Thursday, July 15, 2010

Subsidize the Media?

Lee Bollinger, ex-Provost of Dartmouth College and current President of Columbia University, wrote in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that we should consider public funding of the press.

You cannot be serious.

Sure, I can see the arguments -- we fund research in academia, and that is unbiased. Plus we fund NPR and hey, the British have the rock solid BBC. As an economist, can't I see all the positive externalities coming from the New York Times?

Bollinger states that in regard to public funding of academic research,
...there have been strikingly few instances of government abuse. Indeed, the most problematic funding issues in academic research come from alliances with the corporate sector.

Well, I wonder what evidence he has to support this claim. In my view, government funding of research is great at pushing forward the mainstream, generally accepted vision. Climate science is a great example.

Bollinger's argument shows why you cannot use the standard kind of economic efficiency arguments on everything. If we agree to subsidize everything that gives positive externalities at the margin, where will we stop? There are way too many activities that generate benefits that cannot be appropriated through market transactions. A free market is not going to be perfect in that regard. But holding it to the standard of optimality is not right. We have to compare it to the real alternative, which would be public funding of some activities. Can you imagine what it would look like if we were to start funding the media. (Hint: What would happen to Fox? Or Drudge?)

PS. There once was a time when I used to listen to the BBC on a shortwave radio, they were so good. That time is long past.

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