“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.
Since the 1830s, barter in some western market economies has been aided by exchanges which use alternative currencies based on the labour theory of value, and which are intended to prevent profit-taking by intermediaries. Examples include the Owenite socialists, the Cincinnati Time store, and more recently[when?] Ithaca HOURS (time banking) and the LETS system.
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.
For example, the market for national security payloads and NASA missions (James Webb is a notable exception, bartered between NASA and ESA) are typically closed to Arianespace. — Eric Berger, Ars Technica, "As the SpaceX steamroller surges, European rocket industry vows to resist," 20 July 2018 Friends told the British press that Rowley would often search dumpsters for items to barter or sell. — William Booth, Anchorage Daily News, "Woman exposed to nerve agent in southern England dies; police launch murder investigation," 9 July 2018 Anyone who unlawfully captures or kills a big game animal and then sells or barters the animal is guilty of a felony. — Dustin Gardiner, azcentral, "10 Arizona laws that actually exist: Private armies, food-wasting ban, windshield repairs," 27 June 2018 This early depiction suggests that although chocolate was being bartered at this point, it may not have been traded as a form of currency, Baron says. — Joshua Rapp Learn, Science | AAAS, "The Maya civilization used chocolate as money," 27 June 2018 To generate publicity, the cash is handed out at ceremonies held in the weekly roadside markets where villagers gather to barter meager fish hauls for goods like plastic buckets or quart bottles of gasoline. — New York Times, "Nearly Eradicated in Humans, the Guinea Worm Finds New Victims: Dogs," 18 June 2018 Prize is not transferable or redeemable for cash and may not be sold, bartered or auctioned. — Union-tribune Rewards, sandiegouniontribune.com, "Enter to Win Two Tickets to San Diego Legion's Inaugural Rugby Season as well as a gift certificate to Hundred Proof!," 11 May 2018 Others report punishment for having hoarded, rationed or bartered for menstrual products. — refinery29.com, "Meghan Markle Has Championed Menstrual Equity — Here's Why You Should Too," 21 May 2018 As the city bartered for water with local farmers and hustled to build desalination plants, its residents simply started using less water. — Ryan Lenora Brown, The Christian Science Monitor, "Squeezing more out of taps: How Cape Town cut consumption in half," 30 Apr. 2018
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.
When exchanging services, it’s important to remember that bartering is considered income. While you may be able to write off expenses you incur during the barter, you must claim the fair market value of the services you provided as income. For example, if you charge $60 an hour as a massage therapist, and you trade a one-hour massage for housecleaning services, you may have to claim the equivalent income. When you trade assets, you may even be responsible for tracking capital gains or losses. If you have any doubts or questions, consult the IRS website.
Trade did occur in non-monetary societies, but not among fellow villagers. Instead, it was used almost exclusively with strangers, or even enemies, where it was often accompanied by complex rituals involving trade, dance, feasting, mock fighting, or sex—and sometimes all of them intertwined. Take the indigenous Gunwinggu people of Australia, as observed by the anthropologist Ronald Berndt in the 1940s:
Communities of Iroquois Native Americans, for instance, stockpiled their goods in longhouses. Female councils then allocated the goods, explains Graeber. Other indigenous communities relied on “gift economies,” which went something like this: If you were a baker who needed meat, you didn’t offer your bagels for the butcher’s steaks. Instead, you got your wife to hint to the butcher’s wife that you two were low on iron, and she’d say something like “Oh really? Have a hamburger, we’ve got plenty!” Down the line, the butcher might want a birthday cake, or help moving to a new apartment, and you’d help him out.
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.
Limitless—and occasionally bizarre. Lombardi has brokered barters on everything from tattoos to real estate to headstones. “Don’t laugh, but we’ve had people who’ve bartered for boob jobs,” she says. “If that’s what you really want and it’s not in your budget, with bartering you just have to do a few more carpet cleaning jobs and eventually you’ll have new boobs. That’s a wonderful thing.”
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.