Organized Crime Roundup

I have been arguing for years that organized crime has an inherently political component. Certainly I am not alone, and researchers far superior to me have made the same point–for example, Charles Tilly and James Buchanan. However, mainstream political reporting seems to have been catching onto this over the past few months. I have rounded up a few of these posts that will be of interest to long-time readers. See also my working paper on violence following targeted leadership removals in Mexico.

Are Mexican Drug Lords the Next ‘Terrorist Targets’?” by Douglas Lucas. Lucas accurately describes the framing of drug lords as terrorists to be a form of “mission creep.”

Peter Andreas responds to Moisés Naim’s essay in “Measuring the Mafia-State Menace.” I was not aware of Andreas’s work until Daniel Solomon recently shared it on Twitter but now I have several of his books (including this one) on my reading list.

Although somewhat sensationalized, Christian Caryl also has a nice overview piece on global organized crime at Foreign Policy: “Mob Rule.” Some of the statistics there seem questionable but the overall point–that students of politics should pay attention to organized crime–is a valid and important one.

Finally, World Politics Review features an interview with Brian Phillips, who argues that targeting DTO leaders in Mexico has not reduced violence. This matches my own research on the topic.

Podcasts I Like

Apologies for the silence here lately. I have been working on a couple of longer-than-average posts, as well as some fun projects that I will hopefully be able to share with you here soon. Part of the influence in those upcoming posts is from podcasts I have enjoyed. (Readers of the tipping post may have noticed that two of the main references there were to podcasts as well.)

Ben Franklin Koss HeadphonesThus, I thought readers of this blog might enjoy some of my favorites. There are likely some that I have omitted because I listened to all of their episodes some time ago. Below are those that have stood the test of time or that I am listening to currently.

Economics/Social Science

  • Analysis: Half-hour episodes on current events with a social scientific perspective.
  • Data Stories: As you might expect, an audio podcast about data visualization has some weak points. However, this is useful as a who’s-who of the visualization community.
  • Econtalk: My absolute favorite podcast. Each week, Russ Roberts and a guest discuss research or current events using economics as a lens on the world. Sometimes I think Russ is too hard on statistical methods, but every episode is worth a listen.
  • Great Economists: Originally a MOOC from MRUniversity, the audio from this course is now available as a condensed series of podcasts.
  • History of Rome: History’s greatest empire in 170-odd episodes. Although new episodes are no longer being produced, host Mike Duncan has a new project in the pipeline that is expected in September.
  • Loopcast: DC WarKids and their guests discuss national security and international relations.
  • More or Less: Tim Harford takes quantitative headlines and questions them, often finding more than meets the eye.
  • Planet Money: My second-favorite podcast, after Econtalk. The hosts explain current events or applied economics lessons in accessible language with fun examples. A podcast like this focused on politics would immediately become my all-time favorite.
  • Pop-Up Ideas: Another Tim Harford podcast, this one covers big ideas in social science in a short and punchy manner.

Technology

  • Accidental Tech Podcast: Marco Arment, Casey Liss, and John Siracusa discuss Apple and web technology. This podcast originated as outtakes of their casual car show, Neutral. A very enjoyable listen every week.
  • Bitsplitting: Daniel Jalkut  interviews technology professionals, many of them entrepreneurs.
  • CMD+Space: Myke Hurley interviews guests who “do great things.”
  • Giant Robots Smashing into Other Giant Robots: Discussions of software design and development, hosted by Thoughtbot’s Ben Orenstein.
  • Ruby Rogues: Although originally a Ruby-focused program, after over 100 episodes the rogues now delve into other issues including education, cognition, and the politics of software communities.

Will the Internet Lead to Convergence of Dictatorship and Democracy?

Stephen Walt thinks this is a distinct possibility:

[P]erhaps the most likely possibility is that we will see a partial convergence between authoritarian systems like the People’s Republic of China and open democracies like Britain and the United States. Instead of empowering individuals and forcing monarchies and dictatorships to liberalize, the connectivity revolution could cause democracies and dictatorships to move somewhat closer together. Dictatorships will be less able to prevent new ideas from circulating and may even be vulnerable to collective action facilitated by social media (see under: Arab Spring). So they will become somewhat more open. But at the same time, previously open societies that privileged privacy and strictly limited government monitoring will be unable to resist the temptation to collect lots of private data, whether from surveillance cameras or from your laptop. Authoritarian states may get somewhat weaker, while liberal governments become somewhat more intrusive and authoritarian.

My own view has been somewhat more optimistic (see the summary here) but recent events seem to support the latter half of Walt’s argument.

Currency and Conflict

According to Lebanon’s Daily Star:

Traders across Syria reported widely fluctuating rates and two currency dealers in Damascus, where the pound appeared to be hit hardest, said it fell below 200 to the dollar for the first time in what one described as panic buying of the U.S. currency.

On Monday evening the pound traded at 205 to the dollar, down 20 percent in four days and 77 percent down since the start of the anti-Assad uprising in March 2011 when it was at 47.

The idea of examining currency prices over the course of a conflict is interesting. There are a number of confounders of course. For instance, the regime can often intervene in certain ways to affect the value of currency. Other incidents besides the conflict itself can also drive currency fluctuations, especially when the conflict is relatively minor.

One nice case (from strictly a research perspective) is the US Civil War, when both the Union and Confederacy issued their own notes. Jeffrey Arnold‘s project, “Pricing the Costly Lottery: Financial Market Reactions to Battlefield Events in the American Civil War,” leverages this fact to see how markets responded to successes and failures of either side. We discussed this project before when it was presented as a poster at PolMeth 2012, and Jeffrey’s website now has his MPSA 2013 slides.

Here’s his abstract, and one of my favorite graphs:

What role does combat play in resolving the disagreement that initiated war? Bargaining theories of war propose two mechanisms, the destruction of capabilities and the revelation of private information. These mechanisms are difficult to analyze quantitatively because the mechanisms are observationally equivalent, the participants’ expectations are unobservable, and there is a lack of data on battles. With new methods and new data on the American Civil War, I address these challenges. I estimate the information revealed by combat with a model of Bayesian learning. I use prices of Union and Cnnnonfederate currencies to measure public expectations of war duration and outcome. Data on battlefield events come from detailed data on the outcomes and casualties of the battles of the American Civil War. The results suggest that battle outcomes rather than casualties or information revelation had the largest influence on the expected duration of the American Civil War.

confederate-union-prices

The Aesthetic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy

On episode 18 of the Loopcast, Sina and his guest discuss fashion and national security. Around 23:00 comes the money quote: “There’s a lot of black hair dye involved being a dictator.” Here’s the logic:

[I]n a democracy, your hair turns grey very quickly in a four year term…. But in a dictatorship, the hair gets oddly darker: it just turns to an eerie shade of black…. [Dictators] want to remain relevant. They didn’t want to get old…. They didn’t want it to seem like they had been getting old and getting crushed by the responsibility of their job.

While a random sample of hair shades and a thorough hypothesis test is beyond the scope of this post, I’ll let the readers judge for themselves based on the photos below. Note that one source of bias may be that US presidents try to look young and vital for the election but let their hair go after that.

Democratic Leaders:

Bill Clinton, 1993 and 1999

Bill Clinton, 1993 and 1999

george-w-bush-2001-2008

George W. Bush, 2001 and 2008

barack-obama-2009-2011

Barack Obama, 2009 and 2011

(More US president before/after photos here.)

Dictators:

Hosni Mubarak in 2012: Imprisoned and hospitalized but not grey

Hosni Mubarak in 2012: Imprisoned and hospitalized but not grey

Muammar Qaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years

Muammar Qaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years

Hugo Chavez not letting grey get the best of him

Hugo Chavez kept grey at bay until the very end

Kurds and Statelessness

Kurdish peshmerga--literally "those who face death"--standing guard at Shenarwe Mountain

Kurdish peshmerga–literally “those who face death”–standing guard at Shenarwe Mountain

Last week one of my academic heroes, James C. Scott, came to Duke to give two talks. The first was a lunchtime discussion of his recent book, Two Cheers for Anarchism. The second was a lecture elaborating on The Art of Not Being Governed. We have discussed the argument of the latter book here before. To oversimplify quite a bit, Scott says that the upland peoples of Southeast Asia consciously evaded the intrusion of lowland governments into their lives.

Scott recognizes that his argument applies outside of Asia as well, but does not delve into specifics. My favorite example of this is the Kurdish people, who are located in the mountainous region of northern Iraq, southern Turkey, northeastern Syria, and northwestern Iran. As Scott would say, they are at the periphery of several states and the center of none. It is also an increasingly strategic region, and Kurds find themselves in a position to shape the balance of power:

After decades of persecution and genocide, the Kurds have found a way to operate in a neighborhood where clear-cut borders can often be more of a nuisance than a boon. Loosely promised a state by the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, the Kurdish people have learned the hard way that maps don’t necessarily dictate facts on the ground, as any observer of Mideast history and politics can attest. “Though the Kurds are said to be the world’s largest stateless people,” writes Time contributor Pelin Turgut, “Kurdish leaders … say they are no longer interested in a single Kurdish state but in a loose federation that spans various national borders.” Rather than waiting for Mideast leaders or the international community to make a deal for a state, the Kurds seem to be playing a regional game of “Let’s Make A Deal.”

With the recent call for a ceasefire by PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, Kurdish-Turkish relations appear to be improving. This is an important transition since until now Kurdish leaders have been closer to Baghdad than Ankara. Bashar al-Assad has recently increased Kurdish autonomy as he seeks their support in Syria’s civil war. To take an optimistic view, this stateless people may soon find themselves playing kingmaker in the region.

See also: The Kurdish Factor” by Matthieu Akins

The Randomness of Borders

Fifty US States Redrawn with Equal Population

Fifty US States Redrawn with Equal Population

Rivers and oceans help to form natural boundaries, but if it’s a straight line you can bet that it’s essentially random–and it might even be in the wrong place:

Four Corners Monument, which marks the intersection of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, lies 1,807 feet (550 meters) east of where it would have been placed in 1875 had surveyor Chandler Robbins used a modern GPS device to pinpoint the coordinates he was tasked with locating.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter now. Once set in stone, monuments become law. “Even if the surveyor made some grand mistake, once the monument is set and accepted, end of story. Where the monument is, that’s where the boundary is,” said Dave Doyle, chief geodetic surveyor at the National Geodetic Survey (NGS).

Those straight lines have a value though–they are easy to verify and make it simple to calculate the land area within a specified region. Linear borders for a parcel of land can increase its value up to 30 percent say economists Gary Libecap and Dean Lueck:

They look at the 116 billion square meters of land in the state of Ohio. Because of an accident of history, a large fraction of these square meters were assembled into irregularly shaped parcels via an uncoordinated process of private claims by independent individuals. The rest were assembled first into rectangular parcels along the lines of the survey called for in the Northwest Ordinance and then transfered to private ownership.

It’s worth reading the paper to get all the details, but the punch line is that this difference in the initial bundling of small bits of land had a lasting effect on how they are used. Today, more than 200 years later, a flat square meter is worth 30% less if it was initially assigned to an irregularly shaped parcel.

I have been reading up on border arrangements in Europe and Africa lately as part of a project on state-making. The best introduction I have found so far is that of Jeffrey Herbst, who argues that maps and formal boundaries were not developed in Africa because low population densities made them useless. In fact, it took until 1975 for population density of Africa to rival that of Europe in the 15th century. For another look at the randomness of borders, check out this paper by John McCauley and Dan Posner.

See also: Ian Lustick on Israel’s borders

Hackers vs. Diplomats

XKCD's Map of the Internet, 2006

XKCD’s Map of the Internet, 2006

Katherine Maher’s Foreign Policy piece got a lot of (deserved) attention last week. If the topic interests you, go read the whole thing. I’ll highlight the parts that are most relevant to our recent conversations on internet politics.

On the web as geography:

Like all new frontiers, cyberspace’s early settlers declared themselves independent — most famously in 1996, in cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Barlow asserted a realm beyond borders or government, rejecting the systems we use to run the physical universe. “Governments of the Industrial World,” he reproached, “You have no sovereignty where we gather.… Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.” …

Barlow was right, in part. Independence was a structural fact of cyberspace, and free expression and communication were baked into the network. The standards and protocols on which the Internet runs are agnostic: They don’t care whether you were in Bangkok, Buenos Aires, or Boise. If they run into an attempt to block traffic, they merely reroute along a seemingly infinite network of decentralized nodes, inspiring technologist John Gilmore’s maxim: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

On the promise of the internet for promoting freedom:

Information has always been power, and governments have long sought to control it. So for countries where power is a tightly controlled narrative, parsed by state television and radio stations, the Internet has been catastrophic. Its global, decentralized networks of information-sharing have routed around censorship — just as Gilmore promised they would. It gives people an outlet to publish what the media cannot, organize where organizing is forbidden, and revolt where protest is unknown.

On the changing reality–increasingly state-based control:

Recently, the network research and analytics company Renesys tried to assess how hard it would be to take the world offline. They assessed disconnection risk based on the number of national service providers in every country, finding that 61 countries are at severe risk for disconnection, with another 72 at significant risk. That makes 133 countries where network control is so centralized that the Internet could be turned off with not much more than a phone call.

It seems our global Internet is not so global.

From my perspective I can only hope that we will find the equivalent of “internet mountains” that will remain hard to govern. It is possible that some nation states will even facilitate this. (I am thinking here of The Pirate Bay’s move from a US-based .com domain to a Swedish .se address.) The emperor may still be far away, but he’s getting closer.

More Baby Name Regulation

We just talked about this less than two weeks ago: countries that have lists of banned baby names, or lists of permissible names. Azerbaijan will soon join the second category, with one important difference. The Azeri government’s justification for the new rule is that some monikers are politically unacceptable:

The “green” list will include names which can be freely given to children. The “yellow” list will contain unwelcome names – these might be ones likely to be mocked or that sound bad in other languages. The names from the third category, the “red” list, will be forbidden. They might refer to people who are considered aggressors against the Azeri people or have double or obscene meaning in the Azeri language.

A government committee has been compiling the list of acceptable names (currently about 8,000) for several years. The most common bans are for “foreign sounding” names like Dmitry and Lenin. “National” names like Pioneer and Tractor are on the green list.

[via PRI’s The World]

Politics of Beards: Post-Mubarak Egypt Edition

An Egyptian protestor compares Hosni Mubarak (right) with Mohammed Morsi (left). The poster's caption reads "Mohammed Morsi Mubarak".

An Egyptian protestor compares Hosni Mubarak (right) with Mohammed Morsi (left). The poster’s caption reads “Mohammed Morsi Mubarak”.

In Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood members generally tend to go with the full but well-groomed beard and moustache. However Salafists – the ultraconservative fundamentalist Muslims – like to let their beards grow long and wild, often leaving their upper lip clean-shaven as a nod to how the Prophet Mohammed wore his own beard 1,400 years ago.

Some within the Salafist camp take things an extra step and dye their beards with henna, producing a range of colours from maroon to bright pumpkin orange.

In a post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt, beards have made a big comeback. For years, beards were frowned upon as symbolic of the Islamist movements that Mubarak considered a threat to his reign. Government employees, ranging from police officers to EgyptAir pilots, were forbidden from growing a beard.

But now, civil servants across the country are are calling for the ban to be lifted. Suddenly wearing a beard in Egypt has become an issue of civil rights and freedom of expression.

From the BBC. You may also like our discussion of facial hair norms among Syrian rebels from back in December.