I am sure someone has already compared Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel‘s Economic Gangsters – Corruption, Violence, and The Poverty of Nations (website) to Freakanomics (the comparison is made more obvious with Steven Levitt’s blurb on the back cover). Economic Gangsters (EG) clearly belongs to the same class of books of economic vulgarization (in the French sense, that is, positive sense of making specialized knowledge and methods accessible to the general public). In this sense, I found the book extremely successful. It is a great and easy read. It uses fascinating examples. It is entertaining.
But what I found the most interesting aspect of the book was the social research part. The authors spend a lot of time detailing how to put a value on corrupt practices, how to measure corruption in the first place and all the different levels of corruption that may exist in different countries and how to figure out their quantitative and qualitative aspects. The topics covered in that fashion vary from the "value" of political connections under the Suharto regime in Indonesia (and the fluctuations of the stock market correlated with Suharto’s health reports), the diversity in smuggling practices in China and their economic impact, the oh-so-politically explosive topics of UN diplomats not paying their parking tickets in New York City, the connections between environmental pressures and war, and between war and post-war periods and poverty, to more general policy recommendations regarding poverty in developing countries. This diversity is part of the appeal of the book. If anything, it is not boring.
Throughout all these different topics, the authors make visible the connections between corruption, violence and poverty, defining corruption, following Transparency International, as "the illegal use of public office for private gain."
Where the book is frustrating is in its "economics explains (almost) everything" attitude, which is not surprising or presenting well-established connections as if for the first time. For instance, the connection between environmental pressure and social conflict has been widely studied to name one example, Michael Klare’s Resource Wars, among others. Similarly, the economic and environmental issues as partial factors in the genocide in Rwanda have been rather thoroughly illustrated by Richard Robbins and Jared Diamonds, each from its own perspective. And although the authors acknowledge that culture matter, they bypass other social factors to stick to a narrow focus, which would be fine, again without the "economics explains it all" stance. The case for good data and data interpretation is much strong in my view.
Similarly, especially when discussing the vast and question of global poverty, the authors write as if these problems were self-contained, as if there were no forms of neo-colonialism, as if the IMF and the World Bank had not been actors in some brutal economic disasters, and as if former colonial powers had no responsibilities in propping up puppet dictators in their former colonies, or as if the Asian Tigers had not been able to heavily restrict foreign trade and investments under the developmental state regime while African countries had structural adjustment policies forced upon them in addition to having to deal with the predatory state regime. And yes, predatory governance and poverty / violence are correlated and operate as a vicious cycle. Again, Manuel Castells has written quite extensively on these topics in his trilogy The Information Age.
As I mentioned already, it seems a convenient simplification to focus on only certain factors and then treat them as essential while not paying attention to others. That is my main issue with this book. But then, I would concede that vulgarization, by definition, requires some trade-off in terms of technical jargon and complexities but the overall tone of the book is not one of nuance but more of certainty that indeed, "economics explains it all."