The federal government has become the Rodney Dangerfield of bureaucracies. Newt Gingrich goes after it with a fiscal hatchet. Angry white guys express theirloathing with, of all things, a truckload of fertilizer. And a 14-block area in Takoma Park, Md., issues its own money.
The bills circulate only within the Philadelphia-Eastern Neighborhood (PEN), an enclave bounded by Philadelphia, Carroll, Eastern, and Holly Avenues. Each “PEN Share” runs about a half-inch shorter than a federal dollar, and is printed in green ink on recycled paper. A doodle of Thomas Seigler Park sits where George Washington would on a dollar; on the back, a map of the neighborhood replaces that scary Masonic pyramid/eye thingy. But the buck’s isolationist ideology isn’t entrusted to artwork alone: Aphorisms like “working with neighbors” and “building home base” pepper both sides. The bill defiantly declares itself “useful tender for many local needs.” In other words, don’t bother searching the Wall Street Journal currency trading column for a Takoma Park listing.
PEN resident Olaf Egeberg created PEN Shares two years ago as a tactical weapon in the war against suburban isolation and alienation; as rulers have known for centuries, nothing brings people together like new money. But Egeberg, in the grand tradition of Takoma Park dreamers, hoped for something even more radical. And thus his currency is tied not to the gold standard or the U.S. dollar, but to nothing less than human endeavor.
Each bill represents one hour of one PEN resident doing whatever he or she feels qualified to do. As the PEN Exchange Directory states, you can trade shares for veterinary care, wild mushroom foraging, typing, Esperanto lessons, legal help, and about 400 other services endemic to the area. Egeberg sees neighborhood barter as networking made necessary by government’s failure to address basic human needs like child care and in-home assistance for the elderly—both of which can be obtained with PEN Shares.
“Big government is a dinosaur,” says Egeberg. “Social health depends on figuring out the optimum size for the basic unit of society.” In Egeberg’s estimation, the state of Maryland is too big to fill that role, and so, for that matter, is the city of Takoma Park. He defines optimum size as a chunk of suburbia that he can walk across in about 10 minutes, a stroll that defines the limits of the PEN Shares.
Avuncular and nonviolent—perhaps the least angry of white men—Egeberg lives on the top floor of a house whose front door opens right onto the Maryland/D.C. line. Naturally, he and his partner Judith Grace conduct much of the business of their lives on the barter system. He trades one day of carpentry work per week for their rent, and she earns the federal dollars they need through housekeeping.
Takoma Park isn’t the first to produce local money. At least 25 U.S. communities from New Haven, Conn., to Naalehu, Hawaii, print some form of their own tender. Ithaca, N.Y., boasts one of the largest and most widely copied local money programs. It sprang up in response to the collapse of that area’s industrial base, and keeps money circulating within the city despite a sluggish economy.
“There’s no prohibition on private parties issuing currency,” explains Lewis Solomon, a law professor at the George Washington University National Law Center and author of an upcoming book on local money. But certain rules apply: Taxes must be paid on some local money transactions, and the feds maintain a monopoly on coinage. (Why coins and not paper money? Because it’s the federal government, that’s why.)
Among local currencies, PEN Shares may have the distinction of circulating in the smallest geographical area. The PEN Exchange covers only about 550 households; out of these, 317 people choose to participate. It’s a tiny economy, but Egeberg believes that bigness brings on headaches. Ithaca’s local currency, for instance, has grown so popular that its issuers must now use paper made from cattails and heat-sensitive ink in order to keep counterfeiters at bay.
Naturally, the Balkanization of Takoma Park has left a few people in the cold. Several Takomans who dwell outside the PEN boundaries have asked to join the program, only to find themselves turned down. “We offered to help them organize their own neighborhood programs,” explains Egeberg. “But we can’t dilute ourselves [by growing too big].” Adds Grace, “The whole point is to know the people you barter with. They have to be your friends.”