Criminal Incompetence

A new book studies how criminals communicate with each other. Scott McLemee looks for career advice...

August 26, 2009

About a year ago, one of my distant relatives found himself in trouble with the law, and not for the first time. He had allegedly stabbed somebody in the course of a dispute over certain business matters, and so had to go on the run. The police had a thorough description of him (from sustained acquaintance) that they provided to local newspapers -- including the memorable detail that he had numerous tattoos, among them the ones on his forehead over each eye.

He was eventually tracked down in a nearby state. The stab-ee declined to press charges, and everyone lived happily ever after.

As events unfolded, I kept thinking: "There is a valuable lesson here. If you are planning on a life of crime, it is probably best not to get tattoos on your forehead. There are bound to be times when you will need to remain inconspicuous, and having a tattoo over each eye really won't help with that." Then again, career guidance for criminals is probably not what it could be.

Or is it? I have been reading Diego Gambetta's new book Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate, just published by Princeton University Press. The author, a professor of sociology at Oxford University, notes that senior convicts in Folsom State Penitentiary, including its "honorable" tattoo artists, strongly discourage young and unmarked felons from getting inked. Gambetta, who has also published a study of the Sicilian Mafia, takes a transnational approach in his new book. He cites a report on the attitude found within a South African prison: "Facial tattoos are the ultimate abandonment of all hope of a life outside."

On the other hand, it certainly shows a certain commitment to one's chosen career. It's also a way around the inconvenient fact that nowadays movie stars and accountants and writing-program administrators are sporting bitchin' 'tats. A generalized social destigmatization of body art ups the ante for people whose livelihood comes from projecting an aura of menace. In some lines of work, the forehead is a perfectly good place for one's CV. It may even qualify as proof of ambition.

Gambetta's study also looks at such modes of underworld communication as nicknames, slang, and such "trademarks" as the little logos on bags of heroin, or a gang's preferred means of executing a traitor. How absorbing readers may find Codes of the Underworld is very much a matter of taste. (Every time GoodFellas runs on cable, I end up watching, while my spouse refuses to sit through it a second time.) But morbid fascination aside, the book is interesting for how its method may apply to other forms of interaction -- and other career paths.

Surprisingly, none of the familiar theoretical apparatus of semiology is wheeled onstage. Gambetta's approach is an economic analysis of how various modes of underworld communication function.

This doesn't mean simply treating tattoos, nicknames, fish wrapped in newspaper, etc., as components of certain kinds of economic exchange. Rather, Gambetta looks at the life of crime itself as shaped by a traffic in signals of professional competence. There is a market of sorts involved in accumulating a stock of reputational "capital" -- as well as the incidental expenses that must be paid to maintain it. Not only do police and FBI agents spend a great deal of effort learning to mimic the lingo and gestures of the underworld, but so do wannabes and fashionistas. It is a constant struggle to update the code and proof-check the credentials.

Because the activities involved are illegal, the more familiar possibilities of accreditation are just not available. It is not like there is a licensing agency for counterfeiters. Anyway, how could you trust its certificates?

That is my example, not Gambatta's. But one incident he recounts may suggest how difficult things can get, at least for potential consumers of underworld services. A woman in Canada learned that there was a business in the American Southwest called Guns for Hire. She did not realize that it was a theatrical group that specialized in reenactments of Old Western shoot-outs and the like. She called its office to try to arrange the disposal of her husband. (This is an example of what is sometimes called "an imperfect market created by differences of information.")

But such problems do not emerge only along the boundary separating civilians and professional hoods. "Criminals embody homo economicus at his rawest," writes Gambetta, "and they know it. In keeping with the evidence that people who are untrustworthy are also likely to think that others are untrustworthy, criminals are more inclined to distrust each other than ordinary people do." In a subculture where dishonesty is the norm and participants have no recourse to mediation by the state, it is especially difficult to communicate trustworthiness and reliability to one's potential peers or clients.

On that score, Gambatta makes a fascinating and rather counterintuitive argument about the role that gross incompetence plays in organized crime -- and also, as a brief discussion in one chapter suggests, in academic life, at least in Italy.

"An unexpected result of my research on the mafia," he writes, "was to find out that mafiosi are quite incompetent at doing anything" other than shaking down legitimate businesses and enforcing trade agreements among smaller-scale hoodlums. "Mafiosi are good at intimidation and stick to it.... They let the professionals and the entrepreneurs take care of the actual business operations."

Rather than getting involved in running a restaurant or dealing drugs, they joke about their cluelessness in such matters and simply collect payment for "protection." But this professed incompetence (evidently quite well-demonstrated on the rare occasions that a mafioso tries to go legit) makes them strangely "trustworthy" to those using their services: "If [mobsters] showed any competence at it, their clients would fear that they might just take over."

Gambetta argues that something similar takes place among the baroni (barons) who oversee the selection committees involved in Italian academic promotions. While some fields are more meritocratic than others, the struggle for advancement often involves a great deal of horse trading. "The barons operate on the basis of a pact of reciprocity, which requires a lot of trust, for debts are repaid years later. Debts and credits are even passed on from generation to generation within a professor's 'lineage,' and professors close to retirement are excluded from the current deals, for they will not be around long enough to return favors."

The most powerful figures in this system, says Gambetta, tend to be the least intellectually distinguished. They do little research, publish rarely, and at best are derivative of "some foreign author on whose fame they hope to ride.... Also, and this is what is the most intriguing, they do not try to hide their weakness. One has the impression that they almost flaunt it in personal contacts."

Well, one also has the impression that the author is here on the verge of writing a satirical novel. But a friend who is interested in both the politics and academic life of Italy tells me that this account is all too recognizably accurate, in some fields anyway. Gambetta calls the system "an academic kakistocracy, or government by the worst," which is definitely an expression I can see catching on.

This may seem like a tangent from comparative criminology. But Gambetta argues that the cheerful incompetence of the baroni is akin to the mafioso's way of signaling that he can be "trusted" within his narrowly predatory limits

"Being incompetent and displaying it," he writes, "conveys the message I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else. In a corrupt academic market, being good at and interested in one's own research, by contrast, signal a potential for a career independent of corrupt reciprocity.... In the Italian academic world, the kakistrocrats are those who best assure others by displaying, through lack of competence and lack of interest in research, that they will comply with the pacts."

It would be shocking, simply shocking, however, if anyone suggested this was not strictly an Italian problem.


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