The line, the milk, the flour, the bachaque-ating, and incentives

On Friday afternoon, my dad sent me a cryptic text: “Anabella. Sábado A Las Ocho. Leche En Polvo. Nuestro Gama. Cédula Tuya y Mami”.

(Anabella – Saturday at eight. Powdered milk. Our Gama (local grocery store). Yours and your mother’s ID card day)

When he sent that text, my dad was leaving a supermarket that is pretty close to our home, and a cashier told him that they would sell powdered milk the next morning to those con el número de cédula que toque – with the scheduled ID numbers. The Saturday winning ID numbers are those ending in 0-1-2-3-4.

On Saturday morning, my mom and I got to the supermarket at 8:00 am, and there was already a line with 40 people more or less. We got into the place by 8:18 am, got in line for the milk (2 bags of 900 grams per person) by 8:19 am, and they told us we could also get 2 kilos of Harina Pan per person.

We got our quota and arrived at the check-out line by 8:25 am. We left the market by 8:56 am.

It took me 56 minutes to buy 2 bags of milk and 2 packs of Harina Pan. I was ecstatic, and also slightly unnerved.

Pure gold
Pure gold

I already talked about the struggles of doing la cola. Now I would like to talk about an expression I heard on the check-out line:

Esto nos vuelve delincuentes… O al menos nos hace sentir como delincuentes.

“This turns us into criminals… Or at least it makes us feel like criminals.”

In spite of the joy from getting my allocated quota, something did not feel right. I don’t know if it is knowing that I am getting these goods for much less than what they cost to produce, or if it’s the fact that there are millions of Venezuelan mothers that haven’t gotten milk for weeks. The fact is that my good fortune left me feeling a bit … icky.

Everyday should be YOUR DAY. Going to the supermarket generates the same feeling as handing in a Cadivi folder. You’re nervous and uncomfortable. It’s your day, but you still ask over and over just to make sure, because you wouldn’t want to feel like you’re doing something wrong or … gasp … even illegal.

Then you ask over and over about the quotas. And when you get your quota, you hang on for dear life.

And this is a regular (extraordinary) day at the supermarket.

Lines, order and quotas. Lines are set to guarantee order and fairness: the first ones to arrive should get in first. But in Venezuela, lines are also set to guarantee quotas.

For example, should we let old people cut line or should they get in line? They are old and shouldn’t be standing in lines, but if they cut in, they could get the quota of someone that’s been waiting for hours.

If we let old people cut lines, are we sure they are buying for themselves? Or are they part of a group of bachaqueros – the informal vendors that buy at regulated prices and sell in the black market?

When we got in at 8:18 am, we saw an old guy fighting with security. He didn’t get in. My mom told me she knew him and wasn’t bachaque-ating. But if she didn’t know him, how could we be sure? Or anyone else, for that matter?

No matter what each of us might think is the right answer, the truth is that a senior citizen that should be getting a preferential treatment is getting treated like a potential criminal.

***

I would also like to comment about the bachaqueros.

We economists don’t judge a specific behavior –even when we personally might not agree with it. We tend to ask ourselves: what motivated said behavior? And if it’s not the desired behavior, then we ask: what can be done to change the motivations behind the behavior?

On November of 2014, Luis Vicente León said that 65% of people doing lines were resellers. I’m not sure that 6 or 7 of every 10 buyers are reselling, but many are. Some are living the bachaquero way. Some are buying what they can to barter for what they need.

And many others (including me and my family) are standing in line just to stretch our income. No matter what your salary might be, if you charge in bolívares, you’re losing purchasing power every single minute.

20150509_100926 (2)
US$ 26.5 at Cadivi/Cencoex rate or less that US$ 1 at Simadi rate

Buying regulated products is still a good investment, even if you’re not a bachaquero. I spent BsF 166.98 on 2 bags of milk and 2 packs of Harina Pan.

My mom had heard that you could get a bag of powdered milk for BsF 240, but someone in line told us that you could get it for up to BsF 500 in Valencia. Also, you could buy a kilo of Harina Pan for up to BsF 70. So I could have spent BsF 1,140 if I had bought the milk and Harina Pan from a bachaquero, spending 7 times more.

I must say, it’s pretty annoying to notice that many buyers are bachaqueros, and that they get tips and help from the supermarket clerks to cut line or buy over their quota. After some time, you tend to see the same faces over and over, and start to recognize bachaqueros from a mile away.

But even if I don’t agree with the bachaquero way, I must ask:

What motivates the bachaqueo? Simple enough: It’s one hell of a business.

I could easily resell my purchase of BsF 166.98 for up to BsF 1,140, leaving me with a profit of BsF 973.02 for an hour of “work”.

Let’s not forget that minimum wage translates into BsF 42 per hour. And I have a couple of jobs and don’t make anywhere close to that.

It’s no surprise that many are leaving their formal jobs to get into the bachaquero business. In the end, it’s all about incentives.

 

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