In the first presidential debate Mitt Romney admitted in passing that he might want to reduce federal funding for PBS and specifically mentioned considering doing so in spite of his own affection for certain PBS personalities. That set off the usual parade of accusations that Mitt and the GOP have their priorities out of whack.
Social media lit up with memes and in a sarcastic attack likely unprecedented for a presidential election, the Obama campaign responded with an ad mocking the Romney for putting Big Bird in the same league with infamous convicted white collar criminals, which prompted Sesame Street’s parent company Sesame Workshop to request removal of the ad.
Questions about necessary funding cuts should be open to reasonable debate but often they aren’t because of stereotypes of what’s good and what’s evil, what’s necessary and what isn’t, and how we should prioritize things.
Sesame Street has been one of the shining lights of television for decades and who can argue with educational programming for kids. At a time when television and pop culture largely consists of inappropriate role models from scantily glad teenage performers to vulgar rap to sexual themes in nearly everything that comes across the screen, the allure of Sesame Street as a show which is both wholesome and educational is hard to deny.
And the vast majority of programs on PBS could also be considered quality television, including for adults: Nova, Masterpiece Theater, Monty Python and the list of PBS alumni is impressive. Surely there is no one who would wish anything to jeopardize continuation of such programs.
There are those who say such funding should not be cut at all. The first real question of looking at where cuts need to be made is in prioritizing. Do we prioritize in terms of the amount of money being spent or based on what the money is being used for?
These are all legitimate questions when everything needs to be on the table. We don’t make intelligent decisions without evaluating all our options.
In terms of money spent, the argument always seems to be that we spend too much on defense. There is no question that unnecessary wars and nation building are large expenses that need to come to an end. From a pragmatic standpoint and a moral standpoint, this is not a good use of our tax dollars.
However, many people are surprised to learn we spend three times as much on social programs and entitlements as we do on our military. Unlike the military there are not large-scale specific missions to cut; however, with estimates of Medicaid fraud approaching $60 billion a year, if you extrapolate that number across other entitlements it’s clear we need reform in a number of government programs and social spending is by far the biggest capital outlay.
And if we’re talking about federal support for a company, why are we talking about PBS instead of corporate subsidies for big oil and beyond? Certainly you could point to any one industry, not to mention the sum of all of them, as a much bigger concern for where the players ought to be left to fend for themselves.
The reality is that there is questionable spending big and small and if you look at the cumulative effect, it is the mentality that needs to be scrutinized, not just the individual expenditures. People often frequently forget as well, as long as our debt is so high and we continue to borrow money, a growing portion of our budget will be interest on the debt, currently passing 6%, which was roughly $227 billion in 2011. That’s more than enough money to support Big Bird, Oscar and Elmo too.
In addition, Sesame Street alone is profitable enough to support all of PBS. SW CEO Gary Knell pulled in nearly a cool million in 2008 and and toy sales between 2003-2006 were over $21 million, an enviable haul.
Is the money a big deal either for PBS or the government? Kelly Phillips Erb writes in Forbes:
“For fiscal year 2010, federal funding for PBS through CPB accounted for about 12% of PBS’ revenue. In terms of dollars, that works out to about $300 million. There’s not much wiggle room to be had: the money that actually goes to CPB is split according to a mostly statutory formula. For 2015, Congress has budgeted $445 million for CPB. That’s less than 1% of the budget. Way less. It’s about 1/100th of a 1%.”
So it wouldn’t be an earth-shattering issue for PBS to lose the funding, yet it’s only a speck on the federal budget, so why take issue with it at all?
PBS was originally conceived to provide access to programming, especially in rural areas where broadcast reception of the major networks was spotty. With more recent innovations in satellite and cable, that issue has largely been resolved and even for those in poorer areas, distribution of broadcast TV has dramatically improved. Still, the cost/benefit ratio remains. What might the issue be?
For starters, there are shows that may not be as “neutral” as Sesame Street and in today’s climate, people are finding it more and more difficult to fund things they don’t believe in. PBS has been home to liberal talk show hosts Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley, as well as Bill Moyers, whose aggressive style of liberal commentary is well documented. Since the end William F. Buckley’s Firing Line in 1999, PBS has been known as a place for more liberal commentary, as has its counterpart on radio NPR. Still, that is a small part of the programming.
While it’s true stopping federal support for PBS isn’t likely to do much damage, the same is true for other industries and perhaps PBS isn’t the best place to start. But he real difference is when you consider the justifications for not interfering with funding for PBS is the mentality behind it.
Consider the recent stories regarding alleging that the GOP blocked the Veterans Jobs Bill. These allegations were false; the bill was never voted on. What Republicans blocked was suspension of the bipartisan Budget Control Act to fund it as opposed to making sure it passed while staying in compliance. Aside from the false headlines alleging blockage of the bill, Senator Tom Coburn was also widely criticized for referring to the bill as “crap.”
But that isn’t what Coburn said at all. In comments to the press referring to the process of passing bills with no regard to the mutually agreed upon fiscal restraint, Coburn said this:
“If in fact we’re going to start addressing the bigger economic problems in this country you’ve got to quit playing felonious accounting with what you’re doing, which is exactly what that bill did. It violated the Budget Control Act … it’s exactly the same kind of, pardon my word, crap that Congress has done for years that says one thing and does another. It was a gimmick; we knew it was a gimmick in terms of getting around the spending. It’s time for us to start acting responsible.”
In essence, Coburn summarized what he has stated at length on the Senate floor, an extraordinarily worthwhile inside look into the way Washington works. Coburn started with pointing out that Congress had made a habit of promising to do what’s necessary to get this country out of debt and instead, every time there is an opportunity to follow the rules they’ve set up for themselves, those very rules are waived.
Coburn stated that the “Pay As You Go” rules have been waived sixty-seven times in the last three years and in fact, he couldn’t remember the last time they hadn’t been waived. There is no way to get the budget or deficit under control under those circumstances.
The story of PBS is also reminiscent of John Stossel’s reflections on the EPA. Growing up in New York City, you couldn’t swim in the polluted rivers or even open your window because of the particulate matter in the air. The EPA along with local and state government came in and cleaned up, for which he is grateful. Unfortunately now the EPA spends large amounts of money for very small incremental gains. Much like the amount of chemicals needed when “shocking” a dirty swimming pool as opposed to what’s needed to maintain one that is already clean, the government doesn’t always shift into maintenance mode when conditions change.
There are of course, other considerations at PBS besides one television show. PBS and Sesame Street are not one and the same. While Sesame Street itself is unlikely to be significantly harmed by funding cuts, Sesame Workshop has other benevolent initiatives, as does the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In addition, not all PBS franchises would be immune—most PBS shows do not have merchandise sales to rely on. It could also be a problem for independent productions and smaller PBS stations in rural areas.
So the reality is, Big Bird is in no danger if federal subsidies were to end. Clearly, PBS in and of itself won’t make or break the federal budget and it shouldn’t be our focus when we have bigger fish to fry. In the context of how our government operates, however, the PBS debate is significant in that much of its operation is beyond it’s original purpose but more importantly, our leaders must stop circumventing the rules and giving anything deemed worthy a pass when we don’t have the money to pay for it.
PBS does not represent a large amount of gross dollars but it is a prime example of numerous other parts of the budget that should be fairly scrutinized. We are spending taxpayer dollars and borrowing a lot more just to pay for the things we absolutely MUST have and like it or not, PBS isn’t one of them. The real danger is likely twofold: first, in not recognizing the spending paradigm which continues to increase our deficit and second, the knee-jerk reactions to Mitt Romney’s comments which advocate either side of the issue without any degree of real analysis.