We Don’t Need No Art in Kansas

At POLITICO this morning we find a long opinion piece by Matt Stoller, “Public Pays Price for Privatization,” summarized as “The real infrastructure trend in America today is privatizing what is left.” If that weren’t enough to give you the flavor of the piece, the bio line tells us that “Stoller worked on the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and Federal Reserve transparency issues as a staffer for Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.). He is currently a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.” Say no more – except, there’s more to say.

Stoller notes, among much else, that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback just turned over arts funding to the private sector, making Kansas the only state without a publicly funded arts agency.” Don’t reel in horror; the cited Los Angeles Times article has already done it for you: “The governor erased state funding for arts programs, leaving the Kansas Arts Commission with no budget, no staff and no offices.” One imagines there will now be no art at all in Kansas.

Not surprisingly, Stoller extols the giant public works of the New Deal and after, which petered out in the 1970s, he says, after which “international competitiveness and environmental costs drove the logic of cost reductions into our political order. Today, we are still living in the Ronald Reagan-Paul Volcker era of low taxes, low regulations, low pay, low spending and high finance.” It seems not to have occurred to Stoller that perhaps the prior absence of “the logic of cost reductions” in our political order might have contributed to why, as he says, “the New Deal coalition melted in the 1970s.”

Art aside – that’s an easy case for defunding – Stoller does go on to criticize much of the “privatization” that’s taken place since – starting with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He’s right there: These “private-public partnerships” are fraught with peril, not least by giving privatization a bad name, something he doesn’t consider. The idea of “public goods” is not meaningless, but the definition has to be strict, as economists know, and the means for privatizing ersatz “public goods” have to be clean. Given the vast public sector before us, we’ve got years of privatization ahead. Let’s hope it’s done right.