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That time when Dan Ariely was our currency and we learned about the complexities of a fake economy in the workplace.

We called it the DABs economy.

Dan Ariely is a professor and scientist with some interesting takes in the realm of behavioral science. During the early years of the startup I worked at, in which there were only a handful of employees, he was popular on the internet and we often discussed his videos and books.

One co-worker reminded us that he had actually (kind of) met Ariely at a bar somewhere. It became a bit of a running joke that we’d have to hear that story any time we referenced Ariely or his ideas.

At one point, I went to the whiteboard in the office and drew eight blank squares.

“This is your Dan Ariely bank,” I jokingly told my co-worker. “You only get to reference the guy eight times a week.”

white board drawings

After a few weeks of that, I realized that Ariely references had a kind of currency. I watched as my co-worker made a conscious decision on how he’d use his available name-dropping options. It was a fake economy, but still an economy.

Over a weekend, I created crude “Dan Ariely Bucks” on my computer, printed them out and brought them to work on Monday.

The Dan Ariely Buck, or DABs, economy was born.

Everyone received 8DAB in the initial currency deployment. I took 1DAB out as a printing and distribution tax, immediately helping everyone put the government in the proper place in their mind.

We had a spreadsheet where we tracked each transaction.

On February 7, 2014, I brought in cardboard shotgun wads stamped with a number.

“These are DAB coins,” I explained, handing them out and listing them in the spreadsheet as “economic stimulus.”

I made most of my money bringing in baked goods and being willing to clean up messes for a fee. Some made money off games. Some made money off of swearing fines. Some made money convincing others to place bets on things they couldn’t possibly win. Some stole money from others (though were kind enough to include the theft in the spreadsheet).

With our DABs, we traded in food, services, stickers, gambling, office jousting tournament entry fees (yes, really), behavioral fines, and outright donations to co-workers who couldn’t manage their sweet tooth. If one person bought another lunch out in the real world, they might get DABs back in the office in return. DABs were, for the most part, traded for treats in the office. They weren’t gold-backed, but sugar-backed.

It went fine until a co-worker introduced a competing currency he called SethBux. Soon DABs were being used to purchase SethBux, the competing currency.

“B. bought 3 SethBux for 2DAB.”

Then “R. bought 2.5 SethBux for 2DAB.”

Then “J. bought 2 SethBux for 2DAB.”

These three transactions happened all on the same day. You can see the problem. I had to begin proving the value of DABs.

I didn’t have to worry for too long.

My job with that company ended September 11 of that year, and before I walked out the door, I gave my remaining DABs to Alex, a co-worker I really enjoyed being around, with the spreadsheet note “don’t need these anymore, last day, and he’s a good businessman.”

And Alex was. He brought in caramel rolls and other treats and ran office marketing campaigns to increase sales.

The spreadsheet (and economy) remained nominally active for about three weeks after I was no longer there. But the company added lots more employees and I guess there was no more time for such distractions. As the owner of the spreadsheet (and the currency), I shut it down and closed off access.

Some takeaways I learned from my short dive into economics:

  1. This is a great way to understand currency and what gives (or does not give) fiat currency its value.

  2. This is a great way to understand the disruption of a new currency trying to supplant the old currency.

  3. This is a great way to understand the arbitrary nature of value and how a group using the currency decides what something is worth.

  4. Whoever controls the currency controls the use of it.

I often think of the DABs economy as I watch the American economy go down the toilet. We did mostly back our DABs currency with food, after all.


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