Gift and barter systems? Open thread.

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Further to a conversation with tigtog about “The Economy” and its meanings, I’d like to talk about “alternative” economies, if such a word can be applied: gifts and barter. In particular, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. A few jumping-off points:

* Charity: Pretty much everyone I know is familiar with dumping their old clothes in a Good Sammies bin. Do you get involved in other formal charitable pursuits? How much of a gift economy is it these days? Many people are conflicted about the big business of charity nowadays: how do you know how much of your donation is going to the people you think you’re helping? Usable clothes get diverted to the rag trade, breastmilk donated for African orphans gets diverted into the big-business for-profit pharmaceutical industry, commissions and salaries skim off huge amounts of money from cash donations.

* Freecycle and similar systems: I’ve been actively involved in Freecycle for a long while, and now as we’re moving house it’s been fantastic. Place an post, arrange by email, and the stuff gets picked up, usually within 24 hours. A general sort of reciprocity is expected by some, but not by all, leading to conflicts and complaints at times on discussion lists, about who should be “allowed” to collect goods (“If you’ve never made an Offer, can you post a Wanted?”, and so on). Are you involved? Would you rather donate to a registered charity, have a garage sale, or give your unwanted stuff away to people in your local community? Why? Are you involved in other formal goods-rearrangement systems, like Bookcrossing?

* Barter: Another thing I’m keen on. Handmade goods, services (like simple babysitting swaps or more complicated club systems), skills swapped for other skills. I might be good at soapmaking, and a friend terrific at sewing: why should I spend four times as long producing awful seams when we could trade instead? There are more formal barter-for-points systems about, though they seem to come and go. Have you been involved in any of these?

* Gifts: I’m not talking about obligatory gifting, like birthdays and Christmas, but less organised gifting of both goods and services. Do you give and receive non-obligatory gifts from time to time? Been given something, offered to pay for it, and been told “Oh, just pay it forward”? One person in a loose friends network helps another move house, someone else helps them with babysitting when they’re stuck, a third person offers professional information gratis, someone else passes on all their baby gear when they’re done with it? Or mixed systems, where you get charged mates’ rates on a professional service, and slip the provider a bottle of something nice? This is the sort of thing most of us in connected social networks take for granted. Is this part of “The Economy”?

* Information: Information websites, Usenet, mailing lists and forums, blogging: we’re all giving away and receiving information, a whole lot of intellectual work. We give it away for free, or we get involved in very informal reciprocal systems based on exchanging our particular areas of knowledge with others, or we pay it forward down the track. The information economy is not all completely outside the monetary economy, of course; we’re being flogged “Monetise your blog!” schemes right left and centre, and many (but not all) volunteer-run informational websites take advertising. But a whole lot of the stuff is just plain given away, to anyone who wants it. The dripping scorn from some journalists’ pens about bloggers shows that this isn’t welcomed by all. What information do you give away? What do you receive? Do you think the balance is right? Does the push for “monetisation” (gee I hate that word) annoy you, or do you think it’s just fabulous and want to know where you can sign up? (Or both?)

* Collectivism. Not something I know a lot about from personal experience. Aboriginal communities are probably the biggest example of collective (non-State, non-Federal) ownership, and their systems are highly contested right now with the NT Intervention in full swing and its challenges getting underway. Co-housing schemes and eco-communities might be another example. And, less formally, share-housing. I know we have at least a couple of commenters who may have stuff to say about share-housing.

* Etiquette: How do you negotiate the etiquette of it all? I know that people new to the Freecycle network often become deeply uncomfortable when receiving an item for free. They try to offer money, goods in trade, they fidget and over-thank. They’re simply not used to people giving “good stuff” away when they could have charged for it. And then there are the freeloaders of course.

* Feminism: I suspect that women participate disproportionately in all of these systems, except, perhaps, the information economy. There is a lack of wealth accumulation in all of these systems. They’re not part of Howard’s “real” economy. Women are very disproportionately represented in charity work in particular, and there have been substantial feminist critiques of volunteerism as part of a social system functioning to keeping women poor. Women who are seeing doctors or psychologists who assess them as needing more to do with their time are told to go do Meals on Wheels or volunteer for a hospital charity; the same doesn’t tend to happen with men. And I have witnessed over and over the outrage some women encounter for their temerity in moving a domestic hobby into a profit-making business.

* Where is it going?: Do you find yourself more involved in these systems, or less so, over time? Do you think the levels of giving and bartering are changing in your wider community? How, and why? I’m especially interested in your thoughts on the giving and bartering of information.



Categories: Culture, culture wars, economics, gender & feminism, Sociology

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14 replies

  1. * Charity: […] Many people are conflicted about the big business of charity nowadays: how do you know how much of your donation is going to the people you think you’re helping?
    I don’t know about Oz (and let’s apply that YMMV to everything else I’m about to quote), but in the US, charities have to open up their books to maintain their non-profit, tax-free status. Several reputable organizations, including the Better Business Bureau, pore over those reports and rate charities by their transparency and effectiveness, including how much of their money goes to overhead and how much goes directly to helping people (or funding research, or whatever the charity’s main purpose is).
    Usable clothes get diverted to the rag trade
    I don’t know if that’s always condemnable — those “usable” bell-bottoms that no kid today would be willing to wear in public might do more good if they’re recycled and the charity gets cash for stuff its recipients want and need.
    A lot of organizations, like the Salvation Army, Goodwill, and the Atlanta Alliance on Developmental Disabilities (the AADD, which runs the thrift store around the corner and is where I usually donate, which is why I tossed them into the mix)sell a lot of donated goods rather than directly pass them on to the recipients of their aid. They might give the folks they’re helping chits for the thrift stores; I don’t know, but it would be logical.
    breastmilk donated for African orphans gets diverted into the big-business for-profit pharmaceutical industry
    Even that might make sense, if the charities have more donated milk than they can transport before it goes bad and there are other nutritional needs, but I have to admit that it’s just made of ew.
    * Freecycle and similar systems:
    It’s been said that e-Bay is a global garage sale (or yard sale, or tag sale, or white elephant sale); in the same metaphorical way, Freecycle is a regional curbside.
    In every neighborhood where I’ve ever lived, folks would put stuff that’s no longer of use to them but is still intact up by the curb to be collected by our local sanitation engineers. Thoughtful folk would do so a couple days before the next scheduled pick-up, so folks driving through the neighborhood could stop and chuck in a truck anything they might be able to use or sell.
    In apartment complexes or more densely-populated areas, that’s called “dumpster diving.” I did a fair amount of dumpster diving in college; I went to Emory, which is in my home town of Atlanta and has a lot of students from other parts of the country and world. An $80 Krupps coffee maker, working and less than a year old, wasn’t worth the effort for them to ship home at the end of the school year. It was worth the effort for me to toss in the trunk of my car.
    Handy hint: If you’re looking for free stuff, go to a college campus and the surrounding apartment complexes popular with students in the period between the end of exams and graduation. Need a sofa? There will be plenty that are cheap, old, ugly, and/or smelling of bongwater, but could be cleaned up and put to use. I knew plenty of folks in their early 20s who furnished their homes that way. Hell, I was 30 before I had a bed with a raised frame, box springs, headboard and footboard.
    Basically, the function of freecycle is to get rid of junk you don’t want and provide it to folks who might. It’s off your hands and not taking up space in a landfill. Honestly, I don’t think the etiquette, or the question of freeloading, are particularly important. If I want my old sofa to go away, and I put it at the curbside, and someone picks it up before it gets to he dump, good on ‘em. If someone trolls offers on Freecycle without offering anything himself, I’ve got no problem. It’s not in a landfill. Someone wanted it and I didn’t.
    Would you rather donate to a registered charity, have a garage sale, or give your unwanted stuff away to people in your local community? Why? Are you involved in other formal goods-rearrangement systems, like Bookcrossing?
    (ymmv) In the US, donations are an income tax deduction. So if I’m donating something of considerable value, I go to a registered charity because I’d like the receipt. For the small stuff, it’s not worth the effort.
    Bookcrossing is a new one on me. I’d heard of paperbackswap.com, and I’ve looked at it, but haven’t dived in yet.
    * Barter: […] I might be good at soapmaking, and a friend terrific at sewing: why should I spend four times as long producing awful seams when we could trade instead?
    I haven’t done that sort of thing on a large scale or in any formal system, but I occasionally build a Web page or design a flyer or business card as payment-in-kind fir someone who mows my lawn. Small tuff.
    * Gifts: […] Do you give and receive non-obligatory gifts from time to time? Been given something, offered to pay for it, and been told “Oh, just pay it forward”?
    I’ve been on both sides of that transaction. In services, not in cash or goods. The phrase “pay it forward” didn’t come up; it was before the movie. “Pass it along” was the preferred expression then.
    I used to drive old, ugly, unreliable cars. I was occasionally dependent on the kindness of strangers for help changing a tire or for a jump start. After I’d moved on in my career and wasn’t always scraping to get by, I came upon an older couple with a flat tire. They were from out of town with no one to call, but they had a solid spare. So I jacked up the car and changed the tire. The husband (I assume) offered to pay me, but I asked him instead to do something nice for someone in need. I needed the Karma more than the cash.
    I also bought a briefcase-size jump-starter to keep in the car — basically, a lead-acid battery with gator clips attached. About US$40. I’ve jump-started a few stranded motorists who left their headlights on, including a group of very attractive women. All of them married, of course, because that’s how life works, at least for me. Good Karma, anyway, and we became friends.
    * Information: […] we’re all giving away and receiving information, a whole lot of intellectual work. We give it away for free, or we get involved in very informal reciprocal systems based on exchanging our particular areas of knowledge with others, or we pay it forward down the track.
    The only newness is in scale. This has always been the kind of thing that goes on in the town square, at the barber shop, over pints at the pub, or at a dinner party. As in the other spheres you mentioned, it’s gone from local to global.
    * Etiquette: How do you negotiate the etiquette of it all? I know that people new to the Freecycle network often become deeply uncomfortable when receiving an item for free. They try to offer money, goods in trade, they fidget and over-thank.
    Just explain the ethic. “I had something I didn’t want, and you did. I didn’t happen to have a use for it any more, and you do. Next time you don’t want something, just try to see if someone does. Okay?”
    If it’s a better sell, explain that you’re keeping it out of a landfill. “I was going to toss it out. If you use it, at least it’s not pollution.”
    * Feminism: I suspect that women participate disproportionately in all of these systems, except, perhaps, the information economy.
    I really don’t see the connection. Traditionally, sure — when you’re kid’s a toddler, the baby clothes go to a mommy with a baby. When the kid moves from a crib to a bed, the crib gets passed on. When the kid moves from a child seat to a seat belt, the child seat gets passed on.
    There is a lack of wealth accumulation in all of these systems. They’re not part of Howard’s “real” economy.
    And they shouldn’t be. They’re not part of the economy — the minute they are is the minute a government finds a way to tax them
    It’s not economy It’s community.
    Women are very disproportionately represented in charity work in particular, and there have been substantial feminist critiques of volunteerism as part of a social system functioning to keeping women poor.
    Statistically, the average man works more hours for a wage or salary than the average woman. Hence, the average woman has more time for charity work than the average man.
    Take the stereotypical couple now aged 55-60 or so. Empty-nesters. He’s still working, usually at the peak of his earning powers, still working. She’s home alone, looking for something to fill their days. And then …
    Women who are seeing doctors or psychologists who assess them as needing more to do with their time are told to go do Meals on Wheels or volunteer for a hospital charity; the same doesn’t tend to happen with men.
    Men are encouraged to remain connected to their jobs. Either as employees or consultants. My dad is 61, and he was eagerly recruited by contractors handling prisoner mental health. He’s collecting both a pension and a salary, more money than he’s ever made in his life and a college fund for his grandkids, and I think the stimulus is keeping him alive and healthy. Stagnation isn’t good for him.
    And I have witnessed over and over the outrage some women encounter for their temerity in moving a domestic hobby into a profit-making business.
    Well, that shit’s gotta stop. One of the most promising trends of recent years has been micro-credit. Cottage industries. Local crafts.
    * Where is it going?: Do you find yourself more involved in these systems, or less so, over time?

    More involved, and more confused. Over time, I’m more interested in innovative approaches and less interested in sacks of grain.

  2. Lots of points that I agree with, a few points not so much, but I’m only going to slightly nitpick one:

    There is a lack of wealth accumulation in all of these systems. They’re not part of Howard’s “real” economy.
    And they shouldn’t be. They’re not part of the economy “” the minute they are is the minute a government finds a way to tax them
    It’s not economy It’s community.

    Lauredhel’s point was largely in response to a comment in another thread: a challenge to our claim that people care more about society than the economy, by arguing that society could never be divorced from the economy because humans will always want to exchange goods and services, and that’s what the economy is.
    I agree that politics only refers to the monetised economy, and that’s what economists mostly study, because it’s easy to crunch the numbers (in all sorts of interesting and obfuscatory ways), but TimT is correct that technically an economy is the exchanges themselves, not the mechanism for mediating that exchange.
    Economy is yet another of those words with layers of jargon and common usage nuances.

  3. We’ve been recycling/repairing/reusing for the last 25 years, are members of two LETS schemes, donate useful things to our local Hospice charity, and last year joined our local Freecycle group. This last has been incredible for us – from Lego for Kai and a ceramic slow-cooker (our electricity is green, unlike our gas) for winter casseroles, to a double futon and my latest acquisition (a greenhouse! A 6 foot by 8 foot greenhouse!! I’m over the moon) it’s provided us with a whole heap of things we’d otherwise not be able to afford. We haven’t been able to offer much yet, though. I’m hoping to rectify that next year.
    It’s open to abuse, unfortunately. We know some people sit on the site, grab things like bikes, then sell them at weekend car-boot sales. Bastards.

  4. I have a longstanding arrangement with my neighbour where we exchange water (for his horses) for guitar lessons (for my son). Actually he’s falling down a bit on his side of the bargain but he works long hours so I don’t feel it is right to insist.

  5. I used to do volunteer work for a couple of organisations around Newcastle – one, a computer centre for which we got free internet in exchange. The other was a youth magazine funded by Newcastle City Council; we did get occasional books from publishers as the result of a deal done at some point by a part-time worker responsible for the administration of this exercise. (Though often the books went unreviewed and just sat there – reviewing was never the main part of the publication anyway).
    I also did very brief volunteer work for a defence force publication at the Williamtown Air Base; again, they had almost no money to actually pay but apparently were involved in a national barter scheme where businesses across the country would sign up and trade goods and services, advertised in a booklet mailed out to participants.
    I did get a bit out of each of these exchanges, though at the time my main source of income was unemployment benefits – which I never want to go back to again!
    I’d imagine if international barter schemes or other unorthodox systems of exchange became widespread, governments would probably try and find a way to tax it. (The Greens are forever proposing that we tax the international stock market).
    If there is an overinvolvement of women in volunteer work, then that certainly sounds like something that needs changing – one marker of how charitable and generous individual people are is how much time they give to that sort of work. Maybe I need to do some more myself…

  6. Just on the issue of taxation, which came up a few times, as you can see here batering is taxable:
    http://www.ato.gov.au/businesses/content.asp?doc=/content/35349.htm&page=3&H3

  7. There’s also a difference between the kinds of volunteering men and women do, and a difference between old and young people as well.
    Young people tend to volunteer in places where they get work experience, which improves their chances in the job market (like TimT’s newsletter and computer centre, or my time in museums and archives) whereas older people tend (these are all huge generalisations and there are exceptions) not to be using volunteering as a job hunting strategy. They might be bored at home since the kids left home, they might want to influence the way their golf or bowls club operates, or they might want to give something back to the community now that they have more time.
    I disagree that men and women volunteer in vastly different numbers due to their work commitments. My mother worked, raised three kids and still taught English to migrants as a volunteer every week. She enjoyed it, and formed connections with people she would otherwise not have met, and contributed to the social cohesion in our local area.
    I think fewer men (there are certainly some sterling exceptions) feel the need to personally work to create community like that. In my area we have an annual Women’s Dinner. There is no Men’s Dinner. No men have organised one.

  8. Hoyden=my new favorite word to describe some of our membership at BookCrossing:)
    best,
    Scott
    CEO BookCrossing

  9. Thanks for dropping by Scott – I’ve gone and signed up! Now all I have to do is work out which of my books that I haven’t reread and don’t think the kids want to read I should let free.

  10. Notgruntled: “made of ew” = hee.
    I’m going to pick on this, though:

    Statistically, the average man works more hours for a wage or salary than the average woman. Hence, the average woman has more time for charity work than the average man.

    Take “for a wage or salary” out of that sentence, and the sex relations are reversed. I would dispute that the average woman has more available time for charity work, given the volume of domestic work they do as well as (much of the time) paid work.

  11. The results of the “gift economy” of the computer nerds of the last century who put code in the public domain has actually had a major effect on the world through the initial philosophy of internet users and contributors. See the fairly famous 1992 paper on “Why are services free on the internet?” from Singapore that tries to explain why such a gift economy worked – with yours truly quoted about the need to “balance the karma”.
    Basically, the success of the internet proves to skeptics that the gift economy works, even on a planetary scale.
    It’s also possible to argue that western civilization would have (and almost did when the Christians took over until the renaissance) died in the crib without the “gift economy” of ideas put into the public domain by researchers from Thales on… and that modern patents practices by predatory companies will stifle us.

  12. The results of the “gift economy” of the computer nerds of the last century who put code in the public domain has actually had a major effect on the world through the initial philosophy of internet users and contributors.

    That’s a good point about open source software – a huge part of the information/intellectual-work gift economy these days.

  13. Lauredhel – I’ll also point to a couple of other good examples of “gifts” that will have a significant impact:
    * PLoS, the Public Library of Science, a highly-regarded peer-reviewed journal where (mainly bio/psych types) have rebelled against the pay-for-journals.
    * MIT Open Courseware which has all of MIT’s course materials available (and reading lists) for download at no cost. Everything from Theatre Studies to Neurophysiology for post-grad robotics students. The feministae among you (no, surely not) might like to check out the Women’s and Gender Studies courses. Personally, I’ve bookmarked the Medieval Women’s studies stuff, so I can dig around on one of my fave women, Hildegard von Bingen.

  14. There is an entire industry in barter, some 800 barter companies worldwide providing services to 400,000 companies. We have been reporting on this industry since 1980…www.barternews.com

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