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Articles etc./Big Change

Review of The Money Changers: currency reform from Aristotle to e-cash by David Boyle (Earthscan, London, 2002) - £17.95. Resurgence magazine (Nov/Dec 2003).

Big Change - James Robertson looks forward to a money system transformed

Our aspirations for a greener, juster, more people-centred way of life, a new direction of more peaceful progress, and a new consciousness about our place in the planet, have been growing.

But we are now realising that they can't be fulfilled, so long as we allow the perverse incentives and compulsions of the present money system to shape how we actually live. David Boyle's anthology on monetary reform and innovation is wide-ranging and timely. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

The earliest of his contributors is Aristotle (350 BC). Marco Polo (circa 1299) is there, along with Francis Bacon (1601), Benjamin Franklin (1729), three American presidents - Jefferson (1813), Jackson (1832) and Lincoln (1865) - Ruskin (1860), William Morris (1891), Keynes (1933), Irving Fisher (1935), J.K. Galbraith (1954), George Soros (1995) and a fascinating line-up of sixty others from the 18th to 21st centuries.

Boyle's Introduction on "The failure of money" leads into seven Parts: "The trouble with money: there isn't enough of it"; "The trouble with money: there's too much of it"; "The trouble with money: it's corrupt"; "Democratic money"; "Future money"; "Create your own: real money"; and "Create your own: free money". His own commentaries make up about half the book. They add greatly both to the pleasure of dipping into it and to its value as a resource for the student.

It doesn't cover international monetary reform - e.g. to deal with Third World debt, and the huge profits the USA gets from the dollar as a global currency. Some may regret that. But including this comparatively modern aspect of the topic could have made the book unwieldy - obscuring its main aim of illustrating "the great creative tradition of questioning" about how money works and should work.

The book is sure to stimulate healthy discussion. To take one point, I personally think Boyle underestimates the damage of continuing to allow the big commercial banks to profit from issuing 95% of national money (pounds, dollars, etc) as profit-earning loans (i.e. debts) to bank customers, and underplays the overwhelming social, economic and political arguments for having money created by an agency of the state and issued debt-free to the government to spend into circulation.

Political democracy has been spreading around the world for more than two hundred years, but now - as the power of national and international banking and finance becomes more and more dominant - political democracy is under threat.

To hope to restore its credibility by replacing the existing money system with local community schemes like LETS and time banks - "funny money" as Boyle called them in one of his earlier books - would be wholly unrealistic. The mainstream money system itself must be transformed. Small may be beautiful, but monetary reform must be more than 'small change'.

Anyway, on with the debate!

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