Pinning down the informal economy is as tough as catching a fake Louis Vuitton vendor running from the police. But it’s huge in the United States – larger than the official output of all but the upper crust of nations across the globe. And, due to the recent recession, it’s growing.
Whether that’s good or not depends entirely on one’s point of view. The rise of the informal economy is either the flourishing of entrepreneurship among America’s poorest or a drag on legitimate businesses that play by the rules. Here, on Harlem’s Malcolm X Boulevard, you can find both.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about America’s shadow economy is its size. Long associated with colorful street hawkers in the developing world, the shadow economy makes up a larger portion of the economies of countries like Greece (25 percent) or Mozambique (more than 40 percent) than it does in the US. But because America’s economy is so much bigger, its shadow economy amounts to nearly 8 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) – in the ballpark of $1 trillion, estimates Friedrich Schneider, an economics professor at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria. That’s bigger than the GDP of Turkey or Australia.
There’s nothing particularly ominous about the shadow economy – at least, not the one Professor Schneider measures. He doesn’t include illegal activities like drug trafficking or counterfeiting. The transactions he looks at involve the legal production of goods and services that are not taxed and may violate labor laws.
The article concludes:
Off-the-books work “is probably neutral to good,” says Alfonso Morales, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He argues that formal and informal economies are linked and cannot be neatly separated.
“People who make their money in unregulated businesses probably spend it in regulated ones,” he says.
(via John Robb)