Venkatesh’s Succotash: “Off the Books”

I found what I thought would be a fascinating read about the Urban Poor entitled “Off the Books: the underground economy of the urban poor.” It was written by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh – I have no idea if male or female. Regardless, I wish to disparage the person, and so I’ll refer to “it” as Venk and “he.” The book seemed to be by some community empowerment maven, and perhaps a good liberal to boot – one for the people to run their own communities, you know. Isn’t that what community organizers are supposed to do? You know, help communities empower themselves and let them be the fine if quirky folks without some power structure of the “man” coming down to cause grief, and discrimination, and bring into the communities the horrors of Starbucks and Walmart? Venk did seem this sort of person. Alas, he is not. Not at all. He’s the feudal lord’s do gooder.

Why, he’s for the crushing of community spirit alive and well in the community he espies before going home to some other neighborhood which I did not read him mentioning as to where that might be. Meanwhile, he describes a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago – the book done in 2006, well within living memory. And what I find is a man for community weakening; destruction even. A man for big government and big companies and outsiders of divers sorts, to come in a change the way the people in the neighborhood live, to make them conform to some other way of life. They are crafty fellows and ladies, as we shall see anon.

So I get through the introduction, which explains all about how Venk came down to study the place, and wound up knowing allllll about it, sort of. He even brings up that he was a arbiter of some number of disputes — and who says private justice when both parties agree to the judge can’t work? He mentions two or three arbitrations right away – who knows how many more might be found in the following pages. Venk is educated; he’s got himself (or will get) some fancy degree from a fancy college. No doubt, he took out tax payer supported student loans, so he has a clear motive for more taxes. He lives in a “classy” neighborhood, perhaps. He doesn’t say. And he doesn’t use the word “classy” at all to describe his area of town. But he implies heavily that that is exactly the sort of ‘hood he lives in – a classy one, and the one he is studying is not a “classy” place at all. A fine fellow, almost certainly, even if a bit of a mush head, and definitely condescending if not racist.

From page one of Chapter One Venk’s strange attitude towards the fine folks he’s studying is thrown at the reader. He speaks to Marlene Matteson – she’s not “real” in that Venk says he changed all the names in the book – and the neighborhood too! So we don’t really know of who and where we speak. Such fine folks, they are to be hidden in anonymity, like dirty laundry somehow. I suppose he means to protect the innocent and the guilty. Hmm. Ah, Ms. Matteson – she laments the death of one ‘Big Cat’ – he’s the local neighborhood big wig – done in by he who wants to be the next local big wig. It is terrible that the murder of this gang lord and neighborhood organizer should have been shot – seems he was quite a good fellow, as we shall see. Of course, if the drugs which Big sold were legal, well, then, he might be somewhat diminished in power because he’d be busier with his business instead of having to organize the community to keep his “illegal” business going and employing all sorts of people. Legalize pot, presto, no more violence over pot.

Still, Venk says: “She knew that gang activity created persistent safety problems her area.” Well, no. Outlawing what otherwise could-be lawful businessmen is the real cause of the problem – just like during Prohibition. Oy, the violence in Chicago from outlawing liquor. We have not learned. Ah, Ms. Matteson is referred to as saying: “she could no longer call on Big Cat to keep rank-and-file members out of the parks in the afternoon.” Why, they “overtook public spaces with abandon.” Dastardly, this free peaceable assembly of people in a neighborhood – could it get any worse? Yes, it could: Big was giving money, donations even, to churches and the poorer still and even to Marlene for kids’ block parties. Even though Venk has Marlene venting over “kids coming home from school.” Sounds like ol’ Big was rather generous. This is a problem?

Ah, so Big “policed his gang members” (aka, made regulations for his employees.) But Venk is concerned still, for he laments that Big’s employees, um, gang members: “whose rhythm and inner clocks did not match those of the residents, like Marlene, who woke up each morning…” So some people are night owls and this is a problem? Some people work at night – I did for years, I never woke up in the mornings, I went to sleep in the mornings. 9 AM was bedtime! So for the sake of some Neo-Puritan “Let’s all be in bed by 11PM!” conformity Venk is sure that this neighborhood has gone bad. Yeesh. Or does Marlene think staying up late is wrong? He’s not clear as to whether it’s Venk or the Ms. M.

Man, the entire neighborhood “benefited materially from Big Cat’s presence.” The cad, letting people materially benefit from his mere presence!

“Big Cat not only helped Marlene to police younger gang members” – says Venk – but gave Marlene money for kids. Could it be more intolerable than control of one’s employees while giving kid-party cash? Yes! “and members of his gang patrolled the neighborhood late at night because police presence was a rarity.” Yes, well, of course the police didn’t have to go to this neighborhood much, for it sounds very peacefully to me so far – people in parks, neighborhood patrols at night, Big’s employees under control, and kids’ parties on the block. Why do the police need to come to such a place? Not to mention, these people empowered themselves and elected themselves a sheriff. He organized a posse. Curtis Sliwas did it with the “Guardian Angels” – he’s a hero. Big does it, a terror. Sounds ruggedly American to me. Peace reigned and kids had parties, people slept comfortably knowing the neighborhood watch was busy. Aw, not some 75 year old toddling about, but youth! Vigorous youth patrolling their own neighborhood under the fine direction of a popular man. Nothing is more dangerous to the Venks of this world.

Venk gives a litany of services Big provided. $500 cash to rent a hair salon for a party one night a week for the neighborhood watch committee (Venks, “Youth gang members.”) The horrors! People having fun and peacefully renting space. Why, in a “classy” neighborhood this would be called “multi-use” or “reuse” or “urban renovation” and perhaps “New Bohemian” – but to Venk this sort of activity on the south side of the city is some anathema that the police at society’s peril only patrol with rarity.

Though, demerits, for like a good local mayor with a friend in a business, Big did try to protect “the near monopoly on local’s off-the-books car repair by intimidating other mechanics” who tried to open up in the prohibited area. You know, people who would try to do a better cheaper service, competition and a dash of capitalism – unruly, things change, favored people have to worker a bit harder – So the government created the “near monopoly” while capitalism would have wrecked it.

Oh, so sad: “such is the bizarre reality of life in … The demands of the ghetto require an economy utterly different from what most of America can imagine.” Oh really? How so? Why, mechanics work. Barbers rent out backrooms for a prostitute – yes, well, she’ll ply her trade, keep it out of the eyes of kids, yes? Still, in every American city prostitutes work out of all sorts of buildings; in Las Vegas you can call the front desk and have a blond sent up for room service. In Venk’s neighborhood does he think there are no hookers? He is a blind fellow, then.

The preacher got donations! “Everyone had a hand in keeping the streets tolerable and keeping the goods and services flowing.” Why, that’s so utterly “different” as to be utterly exact every other part of America which any American could imagine. Why, those ghetto bums are involved in the same stuff as suburban folks! No wonder the country’s a mess – people are doing what they can to support themselves, and in their own neighborhoods! Terrible, apparently, to Venk.

“The economy brings together an assortment of actors who may otherwise have little reason or interest in exchanging – let alone communicating – with one another. This mix is dangerous, but it is a part of living underground.” Did you ever get the feeling you wanted to reach into a book and pull the author’s head out and silly-smack it for an hour or two about the reality of neighborhoods and business – people exchanging with one another – always brings about a delightful mix of people with “little reason” to deal with each other – except for when the needs of one match the offers of another and a deal be done? Is Venk really this stupid? Is he that much a conformist? Yep! For there you have it – a normal diverse neighborhood in a big city – with many people – and they, why, they interact with each other in a cordial functioning way! They have empowered themselves into a pleasant enough existence, and Venk is just against it. Why, he “moralizes” that less of this is necessary, right away.

Meanwhile, while this peace reigned, people earned a living in their own ways. Venk’s not happy. What I see is a Jane Jacobs sort of neighborhood empowerment (read her brilliant book “Death and Life of Great American Cities.) She and I see normalcy, utterly alike any neighborhood in America. Understandable to all. Venk sees some freewheeling horror story of people going about their own lives without a Venkian Busybody to order things about.

“They develop creative hustling schemes and do not report their income” – oh my my my – there it is – the problem! Venk wants to tax the poor – to give them their money back! Hmm, maybe. Meanwhile, not reporting income seems to be a major national pastime of God Fearing Patriotic Americans. Hell, the country was founded on not reporting income or paying taxes. Oh, so very different those crafty fellows of the Ghetto are – why “they exchange services” without giving a commission to the government for the privilege – like all other Americans. They barter! Oh my, and barter exchanges abound across the nation – found in a phone book near you – with legal incorporation papers to boot. They make “home made cookies” for prompt delivery on special order in a few hours right to your door. The bums – can you believe it? Fresh Cookies! And Venk is upset. He’s sure this is a tainted place, Fresh Cookies being the culprit this time, instead of enterprising want to earn an extra buck owners renting out salons for a party.

Preachers preach to their congregations! So “utterly different” indeed. For these are not “classy” “wealthy congregations” of the rich “in the suburbs” – which has got to be one of the most racist calumnies I’ve read in a while – oh, subtle, true – white wealth suburban preachers, good: local preachers preaching to local folks and without the “wealth” that Jesus himself said “not important, love first,” bad. Got it Venk.

“It’s all about money” laments Venk – well, yes, sir, indeed! That’s called in liberty land: earning one’s way, one’s keep, even “free market capitalism.” In Venk-land it’s a horror of some sort. Because he obviously thinks that these industrious people living their own way are “marginal” and “disadvantaged” – oh, the problem discovered: they “replace taxable income altogether.” The bastards, they won’t pay their taxes so the Venks of government can help them with their own money. Keeping their own money? Nah, that would be too unruly, unstable; people might stay up at night and rent salons for parties.

Me, I love these “ghetto” folks. They’re entrepreneurial, they are peacefully exchanging services while enjoying kids play at block parties, the neighborhood youth are patrolling the place day and night to keep order, people are working, and everyone delights in home made cookies. What is Venk’s problem? Ah, no taxes. But you know what? Why would you want to tax away the little these folks have? If they are marginal and disadvantaged why make them more so, eh, Venk? Sounds like Big City Mayor Emmanuel should hustle on down there and give all these creative, talented, enterprising, peaceful, responsible individuals a certificate of Good Work Citizens! And bring along a few tax cuts and pages of regulations that hinder the small neighborhood entrepreneurs to shred.

Ah, but the appalling Venkian Solution – found by page 9 – which Venk will now, I’m sure, spend the next 400 pages explaining with delightful glee: “Despite the moralizing of some, we cannot truly understand the ‘shady’ economy if we see it as a dirty, lawless world of violence and disrepute, one that tarnishes an otherwise pristine sphere where everyone pays their taxes, obeys the laws and turns to the government to solve disputes and maintain order.” And you know, it’s Venk who sees it as dirty and lawless – why, he moralizes in the first half of this mush-sentence, and refers in previous pages, about the Outlaw economy and Outlaw actors and violence – and wishes for the pristine sphere where everyone follows the law and government leaders and the police are around to control the mobs at the kiddy parties. This Venk fellow doesn’t know freedom, he preaches feudalism. Which I think is actually the best description of this modern liberal thinking – it’s like feudalism. Venk should be arguing for less taxes and controls and more self-reliance in his own ‘hood rather than demand that these fine folks doing their best in the face of government interference in their lives stop baking home made cookies and delivering them on time for a profit without paying a commission for permission from the government.

Here, his final solution, from page xvii in the “prologue”: “No matter how skilled, or resourceful and creative those involved may be, the world of hustling is fundamentally exploitative” Yes, because it’s capitalist, free, ordered and unregulated, and Venk the feudalizer ain’t happy: “It is premised on, or exists because of, the neglect of outside actors from local and national politicians to business interests to philanthropic foundations – who refuse to allocate enough resources to black inner cities to create true economic security there.” Sure, Venk, sure – just how on earth can anyone allow skilled, resourceful and creative people to go about their own lives in their own ways without some do gooder like you coming in to organize it all and make sure it meets your standards and pays enough taxes to give you a cushy job? Venk is a control freak, is clueless about economics, and is against liberty. Venk is, in short, an idiot.

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