A few surprising plot twists in daily economics

I love economics stories that surprise me. In the last few weeks, I’ve listed to a few stories that truly shocked me and I wanted to share them, in case you need a media list for the weekend.

Did you know that some professional hunters are also some of the most ardent conservationists? This RadioLab episode explores the story of poachers who pay for expensive contracts to hunt for rare or endangered animals around the world.

White Rhinos, US Fish and Wildlife Services, Taken Nakuru, Africa. Credit: Karl Stromayer/USFWS
White Rhinos, US Fish and Wildlife Services, Taken Nakuru, Africa. Credit: Karl Stromayer/USFWS

Turns out, the story is more complicated than “blood thirsty poachers.” This episode is well worth a listen to the complicated financial structure behind conservation parks.

Voluntourism draws a lot of critique from communities around the world, but I hadn’t realized how closely tied some orphanages in countries like Cambodia, Nepal, and Uganda are to the emotions (and markets!) that tourists bring to their travels. What happens when “cute children” become a tourist trap? (Good news: She’s working on fixing this bad dynamic)

We Need to End the Era of Orphanages | Tara Winkler

Breakfast is my favorite part of American cuisine… but it wasn’t always a “thing.” This writer explored the breakfast cereal marketing campaign that made Breakfast “the most important meal of the day.”

And how about a public bench designed to simultaneously interrupt informal economic activities (specifically, drug dealing), prevent theft, limit loitering, and defy graffiti? 99% Invisible covered a brief history of unpleasant design to show how some designers though about solving what they viewed as “social ills.”

Work by Public artist BiP, New Haven CT
Work by Public artist BiP, New Haven CT

Finally, a few thought-provoking pieces by R. Luke DuBois about how we organize numbers and think about people. If you haven’t seen his TED talk yet, I would recommend beginning here.

His maps of the United States are fascinating and worth exploring over a long, hot summer afternoon. You can see more of them on the TED Ideas Blog or on his website. He challenges the idea of “data viz” with his piece called “Take a Bullet for the City” and he does his part to make our communities a little warmer through his piece that connects people on the missed connections board on Craigslist.

Misfit Economies

Three years ago, I was introduced to Kyra Maya Phillips through a mutual friend, because we have a lot of similar interests. I had just finished a two year long research project on campaign investing in Colombia (by cartels, paramilitary groups, and the far left) and was trying to wind my way back into normal life in New York City. [how “normal” life is here is relative… but for me, this is much better than making sure I was inside and locked away by nightfall every night, staying up to write up my interviews and combing the universe for insight on organized crime… then having nightmares about said criminal groups haha]

She is a brave Venezuelan journalist who decided to start looking at black markets and the entrepreneurs that thrive in them. When we first spoke over the phone, she from London and me from New York City, we talked about cartels, and research methods and all the good stuff that comes from unusual research interests. Especially for young women.

Last night I attended her book party at the Impact Hub in Tribeca, just a block from the thriving counterfeit markets of Lower Manhattan. Perfect.

the panel for the Misfit Economies discussion
the panel for the Misfit Economies discussion

Their guests for the evening included Antonio Fernandez (from the NY State chapter of the Latin Kings), George Jung, and “Freeway” Rick Ross, all with their own stories to share about the power networks they connected to while in prison, their work in trafficking in the black market, and the power of organizing and collective action.

The event was powerful for a number of reasons.

The tug and intrigue of the topic was a major reason people were there. The black market and its rulebreakers intrigue a lot of people. Organized crime is sexy.

When I tell people I compiled a lot of research on the history of organized crime in manhattan and made a tour for myself, they get really excited and ask me to take them to see it. It’s less epic than it sounds, unless you love history and stories about the past. The truth is, organized crime and black markets look like real businesses. The same urgency to meet the demands of customers and, honestly, cheat the government out of whatever they can is there is many many different kinds of businesses.

[If you don’t believe me, talk to anyone thinking through compliance measures inside a bank. There is a whole lot of where can I make as much money as possible and slip through the holes in this regulatory web going on. Also, the research I did a few years ago on remittance transfer markets for the World Bank Transparency tools shows another side of secret costs in business. I can offer many other examples from topics ranging from pharmaceuticals to construction etc.]

Once there, people got to see organized crime and the entrepreneurs who work “the streets” from a new perspective.

The panelists come at business from a different angle: consistently they brought up that they were locked out of the acceptable system. As “King Tone” put it, when we worked within the system, we were ignored and hungry. There weren’t any options for us. When we worked outside the system, we could eat. And then at least you weren’t bored. 

Rick Ross added that he meets a lot of youth who are frustrated that school doesn’t teach them to make money and survive. The applications of school feel too distant to feel valuable. For him, he said, I asked a drug dealer how to make money, and he told me in the ways he knew how. So I followed that business model.

Antonio Fernandez spoke passionately about the power of organizing his community against police brutality, and what that meant for a city with an identity as confusing as New York City. He demonstrated the need for local organizations that spoke to the needs of the communities that they served. It was not about destroying a system, so much as creating a chapter for those trying to live in an ecosystem that blocked them out at every turn.

Kyra’s work (and my own) are about bringing these narratives into the conversation about economies. While I look at the layers that operate sometimes in harmony and sometimes in direct contrast with the regulated economy… Kyra is bringing an important narrative and perspective on some of the most misunderstood sections of the economy. The criminal base of “pirates,” “drug dealers,” and “gangsters” to some come from only movies and articles about neighborhoods they dare not explore further. For many others, these professions offer a better life or alternative to starvation.

The book just came out and I encourage you to read on. Keep exploring!