Television

John Oliver Looks at the National Debt, and for Once, Things Are Better Than They Seem

John Oliver sits at an anchorperson's desk in front of a sign reading "National Debt."
Your kids’ futures are probably not at stake. HBO

Last Week Tonight is an excellent show, but it can also be a profoundly depressing one, because John Oliver typically spends twenty minutes or so digging into a giant, legendarily unsolvable problem, like the way we’re poisoning the oceans with plastics, or our meatpacking industry. There are basically only two ways an episode of Last Week Tonight can fail to be depressing: the “Get a load of this asshole” segment, in which Oliver comprehensively insults someone who richly deserves to be insulted, like Tucker Carlson or the late Bob Murray, or the “You’ve been sold a bill of goods!” segment, in which Oliver debunks a scam that is terrible but not likely to destroy the entire planet, like televangelism or nutritional supplements. This week’s episode, with its look at the national debt, primarily falls into the second category. Although the national debt is often presented as an existential threat on the same level as climate change, that’s mostly bullshit, as Oliver explains:

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It’s nice for a change to hear about a problem we’ve been tricked into caring too much about, instead of yet another existential threat we’ve been tricked into caring too little about. Of course, the common denominator is that in both cases rich and powerful bullshit artists are deceiving the public, but it’s a lot easier to tell the Peter G. Peterson Foundations of the world to fuck off than it is to address working conditions in the meatpacking industry. So fuck off, Peter G. Peterson Foundations of the world! That felt pretty good—I’m going to celebrate by buying a decorative pillow case.

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