existence for thousands of years. When they started using the national currency among themselves, the whole community fabric collapsed in five years’ time.

      The same thing happened here during the 19th century in the Northwestern United States and Canada, in the traditional indigenous societies. The moment they started using white man’s currency among themselves, the community collapsed, the traditional fabric broke down.


RD: Do you think complementary currencies really can transform our planet?

BL: Yes. Bali is a perfect example that long-term use of a dual yin-yang currency system creates a different society. Thirty percent of a Balinese adult’s life happens in the space of the yin, feminine currency, which is the time currency. In contrast, we spend close to 100 percent of our time in the masculine, yang, competitive currency. That 30 percent of time spent on community activities creates another society, where everybody can become an artist, where the community fabric is stronger, where the social safety net is reliable, where abandonment is unknown. It nurtures an extraordinary feeling of trust and a higher quality of life.


RD: And you think this kind of culture and community can exist in other places, with completely different religions and cultures?

BL: The short answer is yes. We have evidence from Japan, Germany, Mexico, Brazil and the United States to show that complementary currencies make a difference in the way people relate to each other.


RD: In a really transformed world, would a community be using multiple complementary currencies as well as the national currency?

BL: Not necessarily. What has started to happen recently is an integration—many of these services that were using highly specialized complementary currencies are beginning to integrate into a single, local social-purpose currency. For example, youngsters who are taking care of the elderly in Japan using their credits in partial payment for tuition at the university, so we’re solving two problems at the same time. It provides an additional way of making things happen that otherwise is not available when national currency is scarce. Remember, complementary currencies simply enable additional matches between unmet needs and unused resources.


RD: Does the internet and electronic transfer systems offer a means for the creation of complementary currencies?

BL: I am convinced that the reason complementary currencies are developing now because of cheap computing. Do you really think American Airlines would have frequent flyer miles if they needed an army of clerks trying to keep track of your miles? I don’t think so. But today anybody with access to a PC can start a currency system. It isn’t a coincidence that about 95 percent of the social purpose complementary currencies are electronic.


RD: So can we buy an off-the-shelf program for creating a currency?

BL: Sure. There are even different freewares already available. One of them is for operating a LETS (Local Exchange Trading System). Another one that is free of charge is to start a time dollar system. We are in the process of incorporating a non-profit foundation in Boulder, the Access Foundation, whose purpose is to provide independent information on all the different complementary currency systems that are available worldwide, and on its website one will be able to download the corresponding softwares. This website ( is planned to be operational early this fall.

      Currently, our biggest problem with money and currencies is unconsciousness. We are not aware of what we are doing around money. We haven’t really thought about what money does to us—we believe it’s neutral, so it doesn’t matter. But it’s not neutral: it deeply shapes us and our societies. The first thing that has to happen before complementary currency systems can effect real change on a larger scale is a shift in consciousness and awareness.


RD: You mean, we need to be aware of how money works?

BL: Let me ask you this. Have you taken an inventory of the number of days you spend in life getting ready to make money? And when you have money, to manage the money or spend it? But then, think about how many hours you’ve thought about what money is. I suspect not very much. We are spending a huge amount of energy to get something about which we have surprisingly little understanding.


RD: Well, it’s like the rain. It’s something you adapt to.

BL: Yes, except that rain is not man-made. That’s precisely the difference. We’re treating money as if it is God-given, like rain or the number of planets in the solar system. But it isn’t. If you don’t like the quality of rain, there’s not much you can do about it. If you don’t like your money system, maybe you can do something about it.

      Assume that a Martian lands in Denver on the wrong side of the tracks. He ends up in one of the ghettos and finds that the houses are run down, the kids not taken care of, the elderly in trouble, and the trees dying. He sees all these things, and discovers that there are people and organizations absolutely equipped and ready to solve every one of those problems. So this Martian asks, “What are you waiting for?” The answer: “We’re waiting for money.” “What is money?” the Martian inquires. “It’s an agreement in a community to use something as a medium of exchange.” Don’t you think he may leave the planet believing there is no intelligent life here?

      The point is: if money is an agreement within the community to use something as a medium of exchange, we can create new agreements, can’t we? That is exactly what people are already doing all over the world. So why don’t we do it here? If we’re waiting for conventional currency to solve all our problems, aren’t we waiting for Godot?


RD: Is this your whole campaign now? Are you through with Belgian Central Banks?

BL: I’m trying to contribute to a consciousness shift regarding money. I believe that by a small change in the money system, we can unleash huge improvements in our social system. It’s the highest leverage point for change in our society, and surprisingly few people are looking at it. If you start a new complementary currency system, it can become self-perpetuating and facilitate additional transactions forever.

      You know the saying, if you want to feed someone, give him a fish. If you want to really help him, teach him how to fish. This is just a fishing lesson—what you do with it is up to you. You can take big fish or small fish, or you can choose not to fish at all. You decide what issues you want to deal with in your community, and there is a currency system that can help you with it.


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