It's easy to forget that the concept of money was an important invention at some point in history. With the advantage of hindsight we know it was a great idea, but one can imagine the how hard it was for the inventor of money to sell the idea to his friends.

Inventor: I have a great idea. Let's assign arbitrary value to shiny rocks. We'll call it money.

Friend: Why would we do that?

Inventor: Well, for starters, I could trade my shiny rocks for your cow and we'd both be happy.

Friend: Can I get milk from those shiny rocks?

Inventor: No, no. You'd use the money to buy goods from other people who think small shiny objects are worth as much as a cow.

Friend: How many idiots like that are there in the world?

Inventor: I'm hoping you'll be the first.

Somehow, despite all odds, the concept of money went on to be a big success. And because money exists, so does the modern economy.

But the problem with money is that every system devised by humans eventually results in the top 1% having most of the money. No one has figured out how to fix income equality without making something else worse.

My solution to income inequality is to invent a new type of money called the "ute" which is short for "utility." There will be no physical bills or coins involved. It's just a digital store of value. You can only earn utes by being useful to your fellow humans. And unlike regular wealth, your ute value would be public.

The hard part of the ute system is assigning objective values to subjective things such as usefulness. But regular money has the same problem and that is solved by the marketplace, supply and demand, and some government control. I think the same could be true of utes.

Utes would not replace regular money and would not be used for direct purchasing. Utes would only be a way of knowing who is contributing to the well-being of others and who is not. Utes would be a measure of prestige, respect, and general worthiness. And I could imagine society providing special privileges and rights to people who have high ute value.

Perhaps the high ute folks get preferred parking spots. Maybe they board airplanes first. Maybe they can use the carpool lanes all by themselves. Maybe they get two votes instead of one. Maybe every business starts treating high ute folks as priority customers. Perhaps employers would start checking the ute value of job applicants. One could imagine lots of privileges that don't directly involve purchasing goods and services. And the best privilege of all might be the respect of your peers.

The benefit of the ute system is that it grants respect to the folks who are doing the right things for society. But more importantly it gives the rich a more useful purpose for their money. If you're a billionaire with low ute, and everyone knows it, eventually that will make you uncomfortable. It's not as much fun to be a billionaire if everyone thinks you're a selfish tool and they have the ute statistics to prove it. The media would report your ute value with every story. It would never go away.

So I can see the ute system encouraging the rich to focus their excess wealth in areas that generate high ute return. For some that might mean investing in ways that create lots of employment. If you create a job for someone, you get a lot of utes. And if you go full-Bill-Gates-charity you get more utes than anyone. But a standard rich person would have to try hard to beat the ute value of a nurse, for example.

One need not have a paying job to accrue utes. A stay-at-home parent would have plenty of utes. Charity volunteers would have plenty too.

We humans tend to focus on whatever can be measured. As things stand, we can measure traditional wealth but we can't measure an individual's total contribution to the world. By creating a more general measure of a person's contribution -inaccuracies and all - it will cause people to think harder about their value to the world. And that will change how people act.

I think the ute system would contribute to social mobility. Under our current system a poor person with a sub-standard education has a huge challenge. But if that person could build a high ute value by being of service to others, employers would take notice. That person is a team player, a person of character, and a person of action. And perhaps you can earn utes by mentoring someone, so it's a win-win.

Humans act on the things they can measure. If we want people to do more useful and respectable things, we need to measure their progress.

You will be tempted to quibble about how hard it would be to compare the ute value of, for example, a lawyer versus a plastic surgeon. But keep in mind that we have lots of useful systems with the same degree of flaws and inaccuracies. Case in point, my credit score is bad because some of my minor bills once went to an old address and I didn't know of them until a collections agency called me. So in my case, credit reporting is totally broken, yet the world is better because of credit reporting. It's a terribly inaccurate system that is still better than none. The ute system would be similarly full of terrible inaccuracies while still being useful overall.

Or not. How much do you hate this idea?

Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com

Author of the best graduation gift ever.



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May 5, 2014
"But the problem with money is that every system devised by humans eventually results in the top 1% having most of the money. No one has figured out how to fix income equality without making something else worse."

The issue is not figuring out how to fix income equality, the issue is that nobody ever tried, for the simple reason that such decisions are made by the same top tier.

Fixing income inequality does not require rocket science. Just analyze how rich people get richer. Once somewhat rich, how do they come more rich, or even filthy rich? Is it because they are all of a sudden more useful? Have a better reputation? Work more hours?

The answer to all of that is no. Once rich, people generally become more rich by getting a return on just being rich. Having money makes money. Various systems exist for that purpose, including interest, stocks, real estate and more. In none of those systems, is the rich person doing anything useful or adding value to society.

The easy solution to avoid just having money to make more money is to change the return and taxation system to benefit labor more, and capital less. That is all. That is the solution. A theoretical one of course, as this will never happen.

0 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 30, 2014
It could *almost* work if 1%ers like the Koch brothers actually *gave* a rodent's posterior about being useful to society.

They don't.
Apr 30, 2014
It will take about a billisecond for people with power and/or money to exploit this system. It will also put in power those who determine the specific Ute values of actions. If I get to decide whether firefighters are more Ute-worthy than teachers or plumbers, then I will have tremendous power. Corruptable power. Maybe if we could crowdsource the value of actions...
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 29, 2014
Can I give negative utes to incompetent coworkers, IRS agents, people who talk at the movies, or overly slow drivers? These are all individuals with extremely negative utility to me, among others.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 29, 2014
This idea has merits. I like how the account balance is public information. And I like how it focuses on rewarding usefulness.

What if we expand this ute idea a bit? Utes basically seem like tips (gratuities), but with the difference of being genuine expressions of appreciation rather than socially normed obligations. What would ute look like as a transparent tipping system?

Here's what it might look like in my life as a help desk guy. I get lots of calls throughout the day. Most of them are very routine things like password resets. It's nothing anyone would tip me for. It's an expected service, and my employer realizes that such calls need to be handled and so they are happy to pay me a fair wage to provide that service to people. But sometimes people call with an issue that they are absolutely stumped on and they are thrilled when I am able to help. These people would be likely to click on the "Did you like my service?" link at the bottom of the email they receive after our call. This would take them to the ute system where they would tip me a few dollars and send me a note saying what they appreciated about my service.

The entire tip would be shown on my public ute profile. People would see when I received tips, from who, for how much, for what, and the person's note of appreciation.

They would *also* see who I have tipped, when, for how much, for what, and what I loved about the service.

Completely public transaction details would provide far greater value than just the ute balance. It provides a full picture of both your generosity to others and how people see your value.

1. If generosity were publicly visible, wouldn't people be inclined to be more generous? (it's a social status thing.)

2. Trustworthy reviews. When I view your profile, I can see service providers that you have given to and therefore actually value.

3. Generosity is further encouraged because people would be more likely to tip you if they see that you are also generous to others.

4. No need to write tedious LinkedIn endorsements. People see actual heartfelt reviews of the work you do. And they get to see the actual frequency at which people find your work valuable. (Do you do something noteworthy once a year or once a week?)

I'm sure this works in all sorts of professions, especially once bosses realize they can reward good work monetarily as an ongoing occurrance rather than with an annual "bonus" ritual.

A frictionless value based reward system like this also paves the way for innovating how work in general is compensated. Let's go back to my case. I solve computer issues for a living. It's impossible for me to know all of the answers, so support teams usually keep a knowledgebase of common solutions. I imagine my knowledgebase tool will have a ute system built in where I can easily reward the author of a particularly helpful knowledgebase article. Coworkers see that writing good knowledge articles is a way to get rewarded, and that gives them incentive to contribute to that commons. A culture that embraces ute is a culture that finally starts compensating people who contribute labor towards things that are freely available (articles, videos, open source, wikipedia.)

What do you think about the idea?
Apr 29, 2014
Another way to think of your idea: money already works, as a way to compensate someone for the value they offer. But in standard econ, price winds up being where the supply and demand curves intersect. It's a rare market that can impose price discrimination, where people who are willing to pay more, actually do pay more. (Think of airline tickets, and the wildly varying prices that adjacent seatmates on the plane, getting the same experience, will have paid.)

So in most markets, there is significant consumer surplus. E.g. air is free, but if you were denied air (e.g. on a space station), how much would you be willing to pay, to get it? Water is very cheap, but again the value to you of water is enormous. You trust teachers with your precious children; if most caretakers abused the children in their care, but you could pay more to keep your children safe, how much would you pay?

The reality is, that you would be willing to pay far, far more for most items, than the equilibrium free market price of the service. Teachers are cheap, because enough people are willing to do the job, so the labor supply reduces the price.

In that context, the "ute" idea seems to be an attempt to additionally reward service suppliers, to offer them a portion of the real value that they're contributing, over and above the free-market price of the service. Air, water, and teachers are extremely valuable, just not particularly expensive.

I still think the ute idea is foolish and would never work, but I think the "consumer surplus" perspective is a helpful way of understanding what problem it might be trying to solve.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 29, 2014
I believe that already exists; it's called "reputation."

And who decides who are "the folks who are doing the right things for society?" Is Warren Buffett a champion of the environment for opposing Keystone XL, or a robber baron because the alternative to the pipeline is worse for the environment, but profitable if you own a railroad?
Apr 29, 2014
"You can only earn utes by being useful to your fellow humans."
"You can only earn [dollars] by being useful to your fellow humans."

Outside of fringe cases for dollars (theft, fraud, etc - all things that are widely regarded as immoral), what's the difference?
Apr 29, 2014
I give this idea 5 utes.
Apr 29, 2014
I signed up just to comment on this.

I'm reminded of the "gift economy" in the Red/Blue/Green Mars trilogy.

But this is a Very Good Idea. I've read a variety of proposals along these lines, discussions of reputational currencies, but what a great name. Ute. It's worth a wiki to hash out the details.
Apr 29, 2014
Who is more important, the surgeon currently operating on you, or the coal miner keeping the lights on?

Also, how many utes does Zuckerberg owe society as a whole? Do numbers even go that high?

[The surgeon and the coal miner might be equal in utes. That's the wonderfulness of utes. -- Scott]
Apr 29, 2014
Scott said: "Is your doctor not more useful than your feng shui consultant? "

I'm a healthy, gullible moron. So no - my doctor just gets on my case about eating less saturated fat, doing more boring, tiring exercise and not smoking and drinking so much. In short, I hate her, she's a real drag. Whereas my feng shui consultant revolutionised my life by turning my coffee table ninety degrees and selling me a kind of indoor water-feature thing that absorbs all the negative energy in my dining room, and it only cost me $5,000! He's a saint, that man, so much more useful to me!

Wait, hang on...
Apr 29, 2014
The profanity filter has filtered out the name of an insect that can be abbreviated to "roach", presumably on the basis of the first four letters. Interesting.
Apr 29, 2014
"Utes would not replace regular money "

So it's completely useless then, because money will trump everything, utes included.

" It's not as much fun to be a billionaire if everyone thinks you're a selfish tool"

This is an excellent joke. I am not a billionaire, but I know that if I was one, the opinions of non-billionaires would be of about as much interest to me as the opinion of a !$%*!$%*!$ That might make me a selfish tool, but the point is I'm a billionaire, so I fundamentally don't care and nothing can make me.

Also, can you pay a mortgage or buy food with utes? You said they won't replace regular money. If the answer to those questions is no, then I, non-billionaire, am not interested in your system. I need to pay a mortgage and buy food. Prestige, respect, all that? Keep it, I need a roof over my head first.

So the billionaires don't care, and the peons don't care. Accurate or not, I'd say it's a terrible idea. Not canal-network terrible, but pretty close.

Apr 29, 2014
With the focus on how to define "usefulness" I think something else has been missed. Let's just take it as read that we'll come up with a reasonable metric for usefulness. My question is, who is handing out the utes? When Scott says, "You can only earn utes..." who are they being earned from?

If it is other people, then the problem of determining value pretty much goes away, but then it is REALLY no different than money. On the other hand, if it is the government, then the entire system is subject to rampant inflation. You might think your three thousand utes are pretty nifty, until Jonas Salk is granted 10,000,000 utes for inventing the polio vaccine, maybe one for every life he saved. And then of course Norman Borlaug comes along, saves hundreds of millions of people from dying of starvation, and is given a billion or so utes -- same principle. What are you going to do with your 3K utes now? Get a slightly less offensive-looking pair of bowling shoes?

[ But the problem with money is that every system devised by humans eventually results in the top 1% having most of the money. No one has figured out how to fix income equality without making something else worse. ]

Maybe this is the right place to get an answer to a question that has always bugged me. WHY is this a problem? Who cares if the top 1% have most of the money? I mean, you might think it is "unfair" for whatever reason, but that's just jealousy; fairness has no place in economics. What is the impersonal badness that comes from money being concentrated at the top?
Apr 28, 2014
The main problem is how to attribute utes for things that were done by a lot of people.
e.g. Imagine an accountant working for a company that produces machinery for farms.
Machines help farms produce more food that feed a lot of people.
But how can you measure that and even if you end up with a ute value for what the company does. how much of that goes to the accountant?

I have a better idea.
Imagine everyone gets 100 utes every month, and each ute can be transferred from a person to another exactly one time. Only already transferred utes count for everyone's public sum. So people would use utes as a "thank you" award.

Some people would try to buy/sell it, but then you can create a law that everyone doing that would lose all their utes and stop receiving more to distribute for a period of time.

It's easily doable by an app, there is no entity governing the value of each ute and you avoid granting utes to, for example, douchebag nurses that abuse old people.
Apr 28, 2014
"Shiny rocks" (gold?) didn't become money just because they were shiny and someone tricked others into accepting them. They became money because people wanted them, and because they were durable and useful (mostly for jewelry, at first). The reason they became money and other things people wanted didn't was because no matter how much you want bananas, they either get eaten or rot- and are then no longer available to trade for other things you want.

And, who decides how to assign "utes"? You might think someone's utility is very high for their advocacy of anti-gun "laws", while I consider them a destroyer of society for the same acts. Their "utes" would be non-existent to me, and high to you.
Apr 28, 2014
"Utes would not replace regular money and would not be used for direct purchasing."

Awesome -- so they have no value whatsoever. Can I exchange my Utes for Shrute Bucks or Stanley Nickels?
Apr 28, 2014
This even beats your canal idea. You have reached new lows.

What do you think capitalism is all about? It's about rewarding people based on what their worth to their fellow citizens is. The marketplace decides, rather than some committee that awards money based on what their friends have asked them to give them.

Go back to canals. You're not making any headway here.
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 28, 2014
Your new Ute currency would be just as subject to inequality as current money. People who know the most people (extroverts) would get the most of it. The stay-at-home mom may never leave the house, never be in a position to ever receive Ute from others.

The real winners would be famous people. Rock stars, Kardashians, Taylor Swift, actors. They would get all the Ute. The net result is that these famous people -- who already get many secret gifts -- would also now explicitly get to board airplanes first, seated first at restaurants, free carpool lanes, etc. They probably often already do, but at least people try to be discrete about the privilege now. In your system, you would try to "reward" high Ute, but instead you'd basically be taking celebrities with the most twitter followers, and having the world give them gifts.

Doesn't sound like a big win for society.
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