Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor

I read Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh's "Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor" over the holidays and it didn't disappoint me. I first read about Venkatesh's work investigating the economics of underground activities in Chicago's poorest ghettos in Freakonomics, so when I heard that he'd published a book dedicated to the subject, I rushed to read it.

Venkatesh spent years among the hustlers, gangsters, hookers of a South Side ghetto, interviewing them and following them around, speaking to block captains, preachers, beat cops and other people embedded in the local underground economy. The result is a comprehensive, though-provoking and often exciting read that tells the hidden story of everything from secret soul food kitchens to the ins and outs of running a crack-selling enterprise.

The bleak noir literatures, crime novels and cyberpunk and caper stories, they all use shady dealing as a critical stage-prop. But there's never consideration given to the necessary economic underpinnings of a stable shady economy. We see the macroorganisms, but there's no ecosystem in evidence that could support them -- it's like the dinosaurs on King Kong island -- what the hell do that many giant carnivores eat on such a tiny island?

Enter Venkatesh's tremendous research. He teases apart the gigantic web of interactions that comprises the shady economy, showing how a powerful gang leader has to contend with a store-owner if the gang's activities endanger the homeless man who keeps the graffiti kids away from the shop.

Venkatesh isn't a master storyteller. He repeats himself, going over the same points several times, and many of the book's juiciest tidbits are buried in the copious endnotes. The book is neither fish nor fowl, with elements of both academic text and popular non-fiction. That said, the material here was entirely new to me, and eye-opening. This feels like the kind of book I'll be thinking about for years to come.


See also: Underground economics in the USA