It takes a brave iconoclast to defy the priesthood of mainstream economics and declare that valuable work can actually occur outside of the marketplace. It takes an even more daring activist to dream up a practical demonstration of this insight, and to spread the innovation around the world.
That, in brief, is what Edgar Cahn has achieved over the past 25 years by inventing a new currency, Time Dollars. The currency is the height of simplicity: Perform an hour of work any work and you earn one Time Dollar. A bank account keeps track of how many Time Dollars you have earned, which you can then spend on any services that members of a Time Dollar community have to offer.
Cahn began his odyssey into the non-market universe in 1980 when he was flat on his back in the hospital, recovering from a heart attack. The cofounder of Antioch Law School and cofounder of National Legal Services, Cahn suddenly experienced a wave of revulsion at being inert and useless. An enormously capable man, he had suddenly become the passive recipient of everyone else's help. He realized, with a shock, that his was an everyday experience for the poor, disabled and elderly.
As he contemplated his own predicament, Cahn had a striking insight about the limitations of the helping professions and the market system. They objectify people. They do not engage their humanity or elicit the basic skills, energy, and simple decency that we all have. People who are old, poor, disabled or uneducated have worthwhile contributions to make to their communities. But how, practically speaking, can those gifts be mobilized?
Cahn became incensed that the market and social welfare system essentially discard people who have no marketable value. They offer patronizing charity or contemptuous neglect, but not dignified engagement. Markets are fantastically powerful in using money and contracts to mobilize material resources, but they are woefully inept in mobilizing human beings to address social needs and inequities.
With foundation support, Cahn launched Time Dollars in the late 1980s as a system of self-help for communities. Soon it had been endorsed by the U.S. Administration on Aging, and the federal government was helping promote the service-credit program. It was featured in The New York Times and The Today Show. By 2000, some 70 communities in Great Britain, Japan, and the U.S. had registered programs on the Time Dollar web page (www.timedollar.org). Time Dollars has been remarkably successful in diverse situations.
The Chicago public schools used Time Dollars to organize after-school peer tutoring that not only made it cool to learn, but gave the tutors a new source of pride (see YES!, Fall 2002 and Spring 1997). An HMO in New York City, Elderplan, used the system to help senior members give health care to each other, reducing costs for everyone. In Baltimore, residents in public housing have used the system to provide help to each other and the local school. They also use Time Dollars to buy bus passes, furniture, and other goods.
What is notable about these and many other incarnations of Time Dollars programs is how they have mobilized a kind of parallel universe to the marketplace. Instead of eliciting the selfish, competitive spirits unleashed by the market system, the service credits have stimulated caring and social connection while providing a means to get work of genuine value accomplished.
Now that Time Dollars has matured, Cahn wants to reflect upon the lessons learned. In a second, updated edition of No More Throw-Away People, Cahn reviews the history of Time Dollars and explains how it evolved and what it reveals about the importance of the non-market economy. (To reflect its international appeal, Time Dollars is now part of a larger movement known as Time Banking. ) More than a history of the program, No More Throw-Away People is a provocative analysis of the non-market economy and an inspirational tract for the social service community. Cahn argues for a new framework to bridge the market and non-market realms through co-production a way to humanize the marketplace while elevating the non-market universe of families, community and service.
It is inspiring to see Cahn carry on such a vigorous dialogue between thought and action. Realizing that theory is not enough, Cahn diligently road-tested and expanded the Time Dollars network. Now he uses that experience to develop a new theory of the non-market, or the commerce of the human spirit. It is time for mainstream economists to take note.
- David Bollier