A monthly preview of ideas that could change our lives
THE BARTERED BRIDE
Well, everything but. ALAN KERSHAW reports on communities where goods
and services are traded
If Australia's economy ever really sinks,
there are pockets of the
countryside that reckon they have organized some lifeboats. From
Canada they have imported an astonishing system which pioneers say is
already improving local lifestyles, developing skills, strengthening
communities, taking the pain and boredom out of unemployment and
cushioning townships from external bumps and thumps.
A non-profit Local Employment Trading System (LETS) ingeniously allows
hundreds of people to barter goods and services throughout a
community. In the Maleny district, 100 km north of Brisbane, it's
building houses where the only cash outlay need be for materials. In
Bellingen, on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, it allows
non-monetary trading in clothes, food, child care, gardening,
horse-breaking, car repairs and dozens of other goods and services.
Systems are springing up in Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, Wollongong,
Perth, Fremantle and Sydney, as well as a host of rural regions. LETS
seems set to spread through Australia... providing that the
authorities acknowledge it to be a genuine regional economic strategy
and not some bizarre new form of tax evasion.
Each LETS creates a kind of "brownie points" local economy which
transcends the limits of conventional one-to-one barter. For about $20
a year (to pay phone and computer costs), traders join a system,
nominate the services they will provide and receive a computer balance
of zero units. Monthly newsletters list services available from
everyone, along with phone numbers and first names. To request a
service, you contact the individual offering it and negotiate payment
-- in LETS units alone or a mixture of LETS and cash. No one is forced
to trade. Each buyer notifies a part-time co-ordinator who
"acknowledges" the supplier with the agreed number of units, deducted
from the recipient's balance.
The supplier can then seek services from anyone on the list. And so
can the recipient. It doesn't really matter whether you are "in
credit" or "committed" (in debit). NO INTEREST IS CHARGED OR PAID ON
ACCOUNTS. A negative balance means units have been issued to others,
not borrowed from them. Because each account starts at zero and equal
amounts are added and taken from accounts with each trade, the system
stays in balance. Trustees and advisers benignly police each system.
After only two years, Maleny has about 240 members and monthly
turnover of some 5500 "Bunyas" (its units are named after a local
tree). Annie offers professional typing, Yvonne keeps accounts. David
is a driving instructor, Geoff and Francoise do architectural design.
Jim and Regine make videos. June, Beth, Paul, Sharon, Ken and Noni
offer massages. LETS can also cut your hair, mow the lawn, take you
bushwalking, sailing or mountain-climbing, repair a guitar, knit you a
jumper.,.. and advise men in child custody cases.
Both Maleny and Bellingen list the gamut of "new age" services.
Bellingen's 163 members also trade in eggs, fruit and vegetables,
professional fashion and soon, even bread. Frank McCormick, owner of
the town's Good Food health shop, likes the way LETS fosters the local
community. He plans to sell some goods soon on a part-cash, part-LETS
basis. "More and more things are produced locally, including bread,"
he says. "This makes it more feasible."
Carina Hack, co-ordinator of courses at nearby Coffs Harbour college
of Technical And Further Education, had a LETS handyman roof her back
porch. Suzanne Sloan, 29, earns units from massage and word-processing
-- and spends them on such services as house painting, lawn-mowing,
child care and art.
Bellingen LETS trustee Claire Hogan, 32, is stunning townsfolk with
two one-off outfits made by local dressmaker Jacky Flavell. Hogan
chose the patterns and awarded Flavell 15 LETS units an hour. Hogan
has also had paving and gardening done, a wardrobe built and a
manuscript edited. She says: "A lot of the time, I have to advertise
and encourage people to use my services in financial counselling and
mediating. When people first join, they're worried that they have to
earn LETS units before they can spend them. It's a fear thing that
carries over from the Federal currency. But, until people start
transacting, nothing happens. One day, I thought, "This is ridiculous.
I'll just go out and spend some." The same day, the person I was
transacting with said "I need some financial counselling" and we did
it right there in the park."
LETS, Hogan finds, encourages trust and optimism. "But it also
encourages flexibility. People don't necessarily need recognized
qualifications. It's experience and competence we're looking for. You
don't have awards and unions and things.
The Bellingen system is enabling co-ordinator Christine Palmer to buy
a caravan for $3000 cash plus 1000 LETS units. "I don't know if I
could afford it otherwise," she reckons.
LETS units have also bought Palmer jewellery and an outfit from Ann
Rosewood's Kakadu Clothing. "Right now, we've only got one electrician
and not many of the businesses in town are in it. But its' a very
practical thing that works and is building up," says Palmer. "At
first, everybody says "What if someone spends up and leaves?" It's
certainly not been a problem. We've just had someone leave who was 600
units in credit.
"The idea of being able to go into commitment means that we trust you
to honour your commitment to our community. And people do. In
Bellingen, everybody knows each other; it's a small community. This is
making me love the town I'm living in. It's giving this feeling of
safety, because we are in a little way insulated from what might
Australian LETS founder Jill Jordan is a former psychologist and
university lecturer who moved to Maleny in 1971 -- attracted by the
"sanity-preserving" greenery of what was then, like Bellingen, a
declining timber and cattle district. Faced with local work that was
often scarce and soul-destroying, she worked to establish the local
food co-operative and then a community credit union which now manages
$2.5 million. "But, after all, wealth is not money," she says. "Wealth
is goods and services and skills. Money is merely a measure of
exchange. We needed something else."
"Magically, we heard of this system in Canada.
Jordan and a colleague flew to Canada in 1987 to visit Scottish-born
LETS originator Michael Linton and seven of the first systems,
including some in Vancouver and Calgary. LETS are spreading through
Canada and the US, she says, despite official alarm at Linton's
initial references to "greendollars" and "local currencies." LETS can
stretch a pension further. Do someone a favour with child-minding, for
instance, and those units can "buy" fruit -- of jewellery -- from
Some Maleny people declare their Bunya earnings on tax forms, only to
be ignored by bewildered bureaucrats. But Jordan has told authorities:
"Because LETS is a genuine regional economic strategy, people
shouldn't be made poorer by actually trying to get themselves off
their bums and do stuff. But we certainly don't mind it being taxed."
Indeed, Maleny account No. 9990 is reserved for the Taxation Office
and members can deposit Bunya units every year, calculated similarly
to income tax. Jordan hopes the Government eventually will spend those
units locally by hiring people fore "community enhancement" projects.
It could also, she says, pay LETS welfare recipients partly in cash
and partly in Bunyas. But essential services such as petrol, council
rates and phones are not available on LETS -- so people with low
"Federal income" should not be taxed heavily if they also have a high
unit income, Jordan argues.
German-born Bellingen artist Bernd-Udo Kusch maintains: "If the
economy is the Titanic, then this is one of the lifeboats." Jordan
agrees: "In Maleny now, a lot of house-building is done on the LETS --
right through from the architect's design, the building, landscaping,
plastering, tiling, etcetera. Apart from the materials, you can get a
whole house built on LETS. "People are incredulous that it's so simple
-- they think there must be a catch somewhere. They fear that the
authorities are going to get onto it and make them poorer. That's sad.
That's why we have addressed the whole taxation and social security
issue. "It's not a tax evasion system, it's not trying to cheat
anybody. It's a win-win solution. We've just got to go for it, you
know, we're in trouble."
Inland from Queensland's Sunshine Coast, the Maleny district used to
have one of the highest unemployment rates in Australia: around 13%.
Now, it's less than 9%. Jordan believes that innovative cooperatives
can take some credit.
But do LETS have a role in big cities? Jordan responds: "Is there
poverty in big cities? Is there alienation? Sure." Sydney and
Melbourne systems have made tentative starts. Brisbane already has
more than 100 members. "Generally, systems run easiest where community
networks are already established," Jordan says. "But they're taking
off in US cities now, with the realization that cities can be turned
back into a number of small neighbourhoods again. It's much slower in
the cities because people don't just have those networks; they've got
to be rebuilt. It's totally built on trust."
a comment to John Turmel