Opportunistic petty criminals, the kind that go after old lady pocketbooks and unattended bicycles, generally aren’t very organized. They don’t have thorough long-range plans and an extensive network of colleagues to help coordinate their heists. Most unsuccessful criminals are desperate loners, independent contractors of malfeasance who can never stay one step ahead of The Man.
The ones that have their act together, the ones who run their illegal enterprise just like a profit-seeking business would, we call “organized crime.” Various mafias — the Italian, Russian, Mexican, Jamaican, Serbian, and Salvadoran chief among them — have earned our grudging fear and respect for their organizational discipline and managerial excellence. These mafias know what they’re doing. They’d be on the cover of Fortune if only what they were doing was legal — or at least as legal as gaming the energy markets and flipping a distressed homeowner’s property just before their date in bankruptcy court.
We law-abiding Americans usually prefer our mafias sanitized, suitable for family viewing on HBO. In real life it’s the same: We publicly deplore crime but we harbor a secret admiration for organized criminals. We think they’re ingenious and by many measures of the word successful. Indeed, we’re taught from the start and all the way through to the end of our formal education in Life that the best way to get by on this hard journey is to join a mafia. Power in numbers. Power in power.
Our sanitary mafias — and most of us belong to at least one — have the benefit of appearing to do no harm, when, in fact, they’re organized (like organized crime is organized) so that a few may take advantage of many. If you’re in the mafia, you’ll be more than fine. If you’re not, you’ll spend your whole life swimming with the fishes, whether or not you go near the water. Some of the most powerful mafias in the United States are also some of the most respected organizations in the world, so we must be doing something right!
All major universities are mafias. The Harvard University mafia is an expensive one to get into, but apparently once you’re made, you’re made. Country clubs, alumni clubs, industry clubs — they’re all sub-species of the University Mafia.
Both political parties are mafias. The Democrats and the Republicans serve the same patrons (corporate money) but usually divide their turf peaceably, with almost no physical violence between them.
Corporations are mafias. The financial, environmental, and social crimes corporations commit are excused — OK, celebrated — by the lasting benefits they provide us customers, chief among them the acquisition and implementation of the best slave labor our pennies can buy. It’s a kind of protection racket.
Avoiding traditional “dirty” mafias, with their drugs and prostitution and loan-sharking, and choosing a clean one has one gigantic and abiding benefit: When you get caught conducting business-as-usual, maximizing the bottom line at the expense of ethics, morals, and compassion, you’ll almost never face jail time. If you’re rich enough, they might even name something in your honor.