Troubling Heirarchy: (Rambling About) Sustainability, The Wire, and Chinese Politics

Sometimes when you spend a lot of time thinking about a set of topics they tend to bleed into each other in weird ways.

Julian Wong over at The Green Leap Forward has written a pretty good summary of eco-design principles. The gist is that we always need to use a holistic or systems thinking approach, taking the biosphere and the community into account — especially when designing stuff that will establish patterns of life and pathways for future design, e.g. infrastructure. This is not a new concept for environmentalists. But one of the reasons that Wong’s analysis is cool (and indeed his whole blog is excellent) is that he talks explicitly about the way institutions work to make eco-design next to impossible:

“If we think about the essential functions of a city, we would probably come up with a list including housing, food, clean water and air, electricity, mobility and access, education, jobs, recreation, and perhaps a few others. The problem is that these seemingly disparate functions are always designed, created and managed in silos. Occasionally, a master plan will envisage interactions between the various functions, but once such plan leaves the planner’s office and gets in the hands of the developers, operators and administrators, the sectoral boxes firmly take over. The result? A lot of waste, and policies and procedures working at cross-purposes with each other. A simple case in point is the food-water-energy trilemma–a lack of coordinated policies addressing these fundamental needs has led to narrow policies addressing each individually, but ignoring the resulting trade-offs.”

Thesis (that I won’t be able to prove): The kind of sectoral inefficiency that Wong is talking about is at the heart of any hierarchical structure. Special interests or individual actors will always seek to advance their own agendas from within, to move farther up the power ladder, and/or avoid descending a rung on said ladder. This makes community building difficult, stifles creativity, nixes any possibility of systemic change, and leads to unsustainable outcomes. Economic theory holds that people are rationally self-interested — I’m claiming that hierarchy exacerbates this, leading to undesirable outcomes.

Here’s a short video for color/flavor:

Evidence/Argument: Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the Chinese government, an extremely rigid hierarchy. Each element within (be it ministry, interest group, individual, etc.) is paranoid, acting to secure their own position or advance it at all times. Local officials see themselves as being at the top of a little hierarchy and so they take advantage of their position via corruption, extortion, excessive taxation, and/or brutal suppression of those below them. Anyone who would oppose them will find their options very limited: usually they can only get their way by jumping to the next level of the bigger hierarchy i.e. using whatever means necessary to focus the central government’s attention on their issue. This is always a risky move.

(In Season 1 of The Wire, when MacNulty steps outside of the chain of command to pressure Major Rawls to initiate an investigation of the Barksdale drug outfit, he’s taking a similar risk.)

Now. The Wire is not only enthralling (on par in this respect with the good seasons of Gilmore Girls) but also unique: it is a frank presentation of hierarchy. The main locus of The Wire is institutional, rather than individual. Unlike most TV, the narrative doesn’t focus on the quandaries and triumphs of one or two protagonists. Sure, there are protagonists — but the story centers upon the way that folks negotiate the world, especially how they relate to the often hostile social institutions that pervade their lives. Characters who try to move outside of the hierarchy, who don’t take a realist approach to their work or who seek the moral high ground usually end up getting killed or marginalized (sent off to an undesirable post, for example.)

This doesn’t mean there’s no contention — otherwise why watch the show? Similarly, there has been a strong current of scholarship showing that the political environment in China is actually quite dynamic, rather than stolid. Social protests (and other extra-institutional actions) have increased across the countryside — and there’s also evidence that a lot of wrangling goes on *inside* China’s supposedly monolithic institutions of governance.

Brookings scholar Ken Lieberthal used a case study of energy bureaucracy to examine this type of infighting in China back in the 1980’s. In his recent book “China’s Water Warriors” Andrew C. Mertha builds on Lieberthal’s work to show that “policy activists” (elements strongly in favor of a particular policy or government action) continuously exert pressure on, and even within, the Party and government. Of course the system is weighted in favor of those “activists” who support the status quo, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a daily struggle going on or that the political winds might not shift.

In The Wire, each character must balance professional ethics with family obligations, ambition or career goals, and the desire to have an easy life. People are pulled in different directions in this way. For example, Lt. Daniels has to threaten his superiors with media exposure in order to get the Major Crimes unit running — a very risky move which is detrimental to his short term standing. (Ultimately, though, Daniels’ vigilante reputation becomes beneficial to his career when an activist Mayor comes to power circa season 4.)

My point about The Wire is that everyone on the show (even the dealers!) is well aware that the War on Drugs is horrible, wasteful, tragic, etc. — but each person keeps it going because they have to maintain their place in the system. Dreams of doing good or making substantial change are always compromised in the end. The quickest way to happiness in The Wire is to simply recede from the action and become a wise dimwit a la Shakespeare’s fools. (McNulty does go this route in Season 4 and much of Season 5, for example)

My point about Chinese politics is similar: it is a system that rewards conformity. This doesn’t mean that China, like the ailing city of Baltimore as portrayed on The Wire, doesn’t undergo political change — such a claim would be absurd given recent history. But it does mean that change is generally driven by whatever is perceived by folks on the top of the hierarchy as helping them climb even higher.

My point about sustainability, mostly stolen from Mr. Wong, is that calls for long term planning, community-based design and resource management, and conscientious group-oriented goal setting. None of these things happen very easily in hierarchical systems since one person/group’s priorities will always override those of the person/group below them — so short term benefit at the top of the ladder outweighs long term benefit at the bottom. This concept has been enmeshed in environmental thought for a long time because a core issue for us tree-huggers is that Nature is always at the bottom, and thus always getting thoroughly screwed by us.

Conclusion: If you were into po mo theory, you could argue that our preference for hierarchy stems from the prevalence of binary power relationships (gay/straight, black/white, humanity/nature, boy/girl, etc.) that reinforce themselves via our language and culture. Perhaps this is so. But I’m going to argue that the reason we find ourselves relying on hierarchy to organize so much of life is that it’s efficient, especially for top-down management on a large scale — the primary activity of powerful corporations and the state.

The problem with hierarchy is that it narrows each person’s field of interest, enhancing our (natural) selfishness while detracting from a) our view of larger social structures and their often deleterious effects and b) our concern for the long term effects of our actions.

So maybe we should empower organizations that don’t operate on such a large scale. This might engender community, moral action and awareness, as well as to make sustainability that much more feasible. Rambling finished!


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2 Responses to “Troubling Heirarchy: (Rambling About) Sustainability, The Wire, and Chinese Politics”

  1. William Bruntrager Says:

    Yup. Hey I know as a general rule you don’t listen to those Bueno de Mesquita podcasts at EconTalk, but, as I say when I recommend them, you should.

    Check out this one for some support of your thesis. The whole thing is good, but start listening at 44:00 to get to the point.

    It’s basically about how the dissolution of the Soviet Union was triggered by an attempt by Yeltsin to subvert and/or circumvent the usual Communist hierarchy.

  2. Can Kant Be Redeemed? « William’s Continued Adventures Says:

    […] of the clearest messages in The Wire is that everything you do depends on your position. As Thomas says, the show isn’t about people, it’s about institutions. In The Wire, the viewer is […]

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