Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Printing Money

Photo: Katie Moorman
You may have spotted a paragraph in a recent Viva webmag noting that the Lewes Pound Group is on the march again. Clearly attempts to make the punters notice the existence of “Toms” (why is there still no nickname?) via canvas bags and stalls at the Farmers Market haven’t had the desired effect. It seems a more radical procedure is required to animate the Pound’s decaying corpse. Now they are giving (yes, giving) free Lewes Pounds if you spend a few quid in certain shops. A good marketing wheeze, no? Get the notes circulating by putting a few free tasters out there. I mean it worked for Ben and Jerry’s.

It might be helpful at this point to remind ourselves what money means. For a long time (since King Croesus in the 6th century BC, more or less), cash meant coins made of a metal agreed to be precious. Coins were a useful technology and worked fine until an unnamed, but inspired, Chinese bureaucrat in the 8th century AD came up with a brilliant idea. “Why lug that heavy gold around with you? In fact why not put it over here in this official-looking government strong-box and we’ll give you a note to say we’ll pay you back on request.” And so paper money was born. For Marco Polo such a mechanism was the greatest wonder of Kublai Khan’s empire. It was also its weak spot. Wanting to finance war (as the Mongols often did), the Mighty Khan listened to yet another clever official who proposed that, as these notes were so handy, people would rarely want to get their hands on the actual gold. Why not then simply print more paper? To be fair to the Khan this is a temptation many later rulers (including our current Government) have been equally unable to resist. 

This is not to say that the Lewes Pound group are ‘doing a Kubla’ and simply printing more dosh (though it must be tempting). Like the ancient Chinese Jiaozi, The Lewes Pound is backed by a promise to redeem it for something ‘real’, in this case Sterling. What Sterling is backed by is another story. The problem is that money is simply a way of keeping accounts between us. We have plenty of convenient ways to do this. As has been pointed out in these pages beforenew ways to pay (especially if they are less convenient) may simply end up rather de trop.

Will the current campaign change things? Possibly, but I wouldn't bet a 21 pound note on it. Despite sucking up around 15 grand to run last year and goodness knows how much time, even some Transition Townies can’t seem to be bothered to defend the economic and environmental claims made for the Pound any more. Some clearly still have hope. It does slightly remind me of an unpopular boy at my school who would give people sweets with invitations to his birthday. Whether it was a visionary marketing strategy or a desperate gesture is still not clear to me even thirty years later. I suppose it depends on whether his parents followed it up with something decent (like even more sweets). Or maybe he was great when you got to know him. Ben and Jerry’s may be rewarding on closer acquaintance and thus giving freebies makes sense. Will the Lewes Pound be so tasty?

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