If the federal budget were an American high school, defense spending would be the football team -- untouchable, un-cuttable, popular by default -- and cultural spending would be the chess club -- the wallflowers at the dance, constantly picked on and pushed aside in the hallways.
If Mitt Romney has his way in November, the checkmate crowd would see their program eliminated altogether.
At least that's what he told Fortune. In a recent interview written up by Politico, Romney said that cutting all federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, PBS, and NPR would be a "focus" of his administration.
"Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own," he said in the interview.
Romney is far from the only member of his party to hold this view. Chopping into already meagre arts funding has been a Republican priority for a few years now. In 2011, a group of 150 Republicans, led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio,) proposed cutting all government funding for arts organizations. Like Romney, they wanted the NEA and PBS and NPR to make do with no public contributions whatsoever.
It's a position that remains popular among conservatives, despite ample proof that cutting funding to these organizations would yield no significant increase in government savings. As Ezra Klein and Suzy Khimm wrote in the Washington Post, "getting rid of all these subsidies would have saved the government about $2 billion this year -- chump change relative to the scale of cuts that Romney wants."
The annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts stands today at just over $146 million -- a sharp decrease from 2011's $155 million -- and is still pretty miniscule by government-spending standards. Remember that money has to stretch across every one of the agency's grants and programs, covering all artistic disciplines, across the country. Whereas a single piece of defense spending -- like a cancelled, nonexistent missile defense system, worth $250 million -- was still funded by taxpayers, and does virtually nothing.
Ironically, Mitt Romney himself is reportedly worth about $200 million, meaning he could fund the entire budget of the National Endowment for the Arts out of his own pockets if he were so inclined, with $50 million still left to spare on horses or houses or anything else he feels moved to purchase.
But the larger point is that the arts keep getting picked on because they're such an easy target, not because they're useless. Their lunch money is practically falling out of their palms. Can't think of a program you want to cut? Just say "the arts!" It's easy enough, and doesn't make you any immediate enemies. As Jillian Steinhauer said in Hyperallergic, "Romney is simply following in a long line of Republicans who have used claims of cutting arts funding as a diversionary tactic, a way to appeal to conservative voters without having to talk about what a smaller government would actually look like."
Also worth noting is that many of the organizations supported by government programs like the NEA are found in red states. Major arts providers in cities like New York or Los Angeles enjoy far higher levels of private donations than do institutions in most rural areas, where NEA grants can spell the difference between a program's life and death. The NEA supports organizations in low-income regions, and helps states deal out money to those who need it most.
But if it's a price tag that is required, then here's one: the most recent "Arts & Economic Prosperity" report, compiled by the Americans for the Arts organization, found that the nonprofit arts and culture industry actually generated $135.2 billion in economic activity and supported nearly 4 million full-time jobs in 2010. It also generated $22.3 billion in local, state and federal revenue.
This is a figure that Tom Cochran, CEO of the United States Conference of Mayors, likes to cite when he defends the arts on a federal level. He said it's not limited to "rich people coming to look at a museum" -- the threat to American culture runs much deeper than that. As someone who has seen the effect that the arts can have economically over the years, Cochran says he will continue to make the case for supporting them.
"It's not just people on the stage. It's backstage, the drivers and the caterers, the entire service industry that related to the arts. Even with the recession we were in, the arts and nonprofit arts were still an economic driver," Cochran said. "The arts means money to us. We know about the spirit, the soul, and all of that, but if you take tourism and arts out of these cities, you lose money."
The fact is: arts organizations continue to support economies, local governments and everyday citizens in ways that are often impossible to identify. That's what the arts have always done, and why people tend to like art in the first place; because you can't quantify or put a real price tag on their effects. You're not supposed to.
But if the arts were allowed to hold a collective hearing in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington style, if they could appear in front of those 150 Republicans who wanted to shut down the NEA last year, they might trot out the inner-city kid whose life was changed by picking up an instrument, or the designers who revitalized a ravaged New Orleans, or the art lining the walls of hospital wards, or the proven educational benefits of arts in schools, or any number of intangible benefits that an NEA-sponsored program provides for American towns and cities.
The arts will have gotten a word in, hopefully, at the Republican National Convention this week.
Robert Lynch, the president of Americans for the Arts, was traveling to Tampa to sit on a panel, moderated by Mike Huckabee, aiming to discuss this very issue. Bernie Williams, former Yankee and current jazz guitarist, also appeared on the panel.
Lynch said not all Republicans agree with these spending cuts, and he certainly would not advise cutting the NEA altogether.
"These views are not, I think, based in a logical understanding of how the arts system works," Lynch told HuffPost. "We should remember that over our long history, there have been great increases for the arts under both Republican and Democratic administrations, but the largest actually came under Nixon."
The fraction of money that arts organizations receive from the government each year is a "leverage" for all the other money they raise on a yearly basis. You cut out the government support in certain cases, he said, and you lose your private investors.
"The economic impact of a program and the jobs it [provides] is right at the top of what public officials think everything should be about right now, and the arts help with that," Lynch said. "Why would someone interested in improving the economy, why take that little piece away when you don't understand how the whole thing works?"
As Romney continues his campaign, we'll continue to hear next to nothing about arts funding, unless someone asks, "What are you planning to cut?" Then the arts will always be there, ready to jump in and take the fall for the other kids.
It's important that we don't make it too easy.
This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.
HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the corrupting influence of money on our politics August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.
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