De-funding imagination: a bad economic move

The biggest losers in the Congressional race to be the biggest spending-cutter could be imagination, creativity and ingenuity—elements that are essential to economic recovery and growth.

As American politicians have fallen in love with the notion of spending cuts—not necessarily something that American citizens really want—they view the Federal budget as a target-rich document. They’ll have a hard time cutting the biggies—Social Security, Medicare and the sacrosanct military budget. So they’re looking for low-hanging fruit as way of making a symbolic statement about their commitment to reducing government spending.

Unfortunately, among the programs the deficit hawks see as easy to cut are NASA, the National Endowment for the Arts [NEA], and the National Endowment for the Humanities [NEH].

The problem with defunding or drastically cutting these programs is that, at the heart of each, are curiosity, creativity, imagination and ingenuity.

Goodbye to NASA?

Earlier this year, newly elected Sen. Rand Paul [R-KY] introduced a bill to reduce NASA’s budget by 35 percent–to $13 billion—calling for the agency to step aside and let private industry take over space exploration.

Is private industry a better answer? That’s a fair question. But in terms of return-on-investment of government dollars, let’s remember how many innovations and industries have been spawned by NASA. What about the thousands of kids who became scientists and engineers because they watched a Shuttle launch and dreamed big? While politicians complain about America’s floundering educational system, they’re eager to cut a program that inspired a generation of academic achievement. When we look around and see other countries pulling ahead [whatever that means] in science and math education, how can we discount the value of space exploration as an academic motivator? We hear that, to grow, America needs scientists, engineers and innovators to create new industries and jobs. Yet politicians want to scapegoat NASA and use it as an example of unnecessary spending, when it’s actually a role model for the innovation incubators that they’re looking for. And it’s already here, with a proven track record.

Who needs arts and humanities, anyway?

Similarly, killing the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities is another way to put a chill on imaginative, creative thinking.

In January 2011, the conservative-led Republican Study Committee released a spending-cut report in which it proposed eliminating NEA’s $167.5 million annual budget, as well as the $167.5 million NEH budget. Conservatives have reduced funding and tried to eliminate NEA many times in the past 30 years, sometimes calling the agency’s mission “elitist,” but more frequently objecting to NEA’s support of artists deemed controversial by right-wing and/or religious groups.

What are the arts and humanities, if not role models for critical thinking, intellectual risk-taking, and outside-the-box creativity? And aren’t these the same principles that are often described as success factors for businesses and the American economy?

Somebody in government clearly understood this concept in 1965, when NEA and NEH were established by an act that declared that:

“the study of the humanities require constant dedication and devotion,” and that “while no government can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.” The Act also noted, “The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit.”

Sure, it’s hard to quantify the direct economic benefits of a beautifully executed work of art, a thoughtful essay or an innovative musical composition. But let’s not forget that the arts themselves constitute an industry that employs several million people. But even that is not the main point. By their existence, and through their activities, NEA and NEH institutionalize a value that has driven American success from its earliest days: the intrinsic importance of creativity and imagination.

If we want to be a nation of robotic thinkers, yes-men, and order-takers—a country that looks ahead no further than the next quarter, doesn’t generate any original thinking and never discovers anything new, then we don’t need NASA, NEA and NEH. I’m pretty certain that’s not the America envisioned even by the most zealous deficit hawk—and if it is, they’d never say it publicly. That’s not the conventional American dream touted by so-called patriots. So, here’s some advice to politicians who sincerely want the top-dog, league-leading, American economic powerhouse they bloviate about—and who want to be remembered as the heroes of the American dream: Don’t kill our national imagination. Save the budget axe for something else.