Save the arts, cut budgets where it counts

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“It’s sad in a way because those programs aren’t causing the deficit ... These programs don’t amount to a hill of beans.” Steve Bell, former staff director of the Senate Budget Committee, now with the Bipartisan Policy Center (New York Times, Feb. 18).

Like two peas in a pod, national and state Republican leaders are targeting specific budget items in order to “save the taxpayer money.” But are they going where the real fat is? Are they going to the billion/trillion dollar pieces of the budget pie, like military spending, social security/Medicare or tax plans that blow up the deficits? Nope. Like hungry Iowa livestock, Republican lawmakers run right to their favorite budget-cutting trough: arts funding.

Why, one might ask, do conservatives find this little hill of beans so delectable when it has no real budget impact? I guess they see it as low hanging fruit. They lick their chops and say, “It’s not fiscally responsible to spend money on the arts. They should survive in the marketplace.”

But let’s take a look at that marketplace. It seems that these same folks like nothing better than to fatten up all manner of corporate entities with tax exemptions and incentives in order to cash in on promised jobs and future tax revenue (not to mention political contributions). They proudly crow that this is a good tax investment.

So what of this hill of beans? What kind of investment is that? If one peels back the hard hull off these little beans, it’s actually pretty astonishing what they do. For every $1 of direct funding grants given by the National Endowment for the Arts (a favorite morsel for conservative appetites), there is a $9 return in private and other public funding, resulting in $500 million in matching support. A 2012 study revealed the production of arts and cultural goods in the U.S. added more than $698 billion to the economy. That’s one heck of a harvest from a puny hill of beans.

So why wouldn’t you make this investment? After all, would you tell a farmer to save money by not buying and planting seeds? Sure, it saves money initially, but what of the long-term consequences? Remember, you only reap what you sow.

And there’s more corn in this crib. Art, music, theater, community concert halls, orchestras and concert bands bind us together in a common fabric, as Americans, as Iowans. Art inspires us and celebrates our humanity. It yields quality of life. I think that’s at least as important as investing in a manure plant in Western Iowa.

Call your Congressperson and tell him or her, “Leave the arts alone. Go find the real fat that hangs in plain sight.” If they say they “No, that little hill of beans is so much easier to put on the chopping block.” Then tell them, “Well, that argument doesn’t amount to a hill of beans! In fact, it sounds more like a pile of ... what that plant makes in Western Iowa!”

• James Dreier has spent most of his 64 years living, raising a family, playing music and teaching in Iowa.

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