Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cultural Capital

So many people, both voters and those in public office, don’t seem to understand the cultural capital a city gains from having such things as a bustling downtown, an arts scene, sports and recreation programs, heritage preservation and other services. Nor do they actually appreciate the value of this cultural capital due to the fact you can’t easily attach it to a monetary figure.

Over the past couple of years economic downturn has sparked a trend towards a more conservative government across all levels and regions. Putting officials in charge whom are known for their disdain of these expenses, vilifying them in their rhetoric, branding them as frivolous expenditures. Under this rule important programs and services are cut under the guise of running a lean operation yet millions are wasted on ridiculously overpriced, poorly managed projects and white elephants like the G8/G20 and the Olympics that do nothing to benefit the average citizen.

I am absolutely not an idealist, I am a realist. I understand the importance of balancing a budget and that it isn’t easy to make sacrifices. Nobody wants a tax increase. There is only so much revenue generated and you can’t have everything. But the responsibility involved in balancing a government’s budget goes beyond number crunching and requires some intellectual thought on the big picture, the affects on the quality of life of all citizens. Instead of taking the politically easy way of cutting funding to small but important community groups and improvement initiatives justifying it by labeling them as non essentials the government needs to assess spending in their own departments and all partner organizations. They need to improve on the auditing process and make all their associated groups more transparent and accountable. $300,000 spent on a frivolous consulting contract may be cut to 1/10th that to train existing employees rendering them capable of making the decisions and recommendations themselves. The balance could fund an artist run center and after school sports programs in a medium sized city for a year. There would likely still be money left to dump in to a pool for educational grants or small business initiatives.

Any one with some basic math skills can balance a budget, what we need in public office are intellectual people capable of seeing the whole, that can actually balance a budget in a thought full manner and implement regulation to insure proper management of funds thus leading to moderate taxes, lean operations, abundant and functional services and programs with long term sustainability and the capacity to weather financial storms. Leaders that are more interested in actually running a successful operation. An operation committed to providing its shareholders, the citizens, a secure and enjoyable life. Leaders that are not just interested in playing a political game, wowing the masses with rhetoric and out of context attack ads.

It is after all intellectual thought, the arts, culture, sports and all the other “frivolous” quality of life things that set humans apart from the other animals and I think it should be considered an essential investment in our society as opposed to a burden on the economical system.


  1. You've written some interesting things here. Some I would leap to agree with, others, not so much. To me, one the reasons govt runs out of money and, thus, must make cuts is because it is already spending on things govt has no place.

    My view of govt is that it should provide for defense against foreign invaders and defense of one citizen against another. Short of that, govt runs the risk of taking away our freedoms under the guise of charity and knowing what's better for us.

    I agree that the arts can be a good thing for a community. The question is whether the govt should pay for its promotion. If something is truly desireable for a market, why not let the private sector take care of it. Of course there would likely be a fee or donation requirement, but what's wrong with that? Why should the arts get special dispensations when other industries, perhaps considered less enjoyable, be given none? And who decides what types of arts are subsidized? You? Me? Someone else?

    And what do you say to the person or group who has no interest in the arts? He is being compelled to pay for something for which he has no use or interest, and because of it has less to spend on his own interests.

    This predicament is why I advocate govt being disinterested and uninvolved in things that do not coincide with its purpose for existing. If I want a community skate park, I shouldn't petition the govt, I should seek investors and customers.

    The time of our politicians could be much better spent discussing matters of war and peace, and the provision of limited services, which are of far greater import. Instead they are busy trying to auction off services and programs that are of lesser significance but yank on the emotions of their electorate because it secures their reelection.

    All right, I'm ready for a rebuttal. ;)

  2. I do appreciate your argument and I see many benefits of the view that government’s role should be striped down to an organization that as you say, “provide for defense against foreign invaders and defense of one citizen against another.” I also feel that there are a few disadvantages to this theory but that is probably a whole other conversation. Ideally if I founded my own country I would develop a political system based entirely on my own understanding and opinions, however for the time being I am only speaking in terms of improvements to the current (Canadian) system as it stands and not drastically changing it.

    That being said, we are the subjects of a democracy and the government is supposedly representative of the population as a whole, given the current Canadian system of some kind of Socialized Capitalism (?) the governments role involves funding many social programs and crown corporations. When you are trying to please 35 million people obviously not everyone is going to be content with all the decisions that are made. Someone who is not interested in the arts or doesn’t have children may not be happy that their taxes go to art grants or public schools just as in a bare bones system there is still the potential for citizens to disagree about decisions the government makes on military spending, judicial decisions or foreign aid.

    If it comes down to bankrupting the country by all means spending on the things that just make life better are going to have to go to ensure that the bare essentials are sustainable. Just as if you lost your job or had to take a pay cut you would (if you were a rational and logical person) tighten up your budget to ensure that you can maintain the necessities. At the same time you want to make sure that you are getting the most for your investment in the necessities. The point I am really trying to make in this post is that it a lot easier for the government to cut funding to artist run centers, libraries and recreation programs and justify this by declaring that these are not important to the majority of the population then to actually tackle the vast overspending and misuse of tax payer dollars in other departments and crown corporations that the general public is usually ignorant of. You may be thinking, this playing of the political game would be eliminated under your proposed government but my point would still be relevant just regarding different issues. (Albeit they may possibly be considered more important ones. But again that is a whole new conversation.)

  3. In regards to the choices of which type of arts are subsidized that is an excellent point and a perfect argument to the benefits of a self regulating market that I can’t refute. This is something I struggle with myself a great deal and I’ve had a post in draft for months now trying to work through my thoughts on it. I am an artist myself and have a sense of commitment to the arts though admittedly I actually dislike probably 80% of the art that I see, a lot of which is hosted by publically funded galleries. I agree this is a major short fall of the current system of government funding. An easy example is that a government art council in Canada gave over $100,000 to one person (Cesear Saez, not even a Canadian citizen) to develop the ‘concept’ (it was never executed) for an art project that would have involved floating a giant inflatable banana over Texas to protest George Bush’s policies (real original) yet continuously they decrease funding (which is minimal in comparism) to the small artist run centers which benefit many people in communities across Canada with many exhibitions, professional development, access to resources and the opportunity to get involved. My art making ventures are funded from the income I make at my day job and from selling work that people enjoyed enough to want to buy though I have benefited a great deal in other ways by being involved with my local artist run center. My recommendation at this point would be to invest more in these community institutions that provide service to many (artists and the public) then to prop up individual artists with large sums of money who would otherwise fail because only few respect their work.

  4. Good response.

    The position I gave on the duties of government is more directed at the federal/national government, not necessarily local government. The duties of local and national governments are vastly different. I should have said that.

    So while I don't think the national govt should be doing anything to support/hinder the arts, that doesn't prohibit the local govt from doing it.

    For instance, the US has a federal constitution that sets limits on the functions of the federal govt (supposedly). The feds have no power to regulate local zoning codes because the constitution gives the feds no power to regulate them. On the contrary, it is arguably a duty of the local govt to plan for growth and the provision of services.

    It might be completely appropriate for a city govt to consider supporting the arts district because it may be an investment that drives further economic growth. In other words, it might be a net gain for the community AND the budget. And the people of that community are in a better place to make those determinations than some American sitting in his living room in California.

    You also hit on something else that probably contributes to your frustration. You could probably comb through the city's budget and find plenty of dollars that are misspent. You could find waste, fraud, or poor investments that could be redirected to something more worthy, in your case, the support of the arts.

    The caution, however, is to always make sure that we're providing for what's necessary over what's desired.

    Here's an idea - Brownlee for City Council.