I remember there was this fascination with the idea of the informal economy about 10 years ago. Stewart Brand was talking about how brilliant it is that people get by in slums on an informal economy. He’s a friend so I don’t want to rag on him too much. But he was talking about how wonderful it is to live in an informal economy and how beautiful trust is and all that.
And you know, that’s all kind of true when you’re young and if you’re not sick, but if you look at the infant mortality rate and the life expectancy and the education of the people who live in those slums, you really see what the benefit of the formal economy is if you’re a person in the West, in the developed world. And then meanwhile this loss, or this shift in the line from what’s formal to what’s informal, doesn’t mean that we’re abandoning what’s formal. I mean, if it was uniform, and we were all entering a socialist utopia or something, that would be one thing, but the formal benefits are accruing at this fantastic rate, at this global record rate to the people who own the biggest computer that’s connecting all the people.
So Kodak had 140,000 really good middle-class employees, and Instagram has 13 employees, period.
That’s computer scientist Jaron Lanier, who coined the term “virtual reality,” explaining his view that the Internet has destroyed the middle class, in an article on Slate.
Though I’m not sure that the argument that “great stagnation” arguments of the type made by Lanier, which posit that technological change brings increased unemployment, hold much water (thousands of years of technological change seem to indicate otherwise), Lanier’s comment about informal economies is spot on.
Development economists and law-and-economics scholars know the serious inefficiencies that go hand-in-hand with informal economies all too well. Here is one of my favorite articles on those so-called flea-market economies, by Fafchamps and Minten. Here is a whole book by Marcel Fafchamps about the difficulties posed by trying to conduct business in an environment characterized by informality.