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Art, Schmart

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A robust public discussion (my favorite kind!) is taking place over the issue of public arts funding. Reporter Lynn Stewart of San Diego 6 aired a story last week pointing out that the City of San Diego had budgeted $300,000 for art at two fire stations, while at the same time fire stations were being shuttered in rolling “brownouts” to save money and taxpayers are being asked for more in sales taxes.  In response, Mayor Sanders has asked the San Diego City Council to suspend public arts funding in the capital improvement budget.

The community is now engaged in a vigorous and thoughtful examination of the role of public art, and whether it is a luxury that should be scuttled during tight times, or a necessity to a community’s quality of life.

The problem is this: it’s a discussion on the WRONG topic.

This discussion shouldn’t be about the merits of public art. Public art adds to our lives, creates the opportunity for reflection, enjoyment, even healthy disagreement. It focuses your thinking toward bigger ideas and issues. I’m all for it.

The discussion should be about the merits of TAXPAYER FUNDED public art, which focuses on the true role of government and the use of our tax dollars to pay for it.  As a Libertarian, I believe the choice to fund art should be given back to the community in the most democratic way possible: by letting the public hold on to more of its tax dollars and allowing individuals to decide what type of public art to fund.

This must be part of a thoughtful examination about the role of government. Government should provide essential services and NO MORE. But essential services aren’t all that easy to define. Let’s focus on the City of San Diego. Sure, we all agree on police and fire protection being essential. What about lifeguard service? I say no. It’s your choice to go into the ocean, so you accept the risk. Libraries? I love libraries but they aren’t essential either, certainly not in the age of the Internet.

To the essential list I add water and sewer services, and infrastructure construction and maintenance.  That’s it. A second tier of services can be outsourced: trash pickup and maintenance for starters. The rest should be provided by private and/or nonprofit organizations, funded by us through the tax dollars we have back in our pockets to do so. The linchpin is that we MUST take that obligation seriously and contribute a fair share to whatever we consider a priority. Some will choose public art. Great!

The beauty of it is that we get a direct vote, and we gain a much greater influence on the type and quality of services. For example, major disaster response services are offered both by FEMA, a federal government agency, and by the American Red Cross and other nonprofits. If FEMA screws up, I can’t pull my funding as a taxpayer. If the Red Cross screws up, I send my money to the Salvation Army or another organization. FEMA has zero incentive to improve its services. The Red Cross and other nonprofits must listen to its donors (the public) and respond with improved services, or risk a loss of funding. Anyone would argue that the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and many other nonprofit organizations do a far superior job of providing disaster relief than FEMA.

It’s the mission creep of government that is causing our fiscal crisis, not public art. Fewer services means fewer employees, means far lower pension obligations and far less ongoing expense. Wouldn’t you rather have your dollars going to public art of YOUR choosing?

It is then incumbent upon me to help fund other services I believe to be important. It becomes my choice with my money, not decisions forced upon me and funded by me against my will. With this comes the responsibility and obligation to contribute.


10 Responses to “Art, Schmart”

  1. Jim Sills says:

    The corrupting effect on Art itself of government-funded
    projects should not be overlooked.

    How many laughable examples of “art” have we all
    seen in front of some government edifice and thought,
    “No private sponsor would ever have paid for that!”

    As usual

  2. Jim Sills says:

    Comment above interruped by website glitch….

    No artist should have to bow down to, and pander before ,
    some assistant director of government widgets, who
    wouldn’t know Art Deco from Art Linkletter.

    The bad taste of government-run art is proven daily by
    the many bizarre monuments seen in front of already-
    ugly Federal, State and local buildings.

  3. Michael A. Schwartz says:

    Who here has ever looked at a city government employee and thought, “wow…bet that person has a great opinion on art.”

    Great piece, Gayle! Libertarians always do a great job of not letting others define the argument.

  4. Ed Harris says:

    I would like to take some time to educate you on what San Diego Lifeguards do. Your comment that they are not essential leads me to believe you do not know much about our job. When you say it’s your choice to go in the ocean and you accept the risk, I wonder if the 14 year old girl visiting from Colorado would agree. She was washed off the bluffs in La Jolla by a large wave. Her mother jumped in to help her. They were both rescued by guards who spotted the rescue and responded from half a mile away. Maybe you should ask the father of the five year old boy who fell down a crevice and was washed into the ocean last spring just south of the Casa. How about the young girls who joined a friend for some sailing last week? The captain missed the channel and ended up in the surf zone with large breaking waves. Our night crew rescued all six people and one dog. Should we have left them or should we have relied on citizens to risk their lives? That usually ends up in a double drowning. Do you realize that Lifeguards make between 4-6000 water rescues per year? We perform approximately 50 cliff rescues and several thousand medical aids. Lifeguards are heavily involved in law enforcement. We write tickets and deal with low level crimes that occur at the beach and bay. This allows the police to concentrate on issues that are more important than a dog on the beach or a fish and game violation. Permanent Lifeguards are certified to the level of EMT. We are the first response when your loved one has a heart attack while walking on the boardwalk. We deal with every type of medical issue humans have. If we had to turn all of our medical aids over to Fire/medics, we would crash the San Diego EMS system. Just the volume of stingray victims we have some days would take up every ambulance in the CIty. We are responsible for Marine Firefighting. Should we just let a boat full of people burn up because they were out on a boat to watch the parade of lights? We do River Rescue throughout the county. Should we abandon those who purchased a home in a low lying area or that got caught in a mudslide? We are trained to recover evidence and are called upon to search for weapons and evidence. I spent several long days underwater, feeling my way around a dark, polluted water way for a young girl named Chelsea King. Is that not a worthy cause? What would be the impact on the local economy if we had bodies washing ashore every day? You may want to reference the CDC report on the economic effects of unguarded beaches. You may want to speak to the loved ones of those recovered from unguarded waters.

    The cuts we have taken have eroded our ability to keep people safe at the beach. We have stopped guarding areas and stopped training Lifeguards. Please join me for a tour of what we do. I know it will change your opinion.

    Thank you

    Ed Harris

  5. Gavin says:

    The reality is we take an assumed risk every time we get on the roadway. If I get into an accident should I not get a response from safety service personnel because I knew the risk and still took it? Are police an essential service? If someone breaks into my house, with the intent to harm my family, shouldn’t I just take matters in my own hands? We have a moral responsibility to protect our coastline.
    In addition to Mr. Harris comments, Lifeguard’s are the sole law enforcement/emergency response on Mission Bay. If it is essential to protect life, limb, and property on the roadways by providing Law enforcement and medical/rescue response, wouldn’t we deem it essential to do the same on our waterways?

  6. Ed, you’ve given me food for thought. I’m not unaware of the range of lifeguard services being a 20-year scuba diver certified to the level of Rescue Diver. I’m acutely aware of the risk I take when I choose to dive. I do think simple monitoring of swimmers is not the best use of the talents of the lifeguard service, and that’s where I have an issue. Your well informed comments make my point – the definition of what constitutes “essential services” is far from agreed on. I’ve also been taken to task about libraries. May a robust debate continue as we look for ways to maximize the use of our tax dollars to the utmost positive effect. And – a very sincere thank you for reading Rostra.

  7. Ed Harris says:

    Through “simple monitoring of swimmers” , we are able to reduce rescues. We reduce them by being preventative. We make warnings and educate thousands of people per year. Keeping tourists from entering a dangerous area is more effective than waiting until they are in trouble. 90% of our calls are generated by lifeguards scanning the water or patroling in boats and trucks. This is different than any other safety service. If we waited for a 911 call, or the much talked about five minute response time, we would be too late. As a diver, you should be aware that we watch over thousands of divers each year. Divers have heart attacks, strokes and many other medical issues that put them in grave danger. Oddly, they call them all “dive accidents”. Many really had a medical issue while diving. We rescue, revive and recover numerous divers each year.

    Come out for a tour.


  8. To expand upon Mr. Harris’s points. The West Coast of the US has unusually strong rip currents, due to regularly larger surf (which is why surfing is so popular here).

    One of the more extraordinary events in San Diego history occured in 1918, when 13 people died in a single day in rip currents off Ocean Beach. There were lifeguards, but clearly too few. The community learned from that experience and beefed up its corps of lifeguards. Sadly, many of the lifeguards working today have been justified after multiple drowning deaths have occured at key spots along our coastline. In any case, that outcome did provide justification.

    Today with far larger crowds, San Diego is more or less in line with national averages noted by the United States Lifesaving Association (based on about 100 lifeguard agencies reporting) of one drowning death in a lifeguard protected area, for every 18 million beach visits. In other words, we are maintaining safety to the national average.

    Tourism is one of the four top industries in San Diego:

    Beach attendance is one of the major reasons people visit San Diego, one of the primary venues tourists visit regardless of the primary purpose, and something that San Diego promotes:

    Walking along the shoreline, swimming in the ocean, diving, surfing, etc. are major pursuits of San Diegans and visitors alike.

    If lifeguard services are restricted or eliminated, the level of hazard or interest in visiting the beach will not likely change, but the number of deaths and injuries from drowning will surely rise, which will obviously have a major impact on tourism, income from tourism, jobs related to tourism, etc. It will also affect quality of life in San Diego, much as would an increase in crime, as people would feel less safe in using a central part of our community.

    San Diegans may sometimes be frustrated by the number of tourists in our community, but they clearly provide a huge boost to the economy that is largely clean and a big job producer.

    For these reasons, economically speaking, allowing our beaches to become less safe to save money is not good economic policy.

  9. Gavin says:

    The “monitoring” of swimmers is the core duty of Lifeguards. By being a preventative, rather than a reactive, safety service, Lifeguards perform more preventative acts than interventions by a ratio of 96:4. Meaning, for every 4 rescues/medical aids Lifeguards perform, they have prevented another 96 injuries/deaths. Certainly Lifeguards are far more effective “monitoring” and preventing, than waiting for someone to dial 911 for a response. As a Rescue Diver, I am sure you are aware of how quickly a drowning takes place; if someone wasn’t there to see it, and respond, most of the time the person will perish. In addition, once a person ceases to breath, they have a 10% chance of survival for every minute they go without oxygen; at 5 minutes, they have a 50% chance of survival.

    The San Diego Lifeguard service started in 1918; after almost 100 years of performing their duties, Ocean Rescue Professionals have developed a system that is highly effective with minimal resources. Are we to say that now, this service is no longer essential?

  10. Jim Sills says:

    For readers’ benefit…

    Chris Brewster was a long-time, and respected, head
    of the San Diego City Lifeguard service. He knows all
    the relevant facts on that profession. He is an example
    of what a real “public servant” should be.

    In fairness to Gayle, however, her topic is primarily
    Public Art, and her lifeguard reference was made in
    passing. She is correct in saying there is significant
    low-priority spending going on there.

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