December 4, 2012

This bear has a strong opinion about Panetta-Burns. (Jim Urquhart, Associated Press)

It is difficult enough worrying about real things. 

It was, for instance, 65 degrees today. And it is December. Millions of Americans are still unemployed or underemployed. The cost of a college education is constantly increasing. The Postal Service is in a deep financial hole. The “fiscal cliff” (okay, the phrase is a metaphor, but its consequences are real enough) approaches apace.

But instead, we are worrying about things that do not exist. 

Consider the 8 percent of Americans who — according to Public Policy Polling — approve of the “Panetta-Burns” budget resolution — or the 17 percent who disapprove of it. This would be all very well if Panetta-Burns existed. But it doesn’t. Maybe that is the part of it that people disapprove of.

“No,” they will say, when confronted, “it’s totally a thing. The Panetta-Burns  Resolution is only visible to the pure in heart.”

“What I like most about Panetta-Burns is that you can read anything into it you like. It’s a negative space, really.”

“I thought it was a ‘Simpsons’ reference.”

Its nonexistence may be the secret to its popularity — nearly as many Americans have an opinion about it as have one about its real counterpart, Simpson-Bowles. It’s the Generic Candidate Problem all over again. Everyone likes the Excessively Generic Party Candidate until he takes the bold step of actually existing. Mitt Romney discovered this the hard way. 

This makes you wonder, though, how many of the Americans who claimed to have an opinion about Bowles-Simpson knew that it was a real tax plan and not, say, a strange union of People Britain Does Not Want To Be Queen. Maybe they thought it was Bowels-Simpson. It is hard to tell, sometimes. This is often a question I have when I see the opinions that people have about things.

“Do you know what this is?” I want to ask them. “So far, you have given no evidence that you have not just lucked into this opinion by saying random words.”

Consider the Congressional hearing today on the dangerous link between vaccines and autism — again, not a real problem that exists, as countless studies have demonstrated. It is abundantly clear that vaccines save lives. Meanwhile, scientists can show no connection whatever between vaccines and autism. This is a fictional problem. 

Too bad. We are having a hearing about it. Next there will be a hearing about “How To Keep The Dragon Smaug From Ravaging Your Village” and “Will The High Costs Of Troll Health Care Prove To Be A Hidden Tax?” Frankly, I wish we were having those hearings. They at least would not be actively dangerous, perpetuating a harmful misconception that continues to endanger the lives of babies. 

Look, there are plenty of real concerns. But if we insist that we are sick of them and want to spend our time and resources on fictional problems, there are much more exciting things to concern ourselves with. What is HAPPENING on “Homeland”? Is “The Hobbit” really three movies long? How will “Breaking Bad” end?

Heck, the Panetta-Burns Plan. I’d be excited to hear about that. 

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.