Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hidden Economies

We've been hearing lots about the falling dollar. Today I learned that the metal to make pennies and nickels is worth more than the face value of the coinage. I wasn't aware that the U.S. Mint had passed regulations in 2006 making it illegal to melt down pennies and nickels for the metal. The rules also say that you cannot export coins for melting, limiting what you are allowed to ship abroad to $100. Travelers cannot carry more than $5 in 1- and 5-cent coins out of the USA, which makes me think how much I'd love to meet the person trying to run an international penny melting ring. And that I'd hate to be behind them at the metal detector in security.

The HBO series The Wire is two episodes in to its fifth and final season. The character Bubbles is often seen taking metal scraps off the streets of Baltimore to sell them for drugs. He also created his own business—Bubble's Depot—where he sells t-shirts and candy from a shopping cart in the ghetto.

Photo by Paul Schiraldi for HBO

Today on the Marc Steiner Show, a local talk show on the NPR affiliate, they discussed how The Wire is, at its heart, a critique of the impact of capitalism on society. In a post-industrial economy like Baltimore, where so many are left out of legitimate industry, hidden economies thrive—from the drug trade to Bubble's Depot. This character is able to make a living, as it were, outside the confines of "real" work because the neighborhoods he inhabits are so anemic, so destitute, that they lack legitimate commerce. Many of these shrinking communities don't even have a corner store, let alone a grocery store, so people line up to buy what they can from a shopping cart.

There are communities that have developed localized currency, a kind of formalized version of bartering. Friends of mine live in a city neighborhood with lots of families. The parents developed Baby Bucks, which they use to "buy" services like daycare, babysitting, and transporting kids to and from school.

In Anacostia, a lower income neighborhood in D.C, they decided to put a value on the hidden economy and support each other through the creation of Anacostia Hours. Services rendered, like carpentry or writing, baking or gardening, can be "purchased" using these Anacostia dollars. On the face of the currency is a picture of Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a great voice in the American abolitionist movement. (Douglass made his home in Anacostia and lived there until he died.) Douglass once wrote that “a man's character always takes its hue, more or less, from the form and color of things about him.” There's a clever joke in there somewhere about the color of money...