What is Legal Tender?

You often hear of someone declaring their money legal tender.

A bus driver going “Sorry, can’t take twenties” to which the person responds “but it’s legal tender!”

A person trying to pay in ASDA in England with a Scottish £20 note, the shopkeeper going “what’s this then?” “That’s legal tender that is, you gotta take it, it’s Sterling and everything”.

But Legal Tender has a very very specific meaning.

Firstly: None of the situations above were concerned in any way with legal tender. The following situation however is:

Someone at the end of a cab ride, trying to pay a £15 fare with a £20 note.

So, what’s the difference between that situation, and the bus fare situation presented above?

Debt. In the first three situations, you were paying for a service or goods in advance of receiving the service or goods. In the cab ride example however, you were paying for the service after having received it. In essence you were attempting to discharge the debt you had incurred.

This brings us to our first conclusion:

Legal Tender applies only when attempting to discharge a debt.

Now, To refine this a bit, Credit Cards are not legal tender. Vouchers are not legal tender. A Bank Transfer is not legal tender. If it was then cabs would have to accept a bank transfer. They (usually) don’t. In fact, Legal Tender applies only to cash – notes and coins.

Picking apart the term itself: To tender is “to offer or present formally”. A legal tender is a legal offer. Thus, Legal Tender is strictly:

An offer (of cash) to discharge a debt that cannot be refused.

Strictly this applies onto to paying money to a court to discharge a debt – it prevents you being sued for non-payment, but the end result is that effectively cash becomes a required way of accepting payment for a debt. There is an important caveat: There is no obligation for change under a Legal Tender situation, so you’d better pay with exact money!

Now, there’s a few restrictions here. So don’t try and pay off a £100 restaurant meal with 5 pence pieces. Because that offer wouldn’t actually be legal tender.

Why? Because there are restrictions on how much each denomination of currency is valid legal tender for.
50p – up to £10
20p – up to £10
10p – up to £5
5p – up to £5
2p – up to 20p
1p – up to 20p

Coins and notes higher than 50p are valid legal tender for any amount.

So far everything I’ve said has been true… For England.

When you consider Scotland (in particular) things get funky.

Firstly no Scottish Notes are legal tender in England. Only notes from the Bank of England are. Similarly no English notes are legal tender in Scotland – although this is for a different reason – Scotland has no concept of Legal Tender! Instead the creditor must accept any reasonable offer to discharge the debt, so if, for some reason, meters of bubble-wrap became a standard way to pay for things, then it could be construed as a reasonable offer, and thus the creditor would be obliged to accept it to pay off the debt!

There’s one aside I’m going to make here – technically, when I talk about “Scottish Notes” I’m conflating several different notes, because in Scotland  seven retail banks can print notes, that are backed by Bank of England funds. The system for this is that the Bank of England essentially says to the banks “You can print this much money”, with the amount carefully chosen to keep the values between Scottish notes and BoE notes on par.

And now, as a final aside, to that aside. I said that the Scottish Notes are “backed” by the Bank of England. This probably conjured up images of a huge gold vault somewhere underneath central London. Well….. I’m sorry to burst that bubble, but the BoE only has a fraction of gold to “back” the amount of money in circulation. Technically there is no currency on Earth that is backed by anything – all the money on Earth is “backed” by is the value that other people believe it has.  But the loopy idea of fiat money – money without any physical backing to its value, is something for another time. And that, reader, is a nice, comforting note to end the article on…. right?

“The World Inside” – Robert Silverberg

As many of you know, I’m an avid reader. Although my intake is predominately fantasy, I do read a healthy dose of crime, YA and other fiction.

In this case, it’s a work of Speculative Fiction – a collection of short stories by Silverberg published as “The World Inside”.

The question the work poses is “What if we encouraged overpopulation. What if we held breeding to be the best activity there is.”. It is with this premise that the world of the Urban Monad is born. The year is 2381. The world population is over 75 billion (up from todays population of 7 billion). To feed that many people vast amounts of food is needed, so vast amounts of land have been given over to farmland, with small communities maintaining the vast amount of agriculture. But where does everyone else go? Into arcology inspired “Urban Monads”, 1000 floor skyscrapers, housing over 800,000 people, that as a community are almost entirely self-sufficient – they recycle everything obsessively, they capture body heat, every area of space is used to its full potential. The only thing they need is food from the farms – in exchange they maintain the machinery that the small farming community uses.

Because of the limited space, each apartment is one small room. The beds inflate and deflate down into the floor to ensure effective utilisation of the space. There’s no internal partitions (there is a privacy screen for the toilet, but it’s never used). There’s certainly no separate kitchen.

In our situation you can imagine tensions forming easily between people, so the rules are strict to ensure that peace is maintained – to ensure that no-one goes “flippo”. Sex (between any persons) is the main way of releasing any tension – and because minimising conflict is essential, it is seen as impolite (or even sinful) to refuse when someone asks, although the refusal is always accepted. The people in the UrbMon live in a ‘city’ – a group of about 50 or so floors, based roughly on class – administrators live up the top, whilst labourers live in the bottom-most city. The city forms the basis of their social group – it is rare that they interact with people outside of their own city – each ‘city’ even has its own entertainment complex.

Naturally because of the belief that reproduction is the highest good (the most “blessworthy”) it is common for marriages to happen at 12-13, as soon as the person is able to reproduce. Small families are also seen as a sign of failure – in Prague (one of the cities) there is an average of 9.9 children per family. This is not seen as freaky or weird, but is seen as something to be praised and upheld as a model of the family. This combined with the sexual permissiveness hinted at earlier, has given rise the the culture of “nightwalking”, one where men will roam the corridors of their city, and will go into an apartment (locks are forbidden as creating tensions and untrustworthyness), to have sex with the female (or male) there. There is no obligation for the other partner to leave, although they will usually go nightwalking themselves. Interestingly there is a social expectation that women don’t nightwalk, a source of tension for one of the characters in a later story when his wife leaves the room to seek out sex, not even waiting until night. (The horror!)

Due to the lack of privacy, sex happens within full view of the children. Indeed, one of the opening parts of the book is a song sung by children upon waking in the morning

God bless, god bless, god bless!
God bless us every one!
God bless Daddo, god bless Mommo,
god bless you and me!
God bless us all, the short and tall,
Give us fer-til-i-tee!

This opens the first short story in the collection – which tells, from the viewpoint of the father in this family, of the arrival and tour of a “sociocomputator” from a colony on Venus, where the social structure resembles our own much more closely – private dwellings in their own plot of land. He is somewhat shocked at the lack of privacy, at the invitation to “share” his hosts wife. At the age at which children are married.

To elaborate on that last point, once children become fertile they move into group dorms until a unit is available for themselves. Naturally, given the large number of people space is rare – there is a constant expansion programme of new UrbMons being built. One of the stories involves the conflict within one of those couples randomly chosen to go an live in the new UrbMon. They are so used to staying within their city, they are terrified of leaving all they know (no-one ever leaves an UrbMon by choice). But this is countered with the possibility of rising in social status; in established UrbMons the highest status jobs are rarely available for anyone to take, with people being groomed for the roles. In a new UrbMon however, the social mobility is much much greater.

Another of the key stories for understanding their culture is the one where someone, defying all social convention, leaves the UrbMon to explore. As he steps outside he is struck by how big the UrbMons are. But what is really telling is hwo he views the small agricultural commune that he encounters as he explores. At first he expects to be able to communicate with them, but as language is an issue he starts to view them as savages – especially when it appears that they are going to kill a pregnant member (which, given his culture is possibly the worst crime one could commit). But the distrust is mutual – the villagers believe he is there to spy on them.

One particularly noteworthy exchange is that with the old woman, when he tries to convince her that procreation is the best thing, he can’t understand why they stay so small – even as she points out that if they grew and expanded their commune, there wouldn’t be enough food for the UrbMons.

The final scene I’m going to highlight in this review is from the same story – it shows from our point of view, his attempt to rape the female; whilst from his point of view he thought she was just playing a game – having never been told no to his sexual advances. It wasn’t an easy read, but it was very valuable for showing how our experiences and social influences inform our beliefs and our actions.

And with that thought, I’m going to leave the review here. Suffice it to say, I highly recommend the book as an excellent read that provokes some serious thought about cultural norms, as well as alternative models of sustainability.

Safe Spaces

Quick note before the post proper: I do have an analysis of The World Inside in the works, but it’s proving rather troublesome to tame into coherence. For now, this post.

I regularly see people declaring that somewhere or other is a “safe space”. So let’s pick this concept apart, and see just how easy or hard it is to create a safe space.

What is a “Safe Space”? The idea behind it is simple – a place where someone (usually of a minority group, though not necessarily) can write, talk, discuss their beliefs without any mockery, without trolls, and without a risk of them being offended (or in some cases distressed – known as triggered) by content within the area. For example, a Safe Space for a Homosexual person would be a space where you aren’t condemned for being homosexual. You won’t be mocked with homophobic slurs. Such a person can talk frankly about their experience. A transgender person meanwhile would have a space where they won’t be called and number of the transphobic slurs, nor would they be confronted with such slurs unexpectedly.

Sometimes you see people claiming that a particular tumblr tag is a “safe space” and that people should keep their hate out of the “transgender” tag, for example. This, is a futile request. The nature of tagging (on most sites, including tumblr) is that tags are public and unmoderated (beyond generic site-level moderation). Such tags will naturally be used by anyone who wishes too. And whilst sites may have “community guidelines” and so forth, against homophobic material etc, such policies tend to rely on user-reporting, and notably tend not to be as strict in their moderation as safe-spaces require.

Another angle is for example the /r/lgbt subreddit, which claims itself as a safe-space for any and all gender, sexual and romantic minorities, and it does work. Kind of. Reddit provides subreddit moderators (sub-reddits are essentially a forum board) with tools to remove any posts they wish. And this subreddit in particular has very pro-active moderators ensuring that any (even slightly) anti-lgbt material is removed quickly. So they have a safe space. Great. except, as is common in the case of highly active moderators, anything that doesn’t fit with their world-view is also removed. As such it creates a community that is perceived to be ‘all on the same page’. Even posts that aren’t anti-lgbt, but question, for example the ever expanding alphabet soup are removed.

Moving into the real world, a “safe space” tends to be a meeting area where there are people in authority, with the power to remove people from the space – such as University LGBT societies. These tend to be less prone to the ‘heavy-handedness’ of internet community moderation – by virtue of the fact that without the online disinhibition effect (Something I learned a great deal about for a University coursework) the number of trolls and “extreme” views tend to be minimised.

That said, online “safe spaces” are needed – providing people who experience homophobia, transphobia, and even things such as sexual assault or have attempted suicide, an area where they can pseudonymously communicate with others in the same boat is vital. It encourages the community to connect, to network, and thus to become stronger. And it insulates them from the problems that they face elsewhere in life (sometimes frighteningly regularly).

Safe Spaces need to be actively moderated, otherwise they are impossible to maintain. But it is important to recognise that this moderation can go too far, which can cause a narrowing world-view and even rejection, not acceptance, from the wider society (or even from within the same minority group – see the split from /r/lgbt to /r/ainbow).