Joseph interpreting the Pharaoh's dream

Joseph in Egypt

In the Bible is a story about a Pharaoh having bad dreams that his advisors could not explain. He dreamt about seven fat cows eaten. Then came seven lean cows who ate the fat cows. And then came seven full ears of grain. Seven thin and blasted ears devoured them. Joseph explained those dreams. He told the Pharaoh that seven years with good harvests would come, followed by seven lean years with crop failures. Joseph advised the Egyptians to store food. They followed his advice and built storehouses for grain. In this way, Egypt survived the seven years of scarcity.1

There is something that the Bible does not tell us. The Egyptians used this grain storage as a financial system. The historian Friedrich Preisigke discovered that the Egyptians used grain receipts for money.2 Farmers bringing in the grain received these vouchers. Bakers brought them back in and exchanged them for grain to make bread. In the meantime, these receipts circulated as money. The vouchers had value because you could exchange them for grain. According to the Bible, Joseph took all the money from the Egyptians.3 And so the Egyptians may have started to use the vouchers as money instead.

When you exchanged the receipts for the grain, you had to pay the storage cost. In this way, these vouchers gradually lost value over time. It worked like a negative interest rate. It may have helped to keep the money circulating and may have prevented financial crises caused by interest charges that prompted the Sumerians to cancel debts from time to time. During the reign of Ramesses the Great, Egypt became a leading power again. Some historians suggested that the Pharao’s wealth at the time came from grain money.

The money remained in circulation after the introduction of coins around 400 BC until the Romans conquered Egypt around 40 BC. The grain money survived for more than a thousand years. A holding fee on money and negative interest rates can create a stable financial system that lasts forever. It contrasts with the Sumerian interest-bearing debts that had to be cancelled from time to time to prevent permanent debt-slavery of the masses.

The Bible provides an explanation as to how the Egyptian grain storage financial system might have come to be even though the story probably is fiction. The Bible and the Quran also condemn charging interest. There appears to be a link between interest-free money with a holding fee and the Abrahamic religions.

Featured image: Joseph interpreting the Pharaoh’s dream. Illustrations for La Grande Bible de Tours. Gustave Doré (1866). Public Domain.

1. Genesis 41 [link]
2. A Strategy for a Convertible Currency. Bernard A. Lietaer, ICIS Forum, Vol. 20, No.3, 1990 [link]
3. Genesis 47:15 [link]

Wörgl bank note with stamps. Public Domain.

The miracle of Wörgl

In 1932, in the middle of the Great Depression, the Austrian town of Wörgl was in deep trouble and prepared to try anything. Of its population of 4,500, a total of 1,500 people were without a job, and 200 families were penniless. Mayor Michael Unterguggenberger had a long list of projects he wanted to accomplish, but there was hardly any money to carry them out. These projects included paving roads, streetlights, extending water distribution across the whole town, and planting trees along the streets.1 2

Rather than spending the 32,000 Austrian Schilling in the town’s coffers to start these projects off, he deposited them in a local savings bank as a guarantee to back the issue of a currency known as stamp scrip. The Wörgl money required sticking a monthly stamp on the circulating notes to keep them valid, amounting to 1% of the note’s value.1 2 A businessman named Silvio Gesell came up with this idea in his book The Natural Economic Order.

Nobody wanted to pay for the monthly stamps, so everyone receiving the notes would spend them. The 32,000 schilling deposit allowed anyone to exchange scrip for 98 per cent of its value in schillings. Hardly anyone did this because the scrip was worth one schilling after buying a new stamp. But people did not keep more scrip than they needed. Only 5,000 schillings circulated. The stamp fees paid for a soup kitchen that fed 220 families.1 2

The council carried out all the intended works, built new houses, a reservoir, a ski jump and a bridge. The key to this success was the fast circulation of the scrip money within the local economy, fourteen times higher than the Schilling. This increased trade and employment. Unemployment in Wörgl dropped 25% while it rose in the rest of Austria. Six neighbouring villages copied the idea successfully. The French Prime Minister, Édouard Daladier, visited the town to witness the ‘miracle of Wörgl’ himself.1 2

In January 1933, the project was copied in the neighbouring city of Kitzbühel. In June 1933 major Unterguggenberger addressed a meeting with representatives from 170 different Austrian towns and villages. Two hundred Austrian townships were interested in the idea. At this point the central bank decided to assert its monopoly rights by banning scrip money.1 2

The local currency of Wörgl demonstrates that the economy can do well without more debt if money keeps circulating. Negative interest rates can make that happen. Stamps on money like in Wörgl make negative interest rates possible as you can avoid paying for stamps by lending out money. For instance, lending out money at a negative interest rate of 2% per year would be more attractive than paying for the stamps. Negative interest rates might have prevented the depression or ended it once it had started. So if scrip had been money in the 1920s and 1930s, World War II might never have happened.

Natural Money

Introducing negative interest rates in the global financial system may have great benefits. The website Naturalmoney.org features an in-depth research of the feasibility and consequences of negative interest rates.

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Featured image: Wörgl bank note with stamps. Public Domain.

1. The Future Of Money. Bernard Lietaer (2002). Cornerstone / Cornerstone Ras.
2. A Strategy for a Convertible Currency. Bernard A. Lietaer, ICIS Forum, Vol. 20, No.3, 1990. [link]