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Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economyby Robert Neuwirth
Synopses & Reviews
• Thousands of Africans head to China each year to buy cell phones, auto parts, and other products that they will import to their home countries through a clandestine global back channel.
• Hundreds of Paraguayan merchants smuggle computers, electronics, and clothing across the border to Brazil.
• Scores of laid-off San Franciscans, working without any licenses, use Twitter to sell home-cooked foods.
• Dozens of major multinationals sell products through unregistered kiosks and street vendors around the world.
When we think of the informal economy, we tend to think of crime: prostitution, gun running, drug trafficking. Stealth of Nations opens up this underground realm, showing how the worldwide informal economy deals mostly in legal products and is, in fact, a ten-trillion-dollar industry, making it the second-largest economy in the world, after that of the United States.
Having penetrated this closed world and persuaded its inhabitants to open up to him, Robert Neuwirth makes clear that this informal method of transaction dates back as far as humans have existed and traded, that it provides essential services and crucial employment that fill the gaps in formal systems, and that this unregulated market works smoothly and effectively, with its own codes and unwritten rules.
Combining a vivid travelogue with a firm grasp on global economic strategy—along with a healthy dose of irreverence and skepticism toward conventional perceptions—Neuwirth gives us an eye-opening account of a world that is always operating around us, hidden in plain sight.
"Neuwirth (Shadow Cities) explores the global significance of the 'informal economy,' those small transactions of incremental profits eked out in city dumps, outdoor markets, and unlicensed bazaars that employ roughly half of the global work force. The author takes his cue (and title) from Adam Smith and links such activity to a fuller conception of economic development, offering the alternative term 'System D' (borrowed from an Afro-Caribbean slang term for the unofficial economy). As Neuwirth's roving narrative shows — in case study chapters on Lagos, Nigeria (where System D has provided potable drinking water and public transit); SÃ£o Paulo, Brazil; San Francisco, California; and Guangzhou, China — this 'unregulated economic activity' is indeed a system, relying on individual and group organization, social solidarity, and surprisingly universal sets of unwritten rules. It also captures much more than the microprofits of the roadside sale: in the U.S., for instance, (where System D is on the rise amid a larger economic downturn), there are the unlicensed mobile kitchens of San Francisco's Mission District that can mature into full-blown companies feeding chains like Whole Foods. In many cases, System D and the formal economy are directly intertwined, and Neuwirth makes a striking case for both the influence of System D and the need to engage it as a partner in economic development." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Book News Annotation:
The author of Shadow Cities takes his title from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Neuwirth uses the term "system D" for informal markets of the global stealth market--street markets and unlicensed bazaars who typically do not pay taxes--from slang French for resourceful people. He discusses motivations for, and examples of, this vibrant alternative economy, e.g., public takeover of a bus system abandoned by the official bureaucracy. Provocatively, he contends that pirated high-tech products level the technological divide in poorer countries. Annotation ©2011 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
About the Author
Robert Neuwirth is the author of Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World. He has received a research and writing grant from the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, appears nationally and internationally as a speaker and on radio, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Dwell, Fortune, The Nation, and Wired, among many other publications. He lives in Brooklyn.
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