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Comic Economics: Watch The Wire, Mr. President

As the U.S. pauses from work to celebrate freedom, what national liberation do you desire? At the risk of seeming ridiculous, I'd love the public interest to awaken from its self-imposed trance, putting the people's business before self-serving politics.

When a pig flies, you say? Look north, up in the sky, what's that pink blob flapping over Iceland?

Jon Gnarr, the new mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland, is a comedian by trade. In fact, it was widely assumed that he embarked on his election campaign primarily to satirize political conventions, using his skills as a humorist to highlight the absurdity of his city's actual existing government.

Then he won.

The Reykjavik city council has 15 seats, and Gnarr's party ("The Best Party," of course) won six of them. Needing coalition partners to govern, Gnarr announced he wouldn't form an alliance with anyone who hadn't seen all five seasons of the 2002-2008 HBO series The Wire, a brilliant, challenging, complex portrayal of the interlocking realities of Baltimore's illicit drug economy, police, schools, government, media, and politics.

I watched the 60th and final episode yesterday on Netflix, and if only I could speak Icelandic, I'd offer my services to Gnarr. The series ought to be compulsory viewing not only for elected officials, but for everyone who takes part in electing them.

I've been thinking about The Wire all week, as I've read about the wreck of our economy, with more and more jobs lost and many commentators continuing to be astounded—astounded, I say—at the private sector's failure to do much about it.

In times of great uncertainty, people are fearful of spending their money. They tend to be guided by conventional wisdom of the kindergarten variety: I'd better keep all my pennies in the piggy-bank, because if I spend them, I might end up with none. Hiring new employees is an investment in the future that many business-owners are currently unprepared to make. The median duration of unemployment is edging close to six months; and when you add up official figures for all the categories of job-seeker, the overall unemployment rate is a terrifying 16.5 percent. (Which means the unofficial rate is higher still.)

When fear spirals, someone needs to step up and loosen its grip. Spending may be counterintuitive according to piggy-bank philosophy, but our public sector should right now be spending money to create employment, initializing the flow of opportunity and capital needed to revive the economy. Instead, economic reality has been pushed aside in favor of comic economics, where austerity is prescribed, in a throwback to the days of bleeding the patient to cure disease, a treatment that often ended by bleeding the poor person dry.

Paul Krugman had a great recent column on the way this dynamic takes hold. He demolishes the arguments for austerity in the face of fear, equipping readers to take this advice:

[T]he next time you hear serious-sounding people explaining the need for fiscal austerity, try to parse their argument. Almost surely, you’ll discover that what sounds like hardheaded realism actually rests on a foundation of fantasy, on the belief that invisible vigilantes will punish us if we’re bad and the confidence fairy will reward us if we’re good. And real-world policy — policy that will blight the lives of millions of working families — is being built on that foundation.

There are exceptions to the austerity rule, of course. Usually, no matter how loud the austerity buzz, you can't go wrong spending money on the things the right-wing embraces, notably war. It used to be that launching a war could be counted on to jump-start industries and employ large numbers of job-seeking young men. But over $281 billion so far in Afghanistan (and counting) hasn't done the trick. (If President Obama gets the supplemental funding he has requested from Congress, his own allocations for the Afghanistan War will total $100 billion in a year and a half in office.)

But our wars figure remarkably little into our national dialogue about the economy. In a massive act of misdirection, we are told to pay no attention to the national punishment budget (i.e., wars and prisons), to focus instead on social spending as the culprit. As The Wire excelled in showing, in every realm of power, from the streets to the statehouse, the official reality that is proclaimed for public consumption often bears little resemblance to the principles and behaviors that actually guide power-relations. And so it has gone for the federal role in job creation, where brave pronouncements about stimulating the economy serve as camouflage for pathetically weak initiatives. I wrote back in March about President Obama's tax credit legislation, touted as a major response to joblessness:

[T]he benefit amounts to forgiveness of the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax, plus an additional $1,000 in tax credit if the employee is retained for a year. This equals a fraction of the cost of hiring someone. It ought to be called the McDonald’s-Wal-Mart bill, because it will primarily benefit low-wage, high-turnover businesses. Hire someone for minimum wage, keep him or her for a year, collect the benefits….

In The Wire, drug lords, corner boys, dockworkers, school officials, newspaper editors, and city council members all pronounce nobly high-minded ideals, and some actually practice them to the best of their ability. But they are vastly outnumbered by those whose prime directives are looking good (and if that's not possible, saving face), and evading or defeating their competitors at any price.

Drug suppliers murder those who threaten their dominion, or, when the flow of blood threatens to drown them, form cartels to convert competition to shared self-interest. School officials distort curriculum to raise test scores, quickly suppressing any experiment that might disrupt school funding, even successful ones. Newspaper editors turn a blind eye to faux news if it sells papers. Union officials grease all the right palms to keep the docks working, postponing the day when the rank-and-file will feel the full impact of mechanization and the concomitant loss of jobs. Public officials trade in bribes and cover up misdeeds that might hurt their election chances. And the police, who along with drug dealers create the through-line of all five seasons, cook crime statistics to match the prevailing political winds.

There are benefits to the system, to be sure. The Wire's intricate drug trade choreography is as elegant a depiction of robber-baron capitalism as I have seen, featuring street-corner equivalents of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and for that matter, Horatio Alger. The survival-of-the-fittest ethos that marks each of the city's interlocking systems offers tremendous scope for the gifted, and there is a kind of beauty in seeing them exercise it, like watching an athlete pull ahead of opponents, making it look easy.

But mostly, the takeaway, while always riveting, is less uplifting. It is the stark truth of self-serving patterns of power, holographic in their omnipresence, from corner-boy spats to political horse-trading: that in a corrupt system, those in power almost always know what is right, but almost always choose what is expedient.

In the column I cited above, Paul Krugman attributes our dismal performance on public-sector spending to distorted but bright-sounding ideas that become conventional wisdom without first passing any real-world tests. Maybe so. But I attribute it more to that basic political lesson taught by The Wire. Public-sector job-creation is absolutely essential to recovery (and if you've been reading my stuff in the last year or two, you know that includes public-sector arts jobs). You could say that the Obama team is beholden to the banking industry, like every administration, and that would be a part of the truth. But at bottom, the fact that a Democratic administration with epidemic unemployment has not proposed a new WPA seems to me attributable to one thing: an appetite for political self-preservation that supersedes the public good.

The Obama team (like every other presidential team since Ronald Reagan abolished public service employment with one of his first presidential pen-strokes) is afraid to come out for public-sector job creation because Democrats feel politically vulnerable to Republicans who denounce government spending. While such denunciations form the sound-track whenever the right is in office, those same administrations have typically run up record deficits via tax cuts and industry subsidies. From the micro to the macro, far too much of electoral politics is consistent with The Wire's philosophy of saying whatever will win, then doing whatever you can get away with.

The calculation is simple: in exchange for looking like cost-cutters at a time when the wind is blowing toward austerity, the Obama team is willing for vast numbers to live with the downward spiral of lost jobs, foreclosed homes, underfunded schools and our whole sad (and still-unfolding) saga of licensed depredation. Like the drug lords and police commissioners in The Wire, they aren't troubled overmuch by asking the body politic to bear the cost for of their refusal to act with courage and conviction.

Iceland got its wake-up call from a crippling banking collapse triggered by financial deregulation that has by now greatly devalued the nation's currency and almost put its stock exchange out of business. Two years ago, the country's unemployment rate was 1 percent, and now it's around 8 1/2 percent. The cost of the crisis is estimated at more than three-quarters of Iceland's gross domestic product.

On this Independence Day holiday, my wish is to wake to the sound of awareness dawning in time to head off a comparable result in the U.S.

Meantime, this holiday calls for citizenship education. Follow Jon Gnarr's advice and watch The Wire, which will at least kindle the hope of honor among thieves. In the first season, Bunk Moreland, played by the wonderful actor Wendell Pierce (who was one of the artist-activist delegates to the White House meeting I helped organize in 2009) is talking with Omar Little (Michael K. Williams' deeply beautiful and disturbing portrait of a gay thief and murderer who consistently outsmarts the drug lords). In a strategic move of grandmaster chess, Omar comes forward to identify a killer:

Bunk: So, you're my eyeball witness, huh? [Omar nods] So, why'd you step up on this?
Omar: Bird triflin', basically. Kill an everyday workin' man and all. I mean, I do some dirt, too, but I ain't never put my gun on nobody that wasn't in the game.
Bunk: A man must have a code.
Omar: Oh, no doubt.

The series' theme song is "Way Down in The Hole," with a different artist's version for each season. They're all great, starting with the Blind Boys of Alabama. Here's the last one, by Steve Earle, who also has a recurring role as the AA sponsor of the series' most redemptive character, Bubbles, played with angelic sweetness by Andre Royo. Art illuminates life.

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The game our economy plays with rising and falling is comparable to watching a movie on the big screen lately. For some reason you will end up predicting the outcome. Regardless of the outcome, you nevertheless feel some urge to assume you know what is going to happen. It is similar to movies in a scenes that people think they know what is going to happen before it does, whether it gets worse or better. Now there is somebody either way that can say they forecasted this happening, because you will find groups on both sides of the fence. People nevertheless are waiting in the payday advance line just to pay their bills right now.