As featured in The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, and more!

Economics


Currencies work as a means of storing and trading value because the people who use them have faith in their value. Faith involves putting trust in an entity more powerful than oneself, whether that entity is a market or a government. Even when the value of money was based on a commodity like gold, its value required faith that everyone would value the commodity similarly. This is still a step removed from when money was based on something that had a value in its use to everyone in the community, like wheat.

Our willingness to put faith in almost any medium of exchange has led to interesting developments. The same concepts that allow us to use legal tender, dollars and cents in the United States, allow different communities to develop their own currencies. If you spend time in computer games — and many people spend a good portion of their lives socializing in virtual environments and “worlds” created just for entertainment — you might need to trade your “real” money for virtual currency that can be used in the game.

The developers who control the game also have control over the exchange rate — how much one unit of game currency costs in the “real world.” If the world is big enough, they can let the market determine the exchange rate. Virtual currencies are popping up everywhere, because from a commercial perspective, whoever controls the currency can pull profit from the exchange.

  • Facebook Credits operate in a manner similar to currency in virtual reality games. You can buy Credits to use in games and to trade for gifts online. Facebook determines the exchange rate and is also the “bank” where you store your Credits.
  • Bitcoin is likely the most popular virtual currency because it is invading on the territory of actual, legal tender. You can buy products and services in the real world using Bitcoins, often as a secondary option to cash and credit.

As long as everyone agrees on the value of a bitcoin or of any other manner of currency, does it make a difference whether people use a currency backed by the government or not for private transactions? Should anyone be concerned that transactions occur using a currency not produced and maintained by the government in power in the land or lands where the transactions take place? After all, if I wanted to buy, for example, a printer worth $100 from a friend, I could give him $100 in cash or I could trade with him using, for another example, a mobile phone we agree is worth about the same as the printer. Why not transfer $100 worth of bitcoins to him, as long as we agree on the amount?

Virtual currencies open the door for manipulation and money laundering, so the government wants to apply the same financial regulations to these virtual currencies. Traditional banks — entities that deal with the currency supported by the United States government — need to file financial reports to the government for transactions exceeding $10,000 or otherwise suspicious activity and keep accurate records of their business. So far, companies that buy and sell virtual currencies have no such regulations, and are thus more inviting towards criminals who would use such currencies for nefarious purposes.

In fact, transfers using virtual currencies can be anonymous, unlike large transfers of money using government-backed securities. You can “follow the money” to trace transactions back to a source, most of the time without difficulty, when dollars are in use; with currencies that allow anonymous transfers, it’s easier to hide the true source of the funds.

There’s no evidence of Bitcoin-funded terrorism or any large cases of money laundering that have been public so far, but the Treasury Department isn’t waiting around. They will start applying anti-money-laundering rules to virtual currencies and the companies that deal with them. The financial industry, through the American Bankers Association, is keen to ensure that regulations that restrict the free flow of money to and from all sources apply to all vehicles the same. That’s a concern that comes not out of overall security for the country and the well-being of innocent citizens who might be harmed by financial fraud, but for the sake of their own firms who don’t have to face competitors in an unregulated financial Wild West.

The Bitcoin Foundation is fighting the move by the Treasury Department to regulate virtual currency, citing the burden it would be for bitcoin merchants to comply with the new regulations.

My use of bitcoins extended to a few hours when the currency was gaining popularity. I tried using the service, which required running an application on my computer continuously. This seemed to be more that what would be necessary to use a currency, so I uninstalled the program and didn’t think much of it. Also, I haven’t played any games that required depositing “real” money to convert to credits to be used within the game — I always figured getting my money back would be more of a hassle than it’s worth to play the game. But “kids these days” are more apt than I to use their money — or their parents’ money — to advance their characters in these role-playing games that use virtual currency.

Should the government have the power to regulate virtual currencies? Are national security and the protection of citizens from financial scams good enough reasons to require the government’s involvement with these transactions? I see little functional difference between a transaction in dollars and a transaction in bitcoins, for example, so if we must abide by regulations for one, we should need to for the other.

Wall Street Journal

{ 6 comments }

Do you reward your children with money for performing well in school? Do you use the promise of an allowance to ancourage appropriate behavior in the family? These are big issues, because they take appropriate behavior and can turn the incentive to financial gain. Children growing up believing that financial gain is the reward for correct social behavior rather than seeing the intrinsic benefit.

The idea that everything has a financial value seems to have become more prevalent over the last two decades, according to a new book. In What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel, the author argues that our trend of attributing market thinking to an increasing array of behavior could be detrimental to society.

The book has not yet been released as of the time of writing this article, so I haven’t read it yet. A review in Fortune Magazine is inspiring me to pre-order the book before its release.

The author notes how Americans are now more comfortable with marketing or selling things they might have not in the past. Selling ad space on foreheads, accepting money for branded tattoos, and paying students for each book they read are a few examples of things that might have been unthinkable a few years ago. I would add that the pervasiveness of the Internet has made some of this possible, when it comes to selling ourselves. Through the democratized ability to self-publish, people can easily market themselves without much effort. If you get enough attention, some company also looking for attention would be happy to pay you to do something newsworthy, like slapping a brand on your car for a year.

With the popularity reality television, the idea that anyone can become famous — not just for fifteen minutes but for an entire television season — and wealthy (think: Kardashians) is enticing.

Here are some thoughts from the Fortune Magazine review of the book:

The price we pay for this behavior plays out in several ways, Sandel argues. First off, poorer people are impacted disproportionately by the commercialization of personal space. How many affluent people are lining up to turn their houses or bodies into billboards? In this way, the decision to sell isn’t necessarily as independent and free as it may look. In a society increasingly driven by financial power, moreover, the wealthy hold even better hands than they would otherwise. Why bother encouraging your kid to study hard if you can simply grease his path into Harvard or Yale with the promise of a massive donation?

The more emphasis we place on money in society, the more power society gives to those who have it. I don’t think that today’s plutocratic oligarchy is too much different than western society in most of recent history, however. Those with money have always had the power. We like to think of government in the United States as “of the people, for the people, by the people,” but the Founding Fathers were mostly wealthy and mostly represented the wealthy, though several did their best to be sympathetic to those who were not as fortunate.

It was difficult to leave all old-world philosophies behind; property owners were afforded more rights than those who did not own property. A subtle class distinction still persists between homeowners and renters today.

Political and societal power has always been focused on an elite group of people who have the most money. This is why social change — giving the right to vote to all adults rather than a select few, extending human rights to all citizens rather than a select few, etc. — is only successful through revolution. Those with power and money aren’t much interested in sharing.

At times, market principles put in place to make an altruistic act look even more attractive do just the opposite. Sandel cites the case of a small village in the Swiss mountains called Wolfenschiessen that was once a candidate to house a nuclear waste site. When surveyed by economists, a majority of residents said they’d accept the site as an act of civic duty. The economists then added money to the equation, offering the residents as much as $8,700 each to accept the waste site. At this point, support for the deal plummeted among the villagers. From their perspective, the cash turned a sacrifice for the greater good into a plain old bribe.

Money changes the equation, whether used to encourage someone to do the right thing — who then learns that doing the right thing should always be rewarded the compensation — or to encourage someone to do something that would otherwise give him or her pause.

Fortune Magazine laments that the book does not offer any alternatives for a way of living that does not suffer from over-commercialization. Were wealth not to provide an individual so much power, it couldn’t be used as an effective incentive for changing someone’s behavior. Is there a way for the United States to hold onto the capitalism that’s such an important piece of the success of its individuals and the nation as a whole while taking money out of the power equation?

Also, how far will you go for money? Everyone has his price. Would you sell your body parts? Your kidney for $1,000? Your foot for $100,000? Your arm for $1 million? Would you kill someone for $100,000? For $50 million? For $1 billion? Morals may stand in the way to an extent — but that extent is most likely broken at some level.

Fortune Magazine

{ 9 comments }

It may be illegal for states to print money for commerce, but local communities have no such restriction from the federal government. And in some communities, local currencies have been successful, at least in gaining the support of some retailers and consumers.

There’s no law of nature that says that an economy functions best when the broadest number of people use one currency exclusively. Currency is just a placeholder that creates efficiency. Without it, we’d have to barter for products and services. Without currency, a tailor would need to trade his services whenever he wanted to buy food for his family. In a free market, theoretically, anything could be used as a currency. The government or quasi-government organizations help by establishing a currency as a standard, so there is faith in its consistency.

Dollar currencyNot everyone is satisfied with this solution, however.

A community may start its own currency for a few reasons:

  • Local currencies can help keep more funds invested in the community instead of helping national or global companies profit. When you buy a light bulb at Home Depot, part of that profit goes to the headquarters, and eventually shareholders, including global investors. When you buy a light bulb at a local hardware store whose owners live within the community, more of that profit stays in town — but not all unless the light bulb supplier and manufacturer is also in town.
  • When companies pay a part of their employees’ salaries in local currency, or when a consumer participates in a community marketplace by selling their items or services while taking payment in the local currency, the profit stays in the community.
  • A town or city bonded together by a unique currency builds the sense of community and encourages businesses to work together, not just for the greater economic benefit of the town, but to ensure that all consumers and retailers engaging in economic activity using the currency remain good citizens and fair businesses.
  • Local currencies present an alternative choice for people who believe the federal government cannot be trusted with the responsibility of ensuring economic stability through monetary policy. A community-based financial system can help people in the community feel better about threats of inflation or devaluation.
  • With local currency in hand, a customer will peruse the directory of merchants accepting the currency and make purchasing decisions based on this list, effectively ignoring companies whose profits benefit those outside the community.

In Philadelphia, the “equal dollar” is a local currency that has flourished for over a decade. Philadelphians can earn equal dollars by volunteering in the community or by selling items. There is a $10 (USD) membership fee and a =$50 (equal dollars) sign-up bonus for individuals; merchants can join for a $25 (USD) fee and receive a =$125 (equal dollars) bonus. It’s unclear how many merchants accept equal dollars, but those who do often require the bulk of the transaction to be in U.S. dollars.

This system isn’t too far removed from certain gift cards. Replace the idea of the community with a mall, and you’ll recognize the paradigm. One of my local indoor malls is owned by a national mall company. They offer gift cards that can be used in any store within any of this company’s branded malls. This is a currency as reliable as the U.S. dollar (as the value is denominated in dollars, not a separate currency of its own), but just like a local currency that ties its spending to the community, the gift cards tie spending to stores that pay rent for space in the mall properties.

Philadelphia is not the only community that has created its own currency to increase local solidarity. You can find local currencies in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts, Seattle, Portland, and Traverse City, Michigan.

I’d be concerned about counterfeit currency. Official government currency like the U.S. dollar is though to counterfeit effectively due to a large number of security measures, but it seems to me that this technology is not readily available to whatever printing services are used by communities that offer their own currency. Of course, since the U.S. dollar is incredibly popular, more counterfeiters aim at overcoming the security measures. Thus, popular currencies may be subject to fraud more than a community currency, but the concern still exists.

Would you use a local currency to replace some or all of your U.S. dollar use in your community?

Images_of_Money

{ 11 comments }

In the movie Clerks, the convenience store cashier, Dante, occasionally takes a break from manning the counter. Rather than ensuring every customer paid for his or her items, he leaves a sign: “Please leave money on the counter. Take change when applicable. Be honest.” Dante believes customers assume they are being watched and will leave the correct amount.

While this scenario is just a movie, the upper-scale fast food chain Panera is experimenting with a similar approach. The company may not have been inspired by Clerks; more likely, they are taking a page from museums or parks where admission may be free but the facilities list a suggested donation. At one location in Missouri, Panera is taking the “non-profit” approach. The idea is customers pay what they can for a meal, based on the suggested price. In theory, rich people pay more and poor people pay less — or nothing at all.

According to the restaurant, 60% to 70% of customers pay the suggested price, 15% pay more, and 15% pay less or take their meals for free. The store does not seem to be attracting the area’s poor in large numbers as one might expect from an establishment offering basically free food, like a soup kitchen.

The store has not covered its costs yet, but the management expects it will within months. “Non-profit” doesn’t mean that the company doesn’t earn money above its expenses. An organization needs to make money to survive. Is a non-profit fast food restaurant a sound business idea? If you are a business owner, would you take the chance of giving your services for free by allowing your customers to pay what they wish?

Panera is taking the chance, relying on honesty and on the kindness of rich strangers to subsidize the poor or those who just don’t want to pay. They will be opening more of these restaurants where diners are free to leave as much or as little as they want in exchange for their meals.

Photo: bgottsab
Panera to open more pay-what-you-wish restaurants, Christopher Leonard, Associated Press, June 2010

{ 5 comments }

Thinking is Not Enough

by Frank Curmudgeon

This is a guest article by Frank Curmudgeon, author of the Bad Money Advice blog. For updates from Frank, subscribe to the Bad Money Advice RSS feed. We often see the struggle to get control of our spending as being the conflict between our emotional and logical selves. Emotion wants to go out to that ... Continue reading this article…

7 comments Read the full article →