We love Big Bird, but perhaps we can’t afford him

Forty-three years ago this week, “Sesame Street” made its debut on public television.

Big Bird, along with the other memorable Muppet characters on “Sesame Street,” energized children’s television and found their way into kids’ hearts. The program became a part of growing up in America for millions of preschoolers and Big Bird quickly become their favorite.

“Sesame Street” put public broadcasting on the map in a way that years of programming had been unable to do. To an extent, it democratized public television and radio and freed it from the artsy, elitist perspective that seemed to define it for many Americans.

The remarkable success of “Sesame Street” raised the profile of public broadcasting and improved its image. The few complaints from viewers about including minorities in the cast never gained enough traction to be significant.

The program, though, often addressed subjects involving social situations that were new and certainly very different for children’s television. In some cases, these reflected a perspective that was more urban, urbane and liberal than many of the households in its audience, and this caused some discontent.

“Sesame Street” was leading the way for the rest of public broadcasting, especially in its newscasts, which increasingly displayed a perspective that was more urban and more liberal than much of mainstream America. For a significant number of people public broadcasting became an irritant.

For some members of Congress, the news media in general had become an irritant, but they could actually do something about public broadcasting: cut off its funds. Public broadcasting became an “issue.” Realistically, though, it had, like public broadcasting itself, only a small but dedicated constituency. Most of Congress, like most of America, displayed little interest in public broadcasting programs. Elsewhere in the country, an entire generation seemed unaware that they existed.

None of this changed the genuine affection, even love, that millions of children and adults have for Big Bird, Elmo and for Sesame Street in general. Former Gov. Mitt Romney’s statement during the recent presidential debate, that he loved Big Bird, was undoubtedly true.

According to those who know him best, Big Bird is forever 6 years old and has the 6-year-old’s perspective — a mixture of wonder, joy, understanding and misunderstanding that kids instantly relate to. Big Bird’s mishearing of words is the same kind of thing that brought “Harold be his name” to the Lord’s Prayer for some kids, and rookie pitcher, Ebby Calvin ‘Nuke” LaLoosh’s singing “She may get wooly, women do get wooly,” to adults in the movie, “Bull Durham.”

Big Bird’s misunderstandings are funny and kids are in on it. The enjoyment they get from it leaves a lasting impression not only in learning but also in how affection fits into the learning process.

Although Big Bird is only 6, he has been a public figure for decades now and perhaps it was inevitable that he would be dragged into politics. Apparently, he is unhappy about this, though, and has asked to be removed from the re-election campaign ads featuring his name and image.

In one sense, Big Bird doesn’t belong in this campaign. He is a beloved character and doesn’t deserve that fate. Besides, from an economic standpoint, Sesame Street is a global enterprise these days and has outgrown the public funding that was needed to get it started. Big Bird will be OK even if federal funding is cut or eliminated.

In another sense, though, he belongs on center stage in the debate. There are important issues of security and global strategy, surely, but the core issue in this election is economics and tough choices.

Any economic textbook will tell us that economics is the study of how we match limited resources to unlimited demand. We cannot afford everything when we want it. It doesn’t mean that we “hate” the projects, services, and people being cut out of the budget. That’s like kids saying that you hate them because you can’t afford a trip to Disney World this year.

The idea that Big Bird, and public broadcasting, deserves public funding is fine when viewed in isolation. But when it ends up on the table with all the other attractive, deserving and strongly supported needs facing a perilously unbalanced budget, only the adults can make the hard choices.

What the textbooks don’t bother to tell us is that economics is about being an adult.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant.

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