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The hottest trend in our cold, dead economy? Barter!

According to the Associated Press, the age old art of trading your unwanted crap for someone else's unwanted crap is "making a comeback in a troubled economy."

Heck, forget the "troubled economy" part; the AP almost makes it sound hip and happening in a groovy kind of way:
"Boise beautician Heather Wood has traded haircuts and pedicures for years of day care, kids' clothes, a paint job for her car, an oil change, a set of professional portraits for her family and dental cleaning.
"It's fun, and it builds a whole different kind of a relationship," said Wood, who has five children. "They're getting what they want and I'm getting what I want. I would much rather do that than make cash most of the time."

CNN, meanwhile, offers a slightly more somber look at the trend, quoting Jessica Hardwick, the founder and CEO of internet swap meet SwapThing. "I think a few years ago it was more for fun," Hardwick tells CNN. "But we've seen a real shift in the last year, and especially an increase in the last few months, where I think people are really doing it to get by."

These days, she noted, cash-strapped parents are trading school uniforms on SwapThing. Meanwhile, Craigslist has seen its barter listings double in the past year.

So how big can this barter thing get?

"Maybe if the economy goes totally down the drain, we'll all be bartering," Andrew Whinston at the University of Texas, Austin tells the Associated Press. "I'll be selling copies of my articles in academic journals for a meal at a restaurant."

Uh, yeah. I'm not quite sure that Whinston really understands the answer to that age-old question: What Do Restaurants Want?

Which brings us to the central problem with barter, and the reason money was invented in the first place: you can trade money for anything and everything -- even dignity, as the contestants on VH1's "I Love Money 2" prove every week.

Barter, on the other hand, can be a real chore: If you're trying to trade a chicken for a bag of rice, you need to find a person who wants a chicken -- and who also just happens to have a bag of rice they don't need. (I wish Prof. Whinston best of luck in finding a local sandwich shop that's in desperate need of academic prose.)

Naturally, some clever folks on the Internet have found ingenious ways of getting around this problem. Take BookMooch, a book swapping site. Instead of trading books directly with other Book Moochers (and being limited to the books they happen to have in their collection), you get points for sending your books to people who request them; you can then cash in these points to get the books you want from anyone on the site.

Sounds perfect? That's what I thought when I signed up last spring: my unwanted books would find good homes, and I could get the books of my dreams for little more than the cost of postage.

That's how it works for a lot of people. But as for me, even with thousands of other users on the site, I had a hard time finding the actual books of my dreams; mostly I settled for books that were kind of, sort of, like the books I really wanted. After spending part of an awful afternoon at the post office, mailing a couple dozen books to some very patient BookMoochers across the country while everyone in the very long line for the post office's one open window glared at me, I quit the site.

Give me money. That's what I want.

-- David Futrelle