Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Free Will and Institutional Constraints in The Wire

I finished watching all five seasons of The Wire.  Overall, it was a really addictive and enjoyable show.  According to one reviewer, one of the themes of the show is the power of institutions, which perpetuate themselves despite the intentions of individuals (http://sepinwall.blogspot.com/search/label/The%20Wire%20Season%205).  The writer has also mentioned institutional bars to success in an interview.

In many cases, The Wire succeeds in presenting the institutionalist case with flying colors.  For example, it shows that as long as there are people demanding drugs, people will supply them to make money.  Each season finale shows a new drug dealer getting his supply out after the police put away the drug dealer of the past season (which the police only do with great difficulty).  Politicians are also faced by electoral incentives that cause them to cater to voters, colleagues, and bureaucrats when they clearly see that doing so perpetuates problems.

However, all of this glosses over the consequential decisions - often foolish - that individual characters on the show make, sometimes against institutional incentives.  The show
needs to make unrealistic projections of what characters do in order to end season 5 on the overall sour note.

A new mayor running on an anti-crime platform would not have cut the budget for the investigation of the 22 dead bodies uncovered in season 4.  Catching the perps would lead to far more positive headlines than any kind of increase in school performance.  

Detective McNulty does something highly illegal in season 5 to get more funding for the police department.  Institutional incentives weigh strongly against what he did - he lost his job and risked losing his family. As it turned out, he created a copycat killer, and he's lucky the police
didn't pin the "murders" on a scapegoat.
Had the mayor not cut Lester's budget, McNulty would not have manufactured a serial killer to get funding for a wiretap. In turn, the evidence against Marlo Stanfield would not have been tainted.

Without the tainted evidence against Stanfield, the intelligence Lester obtained against Maurice, the defense lawyer, would not be compromised as a bargaining tool.  Maurice was arguably a worse villain than any of the criminals in the series because the criminals ultimately get caught, but he goes on enabling more criminals.  In fact, the city's institutional incentives
were arguably to prosecute Maurice over Stanfield, since he may have been able to
give the city information that led to lots of much-needed money in property seized from
drug dealers.

The city lawyers knew that federal courts would have been more likely to convict State
Senator Clay Davis than the city court.  It was their own foolish decision not to turn the case over to the feds, not any institutional constraints.    

Finally, the show depicts the school system as failing all of the students except Namond, who only succeeds because he's placed with a caring family.  But the school does provide ways out; the young 'uns simply
make foolish choices against the incentives. Michael could have turned to teachers or Cutty to help with the home situation, but concludes irrationally that because his parents were bad to him, all adults are to be distrusted.  Another young'un decides to live with heroin addicts who scavenge the street for metal even though he has good academic skills.  The show makes it clear that Mr. Pres, among perhaps other adults, would have found him a way to get through school, but he for some reason the student doesn't. It's believable that teenagers make foolish choices, but tough to blame on institutions alone.

Finally, the newspaper decides to promote stories  with unattributed quotes instead of accurate quotes about what is really happening in the city.  By the time that the show aired, more than one reporter for a prestigious newspaper had been fired and disgraced for making up false information.  Reporting on false reporting actually makes for good headlines.  I thought it was unrealistic that sailing was so smooth for the unethical journalists.

The acting and writing are good enough that all of the choices above seem believable, but if the show was meant to show that institutional forces weighed against good choices by individuals, it only partially succeeded.  

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