Bartering Re-Thunk

My experience, philosophy, and how-to suggestions

I’ve been involved in three barter clubs off-and-on over almost thirty years.

Back in the mid-1980s, I was invited to help launch a barter club.  Inspired by a small book on the theory, I applied my public relations and organizing skills to the effort, spending significant hours with a small team of folks for many months, turning into a few years, brainstorming, planning, promoting, organizing, publishing, and maintaining operations.

But the idea barely got off the ground.  We sought the reasons, and found two major problems, neither to do with our organization, but to do with member demographic and buyer psychology:  1)  we had too many astrology readers, young healers, and such, and too few car mechanics and those with similar, culturally-essential “hard” goods and skills; and 2) people said they realized they were uncomfortable about going into “barter debt,” and therefore few could sell to those reluctant buyers.

We did what we could to attract more of the rare type of trader, and dealt with the oddly-different psychology of debt in the barter world by talking and writing about it and encouraging each other in various ways, such as barter parties.  The system still never got much traction, we volunteers felt the futility of our efforts, and eventually the trading group folded.

A decade later, I joined another barter club, already operating, though barely, begun by younger folks with slightly different ideas.  I remained uninvolved in operations, and it too soon folded.

Then I moved to Silver City and joined my third barter club in 2006 or 2007, consisting of more folks about my age.  I was encouraged that it had been operating for a few years, but at the first meeting I attended, it was announced that no one wanted the few volunteer jobs, and the people who currently held the jobs were suggesting the barter club close.

Since the vast majority wanted to close it down, I joined them – and I shared with the group an idea I’d had the week before.  I thought I finally understood the problem:

Barter clubs are made up of people, some of whom we know well and trust, and some of whom we know faintly but whom we’re required to trust whether we like it or not, because they’re in the club.  

Though no one wanted to voice those words in those months we probed the club for their reasons for wanting to fold, I believe my theory is logical and reasonable, and the cause is certainly unconscious and not what good, idealistic people want to admit about themselves:  they didn’t quite trust it and didn’t know why.  And even if they trusted every single person there that day, they knew that tomorrow someone new could join and that would change everything.

That, I decided, was the problem.

Bartering should be practiced, I now believe, not in defined circles, but in a vast number of overlapping networks – each person their own individual barter club network, designed perfectly to match their needs and trusted friends and acquaintances, whether a large group or small.

And to address the “hard goods” issue:  each person has the chance of working with their own car mechanic!

Each person’s network can be managed much like a checking account, with individualized promissory notes recording each transaction:  Simple, old-fashioned IOU’s.  

Everyone understands the concept.  By using them, we revive a bit of simpler-time, old-fashioned history.

Having explained this idea to the former local club those many years ago, I realize I have not bartered as much in these intervening years, even with my own barter notes at the ready, as I know I’m philosophically inclined to.

And the few barters I have made in the last few years quickly devolved – and I realize now, in this case, devolution can be a good thing – into simple gifting.  And this may be a positive outcome, even though it wasn’t my stated goal.  But it’s not the only outcome.

But let’s continue with this goal of bartering.

One friend and I began by using the method I’ll describe below, which got us comfortable with the idea of doing for others without receiving American dollars, “Federal Reserve notes,” in exchange.  With that new comfort, we suddenly found ourselves willing to let go of the accounting entirely – and we transcended barter and entered the “gift economy,” based on what one person needed and whether we had the time and energy for it.

Even though I’m not using the promissory note system of bartering at this time, I still believe the idea is extremely important, and I will almost certainly use the note system again when I need to buy or sell something and gifting doesn’t feel exactly right for any number of reasons.

Whenever the economy crashes, which could be any day, this idea could prepare us to keep at least some aspects of our local economy moving without a lot of massive organizing.

It’s simple and flexible.  Each person can choose what’s right for them, bartering with few or many, giving things away or “paying it forward,” knowing it’ll all come back around somehow, and we’re reclaiming an ancient rite – the right to exchange goods and services with friends and acquaintances with no system or mediator in between.

Preparation

Make yourself some barter notes which describe the sort of products and services you have to offer.  Imagine a bank check with small-print advertising at the bottom.  You might even add a small photo of yourself up next to your address, so your note might have the chance to be passed along to someone else, like a second-party check.  Then, friends of friends who don’t remember your name might recognize your face and realize they trust you enough to accept your note from their friend.

Think about your circle of friends and who might provide what you need, and consider what you have to offer them.  Tell them about this idea, and pass this article along.

“Suggestions”  for Security

A)  Barter only with people you chose to trust, given your personal situation.

B)  If you think you might pass on a note you receive from one person to another for another trade, like passing on a two-party check, make sure that the note-maker’s contact information is legible and correct on their notes.

C)  If you don’t know someone who wants to barter with you, and especially if they’re new to town:

a)  Ask them to provide you the goods or service first, with you giving them your note, or

b) Ask a mutual trusted friend to create a three-way barter:  The friend who trusts them accepts their note, you accept the known friend’s note, and the stranger gets what they need from you.

(I’ve had repeated experiences of strangers, often sweet young women who seem hip to everything progressive, asking for things, then stealing from me – perhaps a cosmic lesson I’m supposed to learn – so I am now far more cautious than some.  We all have a right to set our own boundaries as we decide is best.)

Nuts and Bolts

1)  Design your promissory notes just like a check – which everyone understands – with your name and contact information legible, and blank lines for date, note number, recipient’s name, memo, and your signature.

2)  Since your notes will one day be redeemed for your goods or services by either the person you’re now handing it to, or by a friend or acquaintance of theirs who might accept it for a subsequent trade, you might make a few notes in common denominations, such as $20s, $10s, or whatever is likely to come back to you for what you have to offer.

3)  On the other hand, if someone brings you back your old note for $40, you can always give them back a new $20 note as change.

4)  To create the second-party note:  On the reverse, where a deposit signature goes on the left-hand end (where second-party notations used to be made on checks more commonly than today), simply write the transaction details briefly, i.e., Signed to Jane Smith, January 1, 2014, for yard work, then your signature.  This can be repeated as many times as there is space on the back.  If a person wants to pass the note on again to a person other than the original maker, but there’s no room on the back, the note can be exchanged with the original maker for a new note.

5) Keep a list of your accounts, listing each note as you issue it.  It’ll track to whom, what for, and the amount, so you always know how much of your “promise” or debt is out there, one day to require your goods or labor, or how much credit you can safely spend!

When your notes are redeemed and returned to you, keep them as proof that they’ve been redeemed.  (In case you worry someone might one day try to reproduce and pass one off – not that I’m that paranoid, but it’s good to consider all possibilities.)

(It often seems that if protective measures aren’t built-in from the beginning, the opening attracts the very thing to exploit it – perhaps a cosmic dynamic, teaching us consciousness?)

6) Because of this possibility, anyone accepting a second-party note should call the maker of the original note to confirm the original maker is still around, is still able to trade their goods and services for their notes, and the two of you confirm the note is good.  The call can be made in a friendly way, for instance, “I’m about to accept, or am considering accepting, a barter note you wrote a year ago to Margaret.  She passed it on to Anna, who passed it to Bob, and now he’s here to spend it.  So, I’m thinking I’ll be bringing it back to you for some mending work soon.”

6)  If you have a shop, display a sign that says you accept barter in the form of promissory notes.  Then have copies of this information to share, as well as your notes to demonstrate.  But be discriminating.  Barter only with whom you choose, and use the rules above.

7)  Consider carrying blank promissory notes – without your name and information on them – and maybe a copy of this article.  Then, whenever you find someone open to the promissory note idea, you’ll be ready to help them make the transaction with little fuss.  Even if they are hesitant at first, you can give them the article and a blank note, and one day they may call you to make a deal.

8)  Remember you can even trade outside your local area, if you know people who travel regularly between their area and yours, and you have mutual friends.

9)  Finally, this may strike some as sacrilegious, but:  Since our notes will look much like checks, and many of us have checks we no longer use because of automatic deduction and debit cards, and these checks already have all the information we want pre-printed on them, we might just black out the bank information and add the words “Promissory Note”!

In short:  No club.  No membership.  No massive bookkeeping.  Only a series of networks, each personally chosen, flexible and ever-changing, potentially ever-growing, of people doing what people have always done to meet their and each other’s needs – bartering.

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