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Defunding America’s Cultural Institutions: An Exercise in Absurdity

By Conner Gordon
17 Mar 2017

Editor’s note: The Prindle Institute for Ethics, which hosts The Prindle Post, has recently been awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the institute’s director has engaged in advocacy work for the National Humanities Alliance.

The logic of President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget has left even some of his supporters scratching their heads. First, there are the cuts to programs including the New York Police Department and airport security programs – proposals that are especially perplexing, given Trump’s longstanding emphasis on keeping America safe. Then there are cuts targeting programs widely seen as both uncontroversial and beneficial. Such programs include Meals on Wheels, an organization that delivers food to the elderly and the poor. While many expected Trump’s budget to reflect a hard-line conservative approach to federal spending, cutting programs like Meals on Wheels has taken even some GOP members of Congress aback.

Sadly, of little surprise is one of the budget’s key proposals – cutting funding for the National Endowment of the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The programs, which help fund cultural, educational and journalistic initiatives, have long been on the chopping block for fiscal conservatives. Yet, with a Republican majority in both houses of Congress and a president willing to take a sledgehammer to government spending, programs like the NEA, NEH and CPB have never been so threatened.

At first, eliminating these programs may seem like a sound compromise, especially if it means preserving funding for other federal agencies under threat. Yet doing so ignores both the value of such institutions and the ballooning public funds Trump spends on himself and his family. When such factors are considered, it becomes clear that cutting the NEH, NEA and CPB is more a matter of posturing than common-sense fiscal policy.

Programs like the NEA, NEH and CPB are no stranger to being targeted for defunding. In particular, the NEA has faced repeated calls by Congress to be defunded, which came to prominence during Ronald Reagan’s first term and continued through the 1990s. Yet under Trump, the possibility that the organizations will be defunded has never been more real. Given the harsh degree of proposed cuts, legislators passing the coming budget may feel forced to accept compromises – especially on cultural programs not always seen as essential. By this argument, it would be better to cut the NEA if it means preserving an airport security measure, or funding the NYPD.

While it seems rational on its face, this view fails to take into account the disproportionate value of programs like the NEA, NEH and CPB. While the argument might make sense if the programs were overly costly, their impact on the annual federal budget is negligible. In 2016, for instance, the NEA and NEH both operated on under 0.01% of the federal budget (approximately $145-148 million apiece). The CPB is similarly inexpensive, costing around $445 million a year.

Given their limited cost, it is clear that viewing cultural programs and security as locked in a high-stakes, zero-sum game is hardly accurate, especially given how little such funds could contribute to national defense. For example, the Lockheed Martin F-35, a fighter jet set to be phased into several branches of the military, comes at a price tag of $95-122 million apiece. Cutting the NEH, NEA and CPB entirely, a savings of around $735 million, would free up funding for only eight of the jets. For perspective, the U.S. Air Force alone intends to buy 1,763 of the planes over the next two decades.

In contrast, The Washington Post’s Erin Patrick O’Connor notes that the NEA funded 2,400 projects in every congressional district in America last year – projects that improved access to the arts, especially outside of large cities. The NEH has made a similar impact; since the organization’s funding process often requires grant recipients to find matching funds, NEH initiatives have helped raise over $3 billion for humanities and education projects across the country. The CPB also plays a critical role, helping fund over 1,500 NPR and PBS stations across the country. Such programs may not reinforce the militaristic image that Trump aims to put forth, but it is hard to argue that they are less impactful than a few F-35’s, in themselves a bloated strain on the federal budget.

Most ironically, the impact of cutting these programs will be felt disproportionately in the communities to which Trump owes his victory. Since cultural institutions in urban centers will likely be able to find more funding, O’Connor notes, cuts to the NEH, NEA and CPB will mostly affect rural communities without the resources to fund beneficial projects themselves. In contrast to the notion that these institutions only help the coastal, educated elite, cutting funding for the NEH, NEA and CPB will ultimately harm the communities that voted for Trump in the first place.

Proposals to cut cultural programs like the NEH, NEA and CPB are even more absurd considering Trump’s own spending priorities. Since he took office, Trump has spent a significant portion of his presidency at Mar-a-Lago, his so-called “Winter White House” that doubles as a private golf course and exclusive club in Florida. This weekend will mark the fifth time Trump has visited Mar-a-Lago in the first two months of his presidency, and each time he visits, the necessary security and logistics measures cost taxpayers nearly $3 million. If this trend continues at current levels, by year’s end Trump will have spent nearly $90 million in taxpayer funds on visits to his private club alone – more than half of the annual budget of the NEA or NEH.

Similar concerns arise around the cost of protecting Trump Tower in New York City, including security for Melania and Barron Trump, who have voluntarily chosen to live there instead of the White House. According to NYPD estimates, the cost of this choice totals around $500,000 a day – $183 million a year, given current trends. When combined with Trump’s fondness for Mar-a-Lago, these choices could cost taxpayers over $270 million in 2017 – a sum that would almost entirely fund both the NEA and NEH for a year.

It is clear, then, that the push to defund the NEH, NEA and CPB is hardly a matter of fiscal jurisprudence. Rather, Trump and his allies appear to have proposed cutting programs that they believe do not make America look sufficiently strong and militaristic, targeting them for their symbolic value rather than actual fiscal impact. Doing so would have a negligible effect on federal spending, and would deprive many communities of quality arts, humanities and journalism initiatives in the process. Perhaps, rather than cutting these programs for the sake of reducing spending, taking another look the cost of the president’s own leisure might be a better place to start.

Conner was a Graduate Fellow at the Prindle Institute from 2016-2018. Conner's writing focuses on memory, politics and culture. He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Oregon.
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