How the Simpsons explains everything … except why they are still on the air

Our toddler freshly asleep, my wife and I sat down to watch a bit of TV before bed last night. The Simpsons popped up at the top of the “My Shows” list. Now, I have not watched the animated classic much the last few years, but I figured, “why not? A few minutes into Homer discovering that Maggie could whistle, I had my answer. How did this incredible show that wove so much timely humor through important issues in economics, religion, philosophy, American politics, political theory, parenting and so much else become such a boring, pointless exercise? I thought the show had hit rock bottom when it made an episode starring Moe’s bar rag. That was 123 episodes ago.

But instead of further calls to put the once iconic show out of its misery, I thought I might draw attention to some classic episodes (including a list of my personal favorites at the end of this article) that could provide some insight into challenges we as both Americans and Sacramentans are facing today and, perhaps more importantly, add some levity to difficult times.

Elections

Hard as it is to believe, the June 2018 Congressional midterms (and city council elections!) are right around the corner and candidates are already busy passing around the hat and dusting off their talking points. The Simpsons first waded into the art of political pandering with  “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish.” Appearing early in Season 2, we see the Billionaire Montgomery Burns deciding it is more cost effective to run for Governor and change the laws than comply with environmental regulations to protect against, among other things, the creation of three-eyed mutant fish. In an attempt to overcome his massive unpopularity, Burns pours millions into a smear campaign against his female opponent and appears on the verge of victory before Marge forces him into a televised gaffe, saving the day.

Another political gem was the Simpsons 200th episode, which featured U2 guest playing a concert on a trash heap while the inimitable Steve Martin played the hard working, committed public servant Ray Patterson. Patterson brought a professional seriousness and the expertise that comes with well-earned experience to the position of Sanitation Commissioner. His experience and spotless track record proved inadequate when Homer decided to run against him. Bringing bluster, unrealistic promises (“Can’t Someone Else Do It”) and a woeful disregard for budgetary math and even basic facts, Homer is elected in a landslide and disaster ensues.

We, as voters in the real world, have a responsibility to do better than the people of Springfield. The actions of our elected leaders have consequences and if we continue down the current path:

Sexual Harassment

Homer Badman proves that the Simpsons can also get it wrong, while (I suspect inadvertently) providing important insight. After a gluttonous trip to the candy convention, Homer sets off to drive their graduate student and feminist activist babysitter home. As she gets out of the car, he sees the Venus de Milo candy he had pilfered stuck to her pants. Overcome by his lust for the “sweet candy” he plucked it off of her rear end and from there is swept into a whirlwind of public outrage and over the top trashy journalism. By the end of the show the babysitter had realized she had falsely accused Homer, a clear victim of an overzealous, dishonest media and feminist activism.

“Two, four, six, eight, Homer’s crime was very great! ‘Great’ meaning large or immense, we use it in the pejorative sense!”

The episode was written, directed and show-run by men over twenty years ago. So it may not be surprising that they overlooked that, even if his intentions were not sexual, Homer did something wrong (And propagated a demonstrably false narrative that women frequently make exaggerated accusations). Homer wanted something and did not care if getting it violated the young woman’s personal space, making her feel unsafe doing her job. It is easy and feels good to condemn monsters like the President, Harvey Weinstein and an apparently huge number in the Sacramento Capitol community. Among the rest of us, harassment that stems from a lack of empathy, rather than a presence of enmity, remains pervasive.

We all need to be more aware of it than Homer Simpson, because nearly all of us have done it. (#MeToo) We may not have realized it. We may have thought it was just a collegial joke or a friendly compliment. But we did it. We hurt people. And we need to do better.

Strikes

In “Last Exit to Springfield,” out of sheer greed, Mr. Burns decides to eliminate his employees’ dental plan. The witless employees running the nuclear plant celebrate the short-term trade off of a keg of Duff Beer until Homer realizes that without the dental plan, he’ll be forced to pay out of pocket for Lisa’s expensive dental care — an important warning to any ‘young invincibles’ excited at the prospects of new high deductible Trumpcare plans — Homer leads the plant employees to strike. After a hilarious serious of foibles in attempting to run the plant without workers and wonderful Grinch-inspired efforts to crush the union have failed (And lacking any real substantive consequences), Mr. Burns relents and agrees to reinstate the dental plan.

We’ll march ’till we drop The girls and the fellas. We’ll fight ’till the death Or else fold like umbrellas.

In “The PTA Disbands,” we get a more pointed look at the reality of negotiations in the public sector setting, as expressed by Principal Skinner: “What’s the point?  There’s no more money, unless you’ve got some magic new source of revenue.” Seeking “a small cost-of-living increase and some better equipment and supplies for your children” and goaded on by a mischievous Bart, eager to escape class, the teachers go on strike. The schools continue to operate, with classes taught by members of the community … some of whom advocate corporal punishment and cannot keep their beards from being caught in the pencil sharpener. None prove adequate replacements. Once having his mother as a substitute teacher ruins Bart’s fun, he tricks the principal and teachers into negotiating and they come up with a magic new source of revenue — housing prisoners in the school.

TheFingersMean

In Sacramento, we are facing a similar situation. The teachers are on the verge of a strike, asking for a number of improvements, including smaller class sizes, filling vacancies and increased salaries to bring them in line with other districts in the region.

The teachers believe that the District has adequate funds to cover these improvements, citing high levels of reserves and increased administrator salaries. The district counters that teachers are paid competitively within the region, with modestly lower pay but more generous benefits. The reality is that meaningful apples-to-apples comparisons are challenging. Each district’s pay scale is different in regard to rewarding experience and, especially, rewarding varying levels of education.

This dispute, though, exists in no small part because California spends less than average on education. While making an apples-to-apples comparison is complicated, recent estimates have California between $614 to $1,961 below average in per student spending. D’oh! No matter the source, no matter the methodology, it is clear that California spends less on education than other states.

Perhaps then, the solution is a simple one: spend more money on education. Given the structure of education funding in California, local districts do not have the option of shifting around local spending priorities, so the only option is to increase taxes.

There are, of course, trade-offs to every tax but the reality is that for less than $20 per parcel per month (author’s calculation based on Measure G revenue estimates and 2,200 FTEs), we could provide every teacher in Sacramento City USD a ten thousand dollar raise. Such a raise would make our schools the most desirable destination for the best teachers in the region, which has been shown to increase the number of applicants and, more importantly, the quality of hires.

While money is tight in our growing household, my family would be thrilled to have the opportunity to invest in this way in our local schools, our children’s future and the future of our region’s economy. I suspect many families around our district would feel the same and, moreover, despite the recent narrow failure of Measure G, local education parcel taxes have a very strong track record at the ballot boxpurple monkey dishwasher.

While it seems pretty likely that the Simpsons production team cannot do better at this point, here in Sacramento, I know we can. In some ways we already are doing better. Our County is in the process of implementing the Voter’s Choice Act, which will make it easier for every citizen to fully participate in our democracy. And if you are interested, I happen to be holding a forum on the Voter’s Choice Act next week:

PGCA VCA Cover 2017-10-10

Devin’s Simpsons Recommended Viewing

As a proud member of the Oregon Trail Generation (those of us who straddle Gen X and Millenial cut-offs, who, being able to remember a world without computers, but having adopted them in childhood are fundamentally different from both), I sometimes run into difficulties communicating with younger colleagues because my speech is often peppered with Simpsons references. (Perhaps a better reference than Oregon Trail would be First-wave Simpsonists?) In order to help overcome these challenges, I came up with a list of recommended viewing including the best and most culturally important episodes (in the oh so humble opinion of this author), which is included at the end of the article. Enjoy!

  1. Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish, Season 2, Episode 4
  2. Homer Defined, Season 3, Episode 5
  3. Flaming Moe’s, Season 3, Episode 10
  4. Homer at the Bat, Season 3, Episode 17
  5. Homer the Heretic, Season 4, Episode 3
  6. Homer’s Triple Bypass, Episode 4, Season 11
  7. Duffless, Season 4, Episode 16
  8. Last Exit to Springfield, Season 4, Episode 17
  9. Cape Feare, Season 5, Episode 2
  10. Treehouse of Horror V, Season 6, Episode 6
  11. Homer the Great, Season 6, Episode 12
  12. Lisa’s Wedding, Season 6, Episode 19
  13. Two Dozen and One Greyhounds, Season 6, Episode 20
  14. The PTA Disbands, Season 6, Episode 21
  15. Lisa the Vegetarian, Season 7, Episode 5
  16. King Size Homer, Season 7, Episode 7
  17. Twenty-Two Short Films About Springfield, Season 7, Episode 21
  18. Much Apu About Nothing, Season 7, Episode 23
  19. You Only Move Twice, Season 8, Episode 2
  20. El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer, Season 8, Episode 9
  21. Homer’s Phobia, Season 8, Episode 15
  22. Simpsons Spin-off Showcase, Season 8, Episode 24
  23. Mr. Plow, Season 9, Episode 4
  24. Trash of the Titans, Season 9, Episode 22

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