Get real

As promised, even more beard-stroking on the question of arts funding.

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. (It’s also Charles Darwin’s birthday. It’s also my wife’s birthday. Coincidence? I think not.) Last night, President Obama made these remarks at the rededication of Ford’s Theatre:

We know that Ford’s Theatre will remain a place where Lincoln’s legacy thrives, where his love of the humanities and belief in the power of education have a home, and where his generosity of spirit are reflected in all the work that takes place.

This has been an extraordinarily fitting tribute to Abraham Lincoln that we’ve seen and heard from some of our most celebrated icons of stage and of screen, because Lincoln himself was a great admirer of the arts. [MG: ceremonies included the awarding of the Lincoln Medal to Sidney Poitier and George Lucas. George Lucas? Anyway, back to Lincoln:] It’s said he could even quote portions of Hamlet and Macbeth by heart, as we’ve seen here this evening. And so I somehow think this event captured an essential part of the man whose life we celebrate tonight.

Not far from here stands our nation’s capitol, a landmark familiar to us all, but one that looked very different in Lincoln’s time. For it remained unfinished until the end of the war. The laborers who built the dome came to work wondering whether each day would be their last; whether the metal they were using for its frame would be requisitioned for the war and melted down into bullets. But each day went by without any orders to halt construction—so they kept on working and they kept on building.

When President Lincoln was finally told of all the metal being used at the Capitol, his response was short and clear: That is as it should be. The American people needed to be reminded, he believed, that even in a time of war, the work would go on; that even when the nation itself was in doubt, the future was being secured; and that on that distant day when the guns fell silent, a national capitol would stand, with a statue of freedom at its peak, as a symbol of unity in the land still mending its divisions.

There’s your stimulus priorities: education in the lede, construction in the main story. No doubt this is reflective of political realities, and Obama is nothing if not a political realist. (Who knows? Maybe trying to sneak $50 million in arts funding back into the stimulus while doing one’s best not to mention the subject counts as pragmatism.) But let’s bounce something unrealistic off of that.

As part of a proposed transition to a society in which self-organized groups contribute more to what he calls “high-energy democracy,” the legal/political philosopher Robert Unger suggests this:

An example of such a reform would be to reserve part of the tax favor received by tax-protected charitable gifts to independent social trust funds, administered by trustees drawn from different walks of life. Groups in civil society could apply to such funds for grants, as they now do to private foundations. We would have expanded the resource base of voluntary action.

—Roberto Unger, False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, from Politics (new edition), p. xcviii

It’s easy to imagine what this would look like in an arts funding context. Donations to arts organizations would still be tax-deductible, but on the receiving end, the NEA would skim off a percentage. Sound like a scam? Actually, it happens all the time—it’s not uncommon in colleges and universities, for example. If I give $100 to my alma mater’s scholarship fund, I’m really only giving a portion of that—maybe $85 to $95. The remainder is taken by the university to cover operating budgets and administrative costs. (In reality, they would levy the assessment on the payout side. But you get the idea.)

According to the the NEA, charitable contributions to United States arts organizations totaled $13.5 billion in 2005 (the last year for which there’s data). A one-percent levy on that almost equals the NEA’s current yearly budget. A five-percent levy—and here’s where things get interesting—would, in six years, collect enough money (just over $4 billion) that the NEA could maintain their current funding level on interest alone, making the Endowment an actual endowment. (I’m assuming a standard four-percent endowment payout.)

I can think of objections aplenty to this plan, though some of them are mitigated:

  • It won’t change anyone’s mind in Congress about arts funding. I don’t know, I think you could make a case: it’s money the government wouldn’t get anyway; it rewards private initiative; it could gradually wean the NEA off of budgetary appropriations. Try that one, Tom Coburn: give it six years, and you never have to worry about funding the arts again!
  • Donors would be ticked off. Yeah, probably. But that doesn’t stop them from giving to universities and colleges. Stanford levies 8 percent; Yale 12 percent; Harvard varies by school, but tops out at 20 percent. Harvard still raised $651 million last year.
  • Private donors would give less. That’s what traditional economics predicts, but as has been noted in this space, the available data suggests the opposite: that increased government spending on the arts creates more private philanthropy.

Here’s the fundamental objection to our funding plan, though. Is it realistic? Are you kidding? It’s not realistic at all. But what arts organizations and advocates should be asking—what they haven’t been asking for far too long—is why something like that is so unrealistic. Why do we take it for granted that such a scheme—any scheme that ambitious—isn’t likely to come to fruition? Because of governments? Markets? Both? Does it go against “human nature”? If so, is that nature unchangeable, or the result of societal structures that we assume are inherent and inevitable? The crucial question: what if they’re not?

Go back to that last point in the list for a minute, which circles back around to Unger, in a way. Traditional economics often seems to malfunction when dealing with the arts; while one might think that there must be some other economic factors at work, Unger raises the possibility that economics itself is coming up short. While we like to think that institutions and their structures are responses to our beliefs, our nature, &c., Unger continually insists on the reverse—that human nature, the “natural” laws governing politics and economics are actually the result of our institutional structures. If the arts don’t follow economic “rules,” that may be because the structures of arts organizations are crucially different. And if that’s true, then economic or political “reality” may be malleable in as much as we make the corresponding institutions malleable.

Here’s what Unger has to say about realism:

Deriding both popular mobilization and ideological contests, this disenchanted idea of politics sees its work to strike compromises with powerful interests, the better to solve disparate practical problems. It imagines the existence of a range of “issues,” each of them calling for sober solutions that respect the constraints of political as well as technical feasibility…. Once established, this conception of politics in turn bestows a halo of realism on the arrangements and practices that made it plausible in the first place.

The votaries of this deflationary view of politics flatter themselves on their own realism. They believe that they have discarded the dangerous romantic illusions of an earlier age. They pride themselves on their practical attitude. Nevertheless, the outcome of their false practicality is to leave politics paralyzed, and the basic recognized problems of each society unsolved.

The reason for this apparent paradox is simple. The fundamental problems of a society—both those it acknowledges and those it does not—are entangled in its organization, and in the ideas that represent and sustain it. We cannot solve such problems until we reorganize some of the established arrangements and revise some of the entrenched assumptions. We do not need to reorganize them altogether, or all at once; in fact, we never can. If, however, we treat politics as no more than an exercise in interest-balancing, devoted to finding discrete solutions to separate problems, we never reach the presuppositions. We remain too captive to the limits of our situation to become true realists. From this captivity, calamity alone can release us.

Unger is, to be sure, embracing those dangerous romantic illusions with both arms—but he’s also reminding us that the basic right of democratic society is not having to take things for granted. If you believe in the importance of the arts to society, then why wouldn’t you think big? I feel like the whole discussion has reached the point of politely ignoring the possible, even the unlikely, in favor of the probable. Theoretically, at least, we have leverage over democracy—and not the other way around. But it takes practice to make that into reality.

One comment

  1. Your idea about funding a true endowment for the arts makes too much sense to ever be tried!I stumbled upon your blog a week ago and have been really enjoying


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