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The Trinkets that Trade Up for Houses

It first happened in July 2006. Canadian blogger Kyle MacDonald had a red paperclip. Nearly one year and fourteen trades later, he had a two-story home. Last month, Demi Skipper completed her 28th trade and achieved her aim to follow in MacDonald’s footsteps.

Skipper had started with a bobby pin in May 2020. Last month, though a series of trades, she was officially a homeowner. 

The scheme of using reiterative trades to improve one’s lot is solid economics. Barter, a system of exchange where both people feel they got the better end of the stick, is a longstanding tradition. People value things differently. Imagine if you were to trade a bobby pin for an old photograph of a family and then find the child in the picture. They may be willing to part with something much more substantial than a flimsy hair clip.

Some of MacDonald’s trades fit into this paradigm. Director Corbin Bernsen happens to collect snow globes. When MacDonald offered him a KISS snow globe in exchange for a role in his upcoming movie, the deal was a go. This was no accident. MacDonald had set out to prove the power of relative value: “I must reinforce what I believe the one red paperclip project is all about: relative value. What’s more important to a man dying of thirst in the desert – one million dollars or a glass of water?”

The shocking thing about these stories isn’t that they are possible, but that they can happen so quickly and can involve easily purchased items that have very different price tags. 

You have to wonder: are all the traders in these deals genuine on their appraisal of relative value or were they excited to be part of a fun, popular project? 

Skipper’s followers are asking the same question. In her fourteenth trade, Skipper traded an iPhone 11 for a 2008 Dodge Caravan. An iPhone 11 is not a scarce item. Why wouldn’t the owner of the car simply sell the car, buy the phone, and pocket the excess cash? Or, as golden.kidd astutely points out: “How you got a car for a phone, I have to find these people ASAP.”

Some of the other trades are equally quizzical from an economic standpoint.

According to NBC reporter Wilson Wong, Skipper’s fans did not approve of one of her trades. She traded three tractors for a Chipotle Celebrity card. What is such a card, you might ask? A Chipotle Celebrity card allows its owner to eat at Chipotle for free for one year. Assuming a new card and fifteen-dollar daily meals at Chipotle, the card would be worth just shy of 6,000 dollars.  

That is a heck of a lot less than the estimated 40,000 dollar off-grid trailer she was able to gain in trade. One has to wonder whether the Chipotle superfan wouldn’t instead sell the trailer, procuring over seven years of daily 15-dollar Chipotle meals. They could also be a rebel and take burrito breaks when needed.

The moral of the story has very little to do with economics. Instead, it highlights what people are able to do when working toward a common goal and willing to take an economic hit. Skipper did not trade a bobby pin for a house. The economic hit was shared among a greater number of actors, diluting the price tag of helping this young TikToker achieve her goals. People were willing to help at this diluted price.

Skipper may have eventually attained her goal using good old-fashioned economics, but it is a more heartwarming story to imagine followers that were willing to do more than just watch. They were willing to help a stranger.

ABC news reports on our new homeowner’s response to this journey. She plans to do it again. Only this time, she will donate the home to someone in need “no mortgage, no rental.” That’s a TikTok journey worth getting involved in if ever there was one.

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