Elvis lives! (On Burkina Faso postage stamps)

Mongolia and the X-Men. Chechnya and Groucho Marx. What were these stamp-pandering countries thinking?

By Andrew Leonard

Published December 3, 2007 9:55PM (EST)

University of Michigan economist Joel Slemrod knows how to come up with the kind of headline that catches How the World Works' eye: "Why Is Elvis on Burkina Faso Postage Stamps? Cross-National Evidence on the Commercialization of State Sovereignty." His lead paragraph offers up a delicious slice of cultural/economic globalized miscegenation.

One stamp dealer's advertisement listed for sale stamps picturing Elvis Presley issued by Burkina Faso, Chad stamps depicting Marilyn Monroe, Chechnya stamps picturing Groucho Marx, Grenada Grenadines stamps showing Bob (Elliot) and Ray (Goulding), Mongolia stamps with the Three Stooges and the X-Men, and Montserrat stamps with Jerry Garcia. Most of these stamps never reach the issuing country's shores, and are designed, produced, and marketed by a foreign agency to stamp collectors around the world.

Mongolia stamps featuring the X-Men? What would Genghis Khan do?

How can you not love an economic treatise that introduces the concept of "stamp pandering?" Unfortunately, for those of us whose minds go blank at the first sight of a multivariable differential equation, the going gets a lot harder in short order. And Slemrod's conclusions after investigating four examples of sovereignty commercialization are hardly earth-shattering.

Slemrod's four examples are countries that money launder, offer themselves as tax havens, provide flags of convenience for shipping, and engage in stamp pandering. Unsurprisingly, there is considerable overlap among the first three categories, less so for the fourth. The 44 stamp-pandering countries are two times more likely to be tax havens than not, but don't significantly overlap with the money-launderers or flag-of-conveniencers. Interestingly, both tax haven and stamp-pandering activity appear to require relatively higher levels of "good governance." Money-laundering, not so much.

Generally, well-governed poorer countries that do not have other means of readily raising funds engage in sovereignty-selling activities such as stamp pandering. But that doesn't seem particularly surprising, and makes Slemrod's final sentence: "This provides some support to the notion that when revenue is difficult to raise in other ways commercialization becomes more attractive" something of a buzz-kill. Why is Elvis on Burkina Faso postage stamps? Because it's hard to make a living in this world when you're a poor African country, and if you have any kind of decent head on your shoulders, you'll grab at every option available. Besides, Elvis made his own living ripping off the musical contributions of African-Americans, so maybe what's really going on in this particular case is some cultural reappropriation.

That still doesn't explain the X-Men thing, however.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew LeonardFOLLOW koxinga21LIKE Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Globalization How The World Works