Lemons and the Origins of the Sicilian Mafia

This is in the Journal of Economic History:

In this article, we study the rise of the Sicilian mafia using a unique dataset from the end of the nineteenth century. The main hypothesis is that the growth and consolidation of the Sicilian mafia is strongly associated with an exogenous shock in the demand for lemons after 1800, driven by James Lind’s discovery on the effective use of citrus fruits in curing scurvy. Given Sicily’s already dominant position in the international market for citrus fruits, the increase in demand resulted in a very large inflow of revenues to citrus-producing towns during the 1800s. Citrus trees can be cultivated only in areas that meet specific requirements (such as mild and constant temperature throughout the year and abundance of water) guaranteeing substantial profits to relatively few local producers. The combination of high profits, a weak rule of law, a low level of interpersonal trust, and a high level of local poverty made lemon producers a suitable target for predation. Neither the Bourbon regime (1816–1860), nor the newly formed government after Italian independence in 1861 had the strength or the means to effectively enforce private property rights. Lemon producers, therefore, resorted to hiring mafia affiliates for private protection and to act as intermediaries between the retailers and exporters in the harbors

The bigger lesson here is that the presence of wealth in a context of weak organizations (including firms, social organizations/networks, states, etc) is likely to result in the emergence of sub-optimal forms of property rights protection (which, of course, is one of the core claims of the resource curse literature).

Gambeta’s book on the mafia is a classic. From what I remember Gambetta has some great sociological and economic analyses of the mafia’s private protection racket.

Read the whole paper here.


Corruption and Punishment

This paper contributes to the growing literature on anti-corruption accountability by comparing individual decision making under different norms and institutions. Employing an experimental methodology, I examine how the propensity to report corruption differs between Northern and Southern Italians, two groups that experience very different levels of corruption in everyday life. Further, the experiment measures behavior under two different institutional environments: a “strict enforcement” condition where reports always result in sanctions against perpetrators, and a “lax enforcement” condition where 50% of reports are ignored. I find no difference in the behavior of Northern and Southern Italians in the lax enforcement condition, but in the strict enforcement condition, Southerners are much more likely to denounce wrongdoing, while the behavior of Northerners remains unchanged. These results demonstrate that exposure to corruption may strengthen accountability norms, but only in the presence of high quality enforcement institutions.

That’s Nan Zhang in a fascinating paper on corruption in Italy.

As recent cases in the New York state legislature, Illinois, and the expense scandals in the UK Parliament demonstrate, the difference between OECD states and the developing world when it comes to corruption is simply about enforcement. It’s not, strictly speaking, because of a fundamental difference between OECD and non-OECD states in the pro-social tendencies of politicians. There are no good politicians or public officials, just properly incentivized ones. Most OECD states have managed to reduce corruption by having a credible deterrent in the form of functional judicial systems. Corrupt people go to jail.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 11.03.49 AMFor instance, over the last 15 years Kenya has seen a surge in the reporting of corruption scandals but to little effect. The most recent scandal to break is one involving the deputy president (pictured above), who allegedly inflated a hospital construction project by Kshs 11b (US $115m!!!) Since no one gets punished, the fear of getting exposed has little deterrence value. It is common knowledge that “everyone” is corrupt and gets away with it. In such an environment, you are a sucker if you are clean.

The obvious lesson here is that it is not enough to set up anti-corruption commissions. What reduces corruption is the credible threat that the corrupt will be punished.

H/T Tiago Peixoto.