Ideas: Fixing the World July/August 2009

Pay the Artists

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We’re living in a newly frugal world. But the rediscovered values of thrift and moderation should apply to the government as much as they do to households. No more trillion-dollar misadventures abroad: we need to spend money at home, and we need to get the maximum bang for our buck. If the Obama administration is serious about stimulating the economy and creating as many new jobs as possible, one choice is clear: it should announce a massive increase in federal arts funding. Artists are among the very poorest citizens. When they get cash, they spend it both quickly and carefully. That’s not what most recipients of federal largesse do, but it happens to be exactly what economists look for in any stimulus package. Arts spending is fantastic at creating employment: for every $30,000 or so spent on the arts, one more person gets a job, compared with about $1 million if you’re building a road or hospital. And such spending has a truly lasting benefit: the Works Progress Administration didn’t just create murals, it subsidized enormous leaps in graphic design, in theater (including America’s first all-black production of Macbeth), and in fine art. One painter lived off the WPA’s Federal Art Project for eight years before finally getting his first solo show in 1943. Maybe a similar program today could produce America’s next Jackson Pollock.

Felix Salmon is the finance blogger for Reuters.
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Felix Salmon is the finance blogger for Reuters.

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