Hey, look! The United States Senate, that allegedly august body, went ahead and passed the Coburn amendement, which prevents any of the stimulus money currently being considered in our nation’s capital from being spent on the arts. By a 73-24 vote! Let’s party like it’s 1989! (Darcy, as always, has a good roundup of links and righteousness.)
Having been alive and reasonably mentally alert since the Reagan era (It’s morning in America! No, you can’t have any coffee) I can’t say I’m surprised, nor will I spend much time pointing out that, politically speaking, this is just standard demagogic crap. In fact, I wasn’t going to write anything at all about this, since anything I did write would just be repeating things I’ve already written. But since 1) according to the Senate, I apparently don’t have a real job anyway, and 2) we bleeding hearts do like to recycle, I will once again spell out why, if you’re objecting to the arts being included in a stimulus plan on economic grounds, your grasp of political economy might leave something to be desired.
So, some salient points. First off, It’s a stimulus plan. I saw recently where Greg Sandow, either out of disingenuousness, sloppiness, or ignorance—take three shots if you’re making this into a drinking game—kept referring to an arts “bailout,” an obfuscatory rhetorical trope I’ve been seeing lately from opponents of the current bill. So, just in case some of that is not simply cynical misinformation: a stimulus is not a bailout. The object of the bill at hand is not to bail out the arts or anything else—unlike the handouts that automakers, &c. were lining up for a couple months back. The object is to get the economy out of its current stagnation. The economic theories this is based on come from John Maynard Keynes. Keynes is not uncontroversial—I happen to think he knew a thing or two about the pounds and shillings, but there are very smart people who demur—but if you’re going to sniff at the stimulus, you’d better be prepared to say why The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money is mathematically unsound, rather than just screaming bailout! on cable TV.
Now, it’s not hard to find assertions that the arts shouldn’t be part of a stimulus, because, unlike manufacturing jobs, jobs in the arts don’t produce anything concrete. First of all: have you ever tried to move a piano? Second of all: in this economy? Doesn’t matter. For over a century, the engine of economic health has been consumption, not production. The economy hums when people are spending money, and frankly, the economy doesn’t care where that money comes from. The idea that the hundred bucks I get for a few hours of accompanying has less spending power than the hundred bucks a factory worker gets for a few hours of assembling widgets is economically preposterous. If your house is on fire, you don’t worry about whether firemen are using filtered water or not.
A related foofaraw is that there are more important things to spend money on than the arts. Even if you think that (I don’t, but I’m biased), you’re still talking about things, and not about the economy. Remember, the whole point of a stimulus is to jump-start the economy by getting people to spend more money. Which is why I laughed out loud, with a little snort at the end, even, when I read the supposed purpose of the Coburn amendment:
Purpose: To ensure that taxpayer money is not lost on wasteful and non-stimulative projects
Arts money is non-stimulative? Every arts organization I know spends money as fast as they can get it. Every artist I know lives paycheck to paycheck. Compared with the banks, some of whom are still sitting on their supposedly stimulative TARP billions, money for the arts would get pumped into the economy with the indiscriminate speed of an Yngwie Malmsteen solo.
But who am I kidding? Arguments like this are never about economics. They’re about scoring political points. And the Coburns of this country can always score political points by whacking the arts. Why? Because we let them.
I heard a talk by high-level diplomat once—the Chatham House rule prevents me from saying who, but this is someone who’s carried more than one difficult brief—and that diplomat had this advice for negotiating with tyrants and dictators: get in their face, and stay there. Because if you’re not in their face, someone else will be in their face, undoing any progress you might have already made. If you want to know why the NEA is still getting shafted over a $50-million supplement—an amount of money that would fund four hours of the Iraq War—there’s your answer. Artists have been playing nice. Someone else has been in the government’s face.
What those people dismissing cabinet-level arts representation don’t get is that—forget an acknowledgement of cultural and economic importance—even benign neglect requires constant advocacy. (Would you like to lay odds that the tax-deductibility of philanthropic donations to arts organizations comes under renewed scrutiny in the next few years—without a corresponding boost in governmental support?) The engine of American politics runs on money and false zero-sum mentalities. If you want to change that: get in their face.
Look: maybe the Coburn amendment is just the usual grandstanding. Maybe the thin slice of the stimulus in the House version will be restored in conference. Maybe Senator Coburn, once the economic crisis begins to pass, will happily vote for a substantial increase in arts funding as part of the normal appropriations process. (Whoops, I snorted again.) Maybe the administration has a master plan for making sure that the best artists and the arts can expect from their representative government is something more than ignorance. You know what? They better.