Barter, Haggle, Close, Rest ‘Down East Dickering, a Reality Show in Maine

Read the original article from the New York Times here.

Consider these eerie similarities between Bitcoin, the supposedly cutting-edge digital currency, and the world of “Down East Dickering,” a History channel reality series about a throwback barter-and-haggle economy:

1. Both are rooted in an ethos that spurns government intervention and oversight.

2. Each exists in a place with a distinctive language, culture and value system. For Bitcoin, it’s cyberspace. For “Down East Dickering,” it’s Maine.

3. No one understands how either works.

“Down East Dickering” features scruffy New Englanders, most from Maine, engaging in economic transactions for goods of dubious value: a rusting tractor, a beat-up blue 1960s school bus, an old vending machine. Sometimes an exchange involves cash; at other times, the payment is in services, like building a footbridge or providing a tow.

Television has other I’ll-give-you-this-for-that reality shows, of course, but a lot of them speak in a Southern lilt. The Down East accent here is by itself a refreshing change. These scraggly guys, though, are also considerably more comfortable on camera than many of their Southern cousins. Along with the Beaver Brothers — trappers from Nova Scotia seen on an Animal Planet series of that name — they may be the most appealing new backwoods TV characters of 2014.

They also affirm that the reality-TV war has broadened into a three-cornered conflict. The Southern contingent, led by shows filmed in Louisiana, has been entrenched for years, and Alaska-Yukon shows are almost as numerous. Now the Northeast is making a run; Maine, for instance, has also brought us “Cold River Cash” (about eel fishermen) and “North Woods Law” (about game wardens).

“Down East Dickering,” which had its premiere early this month and is seen on Wednesday nights, is a sort of free ad for a publication full of ads: Uncle Henry’s Weekly Swap or Sell It Guide, in which people list junk that they’re trying to sell, jobs that they’re looking to have done and so on. The focus is on a group of men who apparently do little more than peruse Uncle Henry’s for opportunities from which they can wring a small profit by buying and reselling, or some other form of barter. Your genial guide to this world is a hairy fellow named Tony Bennett — yes, you read that right — who acts as a sort of narrator and explains the finer, if indecipherable, points of dickering with phrases like “The deal isn’t done until it’s done.”

Something about nontraditional economic systems seems to attract oddly named entities. Bitcoin, you’ll recall, was recently tangled up in a mess involving an outfit called Mt. Gox. On “Down East Dickering,” the dickerers include men who go by the names Yummy, Turtle, Codfish and Captain 2-stroke.

Watch this show long enough, and you begin to suspect that the dickering world consists of a finite amount of cash and a limitless amount of junk, all of it circulating among various dickerers endlessly, no one ever getting any richer or accomplishing much of consequence. Still, dickering seems to have at least as good a chance as Bitcoin does of leading us to a new economic paradigm. The next time the economy goes sour, a Commerce Department led by Secretary Yummy might be our best chance of straightening things out.