Thursday, October 18, 2012

Big Bird May Be Hard to Cut - This One Should Be Easy

Remember all that nonsense about Big Bird?  How the threat to de-fund PBS led to millions of PBS zealots talking about how "it's just not enough money to matter"?  The Internet Meme Machine leapt into high gear, with animations of Big Bird being killed appearing overnight.  It's particularly absurd since the spectacularly successful Sesame Street franchise brings in $50 million per year in product licensing alone, and could make a commercial network real money, if not for the PBS exclusivity.  The director of the show's production company, CTW, said so herself.  Maybe Antiques Roadshow or Masterpiece Theater couldn't survive in the market, but Sesame Street surely could.

In the larger view, the argument that you don't save enough money to matter is why nothing ever gets cut.  No matter how small and meaningless the cuts are, someone howls like you stuck their legs down a chipper/shredder.  The ordinarily-rational Neil deGrasse Tyson said, "Cutting PBS ... is like deleting text files to make room on your 500 Gig drive".  Yeah, you have to delete a lot, but this is classic Washington insider stuff: "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking real money".  Besides, as the old saying goes, "take care of the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves". 

OK.  What if I could show you a place were you can save billions and measured data shows us that it's money that we spend for zero return?  No return except for keeping Washington bureaucrats employed.  De-fund the Department of Education.  The DOE's funding in 2011 was "only" $71 Billion. That really amounts to just about 3 weeks of borrowing in the deficit.   But we have measured data that shows no matter what we spend on education, it doesn't matter.
In math, we'd say that there is no correlation between the cost of education and the test scores.
As there is no correlation between per-pupil spending and SAT scores.

In the October 8th Wall Street Journal, author Jay Greene writes about this and more in "The Imaginary Teacher Shortage".  He points out that in the first presidential debate, Obama said we should hire "another hundred thousand math and science teachers" and attacked Romney for saying that hiring decision should be a local matter.  Greene goes on to point out: 
For decades we have tried to boost academic outcomes by hiring more teachers, and we have essentially nothing to show for it. In 1970, public schools employed 2.06 million teachers, or one for every 22.3 students, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Digest of Education Statistics. In 2012, we have 3.27 million teachers, one for every 15.2 students.
From where I sit hiring another hundred thousand science and math teachers sounds just about impossible - it's just a handout to the teacher's unions, his core constituency.  Good science and math teachers aren't likely to be found without a lot of training and even then that adjective "good" may be problematic.  They're not likely to be working at the tire store waiting for a teaching job.
Parents like the idea of smaller class sizes in the same way that people like the idea of having a personal chef. Parents imagine that their kids will have one of the Iron Chefs. But when you have to hire almost 3.3 million chefs, you're liable to end up with something closer to the fry-guy from the local burger joint.
This is close to home: dear son has taught public high school, although he got out of that many years ago.  I think even the most ardent fans of the public education system would have to admit that the Federal Department of Education has never educated a single person. 

The problems with public education are many and deep.  Frankly, that whole "Nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure" argument has a lot going for it.  


  1. Trivia: I met the first Big Bird, many years ago in Northeastern Connecticut. His name was Carol Spinney, and you'd be hard put to find a bigger doper than Big Bird. Saw him walking around his house at the party he was throwing with a giant spliff in his mouth. Think Cuban cigar sized. Maybe he had to, in order to handle being Big Bird on Sesame Street.

    Spinney was also an excellent artist. I saw several of his pen-and-ink drawings that were superb. Interesting guy, definitely "out there".

    1. I don't think I'll ever quite get the image of Big Bird smoking on a big doob out of my mind.

  2. There you go again, using facts and logic! I tell ya, Gray, if you keep on this way you're gonna get a reputation!

  3. Don't stop with the Dept of Education - there's no justification for HUD (the belongs in the housing biz?), which would also be the justification for eliminating the involvement in mortgages (FHA, VA, FNMA, SLMA), about the only thing at Ag that's really worthwhile is the Beltsville Research Facility, it's past time to privatize USPS (which might require a Constitutional adjustment), and I question the value of most of DOT, DOL and the other DOE. HHS' mission could be broken into 50 state-sized pieces and parceled out.

    Would closing these agencies - and by "closing" I mean "abolish totally, bulldoze the buildings and salt the earth where they stood" - substantially reduce the dollar burden? Not really, but the point is that they shouldn't have existed in the first place; they are not only money pits, but distract from what should be the primary mission of the

    On the money angle, fully fund them for one more year after abolishing, with that money given to the former employees as a one year salary, tax free, severance package.

    Would abolishing a bunch of agencies turn Washington, D.C. and environs into a large ghost town? Yes, and so what? D.C. has done the exact same thing to lots of towns and cities across the US.

    1. I like the way you think, Alien. That's all perfectly reasonable.

  4. Alien beat me to it.

    I'll guess we could cut 75% of ".gov" and never notice it missing.....