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Vizzini’s Law and Petition Analysis

March 20, 2011

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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. socialistocrat permalink
    March 21, 2011 2:31 am

    Welcome to the blog aptronym238!

    I’m so glad someone looks at the petitions I post on Facebook (and I’m really glad you decided to post, maybe this will inspire the neocon and myself to get back on this).

    I enjoyed your post but it made me want to explain why I signed the petition. The petition to which I placed my name stated, “Congress must protect NPR and PBS and guarantee them permanent funding, free from political meddling.” This is a two-pronged request (or dual-mandate…good times, man). The first request is that Congress preserves public broadcasting and the second is that Congress funds this broadcasting without intellectual interference or litmus tests. Both of these are reasonable goals I support.

    Issue One: Funding. Protect and fund are the same thing. Congress is in charge of the Government’s purse strings and derives its power from this role. We who signed the petition recognize the importance, worth, and necessity of npr and public broadcasting and are calling on congress to protect/fund it. I need to say that I signed this knowing no funding is ever, nor should it be, “permanent.” The language is strong to convey the intensity of the position, commitment to permanent funding is beyond what is really expected but speaks to the level of support for public broadcasting, much like a high initial request in negotiations.

    Issue Two: Political Meddling. This issue states that public radio and television should never have to jump one ideological hoop or another to guarantee its funding. Not funding npr because of some libertarian belief that government should do as little as possible, though extremely misguided in my opinion, at least does not attempt to influence the content of the broadcasting. What this part of the petition is working towards is preventing direct government control over which stories get reported and how. That is what congress could do if it funded or defunded based on content. It’s a scary prospect and one about which I am more than willing to sign a petition.

    Finally, I wanted to say why I think we should fund npr. Npr deserves to be funded because it’s the right thing to do. I think Government can be good. Government funds medical research, projects in the arts and humanities, scholarships, foreign aid and, yes, npr and pbs. These things are not strictly speaking ,”essential” and I understand why some oppose them, but these constitute signs of our progress as a society and they represent what I want my government, and my country doing. I might right a longer post on this topic later, but I wanted you to know where I’m coming from.

    Again, thank you for writing. PLEASE post again, and soon. I promise I will post soon too.


  2. aptronym238 permalink
    March 21, 2011 5:38 am

    Thanks for the feedback! I popped in to post my follow-up (I should be sleeping) wherein I learn more about the number and thus get sidetracked from the philosophical argument, and I saw your comment. Regarding your remarks:

    Issue One: It looks like federal funding accounts for 2% (this post’s analysis) to as much as 12% (the next post’s revision, but a very circumstantial and unlikely upper cap) of NPR’s revenue. While losing this funding might require some changes, it’s clearly not make-or-break for the existence of the foundation: federal funding is only marginally “protecting” NPR. Suppose it were. Suppose it had managed to lose the majority of its private funding, so that the government’s protection was the only thing keeping it running. Wouldn’t this be a strong indicator that NPR was no longer wanted by the public, or that it had failed sufficiently to deliver quality content that it could no longer find support? Wouldn’t government protection be necessary (knowing how we do that NPR is capable of succeeding driven by a majority of private funding) only in situations of NPR’s gross failure? And wouldn’t NPR’s dependence on this funding in such a circumstance make it vulnerable to exactly the kind of bullying you fear from Congress? Perhaps there are some middle cases where government funding helps NPR through a rough patch, as happened in 1983 while the government was withdrawing most of its funding, but by and large this “protection” would only be used to protect a failed institution.

    Issue Two: Again, defunding is a one-trick pony and one that would not be terribly effective at that. Once defunding occurs, if NPR is still standing (as it looks like it might be capable of), NPR has the power to resist Congress’s monetary attempts at control, something it cannot do if the funding is critical to its survival. Conversely, a federally-funded NPR would always have the risk of the government pulling the plug when it had become dependent. While a federal funding-free NPR would always have the temptation of seeking or accepting funding, all this would do is bring it back into the same trap and willingly subject it to control. Better to be off the drug of government funding than looking for your next fix, I say, but my opinion aside, how would you propose NPR be kept free from the favoritism of politics? It’s clear from current proceedings that Congress still holds the purse strings, even with the CPB acting as an intermediary. Direct control makes NPR even more sensitive, and it’s next to impossible to regulate motivations (or Congress, for that matter), so laws concerning the reasons for funding changes would be unfeasible. Long-term funding decisions might work as an insulator against political change (along the lines of the slow rotation of Fed chairmen), but that removes the ability of Congress to act to protect NPR in unforeseen circumstances without breaking its own regulations. How would you design a system to protect a federally-funded entity from the risks of being federally funded?

    Bonus Issue: This is more or less what I figured the argument for NPR’s funding would be. “The right thing to do” sounds nice, but I’m curious to know how you’d define it. Moreover, how would you choose between one “right thing” and another? And how would you measure the costs and secondary effects of said “right things,” particularly in regards to the taxes required to finance them and the effects on private markets and individual liberties? An extreme example is health care: a public option would clearly have an effect on the private market and would certainly require a financial analysis, not to mention the questions of personal choice involved in the implementation (i.e., related health concerns as a cost to the state) of such a system. If such a plan required more money than anticipated, what programs would you cut to fund its operations, assuming a certain level of taxation is impractical? Is there a set of guidelines you can point to that would govern these decisions, over what constitutes “the right thing to do,” how to measure its effects, and how to choose between the options given finite resources? How do you plan to protect these decisions, the ones funded by public money, from falling prey to special interest groups or unilateral pressure the way you fear NPR could if its funding were used against it by Congress? What sort of signals would the government look at to determine whether a project was a success or a failure, particularly given the incentives to claim a success in spite of reality? And does your vision of what you’d like your government to be doing have at its center the government’s more traditional duties, or are they incidental to the outward signs of progress the government can implement? I’d like to point out that you’ve made a great case for why private citizens and organizations should fund NPR, assuming you buy into the quality of its programming: “It’s the right thing to do.” On a national level, however, you run into the aforementioned complexities simply by involving the federal government in trying to actively find right things to do.


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