David Simon: “The End of the American Empire and What’s in It for Me”

David Simon, creator of two excellent HBO dramas, The Wire and Treme, recently gave the Frank Porter Graham lecture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It’s a lecture worth hearing. Here’s a link: http://www.vimeo.com/29805278.

Below is a short version based on my understanding of what he said:

Simon argues that any society whose main organizing principle is profit maximization is one that cannot hold together. In the US, the maximization of profit has dominated public and private policy for the last 30 years, causing fractures that are becoming more severe and that threaten the well-being of most of us.

Simon describes three related phenomena, the shredding of the social contract, the de-valuing of labor, and the War on Drugs. All of them came into play as the idea that profitability trumps all other concerns reasserted itself during the latter part of the 20th Century.

The original purpose of the War on Drugs was to reduce drug addiction and its related pathologies, but there was a lot of risk and not much profit in that endeavor, so the War on Drugs soon evolved into a war on young men of color.

Cops started arresting and sending to prison young men selling drugs on the streets of inner cities. As the US prison population grew to the largest in the world, innovative companies saw an opportunity to tap new revenue streams, and the private corrections industry was born. Incarceration, Inc. also became a Wall Street favorite.

For the most part, the young men who became fodder for the prison industry weren’t the violent gangsters we fear. According to Simon before the war began, violent offenders were 34 percent of the prisoners in federal custody. Today, they’re 7 percent.

Most of  these young offenders got involved in the drug trade because it was the only employer hiring in their communities. Simon lists a number of manufacturing companies that at one time might have hired these young men and paid them a decent wage with benefits, but have left his home town of Baltimore often for cheaper labor abroad.

At one time, these companies might have been forced by unions to recognize and pay for the social good that labor produces, but over the last 30 years labor has been de-valued. Once again, it has come to be seen only as a cost of production that must be minimized to ensure higher profits.

This de-valuing process began in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan broke the strike of air traffic controllers. Up until then, there was a tense peace between labor and capital; one in which neither side held the upper hand, but one in which unions through collective bargaining were able to gain a decent middle-class living for much of the working class.

After the air traffic controllers strike was broken, capital mounted an attack on collective bargaining that resulted in 30 years of wage stagnation and fewer benefits. While capital was busting unions at home, it was also seeking cheaper labor abroad, putting more downward pressure on wages, which in turn led to increased pressure on the social contract.

Simply stated, the social contract is this: I and everybody else agree to pay a manageable portion of our resources in taxes in case our home catches fire and we need the fire department to put it out, or we lose our jobs and need unemployment insurance to tide us over until we find work, or our father dies when we’re a teenager and we need survivors insurance and food stamps to help our mom get on her feet again. The social contract also ensures that children are educated and people’s health is protected.

As jobs went overseas and wages stagnated, more people needed the services made possible by the social contract, putting more pressure on us who still had jobs to pay for the services. Many of us didn’t want to pay for the social contract. We wanted an a la carte approach to providing social services. That is, we wanted to pay only for services that we thought we needed.  The social contract also cut into the corporate bottom line, so businesses asked for and received tax abatements and tax cuts.

With the social contract in tatters, labor devalued, and many young men of color marginalized by the war on them, we’re living in a fractured mess.  The poor are getting poorer along with institutions that serve them. The middle is becoming less secure and more of us are becoming poor. The rich have sealed themselves off behind gated communities and private security services.

We are to paraphrase the poet William Butler Yeats at a point where the center cannot hold and things are falling apart, a situation that greatly concerns Simon and has become the major theme of his TV dramas, but he’s pessimistic about the ability of America to confront the problem and make changes to reverse this decline.


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