How Deep Is the Shadow Economy? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo: epSos .de)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “How Deep Is the Shadow Economy?” It addresses what we know — and don’t know — about the gazillions of dollars that never show up on anyone’s books.

(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

The conversation ranges from the macro to the micro — that is, from worldwide estimates of the size of the shadow economy to the actual off-the-books transactions (from drug dealing to freelance hair-cutting) that make those dollars flow.

We touch on research by the Turkish economists Ceyhun Elgin and Oguz Oztunali, who estimate that off-the-books transactions account for roughly 23 percent of world GDP (short versionfull paper); and a similar World Bank study by the economist Friedrich Schneider, who has studied shadow economies — and the attendant tax evasion –  for the past quarter century.  

But the star of this podcast is Sudhir Venkatesh, the Columbia sociologist who is a regular Freakonomics contributor. Venkatesh has studied, up close and personal, the working lives of prostitutes, home cooks, drug kingpins, sidewalk auto-repairmen, and many others whose labor — licit and illicit — constitutes the shadow economy. If you are even a little bit interested in this subject, you should definitely read Venkatesh’s Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor (as well as his later book Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets).

Here’s Venkatesh from the podcast:

You have to be pretty creative if you’re going to try to measure the shadow economy. Many social scientists, particularly those that want to see what percentage of the shadow economy is in the country overall, they want big estimates, they’ll often do surveys. So they might ask people very directly, “Hey, how much did you work illegally in the U.S.?” Well there’s a problem — people might not be telling the truth. Other economists might say, you know, to avoid the truth-telling issue we’re just going to take careful estimates. And so they construct very elaborate models. Sociologists like me who don’t trust people at all and believe that we generally don’t tell the truth at all have to go and see someone perform something illegally. So that means we’ll go and watch them. And in my case I’ll spend years watching them. The problem is I might only end up watching two dozen people. It’s hard to figure out what the country is doing as a whole by watching two dozen people, let alone your neighborhood. So it’s a problem. And as creative as we want to be in trying to measure it, we often fall short. 

One agency with particular interest in the shadow economy is the I.R.S., which estimates the annual U.S. “tax gap” — the difference between taxes paid and taxes owed — is about $345 billion. We’ve written about the tax gap before, and unless it magically disappears (ha!), probably will again.

Audio Transcript

Sudhir VENKATESH: So, here are some activities that would go into the "shadow economy" that are legal, but most people often do and they just don’t report their income: Contracting.  A lot of plumbing.  Painting homes, fixing homes.  Car repair.

Stephen J. DUBNER: Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociologist at Columbia University.

VENKATESH: Tax preparation is a huge part of the shadow economy.  Cutting hair.  Styling hair.  Personal training. 

DUBNER: If you’ve read either Freakonomics or SuperFreakonomics, you may remember Venkatesh. In the first book, he was the Deadhead grad student who embedded himself with a crack-selling gang in Chicago for about seven years. In "SuperFreak," we wrote about how Venkatesh hung out on street corners with prostitutes, interviewing them after each and every trick to learn more about who they are and how they do their jobs. He spends a lot of time looking into substrata that most of us rarely even think about.

VENKATESH: Nannies.  Day care.  People who will bring prepared foods over to your house.  So many of the kinds of things that we associate with the service economy are, in fact, likely to be also part of the shadow economy.

DUBNER: And, Sudhir, what share of goods sold on, let’s say, Craigslist would you estimate to be going toward the shadow economy?

VENKATESH: I’d say, conservatively, about 99.9 percent.

DUBNER: (Laughs) I’m glad you’re in a conservative mood today!

VENKATESH: That’s a conservative estimate. I could reframe those figures if I did study.

MUSIC

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM: American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything.  Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: Today’s show is about “the shadow economy,” all the activities – and the attendant dollars – that are not counted in official economic statistics, that escape the attention of the government and, especially, the government’s tax collectors. So, by its nature, this is an elusive topic. But it’s made even more slippery – slipperier? – by the fact that some of the activities that constitute the shadow economy are illegal and, therefore, even harder to measure. Here again is the sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh:

VENKATESH: A lot of economists will take activities like drug dealing or prostitution and call them ‘criminal,’ and say, you know, 'they’re part of the shadow economy but they’re just too hard for us to measure. So we’re going to focus on things that are legal. It’s just that people aren’t reporting all their income to the state.'

DUBNER: So, it seems as though most official or academic estimates of the size of a shadow economy are going to be missing what might be among the most profitable black market transactions, which are illicit transactions, yeah?

VENKATESH: It’s really hard to try and figure out exactly how much drug dealing, or prostitution, or money lending that’s off the books is going on. So usually what happens is that people will try to look only at the activities that are otherwise legal. You know, maybe use your car as a cab.  Maybe you cut hair.  Maybe you paint your house, or paint someone’s house and they don’t report the income, and so on and so forth.

DUBNER: Talk to me for a minute about how one, whether it’s you or others, try to go about measuring the size of the shadow economy. What kind of methodology and what kind of data are involved?

VENKATESH: You have to be pretty creative if you’re going to try to measure the shadow economy. Many social scientists, particularly those that want to see what percentage of the shadow economy is in the country overall, they want big estimates, they’ll often do surveys. So they might ask people very directly, ‘hey how much did you work illegally in the U.S.?’ Well there’s a problem, people might not be telling the truth. Other economists might say, you know to avoid the truth-telling issue we’re just going to take careful estimates. And so they construct very elaborate models. Sociologists like me who don’t trust people at all and believe that we generally don’t tell the truth at all have to go and see someone perform something illegally. So that means we’ll go and watch them. And in my case I’ll spend years watching them. The problem is I might only end up watching two dozen people. It’s hard to figure out what the country is doing as a whole by watching two dozen people, let alone your neighborhood. So it’s a problem. And as creative as we want to be in trying to measure it, we often fall short.

DUBNER: A lot of smart people have spent a lot of hours trying to get a grip on the size of the shadow economy not only in the U.S., but around the world. In 2010, a World Bank analysis of 162 countries estimated that 17 percent of Gross Domestic Product dollars were in fact hidden in the shadows. More recently, a pair of Turkish economists came up with a clever way to measure the shadow economy. One of them is Ceyhun Elgin.

Ceyhun ELGIN: In Istanbul, if you go to the main center of the city, which is called Taksim, you will see a bunch of people selling stuff on the streets which are legal goods -- like pants, T-shirts , whatever.

DUBNER: But you can imagine how haphazard it would be to go around counting up under-the-table transactions in country after country. So Elgin and his co-author took a different approach. Since we have pretty good data on what people in different countries earn in formal income, as well as how they spend and save and borrow, these economists built a model that, essentially, filtered out all the shadow dollars from the formal dollars, nation by nation. What’d they find? A figure similar to the World Bank estimates – that roughly 1 of every 5 dollars in the world is part of the shadow economy. That’s 20 percent. Now, to be sure, there are great differences from country to country. In the U.S., the shadow economy is thought to be less than 9 percent of GDP. Elsewhere, it is much, much higher. We took a look at the data with Sudhir Venkatesh.

VENKATESH: When you look at Sub-Saharan Africa and you see forty percent.  Or even Egypt -- sixty-seven, seventy percent of the economy is considered a shadow economy, you got to wonder what they’re putting in there. But the situation in some of these countries is that the government is so small and they’re really not used to doing a lot of surveillance over economic activities, that a whole range of otherwise legal activities are subsumed in the shadow economy simply because the government can’t go around and find everyone. So in a lot of retail -- you may be cutting hair, you may be having a little restaurant, you may never report that income in Sub-Saharan Africa, or in Egypt, or in other parts of the continent simply because you know that it just takes too much work for the government to find you.

DUBNER: Talk to me for a minute about what you know about the size of the shadow economy in the U.S. Or if it’s better expressed in terms of a share of the GDP.

VENKATESH: There are two estimates that I find reliable. The first is that as a share of GDP, roughly about eight percent of GDP could be considered a shadow economy in the U.S. I think that’s a conservative estimate and a pretty good one. The other way of doing it, which I find it kind of interesting, is that one out of every five purchases that an individual in the U.S. makes is in the shadow economy. So twenty percent of the consumption occurs in the shadow economy. The reason I like that is it starts to account for the dollar flows. The thing we have to remember about the shadow economy is just because what’s happening in the economy between a trader and a customer is illegal doesn’t mean that the money is completely separate from the legitimate economy. In fact, seventy-five to eighty percent of the money in the shadow economy eventually gets back into the legitimate economy anyway.

DUBNER: It just goes around a couple times first, yeah?

VENKATESH: It sort of goes around.  It’s like a Monopoly board game; it skips over the little cube that would be the IRS.

DUBNER: Now, let me ask you this, what do you know about a shadow economy and its relationship to the recession? Is a shadow economy countercyclical, does it tend to grow during a recession? Or do we not know?      

VENKATESH: The best evidence that I’ve seen is that in developed societies like the U.S. or parts of Europe, the shadow economy will grow during the recession.  That kind of makes sense because people will look for ways to survive and make ends meet. Now, the exact opposite often happens in developing countries, which is to say that when business is booming in developing countries, the shadow economy will grow. And part of the reason for that is when business booms, government simply can’t keep up and regulate it. And so if you know that the government is not going to come after you, and tax you, and regulate you, well why would you be part of the mainstream economy? Why not just hide the taxes? Why not just do everything off the books so you can keep more of the money yourself?

DUBNER: Sudhir, what do you know about the relationship between income level and off-the-book activities. In other words, is a shadow economy largely a feature of poverty?  Or not necessarily?

VENKATESH: The one study that I’ve seen, which is interesting, is that as your income rises, the percentage of your trade -- the kinds of things that you might trade illegally -- grow relative to your consumption. So that in the inner city, if you’re trading something for five dollars that’s probably not a great percentage of what you’re making. But as you go up, you’re in the suburbs, you’re in the Upper East Side, if you’re involved in the shadow economy, you’re probably involved in some pretty serious stuff, some pretty serious betting, or some financial transactions, money lending, et cetera. So there are some significant dollars that are being exchanged in some place, particularly as you go up the income spectrum.

DUBNER: That’s so interesting. It has me thinking about the insider trading trials of the last year or so.  And obviously the profits from those trades would not necessarily be part of the shadow economy because people sometimes pay capital gains taxes. But the value of the information, if one could measure that, that’s certainly not being counted anywhere is it?

VENKATESH: No, absolutely not. I remember talking to a number of traders in the financial service industry after the economic downturn asking ‘well what are you going to do now?’  And they said, ‘well, tomorrow morning I’m just going to go back to the same company and trade, but it’s going to be totally off the books.’ And the reasons is precisely because information is so valuable. They had the client base, they had all those relationships with the company. They might have need to lay them off, but they couldn’t afford to lose them. There’s a big difference.

DUBNER: So how would that work?

VENKATESH: Well, they might say to somebody we’ll allow you trade for a while, we’ll keep the trades on the books, but you won’t be recorded as having facilitated that trade. Or we’re going to just say it was done without a middleman. And at the end of the day we’ll give you an unstated commission. Now, all of this is illegal. It involves some fancy bookkeeping. And it also involves a wish and a prayer that the IRS or the SEC doesn’t come looking at your books.

DUBNER: That’s so interesting. So when someone like me naively thinks shadow economy is just haircuts, and nannies, and whatnot we’re missing a lot. That would be missing a lot of it.

VENKATESH: Looking at a financial services industry and trying to figure out what role the shadow economy plays for them with off the books activity, well you know what? It’s a lot like looking at a developing country. In both places, the people are making a strategic bet, which is that government is too busy to look at them, and they’ll look somewhere else, and they’re not going to pay attention, and they won’t get caught.

[UNDERWRITING]

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM: American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio.  Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: When Sudhir Venkatesh arrived in Chicago as a grad student in 1989, he started hanging out in a very poor neighborhood on the city’s South Side. As someone who’d grown up in a pretty mellow suburb of San Diego, he was transfixed by what he saw. He hung out more, and more and more. Eventually he wrote a book about what he learned. It’s called Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor.

VENKATESH: The shadow economy in Chicago that I studied could probably best be described by saying that it’s comprised of illicit goods or services, meaning things that people do that are completely illegal: drug selling, prostitution, things that are in the shadow economy not just simply because you’re not reporting the income, but you’re do something that’s against the law. And those are the things that I studied actively in Chicago for many, many years.

DUBNER: In the mainstream economy or legitimate economy -- whatever you want to call it -- we have all kinds of regulations, and rules, and contracts, and enforcement. What about in the shadow economy? How are disputes settled? How are contracts -- even if just oral -- enforced, and so on?

VENKATESH: I once did a study in Chicago where I found that seventy-five percent of the conflicts that occur in the shadow economy, meaning that you might say it costs $20 and I heard you say ‘$10’ and then we have an argument, most of the conflicts are solved in twenty-four hours by just the two of us trying to figure things out. The reason they resolve so quickly is that you and I probably need each other again, and again, and again. So we have an incentive to solve it quickly. But in many cases we may have a disagreement.  It may turn violent, and there usually is a third party. So there’s another part of the shadow economy, which is about dispute resolution and conflict mediation, and there are a lot of people out there selling their services as brokers or mediators who will say, ‘you know, for five percent of that exchange, or for a couple bucks, I’ll hear both of your grievances, and I’ll tell you who I think is right and who is wrong.’

DUBNER: And I understand that you settled one or two disputes yourself, yes?

VENKATESH: Unwittingly, I was drawn into a number of disputes.  They were fascinating because they were everyday exchanges: in one case between a car mechanic and a customer. And it was interesting to see in these communities where you think that, just because there’s a shadow economy, things are totally chaotic, or there’s no law, there are, in fact, a lot of norms. And there’s norms about fairness and equity. And again that’s because people have to use each other the next day. So they have an incentive to keep the relations good for a while.

DUBNER: All right, so what are some of the policy ramifications here? I think my and everybody’s first thought is of course lost tax receipts.

VENKATESH: Most economists would probably be drawn to the tax revenue that we lose. But there are a lot of other costs. For example, if you go into an inner city neighborhood and you walk into a public park, you might see people actually fixing cars.  Now, that's part of the shadow economy -- you can get your carburetor fixed for a few dollars. Now, that’s an environmental hazard. You don’t want oil all over your park; you don’t want people to be slipping on it; that’s a health hazard. You don’t want people solving problems in the shadow economy by themselves because that can often turn violent. So there are a lot of public health hazards, there are a lot of environmental hazards in addition to the lost revenue that occur. And that’s part of why we, as a society, want to limit or regulate the amount of economic activity that occurs outside the watchful eye of the government.

DUBNER: So how do you feel about the existence of such a large shadow economy? On the one hand, if you are a law-abiding taxpayer, you may think it’s not fair that so much money goes untaxed while you pay your share. On the other hand, you may not want the “watchful eye of the government” looking at every haircut and paint job and office betting pool, especially if you come out on the winning end.  On the third hand (don’t you sometimes wish you had a third hand?) -- on the third hand, you’re thinking, Yeah, I feel kind of bad about not paying taxes on some of the money I make but I don’t really want to just pay more taxes, so maybe I should find somebody else to send the money to. Someone I like. Someone who performs a valuable service but is probably underpaid because, oh, I don’t know, they work in public radio or something … You feeling it? Good. You can make your checks payable to Freakonomics Radio. Cash is also fine. Also: gift cards. Amazon would be nice, or the iTunes store. And I really need some new golf clubs …

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  1. frankenduf says:

    no mention of shadow banking?- i would think this would dwarf the shadow transactions of the little fish- when Brooksley Bourne tried to shine a regulatory light on the shadow banking sector, her federal powers were eviscerated by congress- reading between the lines, we may then infer that there are very powerful forces lurking in those shadows, power backed by a high volume of cash

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  2. Jacob says:

    Should internet sales be included in the shadow economy? I know I spend a large amount on Amazon, and while they do pay federal tax on it, my state is missing out on that sales tax. I’m sure there are many Ebay sellers, who don’t report that income. Is this perhaps a twilight economy, reported federally, but not on the state level?

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Then there’s the question of whether that “income” is really income.

      I just sold a book online. I had accidentally bought two, and by the time I realized it, I couldn’t return either. I sold the spare for less than I paid for it. My “net income” is a loss of about $10. I’m sure that I could declare myself to have a “small business” that lost $10 this year, but since this isn’t an ongoing activity, it would make more sense for me to just skip it. (The hassle of filing the forms will exceed the $2 or $3 reduction in income taxes.) That means that this transaction isn’t being “reported”, but it’s not really part of the “untaxed shadow economy”, because no income taxes were owed on it in the first place.

      I suspect that my situation is not unusual among small sellers on eBay, especially among hobbyists and people selling small numbers of books and music.

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    • Shang Tsung says:

      I know most states have a “Use” tax(state sales tax on out of state purchases)..you are supposed to report what’ve you brought online,mailorders but most people don’t know about it and only recently state government are starting to educate the public on it. just google it

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  3. James says:

    Seems like one problem, and not the least of them, is deciding just how deep to drill for the shadow economy. When does just plain neighborliness become part of the shadow economy? Take gardening, for instance. Like most of my neighbors, I garden for pleasure, and often wind up with an excess of this or that, which I give to friends & neighbors, sometimes getting some of their excess in turn.

    For instance, the other day I gave my neighbor a basket of peaches from my tree, next week she might give me some of her peppers. Obviously, it’s possible to see these as economic transactions: she might otherwise have bought peaches at the store, as I would buy peppers. But on the other hand, there’s no price: I don’t say “I’ll swap 10 lbs of peaches for the same amount of peppers”, because I have far more peaches than I can eat this year, and likewise with her peppers.

    These sorts of transactions go on all the time, and at all levels, between my neighbors, as I imagine they do in most rural places, and probably add up to a significant fraction of our total produce consumption. So it’s economic in the sense that it’s depriving the grocery chain of transactions, but is it properly part of the economy?

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    • Matt says:

      It could possibly fall under gift taxation provisions of the tax code, which allows you to “gift” $13,000 worth of assets (or services?) to individuals without being federally taxable. I’m not an expert on this. Maybe another person with more knowledge on the subject can clarify.

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    • Retro says:

      Interesting point. Then again, think about how much produce in a grocery store goes unsold and ends up being thrown own or otherwise disposed of. Where I live, some of the grocers don’t actually dispose of excess produce they have in storage, they provide it to charities that do something with it (e.g. take all those spoiling vegetables and cook the ones that are still mostly good to feed homeless people etc.)

      As I understand the financial consequences, the supplier has written it off as a loss/waste but the disposing of the excess inventory is actually still in a way that is being used. The same apple is recorded once but used twice: it’s written off as no good due to the fact that they just had way too many apples in the warehouse; meanwhile a not-for-profit uses it to make some muffins.

      So, it’s interesting when you stop and think about it. The next thought would be, what about people that take trash or garbage and turn it into something value-added. Are they just fooling around with a hobby? Or does their effort count as ‘shadow economy?’

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  4. Julie says:

    Two thoughts–having spent some time in a South American country where little to no income was ever reported to the government, I doubt than most people in said country making ordinary transactions would even consider their economic activity as part of a “shadow economy.” They’d wonder why on earth the government would need to get between them and their corner bodega or a between them and their hair dresser. Some of them, who view their government as little more than an organized crime gang, would see it almost as paying protection money.

    Second thought–where does hiring the neighbor kid to mow your lawn or babysit your kids fit in with the shadow economy? Should teenaged babysitters be required to report their income? Are these transactions legal, sublegal, or illegal?

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    • MW says:

      What about time taken caring for your own kids? After all, this is denying babysitters income. Maybe it is only part of the shadow economy when you’re not enjoying it? Does it make a difference whether you’re expecting your kids to care for you in old age (in which case your current ‘work’ is an ‘investment’)?

      It seems to me that defining the boundary of the shadow economy is very nearly as problematic as measuring it.

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    • Jim Fisher says:

      These activities are the essence of the shadow economy, often providing a young lawn-mower or baby-sitter with the small scale success to pursue something larger.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Is it really “part of the shadow economy”? That implies that taxes are actually owed. Someone whose income is below the taxable amount might not “report” that kind of income, but even if they did, they wouldn’t actually owe a dime.

        I believe that there is actually a specific, small exemption for teenage babysitters in the tax code under certain circumstances (must be under 18, must not do babysitting as the primary occupation, care must be given in the children’s home, a limit on the total amount for the year).

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  5. Jim Fisher says:

    For many the shadow economy is the only way the can afford to start a business, working sans licenses and permits until they accumulate the capital to “go legit.” It’s not a matter of criminal activity, it’s the reality of the expense of starting a business.

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  6. TravisZ says:

    Very interesting podcast.

    Shadow economy actually makes me feel better, a big percentage of shadow economy means people are have a better life than what it appears on paper.

    Another thing is I am not sure how reliable the paper is on the numbers. Paper says in my home country China, the shadow economy is about 12%, which I find hard to believe. I am thinking more like 25-30%.

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  7. Retro says:

    Enjoyed this one; it makes one stop and think.

    eBay was always very interesting to me because it enabled large scale movement of second-hand merchandise. Let’s take for example, things that people have in their basement, like say a collectors’ edition LP, or a collection of baseball cards, or some vintage electronic game still in the box (e.g. say a video game from 20 years ago or something).

    When you’re small-time, and you start selling off these collectable items, often for more money than was paid in the first place (let’s say you paid $20 for it, and now, years later, for whatever reason, it’s worth $200 to die-hard fans, which is a huge mark up even accounting for inflation) some interesting things happen. eBay the business collects its commission and listing fees. So the activity has SOME interaction with the regular economy. The post office does the business of shipping the goods to the buyer. But the majority of the value of the transaction, which if it was an antiques shop, would show on the books as a business sale, is being done by amateurs. There’s no sales tax payable on the sale. Now if you were selling it in person, behind closed doors, it’s a private transaction. But the likelihood of finding the buyer without eBay would have been quite remote. The auction service both facilitated a buyer finding a seller of a good that has value only to those people and nobody else (random Joe on the street wouldn’t pay that much money for some old collectible knicknack, he’d say you were crazy) but took a piece of the action and reported that as legitimate business income for services rendered.

    It’s only if you start relying on this mechanism as a major source of your income that you have to report it as yourself running a business; until then it’s just a creative form of re-using something old.

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  8. SEAN says:

    Great episode. Interesting as always. My question is about something unrelated to the actual episode. I really like the outro music. That guitar lick was killer. Who is that? Does anyone know?

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