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The Wire, Goodhart’s Law, and the Baltimore Homicide Unit

The Wire is often cited as the greatest TV show of all time, and for good reason. We’re drawn in by the charisma of characters such as Omar, Avon, Stringer, and McNulty, but its ultimate greatness lies in its realistic portrayal of the various forces surrounding Baltimore’s drug scene. By the end of the series, we have a pretty firm grasp on the entire drug ecosystem of Baltimore and how the police, city hall, the drug dealers and users, the media, and the education system all play their part in fueling that ecosystem, making it incredibly hard to solve. In this essay, though, we’re going to focus on how Goodhart’s law explains some of the specific perverse incentives in just one of those pieces, the Baltimore Police Department, by looking at the homicide unit in particular. Marilyn Strathern’s quote does a good job summing up Goodhart’s law and is as follows: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” So, let’s go into how that ties to the police department.

Baltimore, like all other cities, needs to measure how well their police department is doing and does so by looking at crime. Yet “crime” as a concept isn’t quantified so in order to measure “crime” we quantify it by counting the number of murders, burglaries and other incidents that we deem bad. And so, we measure police departments by their impact on those numbers; we look at their murder clearance rate and the raw number of murders and other crimes on their watch.

Enter Jay Landsman, the sergeant of the homicide unit, and the quintessential company man. He understands what his unit and his bosses get measured on and does everything in his power to cover his ass and make them look great. How do we measure homicide? Easy, by counting the number of murders. So how do we measure the homicide unit? Also easy, by counting the number of murders they solve, a.k.a. their clearance rate. Though Jay is lazy, a total goof, and certainly comedic relief, he clearly understands that his unit is solely measured on its clearance rate, so he does everything in his power to ensure that the clearance rate looks as good as possible. This is why he’s the quintessential company man. Other characters, like Jimmy McNulty, also understand that the homicide unit is measured by its clearance rate, but he’s more concerned about solving actual crime than departmental optics, which is why he butts heads with so many bosses. So, you might ask, what’s so bad about focusing on the clearance rate? It seems like a pretty good measure of how well the homicide unit is doing to me. And certainly at first glance, you’d be right. After all, it makes intuitive sense to measure the homicide unit by how many homicides it solves, but as The Wire shows, the world is much more complicated and focusing solely on the clearance rate has other disastrous effects.

When McNulty and Lester Freamon finally discover that Marlo Stanfield’s gang has been hiding their murders in vacant houses and want to use departmental manpower to search other vacant houses for bodies, Jay immediately uses his authority to overrule them. The murders are in those vacants regardless of whether the police uncover them, but Jay understands that they won’t count as “murders” unless they’re uncovered by the police; if they just pretend that the murders aren’t there and never uncover them, then as far as the police department is concerned, the murders really aren’t there and the clearance rate remains unaffected. Though 22 murders are eventually uncovered when Freamon finally goes over Landsman’s head and straight to Daniels, we can imagine scenarios in which these murders never get uncovered. Freamon benefited from having someone like Daniels in charge, having Carcetti in the mayor’s office, and uncovering the murders when the statistics could still be attributed to the Royce administration. Without the confluence of all these rare events, the murders probably get buried and the investigation on Marlo never gets opened. Instead of uncovering and trying to solve the Marlo murders, the Baltimore Police Department was incentivized to try and bury the murders to juice their stats, an action that directly contradicts their ostensible raison d’être.

Another example of clearance rate maneuvering is shown in the beginning of season 2 when the thirteen girls show up dead in the harbor. First, the homicide unit tries to get the deaths written off as non-homicide related deaths so that they wouldn’t have to solve the case. When that fails, Rawls pawns the case off to Baltimore County by citing where the bodies were found and when McNulty foils him there, Rawls tries to meet with other jurisdiction heads to get the murders out of his jurisdiction. In an ideal world, unit leaders would devote all their time and resources to the cases they’re given, but because we have to measure their units, what ends up happening is that backroom politics becomes a large part of their job. After all, why spend all that effort trying to solve a futile case that if unsolved will affect your performance negatively when you can just hand those murders off to someone else?

I don’t mean to suggest that police are lazy, bad people who spend all their time on office politics and covering up crime so that they can go back to eating donuts. It’s just the unintended consequences that gets summed up by Goodhart’s law. When the clearance rate becomes the target instead of a measure, it’s no longer a good measure because the homicide unit starts to alter the clearance rate through methods other than solving murders. And that’s the hardest part of solving the issue. We have to measure the performance of police departments in some way so that we can identify whether it’s doing a good job. If we didn’t measure them in any way, we’d live in an even worse world. We can easily see that McNulty is one of the best detectives even if that’s not reflected in the clearance rate just like we can see that the system is quite messed up and that the incentives are often perverse. Yet, can we imagine a better system? The Wire certainly doesn’t offer any prescriptions. Unfortunately, there’s just no better way to measure the homicide unit than by looking at clearance rates. In an ideal world, we would measure the difficulty of cases, and then assign a difficulty-weighted clearance rate, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Assigning a rating for the difficulty of cases would just lead to an even worse system in which police game the weighting system. Ultimately, clearance rates are the worst measure of homicide units except all other measures that we have, and so we’re stuck with it for better or worse.

Photo by Alex Andrews from Pexels
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The Farewell: Moral Framing in Title Selection

Many great articles have been written about Lulu Wang’s The Farewell but none have gone deeper than a passing sentence into the translation of the film’s title. A lot of foreign films do not directly translate the title when moving from one market to another, and The Farewell’s is no exception as the direct translation of its Chinese title is “don’t tell her”. The two main reasons this is done is to choose a title that will better attract the new market or to avoid having the same title as a movie already released in that market. Movie titles, and titles in general, are the first thing that draws in an audience so plenty of thought goes towards the decision, which is why calling the movie The Farewell in English and Don’t Tell Her in Chinese is so interesting. It’s a choice that highlights the broad theme that runs through the entire movie: the differing moral systems between the two world worlds Billi’s family inhabits.

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The name The Farewell focuses the movie’s English-speaking audience on the individual, and each individual’s personal farewell to the family’s beloved matriarch; the primary farewell emphasized is Billi’s, though we also get to see how various other family members deal with Nai Nai’s impending death. What gets highlighted then is not Nai Nai herself, but everybody’s personal relationship to her, because Nai Nai is the only one who does not know that she has terminal lung cancer. And what resonates most with Western audiences is Billi’s relationship with Nai Nai. Western viewers understand Billi’s deep desire and need to say goodbye to somebody she loves, and her bewilderment and frustration at not being able to do so. They empathize with Billi’s urge to reveal the truth of Nai Nai’s diagnosis and chafe alongside Billi at the oppressive restrictions of collectivistic Eastern society. All this is perfectly encapsulated in the film’s title.

Now consider the Chinese title, Don’t Tell Her. Here, Nai Nai features prominently, and the focus of the Chinese-speaking audience is drawn towards the collective. Instead of grappling with Billi saying goodbye to Nai Nai, they think about how the entire family is working together to try to conceal Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her. They ponder the burdens that have to be shared in a collectivist society and hope for a resolution that doesn’t tear the family apart. The change in title reflects the change in mindset and evokes a different framing.

Billi’s uncle, Haibin, has a beautiful speech that sums up the broad differences between the moral systems that govern the West and those that govern the East. It’s a theme that comes up over and over in the dialogue of the various characters, but in my mind, it all starts with the film’s title. Which makes me think, what am I missing when I watch other foreign films, and does it all start in the title?

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The Case for Removing Charitable Deductions

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The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths — My Thoughts

This short story is Borges’s shortest and I highly recommend reading it; it’ll only take a minute or two. For those too lazy, the summary is that one king has his people construct a labyrinth, one so sophisticated that not even the smartest person can escape from it. Upon its completion, he traps another king in it. The trapped king eventually escapes after praying to God, gathers his army, and conquers the land of the first king, capturing the king in the process to bring him to said labyrinth. The labyrinth has no walls, no doors, and no stairs. It is simply a vast desert. Though there is nothing impeding him, the first king is unable to escape this “labyrinth” and dies of thirst and hunger.

Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels

The deep complexity of something that appears so simple is my ultimate takeaway from the story. Examples related to the theme abound in the world around us. A single rose or a sunset by the water are both so ordinary yet so breathtakingly beautiful. Some of our greatest moments of joy come from the simplest things, such as the small favor a friend did for you when you were going through a difficult period, or that time you and your closest friends got together for a meal and drinks and just talked for hours. And for most people, the most difficult job is managing and influencing other people instead of complex analytical work. Telling people what to do seems simple enough but actually doing so in a way that gets them motivated to do the job and to do it meticulously can be incredibly difficult. It’s why there are so many business books written about how to lead or influence people, and it’s why those who can do so are very well compensated. The story of the two kings itself is yet another example of the theme. It’s so incredibly short and easy to read yet we we can find deeper meaning in it the more we think about it.

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Paley’s Misinformed Watchmaker Analogy

Paley, in his 1802 book Natural Theology, provides his famous, elegant watchmaker analogy that argues for an intelligent designer of living things. The gist of the quote is that if one comes upon a stone, one might assume that it had always been there, formed by pure randomness, but if one stumbles on a watch, one would not make the same assumption. One would instead assume that there was an intelligent designer who purposefully created it. Quote below for those interested:

“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.”¹

Therefore, because a watch, in all its complexity, must have a designer, living creatures must also have one, with God filling the shoes of the watchmaker. Over the years, the analogy has been repeatedly used as an argument against evolution, though whether Paley would have denied evolution himself is up in the air as he died in 1805.

The analogy fails as an argument for an intelligent designer because though that specific watch may have been designed and created by one man, the watch as a concept was created by countless humans over many centuries. In fact, thinking about the watch from that perspective, the watchmaker analogy is actually a great analogy for evolution. In the same way that living creatures today originated from prokaryotes that became eukaryotes, mechanical watches originated from sundials and water clocks. There was not one top-down designer of the watch because the watch was invented by humanity as a whole. The same applies to the various components that make up the watch or the economy that provides the supply chain for the creation of watches. Nobody set out to design those systems; they naturally arose from the bottom up.

Watches are also just as prone to the forces of natural selection as living organisms. Water clocks and sundials were inferior to the mechanical watch as a method of telling time and became obsolete in the same way that a creature that cannot adapt to a changing environment will become extinct. Funny enough, in our time, even the mechanical watch is obsolete as a time-keeping device and is instead used much more often as a fashion statement or status symbol. Paley assumed that the purpose of the watch was to tell time but it is clear that watches, for the most part, do not serve such a purpose anymore. Did anybody design that change in the watch’s purpose? No, it was just an evolution in culture.

Of course, understanding Paley’s analogy as one in favor of evolution does not solve the most interesting question: the ultimate origin of life. If living creatures came from prokaryotes and prokaryotes came from a confluence of events after the Big Bang, then where did the Big Bang come from? If all of that was created by an intelligent designer, then who designed the designer?We’ll probably never know, but what we do know is that the watch did not come from one watchmaker.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watchmaker_analogy

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The Culture of Narcissism – My Thoughts on the Book

Despite being written in 1979, parts of Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism read as if they were written today and remain more relevant than ever. Let’s first define what Lasch meant by narcissism, or at least my understanding of it. Narcissists are not those who are supremely or excessively confident in their own abilities. Just the opposite. They are plagued with feelings of inauthenticity, insecurity, and inner emptiness, and need to be validated by the approval of those around them. It’s clear that with the rise of social media and the desire for likes, retweets, and more followers, we have become even more narcissistic now than in 1979. Back in Lasch’s time, he attributed the increase in narcissism to television and the effects of being recorded:

“Modern life is so thoroughly mediated by electronic images that we cannot help responding to others as if their actions – and our own – were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience or stored up for close scrutiny at some later time. ‘Smile, you’re on candid camera!’ The intrusion into everyday life of this all-seeing eye no longer takes us by surprise or catches us with our defenses down. We need no reminder to smile. A smile is permanently graven on our features, and we already know from which of several angles it photographs to best advantage.”

It’s easy to see the parallels to social media and its influence on our society. That permanent smile is now etched on our faces on Instagram. We project our best selves to evoke envy, seek fame, or for the rush of endorphins we feel as the likes accumulate. And our behavior isn’t the only thing that has changed; even our environment is being altered by social media. Instagram-worthy destinations are being flooded with tourists seeking to capture that perfect image to post. Restaurants have dishes that are designed for sharing via social media, not for consumption. Ephemeral events are booming because of their exclusivity, again for later display on social media as symbols of one’s status. Anybody can listen to Beyonce’s album on Spotify, but only a select fee can watch her perform live at Coachella on this specific year. We crave recognition more and more whether it be from our friends, from our local community or from the mass of fans around the country.

This quote from Lasch about the distinction between fame and celebrity perfectly encapsulates the present:

“Whereas fame depends on the performance of notable deeds acclaimed in biography and works of history, celebrity – the reward of those who project a vivid or pleasing exterior or have otherwise attracted attention to themselves – is acclaimed in the news media, in gossip columns, on talk shows, in magazines devoted to ‘personalities.’”

More and more people have embarked on the quest for celebrity as social media has disintermediated the role of previous gatekeepers such as the magazines or talk shows that Lasch mentioned. Those seeking celebrity no longer need magazines to anoint them. They can now appeal directly to their audience through social media. The ostensible ease with which this celebrity is now obtained leads to everybody trying to become one. After all, all “X” needed to become a celebrity was a nice ass or nice abs or to make interesting small talk. And my ass/abs/small talk is so much better than his/hers. And so the desire for external approval continues to grow.

Still, they are right in the sense that becoming a celebrity is much easier now than before. Somebody can quickly go viral on social media, rising meteorically to celebrity status. Yet such an instantaneous rise can be accompanied by an equally instantaneous fall. Celebrities, more than anybody else, recognize just how fleeting it can all be, causing them to incessantly worry about losing their newfound status. We become more narcissistic in our quest for celebrity but celebrities are the most narcissistic of us all. They not only need constant approval from their current adoring fans but also seek to gain more fans so that they can reach the next tier of stardom. As a result, they’re in a constant state of anxiety, forced to incessantly post on social media to stay relevant and obtain new fans, yet plagued with fear that they will make a mistake and become the latest target of Cancel Culture (the latest trend in social media where everyone is collectively outraged (no moral judgements here) for a few hours and tries to tank their target’s follower count or better yet, to deplatform them).

There are other parts of Lasch’s book that are less strong. For example, he also attributes the rise in narcissism to the rise in bureaucracy and “experts” in all aspects of our life. The bureaucracy and the “experts” restrict what we can do and tell us what we ought to do, resulting in a loss of agency and a corresponding rise in narcissism as we become less and less self-confident about our own actions. He spends way too long describing the rise of bureaucracy and its pernicious effects. To me, nothing is more bureaucratic and monolithic than religion. After all, how much agency did worshippers of Christianity really have centuries ago? The people of Lasch’s time had more agency than their ancestors, and the people in our time have even more agency still, but the affliction of narcissism is only getting worse. What seems to be the issue is not one overriding bureaucracy that tells us how to behave, but many bureaucracies and experts that provide conflicting advice. We have the agency to decide which bureaucracy or expert to listen to, and it is that very agency that causes our loss of self-confidence because as we compare ourselves to those around us, it seems as if the path that we choose never seems to be the right choice.

Though I don’t agree with Lasch attributing the problems of today to a rise in bureaucracy, I do think his diagnosis of the symptoms plaguing society is spot on. Here’s another great quote from the book:

“Our standards of ‘creative, meaningful work’ are too exalted to survive disappointment. Our ideal of ‘true romance’ puts an impossible burden on personal relationships. We demand too much of life, too little of ourselves.”

So what do I think are the causes of narcissism? I think it ultimately boils down to the things Lasch mentioned earlier and the human desire to constantly compare ourselves with the people around us. In Lasch’s time, it was television that changed our perception of the world around us. Television and advertisements shaped our views on how we ought to live our life. And they not only provided a template of how we ought to live our life but also a frame of reference to compare our own to. Suddenly, we were no longer comparing ourselves with just the people around us but also the people on our screens. Maybe before, we were content with our imperfect but solid marriage, job, possessions, or lifestyle, but now, they seem much more imperfect than before. Our expectations slowly rise and when reality doesn’t rise to match our expectations, we become more and more disillusioned. And in Lasch’s time, mass media wasn’t anywhere near as ubiquitous as it is today, nor did they have to deal with social media.

Nowadays, we are bombarded with many more screens and the depictions on those screens are ratcheted up to 11, afflicting not only “lowbrow” shows such as reality TV but also prestige dramas. Consider the voyeurism of Billions, a show about the hedge fund industry. In every episode, we see Axe in his opulent penthouse, throwing money around as if he had a limitless supply (which he basically does), and dining in the hottest restaurants. Netflix’s hit show Chef’s Table is basically food porn. We love these shows and clamor for more, and slowly our expectations continue to rise.

But, the biggest culprit of our exceedingly unrealistic expectations is social media. Now, we are not only deluged with the lives of the rich and famous, but also the carefully crafted images of our friends and acquaintances. Nobody ever puts their doubts or how much their life sucks on social media unless it is cited as an obstacle in their wider narrative of triumph. We’re inundated with highlight after highlight, and as we compare the whole of our life to the highlights of someone else’s, our life starts to seem mundane and pathetic in comparison.

So, what should we do about this? I guess we can watch less TV and not go on social media, but still, our society more than ever worships the rich and glamorous. It’s so pervasive that there’s not much any one person can do. Recognizing the growing narcissism and rising expectations around us might allow us to temper our expectations, to seek to live a life that is not so consumed by the desire for glitz and glamour. We can make changes around the margins, and though that might not allow us to escape the afflictions of modern society, it might help us to become more content with our lot in life. I don’t think this is all doom and gloom. There are many benefits provided to us by the advent of social media. I also believe that the younger generations will be better adapted and better equipped to deal with the deleterious effects of social media, that they’ll place boundaries so that their lives aren’t consumed by it. Either that or the stuff of science fiction happens and the world goes to shit. Who knows.

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Thoughts on The Third Man

I watched The Third Man for the first time recently and thought it was good but nothing to write home about. Spoilers ahead.

The thing about the movie that bothered me the most was the moral question posed in the movie: whether to turn Harry over to the policemen for selling diluted penicillin in the black market. To me, it was entirely obvious that what Harry was doing was beyond reprehensible. He stole penicillin from hospitals that desperately needed it and diluted it to sell on the black market, knowing the diluted version would be harmful to and could kill people who used it. To me, the question of whether Holly Martins and Anna should turn over their friend to the police was self-evident. And yet, Holly at first refused to help Major Calloway and it wasn’t until Calloway took Holly to see the children who became brain-damaged from the diluted penicillin that Holly changed his mind. Anna refused to cooperate in any way and hated Holly for helping the police. Their sense of loyalty in spite of Harry’s horrific actions was so appalling, maybe even immoral, to me. But after reading other people’s opinions online, I changed my mind.

The movie was released right after WWII and the people living in that time had a completely different life experience and outlook. It was heavily implied in the movie that Anna had to do some unspeakable things to survive the war. To survive, they all had to do morally questionable things whether it be dealing in the black market or other some other illegal activity. Group loyalty was a prerequisite for survival. Cynicism and distrust of authority were rampant. And in this environment, Harry was Anna’s savior, the person who helped her obtain a forged passport so that she wouldn’t have to go back to the Soviet Union. All of a sudden, the morality is no longer as clear. A millennial like me will never fully understand what it was like to live during that time, especially in war-torn Vienna. I can read the history and understand the facts, but at a deeper emotional level, it might be impossible for me to fully grasp it, and maybe that’s why The Third Man didn’t resonate as much with me. I had the same experience watching Apocalypse Now a few weeks ago. After all, what movies do better than any other medium is to reach us at an emotional level. Certain movies, like Casablanca, are timeless because the emotions evoked come from experiences everyone has had. Other movies, especially those from different time periods, might no longer be as affecting because the experiences of the modern audience is fundamentally different. Still, I loved the sewer scene when Holly shoots Harry. I interpreted Harry’s look at Holly as imploring Holly to shoot him so that he wouldn’t have to go to jail and face the police. Even at the end, after Holly helped the police chase Harry down, he still couldn’t help but oblige Harry’s request. And so, he shoots Harry. One last bit of loyalty.

There were many things I did really like about The Third Man, and they tend to be the things other people like, starting with Harry’s famous speech. “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” That’s one hell of a speech. Holly’s character as a representation of American naivety was also great. He was innocent and had such a desire to help, but he clearly didn’t understand the local language and culture. He made things worse for a lot of people such as the porter who was murdered after Holly kept pushing him for more information. This is a lesson that America is still learning to this day. Then there was the ending. It’s the same shot as the beginning. Holly and Calloway drive past Anna, but this time Holly gets off the car and waits for Anna. We expect our protagonist to get the girl, that Holly and Anna will reconcile their difference of opinion and live happily ever after. Anna walks closer and closer and then right past him without a glance. Holly lights a cigarette, resigned to the fact that she’ll never forgive him. What an ending. Harry’s reveal was also pretty good. Maybe it’s because I saw it coming, or because I’ve seen so many plot twists, but I didn’t think it was anything special.

All in all, it was a good movie, but to me, not a great one. Movies ultimately speak to our life experiences and my life has been so different from the people at that time that The Third Man didn’t resonate with me on the visceral emotional level that other movies have. Still, I’d recommend watching and forming your own opinions.