Bartering may sound like a style of commerce more fitting to a backwater marketplace than a modern capitalist environment. According to the International Reciprocal Trade Association—an organization created to promote “just and equitable standards” in modern bartering—the U.S. barter market is a staggering $12 billion annually. In other words, $12 billion worth of goods and services are traded every year without any currency changing hands. Scott Whitmer, founder of trade exchange company Florida Barter, says that while 2011 saw positive signs of an economic recovery, many small and medium-size companies are still struggling. “Bartering has continued to help many [of these] companies grow and conserve cash,” he says. Though Florida Barter enjoyed a record 2011—a 12 percent increase in total trade volume; more than $17 million worth of trades among the 1,600 clients—Whitmer says bartering as a business practice is still in its infancy, “on the cusp of exploding.”
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) considers bartering a form of revenue and something that must be reported as taxable income. Under U.S. generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP, businesses are expected to estimate the fair market value of their bartered goods or services. This is done by referring to past cash transactions of similar goods or services and using that historical revenue as a reportable value. When it is not possible to accurately calculate the value, most bartered goods are reported based on their carrying value.
Finding a way to make a profit from bartering isn’t just a challenge to the people putting up their livelihood for trade. Even the brokers who act as bartering middlemen are searching for creative ways to make money from a service that isn’t about making money. A website like Swap.com—which connects people who want to exchange their unused household items—looks, at least on paper, like a financial windfall. Jeff Bennett, Swap.com’s CEO, claims that “the business has been doubling every year.” They’re closing in on 450,000 registered users, who’ve taken part in more than 4 million barter exchanges valued at approximately $13 million since the site’s inception in 2010. But as no part of that $13 million is in actual money, how exactly does Swap.com cover its overhead? Most of its capital comes from “related aspects of the business,” says Bennett, such as shipping fees and corporate sponsorships. “We’ve had very good experiences with companies like Gallo wines, LuLu’s Clothing, and ModCloth.” He also hopes to introduce a Swap.com subscription service in the near future that offers customers incentives for forking over a monthly fee, like an ad-free environment and early access to their favorite items.
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.
The Owenite socialists in Britain and the United States in the 1830s were the first to attempt to organize barter exchanges. Owenism developed a "theory of equitable exchange" as a critique of the exploitative wage relationship between capitalist and labourer, by which all profit accrued to the capitalist. To counteract the uneven playing field between employers and employed, they proposed "schemes of labour notes based on labour time, thus institutionalizing Owen's demand that human labour, not money, be made the standard of value." This alternate currency eliminated price variability between markets, as well as the role of merchants who bought low and sold high. The system arose in a period where paper currency was an innovation. Paper currency was an I.O.U. circulated by a bank (a promise to pay, not a payment in itself). Both merchants and an unstable paper currency created difficulties for direct producers.
People often require some encouragement to give bartering a shot. Debbie Lombardi, president and founder of Barter Business Unlimited, a Connecticut-based exchange network, says that despite her company’s track record and 4,000-plus registered members, she still regularly encounters resistance and confusion from prospective customers. “Nobody comes to me and says, ‘I’ve always wanted to try bartering,’ ” she admits. “It’s more like, ‘I don’t get it. Is this some kind of scam?’”
“Economic theory has always got to be historically bounded,” Beggs says. “I think it’s a mistake to think you’ll find the workings of modern money by going back to the origins of money.” He does point out that, while barter may not have been widespread, it’s possible that it happened somewhere and led to money, just given how much is unknown about such a large period of time.