Thanksgiving: A Time to Think about Gift Economies?

This post was published earlier. But Thanksgiving (in the US) seemed like a good time to think about the ideas again.

When I sat down to research this post, I thought I would write a post about barter, since it seemed like if our current financial system failed, barter would be one possible form of back-up. But when I started to research barter, the first thing I came across was this statement:

Contrary to popular conception, there is no evidence of a society or economy that relied primarily on barter. Instead, non-monetary societies operated largely along the principles of gift economics. When barter did in fact occur, it was usually between either complete strangers or would-be enemies.

So I decided to step back a bit, and look into gift economies.

It seemed to me that if our current system fails us, we should have at least some idea regarding what options might be available that could perhaps be pieced together into a new system that works. As I looked at gift economies a bit, I realized our current system has a substantial element of gift economics in it. Perhaps if our already functioning gift economy can be expanded, it may play a role in transitioning to a more suitable long-term economy.

What is a Gift Economy?

Gifford Pinchot writes in Business on a Small Planet:

In the potlatches of the Chinook, Nootka, and other Pacific Northwest peoples, chiefs vied to give the most blankets and other valuables. More generally, in hunter-gatherer societies the hunter's status was not determined by how much of the kill he ate, but rather by what he brought back for others.

In his brilliant book The Gift: The Erotic Life of Property, Lewis Hyde points to two types of economies. In a commodity (or exchange) economy, status is accorded to those who have the most. In a gift economy, status is accorded to those who give the most to others.

According to Wikipedia, a gift economy is

. . .a society where valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards (i.e. no formal quid pro quo exists). Ideally, simultaneous or recurring giving serves to circulate and redistribute valuables within the community.

John Elemans states that an important difference between a gift economy and an exchange economy is that in a gift economy, a bond develops between the gift giver and the recipient, while in an exchange economy, the parties often don't care if they ever see each other again. Elemans goes on to explain that when a person takes a job in Japan, many of the exchanges are similar to those in a gift economy. The employer is closely involved in the life of the employee and may even help find a spouse for an employee. In return, an employee shows much more loyalty to the employer (in terms of not changing jobs) and is very concerned about the quality of his work.

Wikipedia gives a number of examples of historical gift economies. Within "modern" society, there are many places where the gift economy is operative today, even as the exchange economy (capitalism) goes on as well.

One of the big areas where the gift economy operates is within the home. A mother generally takes care of her children, without any particular reward in return. Often a mother does quite a bit of the housework as well. Before the expansion of capitalism in recent years, women did even more than they did today--staying home to care for children, rather than sending them to day care, and often taking care of grandparents as well.

Another place where we see the gift economy is sharing of information over the Internet, including sites like The Oil Drum (which is a volunteer organization) and Wikipedia, which is mostly volunteer. Peer to peer file sharing and free software are other examples of the gift economy. The giving of professional papers at conferences might also be considered part of the gift economy. Another form of gift giving is the huge remittances sent to home countries by those working in the US and Europe.

Matriarchal societies are gift economies according to the Gift Economy Conference, most likely because with motherhood and household chores, women tend to think in terms of a gift economy. In comparison, Capitalism is sometimes thought of as patriarchal.

Gift Societies Promote the Unselfish Contribution Needed for Sustainability

Gifford Pinchot explains that if we are to have a sustainable society, we need to have something closer to a gift economy, because people will then value their contribution to society, rather than only considering what they get out in return. According to Pinchot:

The first step toward a sustainable sense of success is taking pride in the value of our contributions to others rather than taking pride in the value of our possessions. By extension this means striving for quality in the use of whatever power we have rather than working to get more power over others as an end in itself. In this view, profit and wealth may help us to contribute, but they do not themselves constitute business success.

If we went to the grave with riches gained by gutting the pension fund, or selling pesticides we know cause more harm than the insects they control, would we count our business lives successful? On the other hand, what if we stewarded a small company that repeatedly introduced more ecological ways of doing things? Maybe other larger players who quickly copied the ecological innovations gained much of the material reward. If we barely made ends meet, but clearly made the world a better place, is that a success?

Capitalism is (in one view) Acting to Steal from Gift Societies

Genevieve Vaughan in The Gift Economy indicates that many of the gains of the Capitalism have taken place at the expense of what previously would have been exchanges in the gift economy:

Globalization is one more development of Patriarchal Capitalism by which more gift labor and cheap resources (resources of which a large part is free to the buyer) can be transferred from the South to the North. The market economy makes it appear that the gifts are going the other direction, that the Capitalists are giving jobs to the people of the South. Having caused enough scarcity through exploitation and debt creation, the North has diminished the level of life in the South so that the price of labor is cheap for the Northern investors - that is it brings a large percentage of gift value. By privileging a few workers by monetizing their labor, Northern corporations create a funnel or bridge by which gifts from the South can be brought to the North, with the appearance that the Corporation is providing the only source of a decent livelihood.

A structure of laws is made to uphold the flow of gifts from the South to the North, from the poor to the rich, from women to men. These laws are based on the values of the exchange system, on defending property over the satisfaction of needs, on 'paying' for crime, and maintaining the hierarchical structures of dominance. What is needed is not justice, which is based on the system of exchange, but a commitment to finding the problems which cause crime and solving them. That solution may include the protection of the gift givers rather than of the Patriarchal Capitalists, a re visioning of society, putting the gift paradigm first and showing the actual dependency of the market upon gift giving. In fact the market, the whole exchange economy is actually a parasite on the gift economy - and the gift economy allows this. It nurtures the parasite.

There seem to be a fair amount of writing along this line at this site. This a link to a group of podcasts that seem to be along the same line.

Religions and Gift Economies

If one looks at religious writings associated with Jewish, Christian, and Moslem religions, one can see statements that seem to encourage gift economies. (Obviously, even at the times these writings were written, an exchange economy went on as well, so this was not the only economy).

Psalms 37:21 The wicked borroweth, and payeth not again: but the righteous sheweth mercy, and giveth.
22 For such as be blessed of him shall inherit the earth; and they that be cursed of him shall be cut off.

Acts 30:35 [Paul] In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"

Leviticus 35 ' If one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you.
36 'Take no usury or interest from him; but fear your God, that your brother may live with you.
37 'You shall not lend him your money for usury, nor lend him your food at a profit.

Religious groups often act as gift economies, with donations made by members. They may provide services to individual members, for example, an Amish barn raising, to help a group member.

If a person lends money at interest, the result is a whole different type of transaction than giving to the poor. In a declining economy, making loans with the intent of getting paid back with interest is going to work less and less well. Perhaps an approach from the gift economy (shared labor to reduce the amount borrowed?) can be used to supplement current approaches.

Some Benefits of Gift Economy Actions

Some families seem to function more as gift economies than others. I know I grew up in a family that very much functioned as a gift economy, and my own family has tended to function fairly much that way as well. If there was ever an "argument", it was always in terms of, "You are doing too much. Let me do the work," or "Let me pay for it." If it is possible to get a family--or larger group--to function in this manner, it very much cuts down on arguments.

My father (who is no longer alive) tells of delivering babies, and in exchange getting a couple of dressed raccoons from the parents, probably about 1950. This really wasn't barter--even back then, it would have cost more than two raccoons to deliver a baby--it was more of sharing what one had, no matter how little it might be. Physicians weren't nearly as rich back then, and welfare played a much smaller role.

It is hard to imagine a gift economy functioning very broadly, but if it did, perhaps there would be less strife in the world and less need for social programs.


1. In what ways can we adopt more of a gift economy, if our current system deteriorates? A couple of examples I can think of include families taking in elderly relatives and a laid off-worker moving in with friends.

2. It seems like for a gift economy to function well, there would need to be a fairly small number of participants in the economy, and the group would need to be tightly knit. Dunbar's Number represents a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. This is commonly cited to be about 150 people. Do readers have experience with whether gift economies can be made to work well with larger groups?

3. It seems like a gift economy would be a whole lot easier to operate than a barter economy. Would that advantage be the reason gift economies, rather than barter economies, were so widely adopted historically?

4. Can anyone see ways that a gift economy could be adopted outside very small local groups? Would it make sense to try to do so?

5. I understand that in Cuba, a law was passed that if you had extra room in your vehicle, you were required to pick up people needing rides, if they were standing in designated ride-sharing locations. Do you think the USA could get to this point of sharing?

6. What ideas do you have for making a gift economy work, if only on a small scale?

I do not have great faith that gift economies will work on a large scale. It is too easy to take, move along and then take some more. The Shaker experience of "winter shakers" in the late 1800's in the U.S. is an example of this. People would join the faith to live through the hard winters on the earnings of their 'brethren" and then bail when the weather and conditions improved.

I am much more inclined to a "co-op" model. Credit Unions are an example of this, where the members are also the owners. The contstant attack on credit unions by the banking industry indicates that this model does in fact work and poses a threat to the massive profits and the constant drive for expansion by the shareholder owned companies. Health care co-ops make sense, and should have been considered much more seriously in the recent health care debate. There are many Rural Electric Co-ops (RECC) that have been successful for decades. Co-ops allow the professional managers of them to make a good living but deter the type of gambling expansionist behavior of for profit companies. We should consider a healthy mix of the two, with for profit firms to take on the "risks" but for the potential of greater reward, and the co-op models considered for many ongoing staples in life, the firms that require stability and longer term forward planning.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone, the lights are still on...what more can we ask? :-)


I agree. Gift economies work at the level of the tribe. In the event of collapse, one could anticipate reversion to tribal behavior. While this has long been a strategy for human survival, it also generates a great deal of warfare ( ie, why "gift" to an opposing tribe when one can equally well "grab"?) In order to maintain a larger society, tribalism has to be minimized.

"why "gift" to an opposing tribe when one can equally well "grab"?"

Because gifting doesn't involve the risk of being killed or having to kill? That would be my guess. In fact, that's the point of gifting. Have we become a culture "takers"? You can have it. Good luck!


You really must spend some time reading Richard Dawkins:

I am not advocating tribalism, I am rejecting it. Surely you understand that tribes can gift among themselves and still advocate inter-tribal warfare. For millenia, it has been kill or be killed.

For example, the Tlingit potlatch is a stunning example of gifting. Here's a description of the "other side" of this wondrous gifting culture:

"Tlingit warriors wore battle helmets depicting crest animals or ancestors, along with wooden visors, thick leather tunics, and body armor made of wooden rods or slats. They armed themselves with bows and arrows, spears, clubs, and daggers. ... Helmets were carved from hard, dense spruce burls to withstand blows from clubs and even shots fired from Russian muskets."

Wow, sounds peaceful! Gifting seems only to work WITHIN small, usually genetically related groups. It can't work in very large, genetically diverse groups like the culture we have today. Gifting as a solution is like believing that we can transition to solar and keep BAU. We have to have large social solutions or we will degenerate into tribalism.

I don't see intertribal gifting and intertribal warfare as being mutually exclusive. Infact, there has been a tendency among commenters here to imply that gifting can only exist exclusive of other economies, and I've seen firsthand that this is not the case.

As I posted above, there is a long standing gifting sub-economy in the area were I live, as there is also a quite robust barter sub-economy. While most folks are participants in the BAU economy of paychecks and taxes, quite a few prefer to minimize their exposure to it. Should the overt banking economy become inviable, these folks will have an advantage in both method and status. They have established and utilized other forms of currency, and on some level find terms such as "consumer", "mark", and "client" dehumanizing.

The idea of gifting is, to me, the basis of a low greed system of exchange.

The best book I know of on the gift economy is THE ECONOMY OF LOVE AND FEAR, by Kenneth Boulding, 1973.

Does it mention the less desirable necessities :

a) no freedom of religion or conscience. Christianity has by far the most flexible law in that anyone not sharing the state's ideology is to be excluded. Most religions, from islam to buddhism (and "religions" like nazism, communism, socialism, ...) advocate slaughter of dissidents, after given the person a chance to change his mind. Even far outside of the range of any religion, this remains true.
b) his mind ? Yes, of course, women, being absolutely necessary to certain economic actions that the tribe must undertake for survival, can not be allowed to use this to their advantage and must be subjugated. If the tribe loses a man, not a positive, but not much potential is lost. If the tribe loses a (young) woman, it's like losing a cow (those who don't realize what the loss of a cow means, and why you want to do everything, including killing, to prevent it, visit Africa). Men are more free for the simple reason that they're worthless. Also women can be used to start a new tribe, and see point c) as to why that's a problem
c) the darwinistic model MUST be at work in this sort of society. That means that tribes will gun for eachother constantly (because the population always outgrows the food supply, as it must according to darwin, some people must die. They do not go quietly. Frankly, if Darwin's right "deciding who dies" by warfare is "a positive". Needless to say, that means that the tribes themselves must also attack "the weak" to avoid being weaker than the next tribe. Alternatively you can do what native Americans did : regular raids killing the kids of the neighboring tribe.

This is part and parcel of a "gift economy". Historically, every tribal society has done these things. Religion was a great accomplishment, simply because it put a stop to this (*ahem* some religions put more of a stop to this than others). If you know a few religions you would know that they all advocate the use of direct amount of violence to stop this kind of society. And yes, Christianity proposes to simply prevent these people from slaughtering eachother to collapse this form of society, islam simply proposes mass genocide to destroy these societies.

Let's ... not ... do this. Not even for the "free stuff". mmmkay ?

Please read the book before criticizing it.

re: why "gift" to an opposing tribe when one can equally well "grab"

It is warfare with property - When it is your turn to potlatch a reciprocal gift is expected, with interest !. Not to do this is a loss of 'face' among the community.

Is this not how we should be treating our natural environment? Ecosystem services responds to gifting with 'in kind' response.

Great, in theory, until you run into a group which does not share your social construct of value of reciprocal gifting. You also use the term 'interest', which implies a debt.. So what happens when the opposing tribe does not pay the debt? Do you just gift them more, until you run out of resources, and then starve over the winter?

Or maybe this formulation.. China 'gifts' the US with a great number of trinkets and toys.. pretty much useless stuff, and we turn around an 'gift' them with huge quantities of GMO corn and soybeans.. It's a war of giving, and the earth continues to give us petroleum and coal to fuel it until it hurts!

Now... If we start 'giving' each other 'intellectual property'.. like software, movies, music, etc. instead of physical property, then we get off the oil and physical product gift interest escalation war, now we might have something sustainable.

The gift economy by itself will not make much difference.. we'll have to be able to value things other than physical stuff more, whether it's the gift economy or capitalism.

I think that "large scale" is the salient point. "Communities" - if Mr. Orlov will permit - are thought by many to be limited in size to very low degrees of separation. Meaning that a gift economy might be hundreds of people. Whether they would need to grow, or instead multiply seems a good question to explore.

Gail - thanks for another excellent post on a meaningful subject.

I can't imagine gift economies working for large numbers. Even 150 seems too big. One of the "benefits" of money is that it reduces all the complexities of valuation to a single number - "what's it worth?" becomes "how much does it cost?" It is arguably this often brutal reduction that accounts for the ascendancy of large social groups. Money is a curse and a blessing - often both at the same time. Having a gift economy is not going to work as a means of allocating scarce resources in a large society. I have a jaded view of economics. It's more of an apology than a science. But it's tough to imagine a group of people who don't have some means of numerical accounting meeting the day to day challenges of a hard scrabble existence.

A gifting economy will probably only work for groups of people who share a common myth. The US has a population with diverse and frequently conflicting story lines. Would I be happy sharing a ride with someone who is haranguing me about how Sarah Palin is going to save the country? No.

Cuba is far more homogenous than the US. I can imagine ride-sharing working there but I don't see it as a practical solution here in the big cities. I wouldn't pick up strangers in LA. No way. A driver in a car is very vulnerable to attack from a passenger.

Gift economies can't properly be described as "easier to operate." No one is operating them. They either work or they don't. And the politics of a gift "economy" is going to be orders of magnitude more complicated. Not necessarily a bad thing but it would take a few generations of people doing it for the process to iron itself out.

Watch a few hours of Fox and the idea of the US embracing any form of gift economy seems about as likely as Ayn Rand becoming a communist.

I have workmates who have described the practice of 'slugging' to commute into and out of Washington, D.C.

I think that younger folks (<30) would have an easier time creating new paradigms.

I have a 21 and 18 y.o. and they have many friends who spend time with us most every day.

The young folks I know seem to have a more pliable, flexible attitude...about ride-sharing, loaning each other possessions (even clothes)...some of their cohort will adapt to the future better than some of many of us older folks.

But wikipedia and open source software and rainbow gatherings and many other examples of gift economies working for large numbers already exist.
A gift economy working does not imply that other models cannot exist simultaneously.


I said it earlier, these things aren't monoliths, and asking if 'Gift Economies' can work today doesn't mean 'Can they be our ENTIRE economy?' ... any more than 'Can Solar Power our entire industrial society?' It's not a useful framing of the question.

No Silver Bullets..

All three of these examples you list require some way to input energy into the 'gift economy'.. Wikipedia does fundraising drives (much like public television or public radio) to get the cash to buy servers, and pay the power bill for those servers. When I was able to effectively do open source software development, I was getting paid by someone (two open source software companies, and then a DOE lab) so I could heat my house in winter and keep the servers running.

Can anyone point out an 'energy gift economy'? I would predict that eventually, stochastic generation (like wind and solar) will allow gift economies of MWH based on excess generation above and beyond what the nominal owner of the resource needs. I don't see this with geothermal or nuclear, because controllable generation (or storable energy) seems to lend itself to needing to generate a return on the rather significant investment. Now wind turbines are still a pretty significant capital investment, but given the smaller size and distributed nature, it's more likely that some turbine owner somewhere will give away free power when they don't need any.

(And a note to the nuke proponents.. I'll believe you that nuclear will be a large part of our future electricity source when you can demonstrate how excess nuclear generation will get into a gift economy)

And the inputs that you mention (fundraising drives,etc.) are a kind of gift themselves.
I think all gift economies coexist with other modes.
Even the NW potlatch depended on less altruistic individual efforts in hunting and fishing,etc.

Happy Thanksgiveing Gail, Everyone.

From the first two comments I can deduce that the idea of a gift economy is a bit foriegn to many. Perhaps as things become more local.

It occurs to me that the gifting meme is generally a cultural/regional thing. e.g., in the Southern US, after the "War of Northern Aggression", gifting was very much a part of the culture, as there was little cash available, and bartering for anything of great value was limited to Yankee Carpetbaggers for the most part; the Southerners had little of great value left to barter with. I know this from the many stories passed down from my deep southern roots. There was also a difference between "lending" and "loaning".

When my family began its move to Southern Appalachia from the Atlanta area, the gifting culture was in full force. Neighbors shared many things; their harvests, their time, their livestock genetics, hunting dogs, transportation, etc. One's level of status was (is) very much affected by one's level of gifting. This is still part of the culture here among the locals. When an uninsured person needs expensive medical care, donation jars will be in all of the local stores, donation accounts are set up at the local bank, and the VFW or Churches will hold a benefit of some sort. Caretakers will be provided, and work around the sick person's home will be done, often by relative strangers. The smaller townships, (this holler or that gap) still exist as "subdivisions" of the larger community, as they have for many generations.

Gifting is a defacto form of organic credit.

About #5, above; During my "hobo years" I hopped freight trains and hitch hiked a lot (early 70s) and there was a strong gifting culture among the "on-the-road" set. Folks would share their food, drink, tobacco, pot, with people they never expected to see again. Many areas in the US west had free ride booths set up at highway on-ramps. The PTB didn't want folks walking the Interstates hitching rides. It was sort of a "park-your-but-and ride" system. Worked well for me, though it involved a great deal of trust. I'm not sure it would work today. Why is that?

The feeling in the past was that every act of giving or kindness would be returned to the giver seven-fold; a karma thing. We need to restore this way of living or we're (sorry) doomed.

It seems like once people get the idea that "the government will provide" or "my job will provide," they forget about the need to help others. The are a few exceptions-Google has functioned largely as a gift economy, and so has The Oil Drum. Churches tend to act somewhat as gift economies, but in recent years, they have tended to use more and more paid employees.

It seems to me if we move away from "the government will provide," we will somehow need to go back to more of a gift economy approach. But it is not clear how long it will take to get people thinking in this way again.

"Think not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country"

It seems the issue is that so long as the government continues to provide, then people will legitimately continue to expect them to provide. Unfortunately this exposes a rather nasty conflict between the progressive helping others impulse, which is embodied in things like social security, efforts towards universal health care, and food stamps, and the impulse for reducing government control, influence, and costs.

If I were forced to pick a political affiliation, it would probably be 'progressive libertarian', or 'Tea Party Democrat' as I like the progressive and/or socialist institutions like public roads, and the accountability of investor owned utilities provided by the FERC. I also like the idea of cutting military/defense spending in half. But I have not heard a single serious politician be able to articulate anything resembling this.

Can anyone see ways that a gift economy could be adopted outside very small local groups? Would it make sense to try to do so?

To overcome the limit of 150 people you would need something to boost human memory, such as a computer database. In a society with total surveillance with a chip in every human being that stored all the good deeds and bad deeds they had ever done, strangers could possibly put a scanner on someone's chip and instantly know if a stranger was a good person or a bad person. Then if anyone didn't do someone else a good turn, the stranger that they were mean spirited to could add that as a "black mark" on their personal file, similarly if someone did something kind-hearted to another stranger, that stranger could add that as a "browny point" to their character.

If a social norm was then set up, that it was acceptable not to help strangers with bad reputations without getting "black marks" yourself, but if you withheld a good turn to a stranger in need with a good reputation you could get a "black mark" on your reputation, then people might help stranger for the fear of getting a bad reputation to the point where strangers no longer help them.

What this means in terms of personal privacy, or what would happen if someone hacked the system I don't know!

Wow. It's clear that you're missing the point. A gifter (giftor?) doesn't distinguish between a good or bad person because the gifter doesn't expect a return from his/her gift. And it doesn't matter as to the size of the group for the same reason.

When I had a rental car in the Pahoa area on the big island on Hawaii, where public transit is hitchhiking, I gave people rides because it felt good, and I had an abundance of resources I could share (the car, and fuel for it). There are some things that gift economies work for.. which is anything available in abundance. Where they completely fail is allocation of scarce resources to the place that the scarce resources do the greatest good.

I expect that in a doomsday post-oil gift economy, that if I have any fuel, I'm only going to gift it to someone that I know is going to use it to do something that will gift others.. maybe the guy delivering food for the local CSA. I'm definitely not going to give it to someone who looks or acts like a wall street banker or oil exec ;)

Did they strike up any interesting conversations?

No way. No society ever has or ever will operate that way. In these closely knit tribes people will give more to their friends and people they respect. While there is a tradition in many cultures of giving to the deserving poor who are down on their luck, without expecting anything back, no society has ever existed where someone would give a present to a person who has, say, raped and murdered their sister. In the most vibrant gift economy that could ever exist I'm sure people who are not respected are given less.

It is true that the ideals of Christianity and some other religions don't distinguish between the good and the bad, but in practice only a tiny hard-core minority of zealots would ever put those ideals into practice. The human tendency to reciprocate is so hard-coded into our genes that even if someone was indoctrinated their whole life to give and not to recieve most people would still want something back (if only gratitude). Ideals such as giving and not receiving are preached as a means of taking the edge off ourselfishness, culture can't eradicate fundamental human self-interest.

"culture can't eradicate fundamental human self-interest."

That's actually what culture is often FOR.. I think you might be surprised at what happens in many non-industrial (and non-colonial) cultures. What is currently considered 'fundamental' in human nature today in the west is pretty tinged and contorted at this point.

I was treated to a Micmac ceremony when I worked for a Summer camp that was hosting Russian and American kids together after Glasnost. It was a re-enactment the ceremony these tribes would engage in when they had been at odds and were reestablishing ties. This was translated from Micmac into English and then Russian. Very powerful presentation, reflecting several old tribal squabbles.. and it was ALL about cultures creating rituals in order to challenge 'Fundamental Human Self-Interest' gone Amok.

"Every Automation is an Amputation.." MacLuhan

Agreed, that's what culture tries to do, but its constantly wrestling against humans inate nature which it can never eradicate completely.

I imagine closely knit non-industrial cultures have a village feel to them which means people care about their reputation and the like but squabbles still break out, infact the murder rate is much higher in non-industrialized cultures.

I heard that if two different owners who have both have their dogs on leash pass by each other the dogs will go insane barking at each other, whereas if they are let go they tend to get along much better.

I think this is a similar reason why people in villages get along with each other, because when there's no law and the only people you have to protect you if someone takes a dislike to you, are your friends, you want as many friends as you can get. I imagine in a lawless world where people will see the same people over and over again, nobody wants to start and escalating feud.

In our lawful soceity we are like the dogs on a leash, we no we can annoy and provoke each other without serious consequences.

Is that a better state of being? I don't know, both lifestyles have their advantages and disadvantages.

I say you're off the mark there. I grew up in one, and freeloading wasn't a serious problem, since everyone shared information and if someone got a reputation for accepting help but avoiding showing up at another neighbours event (harvest, barn raising, roundup, etc.) they were quickly identified (it's what rumour "mills" are for) and found themselves isolated, not a pretty place. They or their family were never allowed to starve to death, but they could certainly spend occasional uncomfortable hungry evenings. Passing strangers were also invited to share, but only once if they refused to pitch in as much as possible without good reason.

Also notable, the ability to do a lot of work very efficiently and very well was a designation highly prized (and heavily competed for).

Whose off the mark me or Ghung?

It sounds from what you say that I'm on the mark. All giving economies are capably of identifying freeloaders and helping them proportionately less than those who pyull their weight.

Ghung was the one who said a gifter doesn't distinguish between good and a bad person, and it seems clear that the rumor mill does ust that.

The thing is that societies that seem to work as if everyone is harmoniously pulling their weight for the common good are soceities where noone wants the shame of being considered a slacker, without shame it doesn't work.

There are two ways of convincing an unrelated person to help you, trading or threats. Giving cultures are cultures where the inhabitants have managed to contain those that would threaten them, while hierarchical monarchies/dictatorships are cultures where a small elite has managed to force the rest to sacrifice their interest for the interests of the elite to avoid the harm the elite threatens to inflict upon them if they don't (in otherwords, slavery)

That's key - categoriztions such as "good" and "bad" don't exist in a gift economy because people are actually known to one-another and are understood. That's my experience anyhow, growing up in a vibrant gift economy.

Between monetary exchanges and gifting, there are a wide variety of other economic exchanges.

The relationship of the husband and wife on a family farm is not so much one of gifting as it is a partnership with understood roles and responsibilities. It would be silly for the husband to pay the wife so much per dozen for picking eggs or the wife to pay the husband so much per hour for cleaning manure out of the chicken coop. Instead, both are contributing to a shared economic enterprise.

Even in a large organization, effective organizational units are run on the basis of roles, responsibilities, and communal contributions to a shared enterprise. People are paid monthly salaries or hourly wages, but they are seldom measured on a detailed piecework basis. And there are often a variety of tasks that must be done that are not very susceptible to measurement, but which are critical to the success of the organization. Furthermore, the diligence, skill, and judgement with which people discharge their responsibilities are not very measurable, but they contribute significantly to the success of the organization. Effective management creates a climate where people aspire to contribute their best efforts, where excellence and teamwork is recognized, and where contributions are fairly rewarded by monetary and non-monetary means.

An organization that attempts to push cost accounting, internal pricing, internal marketplaces, and profit and loss statements down to very low levels is one to avoid, since it is likely on its way to failure.

I agree that your position is true, but am compelled to note that you surely didn't learn it from any modern management training course. Jack Walsh (the former CEO of GE and neo-con's Ayn Rand of how to manage employees) teaches that the best way to manage a staff is to every year fire the 10% who score lowest on your evaluation scorecards, which will obviously rapidly accumulate a staff of test-passers rather than thoughtfull producers.


Firing 10% is high except for an established business that is growing several percent per year.

In a growing business, hiring maybe 15% to replace retirements and people who quit for one reason or another, as well as several percent growth, you will inevitably make quite a lot of hiring mistakes. These cannot be allowed to accumulate without demoralizing the organization, so recent hires must be carefully evaluated and an early decision made as to whether to keep them on or not. Furthermore, people change with time, and managers cannot allow people who become free riders or negative influences to accumulate.

Evaluation has to be done with "scorecards" or some formal system, or else the labor lawyers will not allow you to fire anyone.

Even in a large organization, effective organizational units are run on the basis of roles, responsibilities, and communal contributions to a shared enterprise.

A very good discussion M. The best organizations work like that. I once was part of a high tech company where many of the technical people had stock options, and
I had the attitude that I was a co-owner of the enterprise, and would contribute wherever I could, without letting organization boxes or official duties get in the way. This is a hard culture to create or maintain. I can remember a discussion I had once, I'll call the players, A, B, and C. I'm A, and B was primarily in field marketing. B would find prospective customers, and I would help him find technical solutions. Now, C came to me, and claimed B was a terrible person, getting others to do the hard work and taking credit for it. My response, was that I wasn't thinking in terms of getting credit, I was thinking in terms of the overall good of the organization. If by helping B, a sale was more likely, I figured I was a winner. I
also figured that in some sort of informal way, my efforts for the company would be appreciated. Incidentally, I did make it to the highest technical level in that company (about a one in a thousand shot), so I think it worked for me.

One example we have today, is the Open Source software movement. Programmers freely giving of their time/talent to generate something anyone can use for free. Of course this model is more applicable to intellectual property than for physical stuff. And even in the former case, there has to be some way the contributors can make a living.

Gratefully Giving Thanks to you, a very thought-provoking post.

I was particularly happy to see the comparison of efforts such as the Volunteerism in both sites like this, and in the Open Source movement as various ways to understand where we in the current day will offer our services, knowledge and in similar ways, our treasures up to the 'general good'.

1) As far as 'Gift Economies being broadly viable?', I am wondering if that label and framing itself doesn't carry it too far into the assumptions of Economics and our Industrial 'all or nothing' world, to allow for the ways that it would and does work, and in which it would simply be proportioned differently, where there might be a vast increase in such Giving, and a more limited range of monetized exchanges, but not that it is some kind of absolute Paradigm Shift, where one has gone and is replaced by the other. As with this concern about Renewables and BAU.. it seems to devolve into an argument about whether it can become a silver bullet, when that's not really how it works in the first place. It's not a Monolith or a discrete and closed system unto itself, it is softer and more interwoven.

We fall into this 'either/or' issue frequently.. which evaluates ideas in a sort of 'Pass/Fail' mode, and the shades of gray remain outcasts, it seems. Mentioning Electric Cars, and someone inevitably has to offer the math that precludes them entirely because making a couple billion batteries is wrong.. while a revised understanding of how vehicles fit into our lives might mean a few cooperating families could have a couple Vehicles between them all, for example.. (which somewhat involves the Gift Economy paradigm as well as the potential of something like EVs..)

So using a "Hard" approach to review something Soft is like asking whether a Hammer can sew your clothes for you. Time to revisit the language context as well as the literal nouns and verbs of the question.

2) In trying to understand what's behind ALTRUISM, or maybe simply GENEROSITY is a less-loaded term, I have considered the idea that the various 'Random acts of Kindness' I've witnessed seem to fit into a motivation that people have of simply 'keeping the system working', which to me fits the mode that Women in my family seem to operate under when they give what they do, and may also similarly fit how a Gift Economy is developed. Not surprisingly, it has a strong inclination towards that Socialist Saw of "To each according to need, From each according to ability', with a strong emphasis on the From Each given a clear set of social rewards that gets people to give as much or more, instead of the Market based "Spend as Little as Possible for Maximized Value!" that we employ in so much of our current approach.

So using a "Hard" approach to review something Soft is like asking whether a Hammer can sew your clothes for you. Time to revisit the language context as well as the literal nouns and verbs of the question.

I'm glad you people here aren't trying to be hardnosed philosophers. I tried to get this discussion going a few months back of Crookedtimber, but commenters kept rsisting with rhetorical arguments, gifting = market economy, since there is some xepctation of accounting of value. But, the whole way the "gift" part of the economy functions is that participants aren't wasting effort trying to maximize the visability and status-enhancing value of their efforts. The beauty of the "gifting" model is that one can simple contribute whatever they can whenever they can. No overhead is needed creating a paper trail to document his contributions. That is quite
different from the formal market economy, where we use lots of paperwork and lawyers to write/enforce contracts etc. That generates a huge amount of physically unneccesary work, all of which derives from the fact that the contributors don't have confidence/faith, that if they simply do good, good will come back to them.

I think that the US in particular might have ideological issues with attempts to expand gifting. It is too easy to equate gifting, with communism, even though it is in many ways the antithesis of a topdown command economy.

From Vaughan's article..

Exchange creates adversarial relations since each of the exchangers is trying to get the most possible out of the transaction. It does not create the bonds of community but rather separation and independence.

exchange in and of itself does NOT by any means create adversarial relationships. There is, in my mind, good capitalism and exchange, and bad capitalism and exchange. The first is an accountable exchange in which both parties involved feel they have gained more through the exchange than having not made it. The second.. 'bad capital', is when there's an exchange, and EITHER party feels like they lost out, or didn't get the value they should have. This happens when there's not really a free market.. when there's a monopoly position, or one or both parties is pressured into making an exchange they don't value, either because it's at the point of a gun, or from social pressure to, or just in general whenever some party exerts authority over another (the authority could be government, for example), in order to compel an exchange that one of the participants does not like.

Just as capitalism and commodity markets have their bad actors, so do gift economies. The 'winter shakers' are mentioned. What is also not addressed in what I see in the above commentary is that in a gift economy, the giver and receivers each have an internal 'credit rating' of each other, because it is a close-knit social group. The giver has an expectation they will receive (or maintain) their high social status by giving... The receiver owes the giver a debt (yes, debt) of social status to be repayed later. If all of a sudden the receivers decide that they will give their social status to the new white-skinned fur trader bringing new and strange gifts they have never seen, the gift economy collapses.

The one defense I have of capital and exchange as practiced by the 'evil patriarchy' is that at least at it's best there is a premise of a full accounting of all the value exchanged. In gift economies, the only way to tell what the value of something is through the social context. With commodities and stock markets, we at least have number and process to derive that number that all participants in theory agree on before participating. You likely don't get to know what the terms of the deal are with a gift economy, or the terms change over time. Where capitalism definitely crosses the line into 'evil' territory is when a party to a contract deal doesn't understand the terms they are agreeing to... Then you have the worst of both the gift economy, and bad capital. This is likely the fundamental reason the mortgage system is a smoking crater right now. Even the supposedly sophisticated institutional investors didn't know what they were agreeing to with complex mortgage-backed securities derivatives and credit default swaps. To say nothing of the low-income single mother of 3 who had a slick loan salesman show up at her door and listen to her plight and have him tell her how this refinance would solve all her financial problems, while conveniently avoiding talking about the adjustable rate fine print.

Finally, if you want to see monetary exchange that builds community and social bonds, go to a farmer's market, a craft show, or join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), or do your banking at a credit union instead of a for-profit bank. I'll challenge any of you who think a gift economy would be better to start a co-op with your friends to act as a legal entity to hold what the current system considers property you wish to have in your co-op gift economy.

"Smoking crater."

Even the supposedly sophisticated institutional investors didn't know what they were agreeing to with complex mortgage-backed securities derivatives and credit default swaps.

I contend that is an error. Very sophisticated investors, pension fund managers, etc. etc. all had the strange notion that they were investing in 'AAA' rated securities, nearly equivalent to government bonds. Your question is "Why did they think that?" and of course, it was because the bankers and rating agencies involved perpetrated a huge fraud, which had to be "knowingly" to have happened.

The only reason they were willing to do the fraud was the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act of 1999, in which three Republicans single-handedly caused the sub-prime derivitaves financial meltdown worldwide, and if there were any justice would now be serving LONG jail sentences.

3. The (SEC) Commission is prohibited from ... promulgating, interpreting, or enforcing rules; or ... issuing orders of general applicability; ... as prophylactic measures against fraud, manipulation, or insider trading with respect to any security-based swap agreement.

Many, eg. Tea Party +, clearly are flatly denying facts regarding the history of the recent worldwide economic meltdown. If it were caused by bad mortgages from Fannie and Freddy, why did it take down all the international banks from Iceland to Europe? Obviously is was FAKED AAA rated mortgage derivitaves, which could never have been sold (or even considered by any serious institution) without the above clause in the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act, THREE REPUBLICANS IMPLEMENTING NEO_CON DOGMA, eg. DEREGULATE

I'll agree there was outright fraud going on.. I'll also still maintain that the investors did not know what they were actually agreeing to, because of the fraud.

Part of this, I'll also argue, is that the information required to accurately determine a 'AAA' debt rating is that the input data and the algorithm or methodology to determine AAA ratings are not transparent, or are otherwise considered 'confidential'. The investors trusted Moody to determine the rating, Moody won't say exactly how they determine the rating, and the banks provided faulty and fraudulent information to Moody's.

Or maybe, the real question is why does the phrase "past performance is no indication of future results" get banks and financiers off the hook for fraud?

I'll agree there was outright fraud going on.

But, I suspect that a lot of the perps actually thought they were doing good stuff. They had the smartest people in the (back)room, telling them they had derived a clever mechanism for beating risk. So, it is quite possible that many of the perpetrators of traditional ponzi schemes (pyramid schemes, chain letters etc.) actually believed thay had found a magic way to make everyone in the world richer. The ability to recognize that a clever sounding plan for a perpetual motion machine cannot be very common. That in no way absolves the deregulators of responsibility. A good reguloratory regime would force companies to do the due diligence, rather than to rely on gut feelings.

The point is NONE of them, the bankers, the brokers or the rating agencies would ever have dared risk the legal repercussions without that one clause I cited in the act above. Itwas a purely republican initiative, only signed by Clinton because they'd passed it (or threatened to) with a veto-overriding majority.

"It was a purely republican initiative, only signed by Clinton because they'd passed it (or threatened to) with a veto-overriding majority."

Ah, no. From wikipedia;

"The House passed its version of the Financial Services Act of 1999 on 1 July 1999 by a bipartisan vote of 343-86 (Republicans 205–16; Democrats 138–69; Independent 0–1)"

Democrats in the House were for it by a 2-1 vote.

The Senate was by party line the first time, but when the revised version went up for a vote it was 90-8, so the vast majority of Democrats were for it. Also, Robert Rubin, more lately one of the chief looters of Citibank, and Larry Summers, Destructor of Endowments at Harvard, were for it. Clinton may now think he made a mistake, but at the time he was eager to sign it.

I would also point out that even with total power in both the House and Senate, the Obama-messiah never even suggested putting Glass-Steagall back in place. Obviously he is fine with it, as is Pelosi and Reid.

I would also point out that even with total power in both the House and Senate

The dems never had a "working" majority. The archaic rules of the Senate requite a 60:40 majority to get anything passed (actually its more like a recent tradition), add in the so called Blue Dogs (conservative dems that are likely to vote with the R's), and they were in not positioned to be able to get anything done. Add in Obama's famous timidity, and they were stuck. He could, and should have just passed everything in the Senate by reconcilliation -needing only a simply majority. Being that the R's strategy was and is, to vote as a block against everything,and make him be a failed president, that was the only way to defeat that tactic.

It wasn't just three Republicans. The bill was overwhelmingly passed in the Senate on a bipartisan basis. Each party can do great damage on their own, but they get together to create real havoc.

You can bet no democrat had any hand in writing THAT clause. Enough apologizing for the crooks, it's sickening! EVERY voter should be demanding legal action against the perps of that clause. It is CLEARLY simply designed to enable fraud, and if you can't see that, you've drunk too much Koolaid.

People give anonymously, without trying to obtain credit or status but life's necessities are paid for with cash.
The real issue is the excess accumulation of wealth.

Giving is a means of discharging the surplus.

The purpose of money is keep the economy in motion.

Perhaps we need to encourage the erosion of wealth with negative interest rates like Bernanke's QE2.

"Giving is a means of discharging the surplus."

Maybe in your world, Majorian. Way too narrow in many others.

Many people exchange and share necessities, from childcare to food and housing. To merely call these 'surpluses' is to miss the point that we are ALL beneficiaries of Surpluses, and all such surpluses are where our necessities are borne from.

To merely call these 'surpluses' is to miss the point that we are ALL beneficiaries of Surpluses, and all such surpluses are where our necessities are borne from.

That is the trickle-down theory which is totally discredited.

We are not ALL beneficiaries unless you consider a penny to be of the same benefit as a million dollars.

By allowing the rich to stockpile wealth we are draining society of resources.

How you have taken what I said and found "Allowing the Rich to Stockpile Wealth.." is beyond me, but it's not what I'm talking about.

Oil is the primary 'Surplus'.. a natural resource we've treated like a Trust Fund with no strings, no future obligations.. and has made us so disproportionately wealthy in energy, that the stupidity in our actions since can hardly be a surprise..

By 'surpluses', I'm talking about the capacity of natural materials in the first place.. and of course, since we've been extracting it faster than it can be replaced, then calling it a Surplus must naturally be taken with no small pinch of irony, as it is only a surplus for those who see something exists, and are willing to simply take it until it's gone, with no real thought about the continuation of their people, beyond the next quarterly statement.

I suggest that Majorian has a point. It is about discharging the surplus. I give, and sometimes receive, a fair amount of fresh food that way. I intentionally plant more vegetables than my small family will eat, knowing that someone will need it, and if they don't absolutely need it, they will at least welcome fresh food and remember me when they have a surplus of something. If they really need it, they will be too proud to admit the need and too proud to ask for public assistance.

Besides, if I am only for myself, what am I?

But that's in THIS society (isn't it?) , which is emphatically NOT a Gift Economy. Meanwhile, there are those who actually get by because they've developed a regular series of exchanges, largely not tabulated, where 'so and so drives us to the store, I manage the house and keep the plumbing running when things break, and if Mrs G. wasn't watching the kids most afternoons, I don't know what we'd do.'

I see this in the halfway house across the street, with my neighbors, I've seen it in big Welfare Community Apartment buildings in the Bronx, where the doors on a given floor are kept open, and people would trade 'whos doing dinner today', etc.. The communal swapping and 'helping out' is ubiquitous and simply holds the whole thing together.

That Majorian thinks I'm talking about "Trickle Down" theory is perhaps a function of the surroundings he is familiar with, but I assure you, there are thriving (if that isn't a sad misnomer) examples of Gift Economies akin to what the Keypost alludes all over the place. It's how many people find some level of strength and stability in numbers, when they don't have the kind of access to wealth and the mainstream economy that most of us at TOD do have.

I stated my position above; that where necessities are concerned there is no Gift Economy--why should I give money to you to pay for your gas bill?
The problem is that we allow the excess accumulation of wealth which takes money and thus resources out of the common circulation by limiting demand. If more money were available people would be able to get jobs and more generally would get done. Perhaps some of that would not be essential but neither are luxury cruises, caviar or Lamborginis.
In medieval times, the landlord had all the money and the serfs paid their rent in produce--it was a cash poor economy.
Today, most money is tied up in assets or debt obligations, so more money is needed to do REAL things.


Gail's article raises some very interesting issues. For example, how much of "GDP growth" over the past half-century can be attributed merely to "monetizing transactions which were previously not money-based"? Having both heads of households work for wages in order to pay a food processing company to prepare "ready-to-eat" frozen foods, or to pay a restaurant to prepare meals.

In the past, my mother and father, though specializing in growing beef cattle, also grew and preserved enough vegetables, fruits and often meats ("canned" or "cured") to provide nourishment throughout the winter, and "gifted" excesses to less fortunate neighbours. Ditto excess fish, wild game, etc. Most people not on farms did so also. We lived in a community of perhaps 10 to 12 thousand, loosely clustered around a large paper mill isolated in Northern Ontario, Canada.

They traded labour at harvest time, including the women who competed to provide the threshing crew or the firewood-cutting crew or the sawmill operating crew with the best, most complimented meals during work sessions at their homesites. All this work is now monetized (at huge increases in GDP I'm sure, but is anyone feeling better of for that?)

County clerking work, road commisioner work, school board work etc. were volunteer jobs done evenings by any of several qualified bookkeepers / organizers on one-year nominations, in return for a nice ceremonial process on investiture.

Neighbours traded skills and equipment. One didn't lend a neighbour a grain binder, one collected the kids and went over and did the grain-cutting / stooking with them, after which everyone came back with his hay baler or etc. and worked at one's own farm.

A side of beef was worth enough paint to paint a house. Excess eggs from 100 hens were sufficient to trade to the "supermarket" (locally owned) for the few items required beyond what was grown at home.

Now everything is monetized, and none of these transactions happen anymore. Are we significantly better off, either financially or in worldly goods? Perhaps the automobiles are much better, roads are certainly better, and it is now possible to use aircraft flights to visit distant relatives. Houses are larger and have granite countertops....

But really, not so much. In total, I'd guess the average Joe now (50th percentile) lives perhaps as well as a 75th percentile Joe in those days. Certainly nowhere near the difference in wages between a typical millworker then and now might indicate.

It is clear though, that now the government can tax a much larger part of the "total economy" than then.

A gift economy is only practical or possible when the community is under resource pressures. In other words, it is only a scarcity of food and other resources that makes a gift economy workable. That is why one primarily sees a gift economy at work in indigenous societies, like the Pacific Northwest Coast natives.

On this day of Thanksgiving, I think it appropriate to remind everyone that it is likely that the early Christian community likely operated under a gift economy. In Acts 4:32-35:

"All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need."

This is understandable when one considers the extreme poverty in Palestine during the first century. Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann write in The Jesus Movement Augsburg Fortress 1999. the following:

"...let us look at one theoretical calculation of the per capita gross annual product in Palestine in the first century. Assuming a population of 1.25 million, Ben-David has estimated the figure to be 49.6 denarii. (136) If we subtract from this figure only 20 percent for taxes and levies--presumably a percentage that is too small--then theoretically (that is, without considering the high concentration of property) each person would have only, say 40 denarii to live on each year. This figure alone makes it clear that we must take seriously the probability that an enormously large part of the population lived below the poverty line."
(136) Ben-David, A. 1974. Talmudische Okonoimie: Die Wirtschaft des judischen Palastina zur Zeit der Mischna und des Talmud. Hildesheim: G. Olms.

Remember too that the reason for Paul's trip to Jerusalem was to bring a collection from the churches of Asia Minor for the benefit of the poor Christian community there.

In the absence of resource pressures, the economy of the early Christians proved problematic. This is why Paul writes of the Christian community of the port city of Thessalonica--a Roman capital that prospered under the capitalistic system that existed:

"In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching[a] you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.

Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer."
-- 2 Thessalonians 3: 6-14

It is in the absence of resource pressure and availability of surplus that one is only able to take advantage of the generosity and labor of others.

I disagree your thesis. The only thing that changes when resources become plentiful and in surplus, is the greater amount of personal time, skill and effort invested into the gifts.

it is only a scarcity of food and other resources that makes a gift economy workable. That is why one primarily sees a gift economy at work in indigenous societies, like the Pacific Northwest Coast natives.

Whether your thesis is likely or not, that's a pretty bad example to support it with. Anyone who knows much about the Coastal tribes (prior to 1860 or so) would hesitate to describe them a poor. Salmon was absurdly abundant, wild game was abundant, the environment was lush and the weather predictable. The arts and a material culture were well developed. Perhaps the greatest problem was the old human standby - petty wars with other humans. In any case, the gift economy of the coastal tribes probably was "affordable" because there was enough renewable and predictable resource wealth about that generosity had little penalty or risk.

Well said -- but even so, I don't think we can really know what life was like in pre-European contact native societies.

By all accounts, they lived pretty well here on the northern Oregon coast, although there were known to be slave raids and slave trading up and down the river, and "war" was obviously endemic, and not entirely ceremonial. The status of slaves, women, and the weaker/unfortunate members of society is not altogether clear.

Nevertheless, the culture persisted and thrived for thousands of years, and when the Europeans arrived, the place was well stocked with trees, fish and game, and the waterways ran clean.

Who knows what the Indians really did with their poor and disabled -- was there "unemployment"?

What we know now is that within a couple of hundred years the Europeans made a mess of the place -- no standing forests (only monoculture tree farms), no smelt run this year, fishing is nearly dead in the water and the relatively few surviving fishermen are trying to make a living catching crabs. Waterways are fouled, and plans are afoot to make that problem even worse.

I have been trying for 20 years to understand that "tribal" "gift" economy of the North Coast natives, but so little is known, and so much is inferred or even just made up. Nevertheless, I would bet that the "misery index" of the natives was significantly lower -- averaged out over the entire population -- than we have today.

I thank everyone for their thoughtful and interesting posts.

My final bottom line is that we don't go "back" to a gift economy -- we move forward to it. We already have many elements of it in place that we can build on

Hmmm. I was looking for feedback more on the Biblical reference than the comment that I made more or less in passing on Northwest Coast tribes.

There are significant number of sites and postings claiming that the Bible supports capitalism. But as I read it, it appears that the equivalent of the gift-economy was how early Christianity was practiced.


I don't disagree with your Biblical reference. I don't know much more than what I can learn from reading Acts, etc.

But I believe there was actually a gift economy here where I live (and probably lots of other places) and that it functioned pretty well for maybe 10000 years.

No doubt there were some problems, people are what they are. But the Indians didn't make as much of a mess as the Europeans have made.

There has to be some way of combining the two systems -- I think a lot of posters have pointed various ways that already work, and could be made to work better.

You are correct. Note that Paul was trying to help poor Christians in Jerusalem who were starving to death. It is the only mention in the Bible (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, take your pick.) of taking up a collection at a church service. From this we might infer that cash donations to temple or church were infrequent. By tradition, most Jews make their contribution to temple once a year in a lump sum--often 15% of gross income, and some give much more. Christian churches have a tithe tradition, but it is not clear to me how often this was a lump sum given once a year and how often 10% of wages on a weekly basis. And do Christians tithe on the basis of gross income or after tax income? I've often wondered about that, as an MBA in Finance and teacher of Accounting would be expected to wonder.

word of advice. drop the whole attitude of 'women are better then men' and you might get a bigger audience for this idea. through the whole thing you pepper it with subtle points saying women are inherently kind and nice while men are mean and exploitive. both men and women can be vindictive, exploitative and down right cruel. sorry to be crude but there is nothing about having tits rather then a dick that makes a person nice to their fellow human being by default.

drop the whole attitude of 'women are better then men'

I wasn't makingthe value judgement, but to me that was an important insight that I hadn't made (thanks Gail, you gifted me an insight). It is said that women invest in relationaships, while men invest in more concrete things. Investing in one's relationship to their community (whether it be family, neighborhood, or society in general) is the essence of the gift economy. It would make perfect sense to classify the gift economy as the female economy, and the market as the male part (but I'm sure people who are fighting sexual political battles would get upset).

Maybe they wouldn't get upset if you cast it as "masculine" and "feminine" -- sort of in the Jungian mode.

Physical sex is different from gender attitude. Individual males can be nurturing, females can be domineering and self-centered

Since I expect your comment may well be removed, I thought I'd ask you whether you think that the way you concluded your question with Anatomical references might not work against your point about how men are nice and sweet and generous, just like women?

I am a man, and I'm generous and pretty good-natured, but I don't disagree with the way the genders were reflected in the keypost under 'Matriarchal and Patriarchal' societies. Men do get slammed with stereotypes all the time, as do women.. but my wife, sister and mom have left me with no small sense of how much the basic function of females in society has (whether from nature or nurture) such an intrinsic tendency to feed, to teach, to care for their families. I do it, but I have to kind of force myself, or be talked into much of what my wife does without pause or question..


As a gay man, I can observe gender wars from outside the fray. What I've observed is not that women are better than men, but that taken as a whole, they are different. I value men highly, yet I see what women contribute. When I lived in an all men's dormitory (age 18), it was Animal House. When I moved into a co-ed dormitory, at the first event, the women made dinner for the men. From that point on, the men were kind, considerate and loving. Carol Gilligan's work on the ethics of girls versus boys is very instructive. Men's ethics are more about following rules and being right; women's ethics are more relational.

Being hyper-attached in ones identity based on whether we just happened to come in to this world in a little boy suit or a little girls suit causes us much havoc.

We all have both male and female traits and allowing cultural influences to suppress this dualism is unhealthy.

I feel that one of the unhealthiest memes of humankind is the concept of should having a mono-polar sexual orientation.

Gift economies work on the assumption that everyone knows everyone else, and so everyone has a reputation. In a truly large civilization, this is impractical. It could be *made* to work, by quantifying reputation as some sort of score -- like a credit score -- but then, your reputation score itself becomes just another kind of money.

But we don't interact with everyone else.
We interact with relatively small groups, even in large cities: the people who work at the supermarket you shop at, the people you work with, the people you commute with every day (unless you drive to work alone). You don't need to know everyone and everything about their lives, just enough to decide whether you want to associate with them. (In fact, I know more than I want about some of my fellow-commuters: loud voices tend to result in TMI for others.)

As long as the orgy of greed is extolled as virtue and touted as the one and only way to live, we can expect to see on the far horizon fairly soon the first slouching trillionaire lumbering toward Bethlehem to be born. As for the Earth, perhaps we will witness its desecration.

We cannot keep holding on to bad ideas and applauding outrageous overconsumption/excessive hoarding lifestyles simply because such unsustainable behavior serves the selfish interests of many too many leaders and their many minions here and now. At some point we have to begin taking hold of what is good, what is right, what is sustainable, I suppose.

Otherwise, what is to become of the children's future?

The last time I spent a long period of time in the US was in the 90s. I refused to help organized charities other than local food banks. Instead I developed my own plan.

Each year I would select one man to help. Typical man would have lost his job, family, be behind on rent, driving a wrecked car and be strung out on drugs. I would get them a job, fix the car, move in with them for two weeks, get them back on a steady course and stand back. After six months they were back on their own, rent paid, better car, money in the bank. Out of six men, three fell back into the hole and the other three put their lives together and are thriving with their families.

All it took was about $500 and one month of baby sitting. If you want to know how you can change the world, you do it one person at a time. Same way I cross an ocean; one wave at a time.

I see a gift type like economy as a necessity if a sustainable human society is going to emerge.

The failing of a monetary economy is that it lacks inherent honesty. Money is not inherently "evil" but its lack of source/projection (make/spend) accountability when mixed with humankind’s lack of developmental maturity is a major causative factor creating the win/lose mindset that is destroying us.

I suspect that the level of “maturity” needed to overcome the structural pitfalls of a monetary system is greater than what would be required for a gift type economy to function. By maturity, I mean getting beyond the juvenile self-centered ego gratification thru self-grandiosity mindset meme.

The working group size limits has more to do with our lack of understanding/acceptance of the interconnectedness of everything.

Bartering is a step forward since its accountability and transparentness is much better. However, it still lacks the honesty and structural efficiently of a gift economy.

Whatever you do comes back to you threefold.


Very nice post, Gail.

I don't see any contradiction at all between gift economies and a large civilization. As PJEvans said, we human beings naturally tend to interact with small groups: our family, our neighborhood, our workplace, etc. We practice the gift economies within those groups.

The problem is that over the last 40 years, our lives have changed so that these small groups are less stable, less interconnected than previously (see "Bowling Alone" by Robert Putnam). Whereas before we were able to meet our needs cheaply or free through these groups, we now try to meet them through consumerism.

Since I've retired, I've been able to seek out congenial groups and be an enthusiastic member of the gift economy. It's a much better way to live: relaxed, non-competitive, warm, fun. Just as with anything new, there are bumps to be overcome. But I would never go back to the old way.

Bart / EB

Thanks Gail for provoking this revealing discussion. What is revealed, IMO, is a deep shallowness. We know very little about what really matters in the human condition, and it shows. Each syllogistic argument builds on unexamined ideas in a grand rubble of seemingly meaningful words.

Great topic. I can't believe that in this long discussion there has been no mention of The Venus Project. Jacque Fresco terms his vision a Resource Based Economy, but it could also be called a gifting economy or even a love based economy. It is fully fleshed out at his website and at the Zeitgeist Movement site.

We easily have the technology to make this work, all we need is the will and the maturity. An exchange based economy has served well enough for these past centuries but seems to be coming to its natural conclusion of monopoly and must surely end. Mechanisation and technology have replaced so much labour that there is no longer sufficient work to go around despite efforts to 'create' jobs - most of which now seem petty and even ludicrous.

Let's step up and move on.

I think the gift economy has too much vagueness about it with regard to some critical issues. I've put a great deal of thought about this problem. This set of basic principles for society has some similarities to the idea of a gift economy, but is attempting to remove that vagueness with objective measures.

Principles for Society

1. Science. Behavior should be based on objective evidence of repeatable patterns.

2. Interdependence. People cannot live independently, they must live as a team to survive. The energy efficiency of getting resources and distributing them to all members of the team is vitally important. The interdependence of people can be scientifically verified. Everyone has the naked body to experiment with this observation, if so desired.

3. Money has many inefficiencies for measuring things and the value of behavior. People are pushed to behave as independent agents with their money, yet people are biologically social creatures. This creates confusion and inefficiency. Monetary systems tend to end up with a few rich and many poor, which also causes problems with efficiency. Market values in a monetary society push people to unsustainable behavior, since those that do not conserve resources can produce more abundantly and cheaply than those that conserve, in the short term. In the short term- which can be many generations- people who conserve are put out of business and end up working for those who do not care about conservation. People who have common talents are abundant and “cheap”, as measured by market values, and must buy the “cheap” products that are produced without care for conservation. People make individual decisions to have children on “cheap” resources, and get into overpopulation traps. Making the money itself is an energy cost. There are problems with counterfeiting to deal with.
However, this method of putting much of society on a treadmill of work, can produce a great deal in the short term, and so it is a system that conservative systems, whether consciously conservative or not, cannot stand up to. They must do the same or be crushed. But this unsustainable behavior will fail in the end, though. It is much like the man who comes out of the start of a marathon sprinting. He passes everyone, but in the end, his sprinting is unsustainable, and he collapses and is passed by those that conserved and used their bodily resources at slower, more efficient rates.

And how might the values of such a slower, more efficient, conservative system be measured? Instead of using money, with all of these serious problems and inefficiencies, there is a biological, scientific system of value that defines life and death and is of fundamental concern to all living things. All living creatures must eat, and they must all use the energy in the food to move, do work, to get more food. Lets call this relationship, food EROEI. Food energy invested, eaten, divided into food energy returned. Shelter, by reducing energy loss, also works into this relationship. Food EROEI defines life and death, and is an excellent scientific way to measure the value of actions. An organism with a food EROEI of less than one, is on the path to death. Going above a ratio of one, the organism has increasing amounts of time to rest, think, explore and experiment.

It is also fundamentally important to maintain a good food EROEI. It is possible to have an excellent food EROEI because you are using resources faster than they can be regrown or replaced. That is also something that a rational society would not do for long, though many organisms successfully use resources at unsustainable rates for emergencies. That is quite common and useful behavior. But doing it as a everyday way of life is not rational. Expecting technological breakthroughs to be able to maintain such a way of life, is an unscientific faith that such such technological solutions exist. No one can say with any surety what might be found in the future. Betting that things will be found to maintain currently unsustainable behavior is not reasonable, it is little different from religious beliefs that a mystical power may intervene to prevent catastrophes. Religious people are apt to say that “God will provide”, while many who think of themselves as scientific, reasonable types, merely replace the word “God”, with “science”. Which only shows they do not understand science.

4. The most efficient structure of society I am aware of, would be based on the workings of individual bodies. In an individual body, there is a complex exchange system between specialized organs. The basic pattern of exchange is that each specialized organ trades its particular good or service to the whole rest of the body, in exchange for the complex variety of resources it needs to live. This general pattern of bartering between a specialized organ and a team of specialized organs, could be done with a social group, and it does away with the cumbersome problems of trading between individuals, where needs and goods often do not match, and obviously also does away with the problems of money. Conscious decisions about food EROEI and sustainability of that, for both individuals and the group, can be made and followed. The human social team has the potential to work as smoothly and efficiently as a healthy individual body can work. It is a pattern that also has the potential to grow much larger, with groups becoming specialized and having groups of groups all exchanging things with each other on this same basic pattern.

5. Reproduction is a vital need, and it can fit into the whole thing the same way all other behaviors fit. People of reproductive age barter reproduction to the group, which wants new children to keep itself going.

It takes extra food resources and shelter to reliably reproduce. In times of scarcity caused by a society ignoring sustainable use of resources and growing huge on this unsustainable resource use, groups that broke off from the rest of society, and put much less energy into reproduction and instead use resources simply to survive the dangerous dieoff conditions of less efficient social systems, will have greater odds to survive, take over, and not overpopulate again.

6. Like reproduction, agriculture is a matter that fits into the general principles, but deserves a special brief look. Annual crops have inherent sustainability problems that most people deny or look the other way or simply are unaware of. An annual plant has no root system to begin, obviously, and at the peak of its growth has a very small root system in comparison to perennial plants. Since the size of the root system defines how well the plant takes up nutrients, and also is a big factor in holding soil against erosion, and nutrients are water soluable, annual plants are obviously inherently bad at recycling nutrients. Erosion and soil depletion generally become serious problems to social groups depending on it, as is generally the case right now. Annual crops are attractive to human instincts and taste buds, but instincts do not trump reality. Living off of a perennial based food system involves milk, meat, and blood from grazing-browsing animals, both domestic and from hunting, as well as food production from perennial plants, like tree, vine, and bush production of fruit and nuts.

7. It does not matter that most people may not be able to change their value system to behave in economically radically different ways, eat radically different diets, and have sufficient self control of their reproductive urges, to make such efficient, surviving groups. It only matters that there are enough to form viable groups. People able to understand and be rational enough to temper their instincts and change cultural training sufficiently to do this, could be as few as one in ten thousand, or even less. Natural selection can be extremely ruthless about selecting what works.

People who have brain structure that compels them to view their cultural-instinctive values as reasonable and useful in maintaining their life, are apt to be upset by simple observations that show that their understandings and expectations are not reasonable. There is a large amount of potential cognitive dissonance in such observations. Currently, the cultural training and instinctive attractions and repulsions keep such observations out of mainstream view. The people who might bring them into view, do not like them. However, growing fear of the future has the potential to change such behavior. If such observations as given here get out in the open, the angry denial of some may turn fanatical and more quickly self destructive than it might otherwise have been, though they were on a path of self destruction to begin with. It is quite important to realize though, that this needs to be *self *destruction. It is generally not efficient to try and force behavior, especially not to try and force behavior in the long term. If people do not volunteer to join with groups attempting to work on scientific values, taking the argument to physical levels would almost certainly be quickly and dangerously counterproductive. The best defense when one belongs to a physically tiny group, potentially threatened by a much, much larger group that is behaving irrationally, is to only make verbal arguments, concede you do not know everything but you are going to bet on what you see as logical, others can do what they see as logical, and you find out who is still standing at the end. Some make such arguments, find the scattered people who might make the new groups work, and those groups get well out of its way as the majority continues to follows leadership that takes fanatic actions and self destructs. Bringing things out in the open, can both find the scattered individuals that might make things work, and simultaneously drive the rest to take insane steps to try and demonstrate that in fact they are sane. Very efficient. Wars started on the basis of irrational hopes, a very ancient response to scarcity, has in the current situation, the potential to destroy or cripple world trade enough to bring an instant crisis to huge numbers of people dependent on that trade. Only the most efficient groups , able to manage on local resources, will survive. Bad assumptions of what works, will kill.

This is not Marxism or Capitalism or Socialism. It is biology and physics, and quite basic biology and physics at that. In spite of the simplicity and the inability of anyone to give a rational rebuttal to it, the evidence looks strong to me that most people will not be able to handle it. Their emotional drives will not let them be rational. It is not their fault, they did not make themselves. Their genetics gave them a brain structure that operates primarily on these emotional drives around money, sex, technology, food, social status. The rational abilities of many tend to be weak, they take living for granted if they satisfy these other emotional drives.

It is not purely a triumph of reason I am looking at here. There is no logical reason that it is better to be alive than dead, that I know of. It is an emotion to want to live. Rationality can serve the emotions around money, sex, technology, food, social status, but following such desires without rational tempering threatens life itself. It is a conflict that looks like it dooms most, unable to do this rational tempering in the name of living. Life without unbridled behavior in one or more of these other drives, will not look worth living to many. And so they will die, leaving those to whom a rationally tempered life is still well worth living.
Or of course, perhaps “God” will help believers, or perhaps the path to a “Star Trek” future will be found. You place your bets and at a certain point, you live or die on them.

This is not meant to be a complete guide, but is merely basic principles. A great deal more could be said about applying them. But it is enough, I think, for the moment.

Arthur Noll

I'll make the requisite post about the Burning Man festival (in the US every September). The festival participants become a city of 50,000 people for one week every year. Commerce and barter is prohibited but gifting is encouraged. Having gone 3 times now, my feeling is that the gift economy works there at that scale because:

1. Everyone brings what they need to survive, and they only give away surplus. Many bring a lot of surplus on purpose to give away.

2. There is a shared ideology. Not a religion per se, but there are definitely principles expressed which participants are informed of early and often.

Adherence to (1) is not 100% of course, but it is close enough that the "gift economy" seems to work fine.

This seems to me quite different from a gift economy where the gifts really supply basic needs which would otherwise not have been met.