The New Symbol for America’s Economic Decline

It really is the “silly season” of politics, friends, and now Barack Obama and his Democrat supporters are trying to save Big Bird.  Or to put it more correctly, they’re trying to use Big Bird to save the Obama campaign.  At the presidential debate on Wednesday evening, Mitt Romney actually threatened to make PBS pay for itself.

At PBS, the chicken coup where the big yellow fowl hangs out, they weren’t pleased.  The CEO immediately went on the defensive.  I’m not sure exactly what sex Big Bird is, but clearly for the CEO this bird is laying eggs made of gold.  She receives well over $600,000 per year as salary.  Now I’m stunned.

Speaking directly to the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer (an employee of PBS), Romney said, “I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to—I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”

Why is it so egregious to suggest that PBS fund itself like all other television networks?  According to New York Times columnnist Charles Blow, it’s because Mitt Romney hates poor people.  Addressing Romney for his remark, Blow asks, “do you know anything about looking out for the less fortunate … or  do you think they’re all grouches scrounging around in trash cans?”  Mr. Blow really is blowing something our way.  It seems to be political smoke.  It can be used to provide cover for President Obama.

Over at PBS, Paula Kerger (the well-paid CEO) said it’s “stunning” that Romney would single out PBS in his remarks.  Her comment, and those of others who find Romney’s “attack” to be appalling are being covered widely in the press.  There’s talk of a million-muppet march and a revolt by moms everywhere who don’t have time to entertain their kids.  There’s even a photograph making the rounds in which the poor bird is standing in line with 1930s-era unemployed waiting for a handout.

For just a moment, America, can we put our feelings aside and use our brains?  Isn’t there more to making funding decisions than just the fact that some things make us feel warm and fuzzy inside?  I adore Big Bird, too.  I adore all the Muppets.  I think children should have the help they need to grow and develop solid skills for success.  How could I not?  I’m an educator!

It is not my intention to challenge the usefulness of educational programming.  What I do challenge–in the most energetic of ways–is the assumption that children won’t get those skills unless the federal government pays for their dissemination on PBS.  Quite literally, there are many sources for gaining knowledge and skills.  Those sources include twelve years or more of free schooling and thousands of free libraries all over the nation.  And let’s not forget that in 1990 the US Congress enacted the Children’s Television Act (CTA), mandating every TV broadcast station in the country to provide three hours of educational programming per week.  In addition, that programming must have a minimal amount of advertising and must be aired during particular times of day when children are watching.

How many education channels do we need before someone realizes that government funds aren’t necessary for people to learn?  We have the History Channel, History Channel 2, Discovery, National Geographic, Science Channel, Disney Channel, Animal Planet, Food Network, Biography, the Military Channel and more.  We even have music channels aimed at teaching and entertaining children such as Kidz Only and Toddler Tunes.  These channels are 100% educational all the time.  As Rasmussen pointed out earlier this year, 63% of the nation’s poor homes have cable television, meaning that a wide array of these educational resources is available to most of the poor.

Should PBS be saved?  Sure, that sounds fine.  But let PBS find its funding the same way that every other broadcast network finds their funding:  by advertising.  No more “games.”  Public broadcast stations actually already have advertising, but it comes across as plugs for their donors and the foundations that support its programming.  If you look closely at those foundations, they most often have policies and directives that lean left.  There’s nothing wrong with that at all.  But don’t shovel a load in my direction while trying to sell me the idea that there is no bias at PBS.

And let’s also not suppose that the well-paid CEO at PBS is acting from motives of benevolence or altruism.  She receives a large salary and she would like to keep receiving it, preferably at taxpayer expense.  I can’t really blame her for wanting to be paid well.  Don’t we all want that?  The difference is that most of us aren’t expecting our neighbors to come up with our salary by way of force through taxation.

To my mind, the argument that PBS must be publicly funded has about the same validity as the weak argument that tax dollars must be used to provide cell phones to the poor.  This is one more feel-good project that is being abused on a massive scale.  Should people have easy access to a phone, especially in the case of an emergency?  Of course.  That’s what pay phones are for.  They are cheap and they can be found almost everywhere (though their number has declined due to the proliferation of cell phones).  In addition, calls to 911 can be placed without cost.

I’m a constitutionalist.  I believe we need to return to the original understanding of our nation’s Founders regarding the prerogatives, powers, and expense of the federal government.  Those prerogatives, powers, and expenses should be limited.  I’m also a Christian and a theologian.  I do not advocate abandoning those who are truly poor and truly unable to help themselves.  But just because an idea sounds charitable and makes us feel more virtuous about ourselves doesn’t mean that we are obligated to put that idea into practice.

In the end, politicians speak about their care for the poor but in reality they’re buying votes with the political giveaways that are paid for on the backs of others.  It’s unjust.  It’s unfair.  It’s excessive.  And more than ever, it badly needs to be reformed.

Thanks to the Obama campaign and its emotion-driven, giveaway agenda, Big Bird has become the latest symbol of national decline.  The debate isn’t about whether we’ll care for the poor or not.  Our choice isn’t between rugged individualism or community concern.  It’s not between capitalism or working together, as Obama is trying to convince us.  Capitalism and free markets are one of humanity’s most perfect examples of what it means to work together.  I have economic needs.  You have economic goods to sell.  I have talents that are marketable and you have need of my skills.

See how it works?

The longer we wait for government the poorer we become.  The more government spends, the weaker our economy gets.  The costs of excessive government beneficence outweigh the benefits.

Big Bird, we love you.  We love you so much that we’re setting you free to find your own funding.  ABC, CBS, Fox, and all the others have made it work for them.  So please take your pretty yellow hand out of my pocket and get to work.


16 thoughts on “The New Symbol for America’s Economic Decline

  1. Great Commentary. I just hope it gets to obama supporters who like him because of the handouts he promotes. When he said in his 2007 campaigning days,”I will fundamentally change the United States of America” I don’t know why those in the news media didn’t make him spell out the changes as they are doing to Romney now. Those of us who were listening intently read between the lines and knew what was coming, TAX THE HARD WORKING CAPITALIST AND just GIVE IT TO THE LAZY.

    It would be interesting to know how many mothers who have children in Early Headstart DO NOT WORK and use this as a “child sitting program.” I AM NOT IN FAVOR OF HEADSTART. I think I understand the meaning of it just by the name of the program but it IS NOT NECESSARY. In my era one started kindergarten at age 5 and I estimate 98% kept up as required. Those who didn’t and failed, REPEATED the grade. Changing the system to what it is now and has been for too many years, has done NOTHING more than contributed to the
    skyrocketing cost of education to the states.

    Thanks for you great commentary,
    Maxine V. PRP

  2. When one looks at the after market of Sesame street toys and games and the billions in revenue they have generated over the years it really adds insult to injury in expecting a program to need tax dollars too. Having worked on film and tv series fund raising and budgeting, after market is a huge part of the planning. Advertising is many times second place in terms of revenue for a successful venture. The reality that I think you struck on is that PBS is a purely political activist organization charading as anything but. Some good thought and pieces you have written.

  3. How dare you call Mom’s who let their children watch Sesame Street lazy??? Are you a mom? Some moms do work then have to come home and cook dinner, wash clothes, clean the house, and take care of kids as well. Some moms have dead beat dads, or in my case a deceased Dad so they are doing it on their own! Not all people who get “government help”, or as you call it “handouts” are not lazy. Try raising 2 children on your own and paying for all the bills yourself! Sometimes help is needed. Sesame Street is a highly educational show for children to watch. Back in the 70’s if you grew up out in the middle of corn fields like I did there weren’t any preschools or head start programs. We learned from Sesame Street, Electric Company, AND our Mom! Not all people are educated and aren’t able to teach their children properly, therefore Headstart programs come in.
    The purpose of giving phones to poor people is so they have a way to contact people and call for HELP if they need to. Not everyone can afford a phone. Seriously, how many pay phones do you see these days??
    Big Bird has been on for 43 years as of November 10, 1969, and it took this long to make a scene about it??? Romney opened this door, not Obama. And by the way, I am sure the CEO is paying her fair share of taxes on her income : )

    • Dear American Mom,

      Thanks for your comments. I would ask you to re-read my post, however, I didn’t call anyone lazy, nor did I denigrate women or moms or anyone else. Perhaps my commentary hit a nerve and made it impossible for you to read it for what it is.

      I didn’t argue that government help isn’t necessary, either. In fact, I was quite specific in my insistence that the genuinely needy get assistance if they are unable to help themselves.

      Today isn’t the 1970s. I’m not against Big Bird, or Sesame Street, or poor people having phones. What I have done is to raise the vital question of who pays for these things. As for the lower numbers of pay phones these days, I agree, and mentioned that specifically in my post as well. It would be much cheaper to have phone companies install pay phones than to provide cell phones to thousands, many of whom are abusing them.

      I will agree with you. Romney opened this door. And that, my friend, delights me. I hope he’ll work to clamp down on lots and lots of such wasteful and unnecesary spending when he’s elected. And the PBS CEO better pay her taxes. The Obama administration has hired many new IRS agents who are looking for things to do. She needs to be looking for a new job, too, or at least someone else to fund it. There is nothing in the Constitution advocating the federal funding of broadcast organizations.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Welcome American mom! You do have valid points but the government has actually made things harder for you. Without government interference jobs would actually be more plentiful for the general population and prices would be lower. Cronyism is what you hate. Special privileges given to friends of high donors for political campaigns. Some people think there would be no charity without the government taking money from one person and giving to another, more well-deserving (as defined by the government) person. But our best charities in the United States are privately funded.

    I salute you for raising your children alone. I know that is hard. And letting them watch Sesame Street will certainly not damage them. I think PBS is great. I love the programs. But there are suitable private industry options. The same people could run PBS and likely make more money themselves and cost the tax payers nothing, without big government taking their cut. The government is very inefficient at spending our money – you’ve heard of $700 hammers ( They should only be spending our money when there are no other options.

  5. John, I agree. I am an artist, and I have been a teacher in both a Catholic school and public schools.I think the National endowment for the arts, and most of the Department of education should be cut.
    I would rather have clients buy my work then get a grant from the government to create something. On a recent trip to New York I was more impressed with the work in the galleries then I was with the work at the museums. Capitalism seems to be driving better work then the government. An emperors new clothes kind of world seems to exist. It is great because a group of people decided to spend government money on it. Would they spend any of their own money on it? I doubt it! I do support museums as both a member and a shopper.
    I think States need to have much more say in educating our children. And I agree that PBS could be done as well if not better as a public corporation. I am a fan of big bird and what he stands for, and I like PBS shows, I am willing to pay for it, or watch commercials.
    The more money we send to Washington the more corrupt it seems to get.
    I do want the basic needs of people met. I still think private charity works better for this. If you doubt the goodness of the American people, remember the out pouring of donations for Hatti, Katrina, (9/11) and other disasters. I am a big fan of America being able to come to the aid of other countries in time of disasters. I have no problem with my tax dollars doing what few others can get done.

  6. Hi John,
    Above all, i will say your piece was thought-provoking, though not entirely factual.
    I’d be careful claiming that these private “educational channels” are 100% educational, 100% of the time. I’m sure a lobbyist somewhere could make a convincing argument that “Cajun Pawn Stars” (History) educates to some degree, but it’s a stretch. A few more examples include “City Confidential”(Bio), “Biography: Danny Bonaduce: Tabloid’s Bad Boy” (Bio) and “Diner’s Drive in’s and Dives” (Food) as well as any show where Gordon Ramsay maliciously berates his underlings. I agree with you wholeheartedly that government spending has reached epic-ly wasteful proportions and public funding needs dramatic cuts. It seems that time has gone on, these subsidies have continued to inflate and need to return to levels consistent with with operational costs. (600k a year for a CEO is seriously bloated) I actually think if they could see a spreadsheet of budget and spending, most (bipartisan) politicians would be in favor of making cuts, but are too afraid to risk reversing the precendent and being labeled similarly to the way Mitt Romney is being labeled today. But should we cut them all together? That’s a pill I can’t quite swallow. Romney also seems oblivious to the hypocrisy of his cuts to spending while simultaneously touting a 2 trillion dollar defense budget increase. I haven’t yet read your Romney section and therefore draw no conclusion about your opinion on this matter, but find it relevant.
    Also, referencing again the shows mentioned above, it is no secret that what the market wants, the market gets. It’s easy to say that capitalism is a system with inherent checks and balances and natural market feedback, but then again, what about quality? What CEO is going to approve a new science show (similar to NOVA) in the same time slot as TLC is running “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”? Using old-school capitalism we see that if it doesn’t get the ratings, it gets cut. Simple natural selection, or rather profitable selection. If you need any proof of this, please check the local listings for any of the channels listed above and notice the revealing influx of (pardon my french) shit reality television that is being sold to our children. Today’s Discovery channel coverage begins with “Ted Nugent’s Gun Country”, and spends twelve hours teaching kids and adults alike the honorable art of suping up trucks in “Overhaulin'” and “Texas Car Wars”. Not because these shows are enriching or meaningful, but because that is what people want to see. The underlying problem here stems from a culture of “Give me what I want” that we as Americans have embraced so naturally.
    Maybe that is just the cost of doing business though right? PBS can run NOVA or Frontline, but it has to throw the public a few bones, maybe mud-wrestling rednecks or Ghost detectors: Philly followed by a short word from our sponsors selling flashy Chinese made toys and artery clogging fried chicken. Pessimistic? Yes. But possible? I dare say so.
    Maybe you’re of the opinion that there will always be a niche market looking for quality programming. Problem is they’ll be so marginalized by the demand for mind-numbing shows you’ll have to buy an extra cable package and stay up til 2 AM. And if you’re poor? Forget it, more Overhaulin’ for you.
    My point is that although it seems unfair that we have to pay Big Birds salary, at least we have a say in the government that pays him/her. I will vote for candidates in favor of slashing the wasteful budget in favor of operating like a true “public” channel. If that means we lose all the big name videographers or celebrities (Neil Tyson) so be it. Thankfully we have a whole slew of motivated unemployed visionaries who would jump at the chance to make something great. And thankfully we have a government willing to pay to create quality shows regardless of public demand. This isn’t to say that all PBS programs are excellent, but that’s another thing the public ostensibly has control of. The only control you have over the private channels is to change the channel or turn off the tube and hope the 50+% of Americans who propagate that BS programming by watching it have a serious lifestyle change.
    In closing, I think this whole argument has convinced a lot of American’s of the fatalism associated with paying the public doll. They take our money and spend it however they want. That is untrue. We as a nation can demand from our leaders the change we wish to see. You defend liberty as do I and our primary right is to choose the best man or woman to represent us. We tell them how to spend our money, not the other way around. I find this incredibly empowering and overtly advertise: Steven Colbert 2012!

  7. Good write up. I thought the overall point of “In the end, politicians speak about their care for the poor but in reality they’re buying votes with the political giveaways that are paid for on the backs of others” really hit home. Certainly both sides are capable of being guilty of this challenge, and disconnecting dollars spent and votes earned should be a priority. Subverting laws to bail out “friendly” companies, funding businesses that may provide kickback or support, or providing free cell phones to a class of people should stop.

    Would term limits help where elected officials could vote for more dramatic change knowing they do not have to align with party or system politics anymore in order to be re-elected? I’m not sure, but some changes need to happen.

    • Thanks for your comment, RobS. It’s good to have you as a reader of this blog. Your comment is well received and yes, I’m a proponent of term limits. It took me years to realize that regular elections are not sufficient. Our Founders never intended for elections to be permanent jobs.

      I favor their approach not because it’s theirs, but because it makes sense. Career politicians, unless they are made of uncommon and profound integrity, have more interest in their own good than the national good.

      I’d like to see a single term for president (4 years), one term for senator (6 years) and three for representative (also 6 years). I’d also like some very serious limits on what a former politician can do for or in a lobbying firm after leaving office.

  8. Hi John!
    I just stumbled onto your blog and really liked your commentary on the situation. This whole Big Bird fiasco is just ridiculous.
    I especially like this line “What I do challenge–in the most energetic of ways–is the assumption that children won’t get those skills unless the federal government pays for their dissemination on PBS.” So true!
    There was an interesting point raised in the comment section though about capitalism and losing quality TV. I know my kids just want to watch terrible TV and play video games. It’s so hard to get them off the couch these days. Why can’t they go play outside like we did as kids?
    Anyway, Keep up the good work!

    • Mary, thank you for your very supportive comments. Thanks for being a reader, too. I am delighted to know that you honor me by reading this commentary.

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