The Wire, Number Fetishes, and Organic Ecology

Posted on March 11, 2009 by

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Commensuration makes a complicated world seem easier to control. It bolsters our courage to act.

Espeland, Wendy, “Commensuration and Cognition” Culture in Mind (2002)

The Wire was the groundbreaking TV show that nobody watched.  It dealt with the issues of drug trafficking, sex trafficking, the education system, the corrections system, and the police in Baltimore.  The narrative of the show  closely shadowed the realities described by drug traffickers, police officers, and teachers local to Baltimore.

“Juking the stats” is a phrase and a meme from Season 3.

It means playing the numbers by meeting a certain quantity of things by either re-classifying, deleting, or adding to meet a magical objective number.

For the city police department of Baltimore, they had to show that they would have under the magical number of 300 homicides for the year. The very act of defining success as a number (under 300 homicides) is the very act of commensuration. This commensuration or “representing concepts thru numbers” makes it possible to communicate with a lot more people across different countries, academic disciplines and opens things to the public. 300 homicides is bad anywhere you go, and the police of Baltimore were trying their damndest to show that they didn’t actually have 300 homicides.

Under 300 homicides would represent success for the show’s incumbent mayor seeking re-election, and a chain of promotion for all within his chain of command including incumbent colonels, lieutenants, and other officers.

 

To meet this objective without “juking the stats” amidst limited personnel and budgets, while remaining loyal to principled “real” police work, a Major named Bunny Colvin decided that he was going to try something radical.

 

Since drug activity and trafficking was linked to the murders in Baltimore, he was directing all drug activities to certain zones, a bit like Skid Row here in Los Angeles.   In the end, the numbers would show that Colvin’s district had a 15% drop in homicides, as if he had actually prevented more crime.  In actuality, he concentrated crime into certain areas,  while giving the rest of Baltimore a marked visual improvement.  This improvement in other areas gave off the illusion to the public that things were improving in Baltimore.  The improvement would have been something the incumbent mayor and incumbent police chiefs could have seized upon come election time.

However, the media concentrated on the visual destitution in those areas of drug trafficking.  The zone was mired in illegal activity, so in effect for the media, “drugs were legalized.”  This meme seemed to override any positive effect this measure had and brought negative publicity and embarrassment to the mayor and to the police chiefs.  Major Colvin lost his job.  He met the number objective, but the means he used to achieve it was made public, declared illegal, and the media’s focus on it looked spectacularly bad.

In the next season of this show, the meme of “juking the stats” was explored thru a public school in Baltimore. Achieving high test scores was of primary importance to the school’s rating, which would determine the school’s funding.

Ironically, our protagonist yet again, Bunny Colvin, fresh off his firing from the police, found a job at at the school.  He would be part of a pilot research program dealing with difficult kids.  These were kids who were not only disruptive in class, but also known to be budding drug dealers.  Colvin was shown to be making strides with the kids, qualitative improvements.  But in the end, he didn’t have any numbers or correlations to suggest that the program would improve their test scores.  And so that outreach program was shelved.

Numbers, numbers, numbers!

It did not matter whether or not schools actually become effective in possibly deterring wayward youth; the abstractions called numbers were the only ends that mattered for the administrator.

The right numbers were the means to election bids for politicans, extra funding for schools and police staff. Numbers were the most important thing to achieve, that is unless the way those numbers were achieved made the institutions look bad.

What happened in the show is exactly what I’ve experienced in all my nonprofit work so far; you go out and promise to meet a quantitative objective, and after a certain time period, must report that you’ve reached certain numbers so that you could retain funding and give off the illusion that you’re being effective.

If the goal involves making qualitative improvements, aiming to reach the numbers isn’t very likely to work so well. Theoretically, the numbers proposed are supposed to indicate qualitative improvement, but only partially do so.   You might achieve one objective, but perhaps other problems will not so easily go away.

Playing the numbers game seems to stretch everyone thin and calls to mind the phrase “making ends meet” or “survival.” The sense I get from the show is that the drug trade, police work, politics, real estate development, runs on informal backdoor deals made after hours outside the formal contexts just to make the system work.

There does not seem to be anything “organic” to this system of meeting numbers; it’s not natural in the sense that if people simply do their jobs within their assigned boundaries, things will turn out alright. No, in this world, the drug traffickers, the police, politicians, developers stretch themselves thin way past, inside, around, beyond the formal, recognized boundaries to make things happen.

Porter, Ted. Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity and Rationality in Public Life, 1996

Espeland, Wendy, “Commensuration and Cognition” Culture in Mind, 2002

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