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.
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.
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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.
The whole point of barter is to satisfy a need. A valuable barter is whatever a barterer needs at that moment. Raj Dhiman, a 30-year-old chemist, joined Swapsity at the beginning of 2012. For his first barter, he traded a batch of home-baked gluten-free muffins in return for a full weekend first aid course. Unlike the course’s instructor, Dhiman relished the challenge of perfecting the recipe. Since then, he’s exchanged a lesson on how to create a website for an Indian cooking class. He’s also turned away barter offers that he didn’t find personal value in. “It’s perfectly fine to decline,” he says, “It wasn’t like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. What is this person thinking?’ I’d say, ‘I appreciate the offer, but that’s not what I need right now.’ All you have to do is ask for what you need.”
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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.
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.
When the year-long Barter Babes experiment finished at the end of 2011, Simmons discovered she didn’t want to go back to Bay Street. Instead, she launched her own financial advice business, the New School of Finance. She rents office space at Queen and Bathurst, and many of her clients are former Barter Babes. Her focus is on easily digestible advice, socially conscious investment and creative solutions like barter. Simmons doesn’t recommend that anybody live entirely on swapping: it’s too hard. But she still barters. Recently, after getting engaged to Matt, she swapped a full year of tax and business financial advice for a $3,700 wedding photography package. The photographer is a Barter Babe who has, in turn, traded her services for yoga classes and a self-defence class for herself and 20 friends. On the day I met Simmons, she was wearing a shirt and a pair of jeans from a clothing swap, matched with a trendy floral jacket she bought from Coal Miner’s Daughter, a boutique co-owned by Barter Babe No. 81.
He would have heard of channels and sandbanks, of natural features of the land useful for sea-marks, of villages and tribes and modes of barter and precautions to take: with the instructive tales about native chiefs dyed more or less blue, whose character for greediness, ferocity, or amiability must have been expounded to him with that capacity for vivid language which seems joined naturally to the shadiness of moral character and recklessness of disposition.