(Opinion) Back in the 20th century, it was a mark of serious literacy to have read Tolstoy’s War and Peace cover to cover. I never earned that badge, but I recently attained what may become our century’s version: I finished watching all 60 episodes of The Wire, the gripping HBO drama about inner-city Baltimore and its spider web of troubles.
While it aired from 2002 to 2008, The Wire received poor ratings and glowing reviews. The most concise came from Time Magazine, whose editors named it the best television of 2006: “No other TV show has ever loved a city so well, damned it so passionately, or sung it so searingly.” The Wire’s affection for and despair over Baltimore, the hometown of the show’s creators, David Simon and Ed Burns, is made explicit in the last episode, which features two extended montages showing the city in its best light, after the series has spent five seasons revealing it at its bleakest and most violent.
The Wire struck a resonant chord with me, a native of New Haven with similar feelings of enthusiasm for and frustration with my city. One-fifth the size and with a slightly lower murder rate, New Haven is not Baltimore, yet it faces a similar tangle of interlinked and apparently intractable problems: grinding urban poverty abetted by an educational system that, despite good intentions, fails its neediest students year after year, on-again-off-again turf-based violence that can quickly claim young lives, a terrible absence of honest work for a large, low-income population lured to the city three generations ago by now-vanished industries, and a political class whose promises of change seem perpetually compromised by the bargains necessary to win and hold power.
Through its threads of individual tragedy, The Wire has much to say about these communal sorrows. In the hope that it might encourage Independent readers who haven’t watched the series to do so, and help illuminate its relevance to New Haven for those who have, I’ll describe a few things I learned from The Wire.
(Note: This article includes a few “spoiler” revelations about The Wire’s plot, but none that will ruin the series for anyone who hasn’t seen it.)
The Silver Bowl Diet: How Reformers Turn Into Conservatives Overnight
In The Wire’s fourth season, a progressive reformer is elected mayor against long odds, and the city awaits the changes he has promised. Before taking office, the new mayor has lunch with Tony, an older man who had been a one-term mayor decades earlier. Tony chose not to run again despite a clear path to re-election.
The new mayor asks Tony why he retired, and the veteran tells a withering, metaphoric story of his first day in office, when his chief of staff brought him a beautiful handmade silver bowl. “It’s a gift from the unions,” the aide told him, setting it down in front of him. The new mayor noticed the bowl was full of shit. “What am I supposed to do with this?” he asked. “You’re the Mayor, you have to eat it,” said the aide. When he was done, the aide brought him another bowl from another group with a stake in city government, and then another. After a year of this diet, Tony says, he decided that a quiet life as a lawyer and family man was more appealing.
To do his job and keep it, an urban mayor has to take a lot of crap. The inverse of this parable is implied: that a mayor who does the right thing as he sees it, without considering the political implications, will enjoy a very brief tenure. Acting on conscience alone, a politician will inevitably alienate a significant part of his electoral majority. The Wire drives home this point many times, as Mayor Carcetti, the would-be reformer, again and again decides not to make the boat-rocking changes he promised while running for office, frittering away his power in an all-consuming effort to secure first re-election and then the governor’s mansion.
Like Baltimore, New Haven has a “strong mayor” system, but that strength means, as Carcetti learns, that the silver bowls delivered to the mayor’s desk are many and large. An urban mayor’s choices are to a great extent predetermined. Little of his money is discretionary; much of it comes from Washington or the state capitol with chains, not strings, attached. He cannot take dramatic action on any policy question without angering one constituency or another. When no real opposition party exists, as is the case in most American cities, voter participation dwindles, and the party primary determines the contest. In this political environment, a city can feel like a very small town, and the votes of any constituency willing to organize count disproportionately. It’s easy to get swept out of office by angering the wrong people.
Avoid that mistake, and you can hold office for a long time. It takes many years to learn how to navigate such a system without making powerful enemies, and to develop a skin thick enough and digestive tract tough enough to survive. It’s easy to see why someone who makes the commitment to that steep learning curve wants to keep the job once they’ve won it: they’ve invested heavily in a set of skills that aren’t as relevant or useful anywhere else.
Many in New Haven are eager to see the city change. Their hopes take different shapes: a more creative, engaged public education system, a more transparent city government, a responsible, sustainable budget, a return to community-based policing, and so on. A common complaint among New Haven reformers is that the current administration is standing in the way of change, and that electing a new mayor would open the floodgates of innovation and reform in city government.
I have said these things a few times myself, and I may again, but The Wire gave me some sympathy for the Catch-22 of the urban politician: making change means making enemies, and enemies can rob you of the power to make change. Holding office in a modern city strips a politician of his courage with brutal efficiency. The process is as murderous to dreams of reform as the drug industry is to its young soldiers.
The Only Game in Town: Keeping Busy in Post-Industrial America
[T]hree things—autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.
—Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
In the fall of 1979, I was a fifth-grader on a school bus headed across town from Westville to East Rock. The bus slowed to a crawl to make its way through a crowd of strikers shouting and waving signs outside the Winchester Repeating Arms factory, which had been threatened with closure by its owner, the multinational Olin Corporation. I was looking out the window by my seat, trying to make sense of what was going on, when it was shattered by a thrown brick. The safety glass stopped the missile, but I’ve never forgotten the shock. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could be so angry and desperate.
The Winchester factory, now vacant, is in Newhallville, a neighborhood named for a mid-19th-century industrial hub, the carriage factory of George Newhall, once the largest such manufacturer in the world. The Civil War cut off Newhall’s primarily Southern business, and the Winchester factory stepped in to become the city’s largest employer, remaining so for nearly a century; at its peak in the 1940s, it employed 20,000 people, almost all of them resident nearby.
You can understand why the area has an empty, abandoned feel to it, despite the incremental renovations of recent years, when you imagine 20,000 people arriving for work in what is now known as Science Park, most on foot or by public transportation. (My great-grandmother was one of them, bicycling there during World War II.) The Winchester factory was only the largest of dozens of industrial employers throughout the city, including Sargent Hardware, New Haven Clock, and the Strouse-Adler Company, which manufactured the Smoothie corset in a factory now filled with luxury condominiums on Olive Street.
Industrially, New Haven is a ghost town. The city’s population has dropped to 125,000, 25 percent below its 1950 peak of almost 165,000; the manufacturing industries, which gave the city a shape and identity independent of Yale, are gone. The university and its hospital, far and away the largest employers in New Haven today, provide jobs to perhaps 10,000 city residents, all told.
Most of us know the rough outlines of this history; for anyone interested in more detail, they are fleshed out in Douglas Rae’s brilliant book on 20th-century New Haven, City. The Wire serves as a grim epilogue to Rae’s portrait of an American city in its heyday: it shows us how industrial decline in cities like Baltimore and New Haven provided fertile ground for the rapid growth of the drug trade.
When the jobs their parents and grandparents held disappear, people of limited education and limited resources often turn to drugs. This is a cliché on the consumption side, but it’s emphatically true on the supply side as well. A young man in inner-city New Haven with no access to a car faces enormous competition for very few jobs. If at all ambitious and intelligent, he will seek challenging and rewarding work, as described above by Malcolm Gladwell.
To an extent unmatched by the few legal jobs available to an inner-city youth, the drug trade depicted in The Wire offers its workers autonomy, complexity, and reward for effort. Of course, it also offers a very high probability of jail-time and violent death, along with the likelihood of having to violate one’s conscience on a regular basis. Those terms are daunting, but set them against the existential horror of permanent unemployment or underemployment, and one can imagine why so many accept the bargain. College athletic coaches and entertainment-industry professionals may be on the lookout for “urban” youth with extraordinary gifts and skills, but the only industry recruiting intelligent young people for steady work is the drug trade.
The unconscious but profound complicity of the public education system is highlighted in The Wire’s fourth season, which follows the lives of four boys, friends at the same middle school, as their adolescence brings them into regular contact with the drug business, and their interest dwindles in a testing-centered education that has no relevance to the future they see ahead of them. Along the way, we are given dozens of anecdotal examples of the ways an inflexible bureaucracy and its strait-jacket of rules make it nearly impossible for teachers and administrators to bring creativity and student-specific techniques to bear on their Herculean task.
Nevertheless, if The Wire names any one cause for the sad chaos it explores, it is the absence of the factory and the myriad other blue-collar jobs to which its characters’ grandfathers went each morning to work. It’s reasonable to insist, as education reformers do, that manual labor should not be the limit of an inner-city youth’s aspirations, but the disappearance of that option is, without a doubt, the primary cause of the communal devastation The Wire depicts. The industrial economy America enjoyed in the 20th century made ours a very rich nation; that economy having served its purpose, we dismantled its machinery, giving little thought to the fate of the people who had operated it. The miseries The Wire chronicles, and somehow manages to transform, are the consequences of that indifference.
Juking the Stats: Letting Data Drive You into a Ditch
In 1976, a social scientist named Donald Campbell made an observation about what happens when we use numeric data to make consequential decisions. What he said has come to be known as Campbell’s Law:
The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.
The language is academic, but the point is important to the world we live in.
Campbell’s Law identifies two negative consequences of letting data drive decision-making. Consequence 1 is cheating: the likelihood that, under pressure, the people whose performance is supposedly being measured will “cook the books” to improve their results. Consequence 2 is less obvious but perhaps more important: the pressure for “good” data causes the measured process itself to change, as even well-intentioned participants change their methods and focus to produce the desired data.
The Wire depicts two successive mayors eager to show voters that crime went down and education improved on their watch. The politicians order education and law enforcement officials to produce “better numbers.” We watch both consequences of Campbell’s Law enacted repeatedly as public servants scramble to generate the data required.
Beat cops respond by “juking the stats,” re-classifying crimes to reduce their apparent seriousness (Consequence 1 of Campbell’s Law); long-running investigations into major drug-distribution networks are put on hold for the sake of immediate “buy busts” that produce meaningless (but quantifiable) arrest statistics (Consequence 2); these tactics alienate the street-level participants in the drug trade (both dealers and buyers), some of whom might, with more strategic engagement, turn into valuable sources of information for the police (Consequence 2, again).
While simple cheating (Consequence 1) does not seem to be widespread in the inner-city middle school that is the focus of The Wire’s fourth season, we see several examples of the more subtle corruption of Consequence 2, as teachers are instructed to “teach to the test” and a university research program attempting to reach at-risk youth in creative ways is nearly canceled because it interferes with test prep.
“Teaching to the test” is a common practice in schools threatened by No Child Left Behind accountability rules. It means limiting curriculum to test material and repetitively drilling students on test questions and test-taking techniques in order to boost their scores on standardized test material. Genuine education goes missing, but at least temporarily, test scores show improvement, a perfect example of Consequence 2.
New Haven doesn’t suffer from the same degree of data-mania that afflicts The Wire’s Baltimore. Nevertheless, we do have the same regular crime-statistic-evaluation meetings which, on The Wire, are the scene of managerial browbeating and the confusion of data and reality. (The Baltimore PD recently discontinued these meetings, citing a New York City study showing that “more than 100 retired high-ranking officers believed [the data-driven process] created intense pressure to manipulate crime figures” (“Baltimore Police Idle Comstat Meetings,” The Baltimore Sun, 4/9/10).)
Our new police chief, Frank Limon, brought a colleague, Tobin Hensgen, with him from Chicago, to serve as his Assistant Chief for Internal Affairs, Education, and Training. Hensgen is an MBA, a PhD candidate in the field of research methods, and the co-author of a 2005 book entitled “Managing Information in Complex Organizations.” He’s also a nationally known fantasy football handicapper. When Hensgen was sworn in, he and Chief Limon both spoke about using crime data to predict future trends the way meteorologists use weather data.
I recently spoke with Assistant Chief Hensgen at length about the use of data within the New Haven Police Department. He insisted that quantitative crime data are not used as a factor in decisions about promotion and compensation. That’s encouraging, and suggests that the crime data coming out of the department are more likely to be free of the taint of which Campbell’s Law warns us. More importantly, the act of measurement is less likely to corrupt the law enforcement processes measured.
Education in New Haven is another story. The distorting effects of high-stakes data have been imposed on our schools by Washington and Hartford through No Child Left Behind. Now eight years old, NCLB is seen by many educators and researchers as a well-intentioned mistake. In her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch documents the damage high-stakes testing and accountability have wrought. With its absurd requirement of 100 percent “proficiency” by 2014 for all students, and the vague threat of “restructuring” that will attend a school’s failure to meet that goal, NCLB has imposed a tedious and curriculum-stunting regime on public education. Its effects are most injurious in the poorly performing schools whose students it was intended to help.
New Haven is home to many such schools, and teachers in our system complain of the problems Ravitch describes. Teaching to the test is common. Despite the overwhelming evidence that a period of physical exercise improves educational outcomes, recess has been shortened or cancelled at a number of city elementary schools to allow for increased classroom time.
The contract recently negotiated between the teachers’ union and the Board of Education received national attention from the media and the Obama administration as a model of reform-oriented collaboration. While it represents progress in that sense, the contract specifies that standardized test data will be used as a primary evaluation factor for teacher promotion and compensation. If Campbell’s and Ravitch’s arguments have any merit, this must raise serious concerns about the increasing impact of data-driven evaluation on education in the city.
Many people of my generation and younger, having come of age with technology that previous generations never imagined, see these tools as part of the solution to problems that have plagued America for decades, if not centuries. Smart and committed innovators and reformers advocate enthusiastically for the increased use of data and analytic tools in education and in other parts of government.
These high-minded reformers aren’t necessarily wrong: data and technology must have a significant place in 21st-century government. Not to use them would be foolish. However, as we take them up, we must be aware of the dangers identified in the early days of the data revolution by thinkers like Donald Campbell, and we must, as Diane Ravitch has done, pay close attention to any evidence of distortion brought about by these new tools. Without that combination of humility and responsibility, we risk validating Mark Twain’s famous line: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
All the Pieces Matter: The Future of the American City
What drugs haven’t destroyed, the war on drugs has.
The Wire began as a crime drama without villains; even the first season offered no easy resolutions. Some of the drug dealers and murderers were arrested, some went to jail, but we weren’t allowed any illusion that that solved the problems the show addressed. Those doing wrong were portrayed with intelligence and compassion, and if we couldn’t forgive the wrong they did, we could at least see what brought them to it.
As the series went on and its scope broadened, this pattern continued, weakening only once, briefly, when David Simon did some personal score-settling at his old workplace, The Baltimore Sun, offering us unrealistic characters who were easy to condemn but hard to believe.
Despite that brief lapse, the show’s great achievement is its authentic and captivating portrait of a city, its ills, and the people who both suffer and perpetuate them.
The insights that there are no easy solutions to our problems, and no single person or group to blame for them, will be vital to New Haven as we attempt to move past The Wire’s conclusion.
From Urban Renewal in the 1960s, through the War on Drugs that began in the 80s, to No Child Left Behind this past decade, our city has been the object of a series of ambitious and well-intentioned policies that have caused more harm than good. Many of these programs were generously funded, and many bright people participated enthusiastically. Nonetheless, with the clarity of hindsight, and in light of their huge implementation costs, largely unmet goals, and unintended consequences, it is reasonable to label these programs failures.
Portraying a city struggling in the wake of those same failures, The Wire is often described as a “dark” and “cynical” vision of contemporary America. Dark it may be, but is it cynical? The Wire presents a bleak picture of the human cost of societal failure, but the show itself is an unprecedented success. In succeeding, it heartens and inspires: if a group of smart writers, unknown actors, and a film crew can capture this reality so well and with so little compromise, surely we can change it.
The Wire provides an implicit lesson in what may be necessary to successfully approach the complex and dynamic problems of urban America. The show was compassionate and open-minded, but realistic; it respected the uniqueness of the place and people it dealt with; it understood that they would change over time, and it changed with them.
Can we ask so much of ourselves? If New Haven is going to change for the better, we have no choice. Amid the wreckage of the best intentions of the past, our only option is to start again, but not from scratch. We have to decide what’s worth keeping and what isn’t, stop doing the things that aren’t working, and figure out what to replace them with.
No one is going to do this for us. If the tasks are daunting, we have the comfort of knowing that, all across America, many communities are in the same predicament, and are fighting the same battle against despair. David Simon is already out with his next ode to a city in distress, Treme, a portrait of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. It’s going to be a while before he works his way down the Tragic Metropolis List to New Haven. Here’s hoping we get ourselves off it before he does.