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Decades of documents: Michael Linton passes on LETS legacy

University of Victoria to study Comox Valley born Local Exchange Trading System
Michael Linton stands beside the extensive archives, documenting his work with the Local Exchange Trading System. These archives have now been taken by the University of Victoria’s Anthropology department. Photo by Jolene Rudisuela

“Do you use money? And could you use some more?” Michael Linton asked.

“Of course you could,” he laughs, “because it goes away.”

Linton stood in the middle of his garage full of boxes containing files, letters, documents and more, archiving over 30 years of work on the Local Exchange Trading System. Those boxes are gone now, collected by University of Victoria Anthropology students who will study the history, operations, structure and reception of his work, but Linton still believes his system can work.

The idea that money goes away is the basis behind Linton’s idea of LETS, a local currency initiative with the goal of keeping money in the community. When the money stays local, it will eventually circle back to each individual, he says.

The day before students came to collect the archives, Linton leafed through some of the folders, pulling out letters of interest.

“Maui, Sweden, Denman Island, Victoria, Hollywood, Prince Edward Island, Salt Springs…” he read as each carefully labeled file passed through his fingers.

When asked how he had received letters from so many different places, Linton answered, “they contacted us.”

Michael Linton holds up a letter he received from Milton Friedman, a celebrated American Economist. In the letter, Friedman writes in part, "...The LETSystem is certainly a very desirable arrangement for voluntary cooperation among people. You realize, however, that from a purely theoretical point of view what it relfects is a lack of flexibility in the price and wage system. As such, it may well develop and play a significant role in filling in some interstices in the major economic system... The only problem I see with it is the tendency for people like yourself who get involved in such interesting developments to regard them as panaceas for the economy as a whole..." Photo by Jolene Rudisuela

Linton freely admits that his was not the first form of community currency – there have been hundreds throughout history – but LETS was the first that was heavily documented and organized on a computer, something that attracted him attention on a global scale.

“We had something which was replicable. People could take what we had done and do it because it came on software,” he said.

Linton has a varied background in engineering, psychology, teaching and business, among other things, but it wasn’t until moving to the Comox Valley in the early ’80s that Linton put his idea for LETS into action.

“This was in 1982 – we had just moved to the Valley and we ran straight into a huge depression,” he said. “When mortgages were running at 18 per cent, you can imagine what effect that had on downtown shopping, on the small business community.

“My own business was just sort of destroyed in a few months and we realized the things and needs are still there… we just need to link them together.”

The first adaptation of the system started as classified ads in the local newspaper. People would advertise what they had to offer or what they needed in hopes of trading with someone else. But Linton soon realized that a simple swap was too limiting and there needed to be a form of currency involved.

“It only took a few weeks to install a completely new computer program. We got from nowhere to a working system in a matter of months. We had about 300 people involved in it in the first spring.”

In its first stage, the LETS computer program and data were stored on floppy disks such as this. Photo by Jolene Rudisuela

In the beginning, the system was successful. People who wanted to buy something would call Linton and credit ‘Green Dollars’ to the account of the person they were purchasing the good or service from. Linton would then log it into his computer program to show people’s positive or negative ‘Green Dollar’ balance.

While different businesses saw varying degrees of success with the system in place, a local dentist thrived off LETS.

“There was a new dentist who came into town and was looking at starting his practice up and he heard about us,” said Linton. “He would take you for a dental appointment – 25 per cent in the community money, 75 per cent cash – a bit of a saving.”

But even better, if the dentist had a sudden cancellation, he would let patients pay 75 per cent Green Dollars and 25 per cent cash.

“It went very well for him; he had a lot of traffic, a lot of customers, built up a lot of energy and everybody was thinking, oh look, this works. We started to get some retail involved, it was small but it was starting. And then the dentist basically moved away.”

When the dentist moved away, the success of the system quickly dwindled, until ‘Green Dollars’ were a thing of the past.

Since the first attempt, Linton has started at least four more versions of the system with varying degrees of success, most recently with the ‘Community Way Dollars’ in 2008.

“It slows because people think it’s slow,” said Linton. “There isn’t a problem with the system, it’s a problem with people’s heads. If somebody leaves (like the dentist), they think they’ve lost something.”

He adds that some businesses originally agreed to accept the community currency but stopped accepting it, which caused the whole system to crumble.

“Our systems are good, they’re effective, they’re legitimate,” he said. “But if you based this particular project on businesses keeping their word and then they don’t then that’s no good.

These boxes contain floppy disks, letters, documentation, maps and more, outlining over 30 years of work on the Local Exchange Trading System. Photo by Jolene Rudisuela

“It’s like kicking over sandcastles on the beach, it’s not difficult to destroy.”

The beauty of the system, says Linton, is that the money stays within the community, grows local business and creates local jobs.

“Conventional money teaches us to compete, to fight with each other… I give you as little money as I can and you want as much as you can get,” he said. “What we need to have is money that can add to the collaborative nature of human nature. We need some good lovin’ money – money that is well behaved and supports us.”

Though LETS is an excellent model for how a community currency system should run, it is also a demonstration of how people react to new ideas that are outside the norm of how society runs. This is where UVic students will focus their research.

“When people grab hold of something, can they engage with it or does it sort of spin their systems and does it burn out sideways?” asks Linton. “Can they learn anything about people’s ability to relate to new ideas by observing how they relate to this idea?”

Linton says his archives are proof of his failure to communicate his idea, but also how you can write about ideas as much as you want, but boxes of documents mean nothing if you don’t put the ideas into practice.

But now, with 100 cubic feet of archives gone, he is happy to have more room in his house – maybe enough space to work on his next big idea.

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