A few years ago, I discovered The Wire
on HBO while it was in reruns of the 1st season, and I was hooked. It was cool seeing Baltimore landmarks and steets as the backdrop, but what really got me hooked was the complicated characters - the cops aren't bad good, and the drug dealers aren't all bad - they are complicated characters with good and bad elements. There is a ton of brilliant dialog and scenes as well.
After I found the show, I found out that David Simon wrote Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. The TV show Homicide was based on it, and there are elements of it in The Wire as well. I read it over Christmas break one year while I was up in NJ visiting the parents - they weren't too thrilled when I cheerfully commented that one of the main murders in the book took place on Newington Avenue, a few blocks away from the Eutaw Place apartment in the Resevoir Hill neighborhood that I had moved into a few months earlier.
I went on to read Simon's other book, The Corner, as well as to download every episode of Homicide off eMule. So when I found out that he was speaking at the college I work at
I was excited.
I went to it, and have come to the conclusion that while David Simon is a brilliant writer, he's also a little crazy. He spent most of the lecture talking about how we are all doomed - how Americans no longer care about each other, how technology has meant that we don't need 20% of our workforce anymore, how we no longer have the jobs those people would take or the unions to protect them, how our voting system and the senate is unfair because 60% of the population only has 40% of the vote (since all states have two senators, he feels urban areas are underrepresented), and how companies are all chasing money at the expense of people, and how we are all a bunch of greedy people concerned only about ourselves. He said that he thinks we will see "the collapse of the American empire within the next generation or two".
It was interesting, because it's pretty much the opposite of my views of life and technology. I often think I'm lucky to have been born now, with technology and medical care and lifespan way better than they have ever been and improving every day. I don't think that we care about each other or individuals even less - rather, I think that this is one of the first times in history that we have the time and technology to care about others, because we have enough resources that we can look past ourselves.
Yes, technology does change the workforce, but I think it's for the better. Simon complained about the elimination of the working class, about how people no longer have union jobs. I'm not convinced that the union job and the union wage is all it's cracked up to be - shipbuilding and assembling Astro vans and making steel might have paid well, but they were also tough and dangerous dirty jobs in some respects (Richard Preston's book American Steel
does a good job of capturing how dangerous the steel industry can be). I'm not sure where his 20% of the workforce won't be needed figure comes from - unemployment is far lower - but I don't think that is what will happen. I think what will instead happen is that people who can work less will - people will retire younger, a trend that's already happening, which will help make up for those displaced by technology. And service industries will continue to expand, as people lack the time or will to do many tasks.
Simon criticised companies a number of times in his speech, but said he wasn't a Marxist - that he thinks capitalism works but needs to be contained. He said that people think they might become millionares, so they keep taxes low and don't care about other people because they want to keep their money if they ever become millionares - but that they probably won't. I'm not a believer in the "Third Way" argument that Clinton and others have advanced, and that Simon seems to buy into. Capitalism works because people have an incentive to succeed, because they have the possibility to make it big. And the confiscatory taxes that are required for the massive wealth- distribution plans that Simon seems to advocate would have a profound impact on people making considerably less than a mil a year.
At one point, he commented that we don't even care enough about each other to raise the minimum wage - that we shouldn't even have to discuss it. I think this is a horrible simplification of a complicated issue - if raising the minimum wage eliminated poverty, we could just raise it to $20/hour and eliminate poverty. Obviously it doesn't work that way. Many economists have argued that the minimum wage helps some people, but hurts the least educated, often young minorities, who are the least likely to get hired. Because the amount that the company values their labor is below the minimu wage, the company doesn't hire them and both are worse off. Ironically, this is exactly the group of people who Simon sees as needing the most help - young African-American men who turn to drug dealing.
At one point he said, "I don't think global warming will ever be solved unless there's a profit." He said it with anger and sarcasm, but I think it's true - if there is money to be made, companies will do it. They respond to incentives. That's not a bad thing - if there wasn't money to be made selling food, I'd be really hungry right now. Or as a certain economist said, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."
Now Simon did raise some good points. He commented that one of the problems with our political system is that it favors short-term results, so politicians dont' have an incentive to make long-term changes - they focus on short-term solutions so they can get re-elected. (Of course, my first though was Iraq- if it works and we are better for having invaded, we won't realize the positive effects for years). He also disagrees with the War On Drugs, and thinks police would be better off focusing on crimes against people and property rather than spending their time busting small-time dealers and users, but the statistics that the police department uses favors boosting the stats, which means that the police and people in drug-heavy areas are always at odds - and unlikely to help the police when there is a rape or a murder.
But overall, while I think Simon is a great writer, I think his politics leave something to be desired...