One City

One City

The Interdependence of Illicit Trade

Stillman Brown has been on sabbatical from the One City blog while researching a book he is co-authoring with Sean Hannity. The working title is Liberals and Other Single-Celled Organisms. He is happy to be back.
A few Sundays ago I met some friends near Confucius Square for dim-sum at the Golden Unicorn, a restaurant famous for a dining area spanning three floors and gaudy ball-room style décor (replete with massive green plaster dragons breathing dry-ice mist) There were crowds of tourists and swarms of sullen wait staff and a never-ending stream of dim-sum dishes filled with flavorless, low-quality meat. It was an experience, but certainly not because of the food.
Leaving the Golden Unicorn (to my mind, an already-improbable creature rendered ludicrously unlikely if composed of a precious mineral), I strolled leisurely down Canal, past Lafayette and Broadway, admiring the relative calm of a Sunday afternoon in New York.
Let me repeat that: I strolled leisurely down Canal street on a Sunday afternoon in spring. The Canal street, the seething nexus of knockoff handbags, belts, sunglasses, umbrellas, shoes, shirts, jeans, and custom-stamped license plates, and probably second-hand kidneys and eyeballs if you bother to leave the street stalls and enter the warren of back-alley shops and dumpling stalls that are Chinatown. Most days, the bargain hunters clog the sidewalks of that stretch of Canal like locusts, making it impossible to walk at a normal pace – If I’m unfortunate enough to find myself at Canal & Centre at noon on a Sunday, I take my chances with the cabs and walk down the middle of the street. At least, I figure, I’m moving.
On this particular Sunday there were no crowds because there were no stalls. The little nooks and street-closets normally bursting with fake Prada and Versace were shuttered and locked with heavy padlocks and sealed with NYPD notices that read, in part, “Closed due to Copyright Infringement.” The fashion industry, or some Elliot Ness-like task force within the NYPD, or perhaps both had done the impossible and shut down, at least for now, the heretofore unchecked flow of illicit goods from China to Chinatown to the hands of tourists and New Yorkers looking for fake designer labels.
I was impressed not because it is particularly difficult for the cops to shutter two dozen street vendors selling fake luxury products, but because, for as long as I’ve lived here (4 years), Canal street was like the aging gay uncle who hadn’t yet (and probably wouldn’t ever) come out of the closet: everyone knows it’s there but no one addresses it directly. Canal street’s illegality was harmless and understood and useful. Everyone participated, even me – I never purchased anything but I accepted it as a necessary facet of capitalism. It’s there, it’s fine, no one really cares.
Apparently, people do care. Writing in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki described how much the fashion industry cares, very much:


And almost as soon as hot new designs appear on the runway, photographs and drawings of them are on their way to Chinese factories that can produce reasonable facsimiles at a fraction of the cost. Designers are as annoyed by this as their prewar forebears were, and so Congress now finds itself considering a bill, pushed by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, that would give original designs a legal protection similar to copyright.

Which brings me to the point of this post: We are all inter-linked by the tendrils of the environment and our emotional states and our politics, media, and governance, but we’re also interdependent when it comes to the illicit, the subterranean, and the unlawful. In fact, the illicit trade in guns, drugs, people, and fashion knockoffs connects us more than we care to admit or understand.
I’ve been thinking about this kind of interdependence since reading Illicit, by Moisés Naím, an editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. In it, he traces the tangled, intermingling webs of illicit global trade, from failed states like Moldova, where organized crime takes over the traditional roles of government, to a brothel run out of a suburban home in Florida and staffed with prostitutes trafficked from China and eastern Europe. Writing in an urgent, even tone, Naim connects the local and the international, revealing just how pervasive the illicit trades have become. Naim begins the book by addressing three illusions the public has about illicit trade. He writes:


The third illusion is the idea that illicit trade is an “underground” phenomenon. Even accepting that trafficking has grown in volume and complexity, many — not least politicians — seek to relegate it to a different world than that of ordinary, honest citizens and constituents. The language we use to describe illicit trade and to frame our efforts to contain it betrays the enduring power of this illusion. The word offshore — as in offshore finance — vividly captures this sense that illicit trade takes place somewhere else. So does black market, or the supposedly clearly distinct clean and dirty money. All signify a clarity, an ability to draw moral and economic lines and patrol their boundaries that is confounded in practice. This is the most dangerous of all these illusions, because it treads on moral grounds and arguably lulls citizens — and hence public opinion — into a sense of heightened righteousness and false security.


Canal street is, in my mind, the perfect illustration of the kind of false moral grouping that most people, myself included, participate in. We say, “I know it’s out there, but not in my neighborhood.” We can no longer afford to draw these distinctions because trafficking networks have become too complex and embedded in the legitimate flow of goods.
For example, many (if not all) trafficking organizations have diversified, trading in not just guns or drugs, but people, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, and pirated software, often transporting them together. Naim writes about a particular tactic used by the Italian Camorra: Speedboats are loaded with drugs and trafficked women (often eastern Europeans) bound for the Italian coast. If they are spotted by the authorities, the women are simply thrown overboard, forcing the coast guard to stop and rescue them while allowing the traffickers to escape with the product of greater value. And this is simply a dramatic example. Pirated software or knockoff industrial parts can be smuggled in the same shipping container as legitimate goods, used as a screen.
It is therefore not inconceivable – in fact, it’s likely – that the same smuggling networks that bring rural Chinese workers to New York to work as indentured slaves in illegal garment workshops are the same ones transporting bogus prescription drugs and knockoff Vuitton handbags. You, me, your friend who likes to shop in Chinatown – we are all connected by ebb and flow of global illicit trade.
As I left Chinatown that afternoon, my stomach beginning to ache from eating too much dim-sum, I tried to figure out what I owned that was likely the product of trafficking, but I gave up. I don’t own any guns and I don’t patronize sex workers, but what about the generic prescription drug I take for heartburn? Or the pirated copy of Superbad my friend lent me? And what about my clothes – what else was in the shipping container that brought my favorite gray GAP t-shirt from China or Cambodia?
If you want a good, alarming read, check out Illicit, or the excellent PBS show about it. It’s one of those books that will change the way you look at your material world – as not simply impermanent, but interrelated by the grey and illegal.

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Ellen Scordato

posted May 29, 2008 at 4:35 pm

if you read sports newspapers like all the other nonconformist buddhists, you might have seen the Daily News article bout the crackdown, three months ago
seriously, i am fascinated by this. i look forward to reading that book you recommended; can I interdependently borrow it?
what is interesting to me, in my one-celled liberal latte way, is examining exactly what is being fought over and legislated.
it’s implied value of these labels – THAT’s the value the fashion industry wants to keep. and it’s totally a creation of interdependence – what the buyer makes up about hte commodity fetish, based on aspirational advertising. talk about the world being appearances and illusions, damn.
what’s the “value” of the “real” name? the objects are the same, for the most part. it’s the added brand value that they are fighting over.
and that brand value is a puff of smoke. Ask Bear Stearns about that.

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posted May 29, 2008 at 11:32 pm

Even as far away as where I live in Portland, Oregon we are surrounded by the “fake and copy” industries, this is a fact of life one that is not soon to disappear.
I’m going to find those books you mentioned.

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Stillman Brown

posted May 30, 2008 at 9:38 am

Do check out “Illicit.” It was, at times, truly frightening. Its main weakness was a lack of specific case studies – I’m looking into books about one trade, or the trade in a single country.
Ellen, I’ve often wondered about that: if the knockoffs are visually identical to the real stuff, why do people buy the real stuff anymore? It is as you said, all smoke and mirrors.
I’ve noticed among my girl friends that those with more disposable income will buy genuine luxury products, mostly so their friends KNOW they have genuine luxury products. For girls in their early twenties, with graduate school and car payments and travel ahead of them, this purchases strike me at not only unnecessary, but odious. But I’m no better, in a way – I just bought a pair of top-of-the-line featherweight hiking boots. Oh, and: I made sure all my guy friends knew about it.
Apparently life is grade school with money.

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