Changemaker Profile – Ben Dyson, Founder of Positive Money

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headshot of Ben Dyson

This is the third in a series of Changemaker Profiles, which introduces the work of changemakers I know and admire, and offers insights into their approaches to communication and change work.

Ben Dyson is the founder of Positive Money, a not-for-profit research and campaign group working to raise awareness of the connections between our current monetary and banking system and some of our biggest social, economic and environmental challenges.

1. Tell us about the work you are involved with:

My organisation is working to get people to understand how the monetary system currently works and the effect it has on some of the main social and economic issues that we’re facing today.

We focus on raising awareness of the fact that, at the moment, around 97% of all the money that exists is created by banks when they make loans, meaning that it is banks that determine a) how much money there is in the economy, and b) how that money is used.

As well as giving banks the power to shape the economy and making it impossible for us to let them fail, it also has knock-on impacts on issues like indebtedness, inequality, economic instability and the environmental crisis.

2. What motivated you to be doing this work?

By accident, in 2006, I stumbled across a book which talked about these issues. It seemed obvious that the system was structured in such a way that sooner or later it would collapse. In 2007, the collapse started.

Over the first two years of the financial crisis I became more and more frustrated that journalists and politicians seemed to be clueless of the root cause of the financial crisis – the fact that banks had created enough money in 8 years to double the amount of money in the economy, and put most of this money into house price bubbles. The talk was all about the fact that people had borrowed too much and needed to live within their means, but no one was asking questions such as “Where did all this money come from?”

In 2009 I started blogging about this issue on a personal blog, and in 2010 I decided that to have any real impact we’d need to build an organisation. We launched Positive Money in mid 2010.

3. What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?

One of the most rewarding aspects is to know that our analysis of the problems with the monetary system can be the missing piece of the puzzle for many social and economic issues that have seemed impossible to solve until now. We often have people telling us that they can finally start to make sense of everything that is going on in the economy and society at the moment, because they understand how finance and money is driving a lot of these problems. Once we understand how money is affecting these issues, it becomes easier to start to find solutions to some of these problems.

It’s also rewarding to see the ideas start to spread further. The chairman of the FSA recently gave a speech making some of the same points that we’ve been arguing, mostly as a lone voice, for the last two and a half years.

4. What do you feel is your biggest communication challenge?

Money and economics can be a very dry subject that seems quite far removed from people’s daily experience.

Our biggest challenge has always been to take out the jargon, make it simple and accessible, and make it relevant to people. I think we’ve managed to make the issue accessible (our videos for example are designed for people with no background in economics, although some of our books and papers are much more ‘in the deep end’, necessarily). But the challenge we’re working on most at the moment is to make it clearer how this is relevant to people’s lives. You might not care directly that money creation by banks can distort prices in the economy until it’s explained that this means you’ll give up an extra 5 years’ income simply to pay for the place where you live.

There are also a lot of knee-jerk reactions to the kind of ideas that we’re talking about. The first is the natural disbelief and the argument that “banks don’t create money”, although this one is easier to deal with now that more and more senior figures are open about the way this system works.

But then amongst those who know a little bit about economics or finance, there are a load more knee-jerk reactions that we have to contend with. The monetary system isn’t simple and it’s easy to very quickly get caught up in technical debates whilst missing the bigger issue of the effect the current system actually has. It’s always a challenge to keep people focussed on the realities of the impact the current system is having, rather than getting stuck in a technical debate about the mechanics of the banking system.

5. How do you handle a situation when you find yourself in conflict with someone about your work or ideas?

I find the best approach is usually to start by trying to see their perspective, rather than getting defensive immediately. Sometimes they do have a point, and we have changed our approach, proposals and messaging in the past to take that into account. The campaign is a lot more effective for taking that feedback on board.

If someone objects to our ideas our first reaction is to make sure they understand them fully. I don’t mind people objecting to something once they’ve read and understood it, and we regularly have fascinating and friendly discussions with people who fundamentally disagree with us. But I find it difficult to have much patience for people who misrepresent or mis-read what we’re suggesting and then start critiquing their own misinterpretation of the ideas. This often happens with other campaigners, politicians or journalists, who manage to form an opinion in a couple of minutes and ignore the fact that we’ve spent 3 years researching this system and looking at the impact it has. In this situation we normally try to meet them in person and find out whether the disagreement is based on misunderstandings, or whether it’s something more fundamental. Quite often these people didn’t fully appreciate the depth of the consequences of the current system.

But we have never expected to be able to get everyone on side with our analysis or proposals, and we don’t try to. The reality is that no major change has been made through complete consensus, so as Churchill suggested, if you haven’t made a few enemies yet you’re probably not making enough of an impact. But we do try to make sure we’re explaining the ideas in the clearest possible way and try to avoid causing confusion.

6. What’s your best piece of advice for change-makers and activists?

1) Spend a lot of time thinking about what will actually make the difference. A lot of campaigners spend a lot of energy doing busy work, when actually only a small amount of that work is effective. We fall into the same trap from time to time and have to keep re-evaluating our projects to make sure we’re always working on the thing that would make the biggest difference. The 80/20 rule applies here.

2) I’m not at all religious but there’s an element of faith in trying to do something this big (as with most campaigns that aim to change something on a huge scale). You do need to plan and figure out a strategy that could be successful, but a lot of the lucky breaks and contacts we’ve made could never have been planned for. A lot of it has just unfolded as we’ve gone on. So you have to some faith that once you start with something like this, even though it won’t be entirely clear how you can get to your end goal, the path will reveal itself bit by bit.

You can read more about the work of Ben and the Positive Money team’s work on their site, or in the book ‘Modernising Money’:

modernising money book cover

Modernising Money: Why Our Monetary System is Broken & How it Can Be Fixed

The product of three years of research and development, these proposals offer one of the few hopes of escaping from our current dysfunctional monetary system. Modernising Money shows how a law first implemented in the UK in 1844 (but never updated) can be combined with reform proposals that grew out of the Great Depression of the 1930s to provide the UK with a stable monetary and banking system, low personal and government debt and a thriving economy.

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