Trump is Right on the NEA

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January 19, 2017 10:57 PM

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Just hours before inauguration day the incoming administration floated a cocktail of initiatives to rein in federal spending. Pulling the plug on the Department of Energy and shuttering a number of programs at State, perhaps the most interesting cuts are among the smallest.

As reported, the proposal includes the privatization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and takes an ax to National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). While not the first mention of this – Gov. Romney’s talk of Big Bird’s big cut comes to mind – the move is significant. This so-called ‘skinny budget’ being compiled by several of the President-elect’s key advisers is the most ambitious bundle of spending cuts explored by an administration in decades.

With the combined savings forecast at upwards of $10 trillion over the next decade, perhaps even Paul Krugman will be satisfied. Deficits aside, this hits at an even more critical point. More than a case of dollars and cents, this proposal brings back much needed common sense: arts and entertainment ought to be left to market forces.

A common target of government waste and accountability groups, the NEA has drawn heat for funding projects that are, well, quirky to put it lightly. Borrowing from former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and his last annual “Wastebook” a select few of these projects include:

$10,000 to the Oregon Children’s Theatre to produce “Zombie in Love,” a musical about Mortimer, a teenage zombie “dying to find true love”

$10,000 to support RoosevElvis, a play about a woman who hallucinates she is Elvis on a trip to Graceland

$47,000 to a video game music podcast

$180,000 to Moravian College in Pennsylvania to support a four-week workshop in Germany called “Johann Sebastian Bach: Music of the Baroque and Enlightenment” for 25 teachers where each participant received a $3,300 stipend to help cover their living expenses, in addition to free airfare and housing

$15,000 to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, which recently hosted “Classically Cannabis: The High Note Series,” a marijuana themed musical revue that encourages people not only to show up, but to smoke up

$10,000 to ‘Mooseltoe: A New Moosical’ featuring three snobby penguins, a mobster snowman and a fat walrus

Simply said, slashing the NEA’s some $146 million budget adds up to a whopping 0.012% reduction of discretionary spending. Unless you’re a big fan of video game music podcasts or fell in love with RooseElvis, however, I hope you can see the insignificance of these projects to the business of our federal government.  

Surely there are meaningful works supported by the NEA. But why not let these projects seek out funding the same way the vast majority of other artisans do? Artists at their core are entrepreneurs, after all. Allowing government to pick winners and losers – especially in the case of the arts – undermines the market’s determination of what is meaningful. 

Art with a capital “A” has been crafted without government support throughout history. Perhaps cutting the NEA and its sister ventures will make little headway in achieving a balanced budget, but this is a noteworthy step toward reining in government overreach. Maybe I missed the line in Article I that enables Congress to allocate tax dollars to ‘Mooseltoe’ and friends. If not, then the President-elect’s proposal is a work of art.

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