It’s All about the Normans
We are now into the global stage of humanityâ€™s evolution. When viewed over the span of the past 10,000 years it is clear that we have moved from tribe to village to city, to state, to country to planet. In speeches I give around the country I discuss this â€œFlow to Globalâ€ as one of the forces currently reshaping and restructuring the world.
This reorganization into a global economy and market place has, can, and will cause pain at the local level. Industrial Age manufacturing businesses in this country have been moved offshore to lower cost countries. Call centers open in India and the Philippines. As individuals we have to understand our economic value is increasingly measured on the global stage. Unfortunately, our political leaders seem to be reactive and pander to those in pain rather than provide new direction. What can local communities do to stay robust, promote community and still be a part of this global trend?
Great Barrington, Massachusetts has come up with an answer that is creative, fun and sounds like it might actually work. This town is in the Berkshire Mountains. A number of local businesses have agreed to accept an alternative currency called BerkShares and to give a discount of ten percent to those who use them. These alternative bills have different people on them than the dead presidents and statesmen on US currency. Herman Melville is on the twenty, Norman Rockwell on the fifty, Robyn Wan En a champion of locally supported agriculture is on the five, W.E.B. DuBois, a civil rights movement founder is on the ten and a Mohican Indian is on the one.
Local residents can go into one of several local banks and exchange US currency for Berkshares. The key is that they get 11 BerkShares for every 10 US dollars. These BerkShares can then be spent at local merchants who are therefore providing a ten percent discount. These merchants then turn around and pay their bills with these same bills, thereby getting their ten percent discount. So many of the local businesses have participated that it a functioning, though closed economic system whereby the concept of buying locally provides residents with a built in discount.
These BerkShares donâ€™t work at Amazon or at other on-line commerce sites, which of course is the point. The money recycles within the community rather than flowing away from it. Evidently businesses that buy goods regionally or nationally can only have limited participation and some have scaled back after having to take a ten percent hit that they could not recoup upstream with their suppliers. So, it is an imperfect system and is driven by idealism yet it has been embraced so heartily by the community that it has now become somewhat institutionalized in the local economy in the five months since its inception..
I have written a number of columns here about disintermediation and the fact that we are in a historical period of great disintermediation. The Internet is the greatest disintermediation agent since Gutenberg and his moveable type printing press. The world is being reshaped by it and by the historically inevitable move to a more global economy and culture. That being true, people are global citizens and global consumers, but they also live in a physical place, in a neighborhood that has its own unique location and characteristics. This has given rise to the dual reality phenomenon of today, where peoplesâ€™ identities are equally divided yet real, both on-line and off-line. My son and his friends in college have two, seemingly equal realities: the physical on-campus reality of classes, dorms and social events, and their on-line identity in Facebook or MySpace. For those of us that are not as into on-line social networks, we still have created an on-line profile, address and presence that we did not have a decade ago. We may still live in the same place, but part of our identity is now on global cyberspace. This initial rush has caused a great deal of transitional pain to local, physical businesses, not unlike what mega-stores like Wal-Mart did to local downtown merchants when they opened up at the outer edges of communities.
Since people do live in places, there needs to be ways to support community in these places as people need to have a sense of belonging and place to some degree. I think that what Great Barrington is doing with BerkShares is a truly innovative idea that will be joined by other ideas to support localism. Historically we have always lived in a place, a community of which we, to a greater or lesser degree, have been a part. It is in this community that we experience our face to face transactions and a good amount of our human interaction. We now have this new global community that we are becoming a part of. Both communities are important for our healthy economic and human survival.
Norman Rockwell on the fifty dollar BerkShare is so appropriate. He has become the artist who lovingly documented, with great nostalgia, our recent American past. I doubt that a rap group will write a song â€œItâ€™s All About the Normansâ€, but if one does, it will sell well in Great Barrington, and those buying it there will get a discount.