No hay monedas, por Dios: the Argentine coin shortageBuenos Aires, Spring 2009
This morning I logged on to my daily reading addiction, The New Yorker, to see a front-page piece on the Argentine coin shortage, which Slate has called “the world’s most annoying economic crisis.” Both articles provide some excellent insights into a bizarre problem. Though the government is minting coins in record numbers, no one has enough of them, nor a clear explanation why. Bus company corruption (reselling coins for a profit on the black market) and general hoarding seem to be the most likely culprits, but no one really knows.
The Slate writer explains that regardless of actual monetary value, coins are psychologically worth more than bills because they are so hard to come by. This is definitely something I experience daily, as are exasperated sighs—and often outright refusal to make a sale if it requires change—from cashiers. The other day, I spent twenty minutes going from kiosk to kiosk doing exactly what Keohane describes in his article: trying to buy a 2-peso candy bar with a 5-peso note to get change to ride the bus. The first two clerks frowned and shook their heads when they realized what I was up to, but the third took pity on me and handed over that precious one-peso coin with a 2-peso bill. On the bus, I gleefully ate the candy bar and wondered if the shortage will also lead to a slight rise in the national averages for weight, since buying the junk food sold at kiosks is one of the most common strategies for getting monedas. I know, I know, that’s a bit too ridiculous. However, so is the fact that one of my Argentine friends has some sort of sketchy arrangement with a friend who works in a bank and occasionally helps him get large sums of coins.
The New Yorker piece draws an analogy between the coin shortage and the U.S. credit crisis, saying that both demonstrate the “irreducible psychological dimension to both crises and recoveries”: basically, that a lack of faith in the economy breeds more instability, while trust is required to rebuild a solid system. As both articles note, it’s hardly surprising that Argentines, the veterans of numerous failed governments and economic catastrophes, don’t have a lot of trust in the system. But I don’t think the New Yorker is quite right to call the moneda problem a panic. “Profound skepticism,” yes, but not panic. A popular saying here is “Es lo que hay,” meaning “It’s what there is,” and I think it’s a fairly telling summation of the resilient, come-what-may attitude that Argentines have adopted to deal with these sorts of daily inconveniences. Demonstrations and strikes can hold up traffic, the air pollution makes you cough, sometimes you step in dog crap on the sidewalk, and it might require some strategizing to get the coins you need for your commute—but you’ll get them in the end. People here don’t panic about these things, because they’ve been through way, way worse. They just shrug, pass the mate, and say “es lo que hay.”
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