Guinness, Shiatsu and the CES

I belong to the Cape Town Community Exchange System, a local currency (or LETS). The system has been fascinating for me, as its caused to me to think about how our economic system works (or not). For someone who’s never had any formal economic training, the system allows me to examine the implications of various events on a smaller, less complex scale.

Briefly, the system works as follows:

  • A member joins, and starts with a zero balance.
  • If a member spends, their balance is decreased, if they earn, their balance is increased. Members can be economically active without any access to money, a key benefit for poorer communities, where skills can be tapped and trading commence without the problem of banks not wanting to extend credit.
  • The key point is that being in the negative is not punishable (there is no interest charged), while being in the positive is not rewarded (there is no interest earned). This discourages hoarding, and encourages spending.
  • There is also no credt limit. A member can go as low as the community lets them. There is no central authority, and each member plays the role of ‘bank’.

The system is working very well in Cape Town. November was the most successful month, with a total of 96000 Talents (a Talent is roughly equivalent to a Rand) traded in November between 520 active members. I find the ‘money’ has an entirely different feel to it. I am happy to spend on things I would be reluctant to spend on in the Rand economy. I particularly enjoy spending on massages. Having not gone for one for a while, with a stressful time at work and my tai chi practice taking strain, my shoulders were extremely tense. Nothing a good shiatsu massage can’t cure. I felt like I’d been through a sausage machine afterwards, but also that a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Other things I’ve spent on (not all for myself personally!) include a stream for the back garden, vegetarian catering, some earthworms, dialup connectivity, repairs on my toaster, careers counselling, sushi, yoga lessons, plants, electrical repairs, painting of the deck and lots of food.

It’s also provided me with a great deal of fun in an unforseen way. Spending way too much time thinking about how the system works has turned out to be an enjoyable pastime. Monday afternoon was spent drinking Guinness chatting with a friend about credit limits and integrating the CES with the Rand economy.

There does tend to be an imbalance of offerings on the system – large numbers of healing arts and IT services, but that’s the nature of the audience it attracts currently. All trades are captured online with a browser, so the IT appeal is clear. The ubiquitousness of the healing offers is probaby more pshychological. Those who are attracted to ‘alternative’ medicine probably also are attracted to ‘alternative; economics.

The CES is also present in Jhb, the Garden Route, PE and others, although these are still a lot smaller. But feel free to try it out!