Awkward moments of pregnant silence, social clumsiness, and outrageous blundering comments uttered by Michael Scott will forever be hailed as the most hilarious moments of early 21st century television. Some say that the series became a little too outrageous around the sixth season, and they may be right, but the show has bits of insightful social commentary if you dig deep enough.
One particular episode features a more mature Michael Scott, the socially inept regional manager portrayed by Steve Carrell who has at this point flubbed his way through several relationships and managed to barely avoid getting canned on numerous occasions, suffering the ill effects of an impossible promise he made to a group of 3rd graders years ago. Ever the “urban friendly” white guy, Mr. Scott promised these children that he would pay their college tuition if they graduated high school — 10 years ago, when his 40s were thousands of years away and he still had plenty of time to become a millionaire. But now he’s well into his 40s, the kids are graduating, and he can barely manage to pay his mortgage.
At first, he attempts to avoid the situation entirely by rescheduling his appearance at the school multiple times until — at the behest of Pam, former secretary and new saleswoman — he finally decides to return to the school to face his overzealous past promises. When he arrives at the school, he is treated to a group of excited students and parents who are thrilled at the prospect of free tuition. They sing an “urban” song dedicated to his generosity and offer multiple speeches regarding the “bright futures” of the students, all thanks to his promise of paying their tuition. One student even suggests that Michael’s free handout will enable him to “be the next President Obama”.
And then Michael is forced to drop the hammer. He doesn’t have the money. He can’t pay their tuition. He thought he would be able to 10 years ago, but 10 years went by so fast and he’s not a millionaire like he predicted. He feels terrible, and does the only thing he can — he buys a laptop battery for each student.
The classroom erupts. Parents, teachers, and students, enraged at the prospect of having their dreams snatched away, focus their frustration on Michael and assault him with a barrage of insults. They call him a liar and a dreamkiller, and he leaves the school hated and downtrodden.
Scott’s Tots — and Michael Scott himself — were victims of false promises and empty predictions. We can draw numerous parallels to modern politics.
Michael Scott represents the politician who promises the sun, moon, and stars to his constituents. Michael made the promise because his self-esteem requires the gratitude and approval of the community; a politician makes the promise in exchange for votes. Scott’s Tots are the general public, who believes the politician means well and is capable of determining the best allocation of resources. The public (Scott’s Tots) is, of course, angered — and rightly so — when the politician (Michael Scott) fails to deliver on the promise. But who’s to blame here, the politician who is expected to make such promises or the public who believes they are owed free handouts?
In the case of Scott’s Tots, these kids earned a diploma — nothing else. One teacher says, “Thank you for showing us that anything can be achieved through hard work”, but the mantra is abandoned once Michael Scott reneges on his free handout. They no longer believe the students can achieve a college education through hard work. Instead, they blame Michael Scott for failing to deliver something they never earned, even going so far as to claim that he “owed” them the tuition money. In the case of the general public, they earn the realistic, reasonable services a flawed government filled with flawed people can offer. It’s never much, and yet they continue to ask for more.
The parable of Scott’s Tots diverges from real life when Michael Scott leaves the high school dejected and forlorn. In reality, the politician simply blames Republicans and carries on with no change in policy while riding out the rest of his term planning his next election campaign. Michael Scott learned something in that episode; unfortunately for the public, politicians are incapable of increasing brain capacity. But how can we expect them to when we continually believe their incredulous proposals? The ever-optimistic masses, it appears, will always vote themselves into the arrangement appears the most profitable — while conveniently voting themselves out of democracy.