The NEA Today, Entitlements Tomorrow

Is the OMB's kill list a sign of fiscal seriousness or the opposite?


Robert Redford says an Office of Management and Budget memo suggesting the Trump administration might try to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts is "another example of our democracy being threatened." The actor, director, and independent-film booster explains that "arts are essential" because "they describe and critique our society."

Democracy probably would survive the demise of the NEA, which was created in 1965 and accounts for a tiny share of arts funding in the United States. But by the same token, getting rid of the NEA would have a negligible impact on federal spending, and there are strong reasons to doubt that the president's commitment to fiscal restraint goes beyond such gestures.

Grants from the NEA and every other federal agency that funds the arts account for about 1 percent of revenue received by not-for-profit museums and performing arts groups in the U.S. So even if we arbitrarily exclude money-making enterprises from "the arts," the describing and critiquing of society that Redford values hardly depend on federal largess—a good thing, since it seems unwise to make this subversive function contingent on the good will of politicians.

The NEA's fiscal significance is even slighter: Its $146 million budget amounts to 0.004 percent of federal spending. If we throw in the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—two other culture-related targets on the OMB's hit list that are favorite targets of conservatives—we are talking about 0.02 percent of federal spending, a barely perceptible bit of skin from a small potato.

According to The New York Times, which reported the highlights of the OMB memo last week, most of the targets have budgets of less than $500 million, "a pittance for a government that is projected to spend about $4 trillion this year." But judging from the examples cited by the Times, the programs on the OMB's list deserve to be zeroed out, since they are either unnecessary (e.g., AmeriCorps, Bill Clinton's attempt to co-opt and take credit for local volunteer work) or positively pernicious (e.g., the Export-Import Bank, which subsidizes deals by big corporations like Boeing, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which tries to put a happy face on the government's immoral war against consumers of arbitrarily proscribed intoxicants).

Whether these proposed cuts are a sign of seriousness or the opposite will depend on the Trump administration's approach to big-ticket items. Fortunately, the newly confirmed director of the OMB, former South Carolina congressman Mick Mulvaney, is a fiscal conservative who understands the need for entitlement reform, favors restraint on military spending, and takes a dim view of the grand infrastructure initiatives that Democrats tend to push.

Unfortunately, Mulvaney's boss disagrees with him on each of these points. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to leave Medicare and Social Security alone, expand an already bloated military budget, and spend as much as $1 trillion on infrastructure improvements.

"I have to imagine that the president knew what he was getting when he asked me to fill this role," Mulvaney told the Senate Budget Committee during a confirmation hearing last month. But he added that "I have no reason to believe that the president has changed his mind from the statements he made during the campaign."

Will Mulvaney go along with the fiscal recklessness signaled by Trump's campaign promises, or will he persuade the president to change his positions? The response to Mulvaney's nomination from supporters of Trump's gratuitous military buildup (which seems inconsistent with the president's complaint that our armed forces already do too much) does not bode well.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has never met a military intervention he did not like, voted against Mulvaney's confirmation, calling him "anti-defense" and accusing him of "pitting the national debt against our military." But no other Republican in the Senate, including hawks such as Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), perceived a threat to Pentagon profligacy that was worth mentioning.

© Copyright 2017 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. So much speculation about what Trump or his cabinet might do. Do you not have other subjects worth approaching at this point, and wait on commenting on the administration’s actions until after they are taken?

    1. Reality gets in the way of scare-mongering.

  2. .hijouI looked at the check for $8628 , I didnt believe that…my… father in law was like actualie taking home money in there spare time on there computar. . there sisters roommate haz done this for under 17 months and just cleard the morgage on there apartment and got a gorgeous Chevrolet Corvette . go to website….www.cash-review.com

  3. Grants from the NEA and every other federal agency that funds the arts account for about 1 percent of revenue received by not-for-profit museums and performing arts groups in the U.S.
    The NEA’s fiscal significance is even slighter: Its $146 million budget amounts to 0.004 percent of federal spending. If we throw in the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?two other culture-related targets on the OMB’s hit list that are favorite targets of conservatives?we are talking about 0.02 percent of federal spending, a barely perceptible bit of skin from a small potato.

    This is the typical argument of the left- Don’t take it away since it barely a potato skin of the national budget.

    Somehow all those skins add up to $3.8 Trillion in 2015. That is almost $12k per man,woman and child.

    1. The corollary is:
      “We’re already wasting money on X, therefore we can’t possibly stop wasting money on my fave!’

    2. At no point does he argue the “don’t take it away” portion of your strawman. The point is that going after NEA does nothing to the budget and is simply Conservative virtue signalling.

      Yes, those skins add up to ~$4T and Sullum’s point is clearly that going after some tiny piece makes no difference. Instead, we need to look at the big items (like entitlements, infrastructure, and military) that Trump has said he won’t touch. The NEA’s budget is much smaller than being a rounding error in the budget of those larger items.

      Keeping or killing NEA is irrelevant. What are we going to do about the big trainwrecks?

      FWIW, I say: kill it. It’s not a reasonable function of the government and its function as a critique of society shouldn’t be funded by the government (in the same way that the media shouldn’t be funded by govt.).

      1. The point is that going after NEA does nothing to the budget and is simply Conservative virtue signalling.

        A stronger argument is that the exact opposite is true: all the pearl-clutching and fainting couches over talk to cut this small an amount of the federal budget means that no one will ever go after the places where the big money is wasted.

        1. I think the pearl-clutching is mostly liberal virtue signalling. They don’t give a crap about the $. But, it’s very important to them to indicate that they support the arts and want to ensure it is funded.

          I don’t really agree that failing to eliminate something like NEA indicates an inability/unwillingness to address something bigger. NEA is like an annoying mosquito flying around in your tent. It’s one of a thousand other stupid little nuisances. Entitlements are a big ass bear that wandered in and is shredding everything. Just because you don’t hunt down that particular mosquito and kill it doesn’t mean that you can’t/won’t deal with the bear.

          I don’t think that it’s so much about effort. It’s about expending political capital. Roughly eight years ago, democrats addressed a few nuisances and then put everything into Obamacare. After that, they lost power and accomplished virtually nothing. If ever, now would be the time to go after big ticket items. But, Trump has said he won’t touch those items.

      2. The counterpoint is that if you can’t kill such a small animal, what chance do you stand of slaying the large beasts?

      3. “Keeping or killing NEA is irrelevant. What are we going to do about the big trainwrecks?”

        And cue Curt to prove my point!
        Keep NEA since we’re wasting money in other places.
        Way to go Curt!

        1. Nope. Again, I’m not arguing to keep it. In fact, the very next paragraph explains why I would kill it. Realistically, you ignored the entire point of everything that I wrote in the comment.

          Saying, “keeping or killing NEA is irrelevant” isn’t even remotely an endorsement of keeping. Nothing else I say endorses keeping it.

          There’s a shitload of things that need to be killed from the government. But, we should prioritize things that actually make a difference.

          1. I agree with you on prioritizing in principle, but in practice, you have to actually cut something to show that you’re serious about cutting anything. If something this small in the face of the overall federal budget is untouchable, then there is no reason to believe that weightier matters will ever be seriously addressed.

            1. Fair enough. I just don’t think the “in practice” part actually works that way. Government shutdowns, sequestration, debt ceilings, etc. have repeatedly shown that those small cuts make no difference, are generally ignored, and eventually die because no one wants to spend the political capital to defend.

              I’m more of a fan of just sucking it up and taking your medicine. Ripping the bandaid off instead slowly tugging. It’s similar to Obamacare. It may be a trainwreck, but I think Republicans are starting to realize just how hard it is to undo. Making a huge change to entitlements would be hard to undo. Defunding the NEA would probably be reversed in 4 or 8 years (if not sooner).

          2. “Saying, “keeping or killing NEA is irrelevant” isn’t even remotely an endorsement of keeping. Nothing else I say endorses keeping it.”

            You’ll forgive me it those weasel words were taken at one of their oh, so many meanings. Like ‘we don’t need to kill it since that action would be irrelevant’.

            “But, we should prioritize things that actually make a difference.”
            Assertion, not argument.

      4. But entitlements, infrastructure, & military are made up of lots of tiny pieces. So go after lots of tiny pieces. Divide & conquer.

      5. Have to start somewhere. NEA should be at the top of the list, because the downstream impact on the voting public is almost non-existent.

        Where we go after that is the question.
        Does Trumps stop with the pointless gestures?
        Or does the cutting go deeper and deeper over his term?

        only time will tell

    3. The NEA shouldn’t exist.

      But it’s not really true that the potato skins add up to 3.8 trillion. Most of the budget is in big budget things like the military, DHS, infrastructure spending and entitlements that Trump has shown no interest in reducing. You aren’t going to significantly reduce spending by shutting down silly little things like the NEA, CPB, etc.

      1. Agreed, entitlement programs (Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) make up about half the budget and grow automatically unless Congress changes the law. You cannot be serious about reigning in federal spending if you don’t deal with entitlements.

        1. On the other hand, while spending $3.8B or more on all federal spending is largely a function of entitlements, defense, and interest, it may be fair to argue that deficit spending comprises a lot of this sort of crap that should not be part of federal spending in the first place. If nothing else, cutting the small stuff reduces the annual deficit.

          We’re borrowing money and paying interest on it to give it away to artists who can’t sell their crappy art for a profit otherwise.

        2. But every check the entitlement programs send out is a tiny piece. Come up w a way to send out fewer of those tiny pieces.

        3. “You cannot be serious about reigning in federal spending if you don’t deal with entitlements.”

          It is highly unlikely that anyone can “deal with entitlements”. It is a political nuke that will destroy a politician or political party to enact any significant reform. It’s what makes the entitlements so evil and corrosive to a free society.
          What everyone seems to expect is for us to inflate our way out of the entitlement pit over the longterm. The Fed keeps printing….moderates inflation to a higher than historic average level…but pegs entitlement increases below real inflation. It’s the only way at this point until the boomer peak passes.

  4. I would prefer that the arts, broadcasting, and the humanities not be beholden to the leviathan that is the federal government. But that’s just me.

    1. But if the Federal government doesn’t fund these things then the Robert Redfords of the world cant tell us just how valuable the arts are.

      They might actually have to show us.

      With their own money.


  5. If you cannot afford to pay the rent or buy groceries, you do not spend a bunch of money on movies.
    As a financial statement, this may be the drop in the bucket, but it shows that at last, there will be elimination of federal projects/agencies, not just temporary reductions that will be increased again the next cycle.

  6. Defunding the NEA is more important than the size of its budget alone would suggest. It is the kind of spending the Federal government has no earthly business doing, for a huge variety of reasons, and eliminating it and other budget items likemit would be the start of a healthy trend.

    The ‘it isn’t worth the effort to stop spending that amount, it’s so small’ argument is crap. It has always been crap. For one thing, ant time congress and the administration sp nd wrangling over such a cut would be time they are NOT spending pounding hunge amounts of cash down assorted ratholes.

    Lastly, the NEA has become a way for the Progressive Arty Left to fund ‘art’ they find titilating and amusing with money extracted by threats from people said art insults. If the Profressive Art Left wants to send bullshit shock art like Piss Christ around the country to insult the Unwashed they can bloody well do it on their own dime. As a rule, they aren’t poor.

    1. I agree. I had more comments above; mainly that Sullum isn’t saying don’t do it. He isn’t saying it’s not worth the effort. He’s just pointing out that this is peanuts and doesn’t solve anything. You’re very correct with your last paragraph. Essentially, NEA is a form of virtue signalling from the left. But, killing NEA is virtue signalling from the right.

      The biggest problem with the whole issue is that, while killing NEA would be lovely, it would also be temporary. The next time that we have a liberal government, it’s sure to come back. I think the time is better spent finding a way to kill or maim something bigger and finding a way to keep it dead.

      You point out that any time government is fighting over NEA is time they are spending craploads of money. Unfortunately, they’re pretty damn efficient at that and can do it in their sleep. But, any time spent trying to kill NEA is time spent not reducing SS/Medicare/etc.

      1. “But, any time spent trying to kill NEA is time spent not reducing SS/Medicare/etc.”

        True, but probably unimportant. They aren’t going to reduce SS/Medicare any time soon. Certainly not until they’ve killed some smaller stuff and the roof hasn’t caved in. I think we could say that we aren’t going to get any substantial cuts until we have them used to smaller ones.

        What I’d really like to see is somebody on the Right saying “Look; we aren’t cutting the NEA because it funds political art. We’re cutting it because it funds vulgar, talent-proof art. I know I keep harping on Piss Christ, but it really really is emblematic of a lot of what is wrong with the Art World. What about it is worth serious consideration as Art? No skill went into making it, it’s vulgar, it’s profoundly adolescent. The idea that this is ‘Art’ AND worthy of public funding is so absurd it isn’t worth discussing. Except that the Progressive Left insists on discussing it. We should accommodate them, and every time they sat it IS ‘Art’, we should make fun of the silly bastards. That is totally worth doing, on its own merits.

        1. By and large I agree with you. I think their counter-argument would be that its ability to generate such an apoplectic reaction is what makes it art. Of course, that would change quickly when someone decides to create Piss Mohammed.

          But, overall, I’m doubtful about the success you’d find with arguing against the funding of art on the basis that it sucks. They would just make a big deal about how you’re a crappy art critic and conveniently focused on something that you find politically/religiously distasteful.

          I would want to harp on the point about how funding that is independent of the government’s whims leads to art that is independent of the government’s whims. But, similar to the Climate Change debate, I’m pretty sure the left feels like they have the issue wrapped up and that the people on the payroll are comfortably on Team Blue.

          1. I’m doubtful about the success you’d find with arguing against the funding of art on the basis that it sucks.

            And it’s a lousy argument anyway. The NEA wouldn’t be any more justified if it only funded Thomas Kincaid paintings or other safe, uncontroversial stuff.

      2. If Sullum was a bit more honestly libertarian, and not so filled with anti-Trump hysteria this article would start with…

        “Eliminate the NEA? Great first start to Trump’s term, let’s keep going.”

        but no, instead its a whiny article about how pointless it is.

  7. The actor, director, and independent-film booster explains that “arts are essential” because “they describe and critique our society.”

    Even if so, why the fuck should government be paying for it?

    1. The Progressive Left thinks the government should pay for it because the Progressive Left (like most self-selected Elites) think of the government (and society in general) as belonging to them. Which makes telling them to pay for their own goddamed amusements more important than the cost of said amusements might suggest.

    2. now you’re asking Bob to engage in critical thinking, which so gets in the way of prog talking points.

    3. It’s just idiotic to think that we would lose something culturally important if there weren’t any NEA grants. Even outside of pop entertainment stuff like movies, the market in art is thriving all on its own.

  8. I wish there was a group of uber-rich arts lovers who could be patrons of the arts.

    1. I wish there was a group of Auber-rich art lovers who could be patrons of the Arts who had some goddamned TASTE. Most of them are so worried about being thought of a ‘hip’ and ‘with it’ that they are willing to underwrite trendy crap like Piss Christ and that idiotic upside-down urinal (‘Fountain’), that could be duplicated by a mildly intelligent fourteen year old in an afternoon.

      1. There are some uber-rich art lovers with taste. Their last names are “Koch”….

  9. Can’t find it in the E-version, but the dead-tree paper had a guest editorial, very similar wording (this may be a script on Salon or some such).
    Anyhow, I read enough to realize it’s no more than rent-seeking on stilts, and check the author note at the bottom:
    Julie Fry, President and CEO of California Humanities, a non-profit supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which makes grants.
    IOW’s a pretty much worthless skim-agency taking a cut off the top to separate the recipients from the obvious connection to the providers. Very cozy.
    The editorial is illustrated with two guys showing off tats they got in the Army; dunno how democracy could survive if we didn’t see those.

  10. “Fuck you, only cut the substantial spending.” – Reason

  11. You have to start somewhere. Nothing ever dies or goes away. I don’t think liberals choose to fight to the death over the NEA and PBS because they love Big Bird and the Arts. I think they do so because they realize that once the precedent is set that the government can get out of the business of doing something and the world doesn’t end, the terms of the debate going forward are changed forever.

    Think of it this way, what chance does the country have of reforming or eliminating a big popular program like Social Security, if it can’t find the political will to eliminate something like the NEA, a program that most of the country doesn’t care about and a decent percentage loathe?

    1. Exactly – you have to start somewhere. If you’re unwilling to grab the low-hanging fruit, why should anyone believe you’ll go after the taller things? Yes, there is some showmanship to it but Jeezus, if you’re unwilling to do away with spending that govt has no business engaging in, why should anyone believe that you’ll tackle the meaningful things?

      1. Cut what you can, when you can.

        And celebrate every cut for the victory it is.

        Why is this so complicated?

        1. We need a new Proxmire: someone in Congress who can really rouse the rabble vs. this stuff.

        2. “Why is this so complicated?”

          Because TRUMP! No matter what he does, Reason whines.

  12. Everything in government is about politics. Anything government does will to one degree or another be infected with politics. Politics as a general rule makes for bad art. Government mandated politics makes for even worse art.

    Government support for art destroys art. It just allows artists to engage in self-absorption without worrying about appealing to or connecting to an audience.

    1. I love it when I hear, “get politics out of education!” Well, get government out of it and there you go.

      1. That is very true. And it is true of art. People claim to want a free and vibrant arts scene and their proposal to accomplish that is to put artists on the government payroll. How can people not see how ridiculous that idea is?

    2. It just allows artists to engage in self-absorption without worrying about appealing to or connecting to an audience

      Or at least the middlemen who work with them. Where are you more likely to find aesthetically pleasing forms of self-expression? A bookstore or the DMV?

      1. The Soviets funded the hell out of the arts. All of that social realist artwork has really stood the test of time hasn’t it?

        1. That’s Ivan, on that tractor with the sunset behind, looking resolutely off into the middle distance!

        2. Progs and commies who know a little design history will point to constructivism as proof that art can be centrally planned, ignoring that Lenin only tolerated as long as it was useful and Stalin banned it and even sent artists to the camps.

  13. Hilton Kramer in 1993: “The most significant thing about this bureaucratic leviathan is that it is completely captive to the political Left. Its principal purpose today is to advance the radical Left’s agenda for the cultural revolution that has already completed its “long march” through the universities and is currently in the process of annexing many other institutions of cultural life?the art museums, for example, where the revolution has made enormous inroads in programs and acquisitions, and in the policies of the foundations, corporations, and agencies of government that support museums.”


    1. I read a while back that one of the KGB programs to undermine America was to secretly support and fun modernist and abstract public art on the theory that making our public spaces inhuman and barren it would undermine our civic culture. The KGB apparently also spent a money promoting brutalist architecture for the same reason. I am not sure how much of an effect it had, but it is a very interesting question how much it did.

      1. Then I wonder what the Soviets reasoning for making their own public spaces and architecture barren and inhuman was?

        If that’s true, it seems like another example of where they really failed to understand American culture and motivations.

        1. They considered a barren and inhuman civic culture to be conducive to Marxism.

  14. Why do we need a dedicated government entity for the arts? We can just force people who hold views we don’t like to make the art we want

  15. The NEA budget won’t be cut, it will increase. Reason must have dozens of articles gargling about this subject. Pubs always rattle their sabers when they have the numbers to actually make a cut but the power of politics always wins and the govt grows. Given that, I’d like to see Trump appoint an NEA head that could divert funds to the Thomas Kinkade Center for Contemporary Art, the Bob Ross Institute of Fluffy Clouds or the Garth Brooks Music Conservatory. THAT would be an atomic wedgie for the arts community.

    1. Looks like they managed to get some significant cuts in the mid 90s. But for the most part it’s just grown:


  16. $146 million here, $146 million there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

  17. The NEA should be a camp with free room and board where the artists can get away from distractions and put in an honest days work for the taxpayers.For $146M we should be getting much more production.

    1. Have you SEEN the quality of ‘Art’ we’re talking about here? We could do more for Art by using the money to track down every so-called Artists who has ever gotten NEA money and breaking their arms.

      1. “Quality” and “art” are in the eye of the beholder and that’s a pointless distraction from the question at hand.

        1. No, it isn’t. The “All Art is valid in somebody’s eyes, and you have no right to say what isn’t Art” defense is bushwa. Duchamp’s “Fountain” and Serrano’s “Piss Christ” are vulgar adolescent jokes. That public money ever gets used to display them is a strong argument for getting governments the hell out of Art funding.

          Notice, I don’t give a fat damn about the ‘blasphemy’ of Serrano’s piece of sewage. My objection to it is that any moderately clever ten year old could have created substantially the same thing in an afternoon. The thing is talent-proof. Technical skill plays no part in it. The same is true with “Fountain”.

  18. Government Art is the best tasting Art.

  19. When I read the part about Mulvaney tapped for OMB and McCain being against him, am I wrong to see John-boy’s opposition as a good thing for the nominee?

  20. our democracy being threatened

    I’m so tired of this phrasing. The US is not a “democracy”. So there is no “democracy to threaten. As for the NEA, we have a budget crisis. Time to nix any and all non-essential gov’t spending. IOW, “fuck you, cut spending”.

  21. Fuck Redford if he can’t do what he does without reaching into my pocket.

    Most overrated actor ever.

    The end.

    1. But at least nobody wants a cowboy actor for president.

  22. If a GOP President, House, and Senate can’t eliminate the NEA, the CPB, mohair subsidies, and similar annoyances, they have no chance at cutting more substantive and popular programs like ObamaCare.

    I suppose that public choice theory is correct: It’s hopeless.

  23. If you want to be an ‘artist’ buy your own paint. I’m a musician and don’t ask gummit to buy me a nice Fender guitar and amp.

  24. 1st of all, all big-ticket items are composed of myriad small-ticket items. So it’s really progress in those little details that show whether people are serious about cuts.

    2nd, these small-ticket items have survived for many yrs., so I consider any progress vs. them a big win. How else are we to measure performance but by comparing it to what’s gone before?

  25. I see no downside to eliminating funding for the NEA, PBS, and similar organizations.

    1. Don’t touch PBS kids. Educational programs (especially free ones) for kids are the only thing I get behind. You can massacre the rest of it.

      1. I think even PBS kids would benefit from being financed by people who aren’t dependent on government largesse; the fact that our educational system is so strongly government financed is in large part responsible for why teachers indoctrinate kids in progressive and socialist ideas.

        1. PBS kids is steeped in social justice. It’s sad…terribly sad.

          I’m not sure there is room for government funded anything these days because everything is political. Perhaps I have rose colored glasses for what used to be, but it would seem that 20-40 years ago it was possible to have a public-anything that was devoid of politics. Now, everything is a lever or weapon for the left.

          and this is why we can’t have nice things

  26. “Its $146 million budget amounts to 0.004 percent of federal spending.” Is that supposed to convince me not to stop wasting 146 million dollars on this bullshit? When did the relative size of the wasted money pile become a defense to keep wasting it?? It’s still 146 million TAX dollars forcibly taken from citizens funding something that is not a legitimate government function. Would Uncle Sam be pissed off if enough citizens stopped paying taxes to offset that 146 million dollar waste? You’re damn right he would. So I can certainly be pissed off that it gets wasted. I don’t give a damn if it’s a “symbolic cut”, it’s still less money wasted. The whole attitude is upside down. Every dollar wasted should be pursued for elimination. You add enough 146 million dollar piles up, you might actually make a dent in the frigging deficit one day. It should be a non stop process to cut spending on BS not spelled out in the Constitution as legitimate functions of the Federal Government.

    1. “When did the relative size of the wasted money pile become a defense to keep wasting it?? ”

      Hate to break this to you, but I’ve been following politics off and on since the mid 1970’s, and the excuse is at least that old. I’ve always thought it was bullshit, too. In fact, every time some worldly-wise politician comes out with it, my gut reaction is “Well, if that amount of money is so insignificant, how about giving ME that much.” (the “Asshole” is silent).

  27. I looked at the check for $8628 , I didnt believe that…my… father in law was like actualie taking home money in there spare time on there computar. . there sisters roommate haz done this for under 17 months and just cleard the morgage on there apartment and got a gorgeous Chevrolet Corvette . go to websit========= http://www.net.pro70.com

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