Every Collapsing Communist Cloud has a Pirated Data Silver Lining

When Kevin and I first moved to Mexico City, we were amazed by the wide variety of goods that were hawked at traffic stops.  Not just the variety but the fact that a lot of them seemed wildly inappropriate for the situation, like the guy selling 6 foot hat racks at a busy roundabout on a major thoroughfare.  That was nothing compared to the gigantic satellite dish we saw hawked at a 4 way stop in Tunisia.  It must have weighed many hundreds of pounds.

I was reminded of this when I read Bill Browden’s excellent book Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice.  Browder was struggling to find information on companies in a country that seemed at first glance to be highly un-transparent.  He learns though that the legacy of Soviet bureaucratism has a few upsides:

“Because of Soviet central planning, Moscow needed data on every single facet of life so its bureaucrats could decide on everything from how many eggs were needed in Krasnoyarsk to how much electricity was needed in Vladivostok. The fact that the Soviet regime had fallen hadn’t changed anything—Moscow ministries continued to exist, and their bureaucracies took great pains to account for everything for which they were responsible.”

In the fall of the Soviet Union, that data still existed, it was just a matter of accessing it.  And lo and behold, he finds one such source of data at a traffic stop in downtown Moscow.

“While Vadim sat there that day, a boy approached the car brandishing his wares. Vadim wasn’t interested, but the boy persisted. “All right, what are you selling?” Vadim asked warily. The boy held open his dirty blue parka to reveal a collection of CD-ROMs in a plastic portfolio. “I’ve got databases.” Vadim’s ears perked up. “What kind of databases?”

“All kinds. Mobile phone directories, tax return records, traffic violations, pension fund info, you name it.”  Vadim spotted one entitled “Moscow Registration Chamber Database.” Vadim did a double take. The Moscow Registration Chamber is the organization that tracks and collects information about who owns all Moscow-based companies.”

Now that’s serendipity!  It’s also the most unique way I’ve heard of to come across a useful dataset.

Markets in Everything, Developing Country Edition

1.  This woman is so earnest & excited about her work that it feels mean to even criticize it.  In her blog post, she says that she “fell in love with everything that represented traditional Mexicana”  and has decided to decorate her son’s room in such a style.  I’ll just say that she and I have very different opinions about what represents traditional Mexican folk art. Here’s one of her examples:
2.  For the person in your life that has everything, here’s a Christmas idea:  a religious Barbie or Ken doll.  They probably won’t be cheap, because they are currently part of an art exhibit called “Barbie, The Plastic Religion.”  Here’s one of my favorites of Barbie made up as the Virgin de Guadalupe.
barbie_virgen de guadalupe
3. “Who wants to be President?” board game launched in Nigeria.  Here is a fun description:“The players go through all the processes aspiring political leaders go through with the ultimate aim of winning “elections.” The steps include seeking party nominations, campaigning in the 36 states of Nigeria, cajoling for votes, negotiating for the best deals, strategizing, spying on opponents, disrupting the plans of the opposition, countering their moves and so on.

The game ends when one of the players presents the card calling for “Instant Elections” or one of the players reaches the end. Only players who have won votes in 21 states would be eligible to have his “votes” counted. The player with the most “votes” win and is declared president.”

Markets in Everything, Venezuelan edition

Financial globalization has reached the world’s oldest profession in Venezuela.  Since prostitution is legal there, but trading dollars is not, sex workers have been able to supplement their income by selling dollars on the black market.  And by supplement, I mean more than double!  Here is an article by Bloomberg on the phenomena.

Because the bolivar is pegged at an untenable exchange rate, a thriving black market exists for dollars.  The article notes that “greenbacks in the black market are worth 11 times more than the official rate as dollars become more scarce in an economy that imports 70 percent of the goods it consumes.”

Economy Vice President Rafael Ramirez stated in March that “We are going to defeat the parallel dollar.”  My response is two-fold:  (1) no you’re not with current policies in place and a president who calls the black market “perverse” and “designed by the bourgeoisie to destroy his Socialist government”  and (2) what the heck is an Economy Vice President? Given the state of Venezuela’s economy, this guy (and the Economy President) should be fired stat.

So how are prostitutes in port cities helping to abet this “perverse” market created by the bourgeoisie?  Well, they charge sailors for services in dollars.  And services has expanded beyond what you might expect to include things like helping “foreigners arrange rooms, telephone cards and taxis, charging them in dollars and then paying the landlords and drivers in bolivars.”

One lady broke it down succinctly, “We can make more in two hours here than working in a shop in a month.”

As a final, odd postscript, Bloomberg tried to reach various government spokespeople for comment but none of them are allowed to be named because of “internal policy” (and none of them wanted to talk anyway).  Does it not seem oxymoronic to have a spokesperson for the Finance Ministry and for Maduro himself be anonymous?  How do they do their speaking?  through secret code left at special drops throughout the city.  To be fair, if I were a Venezuelan government spokesperson, I wouldn’t want to be identified either.