Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Difference of a Dollar

On a recent trip to Washington DC I had to pause in front of a Metro card machine to decipher its instructions.  As I pulled several bills from my wallet I became aware of a soft-spoken man standing a few feet away, quietly intoning “45 cents, folks.  That’s all I need.  It’s not a hand out, I just need to get home and I don’t have the right change.  Spare 45 cents?  Anybody?  Please?...”

Having lived in most of the major cities on the eastern seaboard, I was not buying his act.  I had seen too many hustlers and homeless people looking for an easy mark, and this guy was perfectly positioned at a spot where out-of-towners are most likely to stand for a few minutes with money in their hands figuring out, like I was, how to buy a Metro card.

Perhaps a dozen people were in the vicinity, all doing what I was doing, and as we all finished our business with the machines, the man suddenly squatted next to his bag, facing away from us, lifted both hands up next to his ears and noiselessly started to shake them.  He realized that none of us were going to help him.  Still shaking, and in his own private world of humiliation and embarrassment, he emitted a quiet keening sound as I, with a fresh Metro card safely in hand, turned from the machine to head through the turnstiles.

In that moment I realized that whatever else might be going on, this man really was desperate.  He needed 45 cents.  His life had been reduced to this almost insignificant equation and the look on his face as he stared at his bag, shaking with fear, anger, and frustration pierced my detachment like nothing has in a long time.

The fairy tale ending to this story is, having given him some money, I proceed onto the Metro feeling virtuous and the guy purchases his ticket and makes it home in time for his daughter’s birthday party. 

Instead, I gave the guy a dollar, received his heartfelt thanks, got onto the Metro and experienced a tidal wave of anger.  I felt that the entire encounter was an allegory for the arts in this country.  The arts sector is the unknown man in the subway looking for legitimacy and support from his fellow travelers.  The arts sector is the unknown man in the subway with a bag full of ideas, of projects, of potential, all waiting to be realized.  The arts sector is the unknown man in the subway in need of a few pennies more to help reach a place that other travelers will only dream of.  The arts sector is the unknown man kneeling in the subway shaking with sorrow, fear, and a little rage at the indifference of society.

I shared this story with a friend.  He pointed out that the real lesson to be drawn from this encounter was that, in reality, someone (me) had intervened and bailed the guy out—a perfect lesson in current political theory.  Let things get desperate enough and the private sector will step up and save the day.

Except, I argued back, that in this case, it wasn’t the “private sector” that stepped up and saved the day; it was me—a public servant.  Moreover, it was a public servant who watched as literally dozens of “private sector citizens” walked past and ignored the man’s pleas; who took the extra moment to process the look on the man’s face; who gauged that one man’s private torment, internalized it, and who finally reached into his wallet to give the man a dollar.  Did I feel virtuous?  Heck no.

What’s going to happen to the next person who needs 45 cents if the public sector isn’t around?  How will she fare? And the person after her…?  And the one after him…?

We are going in the wrong direction. The public sector is being made out to be the enemy of progress. And the need for the arts and humanities (not to mention human services, medical care, and social security) is greater than ever.

And yet… the overpowering message coming from Washington DC still is to cut taxes and cut spending…to ignore the plight of the bereft man at the Metro card machine.

Pushing this allegory to its logical conclusion I considered how the unknown man in the subway who represents the arts sector will fare next year when he again lacks the 45 cents he needs to change the world. What can this man expect from the public sector, represented by National Endowment for the Arts?

About 40 cents. 

Whose helping hand will it be next time?

Monday, April 11, 2011

I’m glad I live in Vermont

The past couple of weeks have been crammed with arts advocacy-related activities.  In Vermont more than 50 advocates descended on the State House for the day to make sure that the arts were not forgotten in our policy-makers’ zeal to deliver a balanced budget to the Governor for signing.  While I will not comment on any specific matter that is still in play, I think it is appropriate to share one brief story from that day.

Surrounded on all sides by hundreds of people pressing in to make contact during the legislative free-for-all that is the lunch hour in the State House Cafeteria, I overheard two senators discussing the appropriations process with a constituent. “Sure,” one of them said, “the subject of whether we could afford to support the arts in this climate of deep cuts to needed human services came up.  But then we all looked at each other and I said, ‘I wouldn’t want to live in a place that didn’t support art and culture.’”

I’m glad I live in Vermont.  Contrast this attitude towards the arts in Vermont to what is still unfolding (some say unraveling) in our nation’s capital. 

I always look forward to spending a couple of days in DC with 2500 of my fellow travelers who descend first on the Kennedy Center for the Monday evening “Nancy Hanks Lecture on the Arts” followed by a day-long program on Capitol Hill where, each year we have the pleasure of meeting with our AMAZING Vermont delegation.  This year, the program was enhanced by a special White House Briefing in the Old Executive Office Building, just off the West Wing of the White House.

In this setting we were treated to a parade of four or five mid-level and senior policy advisors to the President who all assured us how much they treasured the role that the arts play in their daily lives and in their collective priorities as policy-shapers.  There was only one problem. 

For all their talk touting the President’s strong support for the arts as demonstrated by his first-of-a-kind campaign policy statement on the arts, and for all the posturing they were doing in front of us, their deeds stood in stark contrast to their words.  As Americans for the Arts CEO Bob Lynch put it:  “How can you ask us to celebrate the President’s support for the Arts when a) his recommendation for the National Endowment for the Arts is disproportionately less than almost every other agency, and b) when most of us who believe in the power and effectiveness of the arts feel like they gave at the office back in 1996 when the NEA suffered a 40% cut?”

After several minutes of hemming and hawing , one of the senior policy analysts stood in front of all of us at the White House Briefing and finally admitted to Bob Lynch: “We just don’t have a good answer for you right now.”

The reality is that the debate in Washington DC about how to grow our way out of this recession has been taken over by people who appear to lack a basic understanding of how the American government is supposed to function.  Worse, the President, whose attempts to charm or manipulate his way to a healthy compromise on this and many other issues, is being met with scorn, derision, and flat out defeat at every turn.

Here is what I believe is the situation:

The combination of tea-party/Conservative office holders in Congress are pushing the House into a position that is basically undermining the ability of the government to actually govern.  They intend to eliminate all discretionary funding programs (whose cost, I have heard, constitutes about 12% of this year’s total budget deficit).  If they succeed, two things will surely result.  One, they will eliminate all types of government support for things that actually RAISE revenues to support needed social and recreational programs (like an affordable and accessible National Park system); and two, even if they succeed in eliminating these cost areas, they STILLwill have 88% of the deficit to contend with!

So what should the President do?  First, he should recognize that “compromising from the center” only plays into extremists’ hands.  He should use his office to educate Americans about the importance of a strong centralized government. He should use his office to educate Congress (the House, specifically) that limiting itself to only cutting programs, and not to growing programs that deliver revenue and quality of life, is self-defeating.  And he should make the case that no country that calls itself civilized should ever be allowed to throw its cultural sector under the bus.

Right-wing, tea-party extremists I have spoken to have no problem supporting the arts.  They just don’t want GOVERNMENT to support the arts.  

What they seem unable or unwilling to understand is that the cultural sector relies on a very sophisticated support system that has evolved over the years and which is a cornerstone on which most of our major cultural institutions rest.  Without small, meaningful investments of public funds, philanthropists frequently are unaware of investment-worthy projects and programs.  Without government support of the arts in our public schools, the entire creative sector would, in a few short years, begin to lose its head of steam.

Like I said, I’m glad I live in Vermont…here, at least, politicians from all sides of the aisle seem to understand that cutting alone won’t get the job done.