Background: alternative economy concepts

A financial-economic crisis (like this or this or this) makes us think what’s wrong with our economic systems, and search for alternatives. For example, one would search for grassroots ways to organize mutual service and exchange of goods without using legal tender, as the latter can be a scarce resource due to “personal deflation”, esp. in an economic crisis (that is, by being separated from any high-capacity money source of the society, e.g. by being self-employed and having only “poor” customers).

Interestingly, many alternative economic concepts have been developed long ago at concept level, but failed to receive public attention or achieve widespread application. For example, in the area of trade mechanisms and finance, I found several concepts that run for being a basis of an alternative economy:

  • LETS, the Local Exchange Trading Systems. Effectively, these are complementary currency systems on a local scale, where members exchange goods and services for LETS credit points. All members start with zero balance, and go below that by paying with credit points; which means, they have the role of a bank that does bank money creation. The value of goods and services is something to be agreed by the members, that is, normal market mechanisms of supply and demand apply. In principle, all LETS systems are confined to one city or small area (see e.g. this LETS list from 2002), as the credits are backed by just group trust (omnidirectional trust from one to all other LETS group members). This is, in my view, their biggest shortcoming. How do you transfer your LETS credits when you move, and even worse, how do you use LETS if you have a nomadic lifestyle? Also, the island-type of LETS, with no standardized infrastructure between them, severely limits its public visibility as one movement or system.
  • Time-based currency (see also time banking). Also called “time dollars”. While the bookkeeping is very similar to LETS, the difference is that noarbitrary unit (or a unit aligned to legal tender) is used to measure service contributions, but the man-hour of work time. This can, but needs not, be used to build egalitarian systems, where everybody’s contributions are valued equally. For an interesting early experiment from 1827, read about the Cincinnati Time Store. Currently, timebanks are normally local organizations just like LETS [see an international list of time banks].
  • Barter platforms. By these, I mean systems that are based on direct barter between two parties, or circular barter between three or more parties. But always so that a deal happens only when all parties at the same time have something that they can offer that another party in this deal wants. That is, they work without intermediate units of accounting, which would eliminate the need that (1) supply and demand are matched for every party at the same time and (2) somebody can only be part of a deal by both demanding and supplying something, as none of these can be replaced with currency. These severe limitations of direct barter make these platforms look quite unusable, esp. before reaching a critical mass of offers. Examples of such systems include the German portal Bambali.
  • Scrip. Alternative currency by simply writing some numbers on some paper.
  • Mutualism. An economic theory that seeks to value goods just by the amount of labour / resources needed to produce them, thus eliminating the concept of capitalist “gain” (price above cost) altogether.
  • And there is a list with many more articles on alternative monetary systems.

Interestingly, the proposal for a time-based currency even made it into a United Nations document (but note that the document was compiled by members of NGO’s when meeting for the Millenium Forum, so is no official UN resolution or anything):

“The Forum urges […] [g]overnments […] [t]o make serious commitments to restructure the global financial architecture based on principles of equity, transparency, accountability and democracy, and to balance, with the participation of civil society organizations, the monetary means to favour human endeavour and ecology, such as an alternative time-based currency.” [We the Peoples Millennium Forum Declaration and Agenda for Action: Strengthening the United Nations for the twenty-first century; United Nations document A/54/959,  adopted by the Millennium Forum on 26 May 2000; section “C. Facing the challenge of globalization: equity, justice and diversity”; this very section quoted here was contributed by John Turmel]

Choosing a time banking service or software

My interest in alternative economy is both at the theoretical and pragmatic level. On the pragmatic side, I desperately need a system to track neighborly help; because when doing that in larger-than-usual amount (say, 50 hours per month and more) and without payment of course, you better track what time you invest and what you get in return or you might eventually end up poor and exhausted.

So what I need is a time banking system. My detailed requirements, in order of importance:

  • Non-local. Not restricted to any local area, neither formally nor by informal expectations or average location of members.
  • Useful for a personal global network. As I will lead a nomadic lifestyle, the system should be useful within a global network of friends and acquaintances. There is no need that the system allows trade with all members of existing alternative currency systems, but that would be great of course. Trading with personal acquaintances is enough.
  • Modern UI. I simply can’t bear with web-sites coming with that pre-2000 look …
  • No fees. Transaction or membership fees are simply nonsense in an age of software and automation, where web-based services of similar complexity are all free.
  • No-barrier registration. No requirement for an interview, for subscribing and sending in stuff by snail mail. Immediate login after registration must be possible. Pseudonymous registration must be available.
  • Open source software. When installing own software, it should be free. When using a webservice, it should ideally be based on free software, too.
  • Well-known programming language. I’m happy with Java and PHP and also Ruby, as this allows me to modify the software efficiently when necessary, and to better diagnose problems.
  • Low maintenance. So the optimum solution would be using a web service; hosting software on an own server is possible but can be cumbersome to keep up.

Here is a short overview of the projects I found, with my evaluation. Note that I just looked into descriptions and demo versions mostly, so do not consider this my last word on this. By adequacy for the above requirements:

  1. Global Groups Exchange at CES. This is the only international and time-based exchange at the Community Exchange System. Seems like the ideal choice among the CES alternatives and the only one.
  2. Own time banking system at CommunityForge. Their “default hosted solution” is offered for free.
  3. Registering an own CES exchange. The Community Exchange System (see also in German Wikipedia) is a unique global network where local alternative currency systems like LETS and time banks can join. It provides them with a web based accounting environment, and also allows trading between the different groups (which all use their own currency). So the shortcoming of LETS and time banks of being “just local” is remedied that way! Registering an own group involves some administration efforts for that “own” group, but also allows more control and customization.
  4. Registering an own time bank at Tauschen ohne Geld. It seems to be possible to create a group there that uses work time as the unit of currency. However, the system is not international (German domain, only member groups from Germany, Austria, Switzerland). Also, it is not clear so far how trade between the individual groups works; it is supposed to use the Ressourcen-Tauschring (RTR) in some way. But like CES, Tauschen ohne Geld provides an e-banking environment to members. There seem to be no fees.
  5. CommunityForge on own server. It’s free and open source. Or to integrate the same time-banking and LETS code into an own Drupal site, install the Community Accounting and Offers & Wants Drupal modules.
  6. Rivulet on own server. Ripple is a web-of-trust extension of the LETS system, avoiding the group trust necessity that keeps LETSs local. Rivulet is a Ripple server [source] written in Ruby, while the Ripple reference implementation RippleSite is based on Python [source]. RippleSite so far offers a quite simplistic UI, but Rivulet is said to support AJAX (but I did not test the features provided in the UI so far). So in all, I’d like to check Rivulet as my favorite Ripple implementation.
  7. OSCurrency on own server. The OSCurrency project is a Ruby-based implementation of the OpenTransact protocol [source], specifically targeted at building a timebank. Example and demo sites etc. can be found on the OSCurrency website.
  8. Cyclos on own server. Cyclos is an awesome, free and open source (!) software specially made for alternative currency banking. LETS, timebanks etc. can all be provided with a Cyclos installation, which acts as a website providing a central e-banking environment to all members. The project is very rich in features and seems to be the most mature software product in the area of alternative currencies as of 2011-08. It’s written in Java and runs as a Tomcat container, so installing can give you some trouble esp. if you already have a Tomcat with some web applications running. Be sure to check the Cyclos installation instructions.
  9. RipplePay account. Ripple is a web-of-trust extension of the LETS system, avoiding the group trust necessity that keeps LETSs local. RipplePay is the portal supported by the reference Ripple implementation, RippleSite [source]. While this portal has no vibrant community yet, it could still be used together with friends if one targets trading with them only anyway. However, RipplePay’s units of currency are bound to USD parity (while of course not needing real dollars to make payments). This makes orientation simpler, but would require a hack like an internal “15 USD = 1 hour” agreement to using it for time banking. This could of course be fixed easily when installing RipplePay on ones own server; but then again, I would prefer Rivulet, see above.
  10. Joining favabank.com.  Favabank is not exactly time banking, but a more general LETS including goods and time-based services, using the “fava” currency. However it is not restricted to some location as most LETSs. Usability looks good, but offers are few as of 2012-04.
  11. Registering an own PicoMoney currency.  PicoMoney acts as a service provider that allows this, even for free. However, when issuing a time-based currency, the PicoMoney seems unfit to operate a LETS-type exchange network: there is only one issuer per currency, where issuing means, handing out some of the currency as an IOU (“I owe you”) statement in return for received services. This would mean that, to establish a network, everybody has to hand out an own type of currency that represents the time of just this individual. This would be still tolerable if PicoMoney would allow free conversion between these currencies, but this seems to be impossible in its current state. Note that PicoMoney provides an implementation of the OpenTransact protocol [source].
  12. Joining zeitbank.net. They seem to accept members without respect to their current location, but their activities seem centered around Munich. Also, the site is only available in German. Also, they require a membership fee of 36 EUR for an individual, per year.
  13. Karmagora. A great-looking global time-banking system. The only reason it is last in this list is, it’s still in private beta as of 2011-08.

Other alternative economy projects

That is, those I found to be interesting, but which are not directly usable or related to time banking. In no particular order:

14 thoughts on “What time banking software can be recommended?

  1. I want to mention another solution that is not listed here: “Circular Multilateral Barter”

    “Circular Multilateral Barter” (CMB) is free server-side software for
    managing peer-to-peer networks for circular barter exchange.

    CMB is aimed at supplying local enterprenours with a way to exchange
    goods within a p2p-network, without using money or any other currency,
    overcoming the “double coincidence of wants” problem, inherent to
    traditional barter.

    One thing that distinguishes CMB from other “credit commons” is that all
    debts in CMB are person-to-person debts. There is no central
    political/administrative unit to decide who deserves to be trusted and
    who does not. Because of this, CMB should be able to scale-up very well,
    so that local communities can be seamlessly aggregated into larger ones.

    CMB allows everybody to issue their own trade-backed currencies, which
    others can use to pay each other with. So, one way of thinking of it is
    as a “multi-LETS”, plus there is a open market place for exchanging one
    currency for another (via circular trade).

    Here are some of the advantages that CMB offers compared to traditional
    approaches:

    * Traditional approaches (fiat money, barter dollars, LETS points)
    unfortunately blend social trust into a fragile system of collectivized
    credit. CMB makes it possible for individuals to use their own judgement
    in choosing whom they are willing to trust. That is: you supply products
    to customers who trust you, and you receive products from partners whom
    you trust.

    * CMB does not suffer the double coincidence of wants problem. The
    trader you deliver goods to and the trader you obtain what you need from
    do not need to be the same person, so there is much more flexibility for
    arranging trades.

    * CMB allows virtual money to circulate at infinite velocity so that no
    real money is actually needed. That is: trading is not limited by the
    global scarcity of money or any other commodity.

    * CMB uses money solely as a standard of value for a short period of
    time (typically a day). Thus CMB is insusceptible to changes in the
    value of money.

    Go to http://www.multiswap.net/ to see CMB working!

    The source code is available at:
    https://sourceforge.net/projects/cmb/

  2. Evgeni, thank you for presenting your approach here. I did indeed miss out on it, but now that I read its documentation I get the idea and it seems just great. (Found the concept a bit hard to come by, as it’s different from the “simple account” logic that stores units of commonly recognized value, which you seem to refer to by “collectivized credit”. Being different is of course in no way a drawback …). Ah, and many thanks for open-sourcing this project!

    Here are some notes from my understanding of the CMB approach. You might comment / correct / answer them as you see fit.

    (1) What is on the trader account is always “rights to products and services”. I start with just the rights to the products and services I offer (they are mine, so I have the rights), and offer to barter them for rights to things I want. Now when a deal has happened, I got some rights to stuff I want, in exchange for some rights to my stuff, which is now on the account of a customer. So when I supply the product or service, I do in exchange delete the customer’s right to it – so this seems to be the logic behind the “withdraw” action.

    (2) For converting between units when searching for circular trades, a universal unit for measuring money is used. The need for this is apparent in a case where I offer kilograms of bananas and would like to get hours of car repair – the system needs a way to know how much bananas I want to trade for a car mechanic’s time, to make up a circular deal.

    (3) In the multiswap.net docs on the pricelist it says that one should use the currency of ones own country as the unit of value. Makes me wonder if different local currencies are converted into each other, or if one CMB installation is confined to using one currency as the unit of value? The latter would imply that people cannot at the same time offer their products for both USD and, say, Bitcoin, in the current version of the CMB software?

    (4) It seems that, when installing an own instance of the CMB software, one could easily define ones own unit of value? Like using minutes of worktime, for example. Depending on what ones goals with a CMB platform, one can choose its unit of value in support of that; like worktime to support an egalitarian “all time of human beings is of equal worth” approach.

    (5) I asked myself if expressing prices in units of national currency would be the fairest possible alternative. As in the world of money, there are always those “lucky ones” for which money is less scarce than for others. But then I realized that the ease of access to real money has no influence on circular barter deals at all, as they are circular!! So, the concept seems to work out. ((At the start of the CMB economy, those with much cash money can money can offer it as their product and maybe would sell it even for a price of >1 CMB $ per dollar of cash money … but as the circular barter economy would grow towards covering all that one might want to have, money would become unnecessary and eventually lose its character of a scarce but desired commodity.))

  3. some more notes 🙂

    (6) Now if I own a right to, say, 10 kg of wheat on my account, can I sell (circular-barter) it to others who also trust the original supplier of the wheat? The software documentation mentions that I can “sell back” [source] – does it mean only selling back to the original seller, or is this the feature to establish “own trade-backed currencies” (you mentiones that), by re-selling rights to someones products?

    (7) You compare the CMB software to “multi-LETS”, with added P2P trust. Ripple is explained in comparable terms [source]. In Ripple, you have a “virtual” simple account with a total balance, but value (which are promises / rights) can only flow to persons who trust you, so it uses a similar P2P trust architecture for trading. The CMB software however adds a complete “webshop portal” so to speak, and tightly integrates that by presenting the account balance as rights to services or products you want, not as a single number. This is a difference, but on the concept level both projects seem conceptually identical or very similar. Am I right to assume so?

    (8) What I especially like about multiswap.net / the CMB software is that it is best practice to accumulate rights to stuff you need in the near future [multiswap.net: About: How does it work in practice?], because it can take time before all the circular deals are complete. In effect, this pre-registering of customer demands makes the CMB economy to be a (decentralized) planned economy. And a plan (here: orders way before delivery, allowing to plan ones production runs) has more potential to make economy efficient than just competition, which is often a waste of resources by means of redundant research, development and marketing. What makes planned economies fail so often is that they are centrally governed, and with such power comes being corruped through power. But in the world of CMB, plans are made in a decentralized fashion.

  4. Sorry for the late reply. I will try to answer some of the questions.

    1) Right. You supply the goods to the customer and withdraw/remove his rights on it.

    3) The idea is that if you start small, it is OK to use the domestic currency. By using the domestic currency people have a better feeling which price is fair, and which is not. The problem may arise only when your network of peers really becomes an international one. But the fact is that it does not matter what exactly will be used as a standard of value. The only important thing is people to agree on a common one, for which value everybody have developed good understanding (and therefore an existing market for the “standardized value”-product).

    4) You can use different unit of value on one server installation! For example US-based community may use USD, Bulgarian community may use BGN, some other community may use for example a ounce of gold — in parallel. The only limitation is that groups using different standard of value will be unable to trade among each other. For example a US citizen may hesitate to buy a product priced in Japanese Yens, because its numerical price will look much higher that normal.

    I guess if you wan to have an international community, then gold, silver, USD or EUR are good candidates for a standard of value.

    6) “Sell back” means this: You have bought 10 kg of wheat from me, but you decide that you don’t need it, so you can wait for a circular deal to give this 10 kg to someone who needs it, in exchange for some other product from some other trader. So basically you can buy something, hold it, and sell it back when you decide you do not need it. (Or you are not invited to collect it by the supplier, if it can be spoiled by the passing time).

    7) CMB an Ripple are very similar, indeed. The principal difference is that CMB allows every debt to be denominated in whatever therms you want. But the bigger difference, in my opinion, is that Ripple is about clearing out existing debts (which are harmful if uncleared). CMB is about setting up new debts that are productive (this means that their *physical* pay off is a productive process, rather than destructive one, as is the case with monetary debts).

    8) Exactly! You plan what debt-relations will be beneficial for you to enter in, you instruct the system, and the system makes it for you. 🙂

    Regards,
    Evgeni

  5. Thanks for the detailed write-up Matthias; this proved to be very useful to us in the last couple of weeks as we've been looking into and analyzing similar solutions.

     

    Detect language » English
     
  6. Matthias,

    I wish to appreciate you for this great analysis.

    You deserve time-bank coins for this writing. Isn’t this a use case?

    Thanks!

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  9. hOurworld’s Time and Talents software platform has become a standard for time banking in the United States is not mentioned here, and should be!

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