Great scofflaws of history
April 2, 2009 7:17 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for books which talk frankly about bribery, cheating and evasion in order to accomplish something important in a hostile cultural and regulatory environment.

I read this in Benny Morris's Righteous Victims about the initial Zionist program of buying up land and how it dealt with the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the region at the time:
From the first a cat-and-mouse game developed, with officials blocking immigration and frustrating settlement construction, and the Jews lying to, bribing, and evading them and abusing Ottoman law and restrictions. Centuries of oppression and discrimination in the Diaspora had bred in the Jews these techniques, so necessary for survival in a hostile environment, and these were among the most important items of baggage the immigrants brought with them to Palestine.
...and I thought, "Hmm, that sounds like an interesting skill-set." I don't have any need for it myself, I'm just curious. But I'm looking for books which talk about the practical details of how it's been done. Not necessarily by the Zionists, any similar project would be interesting. How, for instance, does one offer a bribe without making the target feel compromised? What are some of the tricks for evading difficult regulations?
posted by Coventry to Law & Government (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
If you have some time (like, five years), get 'The Years of Lyndon Johnson' by Robert A. Caro and learn about the early years of Kellog, Brown and Root (KBR Halliburton as they're known these days) and how they bought their boy Lyndon to get them fat contracts for road building. Interesting, interesting stuff. And wholesome like gravy on Christmas turkey and mashed potatoes.

(why is it that every second AskMe question I'm flogging Caro's books?)
posted by NekulturnY at 7:20 AM on April 2, 2009

I don't know if this is exactly what you're looking for, but I just finished The Path Between the Seas, which is about the construction of the Panama canal. The first half of the book or so deals with French efforts to build the canal, and is pretty detailed about the backroom dealings and exchange of money "necessary" for a project of that magnitute. After the French project failed, there was a period of time when the original French company had to out-manouver the Colombian and eventually Panamanian agents in America to get a favorable treaty signed.

It's a long, but engaging book.
posted by muddgirl at 7:32 AM on April 2, 2009

Best answer: This may also be a bit of a tangent, but Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor describes how the poor in a Chicago neighborhood make a living under difficult circumstances. Many of them have to resort to quasilegal and illegal methods to get by.
posted by metaquarry at 7:43 AM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lots of memoirs by ex-prisoners describe this sort of thing. If a prison isn't a hostile cultural and regulatory environment than I don't know what is.
posted by scratch at 7:53 AM on April 2, 2009

Best answer: I've been told stories of similar, but smaller scale, hijinks. Bribing local officials to get manufacturing plants built and so forth. Usually it involves "enlisting" the services of a local who facilitates.

An interesting sub-theme of this is that in a lot of these cases, when one has to use these methods to get their project underway, they are the ones who lose power in the situation. The locals still have the power, they have your money, and now you have even more reason to comply with their demands because you've got money/time invested in the project.

(A town nearby me is very, very poor. It's got nothing. But it is in a decent location, and that town and some other businesses decided to build an incinerator. Would add jobs, would be clean, would generate tax dollars, would get rid of garbage, would generate enough electricity to be more than self sustaining. They worked like hell to get neighboring communities on board. Did every study imaginable to prove it would be non-disruptive. The other communities extracted everything they possibly could from them- quasi-legitimate payoffs, use of local construction to get the thing built and so on. The thing was a marvel of modern technology- it outputted pretty much nothing but steam. Certainly cleaner than the petro refinery in the neighboring town... Anyway, the thing ran for some tiny amount of time, and the neighboring communities decided they were getting "polluted on" and had it shut down. There was never any proof or evidence. So now there's nothing. The neighboring communities got theirs, and shut 'em down when there wasn't anything else they could extract. Pitiful.)

I admit, these are fascinating stories. But I find the "ends justify the means" theme somewhat distasteful. And they usually don't end well.
posted by gjc at 8:19 AM on April 2, 2009

There was a guy on NPR a while back who had written a book about overseas adoption, and it sounded like knowing whom to bribe and how much was one of the main things you learn.
posted by Stylus Happenstance at 8:22 AM on April 2, 2009

I just finished The Oil & The Glory, the story of the oil industry in the Caspian. In particular, you'd be interested in the latter half of the book, on the post-Soviet exploitation of the region by Chevron, BP, and other members of the Western oil oligarchy. Bribery, intimidation and assassination is commonplace - the former by the oil companies, the latter by Russia. As gjc, said, it doesn't end well for many of the players.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 8:27 AM on April 2, 2009

Best answer: The Undercover Economist spends a decent chunk of pages talking about some on-the-ground, day-to-day realities in Cameroon--which the author says is highly corrupt on levels large and small. It was interesting to get some good looks at how people develop the appropriate skills, strategies and tactics, just as people in Manhattan become accustomed to walking on crowded sidewalks.
posted by ambient2 at 8:36 AM on April 2, 2009

Best answer: Daniyal Mueenuddin's book of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, is, in part, an excellent look at the shocking level of corruption in everyday life in Pakistan. Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger explores similar realities in India.

Scratch mentioned prison memoirs. In that area, I recommend Malcom Braly's On The Yard, which isn't actually a memoir, but is written by a prisoner.

I'm not sure you'll think that any of the people in those books were trying to accomplish anything "important," though.
posted by Xalf at 9:09 AM on April 2, 2009

Best answer: I don't remember any titles but I've read a couple books by volunteers with Medecins Sans Frontiers / Doctors Without Borders that included stories about working through and around corruption to provide aid. One I remember told about convincing a border guard on the Turkey/Iraq border in the 1990s that he had a testicular disease that could only be cured if he let a convoy of aid trucks into Iraq. I've filed that one away for future use.

Anyway, I'd recommend stories by humanitarian aid workers.
posted by ChrisHartley at 10:11 AM on April 2, 2009

Schindler's Ark, aka Schindler's List.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:36 AM on April 2, 2009

this doesn't really speak to the second half of your request, but maybe it would be of interest nonetheless?

Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States
...prior to the Civil War, the United States did not have a single, national currency. Instead, countless banks issued paper money in a bewildering variety of denominations and designs--more than ten thousand different kinds by 1860. Counterfeiters flourished amid this anarchy, putting vast quantities of bogus bills into circulation.

Their success, Stephen Mihm reveals, is more than an entertaining tale of criminal enterprise: it is the story of the rise of a country defined by a freewheeling brand of capitalism over which the federal government exercised little control. It was an era when responsibility for the country's currency remained in the hands of capitalists for whom "making money" was as much a literal as a figurative undertaking.
posted by jammy at 2:16 PM on April 2, 2009

Although I don't have a book to recommend, I can recommend an interesting topic.

In Thailand all major projects require political backing, and as the various political agents are competing with each other, the projects they back are drawn into these battles.
Bangkok is a bit like a giant Tron light cycle game, with freeway projects being built to deliberately block the path of competing public transport projects. Competing political interests taking developers to court to have their projects declared unsafe and demolished even before completion, all in the aim of denying their political rivals the kudos for having backed a successful project.

The few dregs of information about the specific acts of bribery and corruption which emerge are fascinating.
posted by compound eye at 6:57 PM on April 2, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. These are all interesting recommendations, particularly the ones about relatively powerless people.
posted by Coventry at 3:41 AM on April 3, 2009

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