Teacher: Some key factors that affect the elasticity of demand are what? Mr. Bell.
Stringer: Desire, consumer need.
Teacher: Right, specifically the ability of a consumer to delay acquisition. What else?
First, McNulty almost loses his sons in his reckless pursuit of Stringer Bell. Then he tracks down the owner linked to the licence plate information they retrieved. Then he spends several days on a freelance stakeout. After all of this, McNulty ends up outside of a Macroeconomics class at Baltimore City Community College.
In the end, McNulty’s run in with Stringer at the market brings in no useful intelligence for the case. He catches his secondary target doing nothing more subversive than attempting to improve his understanding of the business world. Still, while standing in the halls of higher education, McNulty (and the audience) gets a glimpse into Stringer’s true character.
It is still early in the series, and we are just beginning to get a sense of many of the characters. Stringer really begins to come into focus in that one shot, sitting in the front row of a community college classroom, glasses on and pen at the ready, raising his hand to answer a question on elasticity. It is the image not of a gangster, but a businessman (or at least a businessman in the making).
You have to give him credit. He goes about it in the right way. He is not in school to satisfy his parents or to get a diploma, or for some abstract hope of a big job on the other end. He is here for practical knowledge, pure and simple. Even the incredibly brief piece of the lesson that we listen in on shows this. The professor asks for factors that affect elasticity of demand, and Stringer’s arm shoots into the air as eagerly as the most sycophantic teacher’s pet. “Desire, consumer need.”
The connection is obvious. As the teacher speaks of hypothetical business, Stringer is thinking of his very real, very concrete trade. He approaches this class (and any other he might be taking) with a single question in his head: How can I apply this to the drug game? The vials of heroin are made inelastic by the desire of the fiends, their urgent, pressing need for that perpetual next fix. The customers are always going to be there. Stringer has shown an awareness of this since the office scene from “The Buys.” Here, we see him learning how this works on a macro- level so he can apply his knowledge to a broader understanding of the game.
We see just such an application in the very next scene, when he chastises three workers at the copy store, one of the Barksdales’ more savory front operations. The workers scoff at the notion that they should actually make copies. “Fuck em, let em wait.” Stringer responds with a professorial lecture, schooling these young hoppers on the finer points of business. “You are not going to bring that corner bullshit up in here, you hear me?” In one sense, this store is like a toy for Stringer, a place where he can experiment with his classroom lessons in a world that lies outside of the corner. This world is less dangerous, but it is also more subject to the needs of the consumers. “I want this to run like a real business,” he says, speaking not only of the copy store, but also the entire drug game.
In an episode preoccupied with the idea of learning, this is one of the clearest examples. For Stringer, education is evolution. It enables him to see the bigger game, and the different ways to play it. It shows a broader ambition to bring both himself and his crew off of the corner and into the boardroom. But first he has to get out of the classroom.