Remember that game called Bigger or Better? Teams start with a small object and seek to trade up multiple times for something bigger or better—the most impressive final haul wins. Well, Kyle Macdonald might be the world’s all-time champion. Starting with an ad on Craigslist, Macdonald traded a tiny red paperclip for a fish pen. Pretty soon, he had managed to trade all the way up to a house on Main Street. Makeshift sat with Macdonald to hear his thoughts on barter in the modern world.
Makeshift: What happened to the objects you traded?
KM: I traded each thing, so the person I traded with either used it or sold it or broke it or re-traded it. I didn’t really keep track. the house itself—we wound up living there for two or three years, off and on, and then realized that it was more beneficial if donated to the community. It’s now got a café and is one of the largest tourist attractions in Kipling, Saskatchewan.
What did this experience teach you about trade?
The value of anything is completely relative. Opportunities and objects are valued differently to different people; I was able to find people who were interested in those things and make the trades. and I actually accumulated some value by—I guess you’d call it—some shrewd trading. Market value is more of an indicator, like a temperature. If you negotiate with someone or offer a different perspective on it, you can often change the dollar price value of those types of things, and I think it’s a lot more fun.
Surely you’ve inspired other people to give the barter system a try.
I think people do this all the time. I’ve had hundreds of emails from people doing different trading things. It’s awesome. I’m glad that people get inspired to do it, but I literally haven’t been able to keep track of everyone.
Do you have plans to trade up for anything else?
I guess always. Money itself is literally just a barter item. It’s an agreed-upon sort of value that people put on it. But it’s just a piece of paper, and someone agrees that they’ll trade a sandwich for that piece of paper, then you make the trade every time.
What does your experiment say about the role of money in our society?
I believe money itself is a far more efficient method than barter. But the accumulation of money, just having it for money’s sake, is just the same as accumulating things—it’s just stuff. It’s a very fluid transactionary unit, and I love that. But it’s definitely not the end-all and be-all. the cool thing about barter is that it forces you to be more creative and actually work with people.