Sunday, October 7, 2012

In Defense of Big Bird

In last week's first Presidential debate between candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on domestic issues, Mr. Romney was widely credited with having outscored the President, who gave an uninspired and lackluster performance. Among the ways Mr. Romney stated he would help to balance the budget, he spoke of cutting federal funding to the Public Broadcasting Service, or PBS.

“I’m sorry, Jim [Lehrer]. 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.”
This statement, shown in the video below, has elicited much comment, but it is really nothing new. In 1995, then House Speaker Newt Gingrich very vocally suggested we eliminate all federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The issue has not gone away.

Presidential Debate 2012 
Mitt Romney:
"I Love Big Bird"

So, in defense of Big Bird, I'd like to make a few observations. I'm not an economist, so please forgive my simplistic statements. First off, money is fungible--in other words, one dollar is interchangeable with another dollar. A borrowed dollar may be used to fund public television or to build a new battleship or provide undeserved economic support to the Egyptian government. The debt is funded in Treasury bills, but the dollars are not distinguishable from one another. Given the enormous size of the national debt, the proportion of this debt that funds public broadcasting is relatively trivial. Yet the benefit, particularly to young children, may be very great.

The real reason that conservatives target public television, like the arts in general, is not macroeconomic necessity but rather the medium's perceived liberal slant. I suspect, though, that it's a miscalculation on Romney's part to go after Big Bird. Sesame Street is one of America's outstanding educational success stories. Why target a program that promotes early literacy? Such a show is an investment in America's future. Mr. Romney understands the show's public cost, but does he understand its public value? What could be more essential to future economic growth and prosperity than bringing up the next generation with an enhanced, early mastery of words and numbers? Doesn't such a lofty purpose justify borrowing some of the money, even from China?

China is singled out by Romney for its negative visceral impact on voters, but the People's Republic just happens to be flush with dollars and is quite willing and able to make massive purchases of Treasuries at the moment. The countries that purchase our debt almost never win popularity contests here. The problem with China, as I see it, isn't just that the Chinese are buying our debt, but that they're hacking into our energy grid, stealing our industrial secrets, and mapping computer systems in our vital installations. They're using their foreign policy to exacerbate world problems rather than solve  them, while committing ongoing violations of human rights at home and leading the world in female infanticide. (This very blog, by the way, is next to impossible to access from China because of censorship.) At any rate, the most serious cause for concern about China buying our debt is that our economic dependence on the Chinese government may inhibit our ability to deal forcefully with the many serious threats it poses to our security. Perhaps it already has.

Look, I don't think Sesame Street, a national treasure, is going to go away even if public broadcasting loses all federal funding, which I don't believe it should. The point I want to make, though, is that our children's education is well worth investing in, and that the cost of not doing this is far more significant than the cost of any debt we incur in supporting Big Bird.

Here then is a selection of mostly older videos, those I'm more familiar with, showing just a few of the many great songs the pioneering program has featured since it went on the air in 1969. All but one of these feature Jim Henson's Muppets. Preschool-age students may still find these quite engaging, and so may their parents.

Sesame Street:

"ABC-DEF-GHI..." Song

Sesame Street: "Batty Bat"

Classic Sesame Street - 

Grover and Madeline Kahn

Sesame Street:  Cookie Monster 

Sings "C is for Cookie"

Sesame Street:  "Elmo's Song"

Sesame Street:  "I Love Trash"

Sesame Street - "I've Got Two"

Sesame Street - "One Fine Face"

Sesame Street - "Put Down the 

Duckie" (with Epilogue)

Sesame Street:  Ernie 

and his "Rubber Duckie"


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