Saturday, December 20, 2008

Of Theaters and Automobiles

December 20, 2008, 7:05 a.m.

From Nation's Economy to Iowa City's Theaters
Approach Should be Similar

(Brought to you by

What does Iowa City's Englert Theatre have in common with Detroit's General Motors? Read on.

President Bush left the White House long enough to kick the can down the road and then go back into hibernation. Notwithstanding what he represented to be his better instincts, he decided to hand over $17 billion of your money and mine to GM and Chrysler. In an ultimate example of the triumph of hope over experience, it's a "give me the money first, then I'll develop and show you my business plan" loan, made palatable to Republicans by virtue of its implicit goal of crushing one of America's formerly great unions, thereby carrying on the Reagan tradition begun with the air traffic controllers. Steven Mufson, David Cho and Cecilia Kang, "Aid in Hand, Clock Ticks for Detroit; With $17.4 Billion, a Mandate: Restructure by March or Go Bankrupt," Washington Post, December 20, 2008, p. A1.

I've written at length of the reasons why I think this approach is folly, and won't repeat again what's contained in the blog entries to which these links will take you:

Nicholas Johnson, "Trust Your Instincts, Auto Bailout's Terrible Idea," November 14, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Auto Bailout: An Open Letter to Congress," November 19, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Auto Loan Makes Too Few Dollars Even Less Sense," December 4, 2008

"What Was Wrong With the Auto Proposal?" in Nicholas Johnson,"Quick Fix for the Economy," December 12, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "A Car in Every Garage," December 16, 2008
So, will things be better with Obama? If they know what's good for them, the jurors are going to stay out until at least May 2009 before coming to any judgment on that one.

Don't get me wrong, I'm as big an Obama enthusiast as anyone. That he is where he is today, that he was able to run a virtually error-free campaign, the good will he currently holds throughout the world, his clearly demonstrated ability to inspire us all, his seeming desire to turn down the rhetoric and work with all segments of America, are all indications that our hope has not yet been shown to have been misplaced.

But there are also troubling signs.

1. I share a little of the concern of former Bush advisor Peter Wehner, reported in a Washington Post appraisal of Obama's current cabinet and White House appointments: "Pragmatism has its place, but there are limits, as well. If you aren't anchored to a political philosophy, you get blown about, and government becomes ad hoc and you make it up as you go -- and if you're not careful, you begin to go in circles. . . . They're smart, they're well-educated, they're the upper crust, but the question is, do the parts make a whole, or is the whole less than the sum of the parts? . . . I'd buy somebody a dinner [if they] could define what Obamaism is as a political philosophy. If you don't have a political North Star, you can lose your way, and I'm not sure if these people have it."

2. "Deliberately structured dualism" was a phrase used to describe the split in jurisdiction over cable television regulation between the FCC and the cities. It might be used to describe what appears to be Obama's approach as well, but for the fact that he has more than two individuals, or newly created institutions, advising him on virtually any given subject. It will give him almost unlimited ability to go any direction with the four winds, which in some ways is an advantage. But it also multiplies by orders of magnitude the number of conflicts among personnel that will either create (a) more chaos in Washington than usual, or (b) a daily appointment schedule devoted to little more than smoothing ruffled feathers and dealing with threatened resignations. Alec MacGillis, "For Obama Cabinet, A Team of Moderates; In Picks, Few Hints About Policy Plans," Washington Post, December 20, 2008, p. A1.

So what does all this have to do with the Englert Theater?

The Englert, an Iowa City gem that owes its current existence and condition to a combination of taxpayer and wealthy donor support, shares with virtually every other institution in America today, like the auto industry, economic hard times.

It has proposed that the City provide it $50,000 a year for three years from community development funds (a source questioned by a number of those who have entered online comments to the Press Citizen's editorial on the subject).

Like the Big Three auto executives' position regarding "bailouts" and "investments," the paper believes, as its editorial headline proclaims, Editorial, "Englert request is an investment, not a bailout," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 19, 2008 ("the theater's request isn't the theater staff calling for a new 'Save the Englert!' campaign. It's the staff asking the community to recognize the important work done by the Englert. Using economic development money for this purpose is as appropriate as was using $75,000 of economic development money as the city's portion of a loan program for local flood-affected businesses.").

I'd like to see Ford, Crysler and General Motors -- and the UAW -- prosper as they did in the 1950s and 1960s. I really would. And I'd certainly like to see the Englert prosper.

The questions are simply how best to do that in terms of both (a) efficiency and effectiveness, and (b) fairness to the rest of the national, or with regard to the Englert the local, economy.

The Englert is not the only theater in town, nor the only theater facing hard times. The arts are important to our community, not only in terms of the quality of life of its residents but also in terms of the overall economy -- our ability to attract and hold what Richard Florida calls the "creative class," the professionals and entrepreneurs who are a major source of any community's ability to build wealth.

But just as I've argued for an economy-wide approach to our current onrushing economic depression to end all depressions -- rather than merely providing trillions for bankers and billions for auto executives -- so too do I think we need a community-wide approach to the economic challenges confronting our local theaters.

In addition to the Englert, and the University-sponsored events formerly at Hancher and other venues, we have among others the City Circle Acting Company, Dreamwell Theatre, Iowa City Community Theatre, Rage Theatrics, Riverside Theatre, Young Footliters, and nearby theaters such as the Old Creamery Theatre in Amana, and in Cedar Rapids the Paramount Theatre, CSPS and Theatre Cedar Rapids.

Do I want the Englert to survive and thrive? Absolutely, I do. But not at the expense of the wealth of live theater we all benefit from in Iowa City and Eastern Iowa. Nor at the expense of the rest of Iowa City's arts. Nor at the expense of, beyond the arts, the entire local economy.

Fixing this one is a lot easier than dealing with the auto industry, folks. Let's take a broad view of the challenge and get on with it. There are tougher times ahead.

# # #

No comments: