Taxi Talk

May 21, 2009

In July 2006, I landed in Caracas, Venezuela around 10:00pm on a flight from Managua via Panama City. I was in Caracas to meet with some government officials, and the Ministry had arranged my hotel reservations and flights, and I had figured everything else would work itself out (my general travel philosophy).  I didn’t have any bolivars, so I went to the ATM, and then remembered that I was going to be paying a high premium on the money I was taking out: the Venezuelan exchange rate had been fixed against the dollar for a number of years at the same rate, and overtime had become artificially high.  As a result, there was the official exchange rate, and the unofficial one, which was of course much more favourable to holders of dollars.  But as I had forgotten to look up the latest black market rate, I didn’t want to risk my luck with the informal money changers on the street.

Armed with my expensive cash, I hoped in a cab, and immediately struck up a conversation to ask what the going rate for dollars was.  As anyone who’s been to a new city knows, a taxi driver is exactly the right person to ask this question, seeing as they always seem to be on top of all social, economic and political trends based on their unscientific sampling of the opinions that pass through their backseats.  On the long trip into the centre of town, we talked about the state of the Venezuelan economy, Bush and Chavez.  He had been an avid supporter, until a bridge connecting the city to the airport collapsed, increasing his journey time to and from by more than two hours, with no corresponding increase in fare.  The conversation was the perfect brief introduction into the realities of Venezuelan life that I needed to keep a critical eye on what I was to hear and discuss with the government the next day.

I mentioned in my last post that I was shocked to find out on my recent trip to the US that a not insignificant percentage of Americans are so unhappy with Obama’s economic policies they would prefer to succede from the United States.  Sadly, I didn’t get the chance to take the pulse of any cab drivers about this.  Not because I didn’t take any cabs while in the US – I took a number of them while I was in New York for a long weekend – but because every cab I got into was driven by someone who talked throughout the entire trip on their mobile phone… or more precisely, into their mobile phone earpieces.

There’s no more taxi talk in New York City.  I don’t know who all the cabbies are talking to (each other?), but the art of taxi banter is fading fast.  Not only are the Big Apple’s cabbies on the phone, there are small television screens built into the panel of the seat in front of you, like on an airplane.  The cabbie no longer wants to talk to the passenger, and the passenger is distracted by a replay of that morning’s “Regis and Kelly” (that is if they are not talking on their own phones).  No informal political or economic banter is exchanged, and thus everyone’s a bit poorer.

I’m only slightly exageratting when I say that I think that this is the largest loss social science has ever suffered.   If taxi talk vanished altogether in other cities across the globe, I’m pretty sure that political analysts would do less well in predicting electoral outcomes.  That economists would have fewer hunches about the differences between the official inflation statistics and the reality on the ground.  And at a stretch: maybe if New York City cabbies had been talking to the bankers, trader and investors who hoped into the back of their cabs over the past year, more people would have been aware that the financial system and the global economy was on the brink of collapse.

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One Response to “Taxi Talk”

  1. ) and his son, who I swear was Kristen Stewart dressed up as an 11 year old boy (like Bella from Twilight,
    the kid doesn’t change his facial expression from “dull surprise”, not once).
    Macy, do not tell Grant the real reason they want him to accompany them to Isla Sorna.

    Living in the late cretaceous period the T-Rex was a formidable creature who did not have any known predators.

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