Shows that went on way too long
"Californication" (seven seasons)
One of the ways to differentiate liberals and conservatives today is to consider their respective caricatured sci-fi visions of the future. In cartoon terms, the liberal caricature is a “we’re all in this together” utopia of communitarian kumbaya, while the conservative caricature is basically “Back to the Future II” — a Biff Tannen-dominated dystopia of moral and economic decay whose only unifying ethos is thinking of — and violently protecting — oneself. Thus, liberals generally support stuff like universal social insurance and the social safety net, while conservatives tend to get fired up against gun control, taxes and a social safety net, and for massive military budgets.
At the rank-and-file voter level, this is, of course, a cartoon version of ideologies; many self-described liberals are hardly dreaming of turning America into a giant kibbutz while many self-described conservatives just want the government out of their face. However, at the elected official level in Washington, the conservative cartoon in particular is no comedic caricature: As Rep. Paul Ryan’s new House Republican budget shows, it is an actual worldview, with specific legislative proposals in tow.
Here are the four big takeaways from that budget, and how they illustrate the Republicans’ larger worldview.
1. A recommitment to the Military State: One of the few good things to come out of the sequestration fight has been a long-overdue debate over Pentagon profligacy in specific and American militarism in general. Indeed, even though the sequestration cuts are so small they still leave the Pentagon budget bigger in real dollars than it was during most of the height of the Cold War, the prospect of any cuts at all seemed to hold out the possibility of a larger reevaluation of the centrality of the Pentagon in national life. That possibility seemed especially real considering the fact that the allegedly deficit-focused GOP had recently been shamed into supporting some of those cuts.
Now that the Ryan budget is upon us, though, that possibility seems less likely. As the Christian Science Monitor reports, he proposes to uses massive cuts to social programs “to pay for $500 billion in additional defense spending over the next 10 years.” In other words, at a time when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are scheduled to conclude and the sluggish economy necessitates a stronger social safety net, the GOP’s dystopian vision has prompted it to propose making the social safety net weaker in order to spend even more money on the military.
2. Austerity for Most, Corporate Welfare for a Few:: Ryan’s budget purports to save $5.7 trillion over the next decade. But because the GOP’s dystopian vision of the future is one with almost no safety net, the cuts are not broad — they are targeted at social programs.
As the New York Times notes, “because military spending would be allowed to rise $500 billion over the current spending caps through 2023, the cuts to domestic programs could be deep.” That means big cuts to Pell Grants, big reductions in Medicaid coverage, limits on welfare for the poor and a voucherization of Medicare (more on that last one in a second).
From an Economics 101 perspective, all of this is just dumb. When an economy is struggling, counter-cyclical spending by the government is part of the solution. And not just any spending, but specific spending on non-defense social programs (defense spending is one of the least efficient ways to create jobs, by the way). As just the latest example of that axiom, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the 2009 stimulus mitigated some of the worst effects of the recession by adding up to 3.3 million jobs.
That said, even if you somehow dismiss the Economics 101 argument and insist (contrary to public opinion) that deficit reduction must be Congress’s priority, the particular way Ryan proposes to achieve that deficit reduction is disturbing. He proposes huge cuts to Medicare to fund continued handouts to defense companies. He proposes slashing social programs but also continuing massive taxpayer subsidies to already-wealthy oil and gas companies. He proposes, in short, austerity for most, and corporate welfare for the politically connected few.
3. Strengthening the Health Insurance Industry Cartel: Whether it’s “Back to the Future II,” “Robocop” “Total Recall” or any of the dystopian sci-fi classics, private corporations run everything. As evidenced by his Medicare proposal, that’s consistent with Ryan and the House GOP’s vision for the healthcare economy in America.
As USA Today reported in yesterday’s scathing Op-Ed, Ryan proposes to “remake the traditional government-run program that covers most of a retiree’s healthcare needs for as little as $104.90 per month … in its place, Ryan would provide each retiree with a payment (known variously as premium support or a voucher) to help subsidize the cost of buying insurance.”
Obamacare, of course, is a different version of this same central concept; in a sense, it was a massive government subsidy of the private insurance companies. This was why some progressives (including me) raised serious objections to it and pushed for a public option that would at least allow consumers to remove themselves from the for-profit private insurance system. Those critics pointed out that in so intensely subsidizing the private insurance companies, it would financially bolster those companies and thus politically strengthen them in their efforts to prevent America from creating the single-payer healthcare system that most other industrialized nations have.
However, at least Obamacare left the basic concept of government-run Medicare intact. Ryan and the House GOP do not; they aim to use taxpayer cash to begin privatizing the system.
4. Tax Cuts for the Rich, Tax Increases for Most Others: In the dystopian sci-fi future, billionaires are the “makers” and everyone else are the “takers.” Thus, following the ethos articulated in Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent speech, Ryan and the House GOP propose to further reward the former and punish the latter. Specifically, at a time when corporate profits are skyrocketing and in a nation with one of the lowest effective corporate tax rates in the world, they propose a huge cut in the corporate tax rate. They also propose to do away with the seven-tiered progressive income tax, and replace it with a two-tiered one with brackets of 10 percent and 25 percent.
That latter proposal is a particularly ideological kind of class war. As the Atlantic Monthly notes, “it will be very difficult for Ryan to implement this tax cut without raising taxes on middle-class people.” The magazine cites a Brookings Institution report finding that the proposal “would raise taxes on most people making less than $100,000 a year.”
Even the conservative Forbes magazine agrees, noting that the idea gives “taxpayers earning in excess of $1 million (an) average tax cut of $265,000″ and that “there are simply not enough deductions to limit or eliminate to offset” that revenue loss. Forbes adds that if, as the House GOP asserts, the proposal is revenue neutral, that means “those earning in excess of $200,000 are going to walk away with a net tax cut” and there will be an “increase in the tax liability of those earning less than $200,000.”
At a time when the noise of a 24-7 news cycle and the complexity of Orwellian newspeak make it seem impossible to tell what’s really going on in politics, America today owes a big thank you to Ryan. That’s because, as shown, his budget reveals the GOP’s dystopian worldview in simple-to-understand, crystal-clear terms. The question now is whether America allows that worldview to become public policy.
David Sirota is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com. More David Sirota.
"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.