In the 21st Century, paper money is the currency of the age. Everything that can be bought is priced in dollars or pounds or marks or whatever your country calls your paper money.
You can hardly survive without paper money. It is used to pay for everything, from the roof over your head to the clothes on your back, from the car you drive to work to the food on your table.
Yet there was a time when money was the exception and not the rule. People traded more often than they bought things with money.
I’m reading The Autobiography of Mark Twain right now, and I found this brief passage relevant. He’s relating a story of the time he worked as a printer’s apprentice at the Hannibal Courier. The local church had raised $16 to pay for the printing of a sermon. Twain says:
It was a sixteen-page duodecimo pamphlet and it was a great event in our office. As we regarded it, it was a book, and it promoted us to the dignity of book printers. Moreover, no such mass of actual money as sixteen dollars, in one bunch, had ever entered that office on any previous occasion. People didn’t pay for their paper and for their advertising in money; they paid in dry-goods, sugar, coffee, hickory wood, oak wood, turnips, pumpkins, onions, watermelons — and it was very seldom indeed that a man paid in money, and when that happened we thought there was something the matter with him.
In Hannibal, Missouri, during the latter half of the 1800s, it seems they had a hybrid economy. It was partially based on barter and partially on payment with money.
It seems money went a lot further back then, so people tended to respect it and hold onto it better than we do in the 21st Century.
What would it look like if we adopted a similar lifestyle today?
I suppose it would be much harder given that most of us do not produce crops or harvest lumber or mine metal. And most of us would have no idea how to “price” two different things in a trade. We are so used to pricing in dollars that we don’t know how to value a thing outside of that unit of measure.
Still, it is something to think about.
When you barter, you avoid many hidden costs. For example, you avoid the price of overhead that’s built into a product sold through a retail store. And you avoid taxes: the income tax on the money you earned and the sales tax on the money you spent.
Governments actually want people to pay for everything with paper money. More to the point, they want everybody to pay with electronic money (debit cards, credit cards, etc) so they can trace (and tax!) every penny you earn or spend.
It’s no mystery why the FBI says paying for a coffee with cash is a potential terrorist activity. Cash transactions are harder to keep track of, and therefore harder to tax. So they are scaring consumers away from cash.
But cash transactions and barter are two ways you can preserve your wealth and keep a little more in your pocket.
Although it’s not a bartering site, Freecycle.org is an interesting concept. In their own words:
The Freecycle Network™ is made up of 5,084 groups with 9,324,998 members around the world. It’s a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (and getting) stuff for free in their own towns. It’s all about reuse and keeping good stuff out of landfills. Each local group is moderated by local volunteers (them’s good people). Membership is free.
The idea is to give away still-useful items that you’re not using anymore. But instead of giving your items away to a charity, you give them away directly to people in your own local community. It is still a form of charity, but more direct than going through a traditional non-profit charity.
You also benefit when somebody else is giving away an item you need.
So it’s not bartering, per se, but it can have that effect. You give somebody something they need and you eventually get something you need.
I believe local community networks like those that Freecycle has created will be extremely valuable in any type of crisis.
Here’s the link to Freecycle:
Don’t be scared. Be prepared.