As has been previously reported, public funding for the arts is one of the many foci of our national debate over fiscal policy. While funding cuts for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities (and potential but unrealized cuts at the Smithsonian) all made national headlines, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which unwillingly and inaccurately functions as a proxy for NPR in the public imagination, was the hottest of the hot potatoes. The House of Representatives voted to defund the CPB entirely, but in the end, appropriations were essentially unchanged from the year before. This may seem like a dead issue for the moment, but there is an extremely good chance these battles will resurface in the fiscal 2012 budget process.
Federal arts funding is a small share of the budget
So, how much money are we talking about? The CPB is getting $455 million (of which about $90m goes to radio stations). The Smithsonian gets the biggest federal arts allocation, at $761m. If you add all arts-related federal programs together, funding for the current fiscal year totals just over $2.5 billion. Honestly, that number looks pretty large to me. I can’t imagine what a billion of anything really looks like. But the total federal budget for this fiscal year (which runs through September) is $3.82 trillion. So the federal arts funding we’ve identified is 0.066% of the total federal budget. And when we’re only shouting about CPB, we’re talking about 0.012%. That is twelve one-thousandths of one percent.
So, why? Why was this a central topic in budget debates this spring? Was it really all about this James O’Keefe scandal? Are we going to rehash the entire set of arguments again this summer and fall as we debate the fiscal 2012 budget?
Maybe the real reason we keep putting Elmo’s head on the chopping block is because we don’t really understand the numbers, after all. According to a CNN poll, most Americans do not think the CPB gets twelve one-thousandths of one percent of the budget. Actually, only 27% of those surveyed believe the CPB gets less than 1%1 of the total budget. 40% believe the CPB gets 1-5%. Everyone else believed the appropriation to be greater than 5%, and an astonishing 7% of those surveyed believe the Corporation for Public Broadcasting gets more than 50% of the budget (which would have to be close to $2 trillion). If that were true, it would put the pledge premium tote bag and mug industry completely out of business, and This American Life would be hosted by Robin Leach. The survey also asked whether funding for different funding categories should be increased, decreased, kept the same, or eliminated. 16% of respondents wanted CPB funding to be totally eliminated.
We care about other spending, too, right?
It’s interesting to examine the other spending categories in the poll. The survey asked about Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and defense. Those are pretty big portions of the budget, so it makes perfect sense they’d be in the list. The rest of the categories are decidedly different: foreign aid (also highly overestimated by respondents), benefits for retired government workers, food and nutrition assistance for poor people, housing for the poor, and federal education funding. And that’s it.
But, what’s missing here? Quite a lot, actually. What about subsidies to the oil & gas industry, which the Obama administration claims add up to $4 billion (about 9 times CPB funding)? What about direct subsidies for farmers, which were about $5 billion last year? Tax exemptions for ethanol production aren’t mentioned, either. Nor are the $8.5 billion in subsidies given to the airlines since 9/11 simply to help them survive. These subsidies went to for-profit industries, which are theoretically subject to the rigor of the free market and exist for the profit of their shareholders. And yet, more discussion is generated by $2.5 billion in subsidies to arts organizations, both governmental and non-profit, that explicitly exist for the public benefit and do not have shareholders.
Why didn’t CNN ask about mortgage interest tax deductions of $88.5 billion in 2008, 200 times this year’s CPB funding? What about first time home buyer and hybrid vehicle tax credits? In 2008, contributions to employee retirement and pension funds, and tax deferrals on the earnings in those funds, lost the federal government $117.7 billion in tax revenue. There are many, many more examples. Decisions to fund and subsidize these sectors of the U.S. economy are just as important as decisions about arts funding. And the amounts are significantly higher than the $2.5 billion of federal arts funding in question.
How is it so easy for Congress to ignore all of this during budget battles, and instead focus on whether Juan Williams should have been fired or not? One reason is that subsidies can easily be swept under the rug, when the rug is the tax code.
Tax breaks: spending with less scrutiny
Tax deductions and credits, also called tax expenditures, are a form of government spending, as we can see clearly from the now-ended hybrid vehicle tax credits. The federal government wanted to provide incentives for the purchase of fuel-efficient vehicles. It would have cost the federal government about the same to send a check directly to hybrid buyers, perhaps processed at the dealerships, as it cost to reduce tax bills by the same amount. (Transaction and processing costs might be different, but the bulk of the cost would have been the same.)
The difference between tax expenditures and direct spending is that the former are not part of large budget bills, the kind that can shut down the government if not passed. Tax expenditures can certainly be treated as political footballs. But they are far less likely to be at the center of a showdown. Not only that, if Congress adds a tax expenditure in some legislation, it is a spending increase that can be framed to look like a tax cut, because it reduces tax revenues. That makes it more politically palatable for both parties, even if it has nothing to do with taxed income, and even if it distorts markets.
Consider a very large tax expenditure: $88.5 billion (2008 figure) worth of mortgage interest tax deductions (almost 200 years of Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding). Interest you pay on your mortgage gets deducted from your taxable income. Thus, if you’re comfortably into the 25% tax bracket, this tax expenditure is worth a quarter of what you paid in mortgage interest during the year. This creates an explicit incentive for people to buy their own homes by borrowing. If creating a home ownership and borrowing incentive sounds a little off to you, you might be recalling the financial collapse that precipitated the Great Recession. Like the repackaging of loans into mortgage-backed securities that contributed to the housing price bubble of the previous decade, this deduction effectively makes borrowing cheaper. If borrowing is cheaper for everybody, then everybody has more to spend, and if everybody would like to buy a somewhat nicer or bigger home if they could, then all the home prices are simply going to increase. This deduction, therefore, distorts the market and leads to increased prices. Who benefits if all prices in the market are inflated to take advantage of this deduction? It helps the realtors, who get paid a percentage of the sale price. And it helps the home building industry.
What is the point? Do I want a repeal of this tax deduction? Personally, no, I’ve already got a mortgage, and of course I want to keep my deduction. It is simply important to understand that this is spending, too. The mortgage interest deduction is really a government spending program that encourages people to buy instead of rent, and has the unintended effect of inflating home prices. And it’s a pretty large one! Why don’t we publicly debate this spending program, which is 200 times greater than the CPB budget, and is of debatable long-term utility? We don’t have to talk about it, because it’s not in the budget. It’s in the tax code, so it looks like a way to reduce taxes, rather than a way to subsidize the home sale industry.
Reframing the conversation
If subsidized arts workers are labeled as something like freeloaders in public discourse, then farmers, homeowners, hybrid vehicle buyers, the airlines, and the oil & gas industry are freeloaders too. Ayn Rand is very popular again among conservatives, so where is the conservative outcry against oil & gas subsidies? Instead, we are offered a redefinition of the “free market capitalist system” as something that requires government subsidy. Oxymorons rule the day when the free market must be subsidized, and arts created explicitly in the public interest, without a profit to distribute, must stand alone.
The issue of arts funding is quite likely to be revived when the fiscal 2012 budget is to be presented this fall. Conservative legislators have been able to score political points with this issue for years. But we have also seen President Obama bring greater scrutiny to bear on oil industry tax breaks, and he was making political progress in April. If uncertainty regarding oil supplies in the Middle East fades by this fall, we can perhaps expect that some part of the government spending conversation will deal with oil and gas tax expenditures.
Arts advocates, however, should not sit on our hands and wait for the President to shift the focus to federal subsidies of other industries in the budget and tax code. We are supposed to be very good at telling stories, so we ought to thoughtfully study our budget and tax code and engage with our citizenry on those issues that are most relevant and significant. It’s not just a matter of self-interest, though that is obviously part of the equation. America’s budget deficit and public debt is ours. And when we only discuss federal budgets when we launch a campaign to save our NEA grants and Sesame Street, we are lending legitimacy to those who would focus on the nickels and dimes while ignoring the big budgetary issues. We have the capacity for wider scope.
1. If you look at the wording of the poll question, you can see it is potentially a bit misleading. It asks, “Just give me your best guess — you can pick any number from one percent to a hundred percent, or if you think it was less than one percent, you can say that too.” The question first asks people to choose between 1-100%, so it anchors the idea of whole number percentages in the listener’s mind, then offers a less than 1% option as an alternative, after they’ve already framed the question in terms of whole number percentages.