Fair Exchange Is No Robbery - It Could Be a New Source of Work
Coyle, Diane, The Independent (London, England)
Pundits sitting in their offices surrounded by computers or, more likely, in Club class on a plane with their laptop open and a glass of champagne to hand, tend to focus on the glamorous aspects of our changing economy.
It is communications gizmos, the highly profitable entertainment industries, the opportunities for ultra-educated and internationally mobile professionals, the global capital flows, that attract all the attention.
But these form only one aspect of the fundamental changes that are taking place, and the one that is probably of least interest to most people. What they care about is where the jobs will be and how they will make a living. The majority is unfamiliar with the delights of business travel. There has been a vogue for dire predictions of future social turmoil and upheaval as global capitalism puts increasing numbers out of work. The latest to fall victim to this fashion was none other than the ultra- capitalist George Soros writing in the US magazine the Atlantic Monthly. The lesson of history is that this fashionable gloom is nonsense. In the 18th Century the Physiocrats, a group of French political economists, predicted disaster as manufacturing took over from agriculture. They argued that only agriculture was productive because seed generated a whole lot of new corn, whereas manufacturing was sterile because it merely involved the processing of materials. The doomsters who see disaster in the current economic trends will come to seem just as silly as the Physiocrats. My assertion does, however, demand an answer to the question about where the jobs replacing all those displaced by information technology will be. The most authoritative employment forecasts come from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. It sees two main sources of new work in future: the professional, high- flying kind; and "community, social and personal services". Many more people will be employed in this latter category, which covers a huge range of people-intensive services from teaching and nursing through security guards and cleaners to aromatherapists and personal trainers. An important part of this expansion will turn out to be in what Americans call the "third sector" and Continentals the "social economy". This sector has rather fuzzy boundaries. It includes charities and churches but also organisations such as housing associations, which overlap with the public sector, and grassroots organisations such as credit unions. One of the most promising avenues for the generation of jobs and income in the social economy takes the form of the local exchange trading system, or Lets. Essentially, a Lets scheme allows people in a given area to barter goods and services. They can be seen as an extension of the social bartering that most of us participate in - looking after friends' children, running errands for somebody who is ill, in the knowledge that the neighbourliness will be repaid if necessary. Many of the formal schemes in this country consist of a computer bulletin board, describing the offers or requirements to trade, and an accounting system which records the transactions and keeps credits and debits up to date. The buyer and seller negotiate a price between them. The units of account are an alternative form of money - "anchors" in Greenwich, "strouds" in the town of the same name in Gloucestershire. The US schemes are more likely to have a physical, printed alternative currency, such as "Ithaca Hours" in the town in upstate New York. A swift Internet search reveals a large number of schemes, most in the US and UK. …