Potlatch, Denver style

A friend put out a call on facebook today for a food swapping event in Denver. Given that food sales are highly regulated by the government (try getting a license to sell food, not fun), it’s perhaps unsurprising that people want to unload their extra canned peppers or limoncello. But from the point of view of economics, barter, or trade without money, is a rather odd process.

Though not entirely the same, the food swapping event reminded me of Potlatch, an old Native American tradition of sharing the harvest in Northwest. The tribes who did really well, catching a lot of salmon, etc, would invite all the tribes who didn’t do as well to partake in the bounty. The point was to make sure that all food was consumed, but also avoid war and provide a sort of intertemporal trade. If you did well this year, you share in the hopes that if you don’t do well next year, someone will share with you. You could also see it as a form of insurance. Economic Historians tend to view Potlatch this way, but it also highlights the fact that economics doesn’t have a good framework for incorporating the value of community or cultural norms. (Case in point, a recent working paper by economists has the word culture in quotation marks, indicating its social significance, but lack of academic standing.)

But what do you call this modern-day Potlatch? In Denver, a city of about a million people, the odds of running into one of your bartering partners again are small, but perhaps on some level it’s insurance. Otherwise, we’re forging bonds with people we might never meet again, we get homemade goodies, feel good about the earth, piss on the idea of a monied society?

Barter in general gets a lot of press in Boulder, at least the word-of-mouth kind of press. I know lots of folks who try to barter for goods and services before offering money. You like someone’s t-shirt, so you offer to trade your own for it, you need yoga therapy, so you offer to trade a photography session for it. While many people swear by it, I also know just as many people (and often the same people who tout it) who come away feeling cheated or like they’re not getting their time’s worth. It’s a noble goal, I guess, to diminish the importance of money in society and close the gap between consumer and provider. In some cases, I think it works really well, particularly when you’re trading for two similar goods. A t-shirt for a t-shirt, an hour of massage for an hour of web editing, a jar of canned tomatoes for a jar of apple butter. But it becomes a lot trickier when we try to barter for things that are very different, eggs and chickens or photography and armchairs or programming for cookies.This is where people start to get cross, where valuations diverge and a perception of someone not holding up their end of the bargain chips away at the relationship.

Perhaps, there’s value in just thinking that we can do without money, or without the money printed by our big, bad government. That represents much of the justification behind local currencies as well. Or maybe, we just want to feel like things we do are valuable, that a connection from a barter–you care about what I made enough to give me something you made–is that much stronger than a connection made by a dollar, even if that relationship is temporary. Maybe there’s a psychological high from that interaction onto which we put a high value.

Or maybe I just live in a place totally detached from reality.

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