Obama and the Budget of Sparta

On April 8, 2011, President Obama largely capitulated to his Republican opponents on a “compromise” budget deal that will cut an additional $38.5 billion from his 2011 austerity budget. Details regarding which government programs will be cut have finally emerged; on April 12 the U.S. House of Representatives posted a highlighted list of program cuts (.pdf format). Overall the cuts will be devastating and long-term, and will undoubtedly impact the quality of life for tens of millions of poor and working class Americans. Among the spending reductions: $600 million cut from Community Health Care Centers, $390 million in cuts to heating subsidies, $272 million in cuts to pandemic flu prevention programs, $997 million cut from safe and clean drinking water programs. Nearly $3 billion for funding high-speed rail transportation was cut, as well as approximately $3 billion for the construction of highways. The list of cuts is long and sobering.

Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts has been slashed by another $13 million, the same amount of funding has been cut from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The National Gallery of Art had its funding cut by $8 million, and $7 million was slashed from the budget of National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs. The Institute of Museum and Library Services lost $44 million, while the National Archives had $14 million cut from their budget and $6 million slashed from their grant-making capabilities. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting also lost $80 million in funding cuts. Even State Department Cultural Exchange Programs were cut by $35 million.

On April 5, 2011, artists, arts advocates and activists, artistic directors, and celebrities, descended upon Washington D.C. to pressure congressional representatives not to make further cuts in government funding to the arts. “National Arts Advocacy Day” was organized by the mainstream, non-partisan arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts, which had arranged to have a number of speakers testify before a congressional hearing on the importance of continued and expanded funding for the arts.

Those scheduled to talk before the hearings included actors Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin, the president of Americans for the Arts, Robert L. Lynch, actor and author Hill Harper, and a few members of Congress. However, the arts advocates were sidelined when Congress canceled the congressional hearings at the last minute, supposedly in favor of decisive budget negotiations to prevent the shutdown of the U.S. federal government. The assumption that the majority of congressional representatives regard the arts as nonessential and superfluous is the only conclusion one can derive from the cancellation.

Unbowed by the rebuff, the group organized by Americans for the Arts did not simply disband but instead presented their testimonies in a House caucus room full of hundreds of supporters and members of the media. While all of the speakers eloquently defended government funding for the arts, Kevin Spacey seems to have captured the attention of the press, becoming the arts advocate most often quoted in news reports. Artistic Director of The Old Vic, one of London’s great repertory theatres founded in 1818, Spacey was also the featured speaker at the Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy organized by Americans for the Arts and held at the Kennedy Center. In comments made to the press after his address, Spacey said, “I think that it’s really vital and important for us to realize the importance of arts and culture in our lives and not to sort of dismiss them as luxury items. It’s what we all share, every day.”

While the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Variety, all covered the events organized by Americans for the Arts, none of the aforementioned publications could bring themselves to mention that it was actually President Obama who slashed government funding for the arts in his 2011 austerity budget; the president cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts from $167.5 million to a measly $146 million, a trifling budget somehow meant to serve the cultural needs of the entire United States. While entirely failing to point out Mr. Obama’s atrocious cuts to the arts, the L.A. Times and Variety managed instead to bring up the boogie monster of Sarah Palin as a stalwart opponent of government arts funding!

In his fiscal year 2011 budget, President Obama had already slashed some $40 billion from essential social programs. His April 8th deal with Republican opponents to cut a further $38.5 billion from his budget makes for a total of $78.5 billion slashed from government spending. This comes on the heels of Obama having frozen all non-military related government spending for the next five years, a pay freeze for all non-military federal employees for the next two years, and extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.

The National Arts Advocacy Day organized by the Americans for the Arts in Washington, D.C. had two main demands, that “the president and Congress support a budget of $167.5 million for the National Endowment for the Arts”, and that “the president and Congress retain the arts in the definition of core academic subjects and to strengthen equitable access to arts learning within the Elementary and Secondary Education Art.” In essence these exceedingly modest demands are little more than a holding action, a plea that Mr. Obama restore a woefully inadequate national arts budget.

Gloating over the April 8th deal made with the Republicans, President Obama announced triumphantly, “This is an agreement to invest in our country’s future while making the largest annual spending cut in our history. Like any compromise, this required everyone to give ground on issues that were important to them. I certainly did. Some of the cuts we agreed to will be painful – programs people rely on will be cut back; needed infrastructure projects will be delayed.” Then the president made the most incredibly callous remark, “But beginning to live within our means is the only way to protect those investments that will help America compete for new jobs.” Tell that to the twenty million unemployed Americans unable to find work, or the millions who have lost homes due to bank foreclosures.

Meanwhile, President Obama spent $698 billion on military expenditures in 2010, that is an 81 percent increase over 2001 U.S. military budget figures. World military spending in 2010 came to $1.6 trillion, with U.S. military expenditures comprising an unbelievable 42.8 per cent of that figure. By comparison, China’s military expenditures comprised 7.3 per cent of world military spending. Currently the Obama administration’s military budget is more than the military budgets of China, Britain, France, and Russia combined. Not bad for a Nobel Peace Prize winner, but he still cannot find enough money to properly fund the National Endowment for the Arts.

On March 19, 2011, President Obama launched his “Operation Odyssey Dawn” against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, the third major war the Commander in Chief is presently directing. The National Journal reported that the first 24 hours of the U.S. military assault on Libya carried “a price tag that was well over $100 million for the U.S. in missiles alone.” That is to say, in just 24 hours the Pentagon spent almost as much as the NEA would spend during an entire year of funding museum exhibits, theater festivals, and other important cultural activities across the United States. On April 11, the Pentagon confirmed that just the first 17 days of Obama’s military action against Libya cost the U.S. Defense Department $608 million – and the cost continues to climb. The Pentagon estimates the Libyan war is now costing around $58 million per week.

The Pentagon will undoubtedly request a replacement for the F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet that crashed in Libya due to “mechanical failure”; the cost of the combat jet is around $79.24 million each. It is much more likely that the Pentagon will want the F-15E replaced with the newer F-35 Lighting II, an advanced combat aircraft equipped with stealth technology. The cost of an F-35? Approximately $90 million each, and the Obama administration intends to purchase more than 2,400 of the advanced fighter jets.

More cuts to government spending are on the way, as President Obama and Republicans in the House of Representatives continue negotiations over slashing non-military government spending. The next major dispute will come in May, when the U.S. national debt is expected to surpass $14.3 trillion. Mr. Obama wants to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, while Republicans vow to block the increase unless it is accompanied by even more draconian cuts in government social spending. And of course there is the upcoming battle over the President’s 2012 budget. I am sure the Republicans and their Tea Party allies will continue to hammer Mr. Obama – and I expect he will undoubtedly go on folding, compromising, and capitulating.

During the National Arts Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. on April 5, Kevin Spacey told CNN at the Capitol Rotunda, “Countries may go to war, but it’s culture that unites us and teaches and makes us better citizens.”

Is there anyone listening?