Today, I opened my email to find this
That’s a link to a conservative article on ending federal (and other government) money to the arts.
Originally, I didn’t think very much of it, except that I was mildly annoyed. The person who sent it to me implied that I, of course, would be in favor of such government money to the arts, and gave me a set of reasons why that would be so.
It was one of those “For God’s sake, isn’t ANYBODY listening?” moments, because I’m on record several times on this blog as being opposed to such expenditure.
In fact, I’m on record at length.
The article itself was no sparkling font of originality and wisdom. It says what these articles more or less always say, and I agree with it.
What caught my attention was something I already knew but don’t usually think of when I think of funding for the arts, and that I should.
And that is–that arts funding goes to non-profit organizations.
And that the big problem with non-profit organizations in this country is not that we don’t require them to be politically neutral, but that we don’t require them to behave like non-profits.
The part of the article that got me thinking about this was a short paragraph about how such non-profit and publically funded theater companies routinely charge $70 apiece for tickets, thus pricing most of the people whose tax money they are using out of the experience.
This would be the case even if they didn’t get money from the NEA or other government sources, because the money they don’t pay in taxes is money that is not available for other public functions. This is especially true of property taxes, since property taxes are what fund public schools in most municipalities.
There are, of course, some kinds of tax exclusions that have other rationales besides public utilities. We don’t tax churches because, as Jefferson said, “the power to tax is the power to destroy.” The free exercise of religion being our first and most important right, we don’t trust governments to tax churches (or synagogues or mosques or humanist chapels) fairly and without taking sides.
Most of the time, when we grant organizations and institutions non profit status, it is because we are convinced that they are providing an important service that we want to encourage. We assume that such organizations will provide these services in such a way that will make them largely available to the general public.
In other words, we decline to take their taxes under the assumption that they will be operating at a loss so that more people can benefit from them.
Does this sound to you like the way major nonprofits operate these days?
Even a little bit?
Let us pass over, for the moment, the way in which many of these organizations pay their top administrators as if they were the employees of an investment bank.
The heads of such nonprofits as the Red Cross, Harvard College and the Yale-New Haven Hospital are compensated like any other members of the Major CEOs Club–at the lowish end of it, but only lowish. A seven figure salary is a seven figure salary, and it doesn’t begin to unearth the perks of a first class benefits package.
What’s far worse is that most high-end nonprofits are dedicating to charging the public whatever the traffic will bear.
Yale University has an endowment large enough so that it could eliminate tuition for every one of its students. It has vast property across the landscape of the city of New Haven, a minority-majority municipality that has persistant problems funding public schools and basic services.
All that property is untaxed, but far from providing education at a discount, Yale provides it at a premium. Not only are the sticker prices high–in the $60,000 range for tuition, room and board for a single year–but even its discounted prices are too high for most middle class families to cover without going into very significant debt.
Then there is the Yale-New Haven hospital, which not only charges the top end of everything for medical care, but also goes after “deadbeats” (read: sick people without the money to pay up, with no or insufficient insurance) just like any for-profit medical center.
The question, for me, is–what are we abating these taxes for?
If nonprofits are going to behave like for profits, why accord them all these special privileges?
Why not insist that nonprofits earn their tax exemptions by behaving like nonprofits: by charging less than a forprofit company would, by paying lower compensation than a forprofit would, by actually being charities?
And if theaters are going to have nonprofit status, with or without government money, why not insist that their ticket prices be low enough so that most people can actually afford them?
As far as I can tell, these days “nonprofit” has come to mean “need charismatic jobs for people like us, and the public be damned.”
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