Monday, 8 October 2012

Mitt Romney and Big Bird

Having almost recovered from suggesting that 47% of American voters were scroungers, Mitt Romney didn’t waste time retaining the nasty mantle in America’s presidential election campaign. In a performance that most felt won him the first election debate with Barack Obama, Romney said that he would cut public funding to PBS, the broadcaster of Sesame Street. Romney made clear that Sesame Street was exactly what he had in mind by saying, “I love Big Bird… But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”

America has rushed to Big Bird’s defence. Obama joked that it was time somebody got tough on Big Bird, a FiredBigBird Twitter account quickly attracted 30,000 followers, and parents and children have uploaded videos of support to YouTube. Romney’s plans to rein-in Big Bird go back almost a year, when he told an audience that “Big Bird is going to have advertisements”, and he taps into a general misconception amongst Americans that PBS claims huge quantities of government money. In 2011 an opinion poll found 40 per cent of Americans believed PBS accounted for between 1 and 5 per cent of government spending. The actual figure is 0.0001 per cent, between 1 and 5 per cent of US government spending would give public broadcasting about $300bn to play with.

The Sesame Street argument reveals three things about Romney’s Republicans. First of all, on the idea of advertising products to children, we see that nothing is sacred in the Republican understanding of free markets. Second of all is a disinterest in educational programming. Lastly is a failure to appreciate the positive spillovers from government investment.  Romney’s Republicans see a capitalist economy as one in which people start businesses and get rich, with the government ever trying to stand in their way. Sesame Street is a little closer to the reality. The programme started in 1968 with funding from the Carnegie foundation, the US government and the Ford Foundation among others. It helped develop Jim Henson’s Muppets into the commercially successful brand that sold for $680million in 2000, before being bought by Disney in 2004. Sesame Street is broadcast in more than a hundred countries to more than a hundred million viewers, including a 2011 debut in Afghanistan, where the show brings a softer version of US foreign policy. In going after Sesame Street we can see that Romney is not only failing to recognise an American institution when he sees one, he’s also attacking a successful business.

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