With Trump’s new budget out for review, a lot of people have been angered by some of the programs that it is going to eliminate. In particular, I’ve seen several videos going around Facebook about cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and also the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which would include things like NPR (National Public Radio) and favorite television series Sesame Street. Here’s one such video:
The video ends by saying, “PBS is an essential source for preparing children for the future. Support PBS today. Go to pbs.org/support. Call your representative and tell them to save PBS. Support PBS for a brighter future.”
For the record, I personally like NPR and Sesame Street. NPR, while it skews liberal, makes a genuine effort to give both sides of the argument and doesn’t try and shove their point of view down your throat. Also, they usually have audio recordings of all their news articles, which makes it easier for me to get information if I don’t feel like reading. I also love Sesame Street, which I grew up on. My mom always reminds me of how much I loved Big Bird growing up.
I’ve also been involved in the arts all my life. I grew up taking piano lessons and have sung in choirs since I was in middle school, traveling to over 15 countries with various singing groups. I have been blessed tremendously by the arts and could have, at some point, benefitted indirectly from the NEA.
Despite my personal feelings towards these programs, the position I will be taking in this article is that the government should not subsidize them for several reasons.
1. Federal funding provides a small percentage of the money for these programs relative to their overall budgetary needs.
First let me lay out the facts concerning how much each of these organization spends and what percentage they are supported by the federal government.
NPR’s Operating Budget for FY 2016 was $193 million. According to NPR’s own website, “On average, less than 1% of NPR’s annual operating budget comes in the form of grants from CPB and federal agencies and departments.” Instead, the government helps fund public radio stations that pay NPR to use their news clips and shows. On average, these stations get about 14% of their funding from the government.
Sesame Street is shown on PBS, which is subsidized by the CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting). The CPB was allocated about $297 million dollars for its public television programming in 2014. On average, stations get roughly 15% of their funding from the federal government.
The National Endowment for the Arts was allocated $148 million by Congress in 2016. This is compared with $17 billion in individual contributions alone, not to mention all of the giving from corporations and endowments. In fact, according to the NEA itself, non-profit performing arts groups and museums get only 1.2% of funding from federal sources like the NEA.
People often get the wrong impression that federal funding provides the bulk of the funding for these programs, and that somehow, without federal funding, they would disappear entirely. But this just isn’t the case. NPR, Sesame Street, and probably many NEA recipients could find more corporate/individual sponsorship to fill in the gap caused by the disappearance of federal funding.
2. Government subsidies of these programs has to potential to create favoritism or conflicts of interest.
Art should not be politicized. The beautiful thing about any form of art is its organic nature. It is something that comes straight from the mind of the artist into whatever medium they choose. If the government provides funding to the arts, it then has to define what art is and set standards for who can qualify to receive the money for said art. I think it sets a bad precedent to let the government define what art is or is not. While the NEA touts that the funding allocation process undergoes a strict, peer-review process by experts in the field, this doesn’t change the fact that, ultimately, the distribution of funds is subject to the personal biases of the people on that board. In the past, it has come under fire for some of the things that it has ended up funding (Look at reason #5 in this article here).
With television and radio, we really need to ask ourselves what the role of the media ought to be. The media is meant to be a watchdog to hold the government accountable. The government shouldn’t have control of a media outlet to push its own agenda. This is an inherent conflict of interest. While this fear is a bit dystopian and unlikely to be of great concern while there are several independent news outlets, it is something to keep in mind.
3. It circumvents the free market for the art/media that people actually want to consume.
By funding art, the federal government is essentially picking winners and losers. One artist gets a grant and another doesn’t. What makes the first person’s art worthier than the other’s? It essentially boils down to the artistic tastes of the bureaucrats involved in the approval process rather than the general public at large.
Keep in mind, that all the money spent on these things has to come out of the pocket of the taxpayer first. And while the amount is very small when you look at cost per person, this isn’t an argument in favor for the existence of these programs existing. You are forcing people who don’t enjoy, support, or benefit from these programs to pay taxes and subsidize them nonetheless because you do enjoy them, support what they accomplish, or benefit from them in some way. Why not instead either support the forms or art/media you appreciate with your own money and encourage others you know to do the same?
4. It violates principles of good governance.
Even if you don’t think the reasons I give above are persuasive, consider this question: Who do you think would be better suited for knowing what kind of art/media you and your friends/community would benefit from? Would federal bureaucrats in Washington D.C. be able to know? Or would the bureaucrats in your own state and local governments have a better idea? In almost all cases, local governments are far better suited for tasks such as these and can accomplish them with a much greater deal of accountability.
The fundamental question I really want you to think about is whether government should compel people, through the force of taxation, to support the arts. Remember, not everyone has the same definition of what art is or what beauty is. What if that art promotes something you don’t like or find reprehensible? Should it still receive taxpayer dollars? Is the heavy hand of government really the best way to promote the beauty within art? I think there are better ways.
It won’t be the end of the world if these programs are eliminated. Most of what they do will go on in one form or another, especially if they are things that the public wants. And clearly, since most of their funding comes from private sources, I would say it’s highly likely they would continue.