Regarding Robert Reich’s Wednesday, December 20th commentary on “Marketplace” on American Public Radio.

While I usually appreciate Robert Reich’s astute analyses of the country’s economic peccadilloes, I find him way off the mark in suggesting that the tax code should limit charitable deductions to “real” charities and not to the arts and cultural institutions. Few would quibble with the excesses Reich offers as examples: yes, a donation to Harvard, which already boasts the largest university endowment in the nation, might seem self-indulgent, a ruse of the rich to ensure their progeny’s future access. It’s also easy to mock a gala dinner held by captains of industry for New York’s Lincoln Center arts complex.

But obscured by Reich’s heavy sarcasm is the fact that public educational institutions now receive very little federal or even state support, and that the arts have been summarily taken off the list of federal funders’ priorities because they’ve been made a political football by the conservative right.

If the wealthy can’t declare deductions for their largess to education and the arts, to whom could more upstart, avant-garde, community-based arts organizations turn for support as they struggle to establish themselves? In Austin, Texas, where I live, yes, we watch with despair as our public university pours millions of dollars into expanding its already mammoth stadium and upgrading the perks for its star student athletes, while the College of Fine Arts cowers, under-funded and under-appreciated, in its shadow. Would that every “Texas-ex” who gives a dollar to the Longhorns would kick in another for the arts.

But legislating against charitable donations such as these would also mean that Austin’s rich array of small arts organizations would no doubt expire. Without the deductible donations that support their operating budgets and their capital campaigns, and that pay their artists a living wage to use their imaginations to improve the world, we’d see the quick demise of the dozens of performance companies that enhance our local quality of life daily.

These arts organizations also serve the Austin community, engaging residents in the performance, music, film, art, and culture who might not otherwise be invited to share their stories on stage, or to participate in a filmmaking event, because of their race, class, or level of education. The arts in Austin do, as Reich proposes, try to make a difference for the poor.

I hope Robert Reich can nuance his argument, so that he’s not advocating that the bathwater of wealth donating to wealth be thrown out with the baby of tax incentive-supported private patronage for the arts and education.

The Feminist Spectator

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