Big Bird and Balanced Budgets

America's budget disaster writ small.

The first debate between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney gave us a little-noted explanation of why it's so hard to balance the Federal budget.  The answer came in an article in USA Today in an article "A small price to pay for public TV."

It was written by Ken Burns, a film maker who meant to attack Mr.Romney for threatening his personal gravy train.  He didn't intend his article as an explanation of why it's so hard to cut spending, but that's what he accomplished.  The article said, "Romney's assault on PBS during the debate illustrates that he knows the cost of things but not their value."

Mr. Burns makes films for PBS.  Since he lives off the PBS budget, it's easy to understand why he might not want the PBS budget cut.

The Death of a Thousand Cuts

The article explained how PBS is funded:

For every dollar in federal funding, they [PBS-member stations] raise an additional $6 on their own, including contributions from millions of people who voluntarily support their community-based work.  It's such a tiny, tiny part of the federal budget, approximately 1/100 of 1%, that you have to question, why pick on that?

The USA Today web site quoted Mr. Romney:

I am going to stop the subsidy to PBS ... I like PBS. I love Big Bird ... But I am not going to keep on spending money on things — to borrow money from China to pay for it.

First of all, no matter what fans of big spending say, Big Bird isn't going off the air no matter what happens to PBS.  They've been filming Big Bird for more than 30 years.  With 30 years of episodes in the archives, we could show Big Bird 24/7 for months without spending a dime shooting new episodes.

Second, the Sesame Workshop, the private company that owns Big Bird, isn't going away.  The USA Today site had a fictional interview with Big Bird which discussed his employer:

The Examiner [the source of the fictional interview] reports that Sesame Workshop has assets worth nearly $290 million. Your CEO earns nearly $1 million a year. Your company and PBS are now working with commercial entities to produce programming for Sprout, a 24-hour commercial channel for children.

Sesame Workshop is worth $290 million, it pays its CEO $1 million per year, and it's expanding into commercial areas.  Ending the PBS subsidy won't kill Big Bird no matter what USA Today says.  Ending the PBS subsidy won't even end PBS - the subsidy accounts for only one dollar out of every 7 dollars their stations spend.

Federal money isn't essential either to Big Bird or to PBS, but to hear the commentariat criticize Mr. Romney, you'd think he'd proposed putting up billboards on the White House lawn.

They're All Like That

We see the same sort of lies from the people who live off programs which are supposed to fight poverty.  The New York Times reports

Each year, American taxpayers spend nearly $1 trillion trying to help the poor, according to a recent study by the Cato Institute. It's easy to miss that headline number, though, because the money flows into and out of scores of federal, state and local government programs. In April, Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at Cato, a libertarian research group, compiled a list of 126 federal programs for low-income Americans, which together spend $668 billion of taxpayer money annually. State and local governments allocate an additional $284 billion, he estimated.

We have at least 126 federal programs which should be fighting poverty plus so many state programs we can't count 'em.  Whenever anyone proposes cutting any one of them, liberals scream that the Republicans want to throw poor people under the bus.  You'd think that spending all that money would show positive results, but the Times says:

Divide $1 trillion by 46 million and you get around $21,700 for each American in poverty, or nearly $87,000 for a family of four. That’s almost four times the $23,050 per year federal poverty line for that family. It’s intriguing to think about converting all of this to a cash payment that would instantly lift everyone in poverty up to the middle class.

We're spending four times as much money fighting poverty as would be needed to give all the "poor" people enough to lift them out of poverty.  Instead of helping the poor, the extra money supports armies of bureaucrats, lobbyists, and well-connected suppliers.  In spite of all this, the media report that we have more poor people than ever.  Why aren't our programs more effective?

Another factor is the natural reluctance of advocates, Congressional staffers, think tanks and providers of services for the poor to see their favorite programs cut or consolidated. Few are willing to give up authority over their piece of the program pie.

Just like the people who benefit from our spending on PBS, none of the people who benefit from spending which should help the poor are willing to give up their piece of the federal pie.

We agree with Mr. Romney.  He asked, "If we weren't doing it, would we borrow from the Chinese to start doing it?"  If the answer would be "No," we should stop doing it.

How did we get 10 trillion in debt?  One trillion at a time.  How did we get one trillion in debt?  One billion at a time.  PBS gets a half-billion per year.  If we weren't doing it, we certainly wouldn't borrow a half-billion per year from the Chinese to spend on Big Bird.

Mr. Romney is right - it's time to cut.  If we can't cut anything as small as public support to Big Bird, whose owner gets paid nearly a million per year, we can't cut anything at all.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Politics.
Reader Comments

As a consumer of Sesame Street toys/clothes/dvd's, I know the brand can survive without public funding. Funny that as a taxpayer we don't get a discount on purchasing those goods...

November 6, 2012 3:31 PM

Akin S, No you don't get a discount but you do get to buy Big Bird with after tax dollars and then to add insult to injury you get hit with a sales tax for the local moochers.

November 6, 2012 7:20 PM

No problem with the stipend provided they withhold all payroll taxes (federal, state, SS, medicare etc.). It's one thing to collect freebies but quite another to pay for them.

November 22, 2018 10:08 PM

IF anyone and I mean ANYONE actually wanted to shrink the huge welfare state of Government it would happen. Now is the time, we're importing workers well, in theory we have a huge supply we're currently paying for so let's transfer them to the private sector, but odds are they aren't qualified. If that is the case then what the hell are we paying unqualified people for?

January 27, 2019 1:13 PM

Agreed, Sesame Street is profitable and can support it's own, but so are oil corporations, and they get in upwards of 15 billion from the US Government per year, which is more the the 500 million Sesame Street gets, for those weak on math. The US Government also spends over a trillion a year on the military, that includes using 100 thousand dollar missiles when a couple 30 cent bullets could have been used. To think what terrorists can accomplish with a couple box cutters from a dollar store and what it takes the US to spend to accomplish the same thing; the US is going to loose just because it will run out of money.

Here is more waste:

October 22, 2019 6:48 AM
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