THE FUTURE OF ARTS FUNDING:
IS IT GONE IN AMERICA?
With quotes from Thomas Friedman, Larry Summers, Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Maher, Goldman Sachs, Jay Carney, Bruce Bartlett, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Abraham Lincoln, David Ignatius, Dick Cheney, Ronald Reagan, Jon Stewart, Bob Schieffer, Fareed Zakariah, George W. Bush, Robert Reich, and Ezra Klein.
In a call to action for artists, the editor debunks the current fight over the Debt Limit and digs into the future of public-sector support for accessible arts and arts education. He assess whether there will be any ability to find support for the arts again, given current politics, and what we can do to change things in our favor. It's an in-depth piece, with plenty of context, history and perspective.
You can't compartmentalize everything. A publication about acoustic music and musicians, one that exists to celebrate live performances and advocate for the arts and arts education, can't ignore something that may spell the end to what little public funding remains for presenting and accessing the arts in our society.
Capital flows to markets that present the lowest risk or the highest return. The former gets the lowest interest rates, the latter, because it entails escalating risks, pays the most to get money. It's basic economics and it's why political dithering over the Debt Limit is like a kid playing with dynamite. For the first time in our history, and strictly because of politics, the U.S. is about to go from the top of the first category to somewhere in the second, and it'll cost us far more than we can afford. That's not all.
The Senate's bipartisan Gang of Six budget wranglers and the White House are now agreeing to trade-away part of the future of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in return for paying today's outstanding bills. House Republicans won't accept it because it doesn't end some of government's traditional roles altogether. Senate and House Democrats will split, some standing steadfast to protect these programs, others ready to vote in panic on anything that pays the nation's bills at any cost. It's a mess.
There's an immediate need – guaranteeing we will pay our current bills, i.e., the Debt Limit – and a larger context – revenues and spending / investments. Politicians can't seem to separate them or address either one effectively. And just as most of us can't imagine any future society worth having unless it strongly supports and continuously celebrates the arts, neither could many of us have foreseen other claustrophobic aspects of our supposedly infinitely networked times. This was supposed to be a time of expansive opportunity. It's not, and the odds are running against us. It is, necessarily, a call to action.
No one seems to be asking the most basic questions: if government budgets are cut and no new revenues can be collected, is there any opportunity for comprehensive arts funding or even enough money to sustain what little we have now? And why no new revenues? If the rich must continue to receive massive tax breaks because they are job creators, where are the jobs? And why are big issues being held hostage by politicians on both sides before the nation's outstanding bills are paid to prevent a default and what it would bring – higher interest rates, and billions more from taxpayers for higher interest payments?
A day when we would seriously contemplate not paying the nation's bills, causing old people to worry whether they will get their Social Security checks to pay the rent? Going from a manufacturing to a services to an information-based to a solely consumer society that produces nothing for sale overseas? Surrendering leadership in scientific innovation and discovery, underlined this week by abandoning our manned space flight capability? Or more accurately, walking away from the ability to engage in it, at all, until some private business brings it back, IF we're willing then to pay what they demand for it.
Losing our ability to launch ourselves into space is a suitably ironic metaphor for all the ways we're grounding our future and holding ourselves hostage to those whose maximum altitude is the ivory tower, from which they control big money and manipulate it in ways that are not in our best interests.
Massive cuts of government budgets, and moreover, eliminating ways to raise future revenues, have profound implications for everything else, including regulating the fat cats, as well as supporting the arts, science, engineering, and a green future. The arts are always the first casualty. Arts and music education were the first to be stripped from school budgets. A disgraceful litany of losses has followed. How much more will we allow ourselves to lose, across all of society?
Thomas Friedman, the New York Times Foreign Affairs columnist and bestselling author, just asked the National Governor's Association annual meeting over the weekend, “What world are we living in?” He expressed, “We need to cut and we need to raise revenue. You cut without being careful and you may hit an artery or you may hit a bone. It's an idiotic debate we're having right now. It's irresponsible to our country and it's irresponsible to ourselves and our future.” Friedman emphasized the necessity of spending on education, infrastructure, the right rules for capital formation, and government investment in infrastructure and improvements.
He told the nation's Governors, “We need to reinvest and reinvigorate infrastructure for the 21st century,” because “we live in a hyperconnected world” where others are doing a better job with those things than we are. Of course, he had plenty of illustrative examples.
But we need to go beyond Friedman's remarks. We need to view some recent history that built and shaped our view of ourselves. Without it, you really can't get a sufficiently broad perspective, the context or the key meaning, much less the long term implications of all this. We think we are a society uniquely driven by a positive central characteristic of “American Exceptionalism.” If that was ever true, is it now?
Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who served both the Bush and Obama administrations, asks if we are willing to accept a time where people in their fifties lose their jobs and never find another one, a time when we fail to renew decaying infrastructure and continually defer that expense to the future. He says, “Make no mistake, a depression was a serious possibility in the summer of 2009. It didn't happen because of the Stimulus Act.”
Summers says “The most important thing that makes businesses confident is a thick order book. Business volume is lower than it was at the end of 2007, yet corporate profits are more than 20% higher. We've done a lot to enhance corporate profitability.” He notes that happened because businesses laid-off workers and downsized productivity.
Downsizing and massive, perhaps permanent, joblessness as the path to corporate profits? What a come-down for a nation that once believed it could do anything.
Forty-two years ago this week, Apollo 11 made the first manned landing on the moon. It was celebrated as both the 20th century's equivalent of Columbus and the moment when science eclipsed all other human achievements to date. It fulfilled a challenge given the nation by a bold and future-focused young president who didn't live to see it, but whose spirit embodied and emboldened America.
The timing was remarkable. The Greatest Generation, those who fought WWII, were enjoying the most prosperous time in human history and everyone expected their kids and the grand kids they produced would enjoy ever-increasing advantages they themselves had never had. Things were good and mostly getting better, if you ignored the ubiquitous smog, polluted rivers, and recent demise of all the light rail systems. But there was enough money and, for those who saved, anything reasonable was achievable.
Things took us higher, faster, farther. It was a very can-do era. Oh, there was the great incongruity: the unpopular and ultimately tragic and pointless war in Southeast Asia and protests of it in America were both raging. But in so many ways, even the painful upheaval of of that era's protest movements represented the apex of American culture, passionately striving for and achieving more than we had before. Civil Rights, at least in terms of an end to legally-sanctioned segregation, were won by black Americans and brought the basis for equality.
In terms of government-funded infrastructure and services, there were plenty and they were popular. The vast interstate highway system, begun in the 1950s, was nearing completion. Bridges spanned vast waterways. A monumental and symbolic arch was rising above the Mississippi River at St. Louis. University and college tuition was affordable and community colleges were free. Everyone took a family summer vacation, typically to the National Parks (which were free). Public schools and public libraries, the two foundations of democracy, both had the money they needed for rich, meaningful programs. The schools taught art and music for all. The libraries were open seven days a week. We, the people, enjoyed things across the height and breadth of our country and our taxes paid for them.
Every family, it seemed, owned its own home with an affordable mortgage. Gasoline was thirty-some cents a gallon and sometimes fell lower, and a new car cost three grand or less (a new Cadillac was six). It cost six bucks to get into Disneyland, and Knott's Berry Farm was free. Life was good.
A large proportion of working Americans were union members, including public sector employees. Health care came with any job worth having and co-pays at the doctor's office were paltry or unknown. The world was our marketplace, its industries, peoples and their governments our customers.
Americans had not just vision, but expectations of a future that would soon take us to Mars and beyond and let us live under the sea or on the moon or aboard giant pinwheel space stations like the ones in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” We believed in a world where America and its economic partners would ultimately provide a shared bounty of civilization's advancements – for all, provided we didn't annihilate ourselves in a nuclear confrontation. And even that aspect meant we were spending a fortune on ever-advancing military gadgets and hardware and ships and unprecedented submarines that never had to surface (fulfilling President Eisenhower's parting warning of the “vast military-industrial complex” as it built its power base and economic clout.)
The point is, it was all there, all happening at the same time, and we had enough money to pay for all of it, while investing in basic scientific research that fueled dreams of even more.
Yet, since the return of the final Apollo mission in 1972, we haven't done much to pursue the promise of space travel or sent people to explore “Where no one has gone before.” Neither astronauts nor cosmonauts nor the growing number of space-suited travelers from other nations have been anywhere farther than earth orbit. And we have largely gone that far just to gratify our own nationalistic and narcissistic impulses.
Jump forward. Unless it's some silly app for a bird-brain game on a mobile device or easy texting so we can avoid the stress of real interpersonal conversation, we have lost (or at least lost interest in) our once defining American desire to rush to be first to meet the future.
In more tangible terms, the expected “peace dividend” – the money we were supposed to get from defense cuts after the fall of the Soviet Union – was more than gobbled-up in the sands of distant deserts and recent permanent expansions in the size of our standing military to protect us from nebulous, non-state-based, geographically nonspecific terrorism.
Europe and Japan, for decades, and now China, have made massive public investments in high speed passenger rail that facilitates their dynamic and highly mobile economies. We can't even expand Amtrak into a true national system, and it's a constant battle to keep it, at all.
It just doesn't make sense. A prominent senator recently repeated that we don't need Amtrak because it doesn't make a profit. Does he understand that no nation's passenger rail system makes a profit? As Bill Maher recently observed to Piers Morgan, “It's not supposed to make a profit,” or it would cost too much to have it at all.
Moreover, what of the hypocrisy over competition and government meddling with the marketplace? After 9/11, the airline industry was suddenly freed from the expense of paying for its own security – maintenance base facilities, terminals, air and ground systems, passenger and baggage screening – all of it was suddenly provided to them free by the government. They saved an essential cost of doing business so we could, instead, be felt-up by the taxpayer-funded TSA. Yet the public sector assuming part of the costs for an entire industry is not seen as socialism? And what of the entire taxpayer-funded National Weather Service, built so commercial air carriers could avoid being torn apart in storm clouds? And air traffic control, provided free to the industry by the Federal Aviation Administration? But it's okay those things are expensive free gifts from the taxpayers, not something the airlines should provide for themselves or get the bill from us?
And there's education. Some would have us eliminate the core science curriculum in our public schools, where it's already sub-par with most of what the world's kids get. Instead, they would impose their own religious ideology masquerading as science in some kind of Creation Theory. Funded by the taxpayers, of course. It isn't just that it would be wholly unsupported by scientific inquiry and methodology; it's that they expect the rest of us to pay for it.
At best, America's reasoning about eliminating our government's taxpayer-funded functions while using taxpayer dollars to further special interest agendas is a highly selective exercise aimed at getting others to pay for what you want while scrupulously avoiding the goring of your own ox.
But we can't simply focus on philosophy or contradictions or political hypocrisy. The economy is in deep trouble and, like Thelma and Louise, we're being driven toward the cliff – with the talk radio blaring. Short of massive censorship or exorbitant internet fees, the current scenario portends the most destructive implications for the arts that we can imagine. It's not too extreme to foresee museum and park closures, while reductions – even outright loss – of many publicly-funded arts programs and facilities seem inevitable.
It's appropriate to point out that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's high school senior yearbook page (everyone in his class got a personalized senior page) is emblazoned with his proclamation, “I want what I want and I want it now.” It seems to characterize plenty of politicians with heels dug-in and lower lips extended.
The current surrender-or-die hyperbole transcends all the old guns-or-butter arguments about where we should spend our money. Whatever we need – or simply want – we must be willing to pay for it. And these days, paying for anything, even something as essential as replacing aging bridges, old water mains and sewers, an obsolete and faulty electric power grid unsuitable for reliable computing, and other absolutely necessary infrastructure – or things as simple as keeping libraries open and putting new books on their shelves – seems in each case to require a dedicated advocacy group with a focused and emphatic priority.
At least plenty of talented people these days have time to be advocates. The latest Goldman Sachs report predicts unemployment will decline only slightly, to
8.75%, by the end of 2012.
The latest lunacy is “CCB,” a cutesy tag for an oversimplified new mantra of Cut, Cap and Balance. In return for agreeing to pay our current bills, it demands an immediate and huge Cut of the Federal budget and a Cap on all future spending, limiting it to 18% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Current spending is 24% of GDP, so we're talking about spending one-third less, across the board, immediately – and that means cutting more than the total amount of discretionary spending in the entire budget. The Balance part? That requires a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – just to get the outstanding bills paid.
Bruce Bartlett, economic adviser to the Reagan White House, calls the latter, “quite possibly the stupidest Constitutional Amendment I have ever seen... It looks like it was drafted on the back of a napkin by a couple of interns.”
Meanwhile, Obama White House Press Secretary Jay Carney calls CCB by another name: “Duck, Dodge and Dismantle,” citing efforts of lawmakers to duck and dodge their responsibilities and dismantle government programs like Social Security. For the maddeningly calm No Drama Obama administration, it's a rather strident statement.
So, it's a congressional fantasy land of loud intransigence, at odds with a White House that seems too interested in calmly achieving some impossible consensus. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius observes that “President Obama seems more interested in getting everyone to buy into a solution than in providing leadership.”
Perhaps the president could use an example from his own favorite presidential hero. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes Abraham Lincoln as saying, "Consensus can be paralyzing. You have to know when to act."
Conservatives line up to scream “liar” at a president they call a socialist (perhaps as a substitute for another word they wish they could call him). Liberals see Obama as a wuss, far too conciliatory, starting every series of downs on the 50 yard line, and far too ready to trade-away Democratic Party cornerstones in search of some unattainable kumbaya.
Hello, Washington? It's supposed to be about paying the bills first, and determining our future after the wolf has been chased from the front porch. But politicians jockey for position and the wolf is still there.
But it's not just D.C., or the rancorous efforts to strip union worker's rights in Wisconsin and Ohio in the name of saving money and freeing the rich job creators from the yoke of paying taxes.
In California, an intransigent faction of the legislature just allowed a penny of the sales tax to expire, despite the state's hopelessly broke condition. They're playing chicken with the state's credit rating and its future, for the sake of politics.
Still, it's our nation's capitol where things are the worst. The leadership of one party refuses to allow consideration of anything that would bring in money. That includes closing tax code loopholes – ones that enable the rich and corporations to pay little or no taxes and take deductions for ostentatious toys that seem decadent to so many who are hurting.
Closing tax loopholes is off the table? Big Oil makes money faster than the U.S. Mint (literally) yet they get tax breaks and even receive "depletion allowances" and other subsidies paid to them from everyone else's taxes. They're the richest enterprises in the history of the world, and they're getting our tax money? Meanwhile, families with unemployed bread winners lose their homes and lifetime investments to foreclosure. The rich deduct yachts. People who've worked all their lives apply for food stamps. Corporations deduct layers of pumped-up line item expenses for corporate jets, rather than fly Southwest or Jet Blue with their already taxpayer-subsidized security, airports, terminals, air traffic control and weather infrastructure. Yet finding any new revenue is off the table.
The anti-tax party's leadership stubbornly refuses to allow expiration of tax cuts for the rich, passed as a temporary measure a decade ago. They won't allow a return to the levels the rich paid during the Clinton years, an era when the rich prospered so much that America produced a record number of new millionaires and an eight-year record of 23.1 million new jobs (compared to the tax-cuts-for-the-job-creators Bush years and 3 million jobs and turning a surplus into a record deficit). But the anti-tax party's creed is cast in stone: "we cannot tax the rich because they are the job creators.”
We want to avoid focusing on where the Republicans and where the Democrats stand in all this, not just because it's far less clear than you might think (we'll get to that). Put partisanship aside, because something bigger is far more important to all of us. No one seems to be asking the most basic question: if the rich must continue to receive massive tax breaks because they are job creators, where are the jobs?
The fat cats might dodge the question by stating, as they often do, that the US has the highest corporate tax rate in the world. But does anyone actually pay it? Loopholes and deductions make it doubtful. GE, parent company of NBC, paid almost no taxes on its massive toasters-to-jet-engines-to-TV empire last year. That is all too typical.
Tax breaks for a rich individual – or for the fictitious immortal “individual,” the corporation – are too often characterized incorrectly. They are, in fact, a requirement for the rest of us to subsidize the rich, for whatever reason we're willing to do that. Of course, letting them keep more (often more than what they let us keep) subsidizes their ability to spend on whims and wants and vacations to exotic locales – and for purchasing politicians. That's where it goes beyond corporate welfare. We're paying for their purchase of politicians, and making them beneficiaries in a position to protect their interests at the expense of the rest of us.
It happens simply because spending the taxes collected from the rest of us subsidizes others who aren't paying their fair share – and that statement is, in fact, a longtime conservative definition – of welfare.
Expect to see a lot of upside-down welfare – protected corporate economic clout, pursuing its self-interest by pummeling the rest of us, since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. It was the stealthily-named case that actually gave corporations unlimited ability to raise and spend money on candidates and in political causes with little or no trail of how much they're spending on who or what or why or where.
The rich who got the tax breaks and the corporations that suddenly didn't need to pay their taxes were partly the cause of the nation's current financial crisis – along with a Medicare prescription drug subsidy that wasn't paid for, and two wars that, incredibly, were kept off the books.
Given all this, if the rest of us need to protect the rich from paying taxes when the government is broke, the central question remains, why? We'd really love to ask about all the jobs they were supposed to have created during the decade-plus of their continuing temporary tax breaks. We can't find those jobs and neither can they. They don't exist, except maybe at their relocated plants in China.
Good luck getting the pols to ask for you. The dialog is elsewhere, and its politics of diversion combines the idea that the rich shouldn't pay with an assertion that government shouldn't be allowed to pay its existing bills unless it has all its teeth pulled first.
Mixing metaphors, some would have you believe our government simply wants to spend like a drunken sailor. Given the phenomenal and shocking amount of decaying infrastructure in this country, that's an irresponsible position even before we get to issues of art and culture and advancing enough to keep from being left in the exhaust of other nations.
The perennial need to guarantee paying our nation's debt has never occasioned apocalyptic debate before. Our lawmakers used to quickly take care of business and then open the doors to ways to take society forward.
Ronald Reagan raised the debt limit 17 times, 11 with tax increases. George W. Bush raised the debt limit seven times, and to unprecedented levels. Rancor-free. During the administration just past, Vice President Dick Cheney stated quite emphatically, “Deficits don't matter,” and he went unchallenged by his own party. The very members of Congress who now demand take-no-prisoners concessions failed then to voice incredulity or outrage, though the idea of a deficit, or maybe any spending by government, is suddenly intolerable. Now, the same people who voted for two unprecedented bailouts of the banks see no role for government to have, much less spend, money. They demand the deficit must end without collecting revenue to pay for it.
Suddenly, nothing can happen unless a Balanced Budget Amendment to the US Constitution is passed by both houses of Congress, signed by the President, and sent to the states? Plus a permanent spending cap? Plus massive guaranteed cuts to the Federal budget? Plus a guarantee that taxes on the wealthy will never return to their 1990s levels and tax loopholes will never be closed, though they cost us billions?
As the science of entropy predicts, systems move from order to instability to chaos. And that breeds more chaos. There isn't a clear partisan divide here.
Traditional economic conservatives are struggling to remember Ronald Reagan's famous 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of thy fellow Republican.” Signs are clear that many old hands do not know what to make of the Tea Party's emphatically intransigent slash-and-burn neophytes, though they cannot risk open challenges.
Liberals had been finding scant consolation that the perpetually compromising President had temporarily backed-off from touching the third rail of American politics. It appeared for awhile he would reject Republican demands for privatization of Social Security and cutting Medicare and Medicaid as a condition for paying the nation's outstanding bills. As of Tuesday morning, he'll accept big cuts again. After all, he just abandoned the appointment of Elizabeth Warren, the woman who designed the new and popularly-sought consumer protection bureau, something that should be a hallmark of his administration. But on Monday, he nominated someone else to head it, rather than actually fight for her nomination. Liberals worry that the president always seems poised to cut the heart out of spending for Democrats' favorite programs, just to make himself feel reasonable in the face of people screaming that he's a liar. Is he being manipulated or doing it to himself? Either way, the name-calling is abhorrent.
All the rancor is ugly, and moreover, it's childishly annoying because it's incongruent, unprincipled and delusional. But when is it time to fight? Has politics ever been so – CONTRARIAN, without any legitimate regard for well-reasoned principles? Is there anything Republicans won't fight to oppose? Is there anything this president finds worth fighting for? Does he understand Ronald Reagan's basic popularity was based on the High Noon image of the Hollywood gunfighter facing the bad guys, the strong and decisive character whose favorite words were, “Well, no.” Does he understand, at all, that America wants a give-em-hell Harry Truman, not a Harry Potter who thinks he can charm the demons with magic? Assessing this – Intransigence vs. Obsession With Compromise – where no deal is possible would be only political handicapping, were we not in an economic crisis reaching from the kitchen table to the international money markets.
But we are in crisis. A real one. And the immediate part has an action deadline of August 2.
How did politicians come to fixate on so many crazy, irresponsible and wholly unprecedented hostage-based dialogs, collectively resembling Nero fiddling while Rome burns?
Raising the Debt Ceiling has almost – almost – nothing to do with any of the supposed issues the politicians are holding hostage. Sure, there is an issue of profound FUTURE importance because failure to pay our current bills would trigger higher interest rates on debt and cost all of us hundreds of billions in public and private debt service for decades to come. Other than that aspect, it's an issue of acting RIGHT NOW on a balance that's due RIGHT NOW. It's recklessly irresponsible to fool around with the wolf at the door.
Guaranteeing the debt is simply paying the bill we already rang-up. To paraphrase Jon Stewart, it's as if a bunch of pro-war, pro-corporation, anti-regulation, anti-tax characters took us all to an expensive dinner. They ate most of it, including some from our plates, filled doggie bags for their buddies, pocketed the silverware and embroidered napkins, then got up from the table and left us with the bill. (We note that some of them were at the banquet to celebrate increased profits gained by outsourcing our jobs and manufacturing capability to other countries. And they got away with it.) Now, we're the ones left at the table and we don't have the option of washing dishes in the back.
It may be funny when Jon Stewart asks, “Do we need to park our country down the block where China can't find it?” But it's a national humiliation we ever got here in the first place, and a disaster if we try to dodge calls from the bill collectors.
On his CBS Face the Nation show on Sunday, host Bob Schieffer explained a lot of it. Schieffer, the last of Washington's grand old men of political journalists, noted that “running for office and perpetually running for reelection are both so expensive that they consume nearly all the time of the office holder. By the time a newly-elected representative reaches Washington, they have sold-out to so many interests that all their positions are cast in cement. Any thought of compromise to get something done is regarded as a betrayal by some special interest who sent them there.”
Last week underlined all of it in an unexpected way. If you caught any of the funeral of former First Lady Betty Ford, you heard people speak of her commitment to women's rights and accomplishments and influences across the political spectrum that transcended the post-Watergate turmoil of her time, to the lasting benefit of all of us. Clearly, it hasn't always been the way it is now. She will be remembered and held in esteem. Will today's political figures?
Back to Bob Schieffer. What he didn't recognize is today's members of Congress are a throwback to the 1870s-1880s, the Gilded Age, when the Robber Barons of steel and oil and each big railroad conglomerate quite openly owned his own flock of congressmen and senators.
We're there again, and it matters more now than it ever has, far beyond the arts.
One of the first casualties in government spending cuts, by nations around the world, is spending for environmental protection and achieving the all-important marriage of environmental and economic sustainability. As economic impacts from America, Greece and Ireland exert pressure on financial markets, good things we think are happening simply are not.
Fareed Zakariah revealed on his CNN Sunday show, “Global dependence on oil is actually higher now than a year ago,” and continues to trend more in that direction.
As Zakariah explained, cutting carbon emissions to slow global climate change – something expected to exert a major technological push for new growth industries during this decade – simply isn't happening. The best it gets is disappointing if not bleak. Germany is currently installing inefficient solar panels and Denmark installed thousands of inefficient windmills because buying more oil was cheaper than the needed financing – the cost of getting money – to buy better solar and wind devices. When the cost of capital is too high, effective and efficient new technology is too expensive. (Denmark is now biting the bullet and replacing their old electric-power windmills with better ones, but they're the exception.)
Environmental issues often assert themselves suddenly, in ways requiring disaster relief funding. Right now, a record 12% of America is experiencing severe drought. That includes a lot of Southern Plains farmland and 75% of Texas. Arizona's forests just burned, catastrophically. Two summers ago, half the San Gabriel Mountain range became an inferno that nearly claimed the Mt. Wilson Observatory and all of L.A.'s broadcast radio and TV transmitters. Heroic firefighters from throughout America held the fire, just feet from those facilities, and ultimately extinguished it, after months of constant effort.
Can private industry make a profit helping people and dealing with disasters when government is too broke to come to their aid?
This spring, more than a dozen communities across half a dozen states were devastated or wholly destroyed by a shocking series of worst-on-record tornadoes.
Please permit a personal note. Those tornadoes brought me back to being in Louisiana as a volunteer aid worker after Hurricane Katrina. There, I saw first hand, the “Heckuva job Brownie” bungling and the effective, if far from immediate, efforts of National Guard units sent from several distant states – along with the people-to-people convoys and generosity. I can't imagine living in an America that has no money to help its own people. Nor can I tolerate the stupid arrogance of politicians who deny that human impacts on the atmosphere in the name of quick profits have no connection with the global climate change that powers extreme weather phenomena.
Ultimately, the economy is dependent on the cooperation of a benevolent if not benign environment, every bit as much as every other endeavor of society and civilization, including agriculture and all other essential human activities – including the arts.
The first intentional record left us by early humans was art, but as we're seeing here, it's not possible to focus on continuing that legacy to the exclusion of the society's interlocking issues.
So, what is the picture, if we were to take a snapshot right now? Overall, it seems the modus operandi of the 19th century Robber Barons and the politicians they own is simply back, but with much higher stakes:
a) Big corporations, ostensibly American, actually multinational, take short-term profits with little or no consideration for long-term viability. Profits are most-often based on extractrion of nonrenewable resources and on layoffs, firings, and exportation of jobs, following over-consolidations to eliminate more innovative competitors. The end result is far fewer jobs and an attendant reduction of competitive innovation in the marketplace, together with lost jobs that will not return.
b) Corporate-owned politicians legislate against government regulation, so the Robber Barons can do as they please and save costs of health, safety, spill prevention, clean-up and other social and environmental responsibilities. (And we get blowout preventers that don't work, months and tons of toxic gush into the gulf's waters and across the sea floor, millions of gallons of unknown synergistic chemical dispersants – themselves toxic – dumped into the environment, all followed by tens of millions of dollars in TV ads from Big Oil, telling us how wonderful they are.)
c) Big corporations buy politicians to de-certify public sector unions. Certainly, it's part of an effort to eliminate unions altogether, since the organizations exist to protect the rights workers fought long and hard to achieve.
d) Eliminating unions is consistent with privatizing everything for profit, whether or not it gains value for taxpayers. Even the military no longer cooks or serves its own food, or handles most of its own computer needs, or maintains its own vehicles – not even its sophisticated piloted and robotic drone aircraft. Instead, defense contractors do all those things at a profit. As a result, taxpayers pay much more, and most uniformed military personnel learn only combat skills that are not marketable in the civilian sector when their enlistment ends. (Time was, you could join the military and learn a career skill. Nowadays, you just get a fourth or fifth deployment to a fire base in Afghanistan, surrounded by literally millions of old Soviet land mines, living with more years of violent combat than any American soldier experienced in WWII.)
e) And finally, there's us. We, nearly all of us, allow ourselves to be distracted by far too much BS, by Howard Stern's insulting potty humor, Nancy Grace's crazed stares into the camera for HLN's endless “coverage” (and highest ratings ever) with the trial of a disgusting young woman who, the jury says, maybe didn't murder her baby.
We're inundated with supposedly Real Housewives (like none we know) infesting TV between half-hours of ersatz angst with more brainless twits who worry about makeup and tattoos and hookups with people they don't care about anyway. It's the definitive lyrics of that Eagles song a quarter century ago, “Dirty Laundry,” on steroids.
We are obsessed with transitory BS and foolishness marinaded in overwrought emotions of the extreme. We bestow celebrity status that makes pathetic people famous for being famous, despite their lack of meaningful accomplishment and apparent inability to contribute anything of actual value to society.
We cheer the instant fame of the unaccomplished singing idol who cheapens the worth of lessons and practice and rehearsals and studio time and collaboration and learning.
We see it too in the silliness of politicians who quit their jobs after half a term in office then carry on like they've remade a Rocky movie.
To the far too limited extent that most of us analyze complex political issues at all, it's often limited to laughing along with Stewart and Colbert and Leno and Letterman and O'Brien and SNL. (In our defense, we do live in an age of no bold political heroes.)
f) Democracy is in trouble, and with it, our opportunity to save the planet – and ourselves – from atmospherically destabilizing carbon increases; from artificially-mutated and ultimately intrusive food crops that lack natural genetic diversity; from myriad and synergistic carcinogenic poisons of countless industrial chemicals; from a plague of leeching plastic-based chemicals and airborne and waterborne toxins that infest the cells of our bodies; from slimy mid-ocean islands of garbage; from endless wars to protect access to foreign oil supplies; and from economic manipulations that benefit shareholders and bring obscene executive bonuses in the short run at the cost of everyone and everything in the long run.
So, can we, in this forum, offer anything more encouraging than the obvious necessity that the politicians need to stop screwing around (in some cases, literally) and take care of the needs of the people first – including the human need for culture and art – and then, when possible, worry about reconciling those essentials with the desires of business?
Actually, yes we can. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich is the one making more sense than anyone else. For months, Reich has advocated “tax relief, to be meaningful, needs to be aimed at getting more capital into the weak economy.” He would start with balancing “a return to 1990s tax rates with an exemption for the first $20,000 that each of us makes, regardless of our individual total earnings or tax bracket.” It's even-handed, because the rich get it, too, and it's an inherently practical stimulus because the poor need it now and will spend it now.
Reich would reinstate ideas that worked before. He would bring back a form of the WPA and CCC from the Roosevelt Administration that beat the Great Depression. If you've seen an epic mural in an old federal building or post office, you're looking at a WPA project that employed artists and gave us a lasting cultural asset. Often, the local post office itself was a WPA construction project, as were significant bridges, irrigation projects, rural electrification and lots more. These government investments put unemployed people to work, built career job skills, and left something for all of us that we continue to use and enjoy. In the mountains above L.A., the Angeles Crest and Angeles Forest Highways and the ski areas reached by them, together with the extensive network of high country hiking, equestrian, and mountain biking trails, were all products of the CCC and WPA of the 1930s. Okay, so the decades of accessible publicly-owned resources there and elsewhere are no longer free, because the underfunded Forest Service now charges a hefty fee for a parking pass.
Still, that's part of the point: we don't have the money to guarantee safe access to, or fund maintenance of, the things we once built in prolific profusion, from interstate highways to hiking trails. Yet politicians want to cut government budgets and prevent any chance of employing anyone to maintain or improve or restore any of it? We should what, throw it away? Any politician advocating that should be brought up on charges for failing to protect public property.
Reich is right. Bringing back a WPA / CCC component to the public sector makes sense, especially in hard economic times with massive unemployment. It would give us something that would not only put skilled people – including artists – back to work, but it would enable us to pass on to future generations some useful gifts from our time to theirs.
Why shouldn't every public park in the suburbs have a piece of sculpture, just as every old park in the city has a statue or two? Why shouldn't every park of a certain size have a bandstand and a publicly-funded neighborhood concert series? Why shouldn't all our public buildings be retrofitted with sustainable energy-producing devices that take them off the grid for good and save taxpayer money in perpetuity? Wouldn't that produce jobs now, paid for with savings generated everyday, savings that benefit us for years to come? But it's only possible if the money to do it is there in the first place.
Thomas Friedman, who writes of the hyperconnected economy of what he calls a flat earth, emphasizes, “We must create jobs that cannot be outsourced.”
Well, investments and jobs that create and present art for our own people, here in our own communities, and improve our publicly-owned facilities and renew our infrastructure, cannot be outsourced, and they enrich our lives here.
Friedman even told the National Governors Association, “Everyone must think like an artisan. Artisans give a personal touch to whatever they do. Artisans often put their name or their initials on what they do. Their pride and individual expression are part of it. That's a really good mindset. Think like an artisan.”
If even one of these ideas has merit, then we must reckon with the central issue: drastically cutting government's sources of funding will prevent us from ever achieving even one of these goals. We won't have money for hurricane or tornado relief or fighting wild fires. We'll always be too broke. Would we need to hock Yosemite or the Lincoln Memorial or the Statue of Liberty to pay for earthquake relief? We couldn't, because we couldn't come back later with the money. Before some fake populist wave convinces you that government funds should be taken away, understand that the things we enjoy now will become unsustainable for lack of funding. Unsustainable, even as our critical infrastructure continues to decay while unemployment, as Goldman Sachs predicts, continues at high levels.
Back to Friedman, who offers more challenges. He asked the Governors why is it appropriate that we continue to expend our blood and treasure “in places where the supposed beneficiaries,” the indigenous populations, “have insufficient or no interest in taking ownership” of the changes wrought by our military presence and our killing and dying and destroying and expensive rebuilding there? If we are to cut what we spend, why not start with what we spend in those places?
There's plenty we should be discussing that hasn't been part of the politicians' dialog.
Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein remarked Monday, “We are being forced to choose between deals that are either/or instead of deals that are both/and. We can do better.”
The unique and vital perspective of the artist – to hold a mirror up to society to interpret and define and challenge and dream and design and reach for things that exceed our grasp – should bring us all a seat at the table. Instead, we get musical chairs. The rich and powerful corporations are the ones controlling the music. Our elected representatives, rather than getting a chair for us, are complacent (or worse) running a loud and distracting room while more chairs are removed. Do they all hope we're too beset by political Attention Deficit Disorder to notice?
Our message to them is, let's stop the noise and hyperbole and distractions and distortions over the Debt Ceiling and stop claiming it's something that it's not. We must immediately pay the bill the fat cats left us when they got up from the table, and we must reckon that it'll cost us more from now on to watch and regulate those fat cats so they can't screw us with another gulf oil spill or the negligence of last week's broken pipeline that kills the Yellowstone River. We can't let our government be too broke for oversight and regulation that protects us from bad industrial practices, unsafe food, bad pharmaceuticals, and from those obsessed with profit at any price.
But first, we must pay our nation's bills, and we must do it right away. The politicians know what will happen if they allow an unprecedented default, and they must see we know it, too, and we are holding them accountable to do their jobs.
Then we must address the proper role of government spending for our society's future. Investment isn't just needed, it's required for essential infrastructure, for research and innovation and invention and exploration, for things that fuel opportunities for new clean and green sustainable industries, for development of entirely new pioneering sectors and services, for creating a new export-capable manufacturing base and for a better society – one that includes public sector support for the arts and for art and music education.
The private sector has already demonstrated these are mostly things it will not provide for any price we can pay, even when they don't pay their taxes. And they've demonstrated they are not creating jobs addressing these essential needs (or anything else on our shores).
Accessible arts, and arts and music education for all, have a place in the proper role of government spending. Government has a legitimate role in meeting needs that can't be met at a profit – like efficiently and effectively operating the National Weather Service and the FAA and the FDA and Social Security and Medicare and affordable health care and a new Consumer Protection Agency and expanding Amtrak and fixing and modernizing our collapsing transportation infrastructure and water and utility grids. Government must assure the things that in turn assure health and safety, make the economic landscape navigable and attractive for private investment, and make life better for all of us.
Of course some things must be cut, since a time of high unemployment and reduced incomes means less is available for government to receive its share. So, let's determine, too, whether it's worth continuing foreign military occupations and fighting unending wars at any price, and what role we should properly have, and can afford to have, on the global stage.
Our military budget – with most of it going to giant defense contractors – is bigger than the next top 20 nations' combined military spending.
Why not preserve those jobs in a sector where high tech would freely spin-off to revitalize innovations, rather than in a classified military status where we get nothing but the bang for our bucks? Why not return military contractors to aerospace contractors and get back into space exploration? Why not do it in the name of the ultimate economic stimulus, one that gives a reason to revitalize education and emphasize the science and math sectors where we are so deficient? For America to create the massive number of high-paying jobs we need, we must help our few remaining non-exportable industries to again be a big employer – and one with infinite potential to cross-pollinate our economy. That will require something big and bold – a commitment to send humans to Mars – and it will require government leadership and spending. It's time. The moon was a generation ago. We've piddled around with silly, narcissistic technology too long. Let's do something that distinguishes us for having lived in this time with these opportunities. Let's go meet the future.
Embrace a cause or make one. Let's be worthy of our time and presence here. Let's go meet the future.
It's time for each of us, as artists and as people who passionately care, to take ownership of the future. It's time to own the fact and the recognition, and yes, the responsibility, that everything (not just the internet) is interconnected. Every role, every act, every innovation, every collaboration, every contribution, every idea, every person can be important. All it takes is will and opportunity. Part of opportunity is money. As for will, do we want to achieve something worthy, something great? There are no limits to what any of us can dream, but dreams are no substitute for doing. There is something specific we must do, right now, because we are artists, and that makes us uniquely qualified.
Can we can afford to live in a society where only private profit motive determines what happens? – Or can we afford something more, something special enough to inspire us? – Inherent in that, can we afford publicly-funded art, and art and music education and presentations in our lives? – Or can we afford to lose these vessels of our culture, from the banner-waving flagships to the simple joys of the smaller crafts? – What things will we willingly lose, for ourselves, for our society, and for our time? – And would losing those things be tantamount to abandoning hope of a future where artists are respected and sought for the uniqueness and character that only the arts can contribute? – Will we accept a world where the only art is custom-ordered by and for corporate clients, and by definition, a commercial product targeted to sell soap (or whatever) and devoid of free expression? – Are we willing to surrender an accessible cultural legacy to a corporate-dominated, exclusively profit-driven world, one that our complacency or frustrated non-participation could assure is all that's left for those who come after us?
In the face of slash-and-burn politics, these essential questions will simply be taken off the table unless we fight to keep them there, and help others to understand and answer them.