Driving across a new four-lane bridge, I feel an overwhelming sense of awe and gratitude for the solid safety and engineering of the structure. Forty feet below and off to the side, I see the old retired bridge, a narrow, two-lane affair, which has stood for about fifty years. The new bridge is one of many structures being upgraded and expanded on this stretch of highway. The entire road is being upgraded through a general widening, heightening, as well as the systematic replacement of older bridges which are being improved as a public safety measure in order to better handle additional traffic and potential flood waters.
Generally, when driving across new bridges, I do not experience purple mountains of gratitude or amber waves of awe. These emotions are conjured because of my experiences of living in foreign cultures with alternate economies. Academics and theorists might have us believe that economies are cold-blooded constructs devised for the discussion of resource acquisition, distribution, manufacture and the consumption of goods. Yet, economies are created, shaped, upheld, corrupted or sustained by people and their behaviors. Economies are in fact warm-blooded.
In countries where there are dual systems of economic distribution—both the official and the black markets, the black market often pulls its resources or goods from the official system. There was a running joke in one of the countries, where I was a student that addressed this very issue: Do you know why there are no stray animals around a sausage factory? They have to get the meat from somewhere.
The “official cuts of meat” slated to make it from farm to factory to table were frequently commandeered through petty theft by workers along the official chain of production, transportation and manufacture. Thus, the “sausage” making its way to the official supermarkets apparently had substantial portions of unofficial fillers—stray animals, paper and who-knows-what. One close friend, living in this economy full-time and preferring to purchase imported sausage when it was available, noted that even her dog would not eat the domestic sausage from the grocery store.
Issues of petty theft and corruption, inherent in economies where the black market is strong, do not stop with sausage production. Where there is an active, dual-system economy in operation, construction sites also might see a few bags of cement disappear or several lengths of steel go missing. These materials then show up in personal building projects or on the black market to be traded or sold for other goods or services that the average person might not otherwise be able to access (e.g. tickets to a cultural or sporting event). And, the bridge or high-rise building being constructed goes without the structural benefit of these materials. The appearance of the bridge or high-rise might match the proposed completed structure on a set of blueprints, but the reality is that these projects are not necessarily complete or structurally sound.
To be continued.