Lance Charnes's Reviews > Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy

Illicit by Moisés Naím
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bookshelves: nonfiction-crime-espionage, reviewed
Recommended for: readers who want to know how much those knockoff Levis really cost

You see them every day -- the $50 Coach bags, the $100 Rolex watches, the designer jeans and sunglasses selling for ten percent of their normal retail price. This is usually what we think of when (or if) we think of counterfeit goods. We don't think about car parts, pharmaceuticals, food, medical devices, industrial chemicals, building supplies... basically anything that costs something more than a large number of people want to pay for it. When (or if) we think of smuggling, we think of drugs; we forget about cigarettes, liquor (bootleggers still exist), weapons and ammunition, rare animals or their pieces, art (especially antiquities), gems, nuclear technology, human organs, even entire humans.

Moisés Naím didn't forget; he wrote an entire book (this one) about them. He looks at the many branches of global illicit trade from a 10,000-foot view, and tries to paint a picture of a complex web of production, distribution, retail sales, diplomacy, policy-making, and financial machinations that may be worth 10% of the world's GDP -- almost eight trillion dollars in 2017.

People have been smuggling ever since they've been trading. Counterfeit goods have been around since people started living in cities. What's changed? Naím points his finger at a number of great upheavals that hit the world's economy all at the same time starting in the 1990s: open international trade, fast and cheap international communications, the internet as consumer playground, and the severe case of capitalism contracted by much of the world after the fall of the Soviet empire. All these factors combined to enable a creation of wealth unprecedented in world history. However, they also enabled the players who colored outside the lines, ranging from the guys hawking almost-Michael Kors handbags on the streets of Manhattan or Athens' Monastiraki Square to the captains of finance and industry who use mostly-legal financial chicanery to hide profits from everybody's tax man.

The author sets up right in the beginning three illusions he imputes to the public at large, illusions that make countering illicit commerce nearly impossible: that it's nothing new (perhaps so, he says, but the scope is far and away greater than ever before); that it's just a specialized kind of organized crime (not only can it be an instrument of state policy, as in the case of North Korea, but it also uses the global frameworks established by governments and corporations); and that it's something that only happens someplace else, in the failed states and the dark corners of the world, "underground" in the "black market."

This last theme comes up multiple times. The author points out that illicit trade is about profits, not morality; it can be considered the ultimate expression of free-market libertarianism. He also doesn't let consumers off the hook. This trade thrives only because there are markets for it; the Staten Island housewife who buys an ersatz Dior purse is as culpable as the Chinese mogul who buys tiger parts to use as folk Viagra, or the Mexican cartel sub-boss who buys a Ukrainian sex slave. For those of you who think the solution is to raise the drawbridge and turn inward, Naím has news: the bad actors love a fragmented, nationalist world. It means less competition for them, and far less coordinated effort among the world's thousands of police agencies.

Naím, editor of Foreign Policy magazine and former Executive Director of the World Bank, breaks his survey into thematic chapters covering various aspects of illicit trade. He talks about the very familiar (weapons, drugs), the less familiar (intellectual property, endangered species), and the things that sound like setups for movie thrillers (organs, nukes). His prose style is serious but readable. Perhaps because of his background in print journalism, Illicit often reads like a newsmagazine feature article that's grown to fill the entire issue. As usual for nonfiction of this sort, he usually moves from a specific case study to general theses about the subject at hand.

This stylistic choice both enhances and detracts from the book. It's instructive to see close-up how a particular counterfeiting or money-laundering scheme works before moving on to the bigger picture. However, the bigger picture in this case becomes repetitive; the trade is big and bad and nobody's dealing with it effectively. After a few chapters, you'll be able to anticipate much of the author's larger worldview.

Also, Naím is strong on diagnosis but weak on prescription. The chapter he devotes to how we can fix the problem lists measures that are unlikely to happen (an all-discipline agency dedicated to fighting illicit commerce, decriminalization of the least-harmful trades) and ones that have been tried and have become part of another problem (invasive tracking technology). With all his study into the subject, I'd have expected the author to come up with more actionable solutions than he has.

Finally, this book was published in 2005. The figures and some of the featured players are outdated, and the world of tomorrow outlined in the chapter "The World Ahead" is largely our world today, with most of the same problems as that of 2005. It's unfortunate the author hasn't revised this book to include not only the crimes of the past ten years, but also updated (and, perhaps, more practical) solutions for today.

Illicit is, despite its various shortcomings, a good entry-level view of counterfeiting, smuggling, money laundering and tax evasion. If you've been paying attention to the subject, you'll still learn something; if you haven't, you'll probably be shocked and appalled. In any event, you'll be more likely to see beyond the too-good-to-be-true bargain. If you pass on that $25 "Seiko" watch a street vendor offers you, the author will have made his point.
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Reading Progress

July 27, 2016 – Shelved
September 22, 2018 – Started Reading
September 29, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim I really liked this book, but I was (am?) completely clueless so the entry level was perfect for me. I gave it 4 stars.

Lance Charnes Jim wrote: "I really liked this book, but I was (am?) completely clueless so the entry level was perfect for me. I gave it 4 stars."

I didn't dislike it. I liked the case studies, and if I ever decide to do a series about, say, a counterfeit-products hunter, Illicit will give me plots for about a dozen books. I just wish the author had spent more time on specifics and less on repeating the same generalities.

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