Archive for May 7th, 2009

Barter, Baby, Barter

Sharon May 7th, 2009

The first year we lived here, Eric’s job was half-time, and we (Eric, me, Eli, new baby Simon) lived on 17,000 dollars a year.  About half of that went to our mortgage, since we were trying to pay it down quickly.  $3K of the remainder when to replacing the well lines, which exploded the first time it froze.  It was very little exaggeration to say that we had no money. 

What we did have was time – despite the fact that I was pregnant or had a new baby, Eric was teaching only about half time, and I was home with the kids, claiming to work on my doctoral dissertation, but really not doing any such thing.  From our efforts to substitute time for money came a whole lot of good things - first our gardens, then our small CSA, which made a big dent in our budget.  And a whole lot of barter.

In those first few years, we bartered a number of things - babysitting for our kids, a time-shared vehicle with another family, vegetables and gardening help for help with other projects, eggs for firewood.  I remember experiencing every transaction as a breath of air – here was something that I could not afford in dollars, but that I could fairly and honestly obtain for my family and offer something good in exchange – and know that although we couldn’t afford credit card fees and borrowing, we had a measure of credit that didn’t come with fees – the good credit and relationships that came with barter, and that meant that neighbors were willing to go out of their way for us, because they knew we’d do the same.

We have a bit more money now, but we still barter a lot – for example, I barter the use of our large pasture and day to day sheep tending work for lamb, help with fencing and wool.  I have gladly bartered my books for other author’s books, and happily accept barter for participation in my classes (although many people still use paypal, since it can be hard to barter long distance).  I still feel that sense of gratitude whenever I have a bartered relationship with someone – the idea that we could function out of the money economy is a great joy to me. 

Which brings me to the marvellous Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest essay, which is just a delight – in it she properly takes aim at the idea that the newly unemployed should work full time at job hunting, and argues that this is keeping us artificially passive.  She offers a list of useful things one could and should do with their time, now that they are unemployed, to which I’d like to suggest “get as far out of the money economy as possible.”  Now this is not a magical panacea, and for households with a single earner, or multi-earner households where all earners are unemployed, at some point, someone is going to have to get a job if at all possible, even if it is a crappy one.

But until a job appears, the reality is that there are things one can do to minimize one’s dependency on the formal economy – and those things include thrift, subsistence labor (ie, making, scavenging, growing, preserving, fixing the things you would ordinarily pay for), and barter.  Frankly, I think that these are more productive and better things for the world as a whole than many of the things we do as jobs, and to the extent that it is possible for one to spend one’s unemployment fighting for justice or even just growing beans (ideally both), I think that most of us do less harm this way, and a great deal more good.

Moreover, I think that the loss of our time, and the trade we’ve made of time for money hasn’t always been a good one for us – it makes us more passive politically and dependent personally, and the first things lost when we lose time are human relationships.  We simply don’t have time to depend on one another – so we move further and further into the money economy, where money acts as a shorthand for what talk and meals together once did for people.  We become more dependent on the public economy as a whole at each step. 

I’m particularly fond of barter because while it is often not possible to pay the property taxes that way, barter can cover an awful lot of other territory.  It is astonishing what barter can bring about – and while I like barter networks and other programs, and can see their advantages, I am particularly passionate about barter that takes place in human relationships – because I think it kills two birds with one stone, not only does it save money on the particular exchange, but it helps us give up our general dependency on money in place of community.  I see all the uses of internet barter networks, which give you credit you can use with people for what you need, even if the person who has the other thing doesn’t need your resource.  And yet, direct barter – the oldest form of human exchange, in which my eggs and your honey meet one another, has something special going for it.

And that is the reality of human exchange – in monetary exchange, and I think by necessity to an extent in barter networks, things have  a fixed valuation.  This is convenient, of course, but it also changes the nature of the relationship.  When your eggs equal on “barter buck” or “credit hour” you are shopping for the best possible bang for your buck.

But when you and your neighbor who have a relationship are figuring out how many eggs a week are worth a cord of firewood, something more is at stake besides the precise exchange – you have entered into a relationship that can’t be commodified fully, one in which you have to talk to each other, have to interact.  And this is always just the beginning – someone who eats eggs will probably keep wanting them.  Someone who heats with wood may want more firewood.  The relationship will be based on two things – your perceived equity (ie, it was fair) and your pleasure in the relationship – this is also true with some kinds of shopping, and is why people like going to farmer’s markets and hate Walmart (in part).

But the thing about barter that I find true is that it brings out the best in us for the most part – because it is never possible to full equate eggs with logs, because they are fundamentally not the same, in barter, you are never fully sure that the price paid is a fair one – you can’t be.  And what I see in barter relationships is a turning around of economic exchanges – because we want fairness even in ourselves mostly, because few of us like to beholden, or to look cheap, we find ourselves feeling as though the relationship is never fully even – at its best, both barter participants always feel that they got the better of the deal, that they paid too little, and thus, “owe” a little on next time.  Instead of *getting* the best bang for your buck, barter becomes about *giving* the best bang for your time.

One of the things that worries me about our present economic situation is how very vulnerable we are in our total dependence on the formal economy – and we are taught to look only there for our security.  So when the formal economy fails us, it seems that there is nothing left, that all that remains is the empty rote of enacting participation that we cannot truly succeed in.  I don’t claim that barter will save us from poverty – it won’t.  But it may save us by offering us a kind of livability that the formal economy when it cracks and fails cannot.  What we may get back in this crisis, difficult as it is, is time – and the chance to use time instead of money.

Moreover, it offers us credit we can afford – when I and my neighbor make those first tentative gestures towards exchange, we are at first still caught in the monetary economy, still calculating what is fair.  But after a time, we are in relationship in such a way as to know that we can trust one another not to take advantage (and it should go without saying that if anyone does, that’s it for the relationship), and thus, the valuation of things change – a good exchange is one where you feel you are invested already in the next one, relieved from the pressure of the money economy, because your credit ”is good with them.”  In a society where credit is disappearing, this may be the only kind we have.