On Breughel and Brussels Sprouts

In her Feb. 15 MLive guest column, Jennifer Goulet presents specious claims for the relationship between our state’s largesse for arts programs, economic realities and an uptick in sectors of Michigan’s economic vitality.

The director and CEO of Wixom’s ArtServe, Goulet writes that Michigan’s arts community recognized significant growth in employment and revenues during the bleakest years of the state’s decade-long retraction: “From 2010 to 2011, arts-related jobs increased 11 percent, while arts-related businesses grew 16 percent,” she writes, adding that jobs increased 15 percent between 2006 and 2011 and “an impressive 65-percent gain to 28,072 arts-related businesses.”

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Employing findings from ArtServe’s 2012 “Creative State MI” report, Goulet asserts arts and culture nonprofits in the state generated $553 million in expenditures, contributing $2 billion to state tourism revenues and supporting salaries for 22,335 jobs. Additionally, she writes, 2.7 million students benefitted from cultural educational programs and events in 2010 alone.

But, in the real world, what do these “hard data” figures — if indeed accurate — actually signify?

Let’s try approaching it from a metaphorical perspective. As we can presume the arts are considered in general a public good, we can also make the case for Brussels sprouts on one hand and cotton candy on the other.

One is an acquired taste but has terrific long-lasting health benefits, and the other merely satisfies the cravings of a sweet tooth that may or may not result in cavities based on the level of exposure. However, both may seem a good idea for different segments of the population, as well as for those who appreciate vitamin-rich vegetables with dinner and candy for dessert.

As your writer definitely falls into the latter category of appreciating both Shakespeare and Green Acres, Beethoven and Beck, as well as El Greco and Elvis on black velvet — the respective Brussels sprouts and cotton candy in our metaphor — I wonder how Ms. Goulet would respond if the government required taxpayer dollars to support both, or, to extend the metaphor even further, to include not only apples but apple pies and candied apples as well.

In this alternate, Roy Thinnes-inspired universe, tax dollars are directed toward both the producers of Brussels sprouts and cotton candy. School children are driven by the busload to farms where sprouts are grown and storefronts where cotton candy is spun; school cafeterias feature both as menu items; classes are presented on how both are grown and created; students are taught how to grow and make their own; and reports are written about the number of farmers and confectioners employed by their respective industries as proof-positive the public monies were well-spent.

I’ll leave it to the Mackinac Center economic experts to tackle Ms. Goulet’s assertions concerning the multipliers she and ArtServe’s claim for the state’s arts largesse, but I would suggest there have always been individuals who feel they cannot live without sprouts, cotton candy or both, so there’s no basis for comparison for how many more people ate them before or after the subsidies.

Further, if government is taking money from taxpayers to increase the creation of jobs in the mini-cabbage fields and candy shops, can Ms. Goulet really claim that these are jobs “created,” or are they merely sustained at taxpayers’ expense? Wouldn’t it be better to refrain from subsidizing these enterprises altogether — whether it’s the arts or edibles — to leave more money in Michigan residents’ pockets?

After all, if Michigan families were able to keep a larger portion of their earnings they might just be able to afford larger portions of Brussels sprouts and cotton candy, or, leaving behind that pesky metaphor, Breughel and Caravaggio.