The local money is much prettier

Marketplace Staff Apr 27, 2007

The local money is much prettier

Marketplace Staff Apr 27, 2007

TESS VIGELAND: The U.S. dollar is taking a pounding these days. A British pounding. It’ll cost you almost $2 to buy one pound. And it takes almost a buck-37 to get just one euro.

The greenback, you might say, is a little green around the gills.
Not to mention green with envy over all those pretty colors on European currency.
But that doesn’t mean everyone loves euros.

In the latest installment of our occasional series “The Color of Money,” Ethan Lindsey reports some Europeans are taking matters into their own hands.

ETHAN LINDSEY: At an upscale coffee shop on Berlin’s Unter Den Linden Boulevard, American Christina Cocadiz sips an overpriced coffee. She bought it, of course, with euros.

But when she lived here five years ago, Cocadiz wasn’t sure Germans would ever get used to the single, unified currency of the European Union.

CHRISTINA COCADIZ: People would like, pay with Deutschmark and then would get euros back, or try pay with euros and accidentally say “Deutschmark.” That happened a million times the first month.

European businesses have embraced the euro — they love its strength and stability. And tourists find it handy — no need to pay a money-changer every time you cross the border.

But many Germans still haven’t made peace with the new currency or the new world it represents. In fact, all over the continent, Europeans have begun printing alternative currencies of their own.

They’re often called “regional money.” And so far, there are about 100 varieties.

Susanne Thomas is an engineer who started one of the most successful. It’s called “The Berliner.”

SUSANNE THOMAS: We always said that the regional money is complementary money, so we don’t want to separate from the euro or don’t use the euro. But we would like to offer another variant and show the people that it works.

Two years ago, less than 50 stores accepted the Berliner bills. Today, you can use them at 200 locations around Berlin, including restaurants, grocery stores — even a few law offices.

THOMAS: It works like: you are coming to the changing office where you can buy the Berliner, and you change 1 euro to 1 Berliner. The exchange rate is 1-to-1.

Thomas says she plans on keeping the Berliner pegged at a 1-to-1exchange rate because it encourages use. But then, why use an alternative currency at all?

Thomas says she hopes to encourage local variety as opposed to globalized conformity. According to her, the Berliners force people to trade with their neighbors, instead of shopping at big-box stores and multinational chains.

Not surprisingly, her group designed the bills to look completely unlike the multinational Euro. For instance, the colors are totally different.

THOMAS: One Berliner is in orange, 5 Berliner is blue and 10 Berliner is green.

A real 5 euro bill is grey, and the 10 is red — there’s no such thing as a 1 euro note. And while the euro is laid out horizontally, like the U.S. dollar, Berliners are vertically designed.

THOMAS: It’s the same size, but it’s the other way around.

They look a little like ticket stubs, and feature cute drawings from local kids — whereas euro bank notes show dull pictures of bridges.

Theo Wonneberger is a self-described “democratic anarcho-communist” and part of a group launching a different local currency called “Spreebleute,” or river blossom. To him, regional money is a protest against global money markets run by the rich.

THEO WONNEBERGER: If you have a lot, you get more by taking interest. If you have nothing, you have to get money from people and pay it back with interest.

Spreebluetes, on the other hand, will be interest-free. You’ll be able to get ’em by donating time to community work projects. Wonneberger says the idea is expose the flaws of a consumer economy.

WONNEBERGER: Putting holes in the system, you know, kind of. Or widening the cracks, or whatever you want.

Whether regional money can bring down the system remains to be seen. But in the meantime, in Berlin, it’s helping local charities. Five cents of every Berliner bought goes to community groups and programs — like after-school day care in an immigrant neighborhood or anti-drug education for teenagers.

Susanne Thomas says those moral values are what gives regional money real value.

In Berlin, I’m Ethan Lindsey for Marketplace Money.

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