Knowledge for all – Open access to scientific research

Scientific papers are at the very heart of our student lives. They cause nightmares as they feature on the seemingly endless reading list for our seminars and inspire dreams as we strive for seeing our own name in the list of authors. Still, few students waste a thought on the business side of scientific publishing. Unjustly so, as the field might undergo radical changes in the coming years with far-reaching consequences for academia.

The source of the potential upheaval is a European initiative for open-access science publishing. Under the code name “Plan S,” the European Commission and the national research organisations of twelve European countries demand that all work resulting from publicly funded research shall be made accessible free of charge by 2021. In concrete terms, the plan stipulates that research worth €7.6 billion needs to be uploaded in open-access journals. This demand pits them against publishing houses, which fear a severe disruption to their existing business model.

A monopoly on knowledge

As the bankrollers of most research in their countries, national research organisations take a reasonable interest in reforming a system that absurdly overcharges them for bringing the results of the research to the public. In the current system, publishing houses receive the manuscripts of publicly financed researchers free of charge. The manuscripts are in turn checked by peer reviewers – most of whom are also employed at universities. At the end of the production chain, publishers sell the resulting journals to  university libraries. Collectively, publicly funded institutions therefore buy the fruits of their own labour.

Of course, publishers also incur certain costs, such as for administrative tasks, marketing, layout, printing and, perhaps most importantly, the administration of the peer review process. But they could by no means explain the immense increases in journal prices observed over the last decades. From 1984 to 2005, the average price charged for academic periodicals in the US increased sixfold while the overall price level rose by a factor of less than two (see Figure).

University libraries are increasingly unwilling or unable to pay. Couperin, a consortium representing 250 French education institutes, announced last year that its negotiations with Springer came to nought and that it will no longer subscribe to their journals. However, giving up access to top journals is hardly an option for universities. Researchers must stay up to date with the latest findings in their fields and students, whether they like it or not, need to go through their reading lists.

It follows that publishing houses are in a quasi-monopoly position with nearly unrestricted pricing power. This is evident not only from the price increases for journals, but also by the profits that the three biggest publishers – Springer, Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell – regularly amass. Elsevier, for example, chalked up profit margins of 37% in 2018. In comparison, the average listed company in the S&P 500 index had a margin of only 10% in that year.


Science without borders

The deficiencies of the current system raise the question for an alternative model. One answer is provided by open access, meaning the free provisioning of research results online. This can take two forms: the first one is “green open access,” where an article continues to be submitted in a paid journal. In addition, after an embargo period of six to twelve months, the authors upload the article for the purpose of self-archiving to their institution’s website. The second is called “golden open access” and refers to publications in journals that are themselves accessible free of charge. Their main difference concerns how the journal covers the remaining publication costs. In the green model, the reader continues to pay the journal for the privilege of early access. In the golden model, the costs are covered by “publication fees” settled by the authors, who usually pass them on to the funder – e.g. their university or grant provider.

With the advent of open access at the beginning of the century, many predicted the end of the existing payment model. And indeed, open access has made some inroads – including the Public Library of Science and BioMed Central journals, as well as the ArXiv website, an online repository for scientific manuscripts. Many students will also be familiar with Sci-Hub, a website hosting papers without regard to copyright. In a legal way, however, the expected open access revolution never fully materialised. Today, only a quarter of scientific articles are made freely available, most of them in green open access.

Now Plan S intends to radically accelerate the transition. It responds to calls for greater transparency and cost efficiency regarding the use of public money. Further, it is expected to accelerate the speed of discoveries. As science advances through cross-fertilisation between projects, any barriers such as paywalls or embargo periods necessarily slow it down. Instantly uploading manuscripts, even before the protracted peer reviewing process, could serve as a catalyst of scientific progress.

Moreover, extending the diffusion of scientific knowledge to a less affluent audience renders science more equitable and encourages diverse thinking in academia. Finally, open access may shift the focus away from publishing exclusively significant results and allow the research community insights into “failed” studies that may have equally valuable insights to give. One study claims that the results of half of all clinic trials in the US go unpublished (Riveros et al., 2013). Without knowing about these, researchers may end up pursuing dead ends that have already been explored by their colleagues.


S for Short-Sighted?

In the eyes of sceptics however, the sweeping changes of Plan S risk undermining the quality of research by severely hurting high-class journals. A particularly contentious demand of Plan S is a proposed cap on publication fees. This would be particularly hard to meet for journals with high rejection rates. Since they also incur expenses for the peer review of rejected articles, they face significantly higher costs for every publication. Nature, for example, estimates their publication fees to be at $40,000 per article – many times the limit contemplated by backers of Plan S.

Renowned journals pride themselves on their selectivity as it grants their articles a quality seal that open access journals could struggle to replicate. Critics fear that in the extreme case, open access can end in the practice of “predatory journals,” which accept any article for the sole purpose of cashing in the authors’ publication fees. A survey by the Nature Publishing Group shows that almost half of the authors therefore express doubts about the quality of open access journals.

The main worry about Plan S is therefore that rather than reforming the publishing system worldwide, it could create a parallel system for European research. If the top journals do not go along with the proposed changes, nationally funded researchers would be restricted to less reputable open access outfits. In the worst case, this could even lead to an exodus of scientific talent to countries or funders without open access-requirements. Recognising the risks of an abrupt implementation, the consortium behind Plan S has postponed its introduction by a year – it was initially supposed to start in 2020 – and suggested a two-year transition period. Even after that delay, it remains all but clear whether the plan will indeed manifest or remain the pipe dream of disenchanted open-access advocates.


In the current system, publishers use monopoly power to demand exaggerated prices from university libraries without compensating those who contributed to the research. Open access promises to upend the practice and extend the insights of scientific research to a much broader range of people without any financial limitations. But as its advancement has stalled, new political support is required to maintain the momentum. Plan S could potentially provide this boost. Its success, however, depends on whether it can create mechanisms to continue the process of rigorous peer review and uphold quality. If it does, the plan could serve to inspire other countries to pursue open-access initiatives. Elsewise, it will founder as a quixotic undertaking aspiring for a world with free, unlimited knowledge for all.

By Stefan Preuss



CSI Market , 2019.

Couperin, 2018.

Dingley, B., 2005. US Periodical Price Index 2005.

Kimball, M.S., 2017.

RelX Yearly Result, 2019.

Riveros C., Dechartes A., Perrodeau E., Haneef R., Boutron I., Ravaud P., 2013.

The Economist, 2018.





The growth of world air traffic and its impact on climate change

23_NoEco Picture Plane

Driven by economic growth in East Asia, world air traffic has increased at a very rapid pace in the last decades. As more and more people join the middle class in emerging countries, the market for domestic flights is expanding rapidly, which, in turn, boosts demand for commercial flights in different parts of the world. This has contributed a lot to the continuous growth of air traffic, which has quadrupled in 30 years. This is good news for cities like Toulouse, as aircraft production should continue to increase steadily. However, because the environmental impact of the transportation sector is quite high, growth in this sector raises the question of how this trend will affect climate change. While it may seem like we are moving toward an environmental catastrophe, progress in terms of technology and fuel consumption may lessen the ecological footprint of the aeronautical industry.

Air Traffic Around the World

According to the International Civil Aviation Organization – ICAO, a UN specialised agency responsible for international civil aviation standards, 4.3 billion passengers embarked on regular – commercial – flights in 2018, which represents a 6.4% increase compared to the previous year. In perspective, this rate is about twice the growth rate of the world’s real GDP. Nonetheless, this impressive increase is not new: air traffic growth has been very stable in the past decades, doubling every 15 years, and has been resilient to external shocks – such as recessions or the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Picture_Sébastien Montpetit

Paul Chiambaretto, a Professor of Marketing and Strategy at Montpellier Business School, argues in The Conversation in 2008 that the rapid expansion of air traffic is a result of both demand-side and supply-side factors. On the demand side, he stresses the tight link between the development level of a country and the consumption level of air transport. The International Air Transport Association’s estimate of income elasticity of the demand for airplane tickets is between 1.5 and 2, meaning that a 1% increase in national income implies people buy 1.5 to 2% more tickets. A prime example of this relationship between economic growth and air transport demand is Asia. Passenger traffic in Asia, expressed in revenue passenger-kilometres (RPK) – i.e. the number of passengers multiplied by the distance travelled, a standard measure of air traffic in the industry – grew by 9.5% in the region, which currently accounts for 34.8% of world traffic. Furthermore, planes are now used more than ever for freight transport, which pushes the demand for commercial flights even further.

On the supply side, the emergence of low-cost companies, especially in Europe, has forced other airline companies to lower their prices. For prices to fall, economic theory suggests that the increase in supply must be greater than the increase in demand, which says a lot about the weight that companies such as Ryanair and Easyjet have on the market.

Airplanes and Global Warming

The growth of air transport seems a priori incompatible with the international community’s objective of limiting global warming. Transoceanic flights require tens of thousands of litres of jet fuel for an ever increasing number of departures. In 2017, the transport sector was responsible for 25% of the European Union’s greenhouse gas emissions. Even if air transport generates a small share of these transport emissions, the level of emissions remains very high.

However, new technologies have been implemented by airplane manufacturers to reduce fuel consumption, and consequently mitigate the environmental footprint of aviation. According to the ICAO, aircraft operations are now 70% more efficient than they were in the 1970s. The organisation claims that reducing aircraft noise and emissions is one of its main priorities. Airline companies and manufacturers are committed to deploying new systems that limit greenhouse gas emissions. They mainly focus on three fields: improving airport infrastructures, adapting aircraft technology and increasing the use of sustainable fuels.

In particular, the CORSIA program, adopted in October 2016 in Montreal, Canada, is one of the first binding international environmental agreements in history. This ambitious program aims at maintaining the level of carbon emissions of international aviation at the 2020 threshold. Under the agreement, for the first six years, 65 countries representing 87% of world air traffic, committed to halting the increase in air transport emissions from 2020 to 2026. From 2027, all 191 member countries – with some exceptions for less-developed countries and isolated countries – will be bound by the constraining agreement. As a result of the agreement, a carbon market will be created to force companies that pollute more to buy credits from less polluting companies in order to compensate for their emissions.

At a time when progress concerning the reduction in carbon emissions is scarce, the progress made by the transport industry proves that there is hope. Not only has this sector succeeded in slowing the increase in greenhouse gas emissions despite a high growth in demand, but it has set also ambitious targets for the following decade. Hopefully, many other international initiatives will follow to curb worldwide greenhouse emissions. That being said, it was nice to see Greta Thunberg in Montreal with about half a million people for the Global Climate Strike on 27 September 2019. Greta, may you inspire all of us to fight climate change together!

by Sébastien Montpetit



  1. International Civil Aviation Organization. The World of Air Transport in 2018. 2019.
  2. Schulz, E. (2018). Global Networks, Global Citizens: Global Market Forecast 2018-2037. Airbus GMF 2018.
  3. Chaimbaretto, Paul. Trafic aérien mondial, une croissance pas prête de s’arrêter. The Conversation. 19-05-08.
  4. International Air Transport Association. (2008). Air Travel Demand. IATA Economics Briefing No 9.
  5. Eurostat. Greenhouse gas emission statistics–emission inventories. 2019.
  6. Représentation permanente de la France auprès de l’Organisation de l’Aviation Civile Internationale. L’Assemblée de l’OACI adopte une résolution historique relative à un mécanisme mondial pour la compensation des émissions de CO2 de l’aviation internationale. 2019.

The English Language: History and Etymology



Old English – First three lines of the epic Beowulf (composed in the early eighth century) 1. in the “Insular Hand”, the handwriting of the time, which had been adopted from the Irish, 2. the transcription into the Latin alphabet and the translation into modern English (read line by line).


Each of us uses, hears, and reads words every day. And beneath the manifold meanings a word can have in its current usage, lies its even richer history which can span millennia and continents. The study of words, their origins and their development is called etymology – a branch of linguistics. The purpose of this article is to give a brief overview of the development and etymology of the English language, then to provide some examples of words and their history, and finally to convince you that etymology can be practical in everyday life.

English is a particularly gratifying object of etymological study, as it combines the influences of several language families. Old English (449-1100) was imported to the British Isles by the Germanic Angle, Saxon and Jute tribes of the northern European mainland. Their own language had evolved in the Indo-European language family, a prehistoric tongue which was the source of most other European and many south-Asian languages. In due course, the languages on the British Isles incurred influences of  , Latin through the spread of Christianity and the alignment with the Roman Catholic Church, and Scandinavian through repeated invasions by the Vikings.





Old English (late West Saxon dialect) – Opening verses of Genesis, the first chapter of the Bible, as translated by Ælfric, the greatest prose writer of the Old English period.



The transition to the Middle English period (1100-1500) was marked by an important shift in grammar compared to Old English. Its starting point can be seen at the year 1066, when the Norman army invaded and conquered England. The Normans came from Normandy in northern France and were descendants of the Vikings who had settled that area some generations earlier;  y the time of the conquest they had become culturally Frankish. They replaced the native English nobility and thus Norman French became the language of   government. Latin remained the language of the clergy and English the language spoken by the majority of the population – Britain effectively became trilingual. With time, English regained in importance, as ties with France loosened (e.g. by the loss of the Normandy territory, the Hundred Year’s War between England and France). The power of the English-speaking common people increased, partly due to the Black Death killing around 1/3 of England’s population; English language poetry (e.g. by Chaucer) became popular and the Bible was translated into English. By the end of the 14th century public documents were written in English and kings made their declarations in English. By that time, Middle English had changed considerably compared to Old English: Latin and Scandinavian had introduced new words into the word-stock, and Old French – the largest influence by far – besides adding words to the vocabulary, also influenced the grammar.



Late Middle English – Opening verses of Genesis, in the translation to English by John Wycliffe in the 1380s


In the period of Early Modern English (1500-1800), British influence vastly expanded across the world, laying the foundations for English as a world language. This was also not only the time of Shakespeare, but also one of transformation for the language. While the transition from Old to Middle English occurred in terms of grammar, the shift of Middle to Early Modern English (1500-1800) was driven by a notable pronunciation change and an expansion of the word-stock.

In part, new words were acquired from foreign languages: the Renaissance period led to an influx of Latin and Ancient Greek vocabulary, French remained a strong influence, and Portuguese and Spanish gained in importance due to their role in the colonial conquests in Latin America. Britain itself expanded its influence during that time, founding colonies in America, Asia and Australia, and through this  not only goods but also words.



Early Modern English – Opening verses of Genesis from the
King James Bible published in 1611.


Furthermore, starting in the 15th century, the English language underwent its most important shift in pronunciation, termed the Great Vowel Shift: the phonetics of all of the Middle English long vowels changed as described in the picture below -and that of many other vowels and consonants as well. For example the a in name used to be pronounced as in spa, or the double e of feet was pronounced as the vowel in made. The reasons for this shift are essentially unknown. Spelling, however, was not adjusted to reflect the new pronunciation, as the archaic medieval ways of spelling were preferred; this is one of the reasons why spellings do not correspond to pronunciation. Another one is that, at the time,   men studying etymology were fond of introducing -sometimes erroneously- new spellings of words based on their etymological roots. This explains the gap between the writing and the pronunciation of words such as debt or doubt. Those words come from Old French and were spelled det and dout in Middle English, in line with its pronunciation. Today’s b was inserted to reflect the Latin origin debere (to owe, to have to) and dubitare (to doubt). Similar examples are indict, victual, receipt, all pronounced differently than suggested by their spelling.



Early Modern English: The Great Vowel Shift


Today, in the period of Late Modern English (1800-present), English is a world language; the total number of speakers may be two billion -although of varying competence . Algeo (2009) differentiates three circles of English speakers: “an inner circle of native speakers in countries where English is the primary language, an outer circle of second-language speakers in countries where English has wide use alongside native official languages, and an expanding circle of foreign-language speakers in countries where English has no official standing but is used for ever-increasing special purposes.

To illustrate the concept of etymology, let me present an example. One rather far-fetched etymology is that of the word muscle: it derives from the Latin word for muscle musculus, which is literally the diminutive of mus, for mouse. Apparently the shape and the movement of muscles, in particular the biceps, invoked the image of mice. This image of muscles as little moving animals underneath the skin seems to have been widespread: in Greek mys is also both mouse and muscle, in Arabic adalah is for muscle and adal for field mouse, and the Middle English lacerte meant both muscle and lizard.

How can such knowledge be not only entertaining but also useful? Since we are studying in Toulouse, I want to finish by focusing on the links between English and French, and give you some tricks I accumulated over the years to figure out the meaning of unknown French words. They do not always work perfectly or at all, but are awesome when they do.

English started off as the language of a few Germanic tribes who had settled a small island off the coast of Europe. Over its history it evolved and by some coincidences became a world language with many millions of speakers – in this process collecting and incorporating words and grammar from French, Latin, Scandinavian, Portuguese, Spanish, German, and many other languages around the world. These influences are still visible today – and knowing how languages are interrelated can help us use our knowledge about one language to decipher another.

By Julia  Baarck


For those who would like to learn more about languages and etymology, I warmly recommend the “Johnson” column in The Economist, and further the book “The origins and development of the English language” (base for the history part of this text).

Further references

Algeo, John. “The origins and development of the English language.” (2009).

Crystal, David. “Two thousand million?.” English today 24.1 (2008): 3-6 , retrieved at


Merriam Webster Dictionary.

The Economist. Johnson Column.

Moral blindness

Moral Blindness


Throughout history, humanity has committed what we now think of as moral atrocities. Some obvious examples are slavery, the subjugation of women, and the persecution of homosexuals. For generations, practices such as these seemed completely normal. We have a remarkable record of being completely oblivious to our moral failings.

Take Aristotle, one of the greatest philosophers civilization has produced. He was extremely intelligent and devoted his life to ethical reflection. Despite this, it did not occur to him that owning slaves might be wrong. This is quite astounding and makes one wonder: what moral atrocities are we inadvertently committing today?

If a thinker as impressive as Aristotle was unable to peer through the zeitgeist and perceive a moral failing as blatant as slavery, we should also question our ability to do so today. However, some thinkers have shown that ethical foresight is possible. Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued in the 18th century that homosexuality is acceptable and that women should have the right to vote. How did Bentham succeed in his ethical anticipation? How might we make progress today? And how much progress can we expect to make?


The moral circle

The concept of the moral circle, introduced by historian William Lecky and further developed by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer in his book The Expanding Circle, refers to the boundary humanity draws around those we deem to matter. Singer believes that many past moral developments can be seen as widening this circle of moral consideration.

According to this thesis, in early human history, the circle was restricted to close kin for evolutionary reasons. Indeed, evolutionary biologists have explained kin altruism via kin selection, an evolutionary strategy in which an individual behaves altruistically because it improves the fitness of its close relatives. Singer says that now “The circle of altruism has broadened from the family and tribe to the nation and race, and we are beginning to recognize that our obligations extend to all human beings.” A recent example of moral circle expansion is the greater consideration accorded to the interests of individuals in the LGBT community.

Singer argues that reason has played an important role in this process. By nature, reason is incompatible with inconsistency and arbitrariness, therefore helping us discern cases of prejudice. Once we hop on the “escalator of reason”, we see that our interests, from the “point of view of the universe”, are no more important than the similar interests of others.

We might then ask if there is a logical endpoint of moral circle expansion. Singer argues that “The only justifiable stopping place for the expansion of altruism is the point at which all whose welfare can be affected by our actions are included within the circle of altruism.” In his view, the fundamental criterion determining whether an individual is worthy of moral consideration is sentience: whether they are able to feel, perceive and experience positive and negative subjective states. If an individual is sentient, there can be no justification for not considering their interests.


Making progress

Bentham’s ethical success was largely due to his application of the sentience criterion. He writes that “[…] The French have already discovered that the blackness of skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognised that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate.” In his view, “[…] The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” 

Bentham realised that racism is unjustified because sentience is the relevant moral criterion, while skin colour is not. This is useful because it simplifies our search for ethical blindness, allowing us to simply look for cases where we are applying the wrong criterion.

Why does Bentham mention “the number of legs”? Under close inspection, this criterion implies that stopping moral circle expansion at humans is arbitrary. Species is not the relevant moral criterion, and the weight of scientific evidence strongly suggests that many nonhuman animals are sentient. Prominent neuroscientists and other researchers gathered at the University of Cambridge in 2012 to ratify the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which stated that “the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.The sentience criterion thus suggests that animals, at least the ones mentioned above, should be included in our moral circle.


Factory farming

Our treatment of animals suggests that we are incorrectly applying species as a moral criterion. In particular, factory farming seems like a leading candidate for a case of our collective moral blindness. If we include only the species mentioned in the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, more than 70 billion animals are slaughtered in farms each year, 90% of whom lived in factory farms. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, writes that in these facilities, farmers “[…] lock animals in tiny cages, mutilate their horns and tails, separate mothers from offspring, and selectively breed monstrosities. The animals suffer greatly […].” Due to the immense suffering, he believes that “Animals are the main victims of history, and the treatment of domesticated animals in industrial farms is perhaps the worst crime in history.” Jeremy Bentham was perhaps not only ahead of his time, but of ours too.


In defence of normative modesty

We can make moral progress by applying the sentience criterion more consistently. However, this limited approach is almost certainly insufficient to expose all of our blindness. Moral philosophy is a field plagued with disagreements of major ethical importance. For instance, are there moral criteria other than sentience? How should we weigh the well-being of individuals who are not yet born, relative to our own? If the answer is “just as much” -i.e. a zero rate of pure time preference- then levels of existential risk are unacceptably high. We are well aware of some of these, such as climate change, but pay much less attention to others, such as nuclear war and engineered pandemics.

Most importantly, there likely remain considerations we do not know about which would radically shift our view of the moral landscape. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom believes that “it is likely that we are overlooking one or more crucial considerations: ideas or arguments that might plausibly reveal the need for not just some minor course adjustment in our endeavours but a major change of direction or priority.” Our poor historical track record suggests that noticing any such consideration is no easy task. Noticing them all is a Herculean one. This implies that we should be more modest and open-minded in our moral opinions. We are all probably wrong in important ways and are likely to remain so for a long time.


If you are interested in learning more about animal welfare or maybe even conducting research in this space, get in touch with Professor Nicolas Treich at TSE. He has created a research agenda on the economics of animal welfare. This work is both theoretical and empirical, including topics like integrating animal utility into the social welfare function, behavioural economics of the “meat paradox” (why people eat meat despite caring about animals), cost-benefit analysis of regulatory actions in favour of animals, and evaluating the welfare effects of human actions on animals in farms and in nature.


By Alexis Carlier



Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. 1780.

Bostrom, Nick. Nick Bostrom’s Home Page. 2019.

Faunalytics. Global Animal Slaughter Statistics and Charts. 2018.

Francis Crick Memorial Conference 2012: Consciousness in Animals. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. 2012.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Industrial Farming is one of the worst crimes in history. The New York Times. 15-09-25.

MacAskill, Will. Moral Progress and Cause X. 2016.

Sentience Institute. Global Farmed & Factory Farmed Animals Estimates. 2019.

Singer, Peter. Is Violence History? The New York Times. 11-10-6.

Singer, Peter. The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress. 2011 ed. Princeton University Press, 2011.

An assessment of the economic costs of organised crime

In 2012, Paolo Pinotti, Professor of Economics in the University of Bocconi, published a paper titled  “The economic costs of organized crime: evidence from southern Italy”. He reports on the economic consequences of organised crime, focusing on two regions of southern Italy where the presence of criminal organisations is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Are the econometrics tools used by Paolo Pinotti relevant to assess the impact of Mafia on the economy? Can law enforcement weaken Mafia’s influence?

Through this article, I wish to comment on and discuss the findings presented by Paolo Pinotti.

An assessment of the causal effect of organised crime on the  local economy

To analyse the effects of organised crime on the economy, Paolo Pinotti uses synthetic control methods to estimate the potential economic performance of no organised crime. In that respect, he succeeds in showing that the advent of organised crime leads to a strong, negative and significant causal effect on GDP per capita in those regions. Although the findings were to be expected, the use of GDP per capita to assess the economy of the concerned regions can still be questioned. One cannot argue that GDP per capita is a strong representative of the overall economic performance of a country since, by definition, the Gross Domestic Product refers to the monetary value of all final goods and services produced within the borders of a country, in a given period of time. If GDP per capita is a little bit more precise than GDP, by offering an average measure of one citizen’s living standards, this indicator remains at a mean value, an average, that can therefore not be trusted. In Italy, organised crime is the Mafia, a peculiar and complex industry which, more than being involved in economic activities, is also a governance institution. As any other organised crime, the Mafia engages both in legal and illegal operations, from construction and restaurant services to drugs, gambling and prostitution —  activities which cannot be included in GDP per capita.

Economic costs of Mafia3In the paper, to take into account this “shadow” economy, Pinotti uses electricity consumption as an alternative measure of aggregate economic activity. The idea is for him to make sure that the sudden sluggish growth in GDP per capita taking place in the wake of the introduction of the mafia in the market is not just representative of a reallocation of resources outside the scope of official statistics. Doing so, Pinotti finds that the electricity consumption in the treated regions — the regions where the mafia advent occurred — is greater than in the synthetic ones, slowing down only a decade after the arrival of the Mafia. This suggests that if at some point the mafia affected sectors using energy more intensively, there is no proof  that it has been the source of the expansion of a so called “shadow” economy.

This study of one channel through which the Mafia might effectively influence the economy is an insightful thought. However, it is not enough to represent a country by its “economic” or “monetary” value — especially when assessing the costs of the presence of organised crime. In the second paragraph of his introduction, Pinotti stresses the fact that organised crime has “obvious social and psychological costs” which add to the economic consequences through violence and predatory activities. If those are obvious, then should they not be taken into account as well?

A perhaps more global way to assess the economic and social costs of organised crime could have been to use the Human Development Index computed by the United Nations that, besides GDP per capita, also factors in indicators such as life expectancy or school enrolment. Other indicators try to look out for the weaknesses of GDP per capita such as the Genuine Progress Indicator and the Gross National Happiness Index. Even if those too have their shortcomings, performing the same analysis with some of them could be revealing of more than just the official economy of the two regions.

The impact of law enforcement on Mafia’s power

When defining the legal framework of organised crime in Italy, Pinotti interestingly mentions Article 416-bis of the Italian Penal Code, “assoiciazione a delinquere di stampo mafioso”, introduced in 1982 with Law 646/82. The introduction of this article has been a real breakthrough in the Italian judicial system, acknowledging effectively mafia organisations’ specificities in a text of law and recognising notably the use of any power of intimidation to commit criminal offences, limit freedom or control directly or indirectly economic activities, services or even public contracts. This article makes us wonder about the role law has to play in order to address the issue of organised crime.Economic costs of Mafia4

In a paper titled The Decline of the Italian Mafia,  published in 2008, Letizia Paoli, a famous criminologist and professor of the Law Faculty at Leuven University, indicates that a decline in Mafia organised crimes is mainly due to the intensification of law enforcement repression since early 1990’s. If we look back on the origin of the creation of organised crime, it is important to recall that the Mafia originated from a market failure of the state’s governance with the most important issues at stake being security of property rights and enforcement of contracts. Moreover, if we can imagine good ways to overcome those typical government’s failures, the remaining concern then would be to answer the question on how to tackle fear. As stated in article 416-bis, the inherent and key tool of organised crime is intimidation, and they are pretty good and inventive in that area, with very few boundaries.

To not give in to fear is not an easy road and can even be life-endangering. Famous Judge Giovanni Falcone, who was a fervent believer of his country’s institutions, devoted a major part of his work to the anti-mafia fight. His determination and thoroughness allowed for a profound reshaping of the investigation methods used at that time. He believed that only a deep understanding of the actions and peculiarities of the mafia could lead to a win. However, by flying too close to the sun, Judge Falcone was assassinated by the Corleonesi Mafia in 1992.

In his paper Governance Institutions and Economic Activity, 2009, Avinash Dixit outlines, once again, that in order to perform a good transition of any economy, the most important principle is to gain a complete understanding of the institutional equilibrium and structure, saying that a “successful reformer will combine respect for the past and thoughtful innovation”. All in all, the transition from a mafia organised governance to a regular one is a long and difficult process that can have important costs and requires great awareness and carefulness.

To stand against organised crime is not a straightforward fight where knowledge is key. Only recently, on 19th November 2017, Italy adopted a new legislation[1] amending, among others, the Code of Anti-Mafia Legislation and Protection Measures Under Legislative Decree and Penal Code, which proves that they have not yet had their last word. But, as Letizia Paoli reminds us in her book, the ability for mafia groups to “survive” should not be forgotten.

by Camille Quideau

[1] Law No. 161 of October 17, 2017,