I wear slutty shorts, so what?

Be 19 years old. Unconscious at 3:00 am in the parking lot of a renowned restaurant/bar in Bogota. Be a female: a Victim. Wearing a mini-skirt… a slut.

In November, 2013, this case spurred an agitated social debate. On one hand were activists and women’s rights organizations advocating for female’s liberty of choice. On the other was the more conservative faction of Colombian society that put blamed on women’s choice of attire for the majority of sexual crimes against females.

Bogota’s women organized a miniskirt protest under the Twitter tag #MePongoMinifaldaYQue (#IWearMiniskirtSoWhat). I didn’t join. In fact, the news didn’t really hit me until last weekend when I bought my first pair of very short shorts.

My story is more or less like this. Summer is coming and I need shorts that are not gym shorts. My bf (who is not Colombian) and I went to the mall and he suggested I try some short shorts.  I glanced at the clothes and raised my eyebrows. I don’t even consider the offer.  Why would anyone wear something that gets them raped?

That day was Easter in the orthodox church and I made a cynical comment along the lines of “yeah it makes sense to celebrate God by wearing slutty shorts”. To what he replied “what are you talking about? They are not slutty, they are short. They are nice”. You are too Christian”. Then I paused. I am not too Christian! He was right, they were just short. period.

Then I thought, “OK, I have been lifting heavy weights and my legs look pretty, I feel like I can pull these off”. So I tried every single type of shorts in the store and found them surprisingly comfortable and… yes, nice! I walked around, checked all the angles in the the mirror of the dressing room. I’ve never given my self this luxury: to visualize me walking around in short shorts, owning my nice ass, knowing that others will see it… and not being afraid of that. I’ve often criticized Americans for their sleazy summer clothes. Even moms wear tiny, tight clothes! What else can you expect in a country where something is made profitable just by sexualizing  it?

So… yeah, I bought the shorts and broke my paradigm. I’ve been wearing them around friends at picnics and dinner parties, and I feel good (tanananananah).

After my discovery, I called my (younger) sister and told her I felt stupid for having lived my entire life judging people for their choice of shorts. I told her “I don’t know why I used to think they were slutty”. To what she responded “Dah, because they are!”.

Are we too Catholic? I don’t think so. I think we are too Colombian.

Bogota, where I grew up, is a cold city high in the mountains. There, the sun burns your skin like crazy. Generally, there is no need to wear short clothes or to leave legs and arms exposed. Anything higher than your knee, or anything that exposes your curves is considered provocative. Be on the street and show a little bit of skin and you will get all sorts of whistling sounds, honking patterns, and naughty comments.

If you are a middle class female in Bogota, rape is a thing you worry about since the day you start using public transportation on your own. The buses are generally crowded and sexual harassment is the daily bread for women in the capital. It is so bad that the city’s police force has a special commando of undercover police women who are “fishing” harassers simply by wearing more “tempting” clothes and waiting for them to abuse their private space–and keep in mind that the definition of private space in Colombia is not even comparable to that in America. Some women develop colorful strategies to handle this pervasive sexual insecurity. I know of a lady who was so tired of men putting their genitals close to her face when she was sitting in the bus that she started carrying a needle to poke them whenever they got close to her. Personally, what I do is carry my mochila crossed and over my left hip because my right leg is stronger, thus, if I need to kick, that’s the one that will do more damage.

I was 13 when I started moving around on my own. I had to take the bus to go to tennis practice, to the gym, to the athletic villa, to my grandmother’s house, to the sports psychologist, to school (the times I did to go), to the movie theater, and importantly, to the ice cream shop: Crepes&Waffles.

Bogota is a highly fractured city, where rich and poor and miserably poor and miserably dangerous neighborhoods often share a common border. Sometimes, I had to go to sketchier parts of the city. I remember being 14 years old hearing my aunt telling me the secret to leaving a delicate scene “unraped”. “All you need to do is shit in you pants”.

I also remember being 15 years old (and looking like a 12 year old) walking to the bus station in the middle of the day, wearing my sweat suit and carrying my tennis rackets. One thing in mind, “if the neighbors dogs are unleashed and attack me (again) I have my rackets to defend me”. Totally unaware of any sexual danger. A construction worker riding his motorcycle approaches me and asks me for directions.The man is young and has a playful smile, he also has a musical voice. Surely, a farmer kid from the little town of Cota that’s just working in construction over the summer. He gives me a good vibe overall.  I tell him I am not sure what he is looking for I can’t recognize the place by the description. He says “Oh well, that’s alright, thanks for your help”. He doesn’t take off. He is looking at me. I am looking at him without any particular worry. He is still on his motorcycle, he is measuring the distance between him and me. Short enough, but long enough. He makes a move: to grab onto my crutch and try stick his finger up my vagina through my clothes. I was wearing my sweat suit, my tennis shorts, my spandex shorts and my underwear. So, I was physically protected. However, I was not psychologically prepared. I didn’t tell anybody. It was so weird because it’s not like anything really happened. Yet, now I look back and I understand it was unfair. Just so confusing. Soon after the incident, I forgot about it.

Everything comes together now. I have a truly traumatic story of my childhood that I now understand is explained by the mix of rapacious male lust and impunity. As I may have told in another post (“friend or foe” ), I grew up with German Shepherds. They were my sisters and my best friends until much after I started attending primary school–so maybe until I was 6 years old. When I was 5 years old, I was going to a French school located about 5 blocks away from my home, the “Refous”. As customary in French school, kids are out at noon on Wednesdays. Wednesdays, Margarita, the lady that came to do the cleaning in the house would pick me up from school. Sometimes, Margarita would bring with her one of the German Shepherds on a leash.

To go home from school we had to cross a new highway and then walk about 10 minutes along a dirt road. One day, Margarita came to pick me up with “Sara”, my canine sister/best friend. I grabbed Maragrita’s hand and we were getting ready to cross the highway and start the journey home. Across the highway there was cow grazing. Sara was very excited about this cow, she was totally hysterical, barking and pulling. She was out of control. German Shepherds are strong dogs. Margarita couldn’t keep Sara from running away. Sara crossed the street, barked at the cow for some time and decide it was time to come back. She was running back to meet us, she was so happy. I could see it in her face, with her tongue out, and her sparkling eyes. She was half way through the highway when a truck rolled her over.

I still haven’t recovered from that. I used to cry just thinking about ti until I was 9 or 10 years old. That day I cried more than ever. My dad was furious and fired Margarita. She was not supposed to take the dogs out of the house. I blamed Margarita and myself; I never forgave her: I thought she was disobedient and arrogant. Why did she have to bring Sara? I thought she was trying to show off that she could handle an adult German Shepherd.  It wasn’t until very recently that I understood her. Today, the picture is clear to me.

When this horrible episode happened some parts of the new highway were still being constructed, thus, there were construction workers hanging out all day in the neighborhood. Margarita brought Sara with her because she was afraid of the workers. Fuck. Margarita is innocent and my best friend is dead because of some lustful assholes. Those two things are clear to me.

After looking back, I realize I am also a victim of sexual abuse. The comical thing is that I did not put it together until I decided I wanted to safely wear “slutty” clothes: until I stopped being a perpetrator of a kind of toxic prejudice against women who want to celebrate their body or simply do whatever the hell they want to do.

There are many wrongs in society committed against women. All I know today is that I’d like to be able to wear my short shorts whenever I feel like. Do we need to change society for that?




No TRain, No Grain: thoughts on Wheat, Trains and Oil production

Rail service is often the most cost-effective available alternative for shipping agricultural commodities in the Upper Midwest Region of the United States. The recent energy boom has created new competition for the use of shipping services. As oil has taken up freight space on railways, it has become more costly for farmers in states like Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota to reach grain markets, resulting in millionaire losses. Furthermore, the recent drop in oil prices may have magnified farmers’ difficulties in shipping their products as some participants in the energy industry have turned to using rail cars for storing surplus inventories of crude oil.

Rail companies have been accused of prioritizing oil shipments over grain; however, rail companies assert that the delays are due much higher rail demand and rail congestion in general. In defense of rail companies, economic theory does suggest that the increase in demand for rail services by the oil sector is likely to increase transportation costs for all competing consumers, including wheat farmers. High crude oil prices encourage oil production therefore affecting the demand for shipping services—including railvcars.

According to this logic, wheat farmers struggling to reach markets due to increased transportation costs should celebrate the recent dramatic drop in oil prices. However, the decline in oil prices may not have alleviated the pressure that wheat farmers face from the oil industry when competing for access rail services. In fact, it is precisely the decline in oil prices what could complicate things even further for wheat farmers. I claim that U.S. oil storage nearing capacity seems to be an additional source of concern for wheat farmers, and I want to test whether there is evidence to support this reasoning.

The recent plunge in oil prices has brought many changes to the industry in general and oil producers are increasingly choosing not to sell their product at current prices. Instead, they seem to be turning to innovative ways to store their surplus crude and sell it through the futures market for delivery at a later date and for a higher price. According to the EIA, U.S. crude inventories rose above 500 million barrels in late January, 2016 for the first time since 1930. The low oil prices have created a new demand for what the industry calls “rolling storage”: the practice of storing of surplus inventories in rail cars.

I love these stories, they are visual, they give the maths a face and a name; they are exciting and make my research fun. The kind of stories we study in environmental and agricultural economics are evidently about real people and about real places. One day I’d like to be a story-teller, a real story-teller: that is a teller of real stories; that’ why I decided to investigate the transportation link between wheat and energy markets. Do railroad companies have favorites? Are oil producers using rail cars to store oil? How much cost do farmers have to put up with? Is it worth it to construct a new oil pipeline and alleviate farmers’ losses?

Using oil nearby prices as a proxy, I studied three particular effects of increased competition for rail services. First, I examined the impact of track congestion on wheat prices before and after the shale-oil boom. I also investigated how the expansion of the energy sector may have had different effects on prices received by wheat producers in North Dakota and Texas. Finally, I studied whether the construction of new regional liquid pipeline networks was linked to regional wheat prices.

What I found was, in general, consistent with economic theory and anecdotal observations about disproportionate impacts of the energy sector’s expansion between US regions. Specifically, I find that there is a negative relation between oil prices and wheat prices–supporting the hypothesis that higher demand for rail cars by the energy industry is affecting wheat farmers negatively. Also, I find that the impact of oil nearby futures prices on the basis is about 5 times larger for farmers in North Dakota than for farmers in Texas. However, the results about the impact of production, inventories and year-specific idiosyncrasies also suggest that the effect of train delays on grain prices in the Upper Midwest is not driven entirely by the increased competition for rail services from the energy sector. Other factors, such as unusually large crops and extreme winter conditions, appear to be important determinants of the apparently disproportionately weak wheat basis in the Midwest.

Although the relation explored in this paper does not allow me to calculate a back-of-the-envelope estimation of lost revenue from train delays and backlogs, I can do something similar by calculating lost revenue from increases in oil prices (or even from increases in both oil and ethanol prices). My calculations suggest that wheat farmers in North Dakota lost close to USD$ 60.6 million in revenues from wheat sales at local markets, annually because of the expansion in the energy sector.

Pipelines for Grains?

My data was not strong enough to yield any conclusions regarding the question of pipeline interaction with oil prices. Also, I was not able to find any evidence of the rail car storage hypothesis. Yet, keep in mind this is a very recent phenomenon and the effect may not show up in the data for some time.

Either way, it is still important to keep the farmers’ losses in mind together with other negative spillovers from increased truck congestion and train accidents when deciding over projects such as the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline had more economic benefits than originally proposed.

The results presented here are relevant for agricultural, energy, and transportation policy. In particular they can be used (or not) to inform parties interested in improving existing support programs to wheat producers, in furthering regulations over the U.S. railway oligopoly to target certain level of provision of rail services, and in advocating for the development of alternative methods for transporting oil. To learn more about this study, check the papers tab in my website (or click here).

To end this post, I want to repeat that I love agricultural and environmental economics. Mostly because there is always a story to tell: there is a victim, a villain, a hero, an intricate plot, a difficult choice; there are winners and losers, and maybe there is also a solution.



Shady business–some thoughts on the regulation of the coffee sector in Puerto Rico

I got interested in Puerto Rico’s coffee market because I decided to embark–solo, as it should be done if you are to have fun for an unnecessarily long time– on the adventure of conducting some research on the possibility of implementing agricultural policies to further environmental service provision and biodiversity conservation in PR.

After almost a year of passive research, the marketing and regulation of coffee in PR and the objectives of the institutions governing the system remain very puzzling to me.  I’ve been struck the general opacity at every layer of the system: form coffee farmers, to ecologist researchers, to social scientists, to government officials. The lack of clarity over goals, restrictions, and the general rules in the system strike me as a “red flag” that someone is making money at the expense of someone else–and perhaps unfairly, or how we prefer to say in positive economics: in a non-egalitarian way.

You can find a description of the research motivation in the “papers” tab in my website’s home (or by clicking here). Here I’ll just elaborate on my personal –and rather pessimistic–perception of where things can go.

In conducting my study, I ran into several inconsistencies in the data that raised my awareness of additional structural factors in a rather complex system of which coffee farmers are a small component. If the intention is to use agricultural policy to further environmental goals, the environmentalist agencies will need to gain much deeper understanding of institutional idiosyncrasies governing the microeconomics of coffee production in Puerto Rico. With the risk of overstepping, I will discuss two examples of “the tip of the iceberg” that illustrate how difficult it will be to successfully intervene in Puerto Rico’s coffee sector in order to improve biodiversity conservation and environmental service provision in the island.

The first issue is an example of what could be the prevalence of pernicious incosystency in monitoring, recording and measuring of economic performance in the coffee sector. Coffee in Puerto Rico is sold by almuds or quintals. These are non-standard metrics that  have different definitions—and indeed, are used to measure different properties (say volume instead of mass) —across Latin America and the Caribbean. The USDA defines these units as one almud equaling 28 pounds, and one quintal equaling 100 pounds. However, after speaking with officials and researchers, there is reason to believe that farmers, researchers, government agents, and consumers may have different ideas of what exactly these units constitute. The lack of transparency in the metric system itself may be enough reason to worry about some agents taking advantage of the system to exploit illicit profits. Although I have no evidence of illicit profiting, in the data I do find that average coffee prices vary drastically depending on whether the farmer sells by almud of quintal. The average price per pound that farmers selling by quintal received was $3.16 (with standard deviation of 1.37); on the other hand, the corresponding figure for farmers selling by almud was 0.54 (with standard deviation of $0.49). Although, theoretically those receiving $3.16 are “beneficiadores” (business that are in charge of processing the coffee at a commercial scale) selling coffee beans, while farmers receiving $0.5 are growers selling coffee cherries; there is no certainty over this issue and the data does not support this distinction entirely. This large discrepancy in prices is reason of concern, particularly for distributional considerations and compensatory public policy.

The second issue that clearly reflects the level of convolution in the system, shows how uncertainty as to the implementation of public policy by one state agency can escalate rapidly and affect the actions of other regulatory agencies and the industrial organization of coffee markets itself. In Puerto Rico, the Department of Consumer Affairs (DACO) sets the price of coffee. By law, since 1973, the DACO is supposed to review the price of coffee every 5 years and fix an increase based on recommendations by the Department of Agriculture and the University of Puerto Rico through the Agricultural Science Department and the Agricultural Extension Service. However, coffee prices have not been reviewed systematically.[1]

The DACO is also in charge of systematically setting import tariffs on coffee. Historically, imported coffee had been taxed heavily, keeping its price artificially higher than that of local coffee. However, since 2015, DACO signed an order imposing a Price ceiling of $322 per quintal of imported coffee—making local coffee less competitive from a pricing standpoint. DACO’s neglect and apparent favoritism for coffee consumers—local and multinational—over local producers has likely had an impact on subsequent political actions taken by interested parties such as the Department of Agriculture and certain large multinational companies operating in Puerto Rico. In turn, these actions may have spurred interactions with existing disruptions and inefficiencies of the market, making the situation for coffee farmers even more complicated. I will elaborate on these thoughts to make their meaning more explicit.

With the objective of relieving some of farmers’ financial pressures, since 2001, the Department of Agriculture has established a series of incentives programs in addition to the existing  programs subsidizing seeds, fertilizer and labor. The effectiveness of these new programs is highly questionable based on anecdotal observations. Certain legal records document the flaws in these programs. Among them, high uncertainty as to the priority given by the administration to the appropriation of funds to said programs. Additionally, payments conceded by these new schemes are often received late, and sometimes never. Yet, within the last year, DACO’s failure to revise the prices systematically has risen legislation proposals to have the PR Department of Agriculture establish coffee prices instead. [2]

On the other hand, DACO’s neglect is certainly not helping farmers who are facing higher input prices and a fiercer competition from abroad. However, an artificially low price of coffee may be disproportionally benefiting large consumers.[3] Although I have no evidence and no way of showing that monopsonistic power is related to DACO’s public policy, it is a worry supported by recent news and media analysis.[4]

The coffee industry in Puerto Rico has been struggling in the last few decades. The reasons behind this collapse are multiple and likely to be interrelated. From natural reasons (like pests and hurricanes) to shocks in the labor market to public policy initiatives to market organization, these reasons obscure the fundamental factors determining farmer behavior and thus, make matters ever more complicated for parties interested in targeting coffee producers to further environmental objectives. I want to conclude this paper with the following thought. Although much progress has been made in the areas of economics and ecology in terms of understanding the micro-economic foundations of human behavior and the interactions between humans with the environment in an economic setting, taking these lessons to action will ultimately depend on the functionality, reliability and transparency of political and legislative systems.

Adam Smith wrote in his book “The Wealth of Nations” about the infamous invisible hand. The counter-intuitive, and counter-catholic idea that the common good is attained by people being selfish–that is, people are guided by an invisible hand (prices) to make decisions that bring them personal profits and also create the goods and services that society needs. That means, that people can do good without having to be selfless and altruistic. This is very foundation of market capitalism.

He wrote “Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nos knows how much he is promoting it… He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never know much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”

I’d like to believe this is the generally case. I don’t know. Maybe there’s reason to put emphasis on the fact that Puerto Rico is truly a Caribbean country, not a U.S. territory. There seem to be different institutions in place offering perverse incentives causing individuals to behave selfishly and yet not attain the public good. It is as if in Puerto Rico, the invisible hand belonged to a blind master.


[1] It took 13 years since the enactment of the “Ley Organica del Departamento de Asuntos del Consumidor” for DACO to adjust coffee prices. In 1986 it set them to $3.12 per pound. In 1991, the price was adjusted to $3.64 per pound. Then, in 2005, prices were raised by 20%. The last time DACO reviewed coffee prices was in 2015. Then, DACO set the price of ripe coffee cherries to $0.52 per pound (and $0.35 for green cherries) and the price of coffee beans to $379 per quintal—or $3.79 per pound.

[2] http://cb.pr/sen-ruiz-proposes-agriculture-department-set-coffee-prices/

[3] http://www.oslpr.org/download/en/2008/A-0222-2008.pdf

[4] Since 2013, Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters (which is domain of Coca-Cola Co.) controls 80% of the coffee market.