Politico has excerpts from an upcoming Mitt Romney interview in Fortune magazine, in which the Republican presidential candidate expounds on his plan to shrink the federal government and reduce spending. Depressingly, but not surprisingly, he targets arts funding, saying:
[F]irst there are programs I would eliminate. Obamacare being one of them but also various subsidy programs — the Amtrak subsidy, the PBS subsidy, the subsidy for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf.
This means not a reduction in the funding for PBS or either of the National Endowments but complete elimination. Goodbye, NEA! It’s been a wild ride. (On a side note: Amtrak is already a hot mess. Privatizing it would seem to be the last nail in the coffin of nationwide public transport. Americans love their damn cars so much it makes me sick.)
Over at the Washingon Post, Ezra Klein points out how little money would actually be saved from cutting these programs, especially when you consider that Romney’s goal — to reduce federal spending and balance the budget — would require $9.6 trillion in non-defense cuts by 2022:
Here’s how it breaks down: In fiscal year 2012, the federal government spent $1.42 billion on Amtrak, $444 million on PBS, and $146 million on the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. Getting rid of all these subsidies would have saved the government about $2 billion this year — chump change relative to the scale of cuts that Romney wants.
You could, of course, make the argument that every little bit counts, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But there’s a larger conversation here, about the role of the federal government in arts funding. Should we expect it — or at this point, after decades of struggling to hold on to just a little piece of the pie, should we let it go? Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress sums up the bigger philosophical question, about the role of the government:
Should the government perform functions only that we believe shouldn’t be allowed to be controlled by private interests, like control, regulation, and deployment of the armed forces? Or should it step into voids left by private enterprise and personal charity when there are important functions that don’t appear to be supported by the market?
But the issue is further complicated by the fact there’s more than one government — we have federal, state, and city governments, and funding is offered at all different levels. If we decide that promoting, say, a poetry program in schools is simply not the job of the federal government, does that then give a green light to local governments to drop the arts, too? Could it create a chain reaction down the line, until we end up with arts organizations left completely to fend for themselves, relying solely on endowments and private donors?
Then again, some might say that wouldn’t be the end of the world.
A big part of the problem, too, is that even though the arts do offer real-world economic benefits, they also offer intangible ones whose worth can’t be objectively measured and turned into an infographic. That makes arguing for funding a perpetually uphill battle. Maybe we would save ourselves some time and effort if we just let the governments do whatever they want — although arts organizations would still have to make their case, just to potential donors and voters instead.
Rosenberg astutely points out, though, that we’re not even having the right conversation yet. Romney is simply following in a long line of Republicans who have used claims of cutting arts funding as a diversionary tactic, a way to appeal to conservative voters without having to talk about what a smaller government would actually look like. Until that happens, PBS, the NEA and the NEH will continue to be used as pawns — knocked off the board by one politician and then tentatively placed back on by another.
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