I usually wait for television shows to become trendy before I start watching. Even better, trendy among those I think share my taste. It saves me a lot of time.
The Wire finally generated enough buzz for me to invest the time. And it hasn't disappointed. It dissects Baltimore's inner-city drug culture without condescension or glamorizing the business. I feared it would be politically correct, but it is not. The characters are complex and interesting. (It has an irritating habit of killing off some of the most complex and interesting, though).
The first season was great; the second just so-so; the fourth season was very good.
But the third season was brilliant. My thoughts -- and spoilers -- below the fold.
Season 3 was an extended thought piece on drug legalization. A Baltimore district police commander tires of the Sisyphean fight against corner drug traffic and establishes three areas -- three open air markets (which the drug dealers calls "Amsterdam") -- where drug dealers can ply their trade without harassment by the cops. Essentially, he legalizes drugs. (It goes without saying that he does so without consulting his department bosses.) His goal is to help the neighborhood residents in his district. Get drug dealers off the street corners so the residents can live without fear and rebuild their neighborhoods.
It turns out it's a little more complicated to jump start a drug market than one might think. The cops begin by rounding up the "hoppers" (the young kids who actually deal) and dropping them in the zones en mass. But they just go back to the corners -- they're just the rank and file, the equivalent of cashiers at McDonald's. The cops learn they have to deal with middle management. They promise them they won't be prosecuted as long as they stick to the free zones.
That's when we get a couple of lessons on markets. The first is that one can't make a market without matching buyers and sellers. It's not enough to drop drug dealers into legal zones; they need buyers. The cops figure this out and realize they have to supply buyers, at least until the markets get going. And so we see cops rounding up drug users and driving them to the free zones so they can buy drugs. (Needless to say, this doesn't play well with some of the cops.)
The cops ban guns in the free zones because the markets have to be reasonably safe to work. But this puts the dealers themselves at risk of muggings. So the cops find themselves providing protection to drug dealers, even letting them file formal complaints when their drugs are stolen.
Finally, the markets essentially create perfect competition among drug dealers. This makes the free zones less profitable (at least ignoring the reduced risk of violence and cost of protection) than the old street corners, where some street corners were more profitable than others, whether due to higher street traffic or "brand" development. To prevent the open markets from unraveling, the cops have to jump on cheaters. In one scene, they drop three dealers off in a remote forest and force them to walk home.
So what would happen if we allowed open, free (but geographically constrained) drug markets?
The Wire says everyone would be better off.
In the show, neighborhood residents are obviously better off. They get safer streets and indeed begin repairing their tattered neighborhoods. After a few months, crime rates begin dropping across Baltimore.
The cops and taxpayers are better off. The cops spend less time on pointless low-level street arrests. They are freed to do real police work; in fact, many must learn how to do real police work, because years of street-level drug work have turned them into thugs very much like the dealers they harass. The taxpayers get more bang for their police buck, and, of course, endure less crime.
Drug users are better off. Yes, the free zones are ugly. Strung out users stagger around, sharing needles, shooting up in the streets or in the vacant buildings delimiting the free zones. The users include young mothers with babies. There is a lot of desperate prostitution.
But the drug users are no worse off than before. They were already at risk before, perhaps at more risk. And because they've been concentrated in three small areas, the social workers find it easier to provide them services like clean needles, condoms and drug treatment. Indeed, the social workers are initially appalled and outraged, but as they realize the new arrangement offers them economies of scale, they get on board and become the most vocal supporters in the end.
The drug dealers are better off in some respects. They can ply their trade more safely. They don't face the risk of arrest and imprisonment. The business becomes more predictable.
But, as the show brilliantly anticipates, not every drug dealer is better off. The perfect competition in the Amsterdams drives supra-normal profits down to normal profits. And normal profits are pretty low for young black men with few economic alternatives. Drug dealers make less money, in other words. They have to lay off the young, low-level hoppers. The rising unemployment worries a couple of the cops, so they force middle management to continue paying the young guys something. In other words, the cops create an unemployment program for the losers by taxing the winners. Pretty progressive stuff.
Of course, the department's upper rank and the public are outraged once they find out about the Amsterdams. (When, in a departmental briefing, the district commander finally explains that he's created three "no enforcement" zones -- but secured a 14% drop in crime -- the Commissioner responds with a befuddled look. The Deputy Commissioner immediately grasps what he's done: "He's legalized drugs! Brilliant. Insane, but brilliant.") The mayor, initially enticed by the drop in crime, eventually caves to the political pressure and public outrage and forces the department to shut down the Amsterdams.
Everything goes back to business as usual. And everyone is worse off.
I think the "war" on drugs is a huge waste. I've long thought we should legalize most drugs. Most people oppose drug legalization for moral reasons, which I think are themselves morally indefensible. But the debate has been too abstract. Maybe it would be more fruitful at this point for each side to offer detailed and realistic depictions of how our cities would look if drugs were legalized. The Wire makes the case for legalization. I'd like to see the criminalizers' response.