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.
Financial planners often recommend that people dedicate 30 per cent of their after-tax cash flow to fun spending—yet rising costs can now make that number seem unrealistic. To alleviate some of the squeeze, Simmons suggests evaluating what, out of that 30 per cent, can instead be attained through barter. By bartering for clothes, aesthetics and fitness, she’s able to eke out at least five per cent cash savings a month. Those unspent dollars go straight into her savings account.
In late 2012, Toronto even got its own spinoff of Trade School, a model that originated in New York in 2010. The Toronto Trade School holds classes—on anything from spoken word to origami flower–making to bicycle maintenance—and invites students to “pay” with an item or service from the teacher’s barter wish list. It has hosted more than 70 classes.
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’.”
During economic downturns, when there is a keenly felt shortage of jobs and cash, people have historically adopted barter systems. The world’s most established bartering-style system is Switzerland’s wir: the German word for “we” as well as the abbreviation of Wirtschaftsring, which translates loosely to “economic circle.” In 1934, the economy in Switzerland had tanked—as it had in much of the world. Two businessmen who were facing bankruptcy, Paul Enz and Werner Zimmermann, gathered 15 of their associates in Zurich and hashed out a solution: a mutual credit system.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.