None Dare Call It Conspiracy

by Daniel on January 6, 2004

It’s a common enough saying (and at least one of the CT collective, whose blushes I’ll spare, has endorsed it):

“If you have to choose between explaining something as a cock-up or a consipracy, choose cock-up every time”.

I’ve searched high and low for empirical evidence supporting this, but found rigorous studies to be surprisingly thin on the ground. Some people even go a bit further, suggesting that cock-up explanations rather than conspiracy explanations are correct 99 per cent of the time; I’ve found nothing to support this point estimate, still less any idea of what the confidence bounds on it are. What if the cock-up explanation was only right 75% of the time?

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Cities of Signs

by Henry Farrell on January 6, 2004

I haven’t been blogging the last couple of weeks, because I and my wife have been on a belated honeymoon in Venice and Florence. For Venice, I brought along one of my favourite books, Italo Calvino’s _Invisible Cities_. Calvino’s book is a series of accounts of imaginary cities – thin cities, hidden cities, trading cities, continuous cities, cities of signs – each of which is Venice, or refers to Venice, or points to Venice by virtue of Venice’s absence. By happenstance, I also brought along “Steven Berlin Johnson’s”: _Emergence_, which I’ve been meaning to read for a while. To my surprise, Johnson’s book also turns out to have a chapter that is more or less about cities of signs, and moreover uses Florence as its main example of how the city makes itself legible to its inhabitants. Johnson talks about how the organization of cities into neighborhoods, each of which may be a discrete and specialized cluster of activity, stores knowledge and makes it legible. If you are a Florentine who wishes to buy silk products, you know that you need to go to Por Santa Maria. Similarly, if you are a producer of silk, it may behove you to locate your activities close to other silk producers in Por Santa Maria, so that you may more easily exchange ideas, goods and services. In this way, neighborhoods may serve to collate, exchange, and represent information. All of this is of particular interest to me – the larger part of my Ph.D. research was on the “clustering of economic activity in Italy”: More importantly, Calvino’s and Johnson’s books offer refreshing and unusual vantage points on two cities which are a little stale to many tourists because of the overwhelming conventional wisdom about where you should go and what you should do.


by Henry Farrell on January 6, 2004

“Fabio Rojas”: has an interesting entry at _Marginal Revolution_ on the the evolution of organized crime in Russia. He suggests that one of the more interesting features of the Russian Mafia is “that Russian business and organized crime have become symbiotic,” as gangsters have come to act as guarantors of transactions. As it happens, this is true of the original Mafia too, as Diego Gambetta points out in a “classic essay”: on the evolution of the Mafia in Sicily. Gambetta argues that the Mafia’s main traditional role has been to enforce local monopolies, and to guarantee transactions between economic actors. However, he also points out that Mafiosi may sometimes have an interest in brokering bum deals – they will want to regulated amounts of distrust into market transactions in order to prevent people from coming to trust each other independently, and thus to maintain their own effective monopoly as enforcers of market deals. This analysis suggests that Mafia-style rackets may lead to the long term persistence of markets in which people don’t trust each other, and transaction costs are high.

Gambetta is an economic sociologist who likes game theory. His analysis reminds us that from the point of view of economic theory, the state and the Mafia are functional equivalents in several important respects. Both enforce agreements among economic agents in exchange for a slice of the profits. Indeed, the modern state very likely had its origins in Mafia-style protection rackets, a point made eloquently in another classic of the literature, Chuck Tilly’s “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime”:

Another Failure

by Kieran Healy on January 6, 2004

Martian probe breaks up in Earth’s atmosphere. British aerospace engineers express sympathy with counterparts on Red Planet.


by Brian on January 6, 2004

I was rereading Adam Elga’s paper on On overrating oneself… and knowing it, and it gave me a thought about some possible challenge trades in the NFL.

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