An Alt Currency that even the IRS Could Love

How superfluid works from Nathan Solomon on Vimeo.

I've been researching alternative currency systems for the past decade or so, ever since I became convinced that a 21st Century economy simply can't be run on a 13th Century printing-press-era operating system. As most of us know, the centralized currency we use today is a legacy of the early Renaissance, when kings, threatened by the rise of a merchant middle class, made all peer-to-peer and local currencies illegal. Debt-based currencies helped monarchs centralize their power and the worth of their treasuries. And these currency systems worked particularly well as colonial empires expanded via their chartered corporations.

Nowadays, however, most of us have more value we wish to transact than there is cash out there to do it. (I personally blame the derivatives markets, which now are more predictive than derivative - their bets being placed before the so-called "real" markets have a chance to operate.) But whatever the cause, there are plenty of real people willing to work and exchange value; there's just not enough money available to do it.

I've been looking hard at many of the systems out there, from exchanges like LETS and TimeDollars to reputational currencies like Whuffie. The main obstacle - usually unacknowledged, but mostly just ignored - is the tax. And I think that's what sets Superfluid apart from the rest. They've got two sides - a "community" portal for people to do favors for one another in the way a LETS system might allow. And they've also got a commerce portal through which people can begin to sell merchandise or commercial services.

What makes Superfluid interesting for the Boing Boing community, I believe, is that its philosophy and methodology - as described in the video above - is so consonant with that of the programming community. It makes sense to me that a technology based in shared computing resources would be great for administrating the sharing of programming skills. And it also seems to me that the programming community is the more likely birthplace for a robust and legal p2p currency than the kinds of communities that have attempted to scale up their currencies in the past.

See what you think. I'll try to get the founders of Superfluid here to engage in the comments if people are interested.


  1. so how is this different than bartering?
    over the years I keep seeing the same “local exchange of work skills” ideas over and over just with different ways to track the “units” of barter.

  2. Curious to see what happens when someone hands out more “quids” than he has time to deliver on.

    What happens when you try to spend “quids” and the people say “I am busy now, but can help you next year.”?

    “I’d gladly pay you Thursday for an hamburger today.”

  3. I agree, our currency is horrible. The main problem is the federal reserve in combination with legal tender laws.

    I like the idea of Superfluid, it is basically a high tech barter system. Good. The free market sure does have its way of coming up with good ideas.

    I think we need to abolish legal tender laws and allow people to trade in whatever value storage medium they like. That could be gold, silver, dollars, Quids, tweets, likes, high-fives, beer, bank notes, Pounds, Euros, etc. That way, people would be free to exchange value for value without having it centrally controlled by a federally enforced and unregulated banking cartel, which robs every single person of the value of their work through inflation.

  4. … there are plenty of real people willing to work and exchange value; there’s just not enough money available to do it.

    [citation needed]

  5. Hm. With the right kind of time management system, it does make some sense. Still, it’s extremely difficult to accurately budget a time-based system for programming, which is frequently extremely variable. Also extremely difficult, on an individual level, to set that time budgeting up for an alternative currency in its infancy as far as uptake goes.

    Basically, it’s going to be really, really hard to accurately measure the value of knowledge work like that in a time-based setup.

    Critical challenge to figure out how to make something else work, though.

  6. I don’t get it. This is a barter system. A world-wide barter system, but a barter system nevertheless. There are plenty of barter systems out there already. And the IRS does not differentiate between barter earned “commercially” and barter earned “as a favor”: it’s all taxable.

    The only things the IRS does not tax are “gifts”. (There are rules about gifts and taxes, but you don’t have to worry about it much. They generally apply after you die.) So if I give you $100, or Q100, or 100 barter dollars, or whatever, for NOTHING IN RETURN, then it’s a gift and not taxable (except for tips which are classified by the IRS as “not gifts”). If, on the other hand, you give me $100 because I did you a favor, then it’s not a favor anymore. It’s a taxable transaction.

    What this system seems to do is take under-the-counter transactions and put them up for all and sundry and the IRS to see. How is this an advantage?

  7. Um, Douglas? The printing press (in the sense of movable lead type) was invented in the 15th century, not the 13th century. Sure, Korea and China had some precursors using large movable type plates as early as the 11th century, but the pre-15th century versions had unworkably large cases; Korea had exactly what was needed (both the technology of metal movable type and the hangul), but for what appear to have been socio-political reasons (one might even say class warfare) never put the two together.

  8. I can see the usefulness of this for small tasks being exchanged, but it is all so limited. I can’t make a living on Superfluid or any of these other currencies.

    I’m a programmer. If I billed all my hours I programmed in superfluid quids, well then I could get a lot of people to make art for me, or make sound effects, or tune up my bicycle for me. But at the end of the day, I would have no food and no bed.

    In the context of the super-limited “you help me, and then I’ll help someone else sometime when I have the time” universe, however, I can see this being very useful.

  9. I’m missing something. Where do the quids come from in the first place? Is everybody issuing their own? e.g., I pay you not in some common medium, but in “favors owed by Moriarty?” Which could then be called in to me for my labor, or exchanged to someone else who presumably knows me, values my work, and trusts that I’ll follow through?

    1. Hmmm, that’s a good question. I read through the site and it only served to confuse matters.

      If I understand, in their p2p system, users start out with no quids, but can borrow up to 200Q each. Once they start being paid, the money first goes automatically to paying off their debt.

      So let’s say just two users sign on total, A and B. Each starts off with no money. So there is no money in the system.

      A and B now each borrow 200Q. They now have 200Q each to spend.

      A does a job for B. B pays A 200Q. A’s debt is clear, and she still has 200Q. B is still 200Q in debt.

      Now B does a job for A, and A pays B 200Q. All of that goes towards paying B’s debt. No B has no debt, but no money either. And A has no money, because she just spent it all.

      So now neither A nor B have any Quids, and so they can never do any jobs for each other ever again.

      The only other possibility, since the FAQ isn’t clear on this, is that you can keep borrowing Quids. (It says “Currently, if you have less than 200 Quids in hand, you can borrow up to 200 Quids. ” but it’s not clear if “borrow up to” is a cumulative total.) If that’s the case, then it makes even less sense, because B could just keep borrowing and paying A, borrowing and paying A, and A’s quids are worthless. So that can’t be it either.

      Anyone have a clearer understanding?

      1. I think this is where your problem lies, SamSam:

        So now neither A nor B have any Quids, and so they can never do any jobs for each other ever again.

        The way I read the site rules, the situation now is instead “So now neither A nor B have any Quids, and they’re back where they started, ready for a new cycle.”

        Having done favours of hypothetically equal value for each other, they can now again borrow up to 200Q (as they both have under 200Q and no outstanding debts).

        If “borrow” were the only Quids source this would leave all users with a net 0Q (which would not necessarily prevent the system from working), but in fact there are a couple of other money sources in the system. I think that answers Moriarty’s question as well; quids are not personal notes, but without someone finding your personal skills useful for something, you won’t have a way to get hold of more than your initial 200.

        1. That’s a good point, they can only borrow again if they have no debt, which negates my former issues with the borrow-again model.

          I guess the system also paradoxically gets more money from the unavoidable “leechers” — the people who sign on, borrow their 200Q, spend it, and then never do any jobs for anyone else. Every time someone does this, it injects another 200Q into the system — money taken from the central bank that is never going to be called in.

          The question of whether or not this enterprise succeeds depends on whether the leechers will outnumber those willing to do jobs.

  10. The system would also punish those who are more adept at using their time than others. You could have a programmer who is extremely adept, and write beautiful concise code that works flawlessy and takes little time to develop, and he’d make less Quids per Time than say, someone who’s writing line after line of redundant bloated buggy code, in order to get himself a larger QpT payout.

  11. No matter how you choose to dress it up, it is still a debt based system of currency that helps monarchs or governments in general, centralize their power and build the wealth in their treasuries as long as it gives them access to tax the transaction. The question for me is what should or should not be taxable for a barter system of any kind to work. If barter is really another form of taxable currency, is there some standard in which all transactions should be valued for tax purposes? In the construction trades, you can hire an “undocumented” immigrant for considerably less than a union member. Would both barters of the same type work be valued the same as far as a tax on barter is levied? Just curious…thanks

  12. I can see that I’m not the only one to have trouble with the following statement:

    But whatever the cause, there are plenty of real people willing to work and exchange value; there’s just not enough money available to do it.

    It’s hard to believe that anybody with even a little bit of economics under his belt could make such a statement, especially without further justification. The money supply in the US has been increasing monotonically over the last few decades, and the current Fed board has presided over what has been the most rapid expansion of the money supply in in recent memory.

    The above statement is so facile that it seems guaranteed to be false. Indeed, whatever you think about the explanatory power of macroeconomics – and I am hardly among its proponents – it should clear from historical incidents of hyperinflation that how much money is nominally available has an indirect and complex relationship with economic health. The problem is not in the total amount of money, but in the distribution of that money.

    As is typically the case with the “solutions” glibly offered up by the anarchist/libertarian crowd, the article seems premised on the idea that the destruction of institutions is a moral act in itself that requires no further justification. But little thought has given to what the purpose of money is. It is not only a stock of value, but a medium for exchange. When I have a dollar, I know that that dollar will be good at the cleaners, the plumbers, the barber, the diner, etc. Having to worry about multiple currencies would require me to remember where I can spend each kind, not to mention the trouble and expense I would have to endure should I wish to transfer value from one currency to another. More is not always better.

    1. *As is typically the case with the “solutions” glibly offered up by the anarchist/libertarian crowd, the article seems premised on the idea that the destruction of institutions is a moral act in itself that requires no further justification.*

      As is typically the case with the solutions offered by the leftist/totalitarian crowd, your post seems premised on the idea that the creation of institutions is a moral act in itself that requires no further justification.

      And your side got to go first.

  13. From some informal experiments in Second Life (not any involving ‘banks’ or ‘ATMs’, thank yew) and other research, I have the impression that there are two crucial topics that a robust method of value exchange must address.

    Those are transparency (and the inverse, privacy) of transactions, and the enforceability of transactions.

    (Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, I am not your lawyer, and this is not legal advice.)

    Printed rectangular sheets and oblately cylindrical pieces of metal have two benefits: They are at once enforceable and private – at least, they were, and still can be, so long as there’s sufficient lack of government or financial institution inspection of the serial numbers on either side of the transaction. (Traffic analysis isn’t just for IP addresses.)

    This becomes a problem with scaling up – there’s not enough printed sheets and oblately cylindrical pieces of metal to go around. So you get ledger-sheet (credit) based methods of value exchange. The difficulty one (and society) encounters with such a system is that those whose job is to keep track of the credits cannot be afforded privacy of transactions, or the enforceability is null – corrupt financial institutions can find all sorts of ways to inflate their worth and drain value from those who do business with them and can buy the enforcers off. Regulation is nearly impossible when there is no motivation to regulate, such as when those whose job it is to regulate are underpaid, overworked, and/or suspect that regulation is going to uncover terrible, terrible answers.

    Barter systems have the benefit of being private, but also have an unhappy drawback of being unenforceable except through informal societal repercussions – it becomes a problem with scaling up – and if the two barterers live a long distance from one another, in different communities, it becomes necessary to involve at some point law enforcement if their contract is not upheld by either party. At that point transparency becomes important.

    There are always going to be confidence tricksters in any value exchange system, and the trust that people can put into the system is directly proportional to how well the confidence artists can be punished, recovered, or excluded from that system.

    There are con-men (sorry about the gendered term) who will play for the short term, and they tend to be filtered out in the short term, with a small amount of value extracted from the overall system. The trust they drin from the system is disproportionate but tends to be replaceable.

    The con-men who play for the long term are a different problem altogether. You have Skilling, Madoff, the mafias, etcetera — they rely on an appearance of transparency, exploit privacy and trust, and avoid enforceability at all costs – and when they are uncovered … the overall trust in the system drops far more disproportionately, and recovers far more slowly. Thus the difficulty California’s government has (Skilling), the US’ economy has (Madoff) and the world’s economy has (Derivatives markets).

    Contrast all of this with the way finance is handled in the Muslim world, where interest charges are considered unethical, immoral, irreligious, and illegal — there exists scrip for private, negotiable on demand exchanges (paper money), the men whose role it is to keep track of credit are, effectively, beholden to one another and their community, live highly public lives where the notion of what we call uberrima fides — over-riding good faith, beyond even an appearance of impropriety — is well-understood and at the ready to use against their competitors (it’s peer-review for the financial world), most credit is public and transparent (at least within their financial world) and breaking the trust of the financial system means swift, immediate, and irrevocable consequences, the least of which is seizure of assets and exile from the financial system – if one is fortunate, that’s all. They also have barter systems between individual entities which are private and enforced by their communities if necessary, and by the fact that these entities derive their authority from the barrel of a gun if it’s an inter-community barter. I’m certainly not saying their system is ideal, or even preferable – I’m illustrating how these attributes differ for their system. Trust by the constituents of the credit system in the Muslim world is well above and beyond the trust Americans (and most Europeans now, I would imagine) place in our credit systems, which really only are appropriate to medium-scale business dealings – it fails at the personal level (enforceability and transparency) and at the economic-system level (enforceability and transparency).

    1. The problem of accountability would involve breaking up society into small “cells” that are well-acquainted. That increases accountability. Cells interact with other cells. I’ve been involved in a barter economy that takes place within one small subculture in one place. If someone screws someone over, they are effectively shunned, because everybody knows about it. This could be extended if you could publicly voice grievances with members in a larger system, but as long as their “person” is extrapolated from their “psuedo-person,” there are no real consequences. Keep it small, keep it local, and let it grow organically.

      1. There’s a converse problem with keeping the accountability at a small level, where everyone knows everyone else: The money inevitably becomes intertwined with politics. Those who are different end up being shunned anyway, and they tend to suffer under barter systems. It gets worse if they object to a particular thing (policy, law, position, religion) and have a well-crafted reason to object to it — most groups of people like the status quo and will actively resist attempts to change it, even if it requires more resources to resist the change than to change it. One runs into the same problems one sees in Soviet Russia, in Communist China, in places where large-scale communism came up as a political system. Corrupt officials, no recourse to a higher system, political persecution. That happens because there is no transparency. If transparency is a part and parcel and strictly enforced from the beginning, you can’t have corruption but you also can’t have privacy from society.

  14. “centralized currency we use today is a legacy of the early Renaissance”

    This is a pretty arbitrary point to choose. You could just as easily claim it’s a legacy of the invention of coining, or pick the elimination of backing it with materials of intrinsic worth, the invention of centralized banking, modern credit systems, or medieval credit systems, the founding of the Federal reserve, or any number of other points in history.

    Currency as a medium of exchange has changed and evolved alongside transportation, communication, and legal systems. I daresay it’s far from obsolete, although it may well be due for tweaking.

    I also completely fail to see how Superfluid is unlike currency, but I confess I’ve only glanced at the site. One receives payment for goods or services in the form of a numeric credit which one can then spend on other goods or services. The fact that there’s no physically minted medium of exchange to work with is a disadvantage for which I see no point. As it stands, by far most transactions in existing currency do not use bills or coins, but we have the option of doing so when it’s advantageous.

    1. Since antiquity in Europe, it was the Early Renaissance when governments became large enough, had a system of division of labour, had a system of enforcement, had a political reason to, and had a decision to centralise — and thus exclude any other possible competition — the monetary system, for the purpose of financing the state (taxes) and securing their economies against other government’s interference, and to leverage their assets. Before then, monetary exchange, or value exchange, was concrete based on the face value of a good or service, everyone paid fealty to their lord, and mobilising all of the commanded resources became a problem with scaling up. Then, the Renaissance happened, the rise of the Middle Class (who performed services and made goods that could easily not be taxed by the government because the transaction was private and enforced on face value), and the need to mobilise economies and resources faster than other governments became absolutely necessary.

      Paper money, and stock exchange (promissory investment holding), became ways to do just that. The government could shuffle around bits of paper and coins and be sure that their value was stable, could take their taxes out of the flow of bits of paper, and the actual exchange of goods and services was left to people. Beyond that, because the government was so stable, they could speculate (leverage) their holdings, and put up their holdings against several different debts on the theory that this allowed more work to be done, more services and goods, and none of the debts would fail to be possible to be called in, because there’s always more cows, right – ?

      It was the Renaissance that caused the value of money to be divorced from the raw value of the metal in the coin, where it was no longer necessary to trade cows but to trade bits of paper promising cows.

  15. I think the assumption that this is a community of programmers or indeed entrepreneurs is way off, hence the comments above but the rest of the post is interesting.

    For me the key benefit of this system is its scarcity model of currency – the idea here is not to amass quids but to spend them and spend them quickly. This can be seen from their FAQ where they state that there is a limit to the currency and that periodic dividends will be paid out that have an expiry date. To find out why this is a good thing read Life Inc by Rushkoff :)

    I also like how this model allows me to continue the normal business practice of swapping favours way beyond my own business circle and in a way that allows me to decide the value of my offering.

    The comments on tax are irrelevant – just check with a chartered accountant.

    The comments on how quids are worthless are so cute – you just dont get it but E FOR EFFORT :)

  16. There’s multiple threads here. I’ll invite Superfluid’s folks to answer some of the specifics about the service, if they’re game. In short, barter is when two people trade something directly back and forth. The purpose of a currency, or a money like superfluid, is so that a third party can enter into the trade. This way, if I make eggs, you don’t have to take my eggs in order to sell me your service – say, blacksmithing. We have a currency that allows us to agree on a value. I get horseshoes from you, and you get coins from me that you can spend on drugs instead of eggs.

    Currencies used to have multiple sources. Local grain-based currencies lived alongside long-distance centralized currencies. They had different functions and biases. The long-distance ones stored their value better, and worked well for longer term contracts, and purchases over great distances. The local ones were more biased toward transaction, and were great for p2p exchanges.

    Feudal lords did not participate in the p2p transactions of local currencies. Meanwhile, as the middle class local economies thrived, the aristocracy’s relative wealth went down. So they made local currencies illegal (to make people dependent on central treasuries), and at the same time established chartered monopolies to make people more dependent on chartered corporations.

    We remain, I believe, artificially dependent on centralized currency and large corporations for our moneys and jobs.

    So in answer to the pull quote:

    A restaurant in my town cannot borrow the money it needs to complete and expansion. Why? The banks are in trouble and not lending. The people in the restaurant really do want to work, cook, and serve food. The people in the town really want the bigger restaurant. The restaurant creates a “currency” – basically restaurant dollars that it sells to residents at a discount. The resident can invest 100 dollars of US currency to get 120 of restaurant currency, spendable at the restaurant. So the restaurant gets the money it needs to finish an expansion that the bank could not fund.

    Or, more directly to the point of the pull quote, people in Lansing Michigan don’t have jobs because of the GM plants that closed. They have skills, and they have needs. But they have no money. So if a person needs a babysitter, and another needs his refrigerator repaired, and another needs someone to do tutoring for his kid, and another needs someone to cook her meals, and each of them has one of the skills another one needs, how are they to keep track of who did what for whom?

    In my view, these people actually have the basis for an economy. It may not be a big or diverse economy to meet all of their needs. But it is an economy nonetheless – a local economy that could easily complement the greater economy. They could still work their part-time jobs, or collect welfare, in order to get the things that the local economy cannot provide. But since they have skills and needs but no money and no one who will lend them money, an alternative currency allows them do things for one another more easily – especially if they don’t all know each other, and especially if they do not want to barter.

    Remember, barter means I do for you, and you do for me. It is a direct trade. Money allows us to sell to those whose services we don’t need. Right now, central currency is difficult for people to get – and difficult for communities to get. (Interest rates are low, but loans are hard to get.) It is much easier for big corporations to borrow, when necessary. This is why the folks in Lansing are hoping for a new GM plant. It is the only way they believe the economic pump can get primed.

    Many alternative currency advocates believe that the economy can be primed through transactions and the exchange of value. Money is more a utility for transaction, in this view, than a way of preserving worth.

    Again, it doesn’t mean central currency goes away. It’s just that the use of some alternatives might help create a more robust economy, allowing for transactions where dollars may not be available or most efficient.

    Superfluid, as I see it, tries to offer this ability to non-local communities. It does not aim to be the only form of money, but more of an adjunct currency. I would think someone might strive to do five or ten percent of their transactions this way.

    1. I’m not trying to argue with your post, but I did see this sentence and I wanted to use it as an excuse to go off on a tangent:

      “A restaurant in my town cannot borrow the money it needs to complete and expansion. ”

      You know, in a free country, the restaurant wouldn’t need to borrow money to do any expansion. You see, they could just save their money, then expand as needed without going into debt.

      In the USA; however, that potential capital is tied up in taxes and regulations. LIcenses, fees, fines, payroll taxes, sales taxes, income taxes, accounting fees, FDA compliance, OSHA compliance, etc, eat away at the money that the restaurant owners have honestly earned from the production and sale of their service. Then to top it all off, if a restaurant owner did manage to save up some money over say, 5 years, inflation would raise the price of the expansion to above the amount of the savings! Long story short: the government pushes people and businesses into debt!!!

      Now we see the cycle come full circle, for who profits off of that debt? Banks. In a free society, that would be fine and dandy. However, the USA is not a free society, and so our banks are centrally controlled by the federal reserve (along with all of the regulatory agencies within the government). These regulations and the Fed are sold to the people as “protection” but in reality they are the predator. This cycle of taxes, debt, and inflation put people into debt slavery and under the full control of the state, all while the politicians promise to bring a better day.

      1. Just because you have overheads in the form of taxes (taking the place of expenses inherent in running a business in a lawless society) does not mean you literally cannot accumulate any capital. Of course you can save up instead of borrowing. But that isn’t always feasible, and when it is feasible it isn’t always preferable – you might expect the increase in profit from investing sooner to substantially exceed the interest paid on your loan. Borrowing will occur wherever it is permitted. So it seems like an strange trigger for that particular off-topic rant.

  17. “The main obstacle – usually unacknowledged, but mostly just ignored – is the tax.”

    I’ve also been researching alternative currencies, although I’m sure I haven’t researched them as thoroughly as Rushkoff has. As I understand it local currencies like Ithaca HOURS are easily taxable because they work just like regular $.

    Last year my partner and I had the opportunity to interview Steven Burke the President of the Board of Directors for Ithaca HOURS. We posted the interview on YouTube in 13 short questions and answers. Here is the one where he specifically addresses taxation of Ithaca HOURS:

    It seems like the benefit of something like Superfulid is that it is both taxable and global, whereas local currencies are taxable but are only valid with the local community that recognizes them.

    I’m very interested in alternative currencies but there is a lot that I don’t understand about them. The biggest hurdle that I keep getting stuck on is how we scale one of these currencies up to the point that it can make an real impact on the economy without having that impact register as simple inflation?

  18. Apart from the broader issues of economic theory are concerns of how this would work in practice — namely, the “value” of what each participant offers.

    If I have a revolutionary idea for a website, I would need a designer, graphics creator, programmer, etc. etc. Many, many hours of labor would be required by these positions. Comparatively, I, the conceptualizer, would only put in a few hours’ work. Then, I would ‘manage’ everybody else, also with comparatively minute time investment.

    Are quids’ value adjustable? Is Q200 both a project’s worth of concept AND a project’s worth of sitebuilding? Does investment of quid translate to ratio of ownership of the finished product?


  19. Personal currencies can work rather well, when they are used to give credit rather than ask credit. Say I have some valuable internet doohickies that I take the time to keep maintained. To use these doohickies, I ask for beelzebucks. To get me to send you some beelzebucks, I accept WoW gold, KoL meat, or naked pictures of yourself. Although there are still many ways for me to defraud you, such as suddenly raising my prices or denying that you are hot enough to receive credit, it’s my own reputation on the line this time. Before I can defraud you of very much at all, I need to have built up a reputation of trust. That same reputation of trust is what might allow someone else to accept beelzebucks as payment for their stuff, to use it as a third party currency.

    Superfluid, and each of the dozens of “hey here’s a fancy e-currency” companies that have come before it, are relying on that reputation before they have earned it, generally (this case included) with lots of strings like “your money’s no good anywhere else, and we can ban you and confiscate your money if ever we feel like it.” The biggest hurdle before any new currency idea is not transparency or verifiability or taxability or anonymity or de-centralization. It’s adoption. No one is going to accept quids as payment because quids are worthless, because no one I particularly want to hire is accepting quids. And Superfluid needs people using it because, like every failed company that’s tried this, their business model involves skimming off the top, in this case via eventual (unspecified) subscription and signup fees. The kicker, to me, is that their ad pitch is “we’ll report everything you owe to the IRS.” Hilarious.

    1. Beelzebuddy is correct that the barrier to success for anything like this is adoption/participation. You need to have a structure in place that people already value and trust, and that is already involves them with a large group of people and with things that they want. Some kind of structure like… If Amazon started allowing people to pre-buy into an alt currency at a small discount and exposed the payment mechanisms via an open API, you would probably start to see places starting to accept Amazollars soon enough.

  20. Indeed.
    Of course, everything you do is reported to the IRS anyway – or available to them. That’s why currencies not tracked by the traditional banking system or credit agencies must report the cash equivalent value of the transaction to the IRS in the form of a w9 or 1099 or whatever.

    What the Superfluid people did was come up with a system through which the buyer and seller can negotiate the cash-equivalent value of the transaction, since the quid currency (I think they should call it “pints” since it’s supposed to be a fluid currency) is not exchangeable for dollars the way Berkshares or any of those local-style currencies are.

    I think they should try to make it work rather than give before they’ve had a go. I am naive enough to think that US dollars may not be the only way for people to transact, and that it would be healthy for there to be alternative, competing currency systems.

    This was Alan Greenspan’s parting testimony to congress: that private currencies will begin competing effectively against the central currencies. I don’t think it’s science fiction. This one may not be the one, but it does have a few key differences that made it stand out for me.

    1. Actually, no, I don’t have to report anything to the IRS. In my example, everything I buy or sell with my beelzebucks is either a virtual good or service, neither of which have any reporting requirements. If a third party makes a taxable transaction using bb, they are required to report it, not I. All I need to see is one IP address buying bb from me and another giving it to me sometime later. What happened in between is not my responsibility and, frankly, none of my business.

      You might notice that this approach abdicates control. eMoney companies like Superfluid love control. It’s how they get their cut. It’s how they convince venture capitalists that their business model is sound. Investors don’t want a revolutionary new commerce scheme, they want to get in on the next PayPal, complete with unilateral dictation of terms. So yes, they have a database of every transaction ever made with quid, ready and waiting for the IRS to demand audits of.

      But you don’t freaking advertise that! It’s like a gun company saying “if you buy this deluxe assault weapon now, we’ll forward your name and driver’s license information to the TSA!”

      Anansi: maybe they were trying to negotiate for happy endings?

  21. I have a friend who’s a massage therapist. She is able to barter her services to other people for a lot of different things. But she tells me that it’s hard to trade massages, because people overestimate the value of their own work. People can also overestimate the value of their other services, but apparently massage is a particular problem.

    So my first reaction to this video was to wonder how values are adjusted over time. Can there be a bidding process of some kind?

    Micheal Albert’s Participatory economics is built around the bidding, on a massive scale. I think each kind of currency will either need a peer-pressure limit on how many people can use it, or a larger exchange for people to figure out the relative worth of their holdings.

    And just to be fair: overvaluing one’s own contribution is also a big problem in the established money economy. Ultimately I think it’s an issue of transparency.

  22. Doug, there’s barter and then there’s barter. Technically, if I give you a dozen eggs for a ham sandwich, that’s barter. But all barter associations have an intermediate private currency. That’s what we all mean when we say “this is a barter system.” It’s just not feasible to run any sort of multiparty system of exchanging goods and services without accounts and a tally.

    See, e.g., “trade exchange” on Wikipedia. I still don’t understand how this is different from a barter exchange system, in which interactions with the tax man are already well-known and do not have to be “solved”.

  23. It’s obvious from the way people are using the site that people have no real gauge of what their market value in Quids is. Users are also coming up with ways to express value of their service based on the oversimplified framework of time per Quid. One C++ programmer, for instance, is charging a Quid for every line of code written, but it’s being notated on his offering as 1Q/second with 1000000 seconds available.

    New York City has adopted a Time Bank approach to community service sharing. It is based on the model of communal time out for individual time put in. What’s great about this model is that it allows people with limited fiduciary means potential access to resources that would normally be out of reach. If my expertise is window washing, I can still get an hour’s worth of lawyering for every hour of washing I do. It’s social benefit is its greatest asset.

    More info on NYC TimeBanks:

  24. The system has some interesting aspects – money is created by the transaction itself, with a credit on one side and a debit on the other, debt is limited and interest-free, and additional money is issued to those who promote the utility of the currency and velocity of money by having a high number of transactions- but this bonus money has a high negative rate of interest, expiring completely if unspent within four months. (Signing up a new business system account increases the money supply by 200 Quids as well, but there is a system to limit the creation of new accounts to (mostly)unique people willing to donate a dollar to the EFF.) Using the debt limits and the bonus money the money supply is fixed at about 400 quids per person, with the advantage that the bonus Quids allow finely-controlled stimulation of the velocity of money.

    They plan in the future to charge a somewhat higher joining fee and periodic business membership fee. I think that this is the wrong way to go about supporting the overhead of the system – a far better scheme, which would not only pay the overhead but stimulate the velocity of money would be to use what is technically known as “demurrage“, a more general term for the class of negative interest monetary systems one instance of which is the “stamp scrip” of Silvio Gesell, which was discussed with some approval in Keynes’ “General Theory of Employment Money and Interest” (Book VI, Ch. 23) and successfully implemented in the Austrian village of Wörgl in 1932-33 by its mayor, Michael Unterguggenberger:

    Michael read and re-read “The Natural Order” by Silvio Gesell. He talked with people in the town and convinced the members of the Worgl Welfare Committee to hold a session on July 5, 1932. In this session he gave a short summary and then proposed a “Distress Relief Program”. He stated that slow circulation of money is the principal cause of the faltering economy. Money as a medium of exchange increasingly vanished out of working people’s hands and accumulates into the hands of the few who collect interest and do not return it back to the market. He proposed that in Worgl the slow-circulating National Bank currency would be replaced by “Certified Compensation Bills”. The council would issue the Bills and the public would accept the Bills for their full nominal value. Bills would be issued in the denominations of 1, 5 and 10 shillings. A total issue of 32,000 Worgl “Money Bills” was printed and put into circulation.

    On July 31, 1932 the town administrator purchased the first lot of Bills from the Welfare Committee for a total face value of 1,800 Schillings and used it to pay wages. These first wages paid out were returned to the community on almost the same day as tax payments. By the third day it was thought that the Bills had been counterfeited because the 1000 Schillings issued had already accounted for 5,100 Schillings in unpaid taxes. Michael Unterguggenberger knew better, the velocity of money had increased and his Worgl money was working.

    Worgl money was a stamp script money. The Worgl Bills would depreciate 1% of their nominal value monthly. To prevent this devaluation the owner of the Bill must affix a stamp the value of which is the devaluation on the last day of the month. Stamps were purchased at the parish hall. Because nobody wanted to pay a devaluation (hoarding) fee the Bills were spent as fast as possible.

    The reverse side of the Bills were printed with the following declaration:

    “To all whom it may concern ! Sluggishly circulating money has provoked an unprecedented trade depression and plunged millions into utter misery. Economically considered, the destruction of the world has started. – It is time, through determined and intelligent action, to endeavour to arrest the downward plunge of the trade machine and thereby to save mankind from fratricidal wars, chaos, and dissolution. Human beings live by exchanging their services. Sluggish circulation has largely stopped this exchange and thrown millions of willing workers out of employment. – We must therefore revive this exchange of services and by its means bring the unemployed back to the ranks of the producers. Such is the object of the labour certificate issued by the market town of Wörgl : it softens sufferings dread; it offers work and bread.”

    Worgl Success

    Over the 13-month period the Worgl money was in circulation, the mayor carried out all the intended works projects. The council also built new houses, a reservoir, a ski jump, and a bridge. The people also used scrip to replant forests, in anticipation of the future cash flow they would receive from the trees.

    Six neighboring villages copied the system successfully. The French Prime Minister, Eduoard Dalladier, made a special visit to see the ‘miracle of Wörgl’. In January 1933, the project was replicated in the neighboring city of Kirchbuhl, and in June 1933, Unterguggenburger addressed a meeting with representatives from 170 different towns and villages. Two hundred Austrian townships were interested in adopting the idea.”

    After 14 months the Austrian central bank made alternative currencies illegal and the town returned to economic depression.

    The problem with Superfluid so far as taxes go is that there is an accounting system. An approximation of dollar value can be calculated and taxed. The people behind Superfluid have acknowledged this by having separate business and p2p systems for Superfluid – the transactions on the business system are potentially taxable, even though the currency is not convertible. If the p2p system is used for transactions of things that could be assigned monetary value (and what can’t?) then it could be taxed as well.

    Perhaps a better alternative would be a true gift economy with no accounts to be audited as in Bruce Sterling’s 1998 short story “Maneki Neko”, where a worldwide gift culture is enabled by a pervasive networked AI distribution and allocation system, and the IRS isn’t amused:

    “You know, Shimizu, you don’t look much like the Italian mafia gangsters I have to deal with, back in Providence.”

    “I’m not a gangster at all. I never do anyone any harm.”

    “Oh no?” Louise glowered at him. “Listen, pal, I know a lot more about your set-up, and your kind of people, than you think I do. I’ve been studying your outfit for a long time now. We computer cops have names for your kind of people. Digital panarchies. Segmented, polycephalous, integrated influence networks. What about all these free goods and services you’re getting all this time?”

    “She pointed a finger at him. “Ha! Do you ever pay taxes on those? Do you ever declare that income and those benefits? All the free shipments from other countries! The little homemade cookies, and the free pens and pencils and bumper stickers, and the used bicycles, and the helpful news about fire sales… You’re a tax evader! You’re living through kickbacks! And bribes! And influence peddling! And all kinds of corrupt off-the-books transactions?

    Tsuyoshi blinked. “Look, I don’t know anything about all that. I’m just living my life.”
    “Well, your network gift economy is undermining the lawful, government approved, regulated economy!”

    “Well,” Tsuyoshi said gently, “maybe my economy is better than your economy.”

    “Says who?” she scoffed. “Why would anyone think that,”

    “It’s better because we’re happier than you are. What’s wrong with acts of kindness? Everyone likes gifts. Midsummer gifts. New Years Day gifts. Year-end presents. Wedding presents. Everybody likes those.”

    “Not the way you Japanese like them. You’re totally crazy for gifts.”

    “What kind of society has no gifts? It’s barbaric to have no regard for common human feelings.”

    Louise bristled. “You’re saying I’m barbaric?”

    “I don’t mean to complain,” Tsuyoshi said politely, “but you do have me tied up to your bed.”

  25. Fluid currency measured in pints… That is possibly a better concept than you realize, and one which I was quite close to putting into practice some years ago.
    Alcohol is attractive, especially here in Scandinavia where it’s heavily taxed for moral/public-health reasons. Alcohol is a viable “killer application”.
    A keg of beer has limited shelf life, which makes a demurrage charge the most natural and intuitively understandable thing in the world.
    And best of all, redeeming your beer-scrip every Friday along with your friends.

  26. “Well, your network gift economy is undermining the lawful, government approved, regulated economy!”

    Is all of Sterling’s fiction crafted with such delicate wit and subtle innuendo?

  27. Speaking for no one but myself, I think you should add “legal” to the types of work to which this could apply.

    I’ve seen a whole hell of a lot of people with good ideas who are ham-strung by their inability to get an attorney to “give it the once over.” All too often just a few hours of legal work becomes an insurmountable barrier. It’s a damn shame and I welcome anything that can help get good (and almost-good) ideas over that hurdle.

  28. It’s been great for us to follow this insightful thread; we’ve compiled some responses over the course of the day, rather than interrupt a really interesting conversation. I’ll toss out just a few answers to specific questions posted, and I’m glad to speak to more if anyone thinks it hasn’t been covered:

    Regarding questions of rent and sustenance: like any local currency or barter exchange system (the progenitors of superfluid) participation needs to be kept in proportion. Efforts through the system shouldn’t be more than about 10% of anyone’s time, either avocational or professional.

    For those who ask why it’s not a barter system, well, in a sense it is, if only in the sense that any non-governmental currency is barter to some degree, as the value is in the system, rather than coming down from above. We link to IRS information for you from the site and could be liable for fines if we systematically don’t report transactions that we should, so it isn’t in our interest to try to trick folks into inappropriately transacting, as one poster suggested.

    In terms of contrasting currency with time banks (of which we are actually fans); we think currency is more flexible and dynamic for general purposes. If a community is solidly behind a time bank, there’s nothing that can replace that, but you need a base of true believers. We run a small free Money Meetup in NYC that will have a few folks from both sides addressing these issues this Monday.

    Regarding how superfluid is different; well, it’s not so very different from Ithaca Hours or other local currencies, but it does recognize that in an online marketplace there are scenarios where it acts as a barter exchange and must report as one. Something that both local currencies and barter exchanges have long had in common is just the sort of friction to adoption that a couple of later posters here have mentioned. I’d suggest, and we could be wrong, that the social internet makes for easier uptake than that driven by either the talented visionary on a bicycle (in the case of community dollars) or the franchised regional salesman in a suit. And, just as important as the technical functionality, is a significantly informed userbase that looks at currency and transactions in a quite different way than any previous generation.

    And, Branimir adds his responses to a couple of other queries:

    “yragentman: you do not “hand out” Quids. You post how many units of whatever you are offerings you have available. Then another user can request some units of that offering. If you cannot deliver you should have just delisted the offering in the first place, but if for some reason you’ve left it online you can just cancel the collaboration. After the request has been placed Quids are transparently put into escrow (the requestee’s balance goes down; however yours is still not increased). Once you deliver and the requestee confirms that delivery you get the Quids.

    Thomas, inflation is a sore point for me since I’ve lived through it in Serbia. If anything we’re very conservative about it. On the p2p side everyone starts with 0 earned balance and 200 Quids of a credit limit. That means that if they want to transact as above the site automatically and transparently dips into this credit limit.  After delivery is confirmed these credit Quids become “real” since they are on the earned balance of however got them. This means that a conservative estimate (if all credit is used) of the total amount of “realizable” currency is 200 Quids/user. As the system grows this is not inflationary since the amount of currency per user stays the same so their individual purchasing power is not affected by this growth in the supply of currency (i.e. no price inflation should follow). On the business side everyone gets 200 Quids extra to start but that just shifts that conservative average to 400 Quids/user (for an interesting econophysics analysis of why you care about the average amount of currency per user check out this review article As you can see I like talking about this and I could go on but I think technicalities are not that important in the following sense: if you don’t have them right you might as well give up; if you have them right they are just a necessity in the background that stays out of the way for what is really important and that’s the people using them to work together.”

    -Nathan and Brana (superfluid)

    1. Nathan and Brana,

      I wish you nothing but the best with Superfluid (what do you think about shifting from quids to pints?). I don’t know if Superfluid will be the currency that takes off, but I do hope that one of these alternative currencies does. I’d like to clarify my earlier question about inflation (I should say that I have no background in economics except thinking about it as a layperson and making some art exploring economics).

      I know more about Ithaca Hours than I do about other alternative currencies so I will use them as my example. I think I understand how Hours or Quids can avoid inflation within their own system. This, it seems, just requires controlling the overall number of Hours/Quids that enter circulation.

      My question is really about what would happen if we could scale one of these currencies up to the level that it has a major impact on the economy at large. The real economists that I have talked to about alternative currencies have all told me that they are great as far as they go, but that the are such a tiny drop in the bucket that they don’t really amount to much in terms of economic impact. I sincerely hope that one of these currencies will scale up to the point that it DOES have a real impact, but my worry is that if that were to happen it would amount to inflation.

      Lets say that Ithaca Hours really take off, everyone in Ithaca joins, every local business joins. Residents who live in Ithaca earn 50% of their income in Hours and use Hours for roughly 50% of their purchases. If this were to happen it seems like it would be a major boom time for the city of Ithaca since it now has twice as much money circulating within the same city as it had before. And all the Ithaca Hours HAVE to be spent right there in Ithaca, you can’t come over to Syracuse (where I live) to spend them. But if the residents of Ithaca are spending half their money with Hours it seems that my US dollars here is Syracuse are worth (ever so slightly) less than if everyone was just using US dollars.

      Now lets say that the Ithaca Hours were such a success that the state of New York decided that they would adopt them statewide. This seems like it would be great for New York. If every NY resident earned 50% of their income and spent 50% of their money right here in NY that our state would be doing well, but a US $ would be worth ever so slightly less in the other 49 states.

      If we were to expand things to a national level it seems like the end result would be that hours were just like dollars and we’ve now doubled the amount of currency in the system making them worth half as much.

      Now I understand that these alternative currencies operate at the grassroots level and can provide access to capital that doesn’t come from the top through banks. But in a way it seems that the more successful the become the lest effective they become. If they have to remain small in order to function then they will never be more than a drop in the bucket.

      Again I don’t really know what I’m talking about, just an interested layperson.

    2. Sorry, I thought of a better way to state my question:

      I agree with Beelzebuddy that the biggest challenge that any alternative currency has is adoption. For the sake of argument let’s say that we don’t have that problem and that everyone adopts it. In this scenario wouldn’t we have inflation? But isn’t the ultimate goal of a project like this to have a whole bunch of people–as many as possible–adopt it?

      Or would there be a sweet spot where there are enough people using it (and using it in the right way, at the ground level of the economy) to improve the economy for everyone (and especially on the ground level) without having so many people use it that it losses value?

      I hope that you don’t take these questions as nit-picking or rain-on-parading. I’m a supporter! I’m just still working the ideas out in my own head. I think a lot of people who are new to the idea of alternative currencies have the same set of questions and that they need to go through the thought process themselves. I’m confident that these problems can be solved, but this is the one that I personally keep getting grounded on when I work it out in my own head.

  29. I don’t get it. You say you’ve been looking into this for a decade. And you’re excited about a centralized, commercial and proprietary system? So we jump off from the state and commercial banks thing, centralized closed monopolies, and get into more of the same, trusting some other single, for-profit entity?

    I don’t know, maybe I haven’t looked at it closely enough or as much as you, but these distributed, peer to peer, free software based systems sounded much better: – peer-to-peer network based anonymous digital currency – open currency format (like HTML) and an open transport protocol (like HTTP), backed by transaction integrity (hope they got the crypto right). On top of this, new currencies can interconnect and evolve into whatever is needed.

    1. I don’t get it. You say you’ve been looking into this for a decade. And you’re excited about a centralized, commercial and proprietary system?

      It’s a Rushkoff post. They’re all like that. You sorta get used to it after a while.

      I like your links, especially the Open-Transactions ones. They’re wonderful demonstrations of what I feel is the other problem for alternate currencies: inscrutability. How do I install it? How do I manage it? How do I tell users to use it? I don’t have the slightest clue, and ten pages of excitable ransom note text about Cauchy algorithms and Von Neumann token duplication isn’t very useful in terms of figuring that out.

      1. Your points on the obscurity of this stuff and the difficulty of putting to work are well taken and acknowledged.

        It is crucial to note, though, that it is the result of complexity of the problems, not of willful, engineered hiding as it is the case of closed, proprietary systems. This is open and you have the source. If you want to understand it, you have all the information, and you *can*. It is therefore *not* inscrutable. That is a galaxy of difference to the closed ones, those are the ones that are opaque and that we cannot know about. And because these others are open and based on free/libre software, we all benefit from the fact that those who do understand the problems and solutions proposed can analyze and correct and enhance them.

        I imagine this is how it feels for people who can’t code, in this respect it seems very much the same. It is the core of the scientific process at work, as we all benefit from the peer review enabled by openness and transparency. In time convergence happens, advances are made, stuff is figured out and we get to install the software and rely on all that work.

        1. Heh. Actually, turns out I spoke too soon – I’m quite liking the look of bitcoin’s implementation. No one’s using it for much atm, but it seems very usable.

          Has precompiled, standalone executables that Just Work
          Has a JSON-RPC API that’s quite straightforward and well documented
          User community seems a bit too Randian for my taste, but helpful

          Source code alone
          No documentation, just comments in the source
          Entirely coded in java
          Written by what appears to be a crazy person

          Your comments about open vs closed source are very valid, but I’ll reiterate that, to an end user, there’s little or no difference between a gratis closed implementation and a libre open one, if the open source code is so massive, obtuse or badly-coded that it precludes personal investigation. In both cases it comes down to trusting that the active developers are knowledgeable and trustworthy.

  30. Rushkoff’s example of unemployed people in Detroit seems better addressed by microcredit, which is already working well in developing nations. No need for weird non-currencies; just provide access to small loans.

    The reasons local banks might be refusing to lend to a restaurant owner are partly rational (they’re probably figuring that during a recession restaurants are even riskier ventures than normally) and partly due to fucked-up incentives that are part of the way the financial industry works in this country. But this has nothing whatsoever to do with the money supply, as has already been pointed out.

    In any situation I can think of, introducing some new form of money/barter seems like a much riskier move than a more conservative approach like microcredit that works within the system. In particular I’m concerned about the huge potential for abuse, either by people welshing on their obligations or by embezzlement on the part of whoever is running the system.

    I think my takeaway here is that Rushkoff is just as fluent with economics as he is with audio engineering (viz. his earlier “analog music moves the air different” post.)

  31. Some amazingly detailed comments – excellent stuff.

    My tuppence worth – “Quids” is a bad name to choose, especially if you “hire” a Brit using the Superfluid site. They may get confused and think you were paying them in Pounds.

    “I’ll give you twenty quid if you do this for me”

  32. What if I use Quids to get work from people, then when someone redeems their Quids for my services, I just hire some 13 year old with no talent? How would they ever know?

  33. Nice idea. It will have some pitfals though. I come from Argentina and they had “trueque” money at some point.
    1) First problem, there will be inflation.
    2) Second problem, there will be a black market, with this money having a black market price in real dollars.
    3) Third problem, Who is accountable for the emission of this money?!

    Sab but true, there no money with no police system.

  34. I wanted to mention two things:

    One is Bernard Lietaer’s book “The Future of Money” … where Lietaer, former currency trader and one of the architects of the Euro, argues pursuasively for instituting various alternative currencies, including a international barter currency he names the “Terra”, so that airlines, hotels, agriculatural goods shippers and various other outfits can clearly quantify the barter they are already doing, and make those exchanges multi-party, instead of one-time trades of frequent flyer miles for hotel rooms. How many bushels of wheat does a night in a hotel room represent?

    The other is this, the main problem with these alterna-curriencies: They need to come down to paying for real things… specifically food and shelter.

    I might do all the web app programming and Q-trading for graphics or whathaveyou, but if I can’t go and acquire a pint and a plate of chips down at the pub, or pay my rent, or purchase my friend’s chicken eggs, then all the value remains trapped within a very cerebral environment.

    The benefit of the Worgl example is that the people could do real things: pay taxes, buy food, and presumably rent, because it was trusted and accepted by everyone.

  35. Half the places I’ve been in the past year have an “alternative currency”. Hemp. Or rather it’s dried flowers. Being used as a means of barter by everyone from accupuncturists to mechanics and not a single one of them cutting in the IRS for a dime bag.

    There is actually some precedent for this in the history of the USA. Until the early 1800s, hemp reserves were kept by states and hemp was used as currency… though generally the fiber rather than the flowers, the flowers were definitely cultivated by our first president and the plant was a common commercial staple.

    Hemp for freedom! (from the bankers and their Statist enforcers)

  36. Last time i checked, modern banking got bootstrapped by the bank of england, a decidedly private bank. Hell, via the bank of england the merchants had the balls of england in a vice. This because to raise cash quick the monachy would loan from said bank, say to fund a war (capitalists love wars, as they are expensive and destructive. This means they get payed well during, and there is nothing for later generations to inherit. So that means even more money during the rebuilding).

    Please note that said bank was nationalized only after ww2. And iirc, the federal reserve is a private bank in much the same way.

    As for centrally controlled currency, it goes as far back as the romans at least. Hell, the romans operated using copper coins for internal trade. Basically the senate specified a fixed number of copper coins to be stamped, and that allowed the value of things to remain relatively stable. But when outside influences (like from greece) introduced gold and silver, things went down hill.

  37. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and from many different angles as I am no expert in any one subject. I intuit the solution is to not use currency at all. Tit-for-tat is so immature, and is based on the assumption that people are fundamentally evil. An economy that treats people as untrustworthy will beget just that.

    The Bruce Sterling quote above by Ultan (comment #35) is of particular interest to me as I independently came up with a similar idea a few months ago. I think the answer-seeking AI Aardvark could be adapted to find volunteers. I have suggested this idea on their community forum. Please vote or comment :)

  38. Superfluid looks promising. Thanks for sharing.

    In your restaurant example in the comments, you need to be careful with the word investment. If it were considered an investment the restaurant would be required under securities law to register the offering as a security. That is the major hurdle facing local investment.

    Michael Shuman gave a recent TEDx talk on local investing. It’s worth a gander.

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