Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy

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9780307279989: Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy

An eye-opening account of the informal economy around the globe, Stealth of Nations traces the history and reach of unregulated markets, and explains the unwritten rules that govern them.

Journalist Robert Neuwirth joins globe-trotting Nigerians who sell Chinese cell phones and laid-off San Franciscans who use Twitter to market street food and learns that the people who work in informal economies are entrepreneurs who provide essential services and crucial employment. Dubbing this little-recognized business arena with a new name—”System D”—Neuwirth points out that it accounts for a growing amount of trade, and that, united in a single nation, it would be the world’s second-largest economy, trailing only the United States in financial might. Stealth of Nations offers an inside look at the thriving world of unfettered trade and finds far more than a chaotic emporium of dubious pirated goods.

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About the Author:

Robert Neuwirth spent two years infiltrating street markets and networks of low-level smugglers around the world to write Stealth of Nations. He lived in squatter communities for a similar amount of time to write his first book, Shadow Cities. These globe-trotting ventures were supported, in part, by the MacArthur Foundation and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. His work has been featured in many publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Financial Times Deutschland, Forbes, Fortune, Foreign Policy, Harper’s, Scientific American, and Wired. Neuwirth has taught in the college program at Rikers Island (New York City’s jail) and at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He is also in demand as a public speaker, and his TED talk on squatters has been viewed by close to a quarter of a million people.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Great Rummage Sale
 
These are the products of some people’s lives. Biscuits, balloons, and battery-powered lint removers. Rag dolls, DVDs, and cut-price datebooks. Individual packets of laundry detergent, roach killer, rat poison, face cream. Fresh fruit and finger puppets. Sunglasses and magnifying glasses. The Un-Bra (a pair of gravity-defying, self-adhesive, strapless silicone push-up cups.) Counterfeit Calvin Klein cologne cling-wrapped in Styrofoam clamshells.
 
A vendor selling slide whistles blasts a mocking trill—several times a minute, seven hours a day. Across the street, a husky man standing in front of a huge heap of clothes hollers, “Cuecas baratas! Cuecas baratas!”—“Cheap underpants! Cheap underpants!”—in an increasingly hoarse tenor. Next to him, a hawker with a tray full of pirated evangelical mix tapes blasts a stereo powered by a car battery. Two women toss tiny toys in the air—twin pinecone-shaped pieces of metal lashed together with elastic. These novas brincadeiras—new jokes—clack together like raucous rattlesnakes, creating a din destined to drive mothers and schoolteachers bonkers. Around the corner, two vendors with plastic windup launchers shoot small helicopters high above them (they drift back down, rotors a-frenzy) while another stands, back to the breeze, and silently releases child-size soap bubbles from a scoop that looks like a giant Ping-Pong paddle. The bubbles squirm after being born, their edges hesitant. They wobble on the weak current and burst an instant before they touch anything.
 
In her office six floors above the everyday economic carnival, Claudia Urias, general secretary of Univinco, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting and improving the market, took in the tumult rising from the street. She shook her head. “É uma confusão total,” she declared. “It’s total confusion.”
 
Despite her up-close knowledge of the street, however, Claudia is wrong. Rua Vinte e Cinco de Março (the street of March 25) in the center of São Paulo, Brazil, only seems like absolute anarchy. The street market here—the largest in the city, where retailers from other markets come to buy, because many of the items you can get on this street are either unavailable or far more expensive elsewhere, even from wholesalers—has unwritten rules and an unofficial schedule, almost as if all its merchants were punching a clock. The chaos here is meticulously organized.
 
Each market day starts well before dawn. At three thirty a.m., four men converge on a short commercial alley just the other side of the Tamanduateí River. Thin sheaths of onion skins crunch under their feet, perfusing the air with their scent. The men, however, seem immune to the acrid atmosphere. They enter a run-down warehouse and emerge with several dozen battered wooden crates and splintered and stained plywood sheets. They rope this haphazard cargo on top of dollies and roll them along Avenida Mercúrio and across the river to Rua 25 de Março. There, they pile the boards on top of the crates to make two rows of makeshift tables along a pedestrian alley that leads from Rua 25 de Março to Rua Comendador Abdo Schahin.
 
This is the opening ritual of a site-specific street performance, the construction of the stage set for São Paulo’s wholesale market for pirated CDs and DVDs. Within a few minutes, several dozen dealers arrive. Some roll up in compact vans and sell their contraband right from the vehicles. Others arrive on foot, carrying duffel bags. They plop the bags on the tables, unzip, and—É isso ai!—as if a starter’s gun has fired, the market has begun. First-run movies are often available a day or two after they open in theaters.
 
By four a.m., Édison Ramos Dattora is on the case. Édison is a camelô—an unlicensed retail street vendor. He came to the big city almost two decades ago and spent fifteen years selling chocolates, clothing, and small gift items on the trains at Estação Júlio Prestes, one of the city’s commuter rail stations. For the past three years, he has moved into the more lucrative trade selling pirated movies and CDs on the city’s streets. Business is so good that his wife, who used to work a sales job in the legal economy, has joined him in the illicit trade. Édison hits the wholesale market for both of them, so his wife can stay home with their young son. They buy movies for fifty centavos each—or thirty cents—and resell them for at least twice as much. Most often they work separately, to maximize the amount of the city they can cover, but when the streets are particularly busy—before a big holiday, for instance—they join forces to handle the demand.
 
Being unlicensed dealers in illegal copies of well-known films may put them at odds with the movie companies and the cops, but Édison is proud of his profession and insists that it is no different from the work his wife used to do in the aboveground economy. “It’s the same as any job, with the same goals, only done differently,” he said. Street peddling has given his family a life that has transcended the dreams he had growing up in Brazil’s agricultural midlands. He now has an apartment in the center of the country’s biggest city, a house in the suburbs (rented out, to bring in extra income), and a bank account and credit card. Édison earns enough money that, a few years back, he traveled to Europe to try his hand at street vending there (though he enjoyed his journey, sales were better in Brazil, he told me.) As he spoke, three members of the Guarda Municipal—the local police force—sauntered by on the Viaduto Santa Ifigênia, one of the long pedestrian bridges that span the low-lying downtown park/plaza called the Anhangabaú. Édison fell silent. His wares were safely zipped inside a pink schoolgirl’s satchel at his feet, but he stared after the cops and waited until they were at the far end of the viaduct before he picked up the thread of the conversation.
 
It takes about an hour for Édison and his fellow camelôs to finish their purchasing. That’s when Jandira pulls up in her small pickup, as she has six days a week for the past ten years. She parks in the same spot every day—a corner next to the pirate market—and does her business right from the back of her truck. Her trade is bolo and pão. Each day she bakes eighteen cakes—usually chocolate, chocolate/vanilla swirl, and orange—and twenty-five loaves of bread, and makes cafezinho (black or with milk, but always heavily dosed with adoçante—artificial sweetener). She sells these items to the street market workers and their customers. At one real per slice and fifty centavos for a coffee, her average sale totals less than a dollar, but her low prices have yielded good profits. “With this clandestine job,” she said as she proffered a slice of orange cake, “I have bought two cars, a house in Minas Gerais [a province about five hundred kilometers north of São Paulo], and sent my kids to private school.”
 
The pirate market ends at sunrise. The haulers, who had disappeared while the market was in full stride, return. There’s some haggling and shouting until the wholesalers hand over the daily “vig,” the extra cash the haulers demand to do their job. Once the dealers ante up and vacate their posts, the haulers toss the crates and boards in piles on the sidewalk. They load up their dollies and roll the crude infrastructure back across the river to the onion broker’s place. A few wholesalers huddle in darkened doorways, making quick transactions with camelôs who were late to the fair. The rest move briskly off. By five thirty, there’s no sign of the presence of the pirates except a thick scattering of plastic DVD wrappers in the gutter.
 
It’s still early. A few catadores—self-employed recyclers who prowl the streets looking for cardboard, plastic, and metal that they can sell to scrap dealers—catch some shut-eye in front of the gated storefronts of the Centro, their half-filled handcarts tilted back so they won’t roll away. Downtown is still dormant, but Rua 25 de Março is already welcoming the next wave of street sellers.
 
Merchants from China dominate this second line of sales. They arrive a little before six a.m., pulling small folding carts on which they have packed their inventory and the spindly accordion-style folding tables that function as their mobile stalls. Each has a different specialty: one bracelets, another backpacks, a third sunglasses. Most cater to the latest fads: New York Yankees caps in camouflage, orange and green plaids, and other unofficial patterns, pirated futebol jerseys for local clubs like Corinthians, Palmeiras, and Santos—some of them indistinguishable from the real McCoy, others with the dripping ink and blurry logos that are the mark of bad knockoffs the world over. They sell their products to street sellers and small-scale retailers who cannot afford to buy in large quantities or don’t have the warehouse space to store excess goods. Street vendors who sell sunglasses, for instance, could buy their wares at one of the wholesale outlets two blocks away on Avenida Senador Queirós, which offer the lowest prices. But these stores don’t open until nine a.m. and you have to purchase at least twenty pairs of each style if you want to shop there. Here on the street, the Chinese will sell you three pairs for five reais—at 1.7 reais to the dollar, that’s about $1 a pair. Roving street retailers resell each pair for three reais, or about $1.75, thus garnering a 75 percent profit over the price they pay the Chinese vendors. Because of the middlemen on Rua 25 de Março, camelôs who can’t afford or don’t have the space to store scores of sunglasses can buy a small quantity of different styles at a price that will still guarantee a strong profit when they resell them in their neighborhoods.
 
The Chinese turn on Rua 25 de Março lasts about an hour. By seven o’clock, the merchants have started repacking their wares and moving off. And by seven thirty, only a few stragglers are left, steering their overstuffed carts toward the bland commercial buildings downhill from the Praça da Sé, where many of them store their goods.
 
The street readies itself for another shift. First the legal camelôs start rolling in. Eighty handicapped people have been approved by the city to do business on the streets around Rua 25 de Março, but few of the original licensees remain. Most of the disabled vendors have clandestinely sold or leased their street hawking right to other, able-bodied people, who now run the carts. They, in turn, employ haulers who roll their sturdy steel carts from the nearby parking garages, where they park the carts overnight, to their official positions on the street. The haulers unwrap the blue tarpaulins that swaddle these carts during their off-street hours and protect them from the elements when they’re on the street. At eight, the largest legal store on the street—Armarinhos Fernando, which sells school supplies, stationery, appliances, and a wide variety of household goods—also opens for business. (This store, which controls almost a full block in the middle of Rua 25 de Março, has an unwritten but highly effective policy prohibiting camelôs from setting up any table, no matter how makeshift, on the sidewalk; the store can’t keep them out of the street, however, and many set up impromptu booths just off the curb.)
 
At almost the same time, a dozen men and women in orange jumpsuits swarm by. These are the foot soldiers of the city’s sanitation department. They stride down the street with stiff-bristled brooms and long-handled shovels, toting plastic bins in their wake. They sweep up the cardboard and plastic sleeves that are the residue of the pirate DVD fair and the corn husks, papaya skins, coconut shells, and splintered boxes left over from the nearby wholesale fruit and vegetable market.
 
By eight thirty, the unlicensed hawkers who give the street its chaotic daytime appeal have arrived. There’s Paulo Roberto, who spends seven hours a day tossing tiny plastic Spider-Men against the marble facade of a small office building at number 821. Each four-inch-long blue man with gummy red feet and hands sticks for a few seconds, then begins to teeter. Tentatively at first, then picking up speed, the little man rappels down, flipping at the waist. As one Spider-Man descends, Paulo Roberto flips another on high. And then another and another and another, until he has ten on the wall. All of them, pulled by gravity, make the slow, staggered journey down. Paulo Roberto doesn’t have to shout. The pivoting men are his sales pitch. They are made in China, imported to Paraguay, smuggled across the border into Brazil, and trucked down to São Paulo. He tells me he buys them for eighty centavos—or about fifty cents—each, and sells them at R$2.50 each, three for R$5. If he sells them one by one, he generates a profit of 200 percent. But there are several other merchants on the street who sell the same toys, and the competition has made sales slow. Paulo Roberto wouldn’t divulge his income. “I survive,” was all he said.
 
Around the corner, always on the same spot on Rua Comendador Afonso Kherlakian, there’s an old man who sells two practical joke items: extremely realistic plastic patties of dog shit, and noisemakers that sound like a chicken when you pull a cord. His time on the street is spent standing above his plastic piles pulling that cord over and over, hundreds, perhaps thousands of times a day. When it rains, many of the merchants leave the street. But not this fellow. He simply crooks his head, rests an umbrella against his neck, stares down at his artificial poop, and keeps on pulling.
 
And there’s Márcio, a thin man with an apologetic smile and a graying Caesar curl of hair. He patrols the block just outside the Armarinhos Fernando discount store, holding up a rack of pens (since he’s got no table, he’s exempt from the store’s unofficial ban on camelôs on the sidewalk). He’s been doing this business on Rua 25 de Março every day for the past ten years. Márcio buys his pens and markers for fifty centavos each from a nearby wholesaler. He sells his pens for one real (perhaps seventy-five cents), a bit less than they charge inside the legal store. On a good day he will sell forty pens, so his profit is twenty reais, or about $12—meaning that his paltry street sales give him an income that is approximately equal to Brazil’s minimum wage (and, since he doesn’t report his income or pay taxes, his take-home haul may well be higher than that bare-bones minimum).
 
It’s 9:08. For the early morning street sellers, it’s already late. The daytime vendors are in place. The legal stores on the street are rolling up their steel gates. This is the time Jandira leaves. She must pack up quickly, in case the Guarda Municipal decides on a show of force. Some mornings, the cops muster early, in an effort to prevent Jandira and the Chinese middlemen and the camelôs from doing business. On those days, the vendors fan out down the street, no one selling anything, simply waiting for the police to disappear. On other days, the police attempt to fake out the hawkers, letting their enterprises get started, and then marauding down the street, overturning tables and dumping the merchandise of any vendo...

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Descripción Random House USA Inc, United States, 2012. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. An eye-opening account of the informal economy around the globe, Stealth of Nations traces the history and reach of unregulated markets, and explains the unwritten rules that govern them. Journalist Robert Neuwirth joins globe-trotting Nigerians who sell Chinese cell phones and laid-off San Franciscans who use Twitter to market street food and learns that the people who work in informal economies are entrepreneurs who provide essential services and crucial employment. Dubbing this little-recognized business arena with a new name-- System D --Neuwirth points out that it accounts for a growing amount of trade, and that, united in a single nation, it would be the world s second-largest economy, trailing only the United States in financial might. Stealth of Nations offers an inside look at the thriving world of unfettered trade and finds far more than a chaotic emporium of dubious pirated goods. Nº de ref. de la librería AA99780307279989

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