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Since the latest series of worldwide economic meltdowns, people have bartered in growing numbers. Last year, the 100 members of the International Reciprocal Trade Association, a network of barter and trade exchanges, facilitated the bartering of billions of dollars’ worth of goods and services around the world. (The IRTA uses its own barter currency called Universal Currency.) In some areas of Greece, bartering has become as second nature as paying for things with cash—there’s even a new barter-style currency called the TEM, accrued through offering goods and services via a vast online network and regular open-air market days. Spain’s time bank system, in which people exchange hours of labour instead of units of currency, has grown exponentially as a result of the country’s crippled economy.
In 2010, Shannon Lee Simmons had it easy. Though the economy was two years into its recessionary lurch, she had a secure job at Phillips, Hager and North, a boutique Bay Street investment firm. She was 25 years old and earning $55,000 a year, plus bonuses. She had no debt, no kids, and enough disposable income to jet off to Europe with her boyfriend and pay her credit card bills on time. Simmons is driven and effervescent, and has the charming tendency to slip into club-kid slang. Speaking of her time back then, she says: “I was ballin’.”
Toronto’s online Freecycle network, where 27,000-plus members can give, and get, things for free, provides a variation on bartering. Last April, Toronto hosted one of its first gift circles, which, as the name suggests, encourage small groups to form gifting communities—groups of 20 that give and take from a pool of goods and services depending on their needs. Torontonians can also swap skills at justfortheloveofit.org, a freeconomy community that spans 174 countries. On the site, members share talents that range from useful (dog walking, yoga instruction, electrical work) to questionable (boycotting, ear candling, loving) to weird (tree whispering, culture jamming, puppet making). When it comes to alternative economies, the creative possibilities are vast, but they all speak to the same desire for something different—anything other than what we have.
Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, sought to demonstrate that markets (and economies) pre-existed the state, and hence should be free of government regulation. He argued (against conventional wisdom) that money was not the creation of governments. Markets emerged, in his view, out of the division of labour, by which individuals began to specialize in specific crafts and hence had to depend on others for subsistence goods. These goods were first exchanged by barter. Specialization depended on trade, but was hindered by the "double coincidence of wants" which barter requires, i.e., for the exchange to occur, each participant must want what the other has. To complete this hypothetical history, craftsmen would stockpile one particular good, be it salt or metal, that they thought no one would refuse. This is the origin of money according to Smith. Money, as a universally desired medium of exchange, allows each half of the transaction to be separated.
In the United States, Karl Hess used bartering to make it harder for the IRS to seize his wages and as a form of tax resistance. Hess explained how he turned to barter in an op-ed for The New York Times in 1975. However the IRS now requires barter exchanges to be reported as per the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982. Barter exchanges are considered taxable revenue by the IRS and must be reported on a 1099-B form. According to the IRS, "The fair market value of goods and services exchanged must be included in the income of both parties."
It was the fifth lasagna that did it. Three months into the project, Simmons had signed up over 80 Barter Babes, and every time she bartered her financial services, she seemed to get a lasagna in return. She was trying to shove yet another five-pound pasta dish into her freezer when the tears started to flow. “I don’t need another lasagna!” she yelled at her boyfriend. “I need a haircut! I need a bicycle!” She was overwhelmed with doubts about her bartering experiment: I’m so ridiculous. What the hell was I thinking? This whole thing is never going to work. Trades weren’t happening at the frequency she had anticipated, and Simmons was feeling depressed. She couldn’t afford a dye job at a salon, and she had started gaining weight. She’d gone from ballin’ to having $200 in her joint account.
This sort of scenario was so undesirable that societies must have created money to facilitate trade, argues Smith. Aristotle had similar ideas, and they’re by now a fixture in just about every introductory economics textbook. “In simple, early economies, people engaged in barter,” reads one. (“The American Indian with a pony to dispose of had to wait until he met another Indian who wanted a pony and at the same time was able and willing to give for it a blanket or other commodity that he himself desired,” read an earlier one.)
Economic historian Karl Polanyi has argued that where barter is widespread, and cash supplies limited, barter is aided by the use of credit, brokerage, and money as a unit of account (i.e. used to price items). All of these strategies are found in ancient economies including Ptolemaic Egypt. They are also the basis for more recent barter exchange systems.
Throughout the 18th century, retailers began to abandon the prevailing system of bartering. Retailers operating out of the Palais complex in Paris, France were among the first in Europe to abandon the bartering, and adopt fixed-prices thereby sparing their clientele the hassle of bartering. The Palais retailers stocked luxury goods that appealed to the wealthy elite and upper middle classes. Stores were fitted with long glass exterior windows which allowed the emerging middle-classes to window shop and indulge in fantasies, even when they may not have been able to afford the high retail prices. Thus, the Palais-Royal became one of the first examples of a new style of shopping arcade, which adopted the trappings of a sophisticated, modern shopping complex and also changed pricing structures, for both the aristocracy and the middle classes.
Whether or not one agrees with such broad claims, it’s worth noting that monetary debt, a byproduct of currency, has regularly been used to by some groups to manipulate others. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, suggested that the government encourage Native Americans to purchase goods on credit so they’d fall into debt and be forced to sell their lands. Today, black neighborhoods are disproportionately plagued by debt-collection lawsuits. Even after taking income into account, debt collection suits are twice as common in black neighborhoods as in white ones. $34 million was seized from residents of St. Louis’ mostly black neighborhoods in suits filed between 2008 and 2012, much of which was seized from debtors’ paychecks. In Jennings, a St. Louis suburb, there was one suit for every four residents during those years.
Corporate barter focuses on larger transactions, which is different from a traditional, retail oriented barter exchange. Corporate barter exchanges typically use media and advertising as leverage for their larger transactions. It entails the use of a currency unit called a "trade-credit". The trade-credit must not only be known and guaranteed, but also be valued in an amount the media and advertising could have been purchased for had the "client" bought it themselves (contract to eliminate ambiguity and risk).
In Canada, barter continues to thrive. The largest b2b barter exchange is Tradebank, founded in 1987. P2P bartering has seen a renaissance in major Canadian cities through Bunz - built as a network of Facebook groups that went on to become a stand-alone bartering based app in January 2016. Within the first year, Bunz accumulated over 75,000 users in over 200 cities worldwide.
However, this isn’t always possible. For instance, you may have a $150 digital music player and want a small refrigerator worth $100. In this case, if both parties are certain of what they want and understand the difference in value, there should be no barterer’s remorse. Alternatively, you can ask for the mini-fridge plus $50 to make the trade – the worst anyone can say is “no.”
In Spain (particularly the Catalonia region) there is a growing number of exchange markets. These barter markets or swap meets work without money. Participants bring things they do not need and exchange them for the unwanted goods of another participant. Swapping among three parties often helps satisfy tastes when trying to get around the rule that money is not allowed.
Still, Adam Smith really did seem to believe barter was real. He writes, “When the division of labour first began to take place, this power of exchanging must frequently have been very much clogged and embarrassed in its operations,” and then goes on to describe the inefficiencies of barter. And Beggs says that many textbooks sloppily seem to endorse this viewpoint. “They sort of use that fairy tale,” he explains.