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!

On Father’s Day

My father taught me to:

Be Brave.

Be Passionate.

Act with love.

In bravery, I learned to ask important questions and not accept “no,” so much as “not right now.” It’s a challenge. We work and we prove, or we accept that sometimes the direction we started in… is less effective than a new one.

In passion, I learned to fan the flames that drive me and fuel my hope. I create a definition for myself of a life worth living. We fight for justice.

In love, we build community through kindness. If trust is the fabric that brings communities together, creates economic exchange and growth, and allows us to live in lower stress environments where we are each able to live as we choose to live… trust cannot exist without the belief that those around you are “coming from a good place.” Be part of that social fabric. Be kind.

Happy Father’s Day!

Love Your Data. Can I have some context with that?

You know what is sexy? Presentations where the data and algorithms presented by researchers come with a healthy does of real life context. [Also, other researchers who read applied statistics textbooks in coffee shops early in the morning. I have been doing this a lot recently and just made friends with someone who was reading a different book by the same statistician I was reading.]

I constantly complain that we lose a lot of information when we work with big data analytics. Part of it is that many researchers are encouraged to work with data from their desks in offices tucked away inside of universities or office buildings in major cities, far away from the ecosystems they are trying to describe through numbers and algorithms.

Nate Silver spends a lot of time talking about the weakness of prediction models in his book The Signal and the Noise: Why so many predictions fail — but some don’t. He points out that economists have trouble identifying relevant variables to make predictions. This is fair… economies are constantly changing in structure and dynamic. It would be really hard to collect appropriate data on the formal economy as it shifts, and even harder to keep track of informal economic activity in a way that would lend itself well to predicting output for the future.

I’ve found the only way that I truly understand the pulse of an economic ecosystem is by living and breathing the structure and community of it. After all, economies depend on communities and trust for transactions to take place at all. But this is for another post.

But I did find someone trying to add context to big data!

I watched this talk by Anna Rosling Rönnland from TEDxStockholm yesterday, and while the introduction is a little confusing, the center of the talk is important. The best way to watch this talk, in my opinion, is to consider the implications of using photographs to describe the spread of the distribution.

In non-jargon speak, this means, consider how your perspective on wealth disparity changes when you see how people in the richest 25% versus the middle versus the lowest 25% brush their teeth. This hits home a lot harder than quoting per capita numbers at someone would, because it also takes into account differences in pricing/living costs within the country. We can see where wages fall short and what that means in the day to day life of workers around the world. We gain perspective on data. And that’s sexy.