Monday, March 10, 2014

Beyond Big Bird

Why Government Should Support the Arts

March 6, 2014
by Nick Paleologos
In the half century since its founding, the National Endowment for the Arts has been an island of creativity in an ocean of indifference. Even President Obama took more than a year to nominate the estimable Jane Chu as the NEA’s next chair. If confirmed, Dr. Chu will be the latest in a baker’s dozen of American arts czars since 1965. But the sea is rising around her, and the beach is eroding at an alarming rate.
In today’s movie theaters, George Clooney and Matt Damon may be saving the world’s art treasures from the Nazis, but in Washington we’re still arguing over Big Bird vs. Bad Art.
Welcome aboard Jane. I don’t envy your task.
By the time we pull out of Afghanistan later this year we will have scrapped, destroyed or left behind $7 billion worth of taxpayer-funded military vehicles and equipment — in less than one year.
Think about that for a second. Half a world away, over the next nine months, America will dump into some desert hole — voluntarily and largely without debate — literally billions more tax dollars than the total amount of money the NEA has spent in the last 50 years.

Out here in the hinterlands, we have become very clever and practiced in the art of couching our cultural advocacy in the language du jour. You know what I’m talking about: “economic development,” “community revitalization” and my personal favorite, “R.O.I. (return on investment).” Nobody bothers to ask about the R.O.I. on $7 billion worth of equipment that we’re handing over to Afghan President Hamid Karzai as we hightail it out of his country. But I digress.
One of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary films is called “The Square.” It’s a fascinating account of a revolution that began in the heart of Cairo and resulted in the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. This Egyptian-made film is banned in Egypt.
A few weeks ago in Sochi, during the Olympics, the Pussy Riot punk group gave an impromptu public performance – one that probably would have gone unnoticed in Times Square. In Russia, however, six group members — five women and one man — were horsewhipped and pepper sprayed in broad daylight by Cossack militia.
Because artists speak truth directly to our hearts and souls, they are under relentless assault around the world. Truth-tellers are the most vulnerable and yet the most essential members of any society. Their unique gift as artists is to remind us of our common humanity. With every note, brushstroke, word or gesture, they transcend all artificial barriers of nationality, race and religion.
The NEA was originally established in America to “encourage and assist artists and enable them to achieve wider distribution of their works.” As arts advocates, we are quick to celebrate the individual artist as both creator of beauty and catalyst for community development. We readily acknowledge their work as both food for the soul and fuel for the economy.
But in today’s America — where the loudest voices with the deepest pockets dominate most discussions, and fear of retribution leaves too many citizens with no place to turn — doubling down on the artist as truth-teller is the single most important thing the NEA can and should be doing.
In a speech to students at Amherst College two years before the NEA was even created, and only one month before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy gave us perhaps the most cogent rationale for a robust national arts agency in any democracy:
“The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state … the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may.”
Truth as a return on investment? That’s good enough for me.

Monday, March 3, 2014

What conservatives should be saying.

A few weeks ago, ex-Denver Bronco quarterback John Elway shared his political philosophy with Fox News’ Chris Wallace. “I don’t believe in safety nets,” declared Elway — who is currently executive vice president of football operations for the Denver Broncos. Elway seems like a really nice guy. But he should know better.
The taxpayers of Denver paid $300 million for the stadium his team calls home. Which is a whopping 75 percent of the cost of construction. As a result, Elway’s team owns 100 percent of a beautiful stadium for which they paid only a 25 percent share to build. The money the Broncos saved (courtesy of Denver taxpayers) would have helped underwrite Elway’s $4 million-a-year salary when he was their quarterback — 20 years ago.
Even now — by foregoing any ownership interest in the stadium, those same taxpayers continue to subsidize Elway’s executive salary — not to mention Peyton Manning’s $15 million annual paycheck. After fleecing fans for $7 bucks a beer at Bronco home games, the least Elway could do is stop adding insult to injury by begrudging unemployment insurance to the out-of-work in Orange Crush nation.
Elway must also realize that the “safety net” he’s dismissing (for people who actually need it) is currently cushioning the corporate coffers of more companies than just his beloved Broncos. The National Football League grossed more than $9 billion last year and paid zero taxes. In fact the NFL has never paid any taxes at all because it is a “non-profit” organization — unlike either the NBA or Major League Baseball.
No doubt the NFL’s army of expensive lawyers, lobbyists and PR flacks will insist that taxpayers are supporting a worthy cause — like subsidizing the $44 million annual salary package of their commissioner, Roger Goodell. He too seems like a really nice guy. They’re all nice guys.
Few people have thrown a football better than John Elway. God bless him. And Goodell — son of a U.S. senator, three-sport athlete at Bronxsville High School, and graduate in economics from Washington & Jefferson College — is probably worth every penny of his $44 million taxpayer-subsidized salary.
Don’t get me wrong, they all should earn as much money as their talent and initiative allows. But please at least have the plain old-fashioned American decency to acknowledge that those huge salaries are made possible because of a taxpayer-supported infrastructure. Dare I say, a corporate “safety net”? Let’s just assume there are probably many good reasons why millions of taxpayers should help pump up the profits of a single company like the Denver Broncos. And let’s assume that it also makes good public policy sense for hundreds of millions of taxpayers to subsidize a non-profit corporation like the NFL.
Still, there’s something downright creepy in the soft-spoken, aw-shucks manner of some people who — while benefiting handsomely from taxpayer-subsidized businesses of their own — go out of their way to decry taxpayer support for things like universal healthcare and free public education which are essential building blocks of the very “opportunity society” they claim to want for everybody else.
Let’s face it.  The problem isn’t Ted Nugent, or even Ted Cruz. Most people recognize insanity when they see it. The real problem comes when seemingly reasonable guys like John Elway start popping off about people on Social Security, or Medicare, or unemployment assistance, or public pensions.
Call me crazy but crapping on teachers and cops just doesn’t strike me as a classy thing to do.
My father-in-law, Ed Worth, is a rock-ribbed Republican and a very decent guy: retired Navy, devout Catholic — the whole nine yards. A peaceful family get together at his house usually means keeping the conversation focused on grandchildren and sports — that is, until John Elway opened his mouth.
So earlier this month, we got into it big time. And the results genuinely surprised me. I agreed with him that welfare and pension abuse should be ruthlessly rooted out of the system. He agreed with me that wealth should be taxed at the same rate as work. He even went a step further. He proceeded to lay out for me the “Ed Worth Tax Reform Plan.”
Whatever a family needs to live on — call it the first $50,000 of everybody’s income — should be tax-free. Every last dollar after that — whether from the sweat of your brow or the savvy of your broker — should be taxed at the exact same rate (say 20 percent). No caps. No exemptions. No exceptions.
Amen to that.
Now if only John Elway was listening, maybe we could actually get somewhere.