The True Cost of Culture

By Cyrus Schiller

In his 2018 budget, which he unveiled in March, President Donald Trump proposed completely eliminating the $971 million currently allocated to the independent agencies of the United States Government that help provide artistic and cultural services: The National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Institute of Museum and Library Services. If this were a particularly oppressive and burdensome cost fiscally, there might, in austere times, be some justification for this otherwise egregious affront to the arts. However, if fiscal responsibility is truly the President’s chief priority, he is barking up the wrong tree entirely. In the entire discretionary portion of the federal budget, estimated to amount to $1.1 trillion, the $971 million currently spent on these four agencies accounts for only approximately 0.0009% of the total, rounded upwards. The funding as a percentage of the total is so miniscule that eliminating it would do next to nothing to solve our nation’s budgetary woes, and the American taxpayer already pays the equivalent of a third of this amount to keep the President’s wife and son in Manhattan until his son finishes his school year. President Trump is evidently far more concerned about his son’s private school education than he is about the welfare of the American people at large.

From a small-government conservative perspective, there is at least an ideological reason to target federal funding of the arts for elimination. However, Trump is no small-government conservative, or ideologue of any kind. If he had even a somewhat developed interest in reducing the Federal budget in a constructive manner, he might think twice about his massive proposed increases to the Department of Defense, as well as the down payment for an utterly ineffectual and expensive border wall, instead of targeting foreign aid, environmental cleanup efforts, education, and the arts. Cutting the arts would, from a budgetary perspective, change practically nothing. However, this comparatively small cost of defunding the arts and culture would be a huge cost for everyday Americans. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds over 1,000 public radio stations across the country, is responsible for NPR and PBS, which both provide indispensable news and cultural programming. Ever since the Federal Communications Commission abolished the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, which required broadcasters to discuss issues of public concern with objectivity, NPR and PBS have remained, in a polarized nation, as perhaps the last champions of this standard of journalistic and factual integrity in public discourse. Unlike the billion dollar media corporations, which usually present issues of public concern with unyielding ideological biases, such as FOX for conservatives and CNN and MSNBC for liberals, PBS and NPR are refreshingly objective by comparison. In addition, both provide quality cultural programming on their affiliated radio stations. I grew up first watching Mister Rogers and Sesame Street, and then PBS documentaries as I got older. I also listened to classical music on WETA, a Washington area CPB affiliated station. I count myself lucky to have benefited from these cultural services. It would be nightmarish, to say the least, if stations broadcasting educational and cultural content had to rely on advertisements to turn a profit. Another agency targeted for elimination, the National Endowment for the Humanities, exists primarily to provide financial support and promote public access to the Humanities. This Endowment does not exist in order to be profitable, but rather to preserve remnants of America’s cultural heritage that might otherwise be forgotten. For example, the United States Newspaper Project, which was sponsored by the NEH, has helped to preserve millions of American newspapers with microfilm technology, some dating back over a hundred years. The same is true of the Institute of Library and Museum Services, since the whole point of the public library is for people to have free access to books and learning. There are enough struggling libraries already, since most are funded by often impoverished local governments and municipalities. However, even though these agencies are not actually meant to be profitable, their combined fiscal footprint is nevertheless so insignificant that there would really be no reason even a deficit hawk would single them out for attention. In reality, I think that President Trump wants to eliminate the agencies as part of his crusade against perceived elitism. While elitism is a very real thing, the CPB, NEA, NEH, and IMLS are not exactly linchpins of liberal snobbery in society. In their roles as non-profit providers of cultural and educational services to the American Public, it might be easy to perceive them as being mere symbols of liberal values when in fact they are just tiny, independent federal agencies that accomplish a lot of good with what little money they have. Just because Donald Trump, who is well known for his indifference to reading and his distaste for reputable sources of information, has no personal reasons to support these agencies, he should, instead of abolishing them, think about the millions of Americans who listen to NPR’s Morning Edition on their morning commute, and whose kids enjoy free programming such as Sesame Street without being inundated with commercials. He should be thinking about how society benefits from improved education and access to culture instead of thinking about how to upset the liberal professors and media personalities. He should be thinking about us, the people, many of whom directly benefit from these services without realizing it, instead of thinking about how to score political points with conservatives in Congress in the hopes that they might sign on to his deluded policy proposals in exchange for reducing the size and scope of the Federal Government. The tiny amount that these agencies add to the government’s discretionary budget is negligible, but what they do does matter. These agencies, despite being small, contribute massively to the quality of life in the United States by focusing on education and cultural refinement, and would be a real shame if these areas were overlooked even more than they already are.

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