Monday, November 16, 2009

Good Morning, Friend-Citizen. Welcome to the Informal Economy.

Boy, I really do have a lot of catching up to do here, don't I? *pffff* It was nice to finally get back over here to write--quite cathartic--and I got lots of encouragement to keep doing it. And heck, my last post got picked up by Sharon Fricking Astyk (HOLYCRAPOMGWTFBBQ), so I'm feeling pretty good about myself right now. Believe it or not, I have been getting a lot done. Not so much things done on that list you see over on the right side of the page (ah well), but plenty of other things. As I said way back in my early posts, I feel that I am trying to prepare my family for two different basic events: a long emergency, and short-term emergencies. I'd thought there wasn't really any middle ground between those; if you're prepared for both, you've got the middle ground covered, right? Well, as it happens.... yes, that's right. Go me.

The middle ground emergency I'd not been figuring on (why I can't imagine, since I knew it was coming) is long term unemployment. By "long term" I pretty much mean over 1-3 months. I have no idea if that's the proper definition, or if there is a proper definition (of course there is). Who cares--my blog, my definition, over 1-3 months. There. Anyway. Both my husband and I are out of work, and received our last paycheck at the end of July (and had our medical benefits cut off at the end of August). My husband, thankfully, does qualify for a decent size unemployment benefit, and I'm working on it for myself. ($143/week, before taxes! Katy bar the door!) We do have savings, but without unemployment, we'd be drinking it through a straw right now. Blessedly, my children qualify for state medical coverage, so I no longer have to have panic attacks if they want to go roller skating or climb a tree. Overall, the process hasn't been too bad, although the unemployment process was designed by tripping bureaucrats who like to fondle their slide rulers. There's still a big, red "STOP! YOU MUST FILL OUT ALL INFORMATION ON THIS LINK!" sign on my unemployment homepage. I've followed that link at least 100 times, have filled out every blank I can find on it, and it won't go away. I've even called the office, and they said to ignore it (which I am just positive is the wrong thing to do). Fortunately, I've got a friend on the inside--er, rather, she's on the outside now but knows folks on the inside--and she might be able to help me out. Can you believe, she was laid off from the unemployment office? How's that for irony?

But I digress--quelle surprise. I've got plenty to say about what prep-work I'd done for us before unemployment hit, and how much good it's done us (read: one helluva lot!), but I wanna discuss something different. You see, today, or perhaps yesterday if you trust my Facebook posts, I officially entered the Informal Economy. Back in your dad's day it was probably called "under the table work", but that's so old fashioned, and has such interesting resonances now that we have more inventive porn movies, that I prefer the new moniker. You must admit, it sounds impressive, yes? The Informal Economy. And in fairness, it's also much broader of a thing than being paid under the table, or "off books", though that can certainly play a role.

The Informal Economy as I understand it (and do recall the discussion above about my blog, my definition--it's good to be the Queen) is basically the economy that doesn't show up on our GDP. It's a loose confederation of people, goods, and services, and their relative worth to each other, all chugging along blithely ignoring things like the DOW, or the Core Consumer Price Index, or reputable business attire. It's my baked goods that someone else wants, and who has lots of yarn and is willing to work a deal. It's my dairy class, that I can run in exchange for cash or services. Its my friend's hand-knit socks, which she is currently valuing at one week of cat-sitting. In college it was one hour of backrubs per double-A battery. Or, and this is the one where I've really taken the plunge, it's the eco-cleaning service you run because you have the time and flexibility (unemployment does confer some benefits) and need money.

You have friends, and they need something--a loaf of bread, a clean living room for the holidays, a hand-knit dead fish hat (of course I'm not making that up), some firewood. You have one or more of those things, and you need your computer devirused, or your car tuned up, or some cash, or your cats sat on. The informal economy exists in the space where all of these things meet. Slowly things bleed out, so that you're not just dealing with friends anymore, and that's fine. It maintains its own boundary conditions, just because if whatever you're up to gets too big, it becomes unwieldy and unmanageable, and you scale back (or, in some cases, politely dressed gentlemen from an acronymed government agency start asking hard questions about the street value of bread). So you keep it small.

It is both a delightful and a precarious place to be. It's liberating in its way--no doubt about that. Of course, it has nothing that looks like job security, either. And unless you are a very rare person indeed, you probably can't make ends meet just in the informal economy right now. Plus, the IE (I'm tired of typing it out over and over) puts its own demands on you, and you can lose out quickly. Didn't get that bread done in time? You just lost your 1-out of-5 bread customers, and more importantly, you lost their recommendation. Got a paying job that's putting constraints on you? Which one gives? If you're like most sane people, its the IE that takes a back seat.

BUT, for all that, it also offers jobs where there aren't any. Businesses don't have the margin to hire anyone, but their employees could sure use their living rooms cleaned while they're at work. Don't have the money to start a bakery? Of course you don't, who does? So you start a "bread share" with a limited number of folks, and add that to your minimum wage job and get by.

The IE is the natural response to a job market strained beyond the breaking point--it's water flowing over, around and under the dam. It's paradoxical in that it provides evidence for the libertarian notion of "the market will provide" but it does so by going outside of the Market because the Market is NOT providing. And it by no means covers all bases. I've yet to meet a doctor that is willing to barter open heart surgery for bread and a car tune-up (although I suspect "off book" surgeries are going to start happening soon). If The Economy does go pear shaped, there are probably a lot of goods and services that are just gonna go bye-bye. But even if it doesn't--and the Fed & Treasury are currently running neck and neck with biblical literalists in their willingness to do backflips to maintain their system--the IE is still there to take the strain off of the main economy.

So, as you can see, I'm just doing my part as a patriotic American to help our economy limp along until... um... something happens. So, anyone need their living room cleaned?


  1. Hi Robyn -enjoy your blog and couldn't agree more with your 'what I think will happen' introductory post. Your adapting theme was echoed by James Lovelock talking about his newest Gaia book. No sugar coating, no talk of turning things around-just a hope that some % of humanity can adapt (and move) to a survivable location. Scary stuff.
    Thanks-and good luck with your IE!

  2. Excellent!

    I agree whole heartedly.

    Do you have a time dollar network near you?

    I used to belong to one during a period in my life when I was really struggling financially. I was able to get acupuncture, Christmas gifts at the TD craft fair, and symphony tickets. I offered gardening, housesitting and baking to earn time dollars. It added a quality of of extravagance to my life at a time when I could barely make rent.

    I like the idea of freecycle because this also is a way that the informal economy is becoming mainstream. I have found kids clothes for a girl friend's daughter, worm bins, trays for my dehydrator.

  3. Very interesting - are you familiar with the Small Farmer's Journal? Lynn Miller's last editorial touched on something very similar - while Americans may define "economy" as the exchange of goods for money, the true definition is much, much broader. Welcome to the gray areas.

  4. @Hickchick: I've heard a lot about this Lovelock, but I've not read any of his stuff yet. Will be putting that on my list--thank you!

    @Fleecenik Farm: No, we've no such thing here. Right now myself and a dedicated band of intrepid... well, somethings... are trying to get a food co-op started in our town. Maybe a Time Dollar network could spawn out of that. Have you seen the "Money as Debt" video (it's in my "resources" sidebar)? It's very useful, and at one point discusses various alternate forms of currency, one of those functionally being a time dollar currency. I was very taken with that when I first saw it--still am.

    @Adrie: No, I haven't heard of that. I'll google it--thank you! Also, Sharon Astyk recently reposted a piece of the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech on the definition of "economy" which, as he points out, is really a greek word for "housekeeping". He argues that the form of economy we have--abstracted away from human-level interactions--creates a very poor kind of economy/housekeeping. It is not only an academic, but a moral error. Interesting stuff.

  5. Hi Robyn,
    Love your blog. I just dropped in from Sharon's page and will stick around and lurk in your archives! Your post "Just Obey" is spot on. Thanks for the insight.

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