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A Chris-Mess Carol

Reflecting on public funding for cultural institutions

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the hundreds of thousands who are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population!”

—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

I read with fascination a letter to the Buffalo News from a reader in a rural suburb of Buffalo who complained that tax dollars go to services that she does not personally use. She was particularly distressed by what she sees as the absurdity of public funding for the arts.

“Why don’t all you folks who want the taxpayers to pay for your entertainment pay for it yourself?” she asked. “You could donate as much money as you choose to whatever institution you cherish. Or, you can pay higher prices for the events you go to. Running benefits and getting all your friends and relatives to attend is another option. Me, I don’t use any of those venues and I don’t want my tax dollars to go for them in this kind of an economic climate. People are out of work, out of food and out of money. What is it you folks don’t get?”

In the next breath, the reader exclaims, in irritable agitation, “It’s high time people start paying their own way or do without.”

Well, while these sentiments echo those of the unenlightened Ebenezer Scrooge with startling precision, I do think it is reasonable that the lady’s question be answered. Sadly, I fear that she, like Scrooge, may be impervious to persuasion without supernatural intervention, but I will try.

Our tax dollars pay for things that none of us, individually, could possibly afford, but which benefit society as a whole. Could any of us honestly afford a public library, philharmonic orchestra, civic ballet, or regional theater—even by getting together with friends and family? No. All of us in Erie County are taxpayers. People are not actually begging others to pay for the things they privately want; but we do expect others to contribute to the cost of those things from which we collectively benefit.

Collectively, for instance, our town and county taxes provide police and fire protection, whether or not we are ever victims of crime or fire. Actually, the equation becomes even more complex when we consider that towns like Elma, from which the letter writer hails, has no local police department at all; instead they piggyback on the County Sheriff and State Police. This means that the good people of places like Buffalo and Amherst pay for law enforcement in the town of Elma. I have never even been to Elma! Would I be justified to insist, as the lady suggests, that when it comes to police protection, “it’s high time” the good lady from Elma “start paying her own way or do without”? Maybe so! On the other hand, we all want everyone in Erie County to feel as safe and secure in their homes as we do in ours.

Similarly, our taxes pay for public schools, whether or not we, personally, have children. Our taxes pay for public roads, including a colossal infrastructure of rural roads in this county that some of us never use, and whether or not we drive at all. Our taxes support clean water and garbage collection at prices far lower than we would be charged if we were obliged to pay our own way.

In the larger scheme of tax expenditures, vegetarians help support meat inspection, teetotalers support the regulation of alcohol, those who eat at home support the maintenance of health standards at restaurants, and pacifists shoulder their fair share to help support the military.

Will Rogers once quipped that we’re lucky we don’t get all the government we pay for, but in reality, if each person who uses the services supported by taxes had to pay full price for them, society would quickly fall into chaos. That is also why our tax system is based on our individual ability to pay. The more we have, the more taxes we pay; those who have very little pay less in taxes. The reader from Elma need not fear that she will ever be taxed as heavily as Bill Gates (a celebrated supporter of the arts), nor should she be. There are societies where only the individuals wealthy enough to afford the full cost of the arts can enjoy them, and in these undemocratic societies, only princes and tyrants can enjoy any but the homemade arts.

Now, the reader might object that many of the services I have described are “essential” services, and that is arguably true. I chose them specifically to emphasize my point. But a large part of what makes our nation great is our ability to pull together to afford more than the minimum standards. Is the writer of the letter actually recommending mere subsistence as the standard for American life?

“People are out of work, out of food and out of money,” she cries. The argument seems disingenuous here in the richest country the world has ever seen. Even during the Great Depression, the government pumped resources into the arts. And in truth, while she makes us sound like Dickensian London, even in economically challenged Erie County, we are currently running a budget surplus. How deeply would she cut? Certainly there are places in the world where people do without paved roads and clean streets, or without attractive public buildings and convenient services of any kind. Does she actually advocate for this sort of austerity in Erie County, or is she merely seeking to fund those things she personally uses, while cutting those things from which she, personally, receives no direct benefit? This is neither good public policy nor sound fiscal planning; it is merely selfish and shortsighted.

Certainly, the citizens of Erie County have a right to expect that our elected officials will use our money wisely and work to keep our tax burden low. In truth, when we spread Erie County’s support of the arts across the entire population, the reader’s actual tax burden is mere pennies. In fact, while she personally may not have attended, she might be interested to know that Shakespeare in Delaware Park performed for nearly four times Elma’s total population last summer alone! We are getting a remarkable return on our meager investment. And is she aware that the revised budget proposed by the County Legislature actually reduced county expenditures even further, while restoring funding for libraries and cultural organizations—only to be killed by executive veto?

The letter writer’s assertion that “people are out of work, out of food and out of money,” actually undermines her position, for she conveniently forgets that many of us are gainfully employed, while simultaneously admitting that there are people who cannot afford theaters, concerts, or museums that are unsupported by public funds—just as they could not afford road maintenance or police and fire protection on their own. Such a state of affairs gives us even more reason to support “cheer of mind or body to the multitude.”

If we obliged people to engage only in those activities for which they can pay outright and in full, we could also say goodbye to the truly breathtaking public subsidies that we invest in professional sports. Funding for the arts pales by comparison to these financial subsidies, even though cultural organizations represent a far larger percentage of the local audience and economy, and the financial benefits actually stay in Erie County, where we reap their benefits many times over.

The reader may be thinking that the organizations supported by county funding are not specifically in her town, or that she gets all the festive celebration she needs at her own church, which may be true. But the benefits provided by religious institutions are precisely why the rest of us support her church by making it tax exempt, even though we may not practice her religion or believe in God at all. This is the same light in which we begrudgingly allow her town to substitute the County Sheriff’s Department for a local police department, and why taxpayers from other parts of the county pay to pave her roads. That’s what “society” means: people living together, working together, and helping each other as a community. But the sharing goes both ways.

Finally, the reader is not considering, or does not understand, that the benefits of the arts go far beyond the “entertainment” value that she describes. Not-for-profit arts organizations support 1.3 million American jobs. Indeed, entertainment products are the second-largest export of our entire nation—above agricultural products, above automobiles. The arts stimulate business development and improve the overall quality of life in our cities and towns. In fact, if the letter writer owns property in Elma, her close proximity to arts venues elsewhere in Erie County actually increases the value of her home! Children who are exposed to the arts do better in school and are less likely to end up in trouble, thus obliging us to spend even more tax dollars for services for troubled youth. And perhaps most important of all, cultural activities bring people together and strengthen us as a society.

Every great society is judged by its artistic accomplishments. The reader may be surprised by how fully the impact of the arts permeates her life. Whether or not she ever attends a theatrical performance or concert, or visits a gallery, she benefits from the fact that in Erie County, such opportunities are abundant. Apart from the economic benefits, how fine it would be for all of us to remember the cheer of mind and body to the multitude and the sense of community that the arts afford us, especially at this festive time of year. God bless us, every one!

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