New England Town Prints Up Its Own Currency

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In the long-term, the non-profit Berkshares, Inc., would like the capability to offer loans in Berkshares to start-up businesses, thereby promoting small-scale manufacturing that has been lost to the global economy.

"We think that by strengthening the piece of the fabric of this country, this world, that you're strengthening the whole," said Asa Hardcastle, the young software engineer who heads Berkshares, Inc. "We definitely hope that this grows and this becomes something that flourishes across the country and the world."

Similar programs are in place in a handful of other American towns -- the most successful program being in Ithaca, N.Y., where 900 businesses accept "Ithaca Hours."

The Berkshares program caught the eye of Sam Anderson, a community activist and black history professor in Brooklyn, N.Y. He thinks an alternative currency could be a tool for reviving black and Hispanic businesses, which he said have been "locked out of capitalistic development."

Anderson suggested that a "Blackshares" experiment could start in a community such as Harlem or East Los Angeles, and eventually have a wider inter-state reach.

"In the slavery period, you had this economic relationship developing," Anderson said. "It was more bartering between enslaved Africans, between plantations. … That tradition was carried on in the Reconstruction period, and during that period you had the most powerful economic development in the black community coordinated in the South."

Anderson said the introduction of Jim Crow laws set black businesses back so far, they've never adequately recovered to compete with mainstream white businesses.

"By the time [of the Civil Rights movement], the economic development between white development and black development was so disparate … that by the 1960s, when black business folk were trying to do something, there was already a monopolistic structure in place," he said.

Anderson explained that while a racially-based currency might appear to discriminate or isolate, "if you want to support black economic development, no matter what race you're from, you'd get Blackshares."

Like Berkshares, the idea behind the still-theoretical Blackshares is to challenge the current tide of globalization. It is, at its heart, a way for the disenfranchised communities who have missed out on the fruits of global capitalism to have their piece of the pie.

Regional currencies can also be seen as part of a larger environmental movement. In many cases, local production and consumption makes more sense in terms of energy efficiency and with warnings about global warming and dependence on foreign oil ubiquitous these days, the argument for "local living" is especially relevant.

"By making sure we have a vibrant local economy with local production, then we are creating a more sustainable future for our region," said Witt. "If other regions do the same, then we are creating networks of more sustainable regional economies that certainly want to trade with each other outside, but have within them the resources to support their own economies in the future."

It's a big vision for such a modest person, but Witt is not too far off. The chambers of commerce of three neighboring towns recently contacted Witt to see how they can bring Berkshares to their communities.

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