Monday, April 4, 2011

Three score and ten

Updated below

I like NPR. Always have. The folks who put the news and commentary and comedy together on National Public Radio really understand their medium. More than once I've sat listening in my driveway, waiting for a story to finish. I like PBS television, too, if not quite as much. "Frontline" is weekly investigative reporting of a kind rare anywhere else, and I am a complete sucker for those Ken Burns histories on the Civl War, Baseball or the Brooklyn Bridge.

It's just fine with me that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting got about $420 million in federal funding last year. I consider it money well spent.

Maybe you don't agree. If you don't, you've got most of the Republicans in Congress to keep you company. Certainly men and women of goodwill can disagree about whether this level of spending -- or any spending at all -- is prudent. I've heard very lively debate of  this very topic on, as it happens, NPR.

So I have no cavil with you if you want to cut or eliminate federal spending on public radio -- just so long as you are not one of the at least 70 Americans who answered a recent poll with their belief that that spending amounts to $1.8 trillion dollars. Yes, trillion. In a poll of more than 1,000 respondents, seven percent said they believed that funding for public broadcasting accounted for more than 50 percent of the all federal spending. For a federal government that spent about $3.6 trillion last year, that would be $1.8 trillion dollars.

I just want to go on record saying that if public broadcasting got almost two trillion tax dollars last year, then I'm more than a little disappointed in the tote bag I got from Channel 2.

As bad as that is, it may be worse that the median response to the poll evidenced the belief that public broadcasting was getting 5 percent of the federal budget -- $178 billion -- more than 400 times what it really gets.

But let's be clear: this isn't a post about public broadcasting.

We discussed not long ago how people love to not know. These poll numbers demonstrate something worse, I think. It's a variety of debate by demonization that has become the sad and destructive norm for our America. It's not enough simply to oppose spending 1.17 percent of the federal budget on public broadcasting,* which would be a perfectly reasonable position to take, even if I happen to disagree. It's not enough even to massively politicize the argument by suggesting that this1.17 percent is being spent to promote  some wildly liberal agenda. (This is bunk, as any regular listener to public channels knows, but it's at least garden variety partisan bunk.)

No. Instead, folks have to be convinced -- or convince themselves -- that the public funding of broadcasting is a huge, dangerous, overarching threat to the very financial viability of this once great nation!!! When the discussion starts there, where can it meaningfully hope to go?

I'm not immune from this sort of thing, I am forced to confess. I realize that Sarah Palin is not actually an evil succubus sent from Hell to seduce America's Right into slavering know-nothingness and poor grammar.  I concede that while Bill Maher is undeniably a pseudo-intellectual, frat-boy bigot, he probably is not really a skin-covered demon cyborg transported from space to corrupt the Left until it is dissolute and ineffectual. But I have said as much about both of them.

Hyperbole, after all, can be entertaining. But it is a lousy to basis for policy-making. Worse still is unconscious, unknowing hyperbole, engaged in by credulous fools who are content to leave unexamined any assumption, however nonsensical, so long as it supports their desired outcome. That sort of thing is downright dangerous. And I'd estimate that 48.63 percent of all Americans are doing it 82.37 percent of the time.

Or thereabouts.

*420,000,000 divided by 3,600,000,000,000 = 1.166666.

UPDATE: This is why lawyers hire accountants, instead of becoming accountants.

As Just Me points out with perfect accuracy, I'm a dope. "Public broadcasting's budget is NOT 1.166666% of the budget. It is .0016666% of the budget. 420,000,000 divided by 3,600,000,000,000 = 1.1666666666666667e-4. The "e-4" means move the decimal over to the left 4 spots." 

Of course public broadcasting doesn't amount to one percent of federal spending. Writing it out in words makes that obvious: One percent of our national budget is a huge amount of money. But the numbers are so damned big I stumbled on it. Now, my position is going to be that my own innumeracy proves my underlying point above. I leave to less kind contributors than Just Me to say what else it proves.

[Sadly my commitment to fulsome free speech and something some like to call intellectual integrity prevented me from undertaking the first course of action I considered -- changing the initial post so it would be correct, deleting Just Me's comment, and then blocking that ISP from commenting in the future. Sigh.]

1 comment:

  1. Your math is SOOOO wrong. Public broadcasting's budget is NOT 1.166666% of the budget. It is .0016666% of the budget. 420,000,000 divided by 3,600,000,000,000 = 1.1666666666666667e-4. The "e-4" means move the decimal over to the left 4 spots. It is short hand used by your calculator to mean that it is out of space.