Why Big Bird Matters
After Romney’s remarks about eliminating federal support for PBS (despite liking Big Bird), the Obama campaign responded with an attack ad cashing in on America’s love of the giant yellow fellow.
Given that the Obama campaign has made this into a political issue, it is tempting to regard this matter as being mere politics without any substance behind it. However, I will endeavor to show why Big Bird matters. Or, to be more specific, why the issues raised by Romney are actually important.
Romney does present a reasonable general principle and one that I agree with: before we spend public money (perhaps by borrowing more from China) we should consider whether the spending is worthwhile or not. I try to follow a personal version of this principle when it comes to my own spending and it has served me well. As such, my dispute with Romney is not over this principle. Rather, my dispute is in regards to his claims about PBS.
Given Romney’s claims, he intends to cut federal support for PBS. His professed reason is that doing so will help reduce the deficit. While he does seem to indicate that he values PBS or at least likes it, he presumably does not think that PBS is worth the expenditure of public money.
When it comes to cutting spending to address a deficit, it is obviously irrational to simply cut without considering the value of what is cut relative to the impact of the cut. As such, the cutting of PBS should be properly assessed.
One rather important fact is that PBS received $420 million in 2011 and this is .00012% of the federal budget. As such, cutting PBS support would have a minuscule positive effect on the deficit, even assuming that the cut had no negative impact (such as job loss leading to loss of tax revenue). As such, it seems rather odd that Romney would present cutting PBS as his example of how he will reduce the deficit. An obvious reply is that every bit counts (although Lou Dobbs attacked Obama for going after oil subsidies on the grounds that the percentage was very low). As such, eliminating PBS would (if all other things remained the same) reduce federal spending by .00012%. Romney would just need to cut a great deal more in order to have a meaningful impact and this raises the obvious question: what else would Romney cut?
It is also important to consider the value of what is being cut and the impact such a cut would have. To use an analogy, while I could save money by eliminating my food budget, the result would be rather negative (death by starvation). In the case of PBS, what must be considered is the value of the federal support.
Interestingly, while the for-profit schools that Mitt Romney praises get 86% of their income from federal money, about 15% of PBS’ budget comes from federal funding, although the percentage varies from station to station. Rural stations, for example, get 40-60% of their funding from federal sources. This means that most of the funding comes from other sources, such as from corporations and individual donors. If Romney wants to cut the deficit by going after those who get subsidies from the state, he would need to expand his concern beyond PBS and assert that he will hold the for-profit colleges more accountable, cut subsidies for the oil industry, and even remove the tax exemption for religious institutions. The fact that Romney has gone after PBS would thus seem to indicate his values.
Returning to the matter of value, PBS certainly seems to give an excellent return on the investment. After all, Sesame Street alone has been very successful as a company (it is a job creator) and also provides education services at a very low cost to millions of Americans. Like most Americans, Sesame Street and other PBS kids shows were an important part of my education. As I grew older, shows like Nova also taught me a great deal. Naturally, I also enjoyed Dr. Who and Monty Python. In terms of its education value alone, PBS certainly seems well worth the $430 million that the federal government provides.
It has been suggested that PBS should change its model and sell advertising in order to replace the $430 million that would be lost. Given the popularity of PBS, the stations in cities would probably be able to make up for the loss of federal funds. However, rural stations would probably have a considerably harder time, thus creating the possibility that these stations would go dark, which would certainly be detrimental to the people living in those areas.
There is, of course, the concern of the impact of going commercial. After all, what makes PBS unique is that it does not operate as a for-profit station and this has a significant impact on its programming and operations. For example, Sesame Street is not interrupted every few minutes with ads selling junk food and toys. In general, this impact seems to be a positive one and PBS does provide a valuable alternative to the multitude of for-profit stations. As such, I would certainly favor keeping federal support for PBS in place-it is generally money well spent.
Perhaps the most compelling reason in favor of keeping the funding of PBS intact is the fate of The Learning Channel. It began life in 1972 as an actual learning channel supported by NASA and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. It was privatized in 1980. In 2012 it began running Honey Boo Boo. I think that all sane, rational beings can agree that PBS should be protected from BooBooization.
It is, of course, worth noting that the Muppets and Sesame Street have been accused of having an anti-conservative bias. Sesame Street, for example, was attacked for its intentional use of gender neutral language. This suggests that Big Bird might have been singled out for his alleged left leaning show. Jon Stewart, not surprisingly, presented a humorous response to the accusation of left wing bias on Sesame Street.
When watching the Daily Show segment, I was struck by the fact that the lessons that we are supposed to teach children about being good people (such as sharing, not using violence against others, and caring about people) tend to be vilified by certain conservatives when they are presented as how adults should behave towards one another. There is certainly an interesting disconnect between the values we are supposed to follow on the playground and the values presented by certain conservatives, especially those of the sort Ayn Rand argues for.
It might, of course, be said that there is a time to put away childish things. But is sharing, for example, a childish thing that we should set aside as we get older? As such, the matter of PBS would seem to matter in regards to the values of America. After all, there would presumably be no Sesame Street in the utopia of the ethical egoist.
In any case, I am fine with having my tax dollars go to PBS. Long live Big Bird!