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.
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.
Inevitably some people may feel like they were taken advantage of. One way to diminish inequities is to engage in dollar-for-dollar trades. For example, if you would like to trade your housecleaning service for someone’s couch, try to break down the goods and services to the dollar amount. If the two of you decide that the value of the couch is worth $200, why don’t you supply a gift certificate for $200 worth of housecleaning services? It’s a wise course and ensures all parties know what they are getting and what they are offering.
When barter has appeared, it wasn’t as part of a purely barter economy, and money didn’t emerge from it—rather, it emerged from money. After Rome fell, for instance, Europeans used barter as a substitute for the Roman currency people had gotten used to. “In most of the cases we know about, [barter] takes place between people who are familiar with the use of money, but for one reason or another, don’t have a lot of it around,” explains David Graeber, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics.
In Canada, barter continues to thrive. The largest b2b barter exchange is Tradebank, founded in 1987. P2P bartering has seen a renaissance in major Canadian cities through Bunz - built as a network of Facebook groups that went on to become a stand-alone bartering based app in January 2016. Within the first year, Bunz accumulated over 75,000 users in over 200 cities worldwide.
Then again, it’s one thing to keep a community alive and well when everyone’s camping in a forest and they’ve all opted in to that vision. It’s quite another to imagine a gift economy enabling humans to build skyscrapers, invent iPhones, put air conditioners in every house, and explore space. (The same goes for collecting taxes and running large businesses.) Not that it’s an all-or-nothing situation: We already have gift economies among friends and family. Perhaps expanding that within small communities is possible; it’s certainly desirable.
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’.”
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.