Deficit Hawks Target the Grateful Dead

Dancing Bears.jpg

Last year, needing a break from politics, I traveled out to Santa Cruz, California, to write about something that seemed about as far removed from Washington politics as you can get. I'd recently come across a squib in the Times about how the Grateful Dead had just donated their copious archives to the University of California-Santa Cruz. I was curious about the scholars who study the Grateful Dead and wondered how they intended to use the archive. The trip turned out to be even more fun than I'd imagined. I hung out with Mickey Hart and attended a Dead music class taught by Fred Lieberman, a musicologist, Dead scholar, and all-around great guy, who turned me on to many of the other scholars who study the Dead--not just musicologists, but sociologists, philosophers, business theorists and many more. The article I wrote about them, "Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead," appeared in the March 2010 issue of The Atlantic and generated a big online following.

That was that--or so I imagined. I returned to Washington and politics, and though I've stayed in touch with some of the Dead folks, I wasn't planning on writing about them again. Until one day last December when I was reading through Sen. Tom Coburn's "Wastebook 2010," a list of what he considers to be the most outrageous government expenditures, and there, on page 6, was a picture of the famous dancing bears and a description of a $615,000 federal grant to the Grateful Dead Archives by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. In awarding the grant, the IMLS had noted, "this is one of the first efforts to preserve and share cultural and historical artifacts of the baby boom generation, a group that includes 76 million Americans." Now, it's a target of the Senate's top deficit hawk.

This piqued my curiosity, because it is not the first time the Senate has decided to tangle with Grateful Dead scholars. In my original piece, I described how the late Sen. Robert Byrd went bonkers on the Senate floor one day and cited a college sociology class devoted to studying the Dead and its followers as evidence of the decline of Western civilization. (For the record, this scholarship turned out to be groundbreaking and quite useful in understanding how communities form on the internet--that's all in the piece.) Back then, the objections were mostly cultural: the squares in the Senate didn't approve of people studying those dirty hippies with their drugs and their groupies, etc., etc. One reason why the Dead Archives came into being now is that the band no longer seems "threatening," and--it was believed--enough time and distance had passed that reasonable people could see and understand why it is important to study the 1960s and the Dead phenomenon.

So a little while ago, I called Sen. Coburn's office to inquire about his reasons for targeting the Grateful Dead Archive and spoke with John Hart, a very pleasant and forthright staffer. "Our oversight staff is constantly scouring the federal budget, grant programs, that sort of thing, for unusual priorities," he explained. "Obviously, we select things that are unusual because we're trying to challenge some of the assumptions about what the federal government should be doing." The Dead grant immediately jumped out, he said, not so much for its impact on the deficit, but because it was so evocative. "For every Dead grant there are thousands of other that are not as memorable. [Sen. Coburn] certainly didn't mean to single out the Grateful Dead" because of any cultural objections--at least not in the sense that Byrd had. "He's not disputing that that's a valid period of study," Hart said. "It's more that at a time when we're in danger of slipping into abyss, how can you justify that kind of expenditure? What he's challenging is the culture of spending, not the culture of the psychedelic '60s."

While I personally favor the grant and support the Grateful Dead Archive--and you can too by clicking here and donating--Coburn's objection strikes me as a valid one for a deficit hawk, and in some ways even represents an advance: we're no longer fighting about the culture of the 1960s, but the budget of 2011. Unfortunately, that may be cold comfort to the folks at UC-Santa Cruz because Coburn doesn't seem content merely to raise an objection--he wants to go after the grant. "We don't telegraph in advance our amendment strategy," Hart told me, "but anytime an item appears in one of our reports it will likely be targeted in a future amendment."