Monday, October 5, 2009

Looking Forward

The Times-Argus recently printed an article which gave a pretty bleak assessment of state budget woes in the coming years. According to the article, this recession is "different from the three previous recessions...[because] employment and consumer spending aren't expected to bounce back as quickly."

Among the measures states will have to use to balance their budgets are to increase college tuition, reduce funding for the arts and other cultural programs, and push costs for employees and repairs into the future.

Thomas Friedman predicted this back in a June 2003 NY Times column. The federal government is out of money. The $789 billion it borrowed last spring will stave off some things for a while. But the budget crunch is, according to how I read Friedman, the result of services that used to be paid for with federal dollars (that, as taxes, are significantly less for you and me) now being paid for by the individual states (which, especially in a low population state like Vermont, are considerably more expensive for you and me).

I'm neither an economist nor an educator, but it seems strange to me that every time our government (federal, state, or local) gets into trouble financially they look first to the arts and to education to start restoring some sort of balance.

I can just hear the conversations around federal and state policy-maker's cabinet-room tables.
"What?! We have a deficit of 4 trillion dollars?!"" Shocking!!" "We must do something!" "I know, let's take away all funding for the arts at the federal AND state level. That will save us a solid $500 million. $350 million for the states, and $150 million for the feds." "Oh, good show, that should keep the middle class distracted and at bay for a few more years." "Well done!"

Trouble is, when the national debt is pushing $12 trillion and growing by nearly $4 billion a day, the problem will not be solved by cutting arts and education.

In fact, picking the arts first as a place to cut seems a little disingenuous...

Employment and revenues are the biggest problem (if you're a glass-half-full kind of person) or health care, interest payments on the debt, defense spending, social services, and corrections are the biggest problem (if you're a glass-half-empty kind of person). Either way you look at it, the arts sector and the education sector are a significant part of the solution to what is or is not in the glass.

The arts sector is a significant employer/training ground for much of what drives our high tech economy (where do you think, for example, the film and music industries get their talent from anyway?). After family, education is probably the single biggest indicator of how a person will become socialized as an adult. The longer one stays in school--or, more accurately, the longer one continues his/her commitment to learning, the more positive one's life experiences are likely to be.

Why in hell is anyone thinking of cutting these things?

Here's what I've learned over the years. With only a few brave, sometimes controversial exceptions (like Richard Florida), economists generally don't know what to do with "the cultural sector." It is a sector that has either matured in the past decade or so--usually well after most economists finished their graduate training, or it matured millennia ago and economists (and the policy-makers they advise) have lost touch with it.

In either case, today's economists and their their measuring tools are inadequate to the task. It is certainly possible keep track of ticket sales, and art purchases. But there is nothing other than the so-called "multiplier effect " that allows us to infer the kind of spending that goes on in parking lots, gas stations, restaurants, and hotels as the result of arts events. And that's just barely capturing the true value of the cultural sector.

How does an economist measure the impact of a teaching artist? Or the impact of a clustering of visual artists in run-down warehouse district? Or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony? What tools has the economics profession developed that will convincingly relate the presence of a high-quality theater company or a cartoon school to the social and economic well-being of a village? (Yeah, White River Junction, that's a big shout-out to all of you! :))

What is it going to take for the soft science of economics to develop some harder edges where the arts and culture are concerned?

It seems to me that education and the arts are the absolute LAST places that government should cut. Biases aside, it's just not worth the price of elimination. Education is all about our future--our children's future. The arts are all about creativity and imagination.

We are going to need a lot of the latter if we are going to have a hope of delivering on the promise of the former.

So...if you want to do something to put a little more in the glass, click here. And, on behalf of artists and arts organizations in Vermont whose work inspires, thrills, entertains, and challenges us all, thank you for your ongoing support.


Margaret said...

Amen, Alex. Let's hope some economists read this :-)


Anonymous said...

They cut these monies because arts and education are the path of least resistence. And that's ONE reason why the Arts Council is so necessary: ADVOCACY.