The Magazine

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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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.