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Monday, January 12, 2009

Amigo, ¿Puedes Darme Diez Centavos? (Buddy, can you spare a dime)

Ken Kerr Bio

The canary in the coal mine for the US economy is the image of men and women standing on street corners selling pencils and apples on the street corner. That, along with Yip Harburg, and Jay Gorney’s song, “Brother, can you spare a dime?” are icons of the Great Depression.

Last week, an Argentine business associate of mine told me as we discussed our respective economic crises, “The best day in Argentina is not as good as the worst day in the United States.” I politely nodded and dismissed it as hyperbole, but then gave it some thought.

In the last big American recession of the 1980s, we saw the emergence of squeegee men and “Will Work For Food” written on cardboard signs, and stoplight beggars. On the streets of Buenos Aires, it is common to see the modern-day equivalent. Outside the grocery store, a young woman sells cherries for $2.99 a quarter kilo. Inside, the same sell for $3.29. A few blocks later, there are the same cherries for the same price on a different corner with a different woman. On the bus, a man gets on and speaks to the driver before going into his sales pitch about an excellent quality pen with a light on its cap for two pesos, about sixty cents. He gets off after accommodating all takers only to be replaced by a man selling sewing kits for AR$5. In the subway, an old woman sits near the entrance selling small packets of facial tissue for a peso.

We see unemployment figure headlines that tell us the rate is the highest in four years, then ten years, and now sixteen years. It will not be long before we see it reach Reagan’s 1982 rate of 10+%--the highest since the Great Depression. Argentina’s unemployment
rate now stands at about 8.1%. However, those working in the “informal economy” have an unemployment rate of 15%. The unemployment rate in the US was 7.2% as of December 2008.

Buenos Aires is a city with an important café/restaurant culture. Families, even those of modest means, eat in a restaurant every week. An
article in La Nacion last week told of 300 restaurants closing in Buenos Aires in recent months because of falling revenues and rising rents.

After the 2001 economic crisis, where the average Argentine lost 2/3 of his wealth, unemployment in Argentina reached US Great Depression numbers. Desperate for work, men once employed as car mechanics and laborers resorted to sorting through the garbage to scavenge for any trash of recyclable value. They became known as Los Cartoneros, the Cardboard Collectors. This army of over 100,000 scavengers descended upon the wealthier neighborhoods in a government-supplied train that the locals called, El Tren Fantasma—The Ghost Train. This was because the people ignored them as they went about their work; like ghosts, they were invisible to the world.

Cartoneros now have uniforms and
official status. Their numbers have dropped to about 20,000. They have also had the serendipitous effect of reducing Buenos Aires landfill by 25% a day. The Ghost Train has been replaced by busses and trucks located at various pick-up locations.

Curiously, if one were to be blindfolded and dropped into the center of Argentina, he would, upon regaining sight, swear he was in some agricultural part of the USA. Argentina is, like the USA, a country of European immigrants. In the years just before WWII, it had the 4th highest standard of living in the world. Average wages and middle class wealth were above that of even the USA and most of Europe. Argentina’s constitution is modeled so closely to the Constitution of the United States that it could be considered plagiarism.

According to American lore, the “canary in the coalmine” served as an early warning for miners. As long as the canary kept singing, it was OK to keep on doing what we were doing. Very sensitive to methane and carbon dioxide, a dead canary signaled the need for immediate action. For the United States, perhaps the canary is Argentina.


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