I love Big Bird. Like Mitt Romney, I agree that the government shouldnt be funding public broadcasting like NPR or PBS. But conservatives who want to rally around defunding PBS and NPR as exercises in fiscal restraint are bound to be sorely disappointed.
As the father of a 4-year-old son who thinks hes Curious George, a 2-year-old daughter who looks up to and imitates her brother, our family consumes public broadcasting at about the same pace as we consume diapers for our 4-month-old son. Curious George, Sid the Science Kid and Super Why! DVDs complement our collection starring Elmo, which includes the fuzzy red monster visiting the firehouse, learning about books and doing battle with the evil Huxley in The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland. My wife and I can probably quote them all verbatim.
Like almost everyone else raised in the 80s, I cant count to 12 without the aid of the Pointer Sisters. But as long as there are parents like us, there will be a market for what PBS has to offer. NPR and PBS provide a lot of value, particularly for people who like the kinds of things I like. But the case for subsidies is very, very thin. I have no doubt that what PBS and NPR currently provide would not be compromised if the federal government withdrew funding.
That said, fiscal conservatives are unwise to hitch their wagons to defunding PBS. As I have written in a couple of places, NPR and PBS are very small fish in an ocean of budgetary whales like agricultural subsidies and wars. All of the money spent on public broadcasting isnt even rounding error in the federal deficit. Yes, every little bit counts, and yes, theres room for focusing on small things out of principle, but anyone who thinks that the nations budgetary woes can be solved by cutting off Big Bird and Garrison Keillor are sorely mistaken.
The debate over funding for NPR and PBS illustrates a very important fact about electoral politics, as well. A CNN poll shows just how badly American voters understand how much of the federal budget goes to PBS. PBS funding only accounts for 0.014 percent of federal spending, but 7 percent of respondents to the 2011 CNN poll thought the Corporation for Public Broadcasting accounted for over half of government spending. Forty percent of respondents thought it accounted for 1 to 5 percent of the federal budget, 8 percent thought it accounted for 6 to 10 percent of the budget, 6 percent thought it accounted for 11 to 20 percent of the budget, 5 percent thought it was 21 to 30 percent, and 4 percent thought public broadcasting consumed 31 to 50 percent of the federal budget.
The good news is that 27 percent of poll respondents correctly believed that the CPB accounted for less than 1 percent of the federal budget, but this is cold comfort when the other 70 percent of those polled overestimated CPB funding by a factor of at least 71, with a median answer5 percentthat was off by at least a factor of 357.
Given these wild misperceptions, it is not surprising that people are paying a lot of attention to funding for public broadcasting. The reality, however, is that funding for public broadcasting is very small relative to the overall federal budget. Conservatives expecting to usher in a new era of fiscal responsibility by cutting off funding for public broadcasting are going to be sorely disappointed.
Art Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California and an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford Universitys Brock School of Business.