Archive for March, 2009

The Chicago Tribune’s free daily news-in-brief publication, the RedEye, suckered me in today with a cover image of the Sears Tower in a cemetery with the simple epitaph R.I.P. and birth and death dates. (I’ve blogged repeatedly on the subject of skyscrapers.)

Sears Tower

Considering the state of the economy and my presumption of the diminishing interest among businesses in maintaining offices in one of the preeminent North American terror targets, I inferred the story was about the tower’s inability to operate profitably. I wondered what the building’s fate would be, if it would be dismantled or demolished. Instead, the story was actually about selling naming rights to Willis Group Holdings. So the Sears Tower will be renamed the Willis Tower, though few expect the new name to be adopted quickly or to stick.

In truth, the naming rights to buildings, arenas, stadia, etc. aren’t really very important. But I felt irritated at being punked by the press, even if it was relatively harmless. This sort of misrepresentation (or ambiguous one, if one wishes to be charitable) only strengthens my resolve to ignore the RedEye in total and limit what attention I might give to the Chicago Tribune. Admittedly, I’m not part of the target market of either publication. I’m not hip, snarky, yet stupid enough to read the RedEye, and I’m not enough of a rabid consumer, political wonk, or business maven for the Trib to be of any use to me. Accordingly, my offended sensibilities matter not at all to the editors, and those publications can continue to fade to oblivion as their business models fail whilst they abandon the adherence to quality that once made at least the Trib a prestige publication.

Failed States

Posted: March 11, 2009 in Culture, Economics, Ethics, Politics

Following up on the previous post, crooks and law-abiding citizens have a mutual interest in society being bounded by rules, regulations, and laws. The basic reasons are the same: a nation of laws give them operating room for their various endeavors and a certain degree of protection from depredations by others. Anarchy is much harder to manage. Crooks, whether the garden variety criminal or the professional bureaucrat found with annoying regularity in government service, fare particularly well because they are willing to use illegitimate, criminal force or the state’s monopoly on legitimate force to achieve their ends. When the citizenry has been muzzled by criminal intimidation or state-sponsored learned helplessness, the forceful can, by and large, act with impunity.

The way I heard this put in a movie recently was that “winners make the rules, losers follow them.” The obvious strategic implication, quite apart from any moral question, is that you’re a chump to follow the rules. The example was set by the executive branch and the agencies it controls: Bush stole two elections, no one did anything; he and his minions lied about Iraq and Afghanistan in the run-up to war, no one did anything; civil rights laws were contravened, no one did anything; Bush enriched himself and his cronies instead of doing his job, no one did anything; the federal government failed to act after Katrina, no one did anything; and finally, Bush bankrupted the nation the same way he bankrupted baseball teams and oil companies before following the Peter Principle into government, and again, nothing happened. That model was crystal clear to the financial sector in the most recent phase of laissez faire deregulation, so they went about looting everyone and everything, damn the consequences. And it’s not over yet. It’s said that the last act of a failed state is to loot the nation. Anything look familiar? Bailout, anyone?

The monopoly on legitimate use of force is the definition of the state given by Max Weber in Politics as a Vocation. The loss of that monopoly is one of several criteria or indicators used by the Fund for Peace in its Failed State Index. Here’s the full list:

  1. mounting demographic pressures
  2. massive movement of refugees and internally displaced people
  3. legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance
  4. chronic and sustained human flight
  5. uneven economic development along group lines
  6. sharp and/or severe economic decline
  7. criminalization and/or delegitimization of the state
  8. progressive deterioration of public services
  9. suspension or arbitrary application of the rule of law and widespread violation of human rights
  10. security apparatus as “state within a state”
  11. rise of factionalized elites
  12. intervention of other states or external factors

There is even a nifty world map in color to show the various levels of vulnerability to collapse. The index is no doubt a complicated and costly undertaking, including disclaimers that the combination of twelve indicators may not yield a fully accurate assessment.


Misassessment is clearly the case with Iceland, which ranked near the bottom of the list (meaning least vulnerable) in the “sustainable” category of the most recent revision. I’m uncertain whether Iceland’s economic collapse (I’ve heard Iceland called “a hedge fund with a flag”) has led to anarchy and lawlessness, but it’s clearly now a failed state as the result of only one leading indicator.

The term failed state is being applied quite a lot these days to various countries teetering on the brink. The two most prominent ones for North Americans are — duh — Mexico and the U.S.A., which may only reveal how obsessed we are with ourselves. In fact, the Failed State Index is stacked heavily at the top (most vulnerable) by African countries. We care less about them, obviously, despite their famines and genocides. That’s partly normal, as our immediate environment is always our greatest cause for concern, even in a global marketplace. It’s also the case that because many African countries have lower population density and have not progressed very far in terms of market economies or industrialization, they have less far to fall (back to subsistence and agricultural economies) than fully modernized countries such at the U.S.A. So our own collapse, prophesied by many, is of paramount concern. And as human nature would have us, we’re barrelling at it as fast as possible, aided in no small measure by the behaviors of crooks.

News reports tell of a second case this year of someone impersonating a police officer in the City of Chicago. In the first instance, a 14-year-old boy spent over 5 hours pretending to be an officer. In the more recent case involving a 31-year-old woman, the details are sketchy. It appears she was not wearing a uniform and only said she was an officer, which was probably enough to raise suspicions. The question I saw posed but not taken up is “why would someone impersonate a police officer?” I can think of at least two answers that don’t require much psychological depth.

The Chicago Police represent a lot of conflicting things, among them moral authority. Whether that authority is deserved in the wake of ongoing corruption, scandal, and abuse of power is an open question. Still, the image the police force tries to project aligns with the familiar “serve and protect” slogan used all over North America. For an impressionable youth whose everyday experience is bound up in heroes and superheroes depicted with considerable prominence in the movies and on TV — a reflection of our cultural preoccupations — the attractions of assuming that moral authority at a time of rapidly expanding personal power (as one comes of age) amid a world currently spinning out of control must be pretty seductive. The more prosaic route of earning an associate’s degree in criminology and attending the Police Academy must seem like an interminable delay. And besides, superheroes don’t require credentials; they anoint themselves the guardians and protectors of society, even the reluctant ones.

The other answer to the question is that being a police officer (or impersonating one) confers a clear strategic advantage in nearly every form of conflict. Although few would conceptualize or verbalize it this way, the state has created a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Accordingly, the citizenry has a lot to fear not just from criminals but from the Chicago police, ranging from overweening off-duty officers to planting evidence to outright torture of criminal suspects. The asymmetry of the power relationship is cause for anyone aware of the pattern of behavior of the police to avoid contact if possible. Illegitimate use of force continues unabated, of course, but it’s illegitimate, meaning criminal. So if one is seeking strategic advantage over one’s competitors, impersonating the police is one misguided way to obtain that advantage quickly.