The lowlight of the first debate for Big Bird fans was Romney's turning to moderator Jim Lehrer and saying: "I'm sorry, Jim, I'm going to stop this subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things -- and I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it."
You might have thought Romney had threatened to cancel Christmas, shutter the candy factory and close the orphanage. Charles Blow, a columnist for The New York Times, speaking for Bird lovers everywhere, leapt to the defense of the bird that taught him everything he knows about colors and dancing numbers.
"Big Bird is the man," he wrote in the purple ink so beloved by the friends of the Bird. "He's 8 feet tall. He can sing and roller skate and ride a unicycle and dance. Can you do that, Mr. Romney?"
Probably not, but he can lay out a case for preserving reality and redeeming the mortgage that China holds on the home of the brave. Romney understands that spending money we don't have on every frill that catches a child's eye becomes a moral issue, and how the government spends the public's money demands paying attention to hard choices. Every cut is sacred to someone. If Big Bird is so crucial to educating the republic, why not cut something else? (Charlie Rose? Bill Moyers?)
There's a reason why Sesame Street, delightful though it may be, is attractive to a culture addicted to ease, dancing colors and nonstop entertainment. Children raised on the Street get a distorted image of how hard real learning can be. Math, algebra, geometry and calculus are not about colors, feathers and dancing numbers. Generations of students can tell you that "math is difficult," as Barbie once put it, to the chagrin of feminists who thought her remark from her high-tech implant degraded female mathematical aptitude.
Mitt Romney's astonishing resetting of the campaign was about more than Big Bird's government subsidy. George Bush the elder might say it was about "the vision thing." The vision thing is something that neither Republicans nor Democrats are very good at articulating, but tucked into Mr. Romney's discussion of the killer deficit was that five-letter word, "moral," which sounds almost quaint to contemporary ears:
"I think it's not just an economic issue, I think it's a moral issue. I think it's frankly not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in knowing those burdens are going to be passed on to the next generation and they're going to pay the interest and the principle all their lives."
Let's not give Big Bird airs. If the defenders of learning math on Sesame Street find dancing numbers so valuable, how is it that almost nobody understands the numbers of the deficit? The money earned from Sesame's spinoffs can surely take care of the Bird and the Muppets into their old age, but the dancing numbers of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid need a new choreographer. That's both a moral issue as well as a math problem.
Since Sesame Street first went on the air, the math and science scores of American kids, reckoned against the world's, have been dismal. I'm not suggesting a cause and effect, but for all of its terrific entertainment value, Sesame Street develops an appetite for passive learning, liberally dusted with powdered sugar. We shouldn't get carried away admiring the "educational" benefits of public television, which has become a little bit old-fashioned.
The important point Romney raised in the debate was about the moral choices a society must face looking forward to a bankrupt future. The issue of what the government does and doesn't fund shouldn't be trivialized, as President Obama trivialized it in a post-debate attempt at humor: "Gov. Romney plans to let Wall Street run wild again, but he's bringing the hammer down on Sesame Street."
In "Street Gang," a history of Sesame Street, television producer Joan Cooney compares the show's concept as offering an education as ice cream instead of spinach. But as every child eventually learns, sometimes you've got to eat your spinach.