NPR and PBS aren't free lunches for the poor

Are NPR and PBS redistributing wealth upward by receiving government subsidies?

Antony Nagelmann/NPR via WirePix/Medialin/File
Russian President Vladimir Putin takes questions from callers during a special broadcast on NPR News in New York on Thursday, November 15, 2001. NPR and PBS receive some government funding, but is it fair?

In the comments on an earlier post, my good friend and former neighbor Stephen Haptonstahl took issue with my claim that NPR and PBS redistribute wealth upward. Scroll down a bit; he points out that “[t]he median NPR listener makes $86K. The median tax dollar comes from someone who made over $150K.” It’s a fair point, but I’m pretty sure that the poor bear at least some of the economic incidence (if not the statutory incidence) of Federal taxes. Also, various state and local public broadcasting organizations get money from state and local governments. Here’s a quote from our local public media organization’s Annual Report:

WKNO presented Tennessee Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey with the “Tennessee Legislator of the Year” Award for his help in securing state appropriations for the Tennessee public television stations and for being instrumental in getting the financial support necessary for the Tennessee stations to complete their digital transitions.

At least some of these dollars are coming from the pockets of the poor through sales taxes.

Further, a staple of introductory economics classes is that the economic incidence of taxes on buyers or sellers of goods is independent of its statutory incidence. I’ve asked friends who are familiar with this literature, and they aren’t aware of any good studies that try to estimate the economic incidence of taxes on labor, capital, etc. There are many taxes for which the statutory incidence on the poor is zero, but I’m pretty sure the economic incidence is not zero. Such a set of estimates would be an excellent contribution. If you’re not familiar with the economic incidence/statutory incidence discussion, here’s a bit of Google to get you started.

Quick update at 1:12 PM: From a distributional perspective, I see NPR and PBS as being a lot like city-owned and operated golf courses and swimming pools. In the case of golf courses in particular, I’m pretty sure that golfers’ incomes are generally higher than the incomes of the taxpayers who are footing part of the bill. Here’s what I wrote about it a couple of years ago.

Quick update at 1:45 PM, lest I mis-characterize Steve’s point: Steve argued that NPR and PBS look more “like redistribution from rich to middle class.” There are still upward redistributions involved, and I should also say that NPR and PBS are very small potatoes relative to other wasteful and perversely redistributive programs.

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