Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sequestration Blues

Anyone out there interested in what it will be like to show up for work on January 2nd, the day “sequestration” begins and nearly $600 billion in spending cuts and revenue enhancements automatically go into effect?  Want to know what it will be like to have to decide which bill to pay, and which stores to buy supplies in?  Need help figuring out which services are essential and which are luxuries?

Then contact your local arts organization.  They’ll tell you.  They live this life pretty much every day of every year.  In good times and bad, nonprofit arts organizations relentlessly prepare themselves for the inevitable “doomsday” scenario in which a key donor passes away, the promised corporate gift fails to materialize, or the storage facility with all the sets and costumes burns down.

Extremely well-managed non-profits have developed a two-tiered financial cushion.  The first tier is a six- to 12-month cash reserve fund that will allow them to operate at current capacity without interruption, and will buy them time to make additional plans for more austerity or for replenishing their coffers in due course.  The second tier is the much less liquid endowment fund whose corpus may, under duress, be accessed but only with a great deal of hand-wringing by trustees, legal counsel, and parties “of interest.”

Unfortunately, when I last checked, most non-profit cultural organizations in Vermont barely have a positive fund balance much less a reserve account or an endowment. So with January 2nd fast approaching, what will become of them?  How will they survive?

The short answer is they will do what they always do.  They will cut where they need to, explore new ideas and new collaborations (within their means, of course), and create, present, perform, exhibit, compose, and write their way towards, inevitably, the next crisis...

But wait, you say, it’s not just the cuts that will happen. It’s the tax increases especially on the wealthy that will result in significantly more pain for the nonprofit sector.  Who will underwrite the next production if not the wealthy donors whose taxes are low and discretionary income is high?  If their charitable deductions are capped, what will happen? How will we cope?

Two things: first, people who have a lot of money give to charities because they believe in the charity's mission, not because they get a tax deduction.

Second, this reminds me of a conversation I had a few years ago with my then-eighth-grade child. “Dad, I just spoke to my friend who just finished 9th grade math and he told me all about quadratic equations and functions and I’m really sure I’m going to fail math next year.”  I assured him that by the time he got to this point next year his teachers would have taught him everything he needs to know. 

Like all good teachers, life has a tendency to prepare you for what is coming next.  Whether it is a macro-cosmic issue like global warming or a so-called fiscal cliff, or a micro-personal issue like learning quadratic equations, life has a way of giving us the time and resources to learn how to navigate through what seem like insurmountable shoals and emerge into a new awareness.  As far as the fiscal cliff is concerned, I agree with Warren Buffet. Congress will figure it all out.  Maybe not by January 1, but certainly soon thereafter. 

Until then, I’m going to get out as much as I can and enjoy the season.  I have places to go, people to meet with, hand-made, high-quality gifts to buy, and four extraordinary artists in Brattleboro to celebrate!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What's In A Symbol?

The election is over; pundits are winding down their post mortems; the country is heaving a sigh of relief if not at the outcome, at least at the fact that it’s over; and our lives are returning to normal. Much has already been written about what happened on November 6, from the really interesting analysis by researchers at University of Michigan describing how “red” and “blue” break down across the country, to the extraordinary confrontation between Megyn Kelly and Karl Rove on Fox News shortly after Ohio was called for President Obama.  Historians and political analysts will spend a generation (at least) pulling apart every single moment of the 2012 Presidential campaign to try to pinpoint exactly what happened and why.
Let me make it easy for them.  I can tell you EXACTLY when Mitt Romney lost the election.

Let me first state that I am not a professional politician, nor do I possess a degree in political science.  I think of myself as a student of human nature as well as a reasonably observant (and very minor) participant in the political process.  Several weeks before the election, I ran into my friend Gerry, a lobbyist who has a much broader view of how politics works than I ever will. I asked him how he thought the election would go.  At the time, he was pretty sure the President would serve just one term.

And then the debates happened. 

Most agree that Romney won the first debate (by a lot) and that both candidates acquitted themselves well during the last two debates.  Maybe Obama won one or both, or maybe Mitt Romney did.  As far as I was concerned, however, Mitt Romney lost it about halfway through the first debate.  I don’t mean he lost the debate (I actually agree with the prevailing sentiment that Romney won the first debate). 

I mean he lost the election.

In response to a question about what he would do to lower the deficit, Romney took on Big Bird.  He said that among his first items of business would be to “defund” the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and fire (my word) the debate moderator, the especially wounded-looking PBS news host, Jim Lehrer, from his “day job.” And yes, that would probably take care of Big Bird as well.

To me that was as telling a moment, as big a turning point, and as colossal a mistake as the Howard Dean scream at the end of the Iowa Caucus in 2004.  The difference, however, was that Dean’s scream was more the result of a unidirectional microphone he held himself during a crowd roar and thus an accidental, or circumstantial mistake that could have happened to anyone.  Romney’s mistake was deliberate and therefore both cruel and unnecessary.

While everyone commented about this gaffe at the end of the debate, and several articles were written, few pundits took it seriously.  Despite the surge of Big Bird’s popularity on social media of all kinds (I won’t pretend to understand exactly what a meme or a trend is in this context; all I know is that Big Bird took off like….well, a VERY big bird on Twitter and Facebook), most traditional reporters and pundits were treating the comment like what it was—a symbol for the presumed "cold, business-like efficiency" of the Romney Presidency.  What they didn’t understand was that it wasn’t just a symbol. 

It was a SYMBOL, dripping with kids, and education, and mom ‘n’ pop and apple pie; of afternoons spent playing on the living room floor in front of the teevee, waiting for Mom to come home to fix you a snack, or dinner—pretty much everything, in short, that makes life for a preschooler in these United States a grand adventure.

Firing Big Bird, dismissing it, in effect, as being an inconsequential piece of Americana that is not deserving of our collective support, quite possibly appealed to the ultra-right, tea-party base of the Republican Party.  But it awakened the sleeping beast inside every man, woman and child under the age of 40 who, I assume, grew up with Big Bird and his (her?) buddies on Sesame Street.  If Romney could so casually fire Big Bird, who or what would be next?  And if this is what he is like as a candidate…how much WORSE will it be if and when he becomes President?

The work of an artist, any artist, is to capture Life’s meaning in symbolic languages.  Whether articulated in music, sculpture, painting, poetry, prose, dance or film, the symbolic meaning of art tends to be far more profound than the sum of its parts.  Big Bird is not just a yellow and orange collection of cloth and feathers.  Big Bird is not just a big, goofy-looking puppet with a kindly voice providing guidance and comfort to legions of kids who need something constructive to do after 3 pm and before Mom and Dad come home from work.  Big Bird is not just one of several dozen large puppets that cost several hundred thousand dollars a year to put on television for a couple of hours a day, every day.

Most people don’t care a lot about candidates’ positions for or against the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, or the Institute for Museum and Library Services.  These are the Federal agencies whose combined $1.5 billion budget, if cut, will drastically harm the arts and cultural sector across the country, and will save only a tiny tiny fraction of one percent of the US deficit this year.  CPB, NEA, NEH, and IMLS are, in short, just a bunch of initials to most people.

Big Bird, however, is different.  Big Bird is a symbol of how precious life is, especially the lives of our pre-school aged children who are hungry to learn their ABCs, to count to 20, and to share.  Big Bird symbolizes the potential that we all have within us to aspire, to be more, to be better, to live a fulfilling life, and above all, to learn the basic rules of civic behavior.

Fire Big Bird?!? Take away Big Bird’s funding?!? Not a chance. Not for my kids.  Not for their kids, either. And certainly not if my vote has anything to say about it.