Mitt Romney's comment in the first debate about defunding Big Bird was the fodder for lots of jokes, but it has more serious implications, not just for public funding for the arts, but for the future of America's global competitiveness. As America's economy has become less focused on manufacturing and more on innovation, design and global branding, much of America's future will depend on a vital, innovative cultural and artistic environment in our country.
What Governor Romney -- and apparently many of his conservative supporters -- do not understand is how everything from iPhones to automobiles depend on design and branding, which are crafted by people trained largely in the arts. What sells iPhones is both their form and function, which were brilliantly designed by teams of creative people. In virtually every field, from Hollywood to the high tech, America's primary global advantage is its creative work force.
Millions of Americans now work in creative fields, from graphic design and advertising to entertainment and technology. It is estimated that one in three new jobs in the United States will be in creative fields in the future. But these creative workers don't simply appear magically from the soil of America. Nor are they nurtured by the laissez-faire policies of conservatives, who seem to believe that any spending to support the arts or arts education is money wasted.
There are two critical factors to maintaining America's global advantage in creativity. The first, of course, is support for creativity in the form of arts education and arts institutions in general. This is not simply about money, but about an emphasis on creativity in our schools and other institutions. While many countries have workforces who excel in precise engineering or flawless production, the United States is the global champion in creative endeavors. This has not happened by accident, but is a result of our emphasis on individual initiative and imaginative thinking, which have been prized not only in our schools but in our society as a whole.
The second critical factor is related, but less specific. Our culture has long been forward-thinking, restless and often chaotic. Out of this creative chaos have come many of the greatest innovations in technology, science, entertainment, the arts and economics. While there is very little that can quiet this creative American spirit, the kind of cultural conservatism that Romney espouses does pose a real threat to American innovation and creative competitiveness. The idea that we should stifle not only Big Bird, but also the other fertile laboratories for creativity -- especially those in the classrooms -- is ultimately self-destructive.
During the Reagan administration, there was an active effort to quash counterculture and other innovative movements -- not by heavy-handed repression, but by swamping our country with a regressive, cheery group-think about American exceptionalism. There is nothing wrong with American optimism -- it's a bedrock value -- but the Reagan administration seemed antagonistic to any creative expression that strayed from that lockstep optimism.
We are in an even more precarious situation today than we were in the Reagan era when it comes to creativity in our society. American conservatives now seem to equate creativity and artistic expression as a political threat. Any art form beyond quilting, country music and landscape painting is not only frivolous (and possibly blasphemous), but also a political or even existential threat to conservative values.
Clearly, the danger is not that a Romney administration would shut down artistic expression. However, the emphasis on traditional values at the expense of creativity poses a serious threat to not only American society, but to our economic competitiveness. If we stifle creativity by strangling arts and education budget, and stunt innovation with an emphasis on politically correct conservative values, we risk losing the tremendous advantage we have in the global marketplace.