Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Global Economics And Inner Morality Of Drug Mafias

Regular readers know of my admiration for Roberto Saviano, who wrote the amazing book Gamorrah about organized crime in Italy. Now I've just been reading his latest book ZeroZeroZero, which is about how organized crime -- especially that associated with the movement of cocaine and other drugs -- functions in the global economy.

It's no surprise that massive drug cartels operate like large and powerful businesses -- after all, that's why they call them "cartels." But Saviano also argues that the global economy of crime is hugely intertwined with the global economy of everything else -- so much so that you could almost think of cocaine as the essential commodity, the consumer good that not only drives the world's economic changes but also profoundly affects global politics and, by extension, the everyday lives of people around the world.

It's a complicated argument to make, and at least some readers wish it could have been made less impressionistically. But I found it fascinating. Saviano tries to tell the tale of cocaine by tracing out highly individualized stories and connecting them to the bigger picture. Though the stories of the individual narcos are vivid and extreme, I was in some ways even more interested by the narrative concerning Wachovia bank, money laundering, and the whistle-blower Martin Woods.

You can read about the Wachovia story at the Guardian here. Billions of dollars from drug money was filtered through Wachovia in direct violation of all kinds of laws, side-stepping all kinds of internal guidelines. Woods, hired to be an internal senior anti-money laundering officer for Wachovia in 2005, kept telling his superiors that something was up, and kept getting shushed and eventually harassed. Finally, Woods meets someone outside Wachovia who is willing to review the evidence, and the bank's defenses come crashing down.

Saviano's take on it is partly that of course it is massively in the bank's interest to look the other way. All the incentives were, and presumably still are, in that direction. To me, it is hilarious to consider this in the light of the comments at Naked Capitalism about how banks are harassing small-time customers who want to use cash rather than cards, sometimes with the excuse that monitoring and preventing cash transactions is necessary to prevent money laundering.

From the point of view of moral philosophy, the book has much to ponder about self-interest and society, and especially about the bonds that enable people to keep commitments to one another even as they perpetuate the most cruel and inhuman behavior imaginable.

Not surprisingly, those commitment are embedded in Hobbesian webs of threats and violence that ensure that people do as they're expected to do. These kinds of stories always make me reflect on the newer "self-interest" theories of morality, where the idea is that if everyone does what's actually in their (enlightened) self-interest, things will work out for the best.

In a passage from an old article in the New York Times that still rankles me, Steven Pinker tried a version of this moral jiu-jitsu. Trying to say that self-interest will lead people to act morally, Pinker wrote,
"If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me — to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car — then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it."
The idea being something like "Gee whiz, if I want you to be nice to me, I'll have to be nice to you! Unless I'm Galactic Overlord, but of course that doesn't apply to any of us."

Among other things, this just always seemed to me so naive about the nature of power. You don't have to be Galactic Overlord to be able to boss other people around; you just have to have power over them, wherever that comes from. Then, self-interestedly, you can do whatever you want. In fact, self-interest can often recommend perpetuating harm and violence.

Early in ZeroZeroZero, Saviano tells the truly horrifying story of a guy who is actually a DEA agent and who manages to infiltrate deep into the drug cartels of the "Golden Triangle" -- Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua. When he is found out, the people he has betrayed realize that, rationally speaking, they must punish him in ways that will serve as a powerful reminder for anyone who might dare to try something similar. It can never, ever happen again. As Saviano says, "No one was ever to forget how Kiki Camarena was punished for his betrayal."

[If you're sensitive about violence skip this next paragraph]: Toward that rational end, "Camarena was tortured at Gallardo's ranch over a 30-hour period, then murdered. His skull, jaw, nose, cheekbones and windpipe were crushed, his ribs were broken, and a hole was drilled into his head with a screwdriver. He had been injected with amphetamines and other drugs, most likely to ensure that he remained conscious while being tortured."

Of course, the whole thing was taped. How else could it work as a warning? In fact, one of the prime strategies the criminals in Saviano's stories use to keep people afraid and keep them in line is YouTube, with videos of torture posted as warnings. The whole thing is a paradigmatic use of rational thinking-- incentivizing others to do what is in one's interest.

So really, you don't have to be Galactic Overlord for self-interest to recommend that you abuse others. You just have to have power.

At one point, describing a lengthy discourse from a mafioso, Saviano points out that he's heard "dozens of speeches on Mafia moral philosophy." And I thought, "Wow, that is really what it is." Is any philosopher studying the moral philosophy of the Mafia? I don't know. I can only say that, really, somebody really ought to get on it.


Janet Vickers said...

Isn't this enough to vote for Trump, drink non-stop, take drugs, rape, and kill small babies so they don't have to live on this warped planet where no one will ever utter any comfort or hope to bring about any kind of social justice?

Or perhaps its enough to avoid power and just be nice so no-one notices us. Or just go shopping at the malls that look pretty, or watch the shopping channel and read glossy magazines.

Or join a fundamentalist church and agree with everything they say.

Anonymous said...

Hi Patricia. I discovered your blog (I forget how) a couple of months ago, and I've now read much of the archive. You're really interesting! And yet you get very few comments, which leads me to think maybe you have few readers. (?) For whatever reason, you're not generating any discussion. Why don't you approach one of the big-readership group academic blogs---I suggest Crooked Timber---and ask to be a contributor? You're consistently way more interesting than most of CT's contributors. (There's the occasional gem over there, but there's a lot dross, too.) I'd like to see what CT's readership would have to say about your reflections on the morality of drug mafias. Just a suggestion! And anyway, thanks for the great blog!

Patricia Marino said...

Hi Anonymous - thank you! While I do have more readers than the low # of comments would suggest, you're right that the readership is not huge -- and I have thought about something like what you're suggesting. I've hesitated, though, mostly because I think the tone and style of the large blogs is different enough from the one I have here that if I were part of them, I'd feel pressure to conform. I love having my own space here to write whatever I want, however I want -- and I think that's one of the things that keeps it interesting.

If I had more time, maybe doing both things would be ideal -? Anyway I will keep in mind your suggestion! If you have other big-readership blog ideas (in addition to CT) that you think would suit my work, do let me know (either here or by email, pmarino at uwaterloo dot ca). Thanks again for writing - I really appreciate it!