Government Spending

Welfare for the Well-Off

The case against government subsidies for public broadcasting

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The local public radio station, WCVE, is in the midst of its spring fundraiser. As someone who tunes in most mornings, I kicked in some bucks for the good of the cause last week. And if you pay taxes in Virginia, you did, too.

Gov. Bob McDonnell tried to have it otherwise. He sought repeatedly to slash state funding for public broadcasting, but was gainsaid by the General Assembly—which trimmed appropriations for public radio and TV by only 10 percent.

During debate on the governor's budget amendments last Wednesday, Del. Jennifer McClellan, a Richmond Democrat, displayed an Elmo doll on her desk. Dear, cute, sweet Elmo! All those in favor of tossing the little red fellow into the fetid maw of some slaverous beast vomited up from the bowels of hell by voting to defund "Sesame Street," please raise a hand. Nobody? Not one soul? Didn't think so.

That, regrettably, seems to be roughly the level of discourse surrounding public broadcasting: Are you pro-Elmo, or do you hate anything that makes children happy?

This is known as the fallacy of the false alternative. There is of course a third alternative. Elmo, NPR, Frontline, and many other menu items on the public-broadcasting buffet could do just fine without a government subsidy, and might even be better off, as former NPR exec Ron Schiller said in a now-infamous sting video by right-wing provocateur James O'Keefe.

Public broadcasting's supporters sometimes say otherwise. When critics of government subsidies complain about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, friends of NPR (etc.) say the government stipend is just a drop in a very large funding bucket. When critics then say in that case the stipend would not be missed if it were stopped, supporters say funding cuts would be devastating. Well: Is the stipend significant, or not?

Assume it is significant. To say that cutting the subsidy would be devastating is not, in itself, an argument against doing so—because it does not explain why the subsidy should exist in the first place.

Here, supporters of public broadcasting make two points. First, public broadcasting serves state purposes because stations sometimes help out with online training for schoolteachers and provide educational programming used in the schools. Yes, but: Is a stipend for public broadcasting the only way to provide such services? If the answer is "yes," then wouldn't it be useful to treat the station providers as contractors who should invoice the state for services rendered? When the commonwealth of Virginia buys ammunition for state troopers, it doesn't provide a general subsidy for the Remington corporation with the vague expectation that the local gun store will eventually send over a few boxes of 9 mm cartridges in return.

It used to be possible to argue that public broadcasting provides program content unavailable elsewhere. But the profusion of new media—from educational children's TV to live-streamed Internet feeds from General Assembly floor debates—has blunted that point almost to a nullity. There may be occasional shows that offer unique content, such as the recent "Virginia Currents" feature on the Flying Circus of Bealeton air show. Does such a program truly serve a core purpose of state government? Really?

It certainly does not serve a social-welfare function. The median household income of an NPR listener is $86,000—50 percent higher than that of an ordinary American family. Public broadcasting subsidies are welfare for rich (or at least richer) people.

The remaining case for supporting public broadcasting (other than the fact that the wrong people oppose it—a knee-jerk, red-team/blue-team reaction that seems to explain a great many positions taken on both sides of the political aisle these days) is that public broadcasting does many wonderful things. This runs up against what one might call the Libyan-intervention question.

The Obama administration essentially has said humanitarian reasons trump constitutional rules about who can start a war. But humanitarian reasons would justify military intervention in a dozen or more places around the globe. So why single out Libya? Likewise, countless organizations and institutions do good things. Why single out public broadcasting for government support? Why not also give government money to newspapers, to the Girl Scouts, to the SPCA, and so on ad infinitum? No coherent answer forthcomes.

One complaint about public broadcasting commands sympathy. Only a small percentage of those who listen to public radio and watch public television contribute during pledge drives—despite the fact, as noted above, that they tend to have more disposable income. A far greater percentage of listeners, however, seem to think non-listeners should be forced through compulsory taxation to support what they themselves will not support voluntarily.

To explain that peculiarity, one should turn to Brian Caplan, an economist at George Mason University. "The wealthy but uncharitable socialist," he wrote a few years ago in The Independent Review, "ceases to be a mystery once you understand relative prices. Voluntary charity is costly to the giver, but voting for charity … is virtually free."

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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  1. Some critics say, “Leave it to the marketplace.” But that’s just the point: Government-subsidized broadcasting supports media that’s independent of the marketplace. Our society needs that for its own good.
    http://www.ricksteves.com/radi…..entary.htm

    1. Why?

      1. Because he can’t get his fucking show on TV otherwise?

        1. Because elitists want certain programming to be on tv whether anyone watches them or not.

          1. Because someone has to pay for those crappy British sit-coms that run Saturday nights. (Bring back re-runs of Monty Python’s Flying Circus!”

    2. Government-subsidized Market-based broadcasting supports media that’s independent of the marketplace government. Our society needs that for its own good.

    3. Travelogues are a dime a dozen and most of them don’t take taxpayer money to function.

    4. That doesn’t mean such media would be independent of the government which is subsidizing it, The Rick Steeves.

    5. In the linked commentary Steves says (3rd para from the bottom) Sesame Street is important to our national security interests. Undercovers Elmo stop pink torpedo attack by Big Bird.

    6. It’s not independent of the marketplace. That’s simply a lie. It just caters to a different marketplace: that of the power elite who control tax dollars that come from others.

  2. why the hell do you have Vader showing Elmo how to play autoerotic asphyxiation?

    1. I think that’s a picture of objectivist Ed Hudgins in costume at the Cato Institute. Seriously.

  3. “Your sad devotion to that ancient Libertard religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen tax money, or given you enough clairvoyance to find success at the ballot box.”

    1. Does Lord Vader have to force choke a bitch?

      1. Oh shit, it’s Anakin Skywalker son!

  4. Didn’t Bob Vila get canned from PBS for making commercials for Sears?

    1. All in the leftist spirit of tolerance and inclusiveness.

      1. have you seen “This Old House” recently? 15 minutes of ads.

  5. “You will NOT make fun of the new TSA uniform, you little red fuck!”

  6. I hate you, you hate me, let’s go on a killing spree take a twelve gauge shotgun point it at his head, pull the trigger Barny’s dead…

    I hate you, you hate me, let’s go spread some H I V take a ten inch needle stick it in his ass, ten more years is all he’ll last…

    1. ahahahahahahaha

  7. Are you pro-Elmo, or do you hate anything that makes children happy?

    < adjusting monocle >
    I’d have to say, uh, the latter.

    1. “How do you feel about clubs for small children?”

      “Only when kindness fails”.

      W.C Fields

  8. It is worth noting the lefties tried a ‘private’ NPR of sorts with Air America. And that was an epic disaster that did little more than spawn Rachel Maddow as a media personality and compel a certain washed-up comic from Minnesota into the Senate.

    No wonder they feel they gotta keep ‘their’ radio on the dole.

    1. Great example. “We couldn’t get anyone to support us in a semi-free marketplace, so what choice do we have but to force you to support our programming?”

    2. Rachel Maddow was the least grating, least stupid, most “mainstream” voice on that network. That’s scary to consider.

      1. Damn, Barry. I am going to have nightmares tonight.

  9. A. Barton Hinkle-Heimer-Schmidt !

    1. I got revenged – whoever posted that awful version of “The Final Countdown”? I posted it on FB….had it in my head all weekend. GAAAAAAAGGGHHH!!!

      *whispering….”A. Barton Hinkle Heimerschmidt, his name is myyyy name, too….” *

      1. DAMMIT! I had finally gotten that out of my head! I hate you guys.

        1. EOM

  10. Get rid of NPR funding. NICK will take Elmo and the rest of his friends and make a mint.

  11. This isn’t even worthy of debate. The state has absolutely no business funneling taxes towards media outlets.

  12. I feel PBS was necessary when there were only 3 networks…with some very SHITTY programming. For just a little government overreach, we could have Monty Python in the US. It’s just completely unnecessary these days with over 500 channel packages and the amazing resources of the interwebs.

    1. I don’t think it was necessary, or even a good thing, really, because it used confiscated money to operate.

      But at least there was an argument in its favor. Now, there isn’t.

      Monty Python and… Benny Hill! Much as I liked old Benny, it’s really difficult to argue that The Benny Hill Show was a vital part of having an informed democracy…

      1. What are you talking about? Benny Hill was vital to my understanding of Reformation Era England. How else could I know that horses were so rare in that period the nobility used old women as mounts?

        1. Mel Brooks?

    2. Not True, NBC and CBS regularly programmed some high level tv specials. “The 6 Wives of HENRY VII” was originally broadcast on CBS, the PBS showing was a rerun. National Geographic and Jaques Cousteau were on commercial network tv and widely viewed. Bernstein’s symphonies for kids were on CBS.
      The Networks continued to have frequent specials after PBS was instituted, well into the 80’s. Cable tv is what turned the Networks into a complete wasteland.
      BTW govenment man, Newt vast wasteland Minnow had a long career sucking at the Public broadcasting teat.

    3. Reflect that the period most people consider the “Golden Age” of television in the US, was when sponsors had the most editorial control over content.

  13. NPR. Made possible by listeners like you (wait for it…) AND [insert commercial here]

  14. NPR = paid for by theft taken from what would have been future, private, spending decisions made by individuals who would have bought the things that they wanted.

    Only a sick, indoctrinated mind cannot see how wrong the existence of NPR is.

    1. Interesting, never heard “the broken window” theory applied to CPB/NPR. Tell me, do you think Oscar the Grouch got cut when the glass shards were dumped in his garbage can?

  15. NPR and the CPB need to go. Whether you think they are left leaning or not, they simply are not a high priority compared to medical care for the sick, or basic services that the govt needs to provide (like food for our soldiers).

    We have to cut somewhere and this is as good a place as any.

    They gave away the store on licensing and now the producers of their shows make Columbian drug lord money off Elmo, and the stations that market them get to say they are non-commercial. Kind of like the mules that take the risk.

    As stated above, nothing on PBS is non-commercial. There are a bunch of commercials on these channels.

    As for their need in rural America, we in Nebraska have nothing but a bunch of robo-stations that are enslaved to the diktats of the “dear Leaders” in Lincoln who dictate what obscure classical music will get played and when. Most of rural Nebraska sees these stations the same as most people in urban areas do, amazed they are still on the air.

    We could lose them all right now, and nothing much would change.

  16. NPR and the CPB need to go. Whether you think they are left leaning or not, they simply are not a high priority compared to medical care for the sick, or basic services that the govt needs to provide (like food for our soldiers).

    We have to cut somewhere and this is as good a place as any.

    They gave away the store on licensing and now the producers of their shows make Columbian drug lord money off Elmo, and the stations that market them get to say they are non-commercial. Kind of like the mules that take the risk.

    As stated above, nothing on PBS is non-commercial. There are a bunch of commercials on these channels.

    As for their need in rural America, we in Nebraska have nothing but a bunch of robo-stations that are enslaved to the diktats of the “dear Leaders” in Lincoln who dictate what obscure classical music will get played and when. Most of rural Nebraska sees these stations the same as most people in urban areas do, amazed they are still on the air.

    We could lose them all right now, and nothing much would change.

  17. No government hand outs for anything or anyone.

  18. While I will admit that government funding of public radio probably isn’t necessary, and I will admit that PBS listeners/viewer are likely to be richer and better educated than non-listeners/viewers, is this the best example you can find of welfare for the well-off? What about cheap flood insurance for beach homes? What about farm subsides for rich farmers? What about the countless others – the whole banking industry bailout and the sugar industry monopoly? Singling out PBS as welfare for the well-off seems ludicrous, given all the other more egregious examples. Also, there are lots of middle class and lower class PBS fans. I have been both.

    1. So you are a fan. Who cares? Why should I be forced to pay for that? I don’t think you should pay for stuff that I enjoy but you don’t.

  19. I Like NPR and PBS and just sent a check to my local station but my children do not like NPR and PBS why should they be forced to pay through taxes.

  20. Yet another “I SHOULDN’T HAVE TO PAY TAXES FOR ANYTHING I DON’T AGREE WITH!” argument. Zzzzzzzzz.

  21. ty rights, etc. seem like a more accurate measure of freedom than democracy.

  22. ty rights, etc. seem like a more accurate measure of freedom than democracy.

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