The Congress and the Deficit

Big Bird’s Issues

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Oct 11, 2012    •    643 Views

All the talk about Big Bird and federal funding is really about 2 much bigger issues.

1. Discretionary Spending

With proposed spending in the Obama 2013 budget at 3.7 trillion dollars, a tiny proportion–between 1 and 2 percent, goes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). In fact, add to CPB money, the EPA, the entire judicial brach of government, homeland security, education, transportation, agriculture, foreign policy, NASA, and other discretionary categories (except defense) and you approach 15 percent of all federal spending.

The other 85%?

  • Social Security
  • Health and Human Services (primarily Medicare and Medicaid)
  • the Interest on the Debt
  • Defense


You can see that for real deficit reduction, we need to focus on 3 mandatory (required by law) budget components and defense–not Big Bird and not discretionary spending.

2. Lighthouses

Would Big Bird pass the lighthouse test? Economists like to point out that when we try to decide what government should pay for, we can start with a lighthouse. Used by anyone, depleted by no one, and a necessity, a lighthouse would be tough to fund privately. So government should step in.

The lighthouse test is a handy start for deciding what should be covered by federal funds.

Sources and Resources: This NY Times interactive graphic is a superb shortcut for illustrating and understanding the federal budget. Also very well done, the NPR Planet Money podcast on public goods was fascinating.

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