Government and the arts

In the last couple of weeks, there’s been a flurry of blogging interest in public support of the arts, whodathunkit.  As I’m teaching a course about it this semester, I would be delighted to have some curriculum material to assign, but unfortunately the discussion has petered out as it usually does with an inadequate fact base and a good deal of opining.  Still, hats off to everyone for getting into this.

I know academics believe whatever they study is much more important than anyone else understands, and I should admit that I take a very different view of this issue from many of my friends and colleagues, who act as though they think the arts are a sort of optional decoration of a good society, or that they are just fine left to themselves.  They certainly don’t do much real research about them. I do not understand this view; we all agree that health is super-important, but if life isn’t worth living, why would you want to make it longer? Perhaps the arts are important but government policy doesn’t make much difference for them? That’s very hard to support on the facts, but you have to know some facts to see that.

If you don’t think the arts and the government policies within which they live, and the management of the institutions that deliver them, are important enough to deserve really hard-headed, soft-hearted, fact- and research-based analysis, you can skip this post.  Everyone still with me, make the jump…
…still here?  OK, what is this discussion about? The simple version is, “should the government support the arts?” and when Jon Chait framed it within  the completely trivial  and inconsequential dribble (it’s about 10c per year per capita) of National Endowment grant-giving, Matt Yglesias explained that the main pipeline of public arts support was the tax deduction for charitable contributions to museums, orchestras, and the like.  Then there’s some more extensive back-and-forth with Isaac Butler and Kevin Drum.

Whether the government should support the arts is peculiarly abstract and unrealistic: government supports the arts in dozens of ways, all consequential, and will continue to do so.  What really matters is how it does this, to a lesser degree how much, and exactly what social values those mechanisms advance – “support the arts” can mean anything from “enrich artists” to “protect BMI shareholders dividends” to “give schoolchildren the education they need to be part of a demanding, competent, audience”.

Are the arts important at all, and for what?  The best discussion of this, and antidote to the regrettable attempts to justify them because they help kids learn math, or raise property values downtown, is here (Guy Yedwab attacks the issue here; Butler has another go in his series coming). If you think the RAND piece is some leftist propaganda, note the fourth author. I’m going to take it as given that the arts are important, and for their own sake (that is, for their intrinsic and distinctive creation of value for everyone), and I’m also going to take as given that the criterion of policy, if we have any, is that it induce more, better engagement of more people with better art. Here I accept a sort of arts exceptionalism: the arts are distinctive by being privileged and privileging even in the estimation of people who don’t consume much of them. Lots of good things are not like that: there’s no benefit to more health care if it doesn’t make more health, or more voting after everyone has voted, but more art (consumed) is better almost without limit. Furthermore, it has network externalities; the arts are (in part) socially constructed and shared, so it’s better for me if others consume more.

Why should the government do anything about them, though? There’s lots of important stuff, like chocolate, that doesn’t demand a government program. Indeed, Kevin thinks there are no important market failures in the arts, and wants evidence that shifts in consumption patterns are anything other than changes in public taste, to which end he offers a completely correct but irrelevant series of examples of forms and media that have gone extinct (no-one has written a madrigal for almost three centuries!) and technological advances that have birthed new ones (movies), and some “I like chocolate and you like vanilla…so?” examples.

Coming from someone who makes his living selling digital content, the first assertion is incomprehensible to me: anything in text and any sound or video recording is a non-rival good, a market failure with the pianissimo whispered subtlety of a steam calliope. I don’t know where to start adducing evidence of the welfare losses resulting from the collapse of the business model in which content was sold in a physical package, with high fixed and variable costs of copying, sometimes coupled with advertising. But I can’t believe Kevin doesn’t remember when his hometown newspaper was full of news, including especially news about his hometown: the LA Times was a great paper, now it’s only a little above the fishwrap level. Nor that he can’t see a connection between having this conduit slowed to a trickle and the political problems of the state and the region.

Kevin likes classical music: once there were classical music radio stations that played complete compositions. The music was programmed by experts who knew about stuff I didn’t know existed and certainly don’t know how to ask for from Napster, and that Pandora won’t find for me. Now, my town has one classical station and it plays disconnected movements to allow for commercials. No musical artists make a living from cd or track sales; these are just posters for live concerts. Not only is the music being sold way above marginal cost, but the artists are being stiffed for this labor as well. [Update: 19/II/11 This industry is not doing just fine! Has music listening fallen by half in eight years?]

There’s plenty more wrong with the copyright system, amply examined here and here, and here. Lessig especially highlights the crippling of artists’ access to each others work, work that used to be the building blocks of new art and is now fenced off by lawyers. Fixing this, and it has to be fixed with a government program that protects privacy, free speech, and creators’ rights to profit, is in my view the single most important challenge in government arts policy, and because it overlaps with fixing the market for news, analysis, and other discourse, equally important in government policy generally. Its importance is not measurable by the size of the Copyright Office’s appropriation. Not all government arts policy is about government money.

As to other mechanisms of support: I can only hit a very few highlights here; for more on this, see here, here, here, and here.  Tax preferences are important in the American system, far and away more important than direct subsidies. The federal income tax deduction is available for educational institutions (a couple of the bloggers in the conversation above seem confused about that and wonder why a museum is a charity; it isn’t!) and allows the half or so of taxpayers, generally those with highest incomes,  who itemize deductions to direct federal tax money to institutions of their choice. The higher your tax bracket, the more the government matches your gift (though this turns out not to be public support of rich people’s pleasures; the subsidy flows somewhat downhill, from the very wealthy to the middle class).  I would much prefer a tax credit for this channel. But arts institutions are also commonly exempt from other taxes, especially property taxes on their buildings and often sales tax, and these amounts are not trivial.

Probably the most costly program of government support for the arts, and in my view the most important and the one whose ongoing collapse is the most pernicious, is arts education in the schools. Parental introduction to the arts is the largest correlate of lifetime consumption, but government obviously isn’t in that business.  Engagement in school is next. Hands-on and historical education in the arts – both are important – is critical to lifetime access to the cultural patrimony of a country or the whole world, and it’s another  real market failure, information asymmetry. People who can enjoy different, challenging experiences that make them smarter instead of dumber and alert instead of bored, have better lives than people who don’t. But the arts require some investment (though they tend to be beneficially addictive if you just step on the escalator) and pay off richly for accumulated experience.  “I’m glad I don’t like opera, because if I did, I’d listen to it, and I hate the stuff!” is the suboptimal stable state a society can help its citizens get out of, and school is the place where it can happen.

It’s certainly not about the NEA, an agency I would happily sacrifice to appease a ravenous Republican god hungry for a program cut.  But it’s also not just about tax deductions.