More than 15 years since it was released, The Wire remains as relevant today as it was then. While the technologies give it a cultural time stamp, its dramatic exposition of urban poverty as a multilevel systemic problem gives it a depressing currency in societies around the world. What the Wire did, across its five seasons was, in effect, map out the problems of poverty and crime for urban youth as a product of dysfunctional supporting functions and rules. This interpretation of the piece is relayed here.
In season 1, we see a ‘drugs problem’ and a ‘murder problem’, with street-level dealers (poor urban youth) on the supply side and a number of actors on the demand side. This is a transaction which the ‘intervener’; the institutions of the state, wish to see reduced. The state’s approach to intervention is initially an endless cycle of arrest, release, reoffend recidivism. The informal norms around the social contract between the communities in which the drugs gangs operate and the gang’s leadership, means that attempts to prosecute are continually undermined. A key factor in reducing the quantity of supply is the inputs for the police in the form of technology. This is utilised by the police as an intervention in the form of a wiretap.
Season 2 brings in both a supporting market of the drugs trade and a related aspect of urban poverty in examining logistics for input supply through the Baltimore port, and the stevedores working there as another facet of urban poverty. Their plight highlights an important factor affecting the supply side of the city’s crime problem; the lack of viable and attractive alternative employment opportunities.
In the third season, the focus is put on the formal rules that underpin the central transaction. The laws governing what is and isn’t allowed and where, significantly affect people’s behaviours, but the relationship between a rule, its enforcement, and the behavioural responses of people to the rule is seen to be non-linear. Strict enforcement of rules around drug dealing leads to more drugs arrests and seizures, but also more murders and greater negative externalities on non-participants. As Kima Greggs put it “fighting the war on drugs one brutality case at a time”.
In this supporting market of policy formulation and enforcement of formal rules, the role of politics also becomes clear. The cultural norms that underpin policy formulation, and the capacities and incentives of the individuals operating in this system mean that the policy positions that might be most effective in achieving their stated impact are not pursued; Hamsterdam is undermined by the micro-political economy of the police and council system.
Season 4 examines another supply side factor determining quality of supply to the labour market, which in turn impacts the quantity of supply to the principal market – the urban youth participating in crime. Education is a crucial factor impacting the opportunities available to those susceptible to entering the principal market, and it’s not working for this group. It is shown that the governance of the system prevents it from catering to their unique needs as Prez finds out. On the supply side, the struggles of Michael and his friends show the competing forces and pressures affecting their progression and achievement within the education system.
Circling back to the formal rules and their enforcement, season 4’s second focus is on how incentives in the political system are being distorted by the functioning of the principal market through the informal norms of corruption and bribery – as Clay Davis puts it “I’ll take any persons money if he givin’ it away”. Revisiting the norms around the political system dictating policy, it also examines informal rules around race and power.
The final season addresses a separate supporting market, which is actually a supporting market of the political system that formulates the policies affecting the principal market. It is, nevertheless, very influential in holding politicians and the police accountable, and providing a voice to those less powerful. The ability of the media to do so, seen through the eyes of the Baltimore Sun is hampered by underperforming supporting functions and rules. Norms around technology use and governance of the media, employment regulations, and business modelling skills are all introduced as factors hampering effective media delivery.
Why does this all matter to systemic change and development? Well, it doesn’t especially. Hopefully, it is interesting and, if anything, it shows that complexity and depth of the problems we face in addressing complex issues such as urban poverty globally. It’s also a really good show, so sorry for the spoilers!