In Ithaca We Trust: Town Builds Spirit With Cash
Stroll through the downtown here, past the vegetarian Harvest Deli, Heads Up Hair Care, and the shelves of used books at Autumn Leaves, and you can't miss the mustard yellow signs taped in the windows: "We accept Ithaca HOURS."Skip to next paragraph
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Ask about the origin of these signs, and it's like following a yellow-brick road; sooner or later you will be led to Paul Glover, Ithaca's self-effacing "wizard of HOURS."
Mr. Glover almost single-handedly created Ithaca HOURS, an alternative paper money system, which shares some of the same goals as bartering. It's aimed at encouraging residents to support local merchants - rather than chain stores - to build community cohesion, and it often triggers discussions about the purpose of money.
Critics regard HOURS as, at best, an unnecessary novelty or, at worst, a crutch for uncompetitive local retailers.
But since HOURS began here in 1991, it has flourished and spread to some 65 other cities in the US and around the world that are now using a similar local-money system. Cities like Madison, Wis., Brooklyn, N.Y., and Remollon, France have joined the movement.
"Ithaca HOURS are more than an economic tool," Glover says, leaning on the scuffed bicycle he rides everywhere. "The system is a cultural tool which reminds people that we are members of a community. The prevailing economy would have us believe we are on a treadmill that only a few can survive. Ithaca HOURS make it easier to help each other."
Here In Ithaca, the home of Cornell University and Ithaca College, over $65,000 worth of HOURS (one HOUR bill is equal to $10) have been issued. The currency is used by 370 businesses, ranging from lawn care to carpet laying.
It is not designed to be a tax dodge. The millions of dollars in legal transactions here alone have created plenty of estimated taxable income to be declared on state and federal tax forms.
Ithaca, a town of 30,000 residents and 20,000 students, is cited by the Utne Reader as the "very model of the word alternative." And the community is embracing the HOURS concept like Dorothy finding Toto and Auntie Em. Besides a deluge of media attention, the HOURS are also triggering interest by some economists in the new/old idea of alternative money.
Glover, an environmentalist with a background in urban planning and advertising, views capitalism as too inclined to encourage big business and its narrow profit goals at the expense of small businesses, natural resources, and low-wage workers. He says that Ithaca HOURS help people to view commerce and their community in a different light.
"A local currency-trading process," Glover explains, "reinforces the concept that we are surrounded by people who are potential resources rather than mere competitors. To the extent that we can take social satisfaction from people as resources, I think it reduces social desperation that leads people otherwise to compulsively consume, which in turn is bad for the environment." (Web site: www.lightlink.com/ithacahours)
But leaping from the rhetoric of alternative economic theory to daily practice, how would the HOURS system work if Oz's Dorothy were suddenly blown into Ithaca?
Dorothy is hungry, needs a new pair of ruby slippers, and is looking for an apartment in a community self-described as "laid back, and post-hippie." What to do?
First, she might look for the Cayuga Street Outlet, which sells shoes. Or she could pick up a copy of HOUR Town, a tabloid-size, 12-page, bimonthly paper that lists 1,500 Ithaca businesses and services that accept HOURS. Glover compiles and distributes the publication to businesses around town.