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.
Although, as a general case, a ship unlucky in falling in with whales continues to cruise after them until she has barely sufficient provisions remaining to take her home, turning round then quietly and making the best of her way to her friends, yet there are instances when even this natural obstacle to the further prosecution of the voyage is overcome by headstrong captains, who, bartering the fruits of their hard-earned toils for a new supply of provisions in some of the ports of Chili or Peru, begin the voyage afresh with unabated zeal and perseverance.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) considers bartering a form of revenue and something that must be reported as taxable income. Under U.S. generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP, businesses are expected to estimate the fair market value of their bartered goods or services. This is done by referring to past cash transactions of similar goods or services and using that historical revenue as a reportable value. When it is not possible to accurately calculate the value, most bartered goods are reported based on their carrying value.
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As Orlove noted, barter may occur in commercial economies, usually during periods of monetary crisis. During such a crisis, currency may be in short supply, or highly devalued through hyperinflation. In such cases, money ceases to be the universal medium of exchange or standard of value. Money may be in such short supply that it becomes an item of barter itself rather than the means of exchange. Barter may also occur when people cannot afford to keep money (as when hyperinflation quickly devalues it).
No academics I talked to were aware of any evidence that barter was actually the precursor to money, despite the story’s prevalence in economics textbooks and the public’s consciousness. Some argue that no one ever believed barter was real to begin with—the idea was a crude model used to simplify the context of modern economic systems, not a real theory about past ones.
Bartering does have its limitations. Many bigger (i.e., chain) businesses will not entertain the idea and even smaller organizations may limit the amount of goods or services for which they will barter (i.e., they may not agree to a 100% barter arrangement and instead require that you make at least partial payment). But in an economic crunch, bartering can be a great way to get the goods and services you need without having to pull money out of your pocket.
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.
It’s hard to answer that without actually seeing a modern gift economy in action. Luckily, modern gift economies actually do exist. On a small scale, they exist among friends, who might lend each other a vacuum or a cup of flour. There’s even an example of a gift economy on a much larger scale, albeit one that’s not always in operation: The Rainbow Gathering, an annual festival in which about 10,000 people gather for a month in the woods (it rotates among various national forests around the country each year) and agree not to bring any money. Groups of attendees set up “kitchens,” in which they prepare and serve food for thousands of people every day, all for free. Classical economists might guess that people would take advantage of such a system, but, sure enough, everyone is fed, and the people who don’t cook play music, set up trails, teach classes, gather firewood, and perform in plays, among other things.
Other countries, though, do not have the reporting requirement that the U.S. does concerning proceeds from barter transactions, but taxation is handled the same way as a cash transaction. If one barters for a profit, one pays the appropriate tax; if one generates a loss in the transaction, they have a loss. Bartering for business is also taxed accordingly as business income or business expense. Many barter exchanges require that one register as a business.
While Swapsity trades are facilitated online, its participants can be seen in real life at themed in-person swap meets as well as the annual Live Green Toronto Festival. Over the past three years, more than 25,000 items—primarily clothes, books, CDs and DVDs—have been swapped at its events, collectively saving people roughly $200,000. About 5,000 items have been donated to charity. On average, each participant saves $80 at every swap (the value of items they go home with and would have otherwise bought). This year’s Live Green event was packed despite the grey July weather: until it started to rain heavily in the late afternoon, lineups to get into the six swapping tents spanned the full length of the waiting area, then folded in on themselves like accordions. Even in the rain, the leaking tents bustled.