Favor Bank: Was Tom Wolfe right in ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Favor Bank

Cover of Tom Wolfe Bonfire of the VanitiesFrom Dr. Wayne Baker: Welcome back contributing columnist Terry Gallagher … 

One reason we’re reluctant to accept favors from each other is because we’re afraid that it would put us in a bind, requiring us to reciprocate the favor down the road.

But maybe that commitment to reciprocate is a form of social glue that binds us together with our neighbors and community. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing.

So why are there so many pejorative phrases describing that kind of relationship: back-scratching, log rolling, greasing the wheels, one hand washing the other?

“The Favor Bank” is a central feature of the world Tom Wolfe created in his 1987 best-seller, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and the title of one of its chapters.

“Well, everything in this building, everything in the criminal justice system in New York, operates on favors,” flamboyant defense attorney Tommy Killian explains to a client. “Everybody does favors for everybody else. Every chance they get, they make deposits in the Favor Bank.”

Few of our social structures are more complex than the criminal justice system in New York, and at least in Wolfe’s telling, the cops, judges, lawyers and crooks in the book all understand how the Favor Bank makes that world go round.

“It’s saving up for a rainy day,” Killian explains. He points out a couple of lawyers operating on the fringes of the justice system. “They could be arrested. Without the Favor Bank, they’d be finished,” he says.

So when we do favors for each other, and expect favors in return, are we perpetuating a system as corrupt as a New York City courthouse?

Or are we just saving up for a rainy day?

Was Tom Wolfe right?

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(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)


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