If even Big Bird’s on the chopping block…

This is not really a post about the debate where Romney suggested cutting funding for public broadcasting.

We’ve put that behind us, right?

Instead, it’s about the symbolism of the debate, and about the very real and still very urgent risk that we lose our collective understanding of what the commons means, and why it matters.

We spend a lot of time at public parks. Even now, in the winter, thanks to climate change. Really.

But much of what my kids know, even still, is commodified. The only television they watch comes through Netflix, which we buy. Their favorite places to play are the indoor play centers, which charge entrance fees. The youngest ones go to private preschools, and even my son in public school doesn’t really know what public school would look like without the additional services paid for with private dollars, from parents’ contributions, like the counselor and his Spanish class and the extra field trips.

They wouldn’t at all understand the significance of eliminating PBS, because they don’t really understand the idea that valuable things can be provided, free to the user, through our shared investment.

Today, it seems that nothing is ‘sacred’ from privatization and retrenchment.

My students did a presentation last fall on the private prison industry and its influence on public policy that shocked even me. More of the mental health system has shifted to private providers, leaving an emaciated community mental health system incapable of dealing with demand. One of my client organizations saw a would-be client commit suicide after experiencing a six-week wait for an initial mental health assessment.

The city where I live recently changed its policies to allow neighbors to reject sidewalk projects, after homeowners complained that having public sidewalks on their streets hurt their property values.


What does it mean, for those of us who believe in the commons, and for a sector like ours, which thrives there?

If there is at least a sizable percentage of our society that is willing to sacrifice Big Bird in the name of austerity, what is in store for much less fuzzy things we value, like the Older Americans Act and Medicaid expansion and early childhood intervention programs?

Are there lessons to be learned from those pieces of the commons that we do still prioritize? From universal programs like Social Security, that have woven their way into inevitability? What do we need to be doing–with our organizing, and our messaging, and our advocacy–to position ourselves to emerge unscathed from the budget cuts that still stretch across the horizon, in this new year?

What will it take to rebuild the commons, and to recapture the imaginations of children just like mine, who–despite Mommy’s infatuation with public libraries–still think that most things that are worth something have to be bought, and brought home, just for us?

2 responses to “If even Big Bird’s on the chopping block…

  1. Tonnie Martinez

    I want to keep PBS and NPR, but the greedy leadership needs to be scrapped. PBS President Paula Kerger is paid $632,233 in annual compensation.The executives at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which distributes the taxpayer money allocated for public broadcasting paid President and CEO Patricia de Stacy Harrison $298,884, which seems like a lot but that’s practically a pittance compared to Kevin Klose, president EMERITUS of NPR, whom they gave more than $1.2 million in compensation. When PBS and NPR folks make more than the POTUS, that seems like something tax reformers should go after. Love your posts and wanted to respond to this one! 🙂

  2. Tonnie, first, I have told several people about your post reminding us that, for many children, school is the safest, happiest place in their lives. Thank you for being our conscience! What concerned me about the discussion on public broadcasting, during the campaign and subsequently, was the debate about the utility of ‘public’. While I can provide quality educational programs for my kids, in many venues, for example, other children don’t have these same resources. There is something powerful that is lost if we retreat from the public sphere. That does not mean, of course, that we may not want to push for changes within our public institutions, certainly (although, here as elsewhere, we have to think about the connection between compensation and competitive recruitment), but if the ideal of holding resources in common loses its pull on our collective priorities, we will lose something profound. Thanks for commenting, and for reading!

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