Go ahead, cut Big Bird’s federal funding.
Big Bird, unlike most programs potentially on the cutting block, would survive. Sesame Street is so well loved that it receives 94% of its funding from consumers, private donors, and corporate funding. So Romney’s threat to cut Big Bird’s fed money would not kill him off, as so many have shouted in the past few weeks.
But our large feathered friend is not the only thing at risk: Big Bird was invoked to represent any program deemed “unnecessary”— arts, research, and public education, to name a few likely culprits. And unlike Sesame Street, many of these programs would go under if federal funding was pulled.
Although I support balancing the national budget and keeping taxes low as possible, it is precisely the reasons that Romney sees these programs as expendable that I see them as the most worthy of our taxpayer dollars.
These programs have been deemed “unnecessary” not because of their actual value, but because of the great length of time it takes to reap those profits. But education takes years to turn into productive careers; the research that is now abstract will not be relevant until scientists and technologists figure out how to apply it to everyday life; and the arts (the fringiest of them all), posits and inspires the questions and answers that our research is exploring.
These are the programs least likely to get private funding, and the most potentially vital for our future. Curiosity, creativity, and expansion of knowledge might have no relevant economic impact on the present, but the future profits are far from inconsequential: if the U.S. wants to continue to be on the cutting edge of technology, culture, science, expansive ideas and innovative solutions, then these are the subjects that will keep us there.
Many say the solution is to let the power of capitalism do it’s thing, and fund only the programs most worthy. For them, Big Bird is the perfect example — the beloved children’s program is heavily funded by private and corporate donors who receive only the power of a boosted reputation and the gratitude of the public in return.
But what happens to those programs that aren’t easily explained, that don’t have a big fluffy Muppet to show off their potential gift to society? What happens to, say, a quantum physics research lab that has trouble explaining their work to the layperson?
I wouldn’t expect too many donors to jump to fund something that gives them no monetary return, no personal satisfaction (unless that donor happens to be a quantum physics aficionado), and no built in demographic to applaud their generosity. Not to many would choose a quantum physics lab over Sesame Street, or an abstract painter over Fresh Air, especially when funds are tight. I would argue that this is exactly when the government should step in and ensure funding.
If the role of government is to protect society’s future interests when independent citizens are not able to do so, then it is actually the most “unnecessary” programs that the government should be most protective of, and that deserve the government’s attention.
At this point I’m sure someone out there is arguing, “Well that’s all very nice, but our children can’t eat music.” While this is certainly true, if this argument is allowed to stand, then I think we are fighting for the wrong future. When the United States gives up on our wish to be a global power, or even a first world country; when we have lost any ambition to be on the forefront of knowledge, technology, and culture; when we are not paying for multiple wars and pouring our money into cable TV and iPads, then we can make the argument that children can’t eat art or knowledge, and find it relevant.
Until then, let’s be optimistic and continue to support those “unnecessary” programs, in the hopes that we have a future ahead of us where they can be put to good use.