Chicago has a bustling underground market, open
every day to the elite and up-and-comers. The currency of choice
is favors--social, economic, political. And their quiet exchange
keeps the aboveground economy humming
A woman, unknown to all but a few spectators,
walks to the mound at Comiskey Park and throws out the ceremonial
first pitch. A CEO is invited to join the board of a civic institution
that he barely knows. A columnist helps a mogul get a date with
a starlet. A Democrat and a Republican meet secretly, tipping
an election and sparing a score of patronage workers the pink
Different as these events may be, they all fall
within the favor economy--a vast underground system that quietly
keeps Chicago's legitimate economy healthy. The favor economy
is not tracked by experts and can not be analyzed with reams
of statistics. To follow its ups and downs, you're better off
going to the rumor mill--or to the bar at Gibsons--than reading
The Wall Street Journal. Yet favors are vital currency for the
city's elite and for its up-and-comers, who trade them to get
ahead, to spread influence, and--occasionally--simply to do
good. Active favor traders estimate they spend up to a quarter
of their working hours orchestrating favors that cannot be tied
directly to their actual job or the bottom line. The action
is as pervasive in City Hall--where, one politico says, "favors
are the DNA of Chicago politics"--as it is in high social circles--where,
according to novelist Sugar Rautbord, "doing favors is as de
rigueur as putting a napkin on your lap."
The favor economy is hardly unique to Chicago.
But it flourishes here because, like most economies, it thrives
on stability. "This town's a sandbox," says public relations
maven Tom Doody. "And it's always the same kids playing." Most
such players assume that anyone who hasn't gone coastal by his
or her mid-30s will be around for the next three decades--a
healthy environment for extending long-term favor credit, the
backbone of Chicago's favor economy. What's more, with so many
of the powerful heavily vested in the system, if one among them
hits a rocky patch, his favor creditors react in the same way
as major banks when an important Third World country teeters
on the edge--almost any measure will be taken to forestall an
By comparison, the transient players in Washington,
D.C., operate on a much harsher barter system. "For people from
Chicago it can be very uncomfortable," says political consultant
Kitty Kurth, who worked in the capital as a Democratic operative
for three years. "Nobody offers to help, because people in D.C.
feel like it's a zero-sum game--that every time someone else
gains, they lose somehow." Though New Yorkers are more likely
to stay put than the Beltway types, Gotham operates more purely
on power and the perception of power, which can disrupt the
smooth trading of favors. "In Manhattan, when a woman divorced
a powerful man, it was like she had dropped from the face of
the earth," says former New Yorker Maureen Smith, of Lake Forest,
who is active on many charitable fronts. "In Chicago, those
women get credit for what they themselves have done in the past."
As for the other coast, Sun-Times columnist
Bill Zwecker says his frequent dealings with the Hollywood hype
machine have yielded a valuable lesson. "In Los Angeles you
have to cash in favors before a month passes," he says, exaggerating,
but not by much. "People in Chicago have elephant memories when
it comes to favors."
In setting out to write the unwritten laws of
the favor game, I interviewed a score of men and women from
all over the power grid--socialites, lawyers, politicians, journalists,
and business types. Many offered me favors, including: gourmet
meals, free office space, a ride to the airport, membership
at a prominent downtown club, and the direct-dial numbers of
others active on the favors exchange. (I accepted only the numbers.)
These sources indicated that although the basic rules apply
throughout the Chicago area, etiquette varies depending on the
milieu. A favor granted in a North Shore drawing room, for example,
may arrive with such patrician noblesse oblige that it hardly
seems a favor at all, just a spot of pleasantness between pals.
In the harder corridors of City Hall, however, there's little
ambiguity when a favor has been granted.
Despite those differing styles, the ablest traders
glide easily among Chicago's tight-knit realms of power. "The
business and civic worlds are intertwined like an ecosystem,"
says one Democratic politico. "There's this tight nexus of relationships,
and it's all built on favors."
Consider this a prospectus, a rough guide for
those considering a foray into the market.
Rule 1: Never grant a favor expecting a specific
The key to understanding Chicago's favor trade
is to accept that it doesn't work on a quid pro quo basis. "That's
a totally useless model," says one veteran lawyer. "Even when
it's that simple, which is rare, the people involved never see
it that way." To be sure, new acquaintances might exchange minor
favors, and monitor repayment closely. But in time only the
big favors matter, and they get offered with a karmic assumption
that sometime, somehow, something good will happen in return.
"When you do favors for people, it's like putting together a
chemical reaction," says River North developer Al Friedman.
"You set it in motion without ever knowing what will happen."
Friedman cites a recent example of the favor
economy paying off. Not long ago, the family of the late real
estate mogul Lee Miglin approached him out of the blue and asked
whether he would work with them to continue Miglin's legacy
of development. A business partnership arose from those initial
meetings. Apparently, someone had vouched for Friedman. "To
this day, I have no idea who [the Miglin family] spoke with,"
he says, "but the kind word was probably based on something
I did years ago."
Further undermining the quid pro quo model, smart
favor traders rarely cash in their favors for themselves. Instead,
they leverage their good deeds to help out someone they are
courting. But this is hardly serial altruism, says one Republican
congressional aide: "It's just people spinning this huge spider-web
matrix with themselves at the center."
By constantly creating new indebtedness and new
credit, says media lawyer Burton Joseph, players extend their
tendrils in every possible direction. To Joseph, Chicago culture
czarina Lois Weisberg epitomizes this style of playing the favor
game. "What she does is never about enriching herself," Joseph
says, "but eventually all those chickens come home to roost."
A broker might call this diversifying your portfolio.
Al Friedman puts it this way: "Always make a friend before you
need a friend."