Culture and Taxation

It is certainly possible for Liberals and Conservatives to engage in a public policy debate about what items should be collectively purchased, like armies, through government taxation, and what items, like luxury cars, should be a matter of individual purchase, money for the item directly out of the consumer’s pocket rather than out of the tax dollars paid into the general fund for the government to spend as it wishes. There are difficult cases. Should the upkeep of a car be included in the welfare budget for a rural person who needs a car to get around, much less to get a job? Should everyone pay for parks even if only some people use them? The issue of what is the proper kind of purchase arises at the moment with regard to building infrastructure. Should it be by the government through what would at the moment be very low interest bonds? Or should it be by private investors who use tax incentives to go into the business of building toll roads? I would prefer direct government purchase of roads, and that is the Liberal preference, though until recently it was also the Conservative preference, Eisenhower having financed the interstate highway system in the Fifties with government money, even if the building of the railroads some seventy-five years before that was only indirectly financed by the government because the government provided free or very cheap and very broad rights of way to the railroad barons of the time.

But the Trump Budget outline recently released does not lend itself to that kind of discourse, and trying to make the political debate about it a policy debate would be to already grant the point that the Trump Budget is guided by policy considerations rather than exists just as a mean spirited attempt to punish the weak and reward those who are already well to do. Rather defensively, Office of Management and Budget Director Mulvaney said at the Press Secretary’s daily briefing a few days ago that he was not being cruel in taking away programs but was rather being kind to the coal miner who had to pay for needless programs. That is malarky because most taxation is of the rich and so it is their dollars that you are saving because you also want to give them a tax cut, that cost partly offset by cutting domestic programs that help the poor.

Mulvaney also said that programs weren’t good just because they sounded good. This was in defense of his claims that Meals on Wheels should be cut. But I don’t know how else to get hot meals to shut-ins who get someone to look in on them and say a few words as well as deliver a meal. Mulvaney also said that school lunch programs did not deliver because there was no improvement in educational achievement among those receiving school lunches. That is true as far as it goes. It has been a long time since Liberals claimed there would be educational benefits in better nutrition for students. All school lunches provide is one decent meal a day for poorer students, and that is justification enough for the program. You can see what Mulvaney is driving at. He is out to hurt the poor, whatever argument he has to devise to justify a budget cut to a program that provides something for the poor.

Which brings us to the cuts that particularly concern the people I know; which is the cuts to the NEA, the NEH, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. These causes are particularly important to those who believe in Big Bird, and particularly attractive as cuts to people who think that culture is not something that is part of government’s special business. Leave culture to Disney. Now it happens that these are just the entities that have been subject to big cuts in the past. The budget of the NEA was threatened in years past because it was funding transgressive artists who might and did offend some Christians. The NEA dealt with that by switching its budget to support folk music festivals, but that is not enough for purists who don’t see any point in the programs at all. It isn’t that expensive to get a banjo, never mind if the artists who play them do not make much money. And the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has seen such radical cuts that its basic business model has changed. PBS gets its money from donors and from corporate sponsors interested in prestige advertising. Those sponsors do not get to place their ads, and so the PBS Newshour remains an independent outlet, although that means, by definition, that it reports the damning truth about Trump- but then so too does NBC, a very commercial network that is scathing about Trump. Mulvaney repeats the same lame argument about PBS that has been used in the past: why should a coalminer pay for it? Well, there might be some coal miners who want to listen in to NPR. I know a lot of cab drivers who do. And coal miner’s wives might also want to use Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood as a place to settle their children just as I used Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood for mine, and mine had many other sources of cultural enrichment than might be available in Appalachia. Who else but Mr. Rogers would think to tell toddlers that they need not worry about being flushed down the toilet? So the policy questions still lurk around Mulvaney’s budget, but they are so buried in meanness that it is difficult to get down to the question of whether PBS is a public good, necessary for an informed public discourse, rather than a luxury purchase for the already well educated and so relatively wealthy that should therefore not be supported by tax dollars.