Her answer came, finally, in an unlikely place: at a bar on Robson Street in Vancouver during the Winter Olympics. It was close to midnight, and she was waiting in line for a drink. All around her, people were partying—except for the two women in front of her, who were dissecting the differences between tax-free savings accounts and RRSPs. Simmons barged in to their conversation. “What do you want to know about TFSAs?” she asked. “What’s your goal?” She pulled the two aside and, for 20 minutes, gave an impromptu finance session. As a gesture of thanks, the two women bought Simmons and her group a round of beer. “I can’t afford financial advice,” one of them told Simmons, “but at least I can give everybody here a beer.” Then, Simmons felt like a cartoon megawatt bulb appeared over her head. It is all you can do, she thought. It is all you can do. There, in the middle of the crowded bar, she blurted, “Oh my god! I’m bringing barter back!”
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.
But the harm may go deeper than a mistaken view of human psychology. According to Graeber, once one assigns specific values to objects, as one does in a money-based economy, it becomes all too easy to assign value to people, perhaps not creating but at least enabling institutions such as slavery (in which people can be bought) and imperialism (which is made possible by a system that can feed and pay soldiers fighting far from their homes).
Modern barter and trade has evolved considerably to become an effective method of increasing sales, conserving cash, moving inventory, and making use of excess production capacity for businesses around the world. Businesses in a barter earn trade credits (instead of cash) that are deposited into their account. They then have the ability to purchase goods and services from other members utilizing their trade credits – they are not obligated to purchase from those whom they sold to, and vice versa. The exchange plays an important role because they provide the record-keeping, brokering expertise and monthly statements to each member. Commercial exchanges make money by charging a commission on each transaction either all on the buy side, all on the sell side, or a combination of both. Transaction fees typically run between 8 and 15%.
Even before visiting the Marquesas, I had heard from men who had touched at the group on former voyages some revolting stories in connection with these savages; and fresh in my remembrance was the adventure of the master of the Katherine, who only a few months previous, imprudently venturing into this bay in an armed boat for the purpose of barter, was seized by the natives, carried back a little distance into their valley, and was only saved from a cruel death by the intervention of a young girl, who facilitated his escape by night along the beach to Nukuheva.
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’.”
Yes…yes…yes! When I went to school to become a Registered Massage Therapist, and discovering how difficult it (still) is for a male RMT to get a legit job be it here or a small town, our instructor told us to consider bartering whenever possible. This was in a smaller city (100,000) where bartering can do well for you to make inroads with the Downtown Council, locally owned businesses; let’s say for example a new yoga studio or health club or salon is opening. I bring my massage chair over and do free 10 minute chair massages and give out my business card, in exchange, the yoga groups can use my space if they need to add an extra class. The salon knows if they’re doing a training on a day I’m not working, they can use my studio. Things like that.
Swap.com has also generated revenue by selling tickets to live events, like the popular Sip & Swap bartering mixers that’ve been held nationwide in cities from New York to Los Angeles. Ticket holders bring in items from their home that they want to trade—including clothing, books, DVDs, and baby supplies—and everything is up for grabs. “When we let everyone in,” says Melissa Massello, one of the self-appointed “Swapaholics” who host the gatherings, “it’s sort of a mad dash to get the best stuff.” There is shoving, she says, and it can get physical.
Men from the visiting group sit quietly while women of the opposite moiety come over and give them cloth, hit them, and invite them to copulate. They take any liberty they choose with the men, amid amusement and applause, while the singing and dancing continue. Women try to undo the men’s loin coverings or touch their penises, and to drag them from the “ring place” for coitus. The men go with their … partners, with a show of reluctance to copulate in the bushes away from the fires which light up the dancers. They may give the women tobacco or beads. When the women return, they give part of this tobacco to their own husbands.
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.
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).
Florida Barter’s clients cover a vast range of services, from doctors, lawyers, and accountants to electricians, plumbers, and massage therapists. “If a client makes a request and we don’t have it,” he says, “we’ll go get it.” He claims to have more faith in Florida Barter’s “trade dollars”—which aren’t all that different from Barter Business Unlimited’s “barter dollars”—than U.S. government-issued currency. “Trade dollars, unlike U.S. dollars, are backed by goods and services,” he says. “It’s like the gold standard that we dropped.”
In 2012, the average Canadian had more than $27,000 in consumer debt. Wages are shrinking, costs are rising, and one-third of us are living paycheque to paycheque. “Most of us live beyond our means both financially and ecologically,” says Marta Nowinska, founder and president of one of Canada’s largest bartering communities, Swapsity, which launched in 2010. “Swapping is a viable approach to solving a lot of real problems,” she says. Like Simmons, Nowinska left a Bay Street job to join the world of barter. The idea for Swapsity came to her one day in 2006: she was on the subway and noticed how miserable everybody looked. She started to think about a business that could empower people. At first, she thought people could swap jobs, but dismissed it as unrealistic. Then: what if they could swap other things? She developed a business plan and launched a website.
In his analysis of barter between coastal and inland villages in the Trobriand Islands, Keith Hart highlighted the difference between highly ceremonial gift exchange between community leaders, and the barter that occurs between individual households. The haggling that takes place between strangers is possible because of the larger temporary political order established by the gift exchanges of leaders. From this he concludes that barter is "an atomized interaction predicated upon the presence of society" (i.e. that social order established by gift exchange), and not typical between complete strangers.
Some entrepreneurs are already taking the principles of swapping—use everything and anything you already have to survive—to create another offshoot system, one that turns a hefty profit. Called the sharing economy, it is perhaps best exemplified by Airbnb, a service that enables people to rent out their apartments like hotels. Other sites let you turn your driveway into a parking space, your car into a taxi and your tools into a rental service. Forbes estimates revenue flowing through the U.S. sharing economy will hit $3.5 billion by the end of 2013, and maybe more. It’s worth mentioning that some business associations and government members are terrified of this rise: like most alternative economies, it’s largely tax-free.