Monday, July 10, 2006

Fair Trade

Last year, Kyle MacDonald began his quest to turn a red paper clip into a house. He said that his plan was to "barter" the clip for something bigger and better and to continue trading up until he got a house. Personally, I think "barter" implies equality of trade, whereas MacDonald was essentially asking a series of people to make small sacrifices so he could freeload his way into a windfall — but regardless, he apparently succeeded. Last week, the town of Kipling, Saskatchewan offered MacDonald a three-bedroom, 1,100-square-foot home. He accepted and will move to Kipling this September while he writes a book about his experience.

CNN reported this story with the following headline: Blogger proves one red paper clip can indeed buy a house.

After a year's worth of TV and radio appearances, magazine articles, and hundreds of mentions on the Internet, that's precisely not what MacDonald proved. He didn't prove a damn thing about paper clips or bartering. He proved that publicity can buy a house. And maybe that's neat and maybe it was a clever idea, and I certainly give him credit for walking that idea through to completion — but I've been seeing this story for the past few days and this is the stupidest headline yet. It's just wrong.

It isn't "bartering" if you're asking for something "bigger and better." That's panhandling. You're asking other people to be charitable, not to trade for necessity or mutual benefit. And if your quest spans a year's worth of mass media attention and involves Alice Cooper and Corbin Bernsen, you're playing a pretty heavy publicity card. "Please trade me this for that" is not the same as saying, "I'm a celebrity and here's a television camera. Be a part of my project."

All of which is fine. He didn't break any laws and he didn't hurt anyone, and I have absolutely no objection to his project — just the dumb way it's being reported. I watched a homeless man limp up to the outdoor hostess at a fancy Newbury Street restaurant on Saturday; and in front of more than a dozen customers, he claimed he was a diabetic who needed food and he begged to trade his last $5 for a hamburger. He walked away eating a burger that normally costs $16.95, just three blocks away from a Burger King. There's absolutely no difference between that and what Kyle MacDonald did, and people just look stupid insisting otherwise.


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