Saturday, November 14, 2015

Tom Wolfe (1971) - on intimidation and shake-downs

Steve Hsu points to this Tom Wolfe piece from 1971: ' Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers'*.
"... Wolfe's book is set at the Office of Economic Opportunity in San Francisco which was in charge of administering many of the anti-poverty programs of the time. Wolfe presents the office as corrupt, continually gamed by hustlers diverting cash into their own pockets. The essay centers on the irony of these failed programs fortifying not the diets but the resentment and contempt of the Black, Chicano, Filipino, Chinese, Indian, and Samoan communities of San Francisco.

"Wolfe describes hapless bureaucrats (the Flak Catchers) whose function was reduced to taking abuse, or "mau-mauing" (in reference to the intimidation tactics employed in Kenya's anti-colonial Mau Mau Uprising) from intimidating young Blacks and Samoans, who are seen as reveling in the newfound vulnerability of "the Man".

The flak-catchers smile pathetically, allowing their tormentors to indulge themselves in abuse; the process is seen as a farcical but useful expedient, condescending toward the resentment of these communities. He described one mau-mauer who would show up at the offices and hand over ice-picks, switch-blades and straight-razors that he said were taken from gangs, in exchange for payments from the program. As a result, much of the money of these programs was not reaching its intended recipients, rendering the programs largely ineffective."
Tom Wolfe is, of course, a great writer (although this piece is too long). He seems devoid of political correctness, and his writing is energetic, and great at painting a scene. What I wondered was how on earth he managed to get all this detail (names, places, events, back stories - all fly-on-the-wall stuff).

Did he sit in the 'Office of Economic Opportunity' interview room cataloguing the horrors? Did he wander the ghettos watching pimps and dealers up close and personal?

Tom Wolfe is an effete, middle-class white man who, one imagines, wouldn't last two minutes in a tough 'hood.

Tom Wolfe - author and ghetto-expert

I'm often reminded how economics, despite its many flaws, is still the best of that sorry bunch of subjects, the social sciences. In the anti-poverty programmes one sees the essence of public choice theory applied to special interests.


* The Tom Wolfe piece is here - shame about the intrusive ad at the bottom of the page. And the poor formatting. It reads much better on a tablet.

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