Can A Million Puppets All Be Wrong?

The million-puppet march on Washington is advertised as a demonstration in favor of public broadcasting, but of course that’s not exactly what it is.

What it is, exactly, is a demonstration in favor of the current level of funding for public broadcasting.

Now: Just how many of those puppets — or how many of their human fellow marchers — do you imagine would be able to tell you what the current level of funding for public broadcasting is?

And insofar as these humans are out there marching and chanting without pausing to inquire into what they’re marching and supporting — well, I guess that explains their affinity for puppets.

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28 Responses to “Can A Million Puppets All Be Wrong?”

  1. 1 1 Mike H

    Not sure I buy this… after all, to rationally be in favour of the current level of (or increases or decreases in) spending on PBS, they just need to know the derivative of their utility with respect to that spending, they don’t need to know the level of spending itself.

    In the same way, the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere is only tangentially (no pun intended) relevant to the climate change debate – what’s relevant is the effect and cause of changes to that level.

  2. 2 2 Mike H

    Re #1 they just need to know the derivative of their utility with respect to that spending

    actually, they just need to know the sign of that derivative. And they don’t need to be able to frame their knowledge in such technical language as I have.

  3. 3 3 Martin-2

    $450,000,000 a year according to this article. I don’t know how many marchers know this number but I don’t think it’s unusual to do a quick google search before making a political statement.

    “What it is, exactly, is a demonstration in favor of the current level of funding for public broadcasting.”

    Or it’s a demonstration against no funding for public TV, what Romney proposed. These protesters are making interesting economic errors such as assuming only the government can provide quality TV shows about puppets. Your mind-reading skills are not as interesting.

  4. 4 4 Nick

    So each American pays about $1.50 a year for public broadcasting? Seems a small price to pay for advert free tv for people of all backgrounds. (also the marginal utility wrt spending comment by Mike H passes muster)

  5. 5 5 Dan McGuire

    That would only be true if the government was funded by a poll tax. It isn’t. I think we pay about 5 cents of every million bucks they spend. So for us it is $22.50 for a “service” we can’t possibly use as we don’t receive TV. I’d rather do something else with that $22.50 if it’s all the same to you.

  6. 6 6 Dan


    Apparently you do not watch PBS or you would not claim it was “advert free tv”.

    One sees far more corporate propaganda in a given hour of PBS then you will see in an hour of HBO.

    Doubt me?

    No hour of HBO is ever made possible by a generous donation from Ford Motor Company, or IBM, or Cisco.

    Get the picture?

  7. 7 7 Brandon Berg

    Has Kermit the Frog ever been associated with PBS?

  8. 8 8 Rowan

    Brandon: Well, now we’re really getting off on a tangent, but yes — Kermit was a regular “character” on Sesame Street for many years, and of course, Sesame Street is closely associated with PBS.

    A better nitpick would be to point out that Sesame Street is made by an independent production company that gets very little funding from the US government and would not be affected by cuts to PBS:

  9. 9 9 John K

    That’s an odd phrasing. Seems like they are marching to demonstrate their opposition to a funding level of zero. Then, does it matter as much that they know precisely the level of funding? Are they still puppets?

    I see this motivation as much more closely aligned with the stated purpose “as a demonstration in favor of public broadcasting”

  10. 10 10 Martin-2

    PBS is often framed as a way to provide poor children with educational programming who otherwise wouldn’t have any. I don’t see how this makes sense.
    -Isn’t TV pretty egalitarian since so much is paid for by advertisers?
    -Is Sesame Street the only good kid’s program you can get without cable or is it just one of many?
    -Since Sesame Street is popular and excellent won’t another network pick it up?

    But I think Romney erred here. There are many programs on PBS that cannot be framed as having social importance, but Sesame Street is an excellent and widely acclaimed show. I imagine the deadweight loss there is small and not worth the trouble.

  11. 11 11 Doctor Memory

    I suspect that a surprisingly high percentage of the puppeteers would be able to guess “minuscule”, which is the correct answer.

  12. 12 12 nobody.really

    Ah, the travails of the work-a-day blogger. I join the others in finding no evidence that the protesters are hung up on PBS continuing to receive its current level of federal funding. The linked article does not provide any such evidence. To the contrary, the linked article includes Romney’s quote from the debate saying “I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS.” This would seem to support the idea that people are protesting the elimination of federal funding.

    But while Landsburg’s aim is off, his shot is pretty close to a more promising target: regressivity. As far as I (and Romney?) can tell, subsidies to public broadcasting are a form of upper-class welfare. It’s reverse-Robin Hood policy. And even if we could justify the subsidies in 1972 — well, we’ve come a long way, baby.

    To me, arguments that PBS represents a small portion of the federal budget are beside the point; why knowingly misallocate even a small portion?

    Some will argue that public broadcasting warrants subsidy because of the positive externalities is generates. And hey, maybe public broadcasting does generate positive externalities. Allegedly people who got their news from public broadcasting had the most accurate information about Iraq prior to and during the war; by that measure, perhaps we could have saved a lot of money if we had subsidies MORE public broadcasting.

    Alternatively, some argue that subsidies are unjustified unless needed to promote the thing that produces the positive externalities. Here’s where the subsidy case gets harder. Whatever the educational merits of public broadcasting, it did not stop the war in Iraq. It’s audience is simply too small to matter politically, and I doubt that the limited appeal of public broadcasting is a result of inadequate funding. Moreover, even if we concede that “Sesame Street” and “All Things Considered” produce positive externalities, I doubt that either show would go off the air in the absence of subsidies. In the absence of subsidies, I expect broadcasters would cut back on their secondary shows – “Austin City Limits” and “The Splendid Table.” Ironically, I expect we’d get more re-broadcasts of the high-externality shows as a result. (That, or more BBC stuff. And honestly, I’ve had as much “World, Have Your Say” as I care for, thank you very much.)

    In short, I wouldn’t be surprised if the puppet protestors largely agreed about the benefits of progressive taxation and policies. How curious that they would fail to recognize the (likely) regressive nature of this policy preference.

  13. 13 13 Ken B

    “subsidies to public broadcasting are a form of upper-class welfare.” BINGO. And this is reason why the opposition is both so fierce and so self-righteous too. This last is not just a cynical dig. It’s part of the workings of a mindset: all decent people like this.

  14. 14 14 Martin-2

    I like this quote from “Will Big Bird be Downsized?” linked to in Steve’s article.

    “Is this really the place Mitt Romney should be targeting? Romney said last night he would not raise taxes, would cut corporate taxes… Even a Muppet would call this fuzzy math”

    You may say this is not an effective point because raising taxes and cutting spending are fundamentally different. But it works if you consider Romney’s justification for eliminating PBS.

    “I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”

    Romney apparently judges policies based on whether they increase or reduce borrowing from China. So what’s a voter to make of his preference for lower taxes?

  15. 15 15 John K

    nobody.really – can you explain a little more why you are calling it regressive? i’m dense. it seems like a four year old in a poor home watching sesame street realizes a much higher marginal benefit

  16. 16 16 Ken B

    @15: nobody.really is asserting that overall the rich get more benefit from PBS funding than do the poor. If you look at the middle 2/3 or so of the income spectrum I bet he’s right. Who watches NOVA more, educated suburbanites, or nightwatchmen making minimum wage?

  17. 17 17 nobody.really

    nobody.really – can you explain a little more why you are calling it regressive? i’m dense. it seems like a four year old in a poor home watching sesame street realizes a much higher marginal benefit

    Two answers.

    1. What Ken B said. Last I checked, the people who consume the work product of public broadcasting tend to be more affluent than the public at large. Thus conceptually, I might regard the subsidies to public broadcasting as a transfer of wealth to … the wealthy.

    Admittedly, there are at least two weaknesses in my argument. First, even if a majority of the benefit GOES to the affluent, the majority of taxes COME from the affluent. So it’s not obvious that this policy really has the net effect of transferring wealth to the wealthy; it may simply be stirring the wealth.

    Second, we’re talking about broadcasts – that is, public goods. So arguably the amount that affluent people “consume” is irrelevant to the issue of progressivity because their consumption does not deprive poor people from consuming. The only relevant analysis is 1) how much do poor people pay, and 2) how much do poor people consume. If poor people derive greater benefit than cost, then public broadcasting is progressive REGARDLESS of how much rich people also benefit. And public broadcasting may well provide more benefit than cost to poor people.

    2. But arguably, the amount that rich people benefit from public broadcasting IS relevant to the analysis, for the following reason: In the absence of federal subsidies, public broadcasting would STILL find funding and therefore would STILL be available for everyone, rich and poor alike, because rich people would simply pony up more cash. Thus, I conjecture that today’s federal subsidies contribute little to public broadcasting; rather, the net effect of federal subsidies is to reduce the amount that private parties would otherwise contribute to maintain public broadcasting.

  18. 18 18 Daniel


    Just a small point.

    You also need to take into account the added cost of fundraising into your analysis. Perhaps rich people prefer the added convenience of not having 40% more fundraising time, and would rather have it simply deducted in their tax returns. Maybe they should make public broadcasting a check box on tax returns so that people can choose either to contribute or not contribute. This could replace the box for public financing of elections, since it’s not clear that candidates will ever use this again thanks to Citizens United and since it perpetuates a two party system which in my mind is unconstitutional. Steve, what do you think?

  19. 19 19 iceman

    #17 — “I conjecture that…the net effect of federal subsidies is to reduce the amount that private parties would otherwise contribute to maintain public broadcasting.”

    Count me as one who would contribute to PBS if they stopped taking federal money; a relatively minor amount of their funding unfortunately creates a potential conflict of interest (or at least a perception thereof). A few years ago during one of their frequent multi-day pledge drives — in lieu of traditional commercial advertising of course — they were offering copies of Bill Clinton’s “My Life” to donors. Bad idea.

    And as others have noted, the Muppets are a huge ‘cash cow’ for PBS and would undoubtedly be viable in some format no matter what.

  20. 20 20 Phil King

    $1.50 doesn’t seem like a lot for a television station? You can get roughly 100 in a standard package for what $50 a month?

    That alone should end the debate.

  21. 21 21 Will A

    @ Ken B #16:

    As it relates to funding for public radio and whether it is regressive, here is a breakdown of demographics for NPR (from NPR):

    @ Phil King #20:
    I’m always dubious of arguments that car salesmen use. “Let’s not talk about the price of the car, let’s look at how much it costs you per month.”

    If you want to end the (economic) debate that the cost is worth it, it seems to me that you would want to quantify the ROI of the 450 million.

    If you can’t quantify the ROI, then you would probably want to start a moral debate and make moral arguments.

    What do value do you place on the ROI for the 450 million?

  22. 22 22 Phil King

    Yeah, ok, my argument was lazy for reasons I’m embarrassed to list.

    BUT, actually it’s not at all about ROI – the government shouldn’t be in the business of investing. The government, if it has any role in the matter, should step in if a market failure occurs and there’s no other way to bring about an efficient outcome.

    With regard to PBS and NPR, there’s no reason they can’t stand alone, nor are they necessary. They’re nice to have and I enjoy them, but I shouldn’t be forced to pay for them. Should the govt subsidize its own brand of Apple Juice that’s a little healthier with tax dollars?

    That being said, this is clearly not the place to focus our efforts.

  23. 23 23 Scott H.

    Reason #8 for liberals to want to cut public broadcasting funding…

    Because it has become exhibit A for conservatives as proof that government spending — no matter how foolish or frivolous — can never be reduced. The corollary logic to this is the justification for fanatical hostility to any bill that establishes year over year spending. This is especially true for bills benefiting groups that would be a.) easy to pity or b.) difficult to defund due to political correctness or c.) might have proven lobbying skills.

  24. 24 24 RichardR

    How do you know that the people marching haven’t researched the amount spent on public broadcasting? Can you please provide a link to the survey you conducted?

    Since you’ve presented no evidence to support your position surely that makes you as bad as you imagine the marchers to be? In essence you’re criticising the marchers because you believe they are ignorant of the facts but we know that you are ignorant of the facts about the marchers!

  25. 25 25 nobody.really

    A few years ago during one of their frequent multi-day pledge drives — in lieu of traditional commercial advertising of course — they were offering copies of Bill Clinton’s “My Life” to donors. Bad idea.

    Phil Hartman: Hello. I’m Edward Osgood, Programming Director of WNET New York. The program you’ve been watching – “Sex and Peer Pressure at Valley High” – was made possible by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. But without your contributions, PBS can’t continue to produce this and other fine programs. Programs like “Nude Black Men Today”, “The Fidel Castro 60th Birthday Gala”, and our award-winning 12-part “History of Police Brutality”, hosted by Ice T. Government funding, through your tax dollars, isn’t enough. It’s barely $600 million. So, please call and pledge more money. Operators are standing by. And, if you’re pledging $30 or more, specify whether you’d like the Robert Mapplethorpe Tote Bag or the Abortion Yes! umbrella. We now return to “Sex and Peer Pressure at Valley High”.

  26. 26 26 Draco

    Damn, I love the talent Landsburg has not only for being right, but for doing it in a witty and entertaining way. Then comes the icing on the cake: the endless parade of statist twits who nitpick him.

    In a related topic, I love how those who want to raise taxes only on those making over $250,000/year seem to know that that’s the right number (i.e. the income at which “being rich” magically begins). Not $237K or $265K. Nope. $250K. Someone threw it out there once, and we’ll hear about it forever (or at least until the envious looters get their way).

  27. 27 27 Martin-2

    Draco (26): “statist”. Could you elaborate?

  28. 28 28 Chris Mecham

    I don’t know how many of the marchers know specifics about public media funding, but I have done my own research, and I have had conversations with public broadcasters and I can tell you that if your question is whether or not we know how much is spent on public broadcasting is not at all meaningful. The real question should be do we know where and how that money is spent and what good does it do.

    Most people in Idaho don’t realize that the broadcast licensee here is the Idaho Division of Education, or that the federal money from the CPB goes primarily to maintain equipment, or that the equipment is the property of the state. Most Idahoans don’t realize that when IPTV does their annual fund drive they are asking for money to pay for programming, not equipment. The donors pay for what they consume, not to buy equipment for the state. Most donors don’t even know that without a partnership between IPTV and the Department of Homeland Security that law enforcement officials in parts of our state would not have access to high-speed internet service.

    Sure, Sesame and Masterpiece would survive without CPB money. But the network that carries them would not, at least not in the form they have now. As many as 3.5 million Americans would lose access to the ONLY broadcast signal that reaches them if the CPB funding vanished overnight.

    Do I think that federal funding is the answer to everything? Certainly not. But I do think that the good that public broadcasters do is mostly unknown and unappreciated, and that the CPB part of their funding is currently (in the absence of a workable solution) necessary. To simply yank that away would cause much more harm than good. Do I think there are ways to improve public broadcasting? Absolutely. We can absolutely find a way to make a non-commercial, public media landscape that does not have to go hat-in-hand to Congress for money every year. But finding the right answer will take work, commitment, compromise, and above all, reason; stuff that seems to be in short supply.

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