The Future Of Money is a bold and ambitious attempt to show how root-and-branch reform of the global monetary system can help to solve some of the most pressing problems facing the world. The author's particular focus is on complementary currencies: local, relatively informal exchange systems which operate within a given community, and which are not necessarily created by bank debt, but by everyday transactions between members of the community. For example, you might agree to mow a neighbour's lawn: simultaneously creating a credit for yourself and a debit for your neighbour. You might then choose to spend your credit on another neighbour's home-baked cake.
Complementary currency systems are so called because they are intended to run in tandem with national (and multinational) currencies, not to replace them. Mr Lietaer's thesis is that such currencies can help society in two ways: by bringing people closer together, and by reducing what he sees as an artificial shortage of money, a shortage that encourages competitive behaviour and short-term thinking. "[T]he current monetary system obliges us to incur debt collectively, and to compete with others in the community, just to obtain the means to perform exchanges between us."
As a former currency trader of the year and senior Central Bank executive in Belgium, who has taught finance at several leading universities, Bernard Lietaer is no anti-capitalist prophet railing in the wilderness. Far from it: here is someone who has worked at the heart of the international financial system and found it wanting. Mr Lietaer's personal background is reflected in the tone of the book, which is always constructive and sympathetic to business. He has clearly conducted extensive research into complementary currencies, and also seems to have direct practical experience of setting up such systems: at one point, he offers a series of tips on how to set one up yourself!
While the author clearly knows his stuff when it comes to financial instruments and alternative currency systems, the book can feel rather unsophisticated, theoretically speaking. The emphasis on money as, if not quite the root of all evils, certainly a major cause of society's problems, ignores the deeper social roots of these problems. Why do we use the money system that we do? To my mind, there are two broad classes of answers to this question: one, that money is a technological solution to the globalisation of society; the other, that money is a tool of powerful interests in society. Neither type of answer is given by Mr Lietaer, who never really asks the question of why our money system is set up the way it is; but whichever is the case (and, of course, it's probably a combination of both), fundamental reform of the financial system is likely to be impossible without fundamental reform of the society that it serves.
Any criticisms, however, pale into insignificance beside the book's strengths. Mr Lietaer has written a very accessible book about a hugely complex and difficult subject. I myself have no formal economic training, yet I found his ideas very clear and easy to follow. There is a chapter explaining the workings of today's money system, an appendix ("A Primer On How Money Works") for financial novices, and a glossary of financial terms. (I particularly appreciated the discussion of how discounted cash flow analysis encourages short-term economic thinking in Chapter 9, as I had heard a lot about this technique without knowing quite what it was.)
At the same time there is plenty of more specialist information, particularly on the global reach of complementary currency schemes, for those who are more experienced in financial matters. One of the real strengths of The Future Of Money is the way that the author reaches out to diverse groups of people: for example, he stresses the business opportunities that could arise if the government monopoly on issuing currencies were ended, rather than railing against the evils of big business. Mr Lietaer is a highly constructive thinker, so there are plenty of four-point plans, schematic diagrams and the like, which should also appeal to managerial types. His argument is helped by his writing style, which is very clear and readable throughout, and lightened by a few amusing cartoons and stories.
What really sets this book apart, though, is the range of different ideas about money that it synthesises, and the unique insights that appear in its pages as a result. I came to it quite sceptical about how useful local currencies could be: I saw them as a kind of turn-the-clock-back denial of globalisation. I now realise that in the 21st century they have a lot to offer as part of a holistic solution to the world's economic problems and the erosion of community. So, for me at least, this book has succeeded in its task.