In an October 1 Opinion piece published by the Los Angeles Times, former Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich showed to the world just how quickly someone once at the center of American political life can lose touch with reality. He proposed cutting the tax deductibility of contributions to universities and arts institutions in half because…”let’s face it: These aren’t really charitable contributions. They’re often investments in the lifestyles the wealthy already enjoy and want their children to have too. They’re also investments in prestige—especially if they result in the family name being engraved on the new wing of an art museum or symphony hall.”
He particularly focuses on Harvard University’s $30 billion plus endowment and a Lincoln Center Gala supported by hedge-fund leaders who make up to $1 billion a year.
He goes on to propose the following “modest proposal. At a time when the number of needy continues to rise, when government doesn’t have the money to do what’s necessary for them and when America’s very rich are richer than ever, we should revise the tax code: Focus the charitable deduction on real charities” (ones that, according to Reich, actually serve the poor).
Wow. This thesis just cries for a reasoned response. But where do I start?
Maybe I should ask first what could possibly have caused the government to not have the money to do what’s necessary “for them” (the poor) or to have made America’s very rich “richer than ever.” But, nah, that would be too cheap a shot and WAY too political.
Maybe I should point out that three years ago Harvard completed the transition to need-blind and legacy-blind admissions and furthermore, because of its endowment, is now able to cover the entire tuition, room, and board cost of any student whose parents are unable to contribute towards those costs. How’s that for a response to Reich’s assumptions about Harvard serving only legacies of wealthy donors and not serving the needs of the poor? On second thought, that might lead him to accuse Harvard of being the exception that proves the rule--despite the fact that Harvard’s actions are not, at this point, all that exceptional.
But wait, there’s more to Harvard (and other “elite institutions of higher learning”) than money and legacies: what about the research it does that the government can’t do and the private sector won’t do without a sufficient profit-motive? Shall we “just say no” to all that?
So let’s take the argument to a local level. Should we (the public) stop supporting River Arts in Morrisville through a combination of public funds and tax-deductible contributions simply because the services it provides to everyone in its community are arts-based? How about the services of Vermont Arts Exchange, Rockingham Art and Museum Project, the Chaffee, the Chandler, NEK Arts, and countless others? Why stop there? How about pulling the plug on all public and tax-deductible support for community economic development that involves the arts: destroy the Creative Economy in Vermont right at its source?
I could run us all through a quick review of all the great programs and services currently at work in Vermont communities, including Head Start programs, health care, identified schools, corrections, recreation and scores of others, each of which is arts-based and each of which would blast Reich’s thesis to smithereens. But that would still avoid what I believe is the most important question that we should be asking of ourselves and each other:
What exactly do we want our generation’s legacy to be, as framed by the actions of our government and the uses to which charitable contributions from our wealthy citizens is put? Put another way, what do we want—as a citizenry—the direct and indirect impact of government funding to result in?
My personal opinion is that our government should be a reflection of how we want to be governed. It should manage our public safety. It should regulate industries that have a tendency to pollute our streams, our air, our airwaves, etc. It should provide for those who can’t provide for themselves. And (here’s the kicker) it should support those institutions who serve as beacons of hope, of innovation, of creativity, of knowledge and understanding—because it is they who inspire us and who lead us forward into the future. Their work is more often built on a dream or a vision, and not on a well-documented market need. Their inventions and services belong to all of us because their work tends to be in “the public good.” Thus, their work depends on direct (tax support) and indirect (tax deductible contributions) from our government.
In Robert Reich’s world-view, there appears to be no room for all the positive things for which the government can and should take some responsibility. Is he really that cynical? Or is he that out of touch with what is really happening. Mr. Reich…before you write another opinion piece, please come to Vermont. I’ll be happy to show you a lot of government-supported, arts-based activities that will surely change your world-view just a little.