Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why Big Bird Matters

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the first presidential debate occurred when Mitt Romney announced that he'd fire Big Bird. Social media (and to a lesser extent political cartoonists) went nuts with it. My favorite facebook meme is this one:

Many other good memes are found here.

But other than being a source of amusement, is Romney's targeting of the big yellow symbol of kindness and children's educational programming of any real significance? Romney dismisses all of it as a distraction from the issues that really matter: “These are tough times with real serious issues, so you have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird.” Is Romney right to treat this as a trivial issue? Or does Big Bird matter?

Of course, Big Bird is a symbol of something. What's at issue is whether the things that Big Bird stands for should be put on the chopping block, and what it means for a presidential candidate to promise to do just that.

During the debate, the attack on our yellow friend came as Romney was being pressed to explain how he'd balance the budget in the face of his enormous across-the-board tax cuts and military spending increases. The problem, as Obama pointed out, was this: Romney's stated strategy for covering the tax cuts and spending increases has been to eliminate exemptions and deductions; but this strategy would only close the gap if middle class deductions and exemptions were axed to the point of effectively raising their taxes by thousands of dollars. So how else could Romney close this gap?

Romney mentioned two things: Repealing Obamacare and cutting the federal subsidy to public broadcasting. That is, he'd eliminate the program that ensures that my friends' daughter with juvenile diabetes can actually get medical coverage, and he'd fire Big Bird.

Since Obamacare is actually a cost-saving policy, Romney's first suggestion makes no sense at all. Only the latter suggestion would actually amount to a budget cut. But it’s an eyebrow-raising suggestion for the simple reason that the federal subsidy for public broadcasting is a miniscule part of the federal budget.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, "The CPB’s two-year, $445 million government grant makes up less than 1/100th of a percent of a Federal Budget worth upwards of $3.5 trillion." It’s like a family faced with mounting credit card debt declaring, “That’s it! No more visits from the tooth fairy!” Pocketing the quarters that might have gone under the pillow will surely be a deep disappointment to the child, but it won't do a lick of good to solve the family's financial troubles. Here's one political cartoonist's way of making the same point:

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times
(Source: David Horsey, LA Times)

But the problem goes deeper. It’s not just that federal support for public broadcasting amounts to pocket change. It’s that this support is a meaningful expression of public values. What are you saying when you announce to the nation that you’re firing Big Bird? What you’re saying is this: educational programming is not a national priority.

Let’s be clear about something. The children’s programming on PBS offers something that for-profit television simply isn’t interested in offering: genuine early learning opportunities. Some have called it "America's biggest classroom."

My kids watched Sesame Street, Super WHY, Between the Lions, the Electric Company, and other shows—and guess what? Watching these shows helped in their early education. Furthermore, these shows were a safe haven of sorts. Sometimes I'd be home alone in the morning and had to take my shower. 15 minutes in front of the TV could be a way to keep them safe and out of trouble--or it could be a source of trouble. I never knew what my kids would end up watching if they tuned into a show on commercial TV. Commercials would urge them to buy toys they didn't need, sparking a clamoring and whining for something I knew would sit there in the closet after the first day. Or they'd suddenly want sugary cereals that are terrible for human health. Sometimes they'd see images I'm not at all sure I want my children seeing.

On PBS Kids, they learned how to read.

PBS is part of our national commitment to education. It’s a cost-effective way to disseminate educational programming to the American population, programming that commercial and cable television has little interest in developing and disseminating for a simple reason: While these shows aspire to be both educational and entertaining, it’s only the “entertaining” element that’s profitable. Why strive to educate while you entertain, if the educational dimension doesn’t add to profitability?

In the debate, Romney tried to sell the idea that private enterprise always does it better than “big” government. But he’s simply wrong about this. Yes, private enterprise does many things better. But private enterprise is profit-driven. It cares about making money, not about promoting social values. If you want to focus on the latter even when it’s not profitable to do so, you can’t trust in the free market.

Had it not been for government support for public broadcasting, the educational children’s programs we see today would never have existed. And our society would have been poorer for it. This is not wasted money. It’s a very small amount of money by federal standards, and in terms of what you get in exchange for such a miniscule outlay of resources, it’s money well-spent.

Of course, some of this educational programming, while it got its start thanks to federal support, can and does now largely support itself. Sesame Street is like this, largely because of its now-iconic characters. Big Bird has been around long enough to resonate with symbolic meaning, with the innocence of childhood and the joys of discovery and the value of early education. Big Bird will survive what Romney does. The deeper problem is what happens when you commit to the idea that the government will no longer provide even token support for such symbolically weighty programming (and much-needed support for other programs that are bound up with those same symbols).

On this more profound symbolic level, government support for public broadcasting communicates and reinforces our collective commitment to educating and informing the public, both children and adults, about issues and ideas that matter—issues and ideas that it's good for people to know about even if devoting resources to this isn’t as profitable as renewing Honey Boo Boo for another season.

The philosopher Aristotle noted long ago that we become virtuous by doing virtuous acts. To become courageous, you behave courageously until it sinks into your character. To become caring and compassionate, you behave in these ways until they become a part of who you are.

This process of habituation works not only on the individual level, but on the collective level. You change the culture of a corporation by consistently engaging in practices that express the desired cultural values, especially practices that are visible and that resonate with symbolic weight.

You shape the character of government in similar ways. If you want a government that cares about the American people, you don’t achieve that by eliminating some of the most symbolically resonant government expressions of care. If you want a society that prioritized the healthy education of our children, you don't engage in financially-insignificant but symbolically-weighty cuts to children's educational programming.

You don't fire Big Bird.


  1. Way to finally outed yourself as a political blogger instead of a religious blogger. you'll be better served by admitting the truth to the people that read your blog looking fir spiritual truths.

    You can lie to yourself until time ends, but you're nothing but a political blogger with this post.

    I started following your blog from the Evangelical Universalist forum... I know now that they're just as deluded as you

    1. Hmm... I'm really not sure what this comment is supposed to mean. It didn't occur to me there was something to "out" myself about. Yes: Some of my posts are on current events, including ones that touch on current politics. That's been true all along. In the lead-up to the election, it's probably more true since it's more on my mind.

      My aim in this blog is to try to offer some helpful thinking and reasoning about a range of issues relating to values and religion. Politics is part of that. But I'm afraid that those interested mainly in political blogging would be bored to tears by a whole lot--probably most--of what they find here.

    2. I should add that being compared to those over at the Evangelical Universalist forum, with respect to degree of delusion, strikes me as quite the compliment. And it reminds me that I have been very remiss in writing up the next installment in my discussion over there with Chris Tilling. Better get to that...

  2. Great post, looks like you touched a nerve... This is pretty tame when it comes to politics though. Seems pretty reasonable and sensible to me, which means that it probably doesn't belong in our current political climate...