A few posts ago I wrote about the Florida judge who did not consider bitcoin to be money in part because “it cannot be hidden under a mattress like cash and gold bars”. Then I came across this BBC story about prisons in the US where the food is so unappetising that (cheap, tasty, calorific) ramen noodles have become the most valuable prison commodity. And so my mind has turned to non-virtual alternative currencies: what do people use for trading (rather than investing) when money is unreliable or unobtainable?
In the days before money, of course, there were alternatives such as shells, blankets, beads, salt and peppercorns. But sometimes communities find that legal tender is not of much use to them, while other items are much more coveted. In UK prisons, for instance, the most desired items are spices (prison food is generally bland because pots of pepper and chilli powder could be used as weapons), tuna fish (good for healthy eating) and old favourite tobacco. During the 1991 recession, the local authorities in Ithaca in New York state launched the Ithaca HOUR alternative currency. HOURS, each now worth US$10 or an hour of work, are legal and taxable; they circulate within the community, moving from local shop to local artisan and back, rather than leaking out into the larger monetary system. In the UK, we have several “complementary currencies” of our own: the Bristol Pound, the Brixton Pound, the Exeter Pound and the Lewes Pound.
Looking ahead, currency exchange Travelex has invented a currency that could be taken into space – the QUID, or Quasi Universal Intergalactic Denomination. QUIDs are polymer discs inscribed with a map of our solar system so that aliens will know where the discs have come from, and are designed to survive the rigours of space flight (unlike, say, fragile money or plastic cards with mag strips).
With all of these options – not to mention the more immediate and real concern about virtual currencies – it might be time to consider a rebranding. Perhaps “money laundering” is old hat, and we should be talking instead about “value laundering”.