Complementary currencies for municipal finance

It is an act of criminal malfeasance that the United States’ federal government has not eased the tremendous fiscal pressure on states and municipalities, enabling them to prioritize public health and long-term economic wealth over immediate maintenance of tax revenue. Misgovernance of the United States presently rises to the level of war crime (and that is not just Donald Trump).

A recent article by Rohan Grey, aptly titled Monetary Resilience, highlights one way this national misgovernance might be circumvented. Municipalities could issue complementary currencies:

[S]ome of the more historically successful complementary currencies explicitly adopted the fiscal logic of public monetary regimes, anchoring their value in the acceptability in payment of local taxes, fines, or other legal obligations. This anchor reduced the local currency’s degree of autonomy and independence from the public monetary system, but in exchange provided it with greater legitimacy and stability with respect to its underlying value.

Such an approach allows local currencies to emerge organically from below, and then receive public support from above through the granting of tax-receivable status. This dynamic, in turn, points towards the possibility of an alternative hierarchy of money, in which banks and other private financial institutions responsible for shaping and directing investment are replaced by nested community currencies, operating in accordance with common principles of ecological, economic, and social justice.

Grey here envisions municipalities blessing or adopting privately founded complementary currencies, but there is no reason why local governments couldn’t start up such currencies themselves. Suppose a municipality issued basically a gift card with which certain taxes and fees could be paid at a discount. In particular, suppose that only business taxes and fees are granted this discount, but gift card balances are sold just to individuals and in limited amounts. Suppose that local businesses can apply for “merchant accounts” with respect to these gift cards, accepting payment from customers in gift card dollars just as they might from a debit card. Businesses would be eager to receive this local scrip, at least until this revenue is enough to cover all of their tax obligations eligible for the discount. They would encourage customers to pay in the scrip, whether by sharing the tax discount directly, or by offering other inducements. The overall demand inspired by the tax discount would be more than consumer facing business’ tax obligations. These businesses’ local suppliers will also prefer to be paid in scrip, and will share inducements with business customers, creating demand beyond each firm’s own tax bill. Municipalities themselves can creatively design inducement for residents to maintain balances in scrip. Perhaps residents get 10% off museums, public transit, etc if they can demonstrate a threshold balance, with a scan of a QR code on an app. There could be some (modest) VIP amenities for high balances. Perhaps balances pay interest on themselves, at a rate lower than what municipalities have to pay to float bonds but higher than what ordinary consumers earn in bank savings accounts. To put a floor under its value and limit consumer risk, municipalities could stand ready to buy back the scrip, at a discount or with a moderate transaction fee to discourage redemption. However, the city’s tax and amenity schedule would be the fundamental driver of scrip demand.

Importantly, municipalities would retain control (by their management of merchant accounts) over to whom this scrip might be paid. Complementary currencies are historically deployed in the service of localism, of encouraging circular flow within a local economy rather than “leakage” into a more global economy. Municipalities have every interest in encouraging this sort of localism, which already they do to a certain degree via PR campaigns and small business subsidies. Should chains or national vendors have access to the local tax discount that receipt of the scrip enables? That would be a local government choice.

But besides the localism, the existence of these scrips would create a new option for municipalities, increasing fiscal resilience. During periods of great need, municipal governments could encourage an increase in the float of the currency, by adjusting the tax and amenity schedule, and also by appealing to community and local pride. These currencies could serve as small scale echoes of the “war bonds” that helped finance World War II.

There are lots of reasonable objections to this idea. Most obviously, in the United States, there is a Constitutional question. The Constitution grants Congress to power “[t]o coin Money, regulate the Value thereof” and explicitly prohibits states from “coin[ing] Money; emit[ting] Bills of Credit; mak[ing] any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts”. I am not enough of a lawyer to address this question fully, but two centuries later, states and municipalities emit all kinds of debt securities that are transferable with much less restriction than those described here to finance their operations. Our “complementary currencies” do not propose any new unit of account. Each local scrip would be denominated in US dollars. As Grey describes, these are “currencies” in the same way bank deposits might be “currencies”. They plug into the existing hierarchy of money for whose zenith the Constitution prescribes a monopoly. They do not compete with or seek to supplant state money.

More substantively, is localism a good thing? Localism is arguably what contemporary national monies were designed precisely to oppose. The proudest accomplishment of modern monetary systems is that bank monies trade at “par”. Payees in Pittsburgh accept funds from Paducah Bank in Kentucky as if they were the same as funds from Citibank in New York, reducing financial frictions to commerce at a distance that once upon a time were profound. But that achievement serves also as a kind of solvent, weakening once preferential ties between specific individuals and businesses, reshaping humans, in their roles of buyer and seller and investor, into creatures more like the abstract optimizers of neoclassical economics. “Civil society” is the name we give to dense, particular, reasonably stable networks of humans who interact and collaborate over time periods that outlast a mere transaction. Precisely because contemporary monetary systems work as designed, allowing each individual to optimize their choices as though the world is always new and every counterparty interchangeable, they undermine civil society, whose development and stability are founded on advantages that come from repetition and trust. Once upon a time, we all formed social networks as an inevitable side-effect of commerce. We visited the same few grocers and hardware stores. Our rolodexes filled with travel agents and insurance agents, people who, yes, were trying to sell us stuff, but who were also human experts we could phone up and chat with as a matter of course. Those kinds of “professional networks” are now decidedly upscale. For the rest of us there is Amazon and Expedia. We gained something in price and selection, but what did we lose?

As with most economic phenomena, the best solution is probably an interior one. A world without economic specialization and trade at national or even global scales would be much poorer than the world we have come to inhabit. Our forebears were right to seek to overcome the “natural” constraints on commerce across vast chasms of geography and trust. At the same time, there are real positive externalities to local commerce and exchange, in human community and civil society, and also (as we are painfully learning) in resilience. We should not abandon the hard-won institutions that enable large scale commerce, but we should supplement them with Pigouvian subsidies of localism and its extratransactional virtues. Where economies of scale and agglomeration render widely dispersed commerce genuinely superior, we should take advantage of that. But where such economies are small, or the advantages of scale are due to market power more than genuine efficiencies, we should encourage localism. The municipal complementary currencies proposed here tilt the scale towards localism, but probably too little. In our current world, big dominates, largely not due to inexorable efficiencies, but thanks to monopolized network effects and other forms of market power that we should work to oppose. Subsidies to localism create incentives to help do that.

To me, the most cutting critique of this proposal is that it is too little, too late. The United States is in a crisis, states and municipalities are throwing human bodies on the flame to sustain a trickle of tax revenue. Standing up institutions like this would take time, and managing them well, to promote useful commerce and achieve a fiscally meaningful float, would take much more time. I don’t know that we even survive in any form under which proposals like this don’t become utopian and archaic. As a human I feel like a tremendous failure, because I have ideas about how the world should be run, maybe even some good ones, but I have failed to develop and communicate them with the urgency that might have contributed, at least a small amount, to saving us. I hope I have another opportunity, that we all do.

National politicians of every party and stripe: Please provide fiscal support to states and localities now, and encourage them to prioritize public health and long-term prosperity over immediate-term economic activity. Please.

Update: Nathan Tankus has an excellent, much more historically informed, piece on tax-receivable, municipal crisis monies!

Update II: Not unusually, I was not particularly well-read on this idea before I deigned to write about it. In addition to Nathan Tankus’ excellent piece, please see Marshall Auerback on a US-centered discussion tax-receivable municipal currencies, and Paul Katz and Leandro Ferreira for a discussion of the remarkable town of Maricá, Brazil, and the use of its longstanding digital municipal currency, the mumbuca. (I’ve appended an old-school related link box below, and may add any other links that I come across without further updates here.)

Update III: John Evans suggests a reference to perhaps the most famous municipal money experiment, the “Miracle of Wörgl“. During the Great Depression, the Austrian town of Wörgl stimulated its economy by issuing not just a local scrip, but one subject to demurrage, meaning the value of the scrip declines the longer it is held, encouraging quick expenditure. This idea, which remains popular among economists today, is most famously associated with Silvio Gesell.

Update History:

  • 28-June-2020, 3:35 p.m. EDT: Add bold update re Nathan Tankus’ excellent piece.
  • 30-June-2020, 1:50 p.m. EDT: Add second update noting more relevant municipal currency pieces, and the related links box.
  • 30-June-2020, 2:25 p.m. EDT: Add third update re the “Miracle of Wörgl”, suggested by Jon Evans.
  • 30-June-2020, 7:05 p.m. EDT: “Silvi Silvio Gesell”

2 Responses to “Complementary currencies for municipal finance”

  1. Darius J Wilkins writes:

    Eh, you sort of talk about this in the end, but…

    1) Compared to the scale of need, and considering the widespread needs of very localities, this sort of project has very little chance of being big enough to do the job, because of competition from all the other projects. It would also face serious banking practicalities and banking/merchant credit regulation practicalities. Wirecard would be a something something example of a company that’d support such local currencies, right?

    2) Speaking of Wirecard, schemes like this would involve probabilities for very dangerous regulatory capture because it nests gov’t entities with fintech actors in ways that makes its very hard to disintangle conflicts of interest. And effective local currencies is going to attract schemers and fraudsters like flies to honey.

  2. Zach writes:

    Now this is the soft currency economic discussion we need.