An Interview with Dr. Leanne Ussher, Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics and Finance at Bard College and Local Currency Engineer at Hudson Valley Current.
In this edition of “Currency Corner,” Michael Marks interviews the co-author of the monthly column, Dr. Leanne Ussher. Leanne has unique life and professional experiences that we believe readers will find very interesting.
Dr. Marks: We heard you are from Australia. Please tell us about your background?
Dr. Ussher: I grew up on a dairy farm in a small rural community of 1,000 people. When my dad passed a few years ago he left the farm in a trust to his three children. I would like to return to the farm someday and create an institute that would promote the “think global, act local” motto—similar to the Hawthorne Valley Association or Wally Farms near Hudson, which both have community engagement and education central to their operations.
I was the first person in my family to go to university and did a double major in South-East Asia studies and Economics, receiving a Bachelor of Economics degree from Macquarie University, Sydney. I then got a position at the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA, Australia’s central bank) as a securities analyst. I was in the monetary policy department, where the plumbing of the monetary system is managed, designed, implemented, and studied. I briefly had the opportunity, while still at the RBA, to teach statistics for students in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Dr. Marks: What brought you to the US?
Dr. Ussher: I followed my fiancé to New York, and entered an economics PhD program at the New School for Social Research. I went there because of their economics program. I currently live on Long Island with my husband and nine-year-old son, commuting up to Bard College to teach.
Dr. Marks: Please tell us how you got interested in community currencies. In particular, tell us about the Koala Coin idea you developed.
Dr. Ussher: I am so glad you asked. [Laughter.] My farm in Australia backs onto State Forest—filled with Eucalyptus. There are hundreds of varieties, and they make beautiful hardwood flooring.” Red cedar (Toona ciliata) was a large rainforest tree that grew up to 120-180 feet high, growing all up the eastern seaboard of Australia. It was called “red gold” and in the 1900s it was the reason my town (like many others) began, and was basically logged to extinction. Today loggers are doing the same thing, but worse. They are clear cutting state forest, treating the millions of acres of public land like a huge free plantation. Like in many countries, there is considerable tension between the logging industry, state government who profits from selling logging rights, Aboriginal groups who are forest stewards, environmentalists, and the local residents.
In 2017, I was getting closer to going home, and was looking at ecotourism on the farm. I had also started studying blockchain tracking systems and reading Bernard Lietaer on local currencies. I decided to design a complementary blockchain currency that would certify timber products that were sustainably logged. If the products were on the blockchain, they would have a QR code to scan and find out where they logged. If logged sustainably it would be called “koala safe.” That product could back a Koala Coin.
If loggers want their timber to be on the blockchain, certified as Koala safe, and earn a premium in the market for “Koala safe products,” then they must purchase this certification from the Forest Alliance with Koala Coins. The only place for loggers to get such coins is at the Koala exchange, paying for them in dollars.
Dr. Marks: Great example of using the currency to tap into underutilized assets (underemployed folks), create new jobs, provide incentives for sustainable production, and use technology to manage the currency. How have you incorporated these ideas into your teaching at Bard?
Dr. Ussher: I arrived at Bard in 2019. I teach courses in finance, but I also get to teach a course on local currencies and another on fintech and blockchain. Blockchain and smart contracts is a field that has not only flipped most people’s understanding of money but also of community governance. I’m learning so many new insights on grassroots organizing and coordinating decentralized action through blockchain and local currencies, on or off blockchain. Money after all is just a coordination tool.
As an academic, it is common to write papers and teach these intriguing concepts, but most of the time we don’t get to act on anything.
What was so great about coming to Bard, is that I discovered the Hudson Valley and met Chris Hewitt. Immediately I wanted to work with the organization to study a local currency for real. I knew a lot of theories about money, and had worked a lot with data from monetary systems, but this was the first time (since the RBA) that I was actively involved with the “plumbing”, and could move from theorist to activist.
For questions or additional information, please contact Dr. Michael B. Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org.