General ArtMath

Cut, Baby, Cut!

I know that with all the horrors going on in the world, whatever nonsense Sarah Palin spouted recently should probably be near the bottom of my list of things to try and refute (right above Tom Cruise and right below phrenology), but something she said this week really got at me. I find that it’s worth addressing because it’s a popular line of reasoning when discussing government budgets and deficits — not only in the US, but throughout the world.

On Friday, Palin appeared on a Fox News talk show hosted by Sean Hannity to discuss unions, Michael Moore, and the TV movie being made of her life (I can only assume that their discussion of why she was wearing a bathrobe inspired by Harry Potter was too long to air). It was only quickly and near the end of the discussion that she dropped this bomb:

NPR, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, all those kind of frivolous things that government shouldn’t be in the business of funding with tax dollars — those should all be on the chopping block as we talk about the $14 trillion debt that we’re going to hand to our kids and our grandkids. Yes, those are the type of things that for more than one reason need to be cut.

This is a common argument. When the going gets tough, first cut the arts. School districts do it, local governments do it, and the federal government has been doing it more and more. As much as it concerns me, there’s a part of me that asks, why not? $14 trillion is a ton of money. The arts and humanities are important, but are they more important than a national declaration of bankruptcy? We should be tightening our belts wherever we can, right?

Let’s imagine the worst-case scenario: the next budget decides to do exactly what Ms. Palin has proposed. National Public Radio (NPR), National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) are all cut. No more museums, no more public art projects, still a lot of radio (we’ll get to that), but it’s a small price to pay to get the economy back on track.

To figure out how much we just saved, let’s review how much they get now.

  • National Endowment for the Humanities receives $132.8 million in funding from the US government.
  • National Endowment for the Arts receives $154.7 million in funding from the US government.
  • National Public Radio receives about $3.34 million in competitive grants from government agencies who in turn receive it from the US government.

First off, it seems that we need to strike NPR from the argument altogether. There is nothing in the federal budget specifically allotted to NPR, as it gets its government funding (which makes up about 2% of its annual budget) by competing for grants. Therefore, you couldn’t actually “put it on the chopping block” if you wanted to. So now we’re left with NEH and NEA. This is an art website anyway, so all the better.

The NYT's visualization for the 2011 US budget.
If you add the funds allotted to the NEH and NEA together, you get $287.5 million.

The annual US budget is $3.69 trillion.

Therefore, the NEH and NEA combined make up 0.008% of the annual US budget.

This is hard to fathom, so lets take it down to a smaller scale. Say, for the sake of argument, you’re a twentysomething girl living in Chicago with a monthly budget of about $1,500. (You’re also terrible about budgeting your money, so this is probably an awful estimate). You want to save some money, so you buckle down, do as the US government does, and save this same percentage of your budget every month.

By the end of the year, you’d have $1.44. Hey, if you scrounged up three more quarters and a handful of pennies, you could ride the train one whole time with that kind of money!

This is especially interesting when put in context with Palin’s next comment later in the program:

We’re going to lose faith in the party if we just take these tiny baby steps, you know, million here, billion there, to start ratcheting down a $14 trillion debt. No. We need to bite off some big chunks today.

The real mistake here is in thinking that the arts are extraneous and frivolous. Preliminary studies in early education are showing the positive effects of art, music, and drama on cognitive development, verbal skills, creative thinking, and dropout prevention, and a recent study declared that students with a humanities background do just as well in medical school as those with a science-based background. Employers often seek out candidates with training in the arts, since it often shows not only a creative ability to “think outside the box,” but often signals a wealth of self-determinism (you’d have to be pretty determined to pursue a path wrought with criticism, emotional exposure, and low pay without anyone even telling you to do so).

But aside from the cold, hard evidence, who really wants to live in a society with such a low value of art, especially when it’s in return for such a small price tag? It’s the color in our landscape, the taste in our food. It enriches people’s lives when they’re busy worrying about bills or car maintenance or whatever nonsense Sarah Palin has said recently.

At 0.008% of the budget, leave the arts alone.

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

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  1. There’s a cool tax receipt calculator that’ll tell you how much of your federal taxes went to which programs. You plug in the total tax amount from your 1040 and it breaks it down by program. For example, if you paid $10000 in federal taxes, your contribution to all arts and culture programs would be $7.32, of which $0.53 would go to NEA and $0.45 to NEH.

  2. The argument that Palin makes – setting aside the issue of whether simply cutting budget items will actually get the economy back on track – for cutting “big chunks” of the budget is ludicrous. It reveals someone who is a simplistic thinker, and either is incapable or unwilling to engage the problem in a realistic or fruitful manner. The budget is hideously complex, and the notion of simply whacking off a great big hunk of it to save money seems to me to be akin to treating a case of lymphoma by hacking off extraneous body parts. The making of political points versus engaging the problem in order to find a solution makes my ass twitch.

  3. That’s the thing… she may not understand how the budget works, but that doesn’t stop her from talking about it, and it certainly doesn’t stop her sycophants from nodding their heads and repeating her words until they come to accept them as their own true thoughts.Then the echo chamber becomes ever louder as they repeat her words back and forth with their friends, until someone in the group actually has an original thought and gets inspired to “do something.” And that “something” inevitably leads to a lot of ridiculous, loudmouthed complaining until someone notices and puts it up on Fox News.

    It’s the ciiiiiiiircle of liiiiiiiiife…

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