Q&A: David Simon

David Simon, creator, executive producer, and writer of The Wire on global warming, Barack Obama, and how to win (or lose) the drug war.

Mother Jones: What remainder of the Bush administration will be the hardest to fix?

David Simon: I would say the answer is global warming. Because I actually think that's a problem on a scale that defies a lot of people's imaginations, and I would describe the human response to it as being fairly typical of the human response to anything, which is, when something profound is going bad, we'll deal with it later. And I don't think there is a later. I think that the problem is going to manifest itself in a geometric manner, not an arithmetic manner. And those eight years, we can't get them back. Nothing was done for eight years: America ceded its leadership role in the world, squandered its role in a series of ways. And even if we now endeavor to regain our standing, our moral standing in terms of the environment, and we convince the rest of the world, and especially the emerging world, to come with us and to address this aggressively, we do so when so much more damage has been done and so little work has been done to try to mitigate that damage over the last eight critical years.

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MJ: I've actually talked to Al Gore about this. He says this is a problem that maybe is too big for the human imagination.

DS: I agree with him.

MJ: What do we as humans do about that? You're in the imagination business.

DS: Well, I may be in the imagination business, but I think that I've pretty much defined myself by having the least amount of imagination of any show runner in television. My stock and trade has been to utilize all of the material that I've acquired in a journalistic way. I would say that compared to most Hollywood fare, my imagination is pretty limited. Nonetheless, I had a very wise sociology teacher in high school, of all places, who described to me the manner in which, you know, if you put a frog on the...you've probably read this.

MJ: Yeah, if you put a frog in the bottom of a pot of water and turn the heat on.

DS: Yeah, he will not leap until you've got him to boil. There are human beings so lazy that when they have to go to the bathroom they wait to get up until the commercial. So, as a species I can't suggest we've done a whole lot of planning ahead as a matter of course for the first 5,000, or 10,000, or 20,000 years of our run, however long you want to call it. We tend to be reactive, we tend to be greedy, we tend to be self-absorbed. And here is a moment when we needed leadership to be the exact opposite of those things. And with regard to our foreign policy, with regard to economic policy, these things can be moderated, the pendulum can always swing back, arguments can be made, new initiatives can be undertaken. I'm not saying any of that is easy, but, listen, from a foreign-policy standpoint, Barack Obama happens to be president of the United States [effectively].

MJ: Just overnight?

DS: Yeah, the world looks at us differently instantaneously. From an economic standpoint, I actually believe that economic trends are, in fact, self-fulfilling, and self-correcting but often in the harshest of ways. I think we're headed for a deep recession, possibly worse in that at some point when the middle class is so eviscerated and so threatened by the manner in which we've conducted our economic policy over the last 25 years, I think we're going to be where England found itself after World War II. I believe we're at the end of American empire in a whole lot of ways. England went through some very agonizing times and suffered a great deal and ultimately they found a way to reconstitute themselves in a meaningful way. If you're over there now, the English sterling's worth a lot and your dollar's worth nothing. And their economy is quite healthy. Europe certainly has come back dramatically because of the currency. In a way all that stuff I just don't regard as being...either it's subject to the political will of a new administration or of a new series of administrations or it's not and it's self-correcting. But the environment is not self-correcting; it's not subject to instantaneous political will. Even if that will happens to exist.

MJ: I've often wondered if 50 years from now, if we're still around and there are historians, and they look back, I think it's very easy to look at Iraq as perhaps Bush's biggest folly, but actually...

DS: I think Iraq will pale by comparison. That is the one that is costing lives right now and it seems to be the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. But what will Iraq mean in 50 years? I don't know. But if millions of square miles of populated land is under water worldwide and if the ocean currents are affected by the loss of...if you've read anything about how elemental ocean currents are to the climate and how the engine of normal polar melting drives those currents and how, if that were interrupted, what would happen to the oceanic environment and what that would mean for the rest of the world—these things are so profound and so vulnerable that I think in retrospect, 20, 30 years from now the neglect and ignorance of this administration is going to be looked upon as almost the equivalent of a war crime. Not a war crime, of a crime against humanity. It's that level of blissful ignorance and greed. And to see John McCain belatedly embracing it as a concern in order to get some green votes makes me wonder where he's been. Certainly it's good to have both sides agreeing that it's now an issue, but this is incredibly late in the drama. They seem to think they're in act one or act two, while I think they're actually at the end of act three. When it starts changing it's going to be geometric.

MJ: Of the problems left behind, what's one of the easiest ones to fix and, if so, how might we fix it?

DS: Here's one that I think is actually an easy one to fix. And I think it's easy to fix for McCain even more than Obama. All it requires is a certain amount of political courage and not that much. Normally, I would have said to you that it would require political courage—extreme political courage—for a politician, a political leader, to diminish the drug war, to turn down the heat on the drug war, to be called "soft on drugs" by his political opponents. I no longer believe that to be entirely the case, and the reason I don't believe it is that regardless of people's political standing, regardless of their party affiliation, regardless of the labels of conservative, liberal, or moderate that they put on themselves, the more I talk to people in this country and throughout the country, because it is sort of an issue that I tend to harp on, the more convinced I am that everybody sees the fraud of the drug war. Not everybody, but the vast majority of the country now sees it as a waste of resources, as a failed policy, as an untended disaster. In the same way that Nixon went to China, it probably would be easier for McCain to address himself to this—to call a spade a spade. That's not to suggest he needs to go right into legalizing drugs, but just to start decriminalizing nonviolent drug offenses, to start putting them in the category of "harm reduction," to utilize the health care system rather than the penal system, to address some of the high cost of this. The US prison population is now at the highest levels ever.

MJ: It's funny you raised this because in the same issue with the story about Generation Kill we have a whole package on prisons. One out of four prisoners in the world now is in American prisons.

DS: Right, so we are the jailingest motherfuckers on the planet. More than that, the number of violent offenders in federal prisons by percentage has gone down to its lowest level ever in the history of the country. We're not locking up violent people; we're locking up nonviolent people, and the numbers show. By the Bureau of Prisons' own statistics, the percentage of violent offenders incarcerated is now in the single digits. Never before in the history of America. You start citing some of these figures, and you'll find that middle Americans—Republicans, independents—they're nodding along with you and saying, "You're right. This has gotten out of control." And by the way, the political party that let this get out of control was the Democrats. It was in Clinton's move to the center amid a Republican Congress that had him throwing all those drug crimes under these omnibus crime bills. And transforming the drug war into something truly draconian. Every politician worries about being flanked and accused of being soft on crime or soft on drugs, but the truth is, and you can make the argument if you're a smart politician, the drug war has sacked law enforcement's ability to address violent crime. It's actually destroyed the deterrent in inner cities by teaching whole police departments to chase drug stats when, in fact, they should be solving crimes. The clearance rates for all felonies have been declining while the arrest rates for drugs have been going up. We're not solving as many crimes because it's easier to go in a guy's pocket and take a little bit of drugs out of it and lock him up. And, of course, because they can't put all those people in prison, it doesn't even work as a draconian policy. Most people are just thrown back onto the street. Federal prisons can only keep a handful of them, and the state prisons are overcrowded. So it won't work as a deterrent even if you buy into the draconian notion. Well, all these things could be cited by a smart politician and we could stop the madness. Everyone's worried that the little old lady in Terre Haute is going to think you're soft on drugs. I don't think there is a little old lady in Terre Haute, I think they're all—I know there are little old ladies in Terre Haute—I think all the little old ladies in Terre Haute get it. I think the American people are smarter than the politicians give them credit for. So I think that's a real easy solution. All it would require is a politician with some stomach and will. As you can see I don't exactly buy into the "great man" theories.

MJ: In terms of what a president can do practically, can you advocate certain reforms? Some of this is state level.

DS: Yeah, I think the first thing you can do is take the federal laws that have been raided as part of the drug war and start to look at them rationally and to ask for a reconsideration—to start listening to the federal judges who have been saying for years that this stuff's out of control. To reconvene the sentencing commission with a charge to look at what they've brought and look at how nonviolent the prison population is and look at how little effect it's had on the purity or the availability of drugs. Because they haven't helped. Drugs are more available and more pure than ever before. You could ask the US Sentencing Commission to suggest a new package of laws and I would get rid of mandatory sentencing. I trust the guys in the black robes. That's why we have the judiciary. And the executive could reempower the judiciary to use its own judgment. And the other thing is if you've got the votes, Congress can undo this. Never mind the sentencing commission. You can go either way. I mean, Congress might want the political shield of the sentencing commission to have professionals come to them with a recommendation. But if McCain came to a Democratic Congress with it, I think he'd be a hero to moderates everywhere. Do you know people who believe in the drug war?

MJ: Of course not.

DS: I don't know if there's cops anymore in Baltimore who believe in it except as a means of getting overtime pay, hoard pay. I think everybody knows except the government. And yet these fools keep on running each other down for being weak on crime or weak on drugs. I think maybe it's an especially viable reform for John McCain, but I think with a Democratic Congress if he's willing to take the hit and just be aware that somewhere down the road you're going to get Willy Hortoned, you know? Somebody you let out of prison's going to do something wrong, but the anecdotal arguments are not the point. On statistics alone you're supposed to govern. But, again, you're asking me about a political system that I think is actually a little bit overly moneyed and broken.

MJ: Your skepticism comes out very clearly.

DS: Oh yeah. Well, I think I come by it honestly. I live in Baltimore.

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