Vizzini’s Law and Petition Analysis
Hey there. From the looks of it, our gracious host has been busy lately, no doubt filling his head with knowledge in a plane of higher learning and letting his blog gather dust to appease the knowledge demons that require his full attention. All perfectly fine, but I thought I’d poke my head in and take a little tour. My name is Aptronym, I’m a friend of Mr. N. Conservatarian, and I’m here to figure out what squatters’ rights are regarding web space. I think I might have a valid claim to the blog under the ancient principle of Finders Keepers, but even if that doesn’t stand up in court, I’ll leave a couple of words here on my way out.
So it seems that the funding for NPR and PBS is on the chopping block. Being the uninvolved, disinterested person that I am, I know this because a friend of mine posted a link to this petition opposing the cuts. Let’s take a look at the text accompanying the petition:
Republicans just passed an “emergency” bill that denies all federal funding to NPR.
This attack on public broadcasting is unprecedented. We need a massive public outcry to convince the Senate to stand up to the Republican extremists in the House.
Sign the petition, then share it with all your friends.
A compiled petition with your individual comment will be presented to your Senators.
Okay, so counter to the title of the petition, PBS’s funding does not seem to be under attack by the bill in question. The blurb mentions only NPR, and none of the minimal research I did indicated that PBS was targeted by the bill at all. Nice Try: 1. Move On: 0.
Now we come across some language that’s rather interesting: “unprecedented.” Gee, haven’t heard that one before. It seems to get tossed around whenever someone wants to scare you about something. To quote The Princess Bride, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” It’s getting to the point where we need some version of Godwin’s Law to keep its usage straight. I hereby propose Vizzini’s Law, which states:
As a political bill gains media attention, the probability of an opposing group or person labeling the change as “unprecedented” approaches 1.
Note that a similar effect applies to real-world occurrences in politically charged fields, such as economics or climate science.
Overused or not, let’s take a look at whether the word applies. A quick look at Wikipedia shows that it does not. Granted, there’s a missing citation, but Wikipedia spells it out for us: “During the 1970s and early 1980s, the majority of NPR funding came from the federal government. Steps were taken during the 1980s to completely wean NPR from government support, but the 1983 funding crisis forced the network to make immediate changes.” So certainly there is some precedent to this outrageous turn of events. Who would have known? Inconceivable!: 1. Move On: 0.
Here’s another fun bit of language: “extremists.” This article at Reuters shows that the bill passed 228 to 192 in the House. Is Move On implying that all of the Republicans who voted to defund NPR are extremists, or that there is a small cadre of extremists running the show? Clearly we are experiencing the pinnacle of political honesty and the very epitome of delivering hard-hitting facts to petitioners. Or maybe Move On is trying to gull people into signing a petition. Exaggeration: 1. Move On: 0.
Now let’s take a look at the petition text itself: “”Congress must protect NPR and PBS and guarantee them permanent funding, free from political meddling.”” Now there’s a doozy. “Protect NPR and PBS”? “Permanent funding”? “Political meddling”? There are a couple of big assumptions in there. The first is that NPR and PBS are somehow integral to this country of ours and, moreover, that no future generation could ever decide otherwise. Maybe I’m misreading the word “permanent,” but if this petition is to have any hope of preventing bills such as HB 1076, the one cutting federal NPR funding, from passing into law, there will have to be no way for Congress to get rid of NPR and PBS funding at any point in the future. Not if they become defunct. Not if they become unnecessary (assuming they were necessary in the first place, which I’m not sold on). Not if their quality goes down the tubes and they can’t get private funding or viewer donations anymore. We are so certain that none of the above will happen that we are willing to give them “permanent funding” from the federal government.
The second assumption is that cuts to federal funding constitute “political meddling.” To avoid the risk of projecting, or at least sounding like it, I won’t say that Move On’s support of NPR and PBS is solely because they believe the stations serve their political goals. Let’s instead go with the assumptions that: 1) Move On firmly believes that there should be publicly-run radio and television stations, and 2) these stations should be politically unbiased. In that case, what better way to avoid “political meddling” than to remove the federal government from the equation? Without the lever of funding to be used against it, NPR and PBS wouldn’t have to suck up to the party in power for funding or hush their criticisms to avoid having their funding cut. Suddenly Congress can’t use money to lead NPR around by a string! No “political meddling,” as opposed to the “permanent funding” model where Congress would have a direct means of controlling NPR’s growth.
The third assumption, and it’s a big one, is that NPR and PBS need protecting. Let’s work with NPR here, as PBS doesn’t seem to be on the chopping block just yet. According to an FAQ on NPR’s own site, “NPR receives no direct funding from the federal government. Less than two percent of the budget is derived from competitive grants from federally funded organizations such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Science Foundation, and National Endowment for the Arts.” This matches the two percent of funding that Reuters says NPR receives from the federal government.
There are some discrepancies with Republicans’ claim that the cuts would save up to $60 million annually (again at Reuters). NPR’s revenues were $164 million in 2009, according to Wikipedia, so unless there’s something large I’m missing here (the sentence “under the bill, affiliate stations could not use federal funds to pay for NPR-produced programs or to pay member dues” strikes me as having potential hidden implications), 2% off $164 million is closer to $3 million than $60 million. There’s also the issue of the funding coming through “competitive grants from federally funded organizations,” which to me means that the money from the CPB and similar organizations will simply go elsewhere rather than being saved. Thus, at the moment, cutting funding to NPR doesn’t look like it will make a huge impact on the budget.
On the other hand, it doesn’t look like it will make a huge impact on NPR either. I’m not exactly sure what that $3.28 million buys, but I doubt it’s what pushes NPR past its breaking point in terms of funding. So we can more or less take the monetary argument off the table for either side: NPR isn’t the biggest fish to fry when it comes to budget cutbacks, and its existence isn’t seriously threatened by the cuts. Let’s also take the political argument off the table: support for or opposition towards NPR funding has nothing to do with any perceived bias in its content. We’ve given the benefit of the doubt to Move On on that topic, so we’ll give it to the Republicans as well, simply because it’s difficult to prove what a group’s motivations are unless they explicitly state them (and even then you have to be wary) and arguing about it boils down to Democrat/Republican politics as usual: whoever is in power gets to make the decisions. What that leaves is an ideological argument, over whether the federal government should provide funding of any form to NPR. Cost doesn’t matter, NPR’s survival is guaranteed in either case, and party politics factor in only when you’re counting the votes.
So. Should the federal government fund NPR?
I’ll tackle this question next time.