If you think Big Bird is breaking the bank, be glad you're not paying for Schnappi

One of Mitt Romney's biggest laugh lines in last night's debate was a promise to cut funding for PBS, essentially vowing to fire debate moderator Jim Lehrer of the PBS Newshour as well as America's favorite freakishly tall, ambiguously speciesed bird: 

I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you too. But I’m not going to -- I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it

PBS and NPR are popular rhetorical targets for conservatives, both for their perceived liberal bias and the fact that Americans think they pay a lot more for them than they actually do. According to a 2011 poll, 40 percent of Americans think the Corporation for Public Broadcasting receives 1-5 percent of the federal budget. 30 percent believe it receives 5 percent or more. The number, at the time, was closer to .00014 percent. 

It's worth putting this in international context as well. A 2011 report by Rodney Benson and Matthew Powers of NYU’s Department of Media, Culture and Communication, compared U.S. funding for public broadcasting to 14 other developed countries. This chart shows the results:

Keep in mind that the number for the United States here includes state and local funding. The federal appropriation for the CPB -- which, it bears repeating, does not pay for the majority of local or national public broadcasting -- for fiscal year 2013 is $445 million, less than every country on the list except for Ireland. It's also less than the more than $2 billion the BBC recently cut from its budget -- a reduction considered a severe blow to programming.

The report also found that U.S. per capita spending on public broadcasting is around $4, compared to  $30 to $134 for the other countries on the list. And if you think that $4 is still too much for a service few Americans take advantage of, consider that significantly more Americans tune in to NP's Morning Edition and All Things Considered than the nightly newscasts on NBC, CBS, and ABC. 

This is not to say that the U.S. should emulate these other countries. American readers of Haruki Murakami's  novel 1Q84 were probably somewhat confused by a character who works as an NHK subscription fee collector, going door to door to collect payments for Japan's completely state-funded broadcaster. Annoying as they are, pledge drives are quite a bit less intrusive.

And beloved as the singing baby crocodile Schnappi may be by children throughout Europe, even the most devoted PBS viewers are probably fine with the U.S. not spending $10 billion on public broadcasting like Germany -- Europe's top spender -- does. 

But given how the world's largest economy stacks up to its peers when it comes to public broadcasting spending, maybe it's time to give Big Bird a break. 


Spain reacts to Romney's Spanish cautionary tale

Update: Spaniards woke up today to the news that Mitt Romney had decided to single out their country for fiscal irresponsibility, and many are not happy. María Dolores de Cospedal, the secretary-general of the ruling People's Party, told the radio service RNE that "Spain is not on fire through and through as some on the outside would have us believe," noting that Romney's remarks "upset me deeply" and that Spain "has also been a model for economic recovery." She conceded that "our image has been damaged and regaining confidence is very difficult" but added that Spain "is in the eye of the hurricane" for a reason -- "there are many people who have a lot of interest in the euro not being stable and there are some who believe that the easiest thing to do is to attack Spain." (Cospedal was also responding to a recent New York Times article on widespread poverty in the country.)

Other Spanish leaders have lashed out at Romney as well. José Manuel García-Margallo, the minister of foreign affairs and cooperation, said it was "very unfortunate" that Romney had made "tenuous analogies" without "understanding the reality of countries" like Spain. Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, the justice minister, didn't catch the debate but pledged to "correct misperceptions" about Spain. 

Beyond the official responses, the Spanish press is chewing over Romney's comments as well. Headlines include "The Prescription for Spain's Bad Image Is Self-Esteem" and "Romney Didn't Speak the Truth About Spain." Spain is "in bad shape," blogger Martí Saballs admitted at La Expansión, but "to make it an example of a country that the United States shouldn't imitate strikes me as an extraordinary frivolity."

Original post: It may be early morning in Spain right now, but news outlets in the country quickly seized on Mitt Romney's warning during the presidential debate on Wednesday night that if the United States didn't get its fiscal house in order, it could end up like Spain, which is currently grappling with sky high unemployment and steep borrowing costs, and may soon receive a European bailout.

"Spain spends 42 percent of their total economy on government," Romney noted, veering away from the European cautionary tale he most often trots out on the campaign trail: Greece. "We're now spending 42 percent of our economy on government. I don't want to go down the path to Spain." Here's the clip, via Slate:

Within minutes of Romney's remark, Spain's major news outlets lit up with the news. Here's El Pais, with the headline, "Romney: 'I don't want us to go down the path of Spain.'"

And El Mundo, with the banner, "Mitt Romney: 'I don't want to follow the path of Spain.'"

And ABC, with the headline, "Romney: 'Spain spends 42 percent of its economy on government. I don't want to be like Spain.'"

Romney didn't specify his source for the statistics, but he may have gotten his numbers from the Index of Economic Freedom, which the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, publishes each year in partnership with the Wall Street Journal. According to the 2012 Index, America's government expenditure as a percentage of GDP is 42 percent and Spain's is 46 percent (Greece's is 53 percent, which perhaps explains why Romney landed on an ailing European country whose situation was more in line with America's). It's important to keep in mind that government expenditure data in the Index includes federal, state, and local spending. 

What are people in Spain making of Romney's remarks? The commentary won't surface until tomorrow, but El Mundo hosted a colorful live blog that included several opinions from its journalists (some of whom are reporting from the States). "Publicizing how well things are going for us," Felipe Sahagún observed drily. "If only for this, it would be better for us to stick with Obama. At least he doesn't stick his finger in our eye."

"Romney has a special obsession with Europe," Eduardo Suárez noted, adding that the GOP candidate has cited Spain before. "He often cites it as an example of everything the United States shouldn't be." Another reporter pointed to IMF statistics on U.S. and Spanish government spending under the heading, "electoral lies."

One commenter on the site had a more pessimistic view. After complaining about the Spanish government's taxes, the reader added, "Well of course you don't want the path of Spain. Who would?"