When Seattle Weekly editor-in-chief Knute Berger called my family  “moochers” for not owning a car, it got me thinking.

On the face of it, “moochers” is a ridiculous thing to call us. We pay for our transportation, just like everybody else. And because my family now drives about 7 percent as much as is typical for a family like ours, we’re no longer mooching off of future generations—burning their oil while ruining their climate. So, aren’t we actually among the non-moochers?

When I saw all the heat, venom, and profanity that Berger’s column unleashed in the blogosphere, however, I realized there’s a deeper issue inside the word “moocher.” If there weren’t, no one would have cared.

And I’ve got an idea of why this label has such emotional valence. I believe it’s because cars operate in two economies.

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  • They operate in the cash economy, where you pay for them in dollars. They also operate in the gift economy, where you pay for them in favors—basically, rides exchanged.

    When my family decided in March not to replace our Volvo for at least a year, we were only thinking about the practical implications. We were thinking about dollars and safety and bus routes and walking distances.

    But we quickly collided with the face of the gift economy: other parents.

    The thing about parenting is that it’s best done in groups, so you can share with others. This sharing operates largely on the gift economy. That is, parents do favors for each other. The most routine favor they give—the currency of parenting—is the ride. I give your kid a ride to practice; you give mine a ride home. You bring your kid over to play; I drive her home again.

    The swapping of rides is a convenience and a practicality, of course. But it’s also a form of community building. In fact, anthropologists regard the reciprocal doing of favors as not just a form of community building but as the essence of community building. That’s because humans, like other primates, seem to be programmed to honor the norm of reciprocity, which Stanford social psychologist Deb Gruenfeld defines as “a powerful and pervasive social rule that compels us to treat others as they have treated us. For example, when others have done us a favor, we feel that we ‘owe’ them one in return.”

    When the bonds of mutual reciprocity are thick and stretch in many directions, you have a strong community—one that’s high in social capital. And you’ve got the feeling, as a parent, that many hands are there to support you.  People chip in to help you when bad luck strikes, and you do the same for others.

    But subtract the car from this equation, and you’re suddenly out of currency for the most basic exchanges. When we first went carless, for example, Amy and I found that our pre-existing credits—favors we’d done over time—all came rushing to our aid. Our community aimed to rescue us from carlessness. One family offered: “Do you want to take our second car for a week or two?” One family contemplated giving us an old car they’d inherited.

    Then, after we declined these offers by explaining that we have FlexCar when we need it and that we’re figuring out ways to live without driving much, reactions differed.

    Some families have stepped up, hero-like, and insisted on doing all the driving themselves: “You shouldn’t have to pay for a car, just to take the kids to rehearsal. I’ll drive both ways. I don’t mind.” But we don’t want to accept favors that we can’t reciprocate. We don’t want to accumulate social debts and feel beholden to others. And we suspect that such heroism would lead to resentment and withdrawal before long.

    Other families—more of them—have pulled back, uncertain how to interact with us because we don’t hold the currency. They become a little shy toward us. A little awkward. And feeling this way, they often take the path of least resistance, which is to swap rides with someone else instead. Sadly, that leaves us, and our kids, out of the community.

    To guard against heroic over-giving and shy withdrawal, we have been trying to become more assertive about alternative exchanges, bartering child care and other favors for rides when a ride is necessary. And this assertiveness typically works, when we can muster the courage to take such social risks. Despite the ambiguity (How many hours of child care are worth one ride to a sleepover?), other parents are receptive to other forms of exchange, and these more-complicated exchanges build community just as quickly as ride swapping.

    Lacking a car, Amy and I have been forced to do more asking and more-creative reciprocating. Sometimes, this necessity becomes a virtue: more community, more time with neighbors.

    We’re not the only ones who have noticed. One of Amy’s buddies reports, “I love that you don’t have a car. I see Amy a lot more.” They get groceries together. The friend drives; Amy buys the lunch. They both enjoy the outing.

    You could call it mooching. Or you could call it friendship.