Sunday, February 18, 2007

Economics in Peru: It´s a family affair
I am an informal economist at best, but thanks to my reporting skills I am effectively naive, observent and curious, which comes in handy here. This economic look at Peru is therefore a reflection of my experiences here. I will start, as I often do, with a view from the ground up. doorman and resident political scientist seemed rather preocupied yesterday.

He always has something on his mind. I generally put in a good half hour with him every day mostly listening to his various theories and commentaries on Peru, Latin America, and frequently an analysis of the hypocrisy that is the United States foreign policy.

Last night was a little more pedestrian for Enrique. He took a break from his usual and quite convincing dissection of why South America should unite and form a European Union type agreement so as to compete with the US.

Instead the topic was his wife´s recent return from visiting her family in Perú's eastern jungle. She was upset that he never came to visit while she and their son were gone. Enrique explained, beyond not really digging his in-laws, that he can´t really take a break. He shares doorman duties with two other Peruvians, Oscar and Pastor, they split the day between 8 hour shifts and when somebody is off, which is rare, they split 12 hour shifts.

Technically they get up to a month of vacation, but, as Enrique explained, none of them take it. He took a three day weekend last year, his only vacation in nearly 3 years of manning doors at my building. Enrique says if he were to take a break the building would bring in a substitute. His concern is that the building management will like the substitute better than him and he would be out of a job. More importantly the break would be a non paid leave, something few Peruvians can afford to do. So, he works and he works, and he laughs at the thought of taking a vacation. I didn´t get the feeling a lack of vacation sticks in Enrique´s craw and makes him bitter. In fact there was a strange pride eminating from him, that he doesn´t need a break. I guess he´s the Lou Gehrig of Peruvian doormen.

I don´t know what Enrique makes a month, my guess it is in the ballpark of 200 dollars. I have recently got a beat on what salaries here in Lima are, and what they afford people.
A cab driver who doesn´t have to rent his cab makes around 300 bucks a month. That sounds low, but it is actually comparatively around the median.
In fact, especially in rural areas, unemployment is so bad that you get the Cuban effect, lawyers and doctors driving cabs.
One must factor in that more than half of Peruvians survive on less than 2 bucks a day.
2 liters of water costs close to a dollar, a very cheap meal at a restaurant costs 2 dollars, and rent probably between 100 and 200 bucks. So factoring its salaries, Lima is not necessarily a cheap or workable place to survive.

So how do people survive?

Enrique and his family share a house with his dad and his brother and sister´s families. He says it works out but space is tight. Most of my friends here live at home, some never leave. Rent, even when it is cheap, is still between a third or a half of ones salary. You can imagine this has a bit of an affect on cultural and social development.

Families are wonderfully tight but children often lack the natural transition to being on their own and assuming more responsabilities. Most middle to upper class families have at least one maid if not two. Many of these employee are live in help, so siblings grow up never doing the dishes, laundry, etc.. That dynamic just doesn´t exist here. I recently enjoyed a conversation between a friend and his 3 young kids about why it didn´t really make sense that they get an allowance. Essentially household chores are done by the maid, and thanks to some sweet urban planning, nobody has a yard big enough to mow, so that chore is out. All we could come up with was washing the car.

Another friend of mine who is in his 40´s has a decent job working in the journalism department of a University and he earns around 5,000 dollars a year. He and his six siblings are solidly
entrenched in their childhood home.
As you can imagine I am an oddball in that I
A. live alone in an apartment
B. clean up after myself
C. can afford to have the lifestyle I do, one that is by no means lavish in US terms, but is considered so here.

It sounds like king of the mountain to some to collect a US salary in a foreign country. The problem is, thanks to natural market selection, that you often wind up pretty isolated. In my building there is essentially nobody in my age bracket.

I am no Thurston Howell III, so the class of people I often find myself around is not really comfortable or congenial. I am the only person in my building I have ever seen utilizing the stairwell, for the exception of the occasional smoker.
I also don´t have a tiny dog, nor a maid(although I do have a bathroom and workspace for one: If anyone who reads this is interested in the job, please send me a CV and a few references)

Obviously my complaints will be recieved as shallow and rightfully so. If I hadn´t been robbed with a long sharp knife gracing my neck I probably would move to a more middle class area. I am internally tortured by the image of modern saint Dr. Paul Farmer living in the bellfrey of a church so he could save money on rent and concentrate more funds in setting up a clinic in Haiti. That sounds like a righteous move to make, but I haven´t done it yet. Maybe a good compromise would be to just die my hair black, take a paycut and move in with Enrique´s family.


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