Busting the Well-Endowed

It's time to cut federal funding for the arts

In the face of crushing deficits, is Washington finally serious about curbing its profligate ways? The clearest indication that the answer is "no" is the continued existence of the three national endowments and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Together, they constitute no-brainer cuts—not only because the original rationale of these programs was daft but because their impact is so negligible that nixing them requires no forethought.

To be sure, the $1 billion or so these agencies consume amounts to a spitlet in Uncle Sam's $3.8 trillion budget. Eliminating them won't make even a minor dent in the country's $1.56 trillion budget deficit, which stands at an eye-popping 10.6 percent of the gross domestic product, five times greater than what it was just three years ago.

Any serious attempt to stanch the red ink flowing out of Washington must involve Social Security and Medicare reform, which together already ingest a quarter of the budget. However, tackling them will be the political equivalent of containing a Mount Vesuvius eruption, given the vast constituency that depends on them.

By contrast, few besides the government employees who run the no-brainer programs would even notice they were gone—especially because they have long outlived their uselessness.

Both the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which together rake in about $600 million in federal money annually, were founded more than four decades ago to support artistic endeavors that the mass media supposedly didn't. The fear then was that without the enlightened intervention of government bureaucrats, our homes would be flooded with cheap, Dallas-type soap operas—and high-brow Masterpiece Theater-style programming would go the way of the do-do. Since then, the world has experienced a communications revolution, unleashing a whole host of new media—cable, Internet, the Web—catering to every taste imaginable. The nonprofit arts sector is a $63 billion industry today. Surely it could support the Jim Lehrer NewsHour.

Likewise, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), NEA's sister organization, was supposed to strengthen teaching and research in the humanities by offering grants to non-mainstream research and scholars. But intellectual philanthropy has become a mega-billion-dollar industry that is supporting a plethora of political and intellectual causes through think tanks, advocacy outfits, and all kinds of research institutions. What justification is there anymore for taxpayers spending $161 million (NEH's proposed appropriation this year, up $6 million since 2009) to support struggling scholars by taxing, say, struggling electricians?

But the most egregious of all the agencies might be the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). It was founded by President Reagan in the heyday of the Cold War to contain communism. Communism has since evaporated, and democracy has spread like wildfire in the former Soviet Union. Still, President Obama proposes to hand the NED $109 million this year. This despite the fact that NED has been dogged by controversy, the least of which being that it once spent $1.5 million to defend democracy in that Soviet bastion called France. Worse, although NED gets all its funding from the government, it is structured like a private entity over whose board—an improbable hybrid of representatives of business, unions, and other concerns—Congress has little control. The upshot is that sitting presidents have used it to do things abroad that Congress wouldn't approve. In the mid-1980s, for instance, it directed funding to the political opponents of the then-president of Costa Rica—long a beacon of democracy—simply because he opposed Reagan's Nicaragua policy.

Nor is NED alone in such abuse. The arts endowment notoriously bankrolled Andres Serrano's picture of a plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of his own urine. Meanwhile, NEH got into trouble in the mid-1990s for funding research into history standards in schools that didn't adequately emphasize America's founding and Constitution.
None of this should come as a surprise, given that these agencies were created precisely to support activities and causes the general public didn't. But the Founders didn't include matters of conscience and aesthetics in Uncle Sam's job description. And now that the private sector is providing the services these organizations were supposed to deliver, there is no reason to force already strained taxpayers to keep subsidizing them.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, lamented after the National Endowment for Democracy was founded: "If we cannot cut this, Lord, we cannot cut anything." That goes for all of them. If Washington wants to demonstrate its seriousness about digging this country out of its fiscal hole, cutting these programs would be a good place to begin.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation. Harris Kenny of Pepperdine University provided valuable research assistance for this column. This article originally appeared in The Washington Times.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • kilroy||

    If you can't sell your art, it ain't art.

  • ||

    Back when Serrano's Piss Christ and similar were in the news, I recall a man from the board of some gallery (memory fail)who gave his definition of what constitutes art:

    "If I can do it, it's not art"

  • ||

    I had to chuckle because just before I clicked on the comments tab, I thought to myself, I wonder how long it will take before I see the words, "piss christ"? Less than 5 seconds.

  • ||

    Wonder if the NEA will fund my "Piss Obama"?

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    +1

  • ||

    Exactly, all governmentfunding of art should be ended!

  • Charles||

    Art is an expression and shouldnt be funded in my opinion.

  • The Expatriate||

    Goddammit! I thought this article was going to be about a newly discovered Christina Hendricks sex tape or something.

  • ||

    That would be endowing the well-busted.

  • Jen||

    Or busting on the well-endowed.

  • The Art-P.O.G.||

    Well, it ain't commercial art if you can't sell it. And if it's good and you can't sell it, it will add to your legend when you die. I know a lot of people with reg'lar jobs that make art.

  • ||

    The arts endowment notoriously bankrolled Andres Serrano's picture of a plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of his own urine.

    Typical anti-intellectual libertarianism. Don't you know polaroid cameras cost money? Well, used to. Well, used to be made.

    Plus the jar and the big gulp probably emptied his wallet.

  • ed||

    To be sure, the $1 billion or so these agencies consume amounts to a spitlet in Uncle Sam's $3.8 trillion budget.

    Indeed. That's the problem. They're too small to fail.

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    +2

  • ||

    "Communism has since evaporated, and democracy has spread like wildfire in the former Soviet Union."

    Ummm, this would be news to Putin.

  • TP||

    Communism has since evaporated, and [social] democracy has spread like wildfire in the former Soviet Union.

    Perhaps, there needs to be an NEL. National Endowment for Libertarianism. For it is Social Democracy that has become the biggest threat to freedom, and surely "needs to be contained".

  • ||

    As someone familiar with the Phoenix art scene it's pretty apparant that the people getting NEA grants aren't starving newcomers but people already sucessful enough to have established a political connection to DC. I would be shocked if any of the young hipsters aspiring to be sucessful artists would even consider applying for such a grant. Their chances of getting one are pretty much nil.

  • ||

    but of course. Bureaucracies make safe bets, which means established artists.

  • Peppino||

    Starving artists are the best kind. It thins the herd.

  • Matt Sissel||

    I recently wrote an article advocating the disbanding of the state version of NEA in Iowa.

    http://gazetteonline.com/opini.....ts-council’s-funds-helping-others-at-expense-of-iowans

    It's absolutely ridiculous how inefficient these organizations are. In Iowa the operating costs of the Iowa Arts Council is 40% of their budget.

    I sent this article to newspapers and all the state legislators. One legislator responded that perhaps it wasn't necessary but it's nice to have.

  • ||

    Turds in the plaza.

  • ||

    i may be wrong, but i think it was reported somewhere that there was some scheme in which an artist was being given stimulus funds for producing obama murals and other types of propaganda...i cannot see barry wanting to cut funding for that sort of thing.

  • Supra TK Society||

    Nice work guys!
    this is just Amazing!
    Thanks

  • bmp1701||

    But what would we do without Michelle Montanius and Jonothan Freeloader?

  • ||

    All very true! Now could we also go after the NSF that not only spends tax-payer money but also makes good science impossible.

  • ||

    I haven't seen you around here but I like you already:)

  • LarryA||

    All very true! Now could we also go after the DoE that not only spends tax-payer money but also makes good education impossible.

    Lots more iterations possible.

  • Dorgan Was Right||

    They cannot cut anything.

  • ||

    In the face of crushing deficits, is Washington finally serious about curbing its profligate ways?

    I believe that's what's known as a "rhetorical" question.

  • ||

    One more reason to defund them.

    All those elitist, wealth Hollywood types, Kennedy Center members, and "patrons of the arts"...well, they all support tax increases.

    So, let them donate to the arts. Why should they take MY paltry money to pay for their play things. They can far better afford it than I can. Let them put their money where their mouths are.

    Lastly, it may only be a dent in the deficit. But Washington and the states are going to be asking all of us to "sacrifice" soon. Voters are going to be furious if the governments don't do some serious cutting before then.

  • ||

    Catherine - presume you mean National Science Foundation, not the better-known (to anyone who's worked foodservice) private NSF International which does really good science for food and water safety and is an exemplar of industry policing itself.

    Just curious, though, what's your beef with the Nat'l Science Foundation?

  • Hucbald||

    I'm an artist, and I've been singing this tune for YEARS. NEA grants are disproportionately awarded to established artists who don't need them - all of whom are leftists and many of whom are homosexuals - but who have learned to expertly play the grant application songbook. I dare ANYBODY to find a libertarian-conservative straight white male who has ever been awarded an NEA grant.

    The government has no business whatsoever in the arts... or the humanities... or public broadcasting. I could go on.

  • ||

    O.M.G.!! HOW COULD YOU THINK OF SUCH A THING! (sarc.) How unAmerican to think that these "endowments" could be forced to do what they are chartered to do and act for the benefit of their constituants. This along with ALMOST ALL taxpayer subsidies of industries, unions and agriculture should be stopped NOW! But never fear, no Congressman or Senator who wants to see another term will ever vote against subsidies. Why should they, it's not their money they're spending!

  • ||

    And then there's always the practicality argument -- why go after small fry like the NEA, etc, when reforming medicare, social security, etc would reduce my tax burden by hundreds of dollars not pennies.

    Plus, the continued existence of NEA drives homophobes like John and Jucbald into frothy rages. So the entertainment value of the effects of the mere existence of these agencies is a tangible return on the tax dollars. (No, this isn't support for NEA, just a question of priorities).

  • ||

    "Hucbald" not "Jucbald." Hard to spell properly when one is on a nice frothy rant.

  • ||

    Wow, 1980s all over again. I remember when the art and music programs in primary schools were cut due to budgetary reasons. I seem to remember a story about richard j daley going after his son, an illinois senator, for cutting out the arts too. The stephen mallorys of the world can get by on patronage and carving plaques commemorating baby births. But if you dry up the arts at the source, in the school systems, and replace it with science and reason and facts, then you won't have any artists that need handouts.

    I prefer street art anyway. Defacement of signs, spray paint on trains, grind marks on bus stop benches to let you know there are other living people out there in the world of zombies with cell-phone tumors growing out of their ears. Time is money and money is time, so race to the finish.

  • ||

    You are right. Of course no child will have an interest in art or music without government funding. No parent will get art or music lessons for their child. No artist or musician will provide free lessons to poor children. None of that could happen.

  • Rick||

    I bet none of that money goes to the Las Vegas spray paint artists, and that is some of the coolest sh*t I've ever seen.

    If you've never seen these guys, check the utoobz

  • iowahawk||

    I believe in public support of the arts. By "the arts," I of course mean those things made by, or excreted by, an artist of some sort. It is especially important that art be provocative and take controversial stances, like opposing George Bush, and so on.

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    +5

  • ||

  • TMLutas||

    Unfortunately this is emptying the sea with a thimble. Instead of this retail approach to cutting, the next speaker of the house and majority leader of the Senate should mandate that all members of Congress state for the record their priorities. Does program x fit in the bottom 5%, the top 5%, etc. This should be enforced on pain of not being seated on any committee until you do. That's a dire threat and will get these people on record as to their priorities.

    Then when these programs all go into the bottom 5% of the vast majority of Congress (as they should), a BRAC like bill should be submitted to cut the bottom 5%. The spectacle of people voting to keep the bottom 5% of federal spending in a time of high deficits should lead to passage.

    Then you do it all over again next Congress, institutionalizing getting rid of the dumb, unimportant stuff as a matter of course and forcing all legislators to pay attention at least once per term to every program that we fund.

  • LarryA||

    Then when these programs all go into the bottom 5% of the vast majority of Congress (as they should), a BRAC like bill should be submitted to cut the bottom 5%. The spectacle of people voting to keep the bottom 5% of federal spending in a time of high deficits should lead to passage.

    I’d vote for cutting the bottom 50%.

    But if you don’t cut at least 15% Congress will be adding to the top faster than trimming the bottom. That’s not to speak of the current “If we cut a billion here we can spend ten billion there” philosophy.

  • ||

    Funny that there's so many here running around like Roy Ashburn whining about Harvey Milk Day.

  • Almanian||

    Yeah, like, two or three. Don't get run over by all of them.

  • ||

    The National Endowment for Democracy ("NED") should not be included in this condemnation -- when my then-law firm, Arnold & Porter, offered to be NED's pro bono counsel I was grateful to have the chance of aiding the NED, and sat in on its quarterly board meetings from about 1997 to 2005. A fine and trustworthy organization, with a staff very knowledgeable about the promotion of democracy around the world.

    I also know the National Endowment for the Arts ("NEA") pretty well -- before law school I spent 10 years (1978-1987) producing avant garde theater based in San Francisco, and I won many grants from the NEA. Sadly, I have concluded that its left-only political bias is totally incurable: whenever Dems have the Presidency the NEA happily shills for the Dems, and when Repubs have the Presidency, the Repubs just want the NEA to be quiet, and don't try to make any changes in it at all. The NEA is just a propaganda agency and that, sadly, is exactly the way the art world itself wants it to be.

  • ||

    They ain't gonna do that, 'cause all their pretty-boy buddies is artistes.

    Hell, we can't get state and local governments - let alone school boards! - to cut out fat (that's staff and administrators; not cops, firemen and teachers) from their budgets when the cheese gets bindings. How can you expect the Federales to give up spending your money on pretty stuff? Ain't that what all them famous emperors and kings and princes and dukes and blood-thirsty tyrants of every persuasion did? Why can't our politicos at least be allowed to waste ... erm ... be patrons of the arts, huh? What are ya, some kinda fiscal conservative er somefink?? Next thing, you'll demand that politicians use their own private money for their girl friends' abortions and trips and diamonds and stuff. Jeeze!! the noive of some people!!

  • laotz||

    As far as classical music is concerned, public budgetary funding only makes up ~1% of most major orchestras, with the rest of the operating costs sustained by private contributions, recordings, and ticket revenues. That 1% difference can be made up in the private sector.

    I love classical music. I play Cello, and while I can't afford to go as much as I'd like to see an orchestra live, I make sacrifices in other areas to be able to pay for the few times I do go. Other people that hate classical music shouldn't have to pay part of my ticket costs, however small that price is to them.

    As far as music education? I've donated 3 Cellos that I've grown out of to private charities that offer these instruments, as well as free lessons, to people that are unable to pay for it themselves(even a crappy cello is $800-$1000). Private institutions do a much better job collectively than this endowment ever did or could. Why? Because private citizens have an interest in keeping classical music alive. No government intervention is needed since the incentive is so great to continue hearing great works now and in the future.

    So, in short, kill the muthafuckin' NEA.

  • ||

    The National Science Foundation funds most non-health-related fundamental science done in this country. If you defund the NSF, you cripple scientific progress and you destroy the US university system. The top scientists and engineers will leave for a country that cares, and that country will train the next generation of talent.

    There is zero evidence that corporations will step up to the plate if the government stops funding basic science. Quite the opposite. To first approximation, corporations do not fund research. They fund development, building on research done in academia and made publicly available to all.

  • ||

    pure poppycock. a few million is such a miniscule amount in the scheme of things and, despite the penchant for mentioning such pieces as the piss christ by some, most of this money is granted to the likes of children's choruses and ballet and opera companies who bring those artforms to communities where it is unlikely anyone would otherwise be exposed to them. spending a small amount to feed the human soul cannot be compared to the gigantic funding that is poured into such things as farm subsidies or the bailing out of banks and car companies. mr.(or ms.?) dalmia needs to get a grip.

  • ||

    You are more than welcome to fund these ballets and operas out of your own pocket. Don't spend my money on them.

  • ||

    When I saw the title, I of course thought it would be about big breasts...with pictures...imagine my disappointment.

  • Almanian||

    Without PBS, certainly high-quality programs like "John Adams" wouldn't get produced. Oh, wait....

  • Almanian||

    The best-cast anything I've ever seen. All the characters were perfect...except whoever played Ben Franklin. He was just a bit off. The rest - perfect.

  • ||

    And not a mention of the One Trillion Dollar plus death machine.

  • ||

    Most of my charitable giving goes to the arts. I have no problems in supporting it, and have no problem with getting the government out of supporting it.

    I like LarryA's idea of dropping the bottom 50% of government spending. My idea is a reverse-Pareto chart for this - anything below the max allocation of government spending to keep a balanced budget doesn't get funded that year. So sorry.

    The fear then was that without the enlightened intervention of government bureaucrats, our homes would be flooded with cheap, Dallas-type soap operas—and high-brow Masterpiece Theater-style programming would go the way of the do-do.

    Instead our homes are flooded with cheap reality-TV soap operas. Meh. The experiment didn't work. Most Americans like to watch shit-for-brains TV.

    Since then, the world has experienced a communications revolution, unleashing a whole host of new media—cable, Internet, the Web—catering to every taste imaginable.

    Sturgeons's Law holds with this too: 90% of everything is crud (though I think the Internet runs about 95%.)

  • Ratko||

    "Communism has since evaporated, and democracy has spread like wildfire in the former Soviet Union."

    Unfortunately, the evaporated communism only appears to vanish, it was still there mingling with the gases of the surrounding air, carried up into the atmosphere by convection and around the Earth by air currents the evaporant finally condensed over the USA and fell back to Earth in the form of precipitation where the very laziest and most envious of human organisms in North America, the ultra-materialistic politico-religious faithful of the New Left who cling to their faith in falsified theory asserting that shifting personal property from one who works to one too lazy or stupid to do the same for themselves is a panacea for all social woes, all eagerly ran around catching the stale urine flavored rain drops and snow flakes on their tongues. Not that any lie was too great or any method too corrupt or under-handed for these individuals wishing to perform the experiments proven to fail at a great expense before ingesting the delicious Communist precipitant still do the same more energetically, and having hijacked a few more groups such as the environmentalist movement taken from the bawling misanthropists, much in the same manner as they hijacked the Democratic party from it's KKK founding bigot base.

    The first place the social engineering missionaries of Marxist evangelism went with their new religion was to right here in the USA, outside some agricultural segments of the population spread mostly thru the mid west the new religion was immediately rejected. For those farmers who converted it failed, and certainly not for a lack of effort, entire communities were built around it, the commitment, the faith was strong. And as it has every single time and place since then it's been tried, it still failed miserably sparking conflict and finally dissolution among the congregation with those who still believed but were done trying staying, and those hard core believers among them who never lost faith for a second knowing in their hearts the truth that fire can not burn human hands no matter how many times they ordered someone have their hands held in the fire only to have them come out burned once again, packing their belongings and moving up into Canada.

    So here we are back where they performed their first exciting experiment using real live humans. And thus far the score card does look impressive and very promising with only a couple insignificant failures mere couple hundred million humans murdered, many hundreds of millions more imprisoned, brutally tortured (not the unforgivable water boarding type, the humane variety that helps people improve themselves, like tearing joints apart, blow torching flesh, running high voltage electricity through genitals, prying eyeballs from sockets, you know, the acceptable type) and billions enslaved. Small potatoes when one considers all the successes, like..., well, there aren't any, but only because capitalist pigs hate people having good lives and it doesn't make it any less certain that just one more minor adjustment or two and the world will be forever grateful because it will work impeccably well.

    And these people that see themselves as gifted geniuses and the rightful masters of the human race actually believe this donkey crap?

    It can't work, despite the faith of those ignorant and childish enough to think it can. The arrogance of nit-wits like Obama, as well as his equally ethically, and mentally challenged coconspirators in Congress, who are willing to take the dictator approach and shove it down Americans throats "for own good" out of a supposed belief we are too dumb to know what's good for us as if selfish morally retarded imbeciles like themselves, who could not be trusted alone with puppy since they'd probably torture the poor helpless creature to death "for it's own good," could ever know what's best for anyone or anything, can't make it work either, it's been tried many times, every single time has failed miserably with varying degrees of disastrous results including the most horrific by far the human race has ever endured.

    Shikha's articles are great, and I respect her opinion. Nonetheless, I'm in that tiny minority far fewer in numbers than Libertarians, with whom my views most closely align, and possibly out numbering Whigs by as many three or four, I'm not a member of the Constitutionalist party and can't even see how they arrived at their conclusions, like the elder men in my family I do however consider myself a constitutionalist, my faith is entirely placed in the constitutionalist republican form of government, my regard for democracies is extremely low. The usefulness of incorporating some functions normally associated with democracies I agree are a good thing, otherwise democracies are complete failures, and this view derives from the fact that I place the very highest value on freedom and liberty, democracies are extremely poor practically useless defenders of the very thing I require above all else.

    By the very highest estimates one third of the colonists were Patriots at any point during the revolution with the remaining two thirds either actively betraying and directly engaging the Patriots, or lacking the spine to take a side. Give that a little thought and the reason most of the Founders had very low opinions of democratic forms of government is obvious, the freedom they had just purchased at incredible cost would have been history in short order.

    While I strongly oppose subsidizing anything at tax payer expense, I am left curious by the line that read:

    "Meanwhile, NEH got into trouble in the mid-1990s for funding research into history standards in schools that didn't adequately emphasize America's founding and Constitution."

    After hitting submit I'm going to research this one, I've looked at some relatively recent textbooks and was appalled not by inadequate emphasis, but the fact both were barely even mentioned. Without a solid knowledge of both there is no possible way someone could understand everything from where their vanishing freedoms came from to the standards representatives must be held to account for, to even what their rights really are and what limits are on government and why.

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