Sun, Aug 09, 2015 - Page 6 News List

Change for a Bowie: Money beyond leaders

NY TIMES News Service, LONDON

Although paper money in the UK typically bears the visage of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, the Brixton district of the city last month released a new £5 note designed by Jeremy Deller, an artist who won the Turner Prize in 2004. It features a fuzzy, psychedelic image of an androgynous face surrounded by rainbow clouds and coruscating, swirling etchings.

“I wanted something old-fashioned-looking,” Deller said. “Something almost pre-currency.”

About 190km west of Brixton, in the city of Bristol, a pound note issued after a design competition that was open to local residents displays a colorful lemur striding atop a vibrant cityscape. The back has magenta-hued, hand-cut stencil illustrations of accomplished denizens, including author JK Rowling and Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the US.

As bitcoin, PayPal and other electronic forms of payment grow in popularity in the global economy, cash in a growing number of places — not only Bristol and Brixton, but also Amsterdam; Ithaca, New York; and elsewhere — is becoming quite literally an artisanal object.

Many of the new alternative currencies have the look and feel of the regular legal tender accepted at such places. Most include anti-counterfeiting measures like holograms and serial numbers. However, they are more eye-catching.

At the Effra Social, a Brixton pub, Ewan Graham, 31, an architect, was impressed upon examining one of the district’s special pound notes for the first time.

“I’d be more inclined to save money if it all looked like that,” he said.

The back of the note displayed a Karl Marx quote about capital and its “occult ability to add value to itself.”

The £10 note, meanwhile, pictured David Bowie, a Brixton native. It is easy to imagine such notes being fetishized as audiophiles do vinyl.

The local currency, though, is intended not as a collectible but to encourage trade at the community businesses where they are accepted, rather than chain stores, where money taken in tends to flow out of town and into the coffers of multinational corporations.

“If you use a local currency, you keep the money local, and that has a ‘lifts all boats’ vibe to it,” said David Wolman, the author of The End of Money.

One perhaps surprising alternative-currency enthusiast is the former Belgian central banker Bernard Lietaer, who was an architect of the European Currency Unit, the convergence system between 12 currencies that led to the euro. Now a professor of money and sustainability at the Sorbonne in Paris, he believes that money is “an extraordinarily emotional object,” the immense power of which he likens, psychologically, to sex.

Alternative currencies, he suggested, provide an “implicit incentive: I want to give priority to — and I’m willing to make an effort for — my region or community.”

Lietaer suggested that Greece, currently in bailout talks, should create a complementary electronic currency that could be accepted for the payment of taxes and usable on a local basis. This secondary currency, which he called a “neo-drachma,” could be usable via mobile phone to purchase local goods and services, and could fluctuate against the euro.

“If a Greek person wants to buy a German car, he would have to buy it in euros, at the exchange on the currency that’s accepted with the euro,” Lietaer said. “At the same time, for a haircut? I don’t see any reason to use euros.”

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