David Simon and President Obama on the Post-Industrial Age

I have often referred to David Simon as a prophet. His HBO series “The Wire” was more than just spectacularly entertaining television. It had a message. Here is the man himself explaining what it was all about.

We are in the post-industrial age. We do not need as many of us as we once did. We don’t need us to generate capital, to secure wealth. We are in a transitive period where human beings have lost some of their value. Now, whether or not we can figure out a way to validate the humanity of the individual, I have great doubts…

As for the characters on the program, their lives are less and less necessary. They are more and more expendable. The institutions in which they serve are indifferent to their existence…

I didn’t start out as a cynic, but at every given moment where this country has had a choice – its governments, institutions, corporations, its social framework – to exalt the value of individuals over the value of the shared price, we have chosen raw unencumbered capitalism. Capitalism has become our god. You are not looking at a marxist up here, but you are looking at somebody who doesn’t believe that capitalism can work absent a social framework that accepts that it is relatively easy to marginalize more and more people in this economy. Capitalism has to be attended to. And that has to be a conscious calculation on the part of society, if that is going to succeed. Everywhere we have created an alternate america of haves and have-nots. At some point, either more of us are going to find our conscience or we’re not.

“The Wire” premiered in June 2002 and those words were spoken in February 2007. All of that was years before the economy got hit with the Great Recession of 2008/09. By comparison, Occupy Wall Street didn’t happen until September 2011. That is roughly when the topic of income inequality (“the haves and have-nots”) took center stage.

What is interesting is how – in his recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek – President Obama echoes what Simon said years ago.

So I think that as we move toward an economy where, because of automation, you need fewer and fewer people to make more and more stuff, more and more of us are going to have to move into the service sector. The service sector historically has been a low-wage sector. And in order for us to make sure that we don’t see this growing divide between haves and have-nots, with a middle class that’s shrinking, we’re going to have to make sure the service sector pays better.

Think about how difficult it is right now for a young, idealistic person who wants to go into teaching to figure out how they’re going to live a middle-class life as a teacher. There’s no job that’s more important to our economy than having really good teachers in the classroom, but right now, the way our economy is structured, it’s very hard for young people to make that decision unless the parents are subsidizing them in a fairly significant way.

What’s the answer to that problem?

Well, that’s an example of us thinking about, how do we pay our teachers? How do we pay our health-care workers? More and more people are going to be going into that sector. Those are sectors, by the way, where productivity gains aren’t going to be as fast, because, by definition, interacting with a child or helping an elderly person who’s going through physical therapy is less subject to automation. So we’re going to have to make some broader decisions in terms of the social compact about how folks who are making a living in really important, necessary jobs are getting compensated.

My broader point, though, is that for a while I think there’s been a tendency among economists, business leaders, pundits, to pose this conflict between issues of equity and distribution, and efficiency. And my argument is that we should be investing in those things that are going to make us more efficient—like infrastructure, like R&D, like education, like trade—which puts me in conflict sometimes with some members of my party. I’m not somebody who believes we can lop off the global supply chain and somehow that’s going to make us more productive, even if it was possible. But I also believe that if you combine those things that make us more efficient and more productive with a strategy to increase wages for those folks who are increasingly going to be employed in the service sectors, then you will not only get sustained, broader economic growth, but you’ll also gain the political consensus that’s necessary to continue becoming more efficient over time…

The way I describe it is that, because of automation, because of globalization, we’re going to have to examine the social compact, the same way we did early in the 19th century and then again during and after the Great Depression. The notion of a 40-hour workweek, a minimum wage, child labor laws, etc.—those will have to be updated for these new realities. But if we’re smart right now, then we build ourselves a runway to make that transition less abrupt, because we’re still growing, and we’re beating the competition around the world.

The difference between these two evaluations of our current situation is that, while Simon admitted that he was sliding into cynicism, Obama refers to himself as a “congenital optimist.” That means that he spends more time talking about solutions. Right now he identifies those as raising the minimum wage, investing in infrastructure, passing immigration reform, improving trade agreements and making training/college more accessible and affordable. That’s the runway he’s talking about building.

What both of these assessments have in common is that they describe a problem that wasn’t created by the Great Recession – but has roots that are much bigger and more long term. They also avoid locating a particular villain that is to blame, and simply recognize that our world is changing and evolving. In order to adapt, we have to make some changes too. Here is how Obama makes that case to the private sector:

There were a bunch of decisions that were made back in the ’30s by FDR and then again later, in this country in the ’60s, that were fiercely resisted by business but essentially created a social compact and a social welfare state where people said, “OK, I’m seeing the benefits of innovation. I’m seeing the benefits of capitalism. I’m seeing the benefits of trade.” We just have to update those for the 21st century in the same way that in previous eras we updated those for the shift from agriculture to industry. And that’s going to require some farsightedness, not just in the public arena but also in the private sector.

You know, if I am a CEO in a boardroom right now, I should be thinking about, how do I make sure my workers are making a decent wage? And if I’m a shareholder, that is something I should be paying attention to, too, because if you’re not, that’s when you start getting the kinds of political pushback that you’re seeing here in the United States. That’s how you start getting a Brexit campaign. Over time, you’ll strangle this goose that’s been laying you all these golden eggs. Share the eggs.

It all comes down to: “share the eggs” or face something like Brexit. That is how a community organizer taps into the self interest that is required for change. It is a very different approach from the one that simply suggests that we need to defeat the identified villain (who always seems to return in a whack-a-mole kind of way).

Neither Simon nor Obama see the answers in our past. They both recognize that the old solutions won’t work. That is why nurturing a sense of uncertainty and creativity is our best hope, while fear is our biggest challenge.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.