Maybe it’s time to invoke a modern Jubilee on the global economy. Jubilee is the Leviticus concept that every 50 years, with a sounding of the shofar on Yom Kippur, debts are forgiven, slaves freed, and title to lands let go. Basically, every half century, we start over.
As the Gulf of Mexico fills with oil, personal and national debts hit unprecedented levels, incomes and ownership have become so polarized that fewer than 20 percent of the world’s people control most of its resources, and nearly 5 billion people live in poverty, something’s got to give.
But first, let’s give some credit to how far our amazing economic systems have brought us since the Industrial Revolution. They have so helped smooth out the inequitable distribution of world resources and opportunities that food, water, shelter, health care and mobility have never been more widely accessible.
But we’ve hit a wall: We’ve run out of money to fund ourselves. It’s the recession and depression cycle of our boom-and-bust economy. It doesn’t matter whether we’re trying to reform health care, build “green,” or buy equipment to prevent an undersea oil blowout. We use the same old excuse: “We can’t afford this.” And with that, we reduce opportunities and stifle innovation. What would happen instead, if we jubilantly let go, and operated without money?
We know money contains no intrinsic value: We can’t eat, drink or plant it, or use it for clothing, shelter or procreation. Money can’t express non-monetary values, such as health, family, community, education, leisure or faith. And money’s buying power is unstable — it changes daily with supply, demand and levels of enterprise. Money’s not the root of all evil. It’s an addictive drug, and we’re stuck in the habit. But we’ve got to kick it. Perhaps if we go back to the beginning, we can return with new perspectives.
The basic no-money lifestyle is subsistence — like hunter-gatherer Israelites in the wilderness, but without the manna. It’s a self-sufficient and independent life, but it requires huge investments of time and labor to secure food, make clothing and shelter, raise the young, tend domestic animals, and migrate.
As tribes first made contact with one another and established societies, their members discovered new marvels they wanted or needed — tools, skills, adornments, even brides and grooms. To get these items, they had to find ways to trade for them, which meant setting values and prices. As trading evolved into regional and transcontinental commerce, between kingdoms, city-states and empires, means of pricing and trading evolved, too — from livestock and artifacts, to precious stones and metals, and, finally, to a representation of them all, called “money.”
It’s human to seek the most return for the least investment. Thus, we’ve created everything from labor-saving devices to hybrid crops. Around money, we learned:
1. Where a product or service can’t be offered for trade, money can (which explains why we’re perennially unwilling to part with it, even as our sages long exhorted us to give it away for the common good).
2. It’s possible to make money on money, through “debt instruments” (e.g., mortgages, stocks, bonds), creating new mediums of exchange (e.g., platinum, taxes, carbon credits), and serving as transfer agents for money, goods and services. This ability has enabled money manipulators to repeatedly torpedo our economy.
3. Amassing exchange mediums can make us comfortable and even powerful. This time-honored form of hoarding is driven by fear of scarcity. It has spawned monumental deceits and mayhem, and prodigious catastrophes for societies and ecosystems. It has also spawned endless legal and taxation efforts to reign in hoarders and manipulators, and re-distribute their wealth.
4. Money-making focuses us on the future or past, not on present living.
So how can we do things differently? Those who promote “stable” precious metals ignore its panic pricing, and the environmental damage its mining does. Those who advocate trading chickens for doctors’ care disregard the real costs of our medical systems. Those who create local currencies can’t move them beyond their localities. But taken together, these three views offer an interesting vision for a new economic model: Base it on intrinsic value. Ours is already a largely cashless society. Now, let’s go money-less.
At its simplest, the system would work on a nationwide barter and exchange system, rather like carbon credit trading, using current financial and accounting frameworks. It would be managed through national syndicates or utilities, and resources, goods and services would be consumed, offered and traded first locally, then regionally, nationally, and internationally. The system would boost local self-reliance, restore the environment, and free us to innovate and create opportunities without agonizing over what we could afford. It would change the natures of “fortunes,” “wealth,” and “riches,” but we’d all stay well-fed and healthy. And we’d judge each other based on our contributions, not our money. It may be crazy and idealistic, but it would make for a jubilant change.