Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money

THE AMERICAN ECONOMY was built not for stability, but rather for appetite and yearning. The corporation, the money system — our basic institutions are rootless, placeless, and encoded solely for financial gain. Every new dollar that enters the economy comes laden with interest, which becomes a silent taskmaster that drives the machinery at an ever more frantic pace.

As Woody Tasch points out in his new book, the financial system is out of sync with the natural system. The algorithms of finance are oblivious to what the rhythms of nature can support, and the relentless quest for yield is exhausting the substrate of the entire system. “As financial time contracts,” Tasch asks, “how can we maintain a healthy relation with natural time?”

Tasch’s book, Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money, isn’t really about money. It is about investment, and how to channel it in directions of slower and more patient gain. Tasch is a former venture-capital investor who was treasurer of a foundation that supports environmental causes. He watched while foundations generally invested their collective $550 billion in ways that produced the very problems that their environmental grants — some $1 billion a year — were supposed to fight. He brooded over the way high-tech startups attract gobs of money, while small food-based enterprises scrape for every dollar.

It is a familiar dilemma, and Tasch is eloquent on it. He invokes E. F. Schumacher, Wendell Berry, and others, and his exhortations have echoes of Thoreau, often to good effect. He proposes a number of solutions, such as a venture-capital fund geared to small farms and food-related enterprises. Perhaps it could buy development rights from farmers and thus provide working capital while keeping subdivisions at bay. Another possibility is a new kind of foundation to provide seed money to such enterprises as grants, with no expectation of return.

I wish Tasch had lingered more on such proposals. We need to be “impelled by sudden irrepressible insight toward beauty and nonviolence,” he writes. Well, yes. But a human economy works more on habit than inspiration. Our lives flow pretty much where the roads already go. We need a new normal, and this will require not just new investment vehicles, as Tasch says, but also new kinds of money for the transactions of daily life.

Economies with a sane temporal rhythm generally have had a means of exchange suited to this purpose. Account books from merchants on the American frontier, for example, show that people often paid in work barter along with cash. The centripetal force of one-to-one relationships provided a counterweight to the centrifugal force of money. The last time such relational currencies flourished here was in the Great Depression. In financial crisis, there may be hope.