Barter, the New Old Economy


I’ve just got back from a break in Rarotonga, which was a wonderful place to visit for peace and rest. It was thought provoking even though thought was not high on my agenda.

I finished a piece of music I had been working on and called it Rarotonga, which you can find on Youtube and my About Songwriting blog. While there I attended a wonderful gospel church service where I had some great singing. This was followed by a bountiful morning tea put on by the open generosity of the locals.

Most of the church service was in Rarotongan Maori, however 2 words that I did understand were Climate Change. In a country where most of the land is very close to sea level this is a real challenge. You need to spend a little time on a South Pacific Island to understand what is at risk.

The one thing you must do when visiting a new country is visit with the people. 3 things stood out:

1. Everyone expressed their gratitude that we visited and explained that their country was entirely dependent on tourism.

2. Every person had at least 2 or 3 jobs and good pay was considered to be about US5 an hour. Other than Sunday’s, most people would be working 12+ hour days.

3. There was a sub economy operating below the cash economy. People trade goods or services. It might be people swapping fish for Taro or playing music in return for food and the ability to promote and sell merchandise such as CD’s.

As you do, when you deliberately disconnect from the grid, you catch up with reading and I got to reading up on Life Inc by Douglas Rushkoff. One of his arguments is that the world’s economies are driven by corporations, banks and other large entities who perhaps care more about themselves and keeping communities reliant on them than helping the people they serve gain any level of independence.

I was blown away by some of the examples of alternative trading systems he came up with, although I don’t know why. Barter as a concept is probably as old as mankind, but a new economy seems to   be reemerging in innovative ways. I’ve known doctors who accepted fish or other produce from patients who couldn’t afford to pay fees in New Zealand. I’ve known plenty of people who share their specialties, a plumber who does work on an electricians home and the electrician is owed a favor by a motor mechanic who then does a job for the plumber for free. The traditional economy still gets revenue from the parts that are used, which includes all the traders and of course tax in all its forms.

From a business point of view, I use Bartercard and they are a great organisation who I recommend. They have Bartercard Maps which uses GeoSmart Maps technology to help you find what you need based on location. However, fundamentally it is still a form of currency and our accounts department and Inland Revenue treat it no different than cash. In some cases, such as accommodation I also sometimes feel that the product you get is a little less quality than you would get if you were paying cash.

One good thing about Bartercard I like is that it is local, at least it encourages companies to use local suppliers. Despite our position, I feel many organisations in NZ from Government Departments through to consumers do not consider supporting their local economy as a major factor in making purchasing decisions.

I don’t want to go into any real detail about the examples in Rushkoff’s book, because that’s what the book is for and you might want to read it. There are some great deals on Amazon. I don’t think you’ll find it in your local bookstore.

Here’s a couple of cool examples.

  • CSA or Community Shared Agriculture. The concept is that people not only commit to buying their produce from a particular local farm, but they even commit to doing a small amount of work on it to help support it. This gives some security to the local farmer, but also helps build local community spirit and has people involved and doing something they would not normally do in their daily lives.
  • In Japan, the Sawayaka Welfare Foundation came up with a ‘complementary currency’ where young people could earn credits for taking care of elderly people. Those credits, called Fureai Kippu can then be applied to the care of their own elderly relatives who may live in a different part of the country. Because it is by the people and for the people, many say that the standard of support they get is far better than if it was provided by commercial caregivers.

The book also has lots of ideas about local loyalty programs that serve to build greater loyalty to local traders and creates stronger community feeling, which can and should apply to any town or village. The people who work, have restaurants or businesses near your home, are your neighbors. We are  often too quick to go and give profit to multinationals, when we could be supporting our local businesses and then complain when our potential customers don’t use our services.

To a degree this blog was motivated by my trip to Rarotonga and the music I wrote which you can listen to below. But it is also out of concern for our future. New Zealand, like Rarotonga runs the risk of becoming isolated. If a war were to strike overseas and our imports (including oil products, food, clothing and technology) how well prepared are we to continue living to the standard we are accustomed to? People in Rarotonga told us about the island running out of fuel for a few days and the chaos that ensued. How long would we continue our lifestyle without petrol and diesel?

Food scarcity and arid land


In my last blog post I wrote about the importance of agriculture to our economy. Then I started hearing stories that farm sales were down, especially dairy. Apparently of over 4,000 farms on the market, only around 200 sold last month.

Good news for some of the farmers who want out, because there are foreign investors who want to buy them. One company wants to spend $1.5 Billion dollars buying NZ farms. You would have to wonder if we can’t make a good living out of farming how can other countries do it? If we do sell them, where will the earnings from those farms go? Not into our pockets I would suggest.

China has a problem. They have a large dry land mass and not enough water to grow the crops they need and a huge and growing population. What are they doing about it? They and other countries such as Middle East are buying good arable land wherever they can get it for a good price. For example China is buying farming land in Mozambique, Angola, Malawi, Nigeria and even Zimbabwe. It’s not all bad, they are teaching local farmers better techniques in animal husbandry, improving crop yields etc.

What are the motives of China and Arabic countries in buying this land? They need the food. In Ethiopia, one of the worlds poorest countries, not only are they selling land to foreign countries, they are giving them tax holidays for a number of years, but what is of greater concern is the expectation that most, if not all of the crops will be going back to countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

I ask myself therefore, again, why can’t we produce high yield crops on our fertile soils and sell it to the countries that need it. Once those countries have bought our land, we won’t be getting it back and I wouldn’t expect us to gain much in GDP from the crops they grow.

As I said in my last blog, the ‘good old days’ were when we were largely an agrarian economy, we had plenty and we also had plenty to export. Now we have fantastic biotechnology and the ability to increase yields, quality and in many cases without using GM technologies.

I would hate to look into our future and see a country that can’t feed itself, that grows crops on farms owned by other countries, go straight offshore to feed them with minimal economic benefit to us. I would welcome someone to explain the logic of this.

We have expertise, maybe we should be assisting some of those countries who are unable to maximise the return on their land, help them thrive and clip the ticket. That would be a win win. While we do that, we also continue to research and improve product, the grasses and other food sources for animal feed etc. We do have some successes such as Fonterra, Livestock Improvements and many other thriving areas of research and results in biotechnology. We should stick with what we are good at and rather than give our farms to the Chinese, Arabs and others who want them, let the Government buy them. They could be run by unemployed people, who would get training on the job and perhaps even interest free loans to purchase some of those plots and use the skills they have obtained to build themselves a healthy asset and income, while increaseing our balance of payments. Is that silly? What’s wrong with my thinking?

In February this year there were around 168,000 people unemployed. Lets put them to work on those farms, teach them a trade, help them make something of themselves and help them earn the money to buy there way in with low interest loans and subsidies. What could we produce with 168,000 people working instead of paying them to do nothing. The single person benefit is around $160. That works out to a wasted loss of around $26,880,000 per annum. I say lets buy those farms and keep them in New Zealand hands.

This Video from TVNZ gives an example of what is happening.