In the quest to eliminate the budget deficit and reduce the national debt both political parties have proposed numerous solutions. It is typical for Republicans to suggest spending cuts and for Democrats to suggest the increase of certain tax rates. While both parties seem to be firmly ingrained in these positions, the reality of the situation is that a combination of selected spending cuts and tax increases will be required to find a meaningful solution. Additionally, there appears to be a courage gap between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party; while Democrats are fully prepared to propose tax increases on the wealthy, Republicans tend to expound on the need for spending cuts but avoid specifics. The reason for this is that the only way for spending cuts alone to solve the economic crisis is to deliver deep cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and the military; the first two tantamount to political suicide and the last against the party’s other positions.
This suggestion vacuum leads to two outcomes. Either Republicans make frequent, vague statements declaring the need to eliminate “runaway spending” or they propose specific spending cuts which in reality would scarcely make a dent in the deficit/debt. An example of the latter came just this past weekend when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) said that “[f]unds currently spent by the government on social science” should be shifted or eliminated all together. As Paul Krugman points out in Monday’s New York Times, the social science appropriations amount to 0.01% of the federal budget. The elimination of those funds not even begin to make a difference.
Another example of this came during the recent presidential election, when Republican nominee Mitt Romney stated that the elimination of federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts would be a focus of his administration. The NEA has been a particularly popular target for religious conservative Republicans due primarily to the Endowment’s 1986 partial funding for “Piss Christ” by Andre Serrano, exhibiting a crucifix submerged in a glass of Serrano’s urine. Ever since this event, religious and family-values interest groups have despised the independent federal body.
For full disclosure my brother and several of my friends are active in the arts field, but I myself have never been as attached to the arts as they have. In the abstract I recognize that the existence of art in society has a positive impact, but in the concrete I have more trouble recognizing this. Regardless of one’s acceptance of the importance of art, however, the elimination of the Endowment would be pointless from an economic standpoint.
The Endowment provides grants for arts education and for artistic projects in numerous fields (dance, design, literature, music, theater, and visual arts are just some of the fields). In 2012 the federal budget appropriated just over $146 million to the NEA. That amount is less than one hundred-thousandth of the national debt. The elimination of this program, along with Cantor’s suggestion, would indeed reduce government spending, but it would reduce spending by such a minuscule level that no true effect would be felt—other than the damage done to the artistic realm.