Why the Debt Drama Doesn’t Captivate Us (and why you need to keep checking your watch)

If something doesn’t give soon, the United States will be out of cash. We’ve maxed out our national credit cards and run out of equity line to tap. Recipients of government payments like Medicare and Social Security could be out of luck and whole parts of the government might possibly shut down. It’s a pretty serious situation. If our debt is downgraded, our cost of borrowing goes way up, Wall Street and other markets go way down, and all kind of nasty things can happen.

The deadline hasn’t come as a surprise: Congress, led by John Boehner, and President Obama have been discussing how to handle this for months. Well, actually they’ve been disagreeing on what steps to take, pointing out each other’s flaws, and doing quite a bit of posturing about this.

Yet a quick look around America doesn’t see many people panicked or in total alarm. Yes, some senior citizens are concerned about whether they’ll receive their regular monthly stipends, but overall Americans are going about their daily lives and business without much thought about this whole situation.

Why? Partially because this is such a complicated issue that many people don’t understand it. The numbers are so big that most of us can’t get our hands around them. And we aren’t sure how exactly this will impact us on a day to day basis.

But there’s another reason: We’ve been conditioned by our society and the media to have these big crises that are resolved at the eleventh hour. We expect that this will go on until the deadline is nigh and then somewhere, somehow the warring parties will get together and come up with a compromise that manages to save the day just in the nick of time.

We know by now that Gregory House won’t uncover the mystery ailment killing his patient till 10 minutes before the hour—every other diagnosis as much as it seems to fit the symptoms at the moment, just isn’t really right, and in fact, the patient will continue to deteriorate throughout the hour until their condition worsens at about a quarter of.

We know that the FBI agents on Criminal Minds won’t catch this week’s serial killer till about the same time in the program—nor will NCIS solve the murder of the hapless Marine who is this episode’s focus until that same time period.

Even a wizard as powerful as Harry Potter won’t kill Voldemort until there’s just a few minutes left in the movie. (Sorry for the spoiler, but the movie’s been out for awhile now.) Bruce Willis prevented Armageddon and Arnold Schwartzenegger saved the world from evil Terminators—all at the same point in the script.

So we expect our government leaders to pull the same stunt here. At which point, one side or the other (or, more likely, both) will act as if they have come in on a shining white steed to save the day and rescue the damsel in distress. Cue the orchestra for the big final theme and the credits.

It’s a great way to end an evening’s entertainment, but not an effective way to run a government. Especially when you consider that the heroes who come riding in at the end to put out the fires are most likely the arsonists that set this whole blaze in motion to start with.

Pass the popcorn. It’s time to settle in for the final act.

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