The War on PBS

by Benjamin Studebaker

During the recent presidential debate, Mitt Romney said the following:

I’m sorry, Jim, I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS. I like PBS, I love Big Bird — I actually like you too — but I am not going to keep spending money on things [we have] to borrow money from China to pay for.

Since the debate, the left has made Romney out to be someone who hates Sesame Street and PBS, and the right has made Romney out to be someone who takes spending cuts seriously. Both completely miss the point. This statement from Romney actually tells you quite a lot about the candidate. This is a statement with far-ranging implications that matter a great deal more than even PBS’ defenders realise.

The first thing to notice was pointed out on twitter almost immediately by scientist and public intellectual Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Cutting PBS support (0.012% of budget) to help balance the Federal budget is like deleting text files to make room on your 500Gig hard drive

In other words, PBS represents an extremely small portion of the federal budget. The entirety of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting’s federal subsidy is $445 million per year, of which PBS itself only receives a fraction. CPB’s budget comes in at a cost of just over a dollar per person, and PBS does not receive the entirety of that subsidy–CPB has other properties to fund as well.

Now, that’s a pretty easy observation to make. The next step is to tie it into something else the Romney campaign has been saying. You see, on Mitt Romney’s website, he said this:

We cannot rebuild our military strength without paying for it. Mitt will begin by reversing Obama-era defense cuts and return to the budget baseline established by Secretary Robert Gates in 2010, with the goal of setting core defense spending — meaning funds devoted to the fundamental military components of personnel, operations and maintenance, procurement, and research and development — at a floor of 4 percent of GDP.

PolitiFact and CNN observe that current military spending is set to hit 3.5% of GDP in 2013. What would increasing the baseline to 4% do? This:

a jump to 4% would mean an increase of around $100 billion dollars in defense spending in 2013. The additional spending really piles up in future years. Compared to the Pentagon’s current budget, Romney’s plan would lead to $2.1 trillion in additional spending over the next ten years, according to an analysis conducted for CNNMoney by Travis Sharp, a budget expert at the Center for a New American Security. And that number assumes a gradual increase to 4% of GDP. The additional spending would hit $2.3 trillion over a decade if the Pentagon’s budget were to immediately jump to 4% of GDP.

Now let us take these two things together–on the one hand, Mitt Romney wants to stop funding a $445 million project, on the other hand, Mitt Romney wants to increase annual spending on defence by $100 billion for an aggregate cost over the next decade of over $2 trillion. Let us also note Politifact’s observation that none of the heavy hitters in the Department of Defence think this budget increase is needed:

The president’s budget calls for $487 billion in defence savings between now and 2021. Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, have both spoken up for the plan, as have the heads of all five branches of the military.

This tells us one very important thing about Mitt Romney:

Mitt Romney does not care about debt or deficits.

Mitt Romney is happy to drastically increase spending on the projects he cares about, no matter how expensive or how unnecessary those spending increases are, while slashing spending on everything from PBS to Medicaid. This suggests one of two things:

  • Mitt Romney believes that the deficits and debts are a problem, but is irresponsible and two-faced about it.
  • Mitt Romney believes that deficits and debts are not a problem, but will tell you that they are a problem to justify ideologically hard right policies.

So on the one hand, he’s a liar, and on the other hand, well, he’s a different kind of liar. The first sort of liar believes a problem to exist, but allows it to fester and worsen in order to pursue other objectives except for when drawing attention to the problem suits him. The second sort of liar tells you there’s a problem that just does not exist in order to get your permission to do things you otherwise would not agree to. Which sort of liar is Mitt Romney? Hard to say–only Mitt knows what Mitt thinks.

Of course, regular readers know that we do not have a debt problem in the short or medium term and that most of the money we borrow is borrowed from Americans, not the Chinese. If Romney does not know this, he is too ignorant to be president. If Romney does know this, he is cynically taking advantage of the public’s belief in the debt crisis in order to kill government programmes that he dislikes on principle. It is another ignorance versus malevolence debate, but the important thing about these debates is that it does not matter which one is true–in either case, the figure in question should not be listened to.

In either case, we can see that, if Mitt Romney really did like Big Bird and Jim Lehrer, he would spend the pittance it costs the federal government to subsidise them and prevent half of PBS’ programming from being pledge drives. He might even increase their budgets and their salaries far beyond what even they themselves think it should be. So when the left accuses Mitt Romney of hating PBS, they are right, but they are missing the larger point–that Mitt Romney is a liar, that he is someone who either mistakenly believes in a debt crisis that does not exist and seeks to use it to advance a hard right, extreme ideology or is deliberately trying to perpetrate an imaginary debt crisis on the American people in order to do the very same thing. In sum, you have a radical candidate with an extreme right agenda, someone with no political consistency who is happy to use and manipulate public ignorance. Romney is not merely wrong, he is dangerous. He has either no commitment to acting based on his own beliefs or no commitment to basing his beliefs on empirical realities. He is a demagogue and a propagandist. That’s a far more serious charge than “Mitt Romney hates Big Bird”, and it is the one the left ought to be making.