NSF Fellowship Proposal: project statement

Part of my goals for this site is to have a place where works that would otherwise remain hidden and, consequently, unproductive can get a degree of exposure. Much of the work we all do exists in closed boxes. If things are in the open they can become usable for others if they deem the work worthwhile. From that perspective, I have decided to publish the series of essays I recently wrote for a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. They are relatively short (compared to other things I’m writing), but offer a fairly refined portrayal of my background and the types of questions that interest me. This first one is the proposal for the PhD project I intend to pursue.

Trophic economies and community regeneration: examining bottom-up processes of value creation

Key words: Time Banking; Resilience; Socio-Ecological Systems; Community Currency; Microeconomics

Time banking is an economic system that operates through peer to peer exchange of value. It is a mutual credit system where individuals exchange labor and skills as measured by time invested. Fiat currency systems create and distributed through institutional centers like banks and governments. This creates a functional scarcity of the medium of exchange. Mutual credit systems create currency as an effect of exchange. This means that there is no inherent poverty within a mutual credit system. As long as exchanges occur, value is captured and wealth is created. As long as there are people to exchange and needs within the community to be met, there is value to be utilized.

Time banking is currently employed primarily within marginalized or underserved populations, or by those who lack wealth as defined by dominant economic understanding. It is a technique for reconnecting alienated and isolated members of a community by allowing them to demonstrate and build upon the value and skills that they have to offer and the needs to be filled. If a person performs a job for me that takes five hours, creating a website, for instance, they earn five credit hours they can use to have services done for them. I, in turn, register a five hour debt to be filled by offering my skills elsewhere. In addition to earning hours that can be exchanged, we also hone our skills, meet and engage with members of our community, and develop a resume, portfolio, or reference list that can help us demonstrate our abilities for other forms of payment. Time banking argues that all people are valuable and provides a mechanism for sharing and increasing that value for the benefit of both the individual and their community. It can also become more.

Time banking has a track record of local success. However, not all efforts manifest it. Working with representatives of TimeBanks USA, an umbrella organization that works to support local time banking programs across the US, I propose a research project to study and develop a more coherent model of best practices and the means to implement within novel and different local contexts. The goal is to increase overall effectiveness. I plan to analyze and develop a functional and implementable framework that can serve marginalized and economically depressed communities and aid in their self-directed regrowth. In addition, I seek to develop theory of economy that inverts traditional models by formalizing and functionalizing a bottom-up understanding of value and wealth. In turn, this theory and associated models are intended to directly intervene with the processes of restorative economic practices by realigning centralized structures with the disparate communities they emerged to serve.

This research project runs parallel with a developmental one in the process of being initiated by TimeBanks USA, the Time For the World project. The goal of TFTW is to more effectively use time banking strategies to rebuild local economies. They intend to implement time banking within a set of economically abandoned locales. The first year of my project involves research of current and past time banking efforts in order to generate an understanding of their dimensions of success and abandonment. Through this study I intend to develop a more coherent general model that can be varied for application in different contexts.

In the second year Time for the World will initiate an implementation strategy within three communities in order to analyze and further refine the model and an understanding of local divergence. I will analyze their efforts. The current plan considers Detroit, New Orleans, and a yet to be determined location in rural Appalachia as potential sites. Three unique sites offer the ability to study both the general relevance and applicability of the model as well as map out the degrees of variation. By mapping out commonalities and differences I can better develop an understanding of how time banking can address the particularities of localities. By studying two distinct urban sites I can better distinguish between general and site-specific elements. The incorporation of a dispersed, rural region adds an additional dimension for understanding degrees of similarity and differentiation. Moreover, both types of sites, urban and rural, are those that face economic abandonment and devaluation. If economies are to be redressed, we need to take both of these disparate types seriously.

All three of these sites have been significantly abandoned by other modes of economy. Some have argued they should be abandoned entirely as places. These perspectives are certain definitions of value or worth, but are they inclusive of what the locations and people living there can be? One of the central challenges becomes how these communities can generate broad value on their own behalf. Once value creation and transformation is established, can these communities create the context whereby other investment sources can be attracted and implemented in a way that is directly meaningful to the community itself? Instead building convention centers and rehabbing downtowns to draw in tourist dollars that might trickle throughout the community, can we create a vibrant community which attracts investment dollars as a function of its activity?

Initial analysis will be conducted in part through data collected and shared by TimeBanks USA, from a set of local time banks, as well as surveys of directors and founders of existing time banks and, where feasible, those now abandoned. During model implementation and testing, a range of qualitative and quantitative data will be assessed including available economic data (land values, tax receipts, levels of investment), interviews and surveys with local implementers and members, and value exchange and generation data from the time banks. I will assess how the dynamics of exchange are generated as well as how those dynamics are able to create the context for further economic investment. This is predicated on a perspective where marginal activity gives rise to focused investment, not how focused investment spills out into marginal activity.

Economic models such as those of Keynes and supply-side or trickle-down theorists hold that communities and individuals are best served by increasing monetary circulation in upper-level structures like lending institutions. These structures and those most directly influenced by them such as the corporate sector are viewed as the creators of value within the economy and society at large. While there are elements of these models which hold validity, are economies necessarily and only top down? Ecology employs concepts like keystone species and apex predators that locate top-down control mechanisms as those that offer stability. These concepts assume a functional bottom-up system of resource capture and transformation to provide the energy for upper level behavior. While we can assume that given marginal yet appropriate conditions plants, this is not necessarily so in a social context that acts antagonistically or abandons those at the bottom. Are our communities the sites of value creation and capture that flow up into other structures? As a primary-production type of system, time banking, if appropriately applied, may hold great potential for affecting significant change in economic and system behavior.