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Belmont Club

The Tide is High

March 13th, 2012 - 1:12 pm

Future historians may mark 2012 as the year barter returned to America, of all places.  The police are reporting a mysterious increase in the theft of laundry soap.

Law enforcement officials across the US have been left baffled by a crime wave targeting an unlikely item — Tide laundry detergent.

Theft of Tide detergent has become so rampant that some cities are setting up special task forces to stop it and retailers like CVS are taking special security precautions to lock down the liquid …

Tide has become a form of currency on the streets. The retail price is steadily high — roughly $10 to $20 a bottle — and it’s a staple in households across socioeconomic classes.

Tide can go for $5 to $10 a bottle on the black market, authorities say, and some thieves even resell it to stores.

“There’s no serial numbers and it’s impossible to track,” said Detective Larry Patterson of the Somerset, Ky., Police Department, where authorities have seen a huge spike in Tide theft. “It’s the item to steal.”

The story has been denied by other sources. “While police acknowledge that name-brand household items are commonly swiped from store shelves, authorities in at least two states referenced by the publication say they have not seen a specific rise in stolen Tide detergent.”

But it’s an interesting possibility to consider. Barter is as American as apple pie. The Living History Farm recalls when blacksmiths accepted payment in potatoes and you could pay the doctor with a bushel of corn. “The doctor was able to hold on to it until the price rose to 50-cents a bushel.”  That was during the Depression, not in the era of Hope and Change, though in the end they may come to the same thing.

While barter is normally associated with a replacement for money during periods of crisis, not every good is as easily tradeable as another. The problem with barter is that the exchange rate for each transaction has to be negotiated. The relative exchange depends on the need of the parties entering into the transaction. The services of a doctor can command a high rate of exchange if the other party is sick but will be worth next to nothing if the other party is hale.

What if you needed something you could barter almost anywhere? Well you need a barterable good. Certain goods are almost always in demand because people need them every day. Food, water and fuel are nearly perfect examples. In times of a severe crisis guns and ammunition are another.

But laundry soap is right up there as a daily need, at least until the final collapse. Normal people may not need the services of a doctor or an engineer on a given day. But they will almost certainly find a use for Tide over the week — up until the time everyone gives up and roams around looking like a member of Occupy Wall Street.

Hence the popularity of liquid soap as a barter good. The preference for Tide (over let us say, Obama bumper stickers) reflects the dominance of a barterable good over one which is strictly optional, as some people will find. Soap so that you can Change may in the end trump Hope and Change. Ask Blondie, who knew even then knew the usefulness of holding on to laundry soap until it appreciated in value.

The Tide is high but I’m holding on
I’m gonna be your number one
I’m not the kind of girl who gives up just like that
Oh, no.

Of course any signs of increase in barter in what used to be the most stable and prosperous country in the world is something to worry about. It means that something in the system is starting to break down. If history is any guide, not everyone who takes to street ready to recapture Wall Street from greedy ethnic bankers is necessarily up to good.


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