22.10.10

CONSIDER THE OPPORTUNITY COSTS. National Public Radio fires analyst Juan Williams and the resulting hue and cry has included calls for Congress to end its annual subsidy to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The National Taxpayers Union issues one such call.
If Congress truly desires to restore fiscal responsibility and accountability to Washington, public broadcasting is a good place to start. This issue isn’t any more critical today than it was four months ago. It’s just more visible, more relevant, which we’re hoping paves the way for past-due Congressional action. We’re not concerned with the politics of it all. We’re looking out for taxpayers, and we believe defunding CPB is the right thing to do.
A service called Bullfax picks up what appears to be a Matthew Yglesias call for privatizing government radio and television, on the grounds that it can pass the market test.

Meanwhile, over at Reason Jesse Walker has an excellent piece about why the CPB never actually gets de-funded—conservatives just like to wield this threat in order to intimidate public broadcasters into changing their programming decisions.

Note that conservative politicians lacked principled opposition to the CPB during the Bush years when they were in a position to do something about it. After all, that coincided with their period of maximal influence over the system. Then, once Juan Williams got fired conservatives rediscovered their principled objections as part of one of their periodic fits of anti-anti-racist passion. At the end of the day, this repeating farce and the leverage it gives the right over NPR mostly strikes me as reason to favor moving toward privatization. NPR is a major 21st century media success story and I think that if given a reasonably scheduled phase-out of government support could certainly find a way to keep operating and then be free of political interference.

Such a call also makes political sense. The use of government funds to provide radio and television programming is censorship per se, whether the commentators are vetted by a Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, or Socialist advisory board.

There are likely to be defenders of government radio and television who will repeat arguments about how cheap the service is, and how winding it up will have no effect on the deficit.
Finally, the actual cost of public broadcasting is minuscule in comparison with other "public" activities. In fiscal 1995 the total federal operating budget for the CPB is $286 million, while $200 million yearly is allocated to military bands. The CPB’s $286 million is about one-fiftieth of 1 percent of the federal budget (the defense budget takes up 16.6 percent). The federal subsidy of CPB comes to less than one tax dollar per citizen; the subsidy for Japan’s public broadcasting system is 20 times as much.
The Japanese have been doing a good job destroying their economy for going on 20 years: is their example one to emulate? I'd start worrying about the military bands if their repertoire shifted to Preussens Gloria or the Hoch und Deutschmeister Marsch, otherwise the expenditure strikes me as reasonable.

Radio and television infrastructure, which can be privatized, however, is using funds that could be used to provide other sorts of infrastructure, something that might be defensible either under constitutional provisions or by the precedent of building internal improvements. Compare and contrast $400 m a year for public broadcasting with $120 m a year to provide sleeping car service on Amtrak. I think I just found $280 m a year for other improvements in the Passenger Rail system, improvements that might reduce future government expenditure on highways that will be congested during construction season and after they open.

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