Friday, May 6, 2011

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

I worked briefly for an eccentric state senator who was renowned for his support of the arts. Interestingly, I worked for him just as Michigan’s new governor, rotund Republican John Engler, was changing school funding procedures, throwing the mentally ill out on the street, eliminating public assistance programs – leading poor people and their advocates to sleep in tents on the Capitol lawn in protest – and proposing significant cuts in general fund spending on environmental protection, arts and cultural affairs, and other “extravagances.” My new boss was unhappy and cantankerous and my tenure on his staff was short. I blame the experience on art.

This was when I first heard the expression, “penny wise and pound foolish” – my boss used it on the floor of the State Senate while railing against the governor's budget. Although I considered myself a cultured fellow who appreciated the finer things in life as well as bowling, beer and babes, I struggled internally with the question of whether we should be spending millions of taxpayer dollars to enable artists to sculpt, paint and perform while people were sleeping in tents and being told by state officials that they needed to “learn to be survivors.” Was civilization really falling, I wondered, just because museums were shortening their hours and galleries were canceling shows?

I didn’t realize until later that fiscal responsibility wasn’t at the heart of the conflict. What was happening, I learned, was that a conservative politician was enacting policies that suited his ideology and personal preferences and disingenuously doing so in the name of budget balancing. He wasn’t representing the people who foolishly elected him; he was trying to make the state reflect Utopia as only he and his ilk defined it.

This is what’s happening here now, too, and in Madison and Columbus and Indianapolis and Augusta and DC and Topeka and elsewhere where conservatives are calling the shots. Rather than representing their constituents and truly trying to get more bang for the public buck, Republican politicians are presenting their Utopia-building and government-shrinking and union-busting as the right thing to do economically even as nonpartisan economists are crying, “Foul!”

The United States spent an estimated $25 billion on foreign aid in 2008. What do the feds spend on arts and culture here at home? The 2011 budget for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is $168 million. (President Obama has proposed cutting this number by $22 million for 2012.) This investment brings:

  • 5.7 million full-time equivalent jobs
  • $104.2 billion in household income
  • $7.9 billion in local government tax revenues
  • $9.1 billion in state government tax revenues
  • $12.6 billion in federal income tax revenues

Notice that our largest source of direct national funding generates a tax return of 75 times the initial investment? Spending on the arts sure pays off, huh? Yet I heard on Michigan Public Radio this morning that my state now ranks 48th in the nation in arts spending. (I wonder why conservatives want to do away with public radio.) Enjoy your Utopia, Republicans.

Sources:, Michigan Public Radio, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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