In Favor of Arts Spending

Michael Kaiser makes some good arguments in favor of increased arts funding, but unfortunately he mixes them up with bad ones, and he glosses over the best ones. The result is that Tyler Cowen gets to take the moral high ground by saying that "culture for the rich" is "not a priority".

In reality, however, arts funding is a great way of spending any stimulus money, as anybody with a pocket calculator to hand might be able to work out from a couple of the numbers in Kaiser’s piece:

The arts in the United States provide 5.7 million jobs and account for $166 billion in economic activity annually.

I’m not sure what the source of these numbers is, but they work out at an all-in cost of less than $30,000 per worker. Compare that to the kind of infrastructure projects that are going to be funded generously in the stimulus plan, and you’ll see that there’s pretty much no area of the economy with higher jobs per dollar than the arts.

Kaiser even has a fiscally cost-free way of increasing arts spending, which seems like a no-brainer to me: "we need legislation that allows unusual access to endowments", he says. Tough times like these are exactly what endowments are made for: endowment spending should be countercyclical, and it would be silly to constrain arts organizations from tapping their endowments in any way.

But I’m still struggling with trying to work out what on earth Kaiser thinks he’s saying here:

It takes as much time to play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony today as it did when the piece was composed, and the same number of actors are required for "Hamlet" as when Shakespeare wrote the play more than 400 years ago. Unlike other industries, the arts cannot cover the cost of inflation by improving worker productivity.

This is why subsidies — in the form of government grants or private contributions — have long been required to help arts organizations balance their budgets.

Is he saying that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was a happily profitable enterprise when it was composed? That arts revenues don’t keep up with inflation but costs do? That subsidies should fall in a low-inflation environment? It’s all most confusing. But it shouldn’t prevent a significant chunk of any stimulus program going to the arts.

This entry was posted in art, fiscal and monetary policy. Bookmark the permalink.