Briefly Noted [Full Text]

Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 22.4 (Winter 2008)

December 30, 2008

Economic Gangsters: Corruption, Violence, and the Poverty of Nations, Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008), 250 pp., $24.95 cloth.

While we have seen countries such as Malaysia, South Korea, and Taiwan shrink the income gap with the West, in other parts of Asia, not to mention Africa, present-day families are no better off than two generations ago. This discrepancy is what Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel set out to address in Economic Gangsters as an important, ongoing factor perpetuating global poverty. If the archetype economic gangster is Al Capone, Fisman and Miguel show that self-serving, calculating, and lawless businessmen have been equally at home in the presidential mansions of Indonesia as they were in Prohibition era Chicago.

With an argument that makes creative, accessible, and even entertaining use of data—such as using diplomatic parking violations in Manhattan to reveal the relationship between culture and corruption, or testing the significance of social networks in a corrupt nation by watching what happens to the markets when the leader visits a doctor—Fisman and Miguel (professors at Columbia and Berkeley, respectively) break the usual mold by attempting to do for development economics what Malcolm Gladwell has done for social psychology. An important difference is that in many cases the authors of Economic Gangsters are drawing on their own previously published studies, simplifying their analyses and synthesizing their conclusions for a non-specialist readership.

In terms of prescriptions, while the authors discuss the importance of correcting laws and norms that allow gangsterism to prevail, their main message is methodological: they look to the promise of randomized program evaluations to do for poverty relief what clinical trials have done for medicine. For example, they cite the work of MIT professor Benjamin Olken, whose comparative work reveals centralized auditing as a more effective mechanism to cut through political and business corruption in local projects than participatory democracy.

Hiroshima: The World's Bomb, Andrew J. Rotter (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 368 pp., $29.95 cloth.

Andrew Rotter provides a readable and thought-provoking global history of the atom bomb—its development, demonstration, and diffusion—in a book that doubles as a chilling introduction to some of the severest ethical challenges in world politics. Rotter's narrative moves skillfully from scene to scene: from the laboratory in suburban Berlin where fission is first observed in 1938; to the University of Chicago squash court where technicians struggle to keep up with the intensity of the first nuclear reactor in 1942; and ultimately to the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945—a moment perhaps too often characterized as an American feat and a Japanese tragedy. In Rotter's rendition, the roads leading both to and away from Hiroshima are complex and global, intersecting with key individuals and developments in science, technology, war, culture, politics, and morality. Thus, in its origins and effects, this was "the world's bomb."

In a book rich with engaging themes, several stand out. First, one may glean much about the relationships between science and nationhood and, moreover, between science and the state. The World's Bomb addresses both the disorienting consequences for the borderless "republic of science" as Europe's internal borders come to be drawn more deeply and dangerously, as well as the unequal potential for sheer innovation in the United States, Germany, and the Soviet Union, given the different characters of their domestic regimes. Second, the book offers a number of powerful treatments of the issue of civilian immunity, including its assessment that the decision to drop the bomb on Japan was less due to American racism or to rivalry with the Soviets than to a combination of bureaucratic inertia and the self-deception that noncombatants could be legitimate targets of war.

Crafting Cooperation: Regional International Institutions in Comparative Perspective, Amitav Acharya and Alastair Iain Johnston, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 330 pp., $90 cloth, $34.99 paper.

Crafting Cooperation takes the craft of regional integration studies to the next level. With the range and complexity of po- tential mechanisms for reconciling state interests, not to mention the vastly diverging conditions in different parts of the globe, regional cooperation is a complex subject, calling for sophisticated theoretical and empirical engagement. Amitav Acharya and Alastair Iain Johnston answer this demand with an edited volume that draws on fresh factual material to make a bold attempt at conceptual renewal—in this case via a comparative institutional design framework.

The book contains six dense case studies, united by the editors' vigorous yet flexible framework, adding up to a comprehensive treatment of a topic typically examined from a Eurocentric or non-comparative perspective. The book's framework treats institutional variation as both explanandum and explanans: not only are the design features of institutions—from decision rules to membership restrictions—subject to analysis, but so too are their origins and their effects on a regime's efficiency.

While the book ably transcends established international relations paradigms, the attention paid to ideas and norms is especially notable. Whether in the case of Latin America, African states, or NATO, a close look into the black box of regionalism reveals that ideas of sovereignty, legitimacy, and ideology are central factors behind states' decisions to seek, design, and transform regional cooperation.