Recently two editorials appeared in The Wichita Eagle promoting government spending on the arts because it does wonderful things for the local economy. The writers are Rhonda Holman and Joan Cole, who is chairwoman of the Arts Council.
I read the study that these local writers relied on. The single greatest defect in this study is that it selectively ignores the secondary effects of government spending on the arts.
As an example, the writers in the Eagle promote the study’s conclusion that the return on dollars spent on the arts is “a spectacular 7-to-1 that would even thrill Wall Street veterans.” It hardly merits mention that there aren’t legitimate investments that generate this type of return in any short timeframe.
So were do these fabulous returns come from? Here’s a passage from the study that the Eagle writers relied on:
A theater company purchases a gallon of paint from the local hardware store for $20, generating the direct economic impact of the expenditure. The hardware store then uses a portion of the aforementioned $20 to pay the sales clerk’s salary; the sales clerk respends some of the money for groceries; the grocery store uses some of the money to pay its cashier; the cashier then spends some for the utility bill; and so on. The subsequent rounds of spending are the indirect economic impacts.
Thus, the initial expenditure by the theater company was followed by four additional rounds of spending (by the hardware store, sales clerk, grocery store, and the cashier). The effect of the theater company’s initial expenditure is the direct economic impact. The subsequent rounds of spending are all of the indirect impacts. The total impact is the sum of the direct and indirect impacts.
Relying on this reasoning illustrates the problem with the Eagle editorials: they ignore the secondary effects of economic action, except when it suits their case. The fabulous returns erroneously attributed to spending on the arts derive from this chain of spending starting at the hardware store. But what the authors of this study and the Eagle editorial writers must fail to see is that anyone who buys a gallon of paint for any reason sets off the same chain of economic activity. There is no difference — except that a homeowner buying the paint is doing so voluntarily, while an arts organization using taxpayer-supplied money to buy the paint is using someone else’s money.
The study also pumps up the return on government investment in the arts by noting all the other spending that arts patrons do on things like dinner before and desert after arts events. But if people kept their own money instead of being taxed to support the arts, they would spend this money on other things, and those things might include restaurant meals, too.
The fact that these editorials have been printed might lead me to suspect that government-supported arts organizations and Eagle editorial writers might feel a little guilty about using taxpayer funds. They should. To take money from one group of people by government coercion and give it to other people, especially when that purpose is to stage arts events, is wrong. It’s even more so when the justification for doing this is so transparently incorrect.
Arts organizations need to survive on their own merits. They need to produce a product or service that satisfies their customers and patrons just as any other business must.
It may turn out that what people really want for arts and culture, as expressed by their own selections made freely, might be different from what government bureaucrats and commissions decide we should have. That freedom to choose, it seems to me, is something that our Wichita City Council, Arts Council, and Wichita Eagle editorial writers believe the public isn’t informed or responsible enough to enjoy.