Of Muppets and Men

Eric Davis

Every week, NPRI President Andy Matthews writes a column for NPRI’s week-in-review email. If you are not getting our emails, which contain our latest commentaries and news stories, you can sign up here to receive them. Just enter your email in the box on the top right.

For today’s week-in-review email, Andy dives into the debate over government subsidies for PBS.

Of Muppets and Men

Reagan-Carter gave us “There you go again.” Bentsen-Quayle produced “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”

And now, we have another presidential-election debate quip to enshrine for all posterity:

“I like Big Bird.”

When Mitt Romney offered this line last Wednesday night during his debate with Barack Obama, it hardly seemed likely to dominate the post-debate discussion. Yet here we are.

The line – which prefaced Romney’s pledge to eliminate federal subsidies for the Public Broadcasting Service, which airs Big Bird and the other stars of “Sesame Street” – has caused quite a ruckus on the Left. It even inspired an Obama campaign ad mocking Romney for exposing, at long last, the avian antagonist behind America’s economic collapse. In 2008, then-candidate Obama bemoaned the onset of “Silly Season” in political campaigns. Indeed.

But there’s a serious discussion to be had here. Should taxpayers be forced to fund PBS? No.

I grew up watching Big Bird, Bert and Ernie and the rest of the Sesame Street gang, and I even had a stuffed Grover as a kid. Alas, these days, as an adult without children of my own, I have little occasion to give the show much thought. But my recollections of it are fond, and so you can count me among those who, along with Romney, “like Big Bird.”

So what’s the problem with using taxpayer dollars to fund PBS? The problem is that, whatever the merits of “Sesame Street,” “Charlie Rose” and the network’s other programs, government doesn’t belong in the broadcasting business. I enjoy watching “SportsCenter” on ESPN. That doesn’t give me the right to force taxpayers to subsidize my tastes.

But in the minds of liberals and progressives, anything they deem “good” – solar plants, light rail, Elmo – must be showered with public subsidies. The decision on whether to support a product, however, should be made not by government bureaucrats, but by individuals exercising their own will and spending their own money. Taxpayer subsidies to PBS violate this core principle, and should be stopped.

Some will concede the principle, but complain that it doesn’t matter, because the $450 million-a-year subsidy PBS receives is but a drop in the bucket compared to our annual deficit. True enough. But while the dollar figure may be relatively trivial, the argument isn’t.

That’s because if we’re ever going to get serious about addressing out-of-control government spending, we must be able to at least start with the trivial. If we can’t handle the small stuff, we’ll never be able to do the big stuff. As Mark Steyn put it in a recent column for National Review Online: “If Americans can’t muster the will to make Big Bird leave the government nest, they certainly will never reform Medicare.”

This whole kerfuffle provides an illuminating window into the mindset of the statist Left. A question I’d like to see asked of President Obama, or some other member of the newly hatched “Save Big Bird” movement, is: Why do you equate the desubsidization of PBS with the elimination of the network and its programs altogether?

Think about it. PBS receives only 15 percent of its funding from taxpayers, the rest coming through philanthropic and other voluntary means. This suggests there is significant consumer demand for what the network offers and a large number of people already willing to fund PBS on their own. Do liberals really assume that the network would not survive without its subsidy? Would no amount of belt-tightening, strategic rethinking or appeals for charitable support be enough to make up that 15 percent and make Big Bird and his friends self-sufficient?

And even if PBS and “Sesame Street” were to go under, wouldn’t the ensuing void in the children’s-television market be filled by somebody else more capable of meeting consumer demand? Would kids everywhere really be forever deprived of entertaining-yet-educational programming?

The answers to these questions are obvious. But in the Leftist worldview, if government doesn’t do it, then it simply won’t get done – despite centuries of evidence to the contrary.

If cutting off PBS from the public trough would indeed presage the network’s doom, then doom is precisely what it should face. But if its programming really is as important and popular as we’re told it is – if it truly does offer something of irreplaceable value to society – then PBS will do just fine on its own.

Either way, it’s time for Big Bird to heed the words of Patrick Henry: Give me liberty, or give me death!

Take care, and I’ll see you next time.

Andy Matthews
NPRI President

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