Thursday Book: Can you imagine yourself rich?

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The Independent Culture
MAYBE IT is because money is such an insubstantial thing that most of us have a hard time getting enough of it. After all, the notes and coins in our pockets - themselves purely symbolic - form only a tiny portion of the money in circulation. Most of it consists of electronic impulses. Indeed, so unreal is modern money that credit card companies in the US have issued plastic to a dog, according to one of the cheery anecdotes in this book.

As a result of the ease with which money can be created, it can also be democratised. Funny Money is a grass-roots manifesto. It brings new meaning to the injunction to go out and make some money. After all, airlines do just that when they issue air miles, and stores do it when they issue loyalty points. As do communities when they launch what are known in this country as local exchange trading schemes (Lets) and in the US as "time dollars" schemes.

The latter are alternative, notional currencies issued in return for the time or effort of scheme members. There are several variants, but basically the scheme registers work done for other members in the form of credits, and members can draw on their saved credits to buy services in return. Most systems are run by an organiser with a personal computer.

Edgar Cahn, the American forefather of the hundreds of Lets schemes now in operation in the UK, noted that everybody is equal in their inheritance of time. Fancy lawyers can command a high dollar price for their time. Unemployed single mothers cannot, but through a time dollars scheme can draw value from their time and effort.

We all do this informally when we take part in babysitting circles or do favours for neighbours and family in the unspoken give-and-take of social life. The schemes backed by David Boyle and campaigners such as the New Economics Foundation do it more formally, as a means of enriching some of the poorest and most excluded members of society.

Conventional economists tend to be a bit sniffy about alternative-money schemes. Parts of this book will confirm the hard-headed sceptic in his view that the idea is a bit flaky. For example, in a concluding list of advice, Mr Boyle urges us to "create wealth... by imagining it, visualising it - or just by being more generous with it. Though to do so you have to let go of the deadwood emotions of the past and embrace the future with some enthusiasm, which is sometimes difficult when you are grindingly poor".

Certainly, nobody who is conventionally wealthy got that way by such a New Age approach. Self-made man is, on the contrary, typically a rather stingy and obsessive beast, a workaholic and the last person to buy a round down the pub. However, for the merely comfortable, there is a lot of good sense in advice that can be boiled down to keeping a sense of perspective about money. It is the same in the end as the basic precept that money and value can differ. Different values can have their own currency.

The catch is that we all need a certain amount of conventional money to buy conventional goodies. We all need some global electronic money to be part of the world economy, as well as some homespun value to be rooted in our local economy. Mr Boyle's last piece of advice - "don't shop" - is, at least for flighty people such as me, a serious turn-off. It's a bit of the joyless puritanism about consumerism to which so many alternative and green thinkers are prone.

This is why "downshifting" is so deeply unappealing and depressing an alternative. Its guru, Amy Dacyczyn, has a three-year system of rotation to make her cheap sneakers last. This is a lot weirder than visualising money. It is the counsel of defeat, whereas creating a new currency is a counter-attack. There are signs that the money establishment is taking alternative electronic currencies a bit more seriously. Bernard Lietaer, who once worked in Belgium's central bank, is one convert trying to persuade bankers and politicians that, if they don't watch out, a whole new parallel economy will have emerged.

And, after all, money is power. As Mr Boyle reminds us, Virginia and Maryland started minting their own currencies just ahead of the American Revolution. Alternative currencies are a potent means for the poor and comfortably-off alike to use free markets and new technology - so often seen as the weapons of the haves against the have-nots - in order to break the monopoly of conventional money. The world in which the dollar and euro are slugging it out for global dominance - in cyberspace, through the computers of the big investment banks - is ripe for an outbreak of monetary democracy.