Voter insight from Big Bird
Perhaps you heard the Big Bird silliness in the aftermath of the first presidential debate a few weeks ago.
In that debate, Romney said to moderator Jim Lehrer, who for many years hosted the PBS News Hour, “’I’m sorry, Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I like PBS. I love Big Bird! I actually like you too, but I’m going to stop borrowing money from China to pay for things we don’t need.”
Romney was referring to the $450 million federal subsidy you and I will pay to PBS this year.
While the nation drowns in debt and a stagnant jobs market, at a rally the next day our president ridiculed Romney’s fiscal restraint with laugh-lines like, “Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird. It’s about time,” and, “We didn’t know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit, but that’s what we heard last night.”
By the next day, the Obama campaign was running a TV ad about Big Bird as Romney’s arch-enemy of capitalism, mocking Romney as identifying Sesame Street, not Wall Street, as America’s problem. Clever but dishonest.
The feathers flew as pundits across the spectrum opined this Obama ad was “small ball” and “not presidential” while larger national issues went unmentioned. The Obama campaign was rescued when Sesame Street demanded their Big Bird character be immediately removed from political ads.
Big Bird should not, of course, be politicized. Years ago I purchased the Sesame Street program, “Big Bird in China,” for my girls adopted from China. In the opening scene Big Bird wanders the streets of Beijing asking repeatedly, “Does anyone speak American?” Finally, a Chinese girl answers, “I speak English!”
Big Bird looked momentarily puzzled, then declares, “Close enough!”
This endearing character and his cohorts has captured the imagination of generations of kids. Who doesn’t like Big Bird? Who wouldn’t want the Sesame Street program to continue for the next generation of kids?
But when it comes to federal funds, those are the wrong questions. Somewhere long ago we lost our common sense. Politicians have long been selling the public on federal funding for something merely because it is a good thing.
If you didn’t sleep through middle school civics class, if you still use your head in making voting decisions instead of reacting only with your heart, then you know that our politicians have the discipline of a blind dog in a meathouse when it comes to federal funding.
Here’s the rest of what Romney didn’t have time to say in the debate. Before the federal government provides funding, three tests should all require a YES answer, else the funding should be rejected:
1. Is it a good and necessary thing to do?
2. Is it something individuals cannot do for themselves, or that commercial enterprise cannot provide?
3. Do we have the money?
Big Bird, Sesame Street, PBS with Jim Lehrer’s News Hour and National Public Radio (NPR) are all part of the $450 million subsidy. Do these programs meet an excellence standard that merit special consideration?
I would argue they do, even though many of my fellow conservatives correctly object to the leftward lean toward Democrats often in evidence on NPR programming: publicly-funded programs should always be politically neutral.
What about the second step? Can’t programming like this be satisfied by commercial interests? Well, part of that question could be answered by a quick scan of 2011 financial statements. NPR alone has assets of $660 million, and the federal subsidy amounts to just 4.5 percent of NPR annual revenue. Whether you like NPR or not, If that prompts your question, “Why should taxpayers pay any subsidy at all?” then you and I think alike.
But there is more to the second question. When Sesame Street began in 1969, there were just a few broadcast network channels and one public channel. With limited choices for quality programming for kids, there was a good early education argument for public funding for Sesame Street, but that doesn’t mean unlimited funding forever, for Pete’s sake!
I don’t know how many TV programs there are now for kids, but I feel safe in saying hundreds, and many of them are very well done. I realize the closest thing to eternal life on earth is a government program, or in this case a subsidy, but seems to me it is time to cut the PBS apron strings just as Romney said.
PBS fails on the second test. Accordingly, there should be no federal subsidy.
But let’s look at the third test anyway, because even if PBS is a good thing, and even if commercial enterprise could not fill the need, WE DON’T HAVE THE MONEY! So PBS funding should fail no matter how good the program may be, or how badly it needs government help, at least until we are once again solvent.
Of course, our elected windbags in Washington are not even slowed down, never mind stopped, by not having the money. They just spend anyway and borrow to pay for it. Therein lies our national failure.
I wonder how many of you recognize that our deficit spending habit is a betrayal of our children?
We now have annual deficits of $1.1 trillion and growing as far as the eye can see, and an accumulation of over $16 trillion of debt. We plan to pay off the debt in ... well, there is no plan.
And the interest we pay to China and other lenders amounts to $360 billion in 2012. That was billions with a “B,” a very long train full of cash we could have used for other things. And the interest payments continue to grow.
Most of us consider our children to be our highest priority, but reflect on what we are doing to them. We can’t pay for our own national gluttonous consumption, so we are pushing that burden to our children, as if they will be able to fully pay for their own consumption PLUS pay for you and me since we were unable to control ourselves.
That’s what your vote means. You can vote for the Candy Man who promises government benefits to you and laughs at the ridiculous notion of cutting back, or you can vote for the adult who tells you to eat your vegetables and says, “We don’t have the money!” Your choice will affect your children’s future.
Eliminating the $450 million PBS subsidy won’t solve our fiscal crisis. But the faithful application of that simple three-way test on all large and small spending, including entitlements and defense, will.
Let me end this with a confession. While it is true NPR leans left in general politically, their daily Morning Edition is a quality news program, with one or more subjects treated with more depth than you can find anywhere on radio and most TV channels. Even when they lean uncomfortably left now and then, I like to hear views from both sides to avoid mental inbreeding.
So, every weekday when I drop off my daughter to The Bedford School in Fairburn, I tune in 90.1 to the NPR subject of the day for my drive home.
But however much I like PBS and NPR, they do not meet the test for public funding. Even if they qualified, we’re broke.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]