In the crowded Democratic field for the 2020 Presidential primary, candidate Andrew Yang is certainly a long shot. He has no name recognition, and his main policy of universal basic income is not likely to make headlines. But in his self-proclaimed “campaign of ideas,” one particular proposal stands out: the idea of digital “time banking.” Yang envisions an alternate currency system that rewards citizens for volunteering and acts of goodwill.
Theoretically, the timebanking system would involve an app that allows people to earn and trade “hours” to each other for simple activities such as fixing a neighbor’s stove, carpooling, cleaning up beaches or anything else that might promote community and well-being in society. Each town would decide exactly what that entails, but the federal government would implement the logistics and provide some rewards for high scorers, like baseball game tickets or a meeting with a government leader. This would be a low-cost way to get citizens to incentivize the things that truly matter to a functional society—environmental stewardship, childcare, education, political engagement, meaningful social interaction, and more. Digital time banking can rebuild an American civil society under pressure from increasing isolation and decreasing civil participation, and it should be seriously considered by any candidate seeking the presidency in 2020.
About five hundred timebanking programs are already in place in many communities across the country, and the world total is somewhere near 1,000. The results are already promising: in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, a time banker offered to digitize another member’s old photos, which eventually resulted in her finding a long-lost side of her family. A member of a Media, PA time bank was brought several week’s worth of meals while recovering from surgery. There are countless stories like these, all of which are tracked and rewarded in credits by the Community Weaver timebanking software developed by TimeBanks USA. These good samaritans can then pay out those credits when they need help in turn. The idea has existed since the 19th century, and has caught on with the advent of digital technology, but so far the main problem with timebanking systems is that they rely on grassroots support and funding, which can be fickle. A time bank has never been implemented on a nationwide scale before, but if it were, the support of the U.S. government would add faith to the time-based currency and provide funding with relatively modest expenditures. The increase in acts of goodwill would then have ripple effects on physical and mental health, crime rates, education and civil society, bringing those issues out of the hands of government bureaucracies and into the flexible systems of community volunteering.
Right now, those volunteer systems appear to be ailing. According to the Census Bureau, volunteering has declined in America, which is a loss of important productivity that cannot be made up by the private sector. The value of an hour of volunteering has been placed at $24.69, which adds up to $197.5 billion of value contributed to social causes every year. Those volunteered hours serve as the critical foundation for addiction recovery centers, food banks, community gardens, animal shelters, parks, emergency relief organizations, and much more across the United States. There is little incentive for the private sector to contribute in the same way to these social needs, and yet all that activity is critical to the functioning of our society.
Volunteering is also important to the well-being of volunteers themselves, promoting a sense of community and trust among those who participate. Studies show that by interacting with their neighbors toward a common purpose, otherwise isolated individuals can overcome differences in race, religion, political beliefs, gender, and more. That’s not to mention the physical benefits: volunteering is well-documented to promote a range of health benefits, including reducing the risk of hypertension in older adults. This isn’t just because of the physical activity—a former U.S. surgeon general has warned that of all the health threats to Americans, loneliness may be one of the worst. According to him, the effects of loneliness on physical health are the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and even worse than obesity. But the kinds of activities that social time banking would promote would, and already have, combat that loneliness among both the helpers and the helped. It may even offset its costs in saved healthcare and incarceration costs.
All this ties into Andrew Yang’s central paradigm—that the automation of labor has not only taken jobs, but actually decimated the social ties among entire communities. He calls this the “War on Normal People.” Yang believes that digital timebanking can encourage unemployed or discouraged workers to re-enter their communities and find meaning in actively contributing toward the social good, whether that be helping prison inmates craft resumes, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or caring for the neighbor’s children while they work. Even if automated and outsourced jobs are not coming back, the need for labor in American communities is still very real. It just needs the proper incentive.
Part of that psychological incentive involves a popular new concept called “gamification”—using game mechanics like high scores and tiered rewards to incentivize participation in a social good. Gamification has already been implemented in education with online schools like Khan Academy, in health with AR games like Pokemon Go promoting exercise, and in marketing with online forums like StackOverflow awarding points for answering questions. Even customer rewards programs such as American Express points could be considered gamification. All these programs can drastically increase participation in an activity that might otherwise be seen as a chore. As volunteering is now, it often offers nothing to spur a psychological sense of accomplishment, even as important work is done for a community. By tapping into the brain’s reward circuitry, timebanking has the potential to simulate the feeling of receiving a well-deserved paycheck even when no real legal tender is earned. However, we can’t know whether this would happen in practice yet, which is why more research and discussion on the effects of this important policy proposal is sorely needed.
Technological advances that employ gamification make timebanking easier to incorporate into our society than ever before, but its main appeal now may be that it is philosophically based on the labor theory of value: the idea that a given product or service gets its worth from how many hours are put into its creation, instead of the traditional market forces of supply and demand. As income inequality in America become a defining issue of this generation, many people will likely be attracted to the assertion that even those without expensive educations can make significant contributions to society with an hour of labor. Ideally, with digital time banking, Americans who feel left behind by the economy will once again be confident that they are leading meaningful, productive lives, whether or not the wealth-based promises of the American dream have materialized. Timebanking deserves careful consideration and research from the next administration, no matter who ends up in the White House after 2020.