In star trek, they don’t need money anymore.  The logic for why this is isn’t particular clear, but the main ideas for this are, by the 23rd century they have moved away from money and instead use ‘credits’.  These credits are generally based on ‘work’, which people are encouraged to do on the basis of self-advancement not aggrandisement through wealth.  One of the other things is that the free market no longer exists.  Another aspect of the Star Trek world, is that this all takes place in a federation – a single, political earth and perhaps this is another thing that the creators thought could conceivably allow a system for removing money.  The predictions made in Star Trek don’t really go much further than this, but there are interesting speculations on how the federation could conceivably move away from money.

 

Ok, so this isn’t the most specific of models for the future.  But it does expose a few interesting things about where we are now and how they could change.  Firstly, we are currently dependent on the strength of currencies (at present this is principally the dollar) and the performance of the markets to dictate value.  Second, we are still at a level where national economies compete with each other.  And finally, today, people generally accumulate wealth in a manner that isn’t necessarily proportional to how much they physically ‘work’.

To understand what could happen to money in the future, it is interesting to see how both money and the idea of ‘value’ have evolved.  Roughly, it went like this barter, stone tablets, metal coins (and paper money), the gold standard, the dollar.

Bartering

To begin with, people bartered, exchanging what they produced and made for the other things they needed.  As this happened more, commodities started to arise.  These items were used by almost everyone, such as salt, spices, tobacco or tea.  These had slightly higher values that could be measured but still had issues surrounding their weight and perishability.

Use of coins and paper money

This led to the use of money when, from around 700BC, metal coins started to appear.  This was because metal was relatively available and didn’t perish.  Each coin was made to represent a certain value and enabled people to compare the different costs of the items they wanted.  And, as more and more people started to use them, they began to be adopted by cities and countries started to adopt them as a means of currency.

With coins, came the first really global currency.  From the 17th – 18th centuries, the famous ‘pieces of eight’ or Spanish dollars, were used in trading throughout the Americas, Asia and Europe.  The spread of the Spanish dollar was enabled both by Spain’s dominance ofthe world stage and also the quality and purity of the silver used to form the coin meant it held its value well.  However, in parallel with coins, paper money was also being used in some countries.  For example, paper money is thought to have originated in the Tang Dynasty in China in 700AD, however, the most circulated and recognised form originated in 1100 AD in the Song Dynasty.  These early notes were effectively promises to pay the bearer in coins.

 

 An example of a Song Dynasty ‘Jiaozi’, the world’s earliest paper money.[2]

Money and gold.

The thing is, as paper money become more popular – the notes themselves became the markers of value.  Less and less they were exchanged and more and more they became valuable in their own right. But this value had to represent something.  To begin with, it made the most sense to tie this to the most valuable commodity – gold, or sometimes silver.  From the 18th century onward, coinciding with British imperial rule, representative money was backed by a government or bank promise to exchange it for a certain amount of silver or gold.  This meant governments and banks used the ‘gold standard’ as a measure of value.  This lasted until the early 20th century where the system used for the international gold standard collapsed during World War I.  Then, post World War I, the British pound, or the Pound Sterling, was once guaranteed to be redeemable for a pound of sterling silver. [3]  This system was used for the majority of most financial systems around the world, where most countries took the value of their representative money from the gold standard and this lasted until around 1944.

Representative money

After 1944, ‘commodity money’ changed to ‘representative’ money.  Put simply, this change meant money itself, no longer had to be linked to a store of value like gold.  This change occurred shortly after World War II, when the ‘Breton Woods’ system was developed to rebuild the international economy.  This system of value management established a series of rules and financial relations between the world’s major industrial powers.[4]  In simple terms, it meant that each country maintained an exchange rate for its currency that was tied to the US dollar.  In 1971, this led to the removal of the gold standard when the US terminated the convertibility of the US dollar to gold, establishing something known as a ‘fiat currency’. ‘Fiat’ is the Latin for ‘let it be done’ and ‘fiat money’ is different to representative money because the value is given by a government.  This means that ‘legal tender’ laws can be enforced by a state and the refusal of legal tender, in favour or some other form of payment is technically illegal.[5]

Roughly, this is where we are today.  Governments now assign values to currencies and they do this mostly by taking the value from the dollar which is generally held to be the global reserve currency.   Although there have been challengers to the dollar as the worlds most traded currency (the Japanese Yen and the Euro in recent times), it has remained as the de facto world currency.   In 2012, 61.1% of official foreign exchange reserves were held in dollars, compared to 24.3% in Euros, 4% in Pound Sterling and 4.1% in Japanese Yen.  Although, it is worth noting, currency controls are currently in place for both the Chinese RMB and the Indian Rupee.

So what for the future?

So this takes up to where we are now.  What does this mean for where we could be in thirty years time?  Could the Chinese Remnimbi be the dominant reserve currency, could bitcoin represent a new ‘virtual’ value banked through distributed servers or could 3d printing and new measures of work lead to a ‘star trek’ style global economy (stick with me on that one…)?

What will be the dominant currency in 30 years time?

At discussed, the dollar is currently the most commonly held reserve currency.  As a result, the US economy receives economic benefits from having ‘reserve currency status.’  This means the US can run slightly higher trade deficits and its economy generally benefits from the amount of dollars being bought by other countries.  However, how long is this likely to last?  The growth of the Chinese and Indian economies could see the development of other currencies that could be increasingly traded.  But, for both countries to do this, a lot needs to happen.

Currently the Chinese economy benefits internally from having currency restrictions.  This means it is (relatively) easy for the Chinese government to control capital flows and interest rates.  This also means the economy can benefit from setting low interest rates for foreign businesses and cheap capital which drives growth.  As China still requires a high level of economic growth for both industrial growth and internal stability, it is likely that for at least the next 10 years, it will keep its current currency restrictions.  However, later on, probably in the next 10-20 years, as the Chinese economy starts to slow, it will become more in the national interest to trade the remnimbi globally to accrue the economic benefits of a traded currency.  This is also the case for India, where most of these issues also hold true.  However, what may become key as we move further out into the future, is the bankability of the institutions in each of these countries.  One of the main reasons the dollar is such a trusted currency, is because of the resilience and the associated degree of trust in the US Treasury.  For investors to hold such a degree of trust in the RMB and the Rupee, significant developments would be needed in the accountability and overall trust in both Chinese and Indian institutions.  From today’s viewpoint, India probably has the edge in making such strides despite current perceptions of corruption, due to its liberal democracy and attitude to the free market.  This is something that the Chinese Communist Part, has a long way to go in embracing and a critical uncertainty for the long term viability of the Chinese economy.

But, the increased significance of China, India and other strong economies does not stop the role of the dollar being debated, especially in the light of the 2008 financial crisis.  For example, since 2009, various possible alternatives to the current system have been suggested that include.

  • Diversifying the list of currencies used as reserves and using agreed measures to promote major regional financial centres.
  • The development of a supra-national reserve currency issued by international financial institutions.
  • The use of the International Monetary Funds special drawing rights (a currency basket that comprises dollars, euros, yen and sterling) could be used a super-sovereign reserve currency.
  • A petro-currency, backed oil reserves in oil producing countries.

These ideas represent a range of alternatives, some perhaps with a greater degree of political bias than others.  But what’s interesting is how they illustrate how the idea is being debated and how a supra-national or super-sovereign alternative to a single national currency is becoming more debated.  Given the continued growth and significance of the global market this could be an increasingly significant trend, which could also drive the development of virtual currencies.

Virtual currencies.

If alternatives to the dollar are being debated, if globally we are starting to seek new ‘bench marks’ for value, could this lead to the development of a new currency being created?  Due to the national advantage this creates, could it be possible that this is no longer based on a single, national currency?  This sounds outlandish, but with the development of on-line currencies, could value be tied to something that is no longer based on the performance of a single state?  For example, take Bitcoin.  For those who don’t know what Bitcoin is, it’s an online currency that has no central bank and solely relies on an internet-based peer-to-peer network.  At present, Bitcoin is the most widely used alternative currency and as of March 2013, the monetary base of bitcoin is valued at over $800 million. [6]

A virtual currency could have significant impact for how we use money in the future.  Perhaps it favours moving away from paper money and coins completely.  Perhaps it challenges the notion of ‘legal tender’.  It doesn’t quite get us to the ‘star trek’ future yet, but it is an important step.  But, if you take this trend and compare it to the development of 3d printing, that’s where things start to get really interesting.

3d printing, money and value.

Forgive me, like bitcoin, I’m sure 3d Printing, is something that everyone, everywhere has heard of.  But, for anyone who hasn’t, 3d printing, or additive manufacturing as its known technically, has the ability to revolutionise manufacturing.[7]  Although, this is by no means a given for the future, it could lead some interesting implications for what we need money for and what we value.

 

3d Printing systems, such as this will be increasingly common over the next 10-20 years.

In the next 20 years, 3d printing has the potential to revolutionise consumption.  Instead of needing people to make objects a lot of material requirements could be met by ‘simple’ home based units.  Imagine a single station that produces your clothes, tools and utensils.  Imagine another in your kitchen that produces synthetic protein and makes food to order.  You could even have another in your bathroom dispensing all of your immunological needs, linked to an internet-based disease trackers that tell you what diseases are circulating.[8]  In this world, what would you actually be paying for?  You would most probably undertake virtual transactions and pay for access to particular licenses/blue prints/versions.  For this, you would go to particular vendors that guarantee access to the latest and/or the best ideas.  At the same time, a lot of the ‘basic’ items you require could probably be made without paying for blue-prints.  Open source, free to access assembly codes for things like shoes, plates, even furniture would be available.  This would mean you could produce what you need for the cost of the substrate (and of course, the initial cost of the 3d printer).

This creates the image of interesting future, but what does it mean for money?  How ideas/licenses are purchased is likely to be similar to how apps, music and books are purchased today – mostly through on-line transactions and through a huge virtual market place.  In such an environment would a virtual currency be even more likely?  Something like bitcoin will probably exist but with accountability to some kind of authority.  The question is, would this be national, global or virtual?  And then, if we go back to what money was initially made to do, what does it mean?  If people just need money to pay for certain things and everything else is free, where does value reside?

Could this be a stepping stone to the ‘Star trek’ future?  Could this be the first development of ‘credits’?  Even more, in this future, ideas are even more valuable.  Could people start to offer their time as a means to get high value credits?  Could people do the work they require (either participating in ideas-generation sessions, creative work, or clinical trials (and yes, please note, I am currently available for all three!)) for shorter and shorter times.  Or could higher credits be earned for more unpleasant tasks?  What would this mean for how people earn their wealth today – presently it is estimated that in 2012, the world’s 100 richest people earned $240 Bn.[9]

The Star Trek future of money

The idea of money of what money is has come a long way and meant different things at different times in history.  The idea posited in Star Trek, that we might not need it in the future, may not be as crazy as it sounds – essentially it all depends on what we value.  In the future, should manufacturing change and become localised and money move to a more virtual form, we may see people being able to sell their time with greater and greater efficiency, which could benefit them and their quality of life and also challenge current grossly unbalanced income differentials.

Perhaps increasingly, the big question will be – What do people value?  Could we be moving to a world, where people place greater importance on ‘time’ and self-advancement rather than the pursuit of wealth?  Technology could increasingly make this possible and the values we start to hold dear could be more and more based around our notion of ‘self’ and how we wish to live.  Perhaps we’re already there – debates around ‘gross domestic happiness’ and the pursuit of a balanced life are certainly more common today than they were five years ago.  How long then till we can do without money?  Will we see a new system of value arising in the next 30 years?  Well if you consider the increasing importance of happiness metrics to policy formation, in Western countries, it could be sooner than that…

[1]http://vanparecon.resist.ca/StarTrekEcon/

[2]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banknote

[3]http://inventors.about.com/od/mstartinventions/a/money.htm

[4] states.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bretton_Woods_system

[5]http://inventors.about.com/od/mstartinventions/a/money.htm

[6]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitcoin

[7]http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2012/09/3d-printing

[8]See the Chinese dinosaur for a short story exploring these trends.

[9]World’s 100 richest earned enough in 2012 to end global poverty 4 times over – http://rt.com/news/oxfam-report-global-inequality-357/

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