I am a fan of stand-up comedy (as opposed to what, the sitting down kind? Yuk, Yuk). Much comedy gets grouped under the big generic umbrella of “observational comedy,” which can be considered a euphemism for “saying clever things about people’s stupidity.” A lot of good comedy comes from having the dumb things we do wittily articulated. Bits about romantic relationships are very fertile ground for this type of humor. A comedian goes on, “hey, guys, doesn’t it drive you nuts when your wife does thus-and-so?” (usually about shopping or taking too long to get ready). And the men all get a good laugh at the expense of their better halves. Then the comic plays to the other side, “hey, ladies, how about when your man does this ridiculous thing” (usually involves watching sports or leaving the toilet seat up) and the ladies get to laugh and roll their eyes at the husbands. We all get to laugh together at how dumb we can be.
At some point during a routine, the comic takes his criticism up a notch about people’s stupidity. And it is usually at this junction that the audience stops identifying with the humor as a target. We are willing to laugh at ourselves over minor dumbness, but when the comic starts talking about high-level clod-headedness, we tell ourselves “oh no, he’s not talking about me.” I often wonder, when listening to a comedian who is ripping into a particularly juicy bit of human stupidity or meanness, if anyone in the audience is thinking, “wow, I do that all the time. I’m such a jackass.” Or does everyone just feel comfortable in the belief that they are all right, and it’s everyone else who is a jerk? But in front of an audience of hundreds of people, it’s more than likely that a good portion of the paying customers regularly practices the idiocy that the comic is riffing on. Basically he’s making fun of you, jerk.
The reason I mention all of this, is that something President Obama said in relation to this seemingly endless debt ceiling negotiation caught my attention. Obama said, in a nutshell, that the American people don’t understand all the ins and outs of the debate because it’s too complex and they are focused on their everyday worries. Many on the Right pounced on Obama for resorting to his usual professorial dismissiveness about the intelligence of others. “He’s calling people stupid” is basically what many on the Right said of the President.
As someone who frequently gripes about how uninformed the average citizen is about how government works and the problems our elected officials cause us, I can’t entirely disagree with President Obama. However, I think that Obama is missing the point. While it’s true that many, if not most, Americans are ignorant of all of the ins and outs of the debt ceiling issue, it doesn’t entirely matter. Most people are not focused on the debt ceiling by itself, but rather as the latest front in the war over how big and expensive do we want our federal government to become. I’m no expert on federal fiscal and budgetary policy, but I do understand that by either not extending the debt ceiling or making drastic spending cuts or raising taxes the country faces a serious problem. No reasonable person wants to see the federal government freeze up because they maxed out the credit card, so to speak.
But the fight isn’t really about adjusting the debt ceiling so that we can keep our national credit line open. The fight is over the same thing Left and Right have been battling tooth and nail over for the past several years. It’s the tax-and-spend Left versus the cut-and-balance Right. Obama and company want to make sure there is increased revenue (read, higher taxes) put into any deal, while the GOP wants to reel in the spending and make some real cuts (although without the gutsy and necessary cuts to big entitlements that we really need). The fight that is playing out on Capitol Hill is one in which the debt ceiling is an important, but not central figure.
Obama is right that most Americans are not fully aware of the facts of the debt ceiling. But it doesn’t really matter. I believe that most people are aware that our government is too big, too expensive, and massively inefficient. We can spend less and do better, and most people realize it. Most people grasp that point and expect our elected officials to do something about it. Obama is trying to be like the comic who wants his audience to believe that they are all sharp cookies; it’s all those other idiots that he’s talking about. The President is setting up another straw man, the generic other who doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand what smart people like him understand. And of course, the only way to prove that you are not one of those ignorant clods is to sign on to what Obama and his brilliant cohorts are doing. Obama misses the point. You can be ignorant without being stupid, and most people are very aware that government spending is way out of control and we want something done about it. You don’t have to bury yourself in think tank white papers to know that there’s a problem and it needs to be solved. And if Obama thinks that is stupid, then I’m with stupid.