The expectations trap

I'm not even sorry.

So I was minding my own business, checking my news feed, when I realized that I’d just come up with a way to link HBO’s Girls and the debt ceiling. This was not part of my plan for today.

It all began this morning, when I came across this article about how Girls’ second season dealt with all that controversy over the show’s treatment of minority characters (or lack thereof) by adding Donald Glover and an arc about interracial dating. After that came several different stories about the debt ceiling and a previously obscure idea to get around it by minting a huge-denomination platinum coin. And I started to think that both cases demonstrate a similar failure of our collective ability to figure out where the real problem is.

Let’s take Girls first. The knock against the show, which focuses on the self-absorbed adventures of frustrated writer Hannah Horvath and her circle of friends, generally gets portrayed as the fact that it didn’t have minorities. That kind of misses the bigger issue, which was that whenever the show did feature minorities, they were in tiny roles and played as stereotypes. For instance, the show’s pilot episode featured two people of color who got about 20 seconds of screen time between them: An oblivious young Asian woman who steals Hannah’s job and a random black guy who accosts her on the street.

What’s striking was that the show was nowhere near as problematic as, for example, the routine stereotyping on CBS’ 2 Broke Girls, which premiered a few months earlier. As best I can tell, the difference is that nobody expected a multi-camera sitcom that shared a network with Two and a Half Men to be anything but horrible, whereas HBO is supposed to be better on this.

If anything, though, that has it backward: HBO’s whole model is based on serving niche audiences, and if one of those niches is entitled white hipsters, then so long as it doesn’t come at the expense of shows like Treme I can live with it. CBS, on the other hand, is America’s most-watched network; if anyone’s programming should be inclusive, it’s them.

But that just doesn’t fit our paradigm. Everybody knows that network TV is a haven for lowbrow programming and easy laughs, whereas HBO is where people go to be intellectual. And if you can see a more diverse set of characters and a better look at race relations on Glover’s other show, Community, something just seems off.

Which brings us to the debt ceiling.

The issue here is that federal law prohibits the Treasury from issuing more than a certain amount of debt in order to fund the government. The problem here is that the Treasury doesn’t get to decide how much money the government has to spend; that’s controlled by Congress, and the executive branch is legally required to implement Congress’ budget. If Congress doesn’t approve enough money to pay for all the spending it approved, that means we have to issue more debt.

Here’s an article from the last debt ceiling fight that explains every angle of how crazy this is, but the short version is that hitting the debt ceiling would involve some combination of a government shutdown or a default that would wreck America’s credit rating and cause a new global financial crisis. And it’s all completely unnecessary, since if Congress really wants the government to spend less, they can just tell the government to spend less because Congress writes the budget.

But wait! Turns out that the Treasury, which happens to create all our money, could solve this problem by minting a platinum coin worth a ton of money, which would functionally be the same as issuing more debt but, thanks to an obscure loophole in a commemorative-coin bill, is perfectly legal. Problem solved!

The main problem with the idea appears to be that nobody can mention it without snickering. And, yes, it is basically the premise of that Simpsons episode. But, as Klein wrote in yet another article from this morning: “if the alternative truly is default, a crazy coin option may indeed be less bad than the alternatives.”

Which seems like a crazy understatement. An idiotic policy that would trash our credit, worsen the deficit and create a new financial crisis is definitely more bad than another idiotic policy that would mitigate all that, and it’s the first policy — the debt ceiling — that you should really be mad about. What’s happening, I think, is that the debt ceiling has been with us long enough that we’ve gotten used to it, so its idiocy gets grandfathered in.

And that’s when this all came full circle. Even if something is horribly broken, if it’s been horribly broken for long enough we learn to just accept it, until some new thing comes along that forces us to engage with the horrible brokenness of the old thing. And the new thing gets all the hate because it exposes how terrible the old one still is, and how crazy it was for us all to go along with it.

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