Friday, October 10, 2008

The Wire

I read an interesting post on one of my favourite blogs, Overcoming Bias. It talks about The Wire (a show I’ve never seen but heard good things about) and the political and economic views of its producer David Simon. Apparently the producer’s views are in conflict with some people’s perception of the show itself. This comment by the producer from a symposium really struck a nerve with me:

Baltimore has had the benefit of your free market for the last twenty five years. You can't tell me you've constructed a viable economic model that has nothing to do with government when one out of every two adult black males is without work in my city. ... The government has been utterly laissez faire, they've let the jobs go to the pacific rim, they are gone, and we've eviscerated the manufacturing class. ... We've had the trickle down, it didn't trickle down, sorry. ... There are ... an awful lot of moneyed people that are arrayed in such a manner as to avoid addressing these problems, because there's no profit involved in addressing these problems.

My knee-jerk reaction is to say that that is straight up baloney, but that’s an unsatisfying reactionary response. Instead, I realised, he’s actually right, but not quite in the way he thinks.

The government of Baltimore may indeed be laissez faire, but it’s not equally laissez faire. The laws there, as with most governments, are designed to help the rich and powerful stay rich and powerful and to keep the poor, poor. So the government is definitely laissez faire if you’re a rich but decidedly not so if you aren’t.

It’s unfortunate, but it’s how democracy works. Well-meaning people come along to create laws to help even out society, but once those laws are passed, the well meaning people think “job well done” and move on to other issues. Those who are left to deal with the law are those who have an incentive to twist them for their benefit, which they do quite well because they have the money and influence for it. For every law that holds down a big business, there are ten which hold down their competition (small businesses), so while big business may not be technically laissez faire, for all intents and purposes it is. Consider some examples:

  • A person without a job decides to open a coffee shop in their house, which is in a high foot-traffic area. Zoning laws make this illegal.

  • A disabled man would like to help out on a nearby construction site cleaning up, because it’s close enough to walk to, but his disability means he can’t work as much as other applicants. He suggests that he work cheaper than the others to gain experience and references. Minimum wage laws prevent him being hired.

  • A woman wants to make and sell pastries but the costs of building a second kitchen, as required by health codes, makes it impossible to start.

  • A poor man on welfare would like to take a part time job doing yard work, but in doing so he would lose his welfare benefits, so it’s not economical to do so.

  • An elderly lady wants to rent out some rooms to migrant workers, but is shut down by a crack down on illegal immigrants.

  • A young lady would like to start doing manicures in her house, but she doesn’t have the required schooling to get a license, and already works two jobs so she can’t get the schooling.

  • A midwife is forced out of business by new licensing pushed by the medical union.

  • And then, to add insult to injury, crack and meth flood the streets. Two drugs that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the drug war.

In decrying the laissez faire policies of the government, Mr. Simon is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The problem isn’t the laissez faire policies themselves, it’s the fact that they only apply to a segment of the population. If they were evenly applied, then they wouldn’t e a source of problems, but a source of solutions.

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