Via Crooked Timber, this Inside Higher Ed review of Diego Gambetta’s Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate that has a great comparison of projected incompetence among mafiosi, who according Gambetta, cheerfully “let the professionals and the entrepreneurs take care of the actual business operations” and admit that they’re only good at shaking people down, and a certain brand of italian academic, the “baroni (barons) who oversee the selection committees involved in Italian academic promotions.”

While some fields are more meritocratic than others, the struggle for advancement often involves a great deal of horse trading. “The barons operate on the basis of a pact of reciprocity, which requires a lot of trust, for debts are repaid years later. Debts and credits are even passed on from generation to generation within a professor’s ‘lineage,’ and professors close to retirement are excluded from the current deals, for they will not be around long enough to return favors.”

The most powerful figures in this system, says Gambetta, tend to be the least intellectually distinguished. They do little research, publish rarely, and at best are derivative of “some foreign author on whose fame they hope to ride…. Also, and this is what is the most intriguing, they do not try to hide their weakness. One has the impression that they almost flaunt it in personal contacts.”

Well, one also has the impression that the author is here on the verge of writing a satirical novel. But a friend who is interested in both the politics and academic life of Italy tells me that this account is all too recognizably accurate, in some fields anyway. Gambetta calls the system “an academic kakistocracy, or government by the worst,” which is definitely an expression I can see catching on.

[To the tune of Thievery Corporation Feat. Sister Nancy, “Originality,” from the album Versions (I give it 1 stars).]