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A Bit More on the Law & Economics of the Godfather:

I'll just add one quick thought to Ilya's comments on the law & economics of the Godfather. We are all by now probably familiar with the prisoner's dilemma. In the literal prisoner's dilemma, the problem arises because of the inability of the two isolated prisoner's to communicate and coordinate, thereby leading to both prisoner's defecting and a greater sentence for both. This is the suboptimal outcome for both of them (although the optimal outcome for society, a point that is often overlooked).

So what is the solution to the literal prisoner's dilemma? The mafia or some other sort of organized crime (such as gangs). One of the things that these institutions do is to solve the coordination problem among prisoners by promising them that the personal costs of defection (talking) will be higher than cooperation (keeping quiet). Because even if you talk and get a reduced sentence, your life after that is likely to be short and violent. So the mafia solves the coordination game by promising a higher cost from talking than by being quite. Ingenious (in a nefarious sort of way). This may provide some explanation for why these organized crime operations seem to gain and hold great market share in the industries in which they operate.

One response to this is, of course, is the witness protection program, which is designed to overcome this coordination solution. That's the carrot. But another solution was suggested to me a few years ago by a student in my Public Choice and the Law class. He arged that much-maligned mandatory minimum sentences may do the same thing by providing a stick to induce the suspect to talk. Mandatory minimums make it possible for a prosecutor to precommit to a serious and predictable punishment on the back end, rather than leaving it up to a judge with greater sentencing discretion across a wider range. Let me stress that this is not intended to be an endorsement (or the opposite) of mandatory minimum sentences. I note that in the Sopranos, for instance, through the years there have been recurrent expressions of concern about mandatory minimums.

My student started writing up the paper as a law review article, so maybe someday he'll publish it some day (at least I've never seen any scholars offer this particular argument in favor of mandatory minimum sentences).

Scott S. (mail):
I remember hearing from a professor in law school a few years back that the 1984 federal sentencing legislation and the guidelines that came with it were one of the biggest factors that contributed to the breaking up of Italian mafia. In other words, as you mentioned, the accused would be faced with sentences in a particular range and this certainty would encourage him or her to cooperate. It may be that this was a purpose of the legislation or an unintended consequence, I'm not sure.
5.10.2007 4:03pm
TomHynes (mail):
Todd:

Shouldn't you disclose that you are a trustee of Michael Corleone's college?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Corleone
5.10.2007 4:04pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
As interesting as this is, what does it have to do with the Godfather? Informing to the authorities is never an issue in the movies or the book.

OTOH, the Godfather prominently features the costs of disloyalty, from Carlo, to Tessio, to Fredo, etc... Those costs don't seem to cut down on the frequency of the betrayals.
5.10.2007 4:45pm
wuzzagrunt (mail):
The way I understand it is that organized criminal enterprises (the Italian Mafia, at least) pursued a multi-pronged strategy in the protection of their interests. They've established strong disincentives for violating the non-disclosure clauses in employment contracts, but offer attractive incentives for employees who do their time like a man (generous financial support of the family of a convicted soldier). On top of this, they made significant investments in legal services (bribing politicians, judges, juries, and witnesses, or intimidating/neutralizing those who could not be bought).

It seems as likely that minimum mandatory sentences would neutralize the advantage of a bought-and-paid-for judge, as it would incentivize the soldier to rat. It may be possible that the social trend towards less family oriented behavior--and a more self-centric focus--has had it's impact on Mafia families. The idea of the "company man" may be less well internalized than with previous generations of Mafia soldiers. Just a thought.
5.10.2007 7:58pm
Eliza (mail):

In the literal prisoner's dilemma, the problem arises because of the inability of the two isolated prisoner's to communicate and coordinate, thereby leading to both prisoner's defecting and a greater sentence for both. This is the suboptimal outcome for both of them (although the optimal outcome for society, a point that is often overlooked).

Certainly we shouldn't overlook that point. But nor should we forget that society only benefits if both prisoners are in fact guilty, and until they are tried we must assume they are not. The more vexing prisoner's dilemma, the one that should most concern us as a society, is that of the innocent man facing a minimum sentence so draconian he dares not risk trying to prove his innocence in a court of law.

We are becoming a society where the DA is judge, jury and executioner, and if we are to continue congratulating ourselves that we "stack the deck in favor of the defendant" because it is "better that ten guilty men escape then that one innocent suffer," it is urgent that we address this.
5.10.2007 8:57pm
dwf:
The Godfather also contains "recurrent expressions of concern" about severe sentencing for narcotics crimes. As Sollozzo explains to the Don (book club edition, p. 70):

"I need a friend who can guarantee that when my people get in trouble they won't spend more than a year or two in jail. Then they won't talk. But if they get ten and twenty years, who knows? In this world there are many weak individuals. They may talk, they may jeopardize more important people. Legal protection is a must. I hear, Don Corleone, that you have as many judges in your pocket as a bootblack has pieces of silver."

Don Barzini reiterates the point during the peace conference and explains that this is the real reason why the war started:

"The fact is that Sollozzo and the Tattaglias could not go into their new business without the assistance of Don Corleone. . . . Sollozzo couldn't operate if he didn't have some insurance [sic] of his people being treated gently. . . . And now that they have increased the penalties the judges and the prosecuting attorneys drive a hard bargain when one of our people get in trouble with narcotics. Even a Sicilian sentenced to twenty years might break the omerta and talk his brains out. That can't happen. . . . If Corleone has all the judges in New York, then he must share them or let us others use them. Surely he can present a bill for such services, we're not communists, after all. But he has to let us draw water from the well. It's that simple." (Id., pp. 286-87)

This seems to bolster Prof. Zywicki's point. If the likelihood of severe sentences provides an incentive to "break the omerta," the existence of a mandatory minimum can only bolster that incentive.

Moreover, under the system postulated in the novel , Don Corleone can negate the prosecutor's leverage by using his political influence to assure a light sentence. His power to do that would necessarily be curtailed by a mandatory minimum; under such a system, the most corrupt judge in New York would be unable to do the Don's bidding.
5.10.2007 10:50pm
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
Wow, this is amazing! So, like, if I understand correctly, the Mafia "resolved the prisoners' dilemma" by threatening to kill stool pigeons, and prosecutors countered by threatening mobsters with long prison terms unless they co-operated in putting away bigger fish. Brilliant!

Where can I learn more about this "law and economics" stuff? I can't imagine how anybody could ever have made any sense of the world without it....
5.11.2007 1:11am
Tulkinghorn:
It would be useful to keep in mind that Puzo wrote the 'Godfather' intending to draw clear parallels between the culture and structures of the mafia and the culture and structures of corporate governance. Puzo intended to demonstrate that both systematically degrade the ethics and the morality of the persons operating within them.

A law and economics analysis of The Godfather completely misses the point. As it does in many other contexts - as i would submit, Todd Z. did in his recent congressional testimony. I guess it is acceptable to charge 35% interest rate when it is not personal, isn't it?
5.11.2007 12:46pm
Barry (mail):
Eliza (mail):

"We are becoming a society where the DA is judge, jury and executioner, and if we are to continue congratulating ourselves that we "stack the deck in favor of the defendant" because it is "better that ten guilty men escape then that one innocent suffer," it is urgent that we address this."

Please note that a major outcome of these legal changes is that influencing the DA's decisions becomes paramount. Just as influencing a judge's decision would be far more important if the judge had prosecutorial powers, in addition to judicial power.

The proof comes in the recent prosecutor firing scandals, where those who refused to conduct fraudulent prosecutions were fired. Leading to the obvious questions about those prosecutors who weren't fired.
5.11.2007 5:01pm