BILL MOYERS: Welcome. President Obama’s State of the Union address and the rebuttals from the Republican Greek chorus already have been extensively vetted by the media. So as we say here in New York, enough already. Instead, we have a reality check from someone who artfully uses television drama to report on the state of America from an entirely different perspective: from the bottom up.
David Simon was a crime reporter for the “Baltimore Sun” whose journalism became the material for two non-fiction books, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," and "The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood." Each became a TV series and led Simon to leave daily journalism to create two unforgettable shows for HBO: "The Wire," about the precincts of Baltimore and the corruption of its institutions...
LESTER FREAMON from The Wire: You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the f—k it’s gonna take you.
BILL MOYERS: And “Treme,” about the people of New Orleans grappling with a new and painful reality in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. CREIGHTON BERNETTE from Treme: What hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast was a natural disaster, a hurricane pure and simple. The flooding of New Orleans was a man made catastrophe. A federal f—k up of epic proportions.
BILL MOYERS: For David Simon, the State of the Union begins with the lives and stories of these people -- which is why he told an audience at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Australia last November that what's happening in America is “a horror show.” His remarks reverberated through cyberspace, so we asked him here to tell us more. He came to New York to receive a career achievement award from the Writers Guild of America, East. Welcome and congratulations.
DAVID SIMON: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
BILL MOYERS: Watching the president's speech the other night-- he was hopeful, he was upbeat, he was encouraging and inclusive and what he said. But I kept listening and thinking about that speech you had made last fall in Australia where you said what's happening here in America is "a horror show." And I wonder, how do you reconcile those two visions of our country?
DAVID SIMON: I don't think that you can call the American government anything other than broken at this point. And I think the break has come at the legislative level. I mean, that's the part of the government that has been purchased.
You can buy these guys on the cheap. And the capital's been at it a long time and the rules have been relaxed. The Supreme Court has walked away from any sort of responsibility to maintain democracy at that level. That's the aspect of government that's broken.
And it doesn't matter whether it's Obama or Clinton or Bush or anybody at this point. If this is the way we're going to do business, we're not going to do business. You know, they’ve paid for it to be inert. And it is inert. And ultimately that aspect of capitalism hasn't been dealt with in any way.
BILL MOYERS: Every president from Kennedy to Obama has insisted that the rising tide will lift all boats, but it hasn't happened.
DAVID SIMON: Yeah, I think supply-side economics has been shown to be bankrupt as an intellectual concept. It's not only unproved, the opposite has occurred if you're looking at the divergence in the economic health of middle class families or the working class, what's left of the working class --certainly the underclass -- and you're looking at where the wealth of the country is going and how fast. We are becoming two Americas in every fundamental sense.
BILL MOYERS: So you weren't using hyperbole in Australia? That wasn't just to try to drive a point home when you talked about--
DAVID SIMON: No.
BILL MOYERS: --two Americas and the people in one of those Americas has been “utterly divorced from the American experience” that you, David Simon--
DAVID SIMON: You know, listen, a lot of this falls on people of color because, you know, they're the last in through the door in the economic ladder. And if you look at the city where I live and you look at Baltimore, Maryland, half of the adult male African American residents have no work. That's not an economic system that is having a bad go of it, that's something that doesn't actually work.
That's an economic system that is throwing away and doesn't need 10 to 15 percent of its population.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, without work they have no value, no worth to society?
DAVID SIMON: It's existential. And--
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
DAVID SIMON: Work is meaning for all of us. And it's relevance and it's our place in society--is dictated to us by what we contribute and what we're paid to do. And if part of America is validated to the extent that they are predominant in all of the luxury that the country can afford and part of the country is utterly irrelevant to the economic structure, you know, those factories are all gone. We don't need those people anymore. And we've let them know.
And you know, the only factory in my city, in west Baltimore or in east Baltimore that was working, that was viable was the drug corner. And that worked like a charm. And ultimately what I look at is the hyperbole by which we say we're including everybody while we're tossing people out of the boat left and right.
We've changed and we've become contemptuous of the idea that we are all in this together. This is about sharing and about, you know, when you say sharing there's a percentage of the population (and it's the moneyed percent of our population), that hears socialism or communism or any of the other -isms they want to put on it. But ultimately we are all part of the same society. And it's either going to be a mediocre society that, you know, abuses people or it's not.
BILL MOYERS: In your speech you said that knowing that they're worthless, these people, worthless, valueless because they have no economic means of support and nothing economically--
DAVID SIMON: They're not relevant.
BILL MOYERS: They're not relevant. But they have to endure as you said. And is that the horror show, the fact that they know they're not needed and they have to go on anyway?
DAVID SIMON: And that once they're in that situation, they're not only marginalized, they're abused. I mean, we are the country that jails more of our population than any other state on the globe. More than totalitarian states we put people in prison. We've managed to monetize these irrelevant people in a way that allows some of us to get rich.
Now, we're all paying for it as taxpayers for having this level of incarceration in American society which is unheard of in the world. But we let some people, you know, get a profit off of it. The monetization of human beings like that, you know, anybody tells you that the markets will solve everything, the libertarian ideal.
I can't get past just how juvenile the thought is that if you just let the markets be the markets, they'll solve everything.
You know, America worked when there was tension between capital and labor, when there-- when neither side won all of its victories, when they were fighting. It's in the fight that we got healthy, that we transformed a working class into a middle class, that we became a consumer economy that drove the world for about half a century--
BILL MOYERS: And--
DAVID SIMON: --maybe a little more.
BILL MOYERS: --and what's happened?
DAVID SIMON: Well, the fights gone out of labor. Labor’s lost the fight. Capital's won. There was--
BILL MOYERS: To the victor go the spoils.
DAVID SIMON: There was a class war and labor, and the poor people lost and the working people lost.
BILL MOYERS: Let me bring up an excerpt from your speech in Australia.
DAVID SIMON at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas: Ultimately we abandoned that and believed in the idea of trickle-down and the idea of the market economy and the market knows best, to the point where now libertarianism in my country is actually being taken seriously as an intelligent mode of political thought. It's astonishing to me, but it is. People are saying I don't need anything but my own ability to earn a profit. I'm not connected to society. I don't care how the road got built, I don't care where the firefighter comes from, I don't care who educates the kids other than my kids. I am me. It's the triumph of the self. I am me, hear me roar.
BILL MOYERS: What are you talking about there?
DAVID SIMON: Talking about greed, just greed. And it's a self-destructive greed to the economy that does lift all boats in the sense that, you know, we're arguing about the minimum wage right now and making it $10. Ten-- or we're arguing about welfare reform and eliminating forms of welfare.
You know something? I know that if I pay a guy working a counter at a fast food place $10 or $12 or $15, I know if I give a welfare check to a mother of two in West Baltimore, I know that all of that money's actually going back into the American economy. I know that every single dollar has a multiplier factor. Nobody's saving money on $12 an hour in America. They're living hand to mouth.
And I know that every single dollar is going to be multiplied through the economy. You give me a tax break, you know, working as I do in the entertainment industry and at the level of a TV producer and I can't figure out how to spend enough of it, you know. I might, you know, I might have a little conscience, I might throw some of it to charity and try to feel better about myself. But I can't possibly-- how many yachts can I water ski behind in Baltimore Harbor?
And yet that's the kind of argument that supply-side economics is. Give us, the job makers, the money and we'll make jobs. Not with all of it you won't. A lot of it's going to Wall Street and it's going to sit there and it's going to be subjected to much less tax liabilities, the capital gains. You know, the scam of it, the scam of what America's become, you know, give the money to the rich and they'll see that you're not poor. Is that really what you're saying?
But you know, you actually argue about making the poor people a little less poor and then half of Congress is running away as if this is going to-- you know, if you want your economy to grow, people have to have the money, they have to have the discretionary income to buy stuff. That's what made us great in the last century is that suddenly a working class which was on subsistence wages at the early part of the century had enough money, discretionary income, to buy the things they needed and some things that they didn't need but wanted. And that grew us.
And now you're arguing over whether this guy who's working every day at the Burger King, whether he can have $10 or $12 an hour. Aren't you ashamed of yourself? Aren't-- you know, where's the shame? There is no shame anymore in America.
BILL MOYERS: That brings me to another part of your speech. Let's listen.
DAVID SIMON at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas: That may be the ultimate tragedy of capitalism in our time, which is that it has achieved its dominance without regard to a social compact, without being connected to any other metric for human progress.
BILL MOYERS: And by social contract you mean?
DAVID SIMON: Those are the things that make life worth living, that make-- that give value to being a person, a citizen. If how much money you have is the defining characteristic of citizenship or of value or of relevance, of human relevance, and if that's all that we're going to measure (and apparently, since 1980 this all we're going to measure), you're going to get a society to live in that is structured on that metric. And it's going to be a brutal one.
But ultimately, capitalism has not delivered on the promise to be a measurement of anything other than money, of profit. And if profit is your only metric, man, what are you building? Where does the environment fit into that? Where does human potential and you know, for anything other than having some money in your hand, you know, where does, where do people stand when they have health needs or when they make a mistake in life? You know, it was said a long time ago you judge a society by is hospitals and its prisons. By that standard we're, you know, we have a lot to be ashamed of.
BILL MOYERS: Those of us who've seen “The Wire” know that the people you're writing about are those losers. They're the people who are without value to society. And President Obama is on the record as saying that "The Wire" is his favorite TV series of all time. Do you think he gets it?
DAVID SIMON: I think he probably gets it. I don't think Obama is any different from the person I thought we elected two election cycles ago. I think he's encountered a rigged game. And I don't think the next guy will have anything other than a rigged game.
And I think, you know, considering the gerrymandering that has made the representative aspect of our legislative branch an absurdity and considering the monetization of our legislative branch I don't think anybody gets a legislature that is functional. I have no faith in the ability of the legislative branch of my government to in any remote way reflect the popular will.
BILL MOYERS: So when the president says it's time to deal with inequality, you are not saying he's insincere, it's just that nothing is going to happen because of the resistance and the opposition?
DAVID SIMON: He said he was going to do a lot of things in a lot of State of the Union addresses. And many of them were admirable in my eyes. Good luck. Good luck getting that passed, you know. Look at what happened with the major initiative of the first term which is health care.
The money that was heaved by-- the capital that ran into the halls of government to spend to make sure that we would not achieve what most Americans have said they want at a basic level, certainly at the time the legislation was passed, we'd like to have it that all of us have access to some basic health care. That seems to be an entirely functional thing that many Western countries have managed beautifully, but we cannot.
How it happens, who gets what, you know, single payer, once you got done with what happened in the Congress it was a marginal plan that came out and then our ability to affect it, we're arguing over an IT problem? Really? That's what it comes down to? 'Cause if we can't fix the computers and if we can't fix the administration of a program to-- and of course we can and of course they're all, you know, if you look back at what happened when Medicare came in, the bureaucracy was disastrous in the beginning and everyone--
BILL MOYERS: problems--
DAVID SIMON: Of course.
BILL MOYERS: Social security as well.
DAVID SIMON: You know when we started out space program, which was, you know, an unqualified success in the end, the rockets kept blowing up on the launching pad. Somehow we figured out a way to keep launching rockets and do it right. And that's a very different America from the tonality of this one, which is selfish, which is I have my health care still and I don't want to pay for anybody else to get back in the boat. This is about sharing. This about our loss of the idea of society.
BILL MOYERS: Listening to, watching the State of Union address and when the camera would cut to the chamber in the House there, everyone in that chamber: well paid, health benefits, pension plan, a staff to serve their needs, corporations throwing money at them to make sure they get reelected. And I wonder if people that far removed from where you were can even imagine the horrors of the America you describe.
DAVID SIMON: You know, I've had the sensation over the last twenty -- and before “The Wire” even, I mean, when I was just a police reporter in Baltimore -- of hearing people inside the beltway speak about the American city or about urban issues or about things that I actually knew a little bit about. And they would talk about it you know, I'd be listening to, you know, a Gingrich or even some well-meaning liberal.
And I would think, I would love to have these guys in my Volkswagen Passat and just kick them out on the corner at Monroe and Fayette and you know, and just leave them there for a month, you know, and just see if they can you stop them from saying this stuff with just a little bit of aware--
BILL MOYERS: What would they see?
DAVID SIMON: They're not going to--
BILL MOYERS: What would they see at the corner?
DAVID SIMON: Well, they'd see human beings for one thing. They'd see the America that they've left behind and have left behind for generations. And now increasingly it's not all just people of color. Now the economy has shrugged again and again and we're leaving white people behind.
And so all of a sudden, it's encroaching in a way that people are getting a little bit more frantic. And it's making some people more inclined to reflect on what the system has wrought. And it's making other people more inclined to just dig the trenches deeper.
BILL MOYERS: The best analysis of Obama's speech that I read came from the writer Matt Miller who worked for Bill Clinton in the White House when Clinton laid out, Miller says, about the same vision that Obama did this week. Here's what Miller wrote, quote, "Yet in the years since, on virtually every metric progressives care about … the measures of a good society have gone in the wrong direction."
DAVID SIMON: Wrong direction.
BILL MOYERS: “Wages are stagnant or shrinking. School rankings have sagged. College and health costs have soared. Our rates of child poverty lead the developed world. Decent jobs remain scarce. The accident of birth weighs more heavily in dictating one's destiny. All the compelling anecdotes or special guests in the chamber don't change that."
DAVID SIMON: That's right. That's right. And you know, not to critique only the conservative logic and the supply-side logic, you know, Bill Clinton in maneuvering to the center, he signed all those crime bills. He made the American gulag as vast as it is with a lot of his legislation against the drug war. And he made it so that these disposable people could become grist for that horrible mill.
I am so aware of what-- at this point of having covered it for so many years of what the drug war means in terms of being effectively a war on the poor. That's all it is. It has no meaning in terms of narcotics or anything like that. That’s the shell game.
BILL MOYERS: But you wouldn't, you wouldn't connect that, would you, to the power of capital to buy the legislation.
DAVID SIMON: It's the power of capitalism--I don't know if I think it's that much of a plan, I'm not that much of a conspiracist. I think there are a lot of extra people left over when the factories all go to the cheapest labor. And you know, if you're going to move to the manufacturing base to the Pacific Rim and to Mexico and wherever else-- you're going to have a lot of extra people. And that's going to make you nervous. And those people are not going to have-- well, you're either going to have to pay them to be extra, which we don't have-- we're not that selfless. We're cutting back on welfare.
You're either going to have to pay them to be useless, you're going to have to find a way to completely reorient them and place them in the service economy in ways that they are not now relevant for. And that's a lot of money, we don't want to spend that money. Or you're going to have to hunt them, hunt them down. And that's what the drug war became. You know, we left one last industry in places like West Baltimore and North Philadelphia and East St. Louis; we left one last factory standing. We left the drug corner. And it was very lucrative and very destructive. And then we made that legal and then we made the laws against that so draconian that we could basically destroy lives.
And then to make it even more laughable as a capitalist enterprise, we started turning over the prisons to private companies. And so they can, certain people with the contracts can find a profit metric in destroying these lives.
BILL MOYERS: President Obama has said he wants a higher minimum age and he'll sign an executive order to do it in contracts that will come along down the road.
DAVID SIMON: And some jurisdictions will do the same thing. But why can't Congress look at this and say, "You know what? This is what we say we want these people working, we say we don't want welfare cheats, we say we don't want to welfare to grow. Here are people who are willing to work full time to be part of our service economy. Let's give them some discretionary income. They're probably going to spend it buying American product."
BILL MOYERS: It makes such sense, David, but at the same time, the federal minimum wage is $7.25. If it had been adjusted for productivity gains and inflation, today it would be $21.72.
DAVID SIMON: I know.
BILL MOYERS: Something like that.
DAVID SIMON: We are Reagan's children, we are Thatcher's children. You know, there is no society, there's just you. We bought this stuff hook, line and sinker and we are building that. We're getting the America we've paid for.
BILL MOYERS: And where's the pushback?
DAVID SIMON: Shameful. Where's the pushback? Well, you saw a great first act in Occupy Wall Street. It's a shame they had no second act, but they had a good first act. And you see it, I think, in a very tragic way in the fact that most people are opting out of the political structure. I don't think that's, you know, I can say all these things about it's a rigged game and yet I still go in and I vote and I still argue in public. But a lot of people have given up. And one of the attractions of this sort of anti-government libertarian point of view, of the idea that government is the problem, you know, all those wonderful lines of, you know, "I'm here from the government, I'm here to help." That's the worst line you can hear. All that crap is in fact the flotsam and jetsam of everyone's disappointment in where we've been going.
And it's being harnessed in a way that only contributes to the problem. You know, government and democracy in particular, it is about constant battle, it's about nothing ever being fixed or ever being right. We will never solve a problem to the point where we can walk away from it and the machine will, you know devour the problem without our attending to it.
There will always be conflict, there will always be competing interests that force us to engage in the hard job of governing ourselves. And so the anti-government thing strikes me as a perversity. I don't think the founding fathers would recognize it. They were constructing a government of the people. That’s their language and I think that's their belief.
And the idea that the government is some, you know, once we start regarding it as some alien force that we can't control, we're done, democracy's done. That's the last stage of walking away from the responsibility of governing ourselves. If we can't control it, if it is going to be a purchased government, if we can't institute the reforms that are necessary, then we're done, we're done right now.
BILL MOYERS: But are we done? More on that question next week with David Simon. In the meantime, at our website BillMoyers.com, you can see David Simon’s entire talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Australia. And you can view excerpts of my interviews with Pete Seeger, who died this week at 94.
That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.