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David Linzee

Bear Bucks, Politics & A Deficit Of Optimism

January 18, 2012
This seems like the right moment for a Janus column, facing both past and future.

Last summer I wrote about local currencies, which have given the economy a boost in some places, like western Massachusetts. I speculated about the prospects for a Delmar Loop currency. Now an experiment has begun, with Bear Bucks. This is not paper money but a sort of debit card issued to Washington University students and employees. It was originally for use on campus, for such expenses as copying and food. Then a few businesses started to accept it. In November, Blueberry Hill became the first one in the Loop to do so.

"We were installing new card readers anyway," owner Joe Edwards said. "It was a seamless transition for us." Because the students have been away for winter break, it's too early to tell if large numbers of them will use Bear Bucks. Tax breaks on food purchased on campus provide an incentive, but there's no financial advantage off campus. Still, Rachel Reinagel of Washington University said that the university would like to see Bear Bucks accepted at clothing stores, movie theatres, grocery stores and other businesses, for students' convenience.

Edwards said, "Anytime you make transactions easier for the customer, it's potentially a good thing." Washington University and the Loop special business districts conducted a consumer survey last year, which found that the Loop was getting 25 percent of student spending. Any convenience that could increase that share would boost economic development in the Loop, and any boost would be welcome in the near future, when the business community is hoping that construction of the Loop Trolley will extend the Loop's prosperity eastward into struggling neighborhoods.

Now I turn to the future and the national scene — reluctantly, because promising developments are harder to find. Americans seem to suffer from an optimism deficit deeper than our financial deficit. A widely reported poll found that 70 percent of them just wished that the presidential election was over.

The unenthusiastic electorate faces a rancorous campaign likely to depress them further. I don't know how we'll be able to stand months of super-PAC funded negative ads. What strikes me so far is that Republicans believe President Obama is an agent of change much more strongly than I do. Like a lot of people who voted for him, I recall his 2008 slogans with sadness. He has turned out to be a cautious, pliable middle-of-the-roader. But the sound bites from Iowa and New Hampshire suggest that Republicans think Obama embodies change. Vote him out, and change will cease. The dust will settle, and we'll look around to find that America is strong and rich and it's 1955 again.

That won't work, of course, but I understand their feelings that too much is changing, and not for the better. Familiar institutions are going, and the people who are letting them go haven't thought things through. For instance, it looks as if the Post Office (as we old-timers call it) is going to wither away, if it doesn't just disappear. I've been wondering for how many more Christmases I will be able to receive cards.

"No problem! You'll get wonderful animated musical e-cards," the computer advertisers gush. "Time for you to join the young, who can't be bothered with paper cards, envelopes and stamps."

The computer advertisers are determined to convince us that they're making our lives easier, and that we must respect the wisdom of our juniors. In one Wi-Fi commercial, there's a clueless father who wants to hook up his computer to the cable and a condescending daughter who explains, "The cable's invisible, Daddy."

Problem is, the ease provided by these invisible cables is an illusion. Every few hours, you have to plug in your laptop. Computer communication depends upon an extensive and reliable power grid, and there's nothing "virtual" about the grid. You need nuclear power stations or plants burning coal, sending electricity through lines marching hundreds of miles across country.

We assume that the juice will always flow. But I can recall talking to friends in England about the '70s, when power cuts, both planned and unplanned, were common events. As disruptive as they were then, I shudder to think about what would happen to us now that we've become so much more dependent on our electronic servants.

By this stage in my worries, I'm reduced to remembering that bad movie "The Postman," in which Kevin Costner, living in a futuristic wasteland, decides that the first step in rebuilding civilization is to deliver the mail.

I started out to write about past and future, but now see that I've written about local and global. When you find yourself paralyzed, scanning the horizon for storm clouds, it's time to lower your gaze to the familiar scene and do what you can, like writing about Bear Bucks. As Voltaire put it, "You must cultivate your garden."

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