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Let's Not Swap

The last story about barter making a comeback. Ever.

May 18, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 33 • By JOE QUEENAN
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Looking for a surefire sign that the economy is poised for a recovery? Here it is. A few weeks ago, the Associated Press ran the story "Bartering makes a comeback for those short on cash." It reported that cash-strapped consumers were increasingly bartering goods for services, rather than exchanging cash. Proof was the fact that bartering ads on Craigslist had doubled since 2008.

The story furnished pithy anecdotes about beauticians trading haircuts and pedicures for day care, and about residents of the Great North Woods exchanging unwanted motorcycles for equally extraneous wood-burning stoves. "If somebody wants something that you've got, there's probably a good chance they've got something you want that they don't want" is how one barterer explained it. At least in Vermont.

For as long as I can remember bartering has been making a comeback, and for as long as I can remember the comeback has never occurred. There is an obvious reason for this: We are not living on the steppes of Mongolia in the 12th century, and we are not Pilgrims. My first job in journalism was as editor of a direct-mail magazine called American Business. The magazine was published by the legendary Ralph Ginzburg, who got railroaded and sent to prison by Bobby Kennedy on the specious charge of pandering. (He published inflammatory photographs of a black man and a white woman abed in his ritzy magazine Eros, and Kennedy thought this might derail the civil rights movement.) After his release from the big house, Ginzburg began to build a tawdry empire of cheapo magazines sold for as little as $1 for a lifetime subscription to shut-ins and drunks. The magazines existed for one reason only: to compile gigantic mailing lists of names that could be sold to other, more legitimate publications on the prowl for fresh victims. These entities were known as "sucker lists."

Initially, Ginzburg compiled his content by subscribing to the United Press International wire service, editing down some of the many lighthearted human-interest features, and repackaging them as magazine stories. After I had been working for him a while, reshaping this lackluster material, I noticed that many of the stories were nothing more than rewritten press releases. So I told Ginzburg that if he doubled my salary, he could dump the UPI (saving $100,000 a year), and I would write all the stories for him. I spent the next five years cranking out literally hundreds of stories for American Business, Moneysworth, Better -Living, and a short-lived magazine called Uncle Sam.

When I started working for Ginzburg, I didn't know anything about business. Neither do most people who work for the Associated Press. One of the first stories I wrote was about how bartering was making a gigantic comeback. Humongous. Unreal. This was in 1982, when America was just emerging from a brutal recession and interest rates stood at 18 percent and the stock market was meandering around the 700 level and the specter of Jimmy Carter still darkened the horizon. A newcomer to journalism, I was easily seduced by quirky stories like barter-making-a-comeback, ideas which had been pitched to me by some fifth-rate public relations firm that had a doomed barterer as a client. My story was exactly like the one that ran in the Associated Press last week: In tough times, people need to be creative, so they make an end-run around the cash-on-the-barrel-head tradition. That's why barter was making a big comeback.

Barter was not, in fact, making a big comeback, nor has it made a big comeback in the 27 years since 1982. I have never met anyone that has ever bartered anything, whether goods or services, and neither has anyone else I know. This is because bartering is stupid. For example, if I have opera tickets that I don't want, I would never dream of trying to barter them for lawn care or vodka or babysitting services or a root canal; I would either give them away or sell them. You can't ask your surgeon to give you a quadruple heart bypass in exchange for season's tickets to the Jets; he would think you were an idiot. Bartering is a quasi-medieval concept that goes against the grain of the American character. It's an economic activity designed for people who live in yurts.

One thing I have noticed, however, is that barter stories are a useful economic bellwether. Shortly after my first barter story appeared, the market set off a tear that would keep going--in one form or another--until October 2007. Barter stories did make the rounds during the 1990-91 downturn, and again in 2001-02, but those recessions were over so fast that bartering never really got a chance to gather a head of steam. The current recession, which many observers believe could last for awhile, would seem to provide fertile ground for bartering to reenergize itself, but frankly I don't think that's going to happen. Bartering is a cumbersome way to do business and because the IRS views such quid-pro-quo transactions as commercial exchanges, they are taxable. Basically, the whole idea of barter is stupid.

Why do journalists keep writing stories about bartering? Mostly because they are heartwarming and folksy and cute, and are usually the work of journalists who are just starting out in the business and don't yet realize that barter stories are as old as the Mayflower.

Each new generation of journalists discovers the bartering story, just as each new generation of journalists discovers the vinyl-LP-making-a-comeback story or the suburbs-are-dying story or the deep-down-inside, Americans-don't-really-like-big cars story. None of these stories is true; none of these stories could possibly be true; but no one ever goes out to check their accuracy or plausibility because when Armageddon seems to be dawning, fact-checking standards become notoriously lax.

The barter-is-making-a-comeback story thus joins the gee-aren't-people-nicer-to-one-another-now-that-their-401(k)s-have-been-decimated story and that lovable old chestnut: Now that tragedy has hit us, the age of irony is over. People are not getting nicer in this country as the financial doldrums worsen, irony is not on the wane, people are not deserting the suburbs in droves, and barter is not making a comeback. But when stories about sudden shifts in our values appear in profusion, get ready for the next bull market. The first time I wrote a barter story, the stock market went off on a 25-year tear that lifted it from below 1,000 to 14,000.

Here's my second.

Joe Queenan is the author of Closing Time: a Memoir.