Would drug legalization really
end Mexico’s crime problems?

A number of people have made this argument and on its face it makes sense. Criminalization makes any activity much more dangerous, by stripping legal guarantees, and law enforcement protection, from those who engage in it. So they hire their own guns and often end up using them, to resolve disputes that could otherwise be resolved by lawyers or cops. The history of US prohibition bears out the idea that by legalizing a banned but popular activity, government can reduce crime around it. And if the US legalizes weed, Mexico could legalize weed production – theoretically undercutting the crime wave whose locus is the Mexican drug industry.

But would Mexico really turn into a giant, tranquil weed farm? I wonder. Mexico’s problems strike me as having more to do with effects of the protracted, agonizingly slow collapse of an authoritarian regime. That regime – like Russia’s now, or Japan’s, postwar – maintained power in part by coopting, and taking a cut from the work of those economic enterprises it could control, and muscling the rest out of business. And look at the nationalization of the Mexican petroleum and banking sectors for examples of what happened when businesses were too big and powerful to be easily controlled. Look too at the long, entrenched tradition of corruption, with officials shaking down anyone and everyone, by threatening to use broad, if often vaguely defined powers to shut down businesses, either directly or by bringing businesspeople in front of courts with little power.

This can all happen because in Mexico, as in contemporary Russia and postwar Japan, there is an absence of a strong tradition of powerful private propertyholders being independent of traditional political authority. Also, critically, there is a longstanding and deep suspicion of the idea – commonly accepted in the first world – that economic power should be translatable, to some meaningful degree, into political power.

What does this all have to do with drugs? Even if Mexico legalizes pot production and distribution, wouldn’t “legal” pot growers and sellers still have difficulties protecting and expanding their businesses, safeguarding their earnings, and their workers? Look, again, at the examples I noted above. In both cases, an authoritarian regime’s collapse did not lead to the collapse of anti-private property attitudes, or the tradition of the shakedown. Mexico’s newly legal pot business would still have to deal with these problems. If it stays as lucrative as it is now, these problems would continue to be severe. And would lead, necessarily, to pot work continuing to be militarized to a real degree.

There is one factor that would mitigate against this: recent years have seen more political competition and freer speech in Mexico than was the case under the PRI old regime. This development would lessen legal pot businesses’ problems with big-ticket shakedowns and fixed court cases. Large-scale corruption can no longer easily be hidden. Nor can elections be easily fixed, as before, to ensure that corrupt officials aren’t punished at the ballot box. Also unlikely is the creation of some state pot monopoly, a la Pemex – this wouldn’t go over in the new Mexico.

Over time, private economic activity, and its being turned into political power, seems likely to become more acceptable in Mexico – otherwise there would have been no Vicente Fox. But formal legal changes won’t make this happen. A change in attitudes, not formal legal protections, will make pot business more secure, and end Mexico’s crime wave.

The key will be the emergence of a new, broadly accepted equilibrium, between a changed business sector and a changed political sector. That’s how Japan settled down, after a postwar period of rampant, business-related crime and corruption. Businesspeople and politicians found a new ways to work with one another, in a fashion that was both non-violent, and broadly acceptable within a culture that had changed significantly from the pre-war period, but was still recognizably of a piece with it, including as regards attitudes toward economic activity and its relationship to politics. The same too will happen in Russia, and indeed has already begun to happen.

* – Another example of how culture, not law, is the key to a lucrative business not being crimeridden: Humboldt County. Hello! I can’t believe I just thought of this one. Pot is illegal, yet there’s no ongoing Humboldt’s huge pot industry hasn’t led to any chronic crime wave – or any crime wave a all. Growing and using pot is accepted, and so is the idea of resolving business disputes through non-violent means. Even if the business is nominally illegal. Culture rules, there and elsewhere.

Do literary writers now constitute a guild?

I have been wondering about this, in the wake of reading the “MFA vs NYC” article from Slate, and this fascinating Walter Russell Mead piece on contemporary intellectuals. As MFA programs hire an ever greater percentage of literary writers, and work together to draw up and enforce more uniform hiring standards, including, critically, central peer-review criteria, the supply side, as it were, is being brought under control in a way, and by a group, that makes clear that group’s ambition to lawyer- and doctor-like guild status. But what about the demand side? That’s where their effort comes up short, and, I assume, will continue to do so. New York publishers may well lend a hand by paying more and more attention to quasi-guild membership criteria, in deciding what to publish. But many readers will continue to ignore those criteria, in deciding what to read. And, of course, they have other leisure-time options. I think the end result will be the cocooning, and shrinking, of traditional literary writing as both an endeavor and a community, with its members steadily losing influence even as they shrink further into the embrace of the university. Much like traditional journalists, if you’re looking for an easy parallel – another would-be guild that never managed to close the deal with those who use its products.

Does Brian Sabean have a plan?

Rob Neyer thinks not. Neyer’s had it out for Sabean for a long time, like a lot of sabermetrically inclined analysts. But is Neyer right in implying that dumb luck, and before that, Barry Bonds, whom Sabean didn’t sign, have been enough to make him look good? Maybe. True, these Giants also have four quite good starters, Buster Posey, and a great bullpen, including a closer who doesn’t give up homeruns… And while Huff and Burrell have worked out, other “proven veteran”-type signings haven’t done so in the past. Also there is the fact that the Giants play in a crummy division, and faced the barely-good Braves in the first round. So maybe Neyer is right.

In defense (sort of) of Brian Sabean

Here it goes: http://www.slate.com/id/2272083/

I wonder, though, if his strategy is really to go all in for old veterans, to the exclusion of younger players. If memory serves, he used to be the Yankees’ farm director, which would give him a certain expertise in developing young players – or at least convince him that he has that expertise. If we assume he sees himself as a player-development guy, we see that his overall strategy, as a GM, may well be a different one.

I suspect Sabean’s problem is that he puts too much faith in the position players coming up through the Giants’ system – guys like Ishikawa, Schierholtz, et al.. Acting on the assumption they’ll turn into solid regulars, he sets out to flesh out the Giants’ lineup with a few reliable veterans, of the Huff ilk. If the youngsters turn into stars, this isn’t a bad tack to take. Pat Burrell, for example, may not give you more than a .330 or so OBP, and play lousy defense, but for that you get a high probability of 20+ homeruns. Assuming Jonathan Frandsen et al – your young guys – are raking, you’re better off with a reliably mediocre old left fielder than a younger veteran who’s less predicatable. That younger veteran, after all, is a much less sure bet. He might be great, or he might OBP .190 and have Duane Kuiper power. Also, the Giants are a rich team, so blowing extra money on Burrell or whoever isn’t a big deal for them.

The problem with this perhaps alternate-universe Sabean strategy is that most of the Giants’ young position players end up sucking so bad, he has to fill the whole lineup with “proven veterans.” Which only works if they all get lucky, for an extended period, at once – as has happened this year, at least in the second half. And a team this wealthy shouldn’t have to rely this much on luck.

What’s odd is that Sabean, or someone in the Giants’ front office, is exceptionally good at picking and managing the development of young pitchers. Perhaps this success convinces him/them that they know about position players too, making it hard to change strategies or personnel in drafting and developing infielders, outfielders, and catchers – i.e. most of the players on every roster at every level.

George Carlin, the food critic

Apropos that George Carlin on environmentalism video: I’ve heard it said that he became mean and unfunny in his old age. But I wonder if he just turned his wrath on the sort of people who had long made up the bulk of his audience – the ones who’d laughed so hard, and screamed “Yes! Yes!” when he was giving it to the FCC, in his “Seven Words…” bit way back when.

Perhaps he’d have gotten a better reception if he’d taken that same wrath, and channeled it differently – and if, in the process, he’d ditched comedy and taken up food writing. After all, look at the success of the George Carlin of comestibles crit: Ruth Bourdain.

The silent plurality

Apropos the just-cited Stevenson piece on Christopher Walken: why don’t German-Americans talk about themselves? Why don’t Americans talk about them, and their impact on our country? Walken mentions that when he grew up in Astoria, in the 50s, his father ran a German-speaking bakery – presumably there were plenty of other (non-Jewish) Germans in the neighborhood too, even though this was long after the big wave of German immigration to the US. That wave ended more than a century ago, of course, so I can see some sense in the fact that it’s not prominent in the public memory, and among topics that are widely discussed, when we talk about what it means to be American. At least as of 1990, there were still more German-Americans than any other sort – fully a quarter of the US population was of German background. Is it that Germans, and German-Americans, tend to the silent and self-effacing? Or that our country is so Germanized, in so many ways, that the topic, not to mention German immigrants and their descendants, seems too un-exotic to be of interest? That World War II makes our collective Germanness a taboo topic? I wonder.