How much does Big Bird cost?
During the first presidential debate (I’m only one debate behind – awesome!) Governor Romney mentioned that while he did love Big Bird, if he were elected president, he would stop the subsidy to PBS. This comment has inspired me to do two very scary things: 1) look up details on government spending and 2) math.
In case you missed Romney’s quote from the debate, here it is, in all of it’s out of context glory:
“I’m sorry Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I like PBS, I actually love Big Bird. I like you too, but I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”
Not that such a comment really needs context – it’s clear. No federal money for PBS. But this got me thinking…how much does the federal government spend each year? And how much of that is spent on PBS? First, I accessed my long term memory and, much to my surprise, I correctly remembered that I had written a post along these lines last May, and I pulled up the data from there. (Wow… this site features posts that include useful information? That is CRAZY!) In 2011, the federal government spent $3.598 billion dollars. That is hardcore. Let’s assume that 2012 is about the same – and in 2012, the federal government gave an appropriation of $445 million dollars to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (that includes PBS, NPR, grants for local radio stations… stuff like that), which sounds like a lot of money. Here’s the budget pie chart:
CPB isn’t on there, so let’s just list everything in order:
Medicare & Medicaid: 23%
Social Security: 20%
Defense Department: 17%
Other Mandatory: 13%
Net Interest: 6%
I’m fairly certain that CPB falls under Discretionary Spending because this is what they call it when Congress spends money via an appropriations bill, so, that means that about 0.01206% of the entire 18% spent on Discretionary Spending is spent on CPB. Anyway, CPB gives some of the money that Congress gave CPB to PBS, and PBS gives some of that money to the Sesame Workshop (Sesame Street used to be under Children’s Television Workshop – so no, older folks like me – you’re not going crazy, the name did change), and they buy giant yellow feathers that some folks attach to a suit that some other dude puts on as Big Bird.
For the record, I never really cared for Sesame Street and frankly, Big Bird doesn’t do it for me.
You ever see that flick where Big Bird is wandering around like an asshole? That movie if boring as hell. 90% of critics liked it over at Rotten Tomatoes, but only 60% of viewers enjoyed it, so I guess I’m not alone in my distaste for Big Bird. I’m a muppets man. The Muppet Show and Muppet Babies was the shit. The shit. I watched the hell out of both of those shows.
But… a lot of people like Big Bird and learned a ton of stuff from watching Sesame Street. And I love public radio, so I can’t cast stones at Big Bird fans – especially after listening to an episode of Car Talk. So what I’m coming to is how important the programming is that CPB makes possible in a world where cable news is just pundits and local news is just murder and feel good stories. While I think that $445 million dollars is a lot of money, that money supports 900 local public radio stations and more than 350 local public television stations – that’s at least 1250 different public media outlets that 1)may not exist without CPB funding and 2)are not obligated to be profitable. That’s a really important point in today’s media market. Look at what’s on during Prime Time:
It’s almost all pundits, and none of the programming is what I would call news – someone simply reporting a story, relating events… you know, facts. None of these pundits are not necessarily under an obligation to communicate the truth – their obligation is to their boss, who wants high ratings, and the boss’s obligation is to the shareholders, who expect the company to be profitable. Hence, you get a show that is supposed to be entertaining, but not necessarily focused on conveying facts.
If you’ve watched or listened to at least as much public broadcasting as I have, you know that’s not the case on CPB shows. These folks are good old fashioned journalists who report stories and conduct interviews. It’s essentially the only place left to get news, and the idea that we don’t need it anymore is laughable. The private sector has completely and totally failed us when it comes to delivering the news, but then, privately held corporations are supposed to make money and not necessarily serve the common good.
Now we know how much CPB costs us each year and I’ve talked a bit about why I think it’s worth it. Given that I’ve also talked about the federal budget as a whole, I’d like to look at some other federal spending I don’t agree with:
Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, has stated the total costs of the Iraq War on the US economy will be three trillion dollars in a moderate scenario, and possibly more in the most recent published study, published in March 2008. Stiglitz has stated: “The figure we arrive at is more than $3 trillion. Our calculations are based on conservative assumptions…Needless to say, this number represents the cost only to the United States. It does not reflect the enormous cost to the rest of the world, or to Iraq.”
That number Mr. Stiglitz is throwing around is $3 trillion, not billion or million. TRILLION. The point I’m trying to make is I don’t remember anyone worrying about how much Iraq was going to cost (or ever providing any evidence that Iraq planned on attacking the United States or it’s allies or that it had the means to do so via intercontinental ballistic missiles, but whatever), they just went ahead and did it. I guess they considered it money well spent (whether they thought it would bring increased security, oil or what have you)… or didn’t want to look like they were soft on terror, even though Iraq apparently had nothing to do with anything… You might say there is no comparison between deciding to spend a bunch of money on a war with Iraq or deciding to spend a bunch of money on corporate broadcasting, but I disagree – it’s all federal spending. It’s all about weighing pros and cons, a cost/benefit analysis, if you will. I would argue that the cost of Iraq was not worth the benefit, but with CPB, I believe it is.
I’ve gone on for a while now, and there are a lot of different thoughts and bits here. So, I’ll just leave you with the question I asked myself, and my own answer. Is $445 million dollars is a lot of money? Absolutely. But it’s money well spent. Spending money on something that is worthwhile is what government is for in the first place.