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McMafia: Crime without Frontiers

06 Sep 2008

Fan. Fucking. Tastic. I have read so many good books this year it’s hard to call it the best, but…it’s up there.

I read the only biography of Huey Long worth reading several years ago–the author and edition escape me, but it was an impressive piece of work. Huey Long operated entirely on a buddy system, with few written records, and the only way to figure out what the man did was sit everyone he worked with down 20 years later and talk to them. It was done, and the biography was grand, detailed, and informative.

Glenny has taken the cake on this one. Huey Long only worked in Louisiana. He interviewed more than 300 people on every continent, and read countless books (a lot of his further reading list is going on my amazon list), to come up with this masterpiece. He’s done original research in English, Russian, German, and Serbo-Croatian, talked to politicians in China and prostitutes in Dubai, cops in India and Pakistani secret service agents. This guy probably has a file with every intelligence agency on earth. And the result is really, really, really good.

Anyways, the gist of the book is that crime is not only bigger than most studies give it credit for, it’s part and parcel of the everyday lives of law-abiding citizens. Most of the goods we buy in this post-globalization world are produced under conditions run by protection rackets, from China to parts of the EU. The number of governments that are currently effective at the day-to-day management of law and order for their citizens can be counted on your fingers and toes with some digits left over, and that really surprised me. I thought of the Yakuza as running brothels and Pachinko, and the idea that they really exist because the Japanese court system is so woefully ineffective at enforcing a contract caught me really off-guard.

Glenny does not let his interviews get in the way of important numbers, and the most important number in this book is 70%: 70% of the money currently going to criminals is drug money. In addition to the simple fact that we are completely ineffective at policing them, taking them away would allow police to chase the truly evil parts of organized crime, namely sex trafficking, and maybe even pay a little more attention to the inevitable smuggled nuke (as they say, the best place to hide a bomb is in a bale of marijuana). Everywhere we have sin taxes, everywhere we ban something people want, we’re basically signing over vast sums of money to people willing to break the law to make their living, and to the coercive protection rackets that exist to serve the contract enforcement needs of these businesses.

Glenny gets it right on globalization. Money is free, goods somewhat, and people not at all. A big part of organized crime is smuggling people to where they can work illegally, smuggling goods to where they are are untaxed to where they are not, smuggling goods from where they are legal to where they are not. The problem is not that there is more trade: it’s that certain classes of trade are restricted, and the people in the unrestricted ones are making out like bandits, quite often at the expense of taxpayers somewhere.

Read from the eyes of a libertarian, the book paints a pretty grim picture of the future of the nation state. There’s hundreds of billions worldwide in the business of evading taxes, the backbone of the state, and just as bad, most of the people smuggling are getting involved with organizations that compete with the state. Hezbollah keeps the water running in Lebanon, the Mafia stops petty theft, Russian thugs watch over the property of businesses that westerners invest in, and the triads peddle influence with Chinese politicians like bushels of wheat. It’s not covered here, but I would bet anything that somewhere, organized crime is sponsoring public education, and not even of the brainwashing kind that I know criminal gangs promote in the middle east.

The anemic response of nation states to all of this, if we were looking back on it, would be exceedingly telling for the future of the state. DEA agents operate in British Columbia with impunity, because nobody there really cares about weed and thinks it should be legal. The solution to these problems is NOT to show that your state will bend to the policies of another one; it will only push the growers into ever more parallel, ever more powerful organizations that take care of the needs of day to day business. Mistake, mistake, mistake.

Read the book. It’s great.