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Shows that went on way too long
"Californication" (seven seasons)
In the tense run-up to Hurricane Sandy, I clicked on one of those headlines that appears on the right side of the screen: “Civilization May Not Survive This, Economist Says.”
Once there, I knew I’d been had. It was about … the public debt. It cited one Lawrence Kotlikoff of Boston University, one of America’s most talented artificers, who “estimates the true fiscal gap is $211 trillion when unfunded entitlements like Social Security and Medicare are included.” Compared to that, what’s a thousand mile-wide hurricane?
That the looming debt and deficit crisis is fake is something that, by now, even the most dim member of Congress must know. The combination of hysterical rhetoric, small armies of lobbyists and pundits, and the proliferation of billionaire-backed front groups with names like the “Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget” is not a novelty in Washington. It happens whenever Big Money wants something badly enough.
Big Money has been gunning for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid for decades – since the beginning of Social Security in 1935. The motives are partly financial: As one scholar once put it to me, the payroll tax is the “Mississippi of cash flows.” Anything that diverts part of it into private funds and insurance premiums is a meal ticket for the elite of the predator state.
And the campaign is also partly political. The fact is, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are the main way ordinary Americans connect to their federal government, except in wars and disasters. They have made a vast change in family life, unburdening the young of their parents and ensuring that every working person contributes whether they have parents, dependents, survivors or disabled of their own to look after. These programs do this work seamlessly, for next to nothing; their managers earn civil service salaries and the checks arrive on time. For the private competition, this is intolerable; the model is a threat to free markets and must be destroyed.
This attitude is reflected in the nonsense of media discourse, nicely illustrated in October’s vice-presidential debate, moderated by Martha Raddatz of ABC News:
Martha Raddatz: Let’s talk about Medicare and entitlements. Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke and taking a larger share of the budget in the process. Will benefits for Americans under these programs have to change for the programs to survive? Mr. Ryan?
Rep. Paul Ryan: Absolutely. Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt. These are indisputable facts.
Note that Mr. Ryan did not have to establish on his own that “Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt.” That claim was built into the question. All Mr. Ryan had to do was to assert his firm agreement. And Vice President Biden, when his turn came, chose not to rebut.
Can a federal insurance program go bankrupt? Of course it can’t. Bankruptcy is a legal process for private citizens seeking relief from unpayable debts. How can the obligations of Social Security or Medicare ever be unpayable? These are public programs, not private companies. All the federal government has to do is to write the checks, pursuant to law. As for the size of the checks, it will be whatever Congress prescribes at any given time. Bankruptcy as a concept does not apply. So what are they talking about? Lies and nonsense, nothing more.
Less easy to penetrate is the thick swamp of dogma thrown up by the economists who have provided a background chorus for the doomsayers. Kotlikoff’s $211 trillion is a nice example of this: the net present value of a discounted stream of projected federal deficits over (one suspects) an infinite future time horizon. Or maybe only 75 years or so. But who’s counting? It’s a big, big number, and the man spreading it about is a credentialed professor. Must mean something, surely?
No, it does not. For one thing, any such number needs to be placed in context – what fraction of total GDP, over the same horizon, are we talking about? That GDP number will be 10 to 20 times larger, so Kotlikoff’s forecast doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know, by looking at present deficits in relation to present GDP.
Even that comparison misses the real point, which is that all balance sheets are double-entry propositions. Assuming it’s a real number, and not made up, that $211 trillion liability must correspond, to the penny, to an asset. And that’s the gain in expected future net financial wealth of the private sector, also discounted. Every one of those dollars, after all, corresponds to a bond, which will be owned by a person, a company or a bank. Big crisis? Not at all. At best, it’s a curiosity calculation, of no practical importance.
Even worse, because more immediately read and followed by policymakers, are the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline economic projections. These combine mutually impossible events, leading to the prediction that the debt/GDP ratio will rise toward 300 percent of GDP by mid-century, while real growth and inflation chug along at 3 and 2 percent, respectively. But if this were possible, why should anyone care? In fact it’s not possible; the CBO’s deficits are driven mainly by assumptions about healthcare costs and interest rates that cannot happen. Healthcare cannot rise indefinitely as a share of GDP (and may have already stopped rising). And if interest rates returned to what CBO thinks of as normal the underlying economy would collapse. Luckily for us, the Federal Reserve won’t do that. CBO should revise its assumptions; if it did, the scare forecasts would go away.
Do we have budget problems? Yes: We spend too much on military hardware and wars; the talent, materials and technologies that go into that are wasted and cannot be used, say, to protect New York from storm surge. Our rich build too many mansions, thanks to their CEO incomes and their low tax rates; letting the Bush tax cuts expire will usefully dent that purchasing power.
But Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid impose no such future burdens. They are transfers in current time. They meet today’s commitments to seniors, survivors, dependents, the disabled and the ill – commitments they have earned through work – providing them with income and services at the expense of others also currently alive. This any community can always do, to the full extent of its will and resources. The future has nothing to do with it. Except that, from a moral point of view, it’s useful for the young to learn that we are a community, in which working people take care of those who can’t.
And that is what the Objectivists in Congress cannot stand. Our sense of community is an obstacle to their power. And what they are determined to destroy, we must defend. There is much more to be said, about disaster relief, food assistance, housing and other threatened programs. But to begin, Congress should leave Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid alone.
James K. Galbraith organized a conference on the “Crisis in the Eurozone” at the University of Texas at Austin on November 3-4. Papers and presentations can be found at http://tinyurl.com/3kut4k5, along with a video archive of the full meeting. More James K. Galbraith.
"Californication" (seven seasons)
"Entourage" (eight seasons)
Much like “Californication,” this man-centric show started strong and buzzy -- a perpetual nominee at the Golden Globes and Emmys, and a perceived gender-swapped “Sex and the City.” Then it ground on and on, and what might once have been read as a sophisticated satire of Hollywood materialism became a grinding conveyor belt of self-congratulatory guest-star appearances.
"Will & Grace" (eight seasons)
Hey, did someone say “self-congratulatory guest-star appearances?” Look -- it’s Jennifer Lopez, and Cher, and Janet Jackson, and Madonna! The latter seasons of “Will & Grace” effectively ruined the fun of watching the show in syndication now -- will it be a fun and jaunty early episode, or a later episode in which title characters enact an Ibsen play about having a baby together (really) while Jack and Karen meet one pop star or another? The fact that the show hastened a widespread acceptance of gay people that, then, made the show something of a throwback by the time it ended is one thing; the fact that the show itself seemed uninterested in relying on its actors’ sharp comic timing is quite another.
"The King of Queens" (nine seasons)
This CBS stalwart just kind of kept going, exactly as long as was needed to launch Kevin James’ film career. In the show’s final minutes, a formulaic sitcom became a mile-a-minute soap, with the central characters considering divorce and then having two children.
"Frasier" (11 seasons)
Though it ended strong, "Frasier" had something of the opposite problem as “The King of Queens”: While the CBS comedy chucked a whole bunch of plot at viewers toward the end, NBC’s Emmy magnet stayed stuck in familiar ruts, with Frasier questing endlessly for love and Daphne and Niles in fairly unthrilling domestic bliss. The jokes stayed good, but this maybe could have gone one or two years shorter.
"Weeds" (eight seasons)
As “Homeland” viewers may be learning, Showtime isn’t particularly good at keeping its shows coherent over time. (Maybe this is “Californication”’s issue -- we wouldn’t know!) This show changed settings and, effectively, organizing conceits so many times that by the end, it had few earnest defenders.
"Nip/Tuck" (six seasons)
This FX series, too, changed settings midway through, moving from Miami to Los Angeles four seasons in for no compelling reason. The show’s most gripping subplots had a way of petering out (remember the anticlimactic solution to the mystery of the Carver?), and its bizarre tendencies overtook any sense of fun.
"Glee" (five seasons and counting)
The series has, like its sibling show “Nip/Tuck” (Ryan Murphy created them both), switched locations, moving in large part to New York once its core cast graduated high school. But what’s the point of a high school series when the stars graduate? Despite some lovely moments, the show’s heat seems gone, and attempts to get back into the conversation (the school shooting episode, for instance) have been more desperate and tone-deaf than effective.
"Grey's Anatomy" (10 seasons and counting)
Here’s the thing: By all accounts, “Grey’s Anatomy” is not a creative failure. And it’s still widely watched. But when you begin your life as a world-beating hit, anything else seems somewhat marginal. “Grey’s Anatomy” has shed more regular viewers than many shows will ever hope to get in the first place (same’s true of “Survivor” and latter-day “ER,” to name just a few). Those who stopped watching once the Golden Globe nominations petered out may wonder why the show is still on; loyal viewers know better.
"The Simpsons" (25 seasons and counting)
Like the “Grey’s” doctors, the Springfield clan and their neighbors still draw a crowd. But “The Simpsons” is so omnipresent in syndication and in pop culture that the first-run series seems besides the point (not least because, though there are good episodes here and there, the show’s best days are universally agreed to be behind it -- like way behind it, in the 1990s).
"The Office" (nine seasons)
There was a natural break for this show, where it ought to have ended -- with the departure of lead actor Steve Carell in Season 7. The latter years were a creative fugue state, and as NBC’s Thursday night lineup continued to flatline in the ratings, one-time fans could be forgiven at their surprise that the adventures of Jim and Pam kept on unfolding.
"The X-Files" (nine seasons)
Once one of the show’s leads departs and has to be replaced -- as Steve Carell did on “The Office,” or David Duchovny did here -- the show faces a reckoning; if the lead is so central to the show’s plot as to make people wonder how the show could possibly go on, maybe the show shouldn’t. And even “X-Files” superfans might have been happier with fewer seasons of drawing out the conspiracy string toward a famously unsatisfying ending.
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