The NEH has provided me with several substantial (and highly competitive) grants, and so perhaps I should maintain a discreet silence in the current debate over the proposed abolition of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. (Strictly speaking, I am not the recipient, but rather the Principal Investigator for grants received by my university.) But the media and politicians have so vulgarized and trivialized the issue (and when do they ever not?) that there are a few things that need to be said.

In principle, the federal government should not be in the business of subsidizing the arts (NEA). The argument is somewhat less conclusive in regard to scholarship. It is at least moot that there is a proper role for support of certain types of humanistic endeavor that have a “national” purpose. This is the same principle that justifies national parks, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution. But in terms of both principle and the amounts of money involved, the NEA and NEH constitute a trivial issue (which is why it has interested the politicians). Doubtless there is more federal money stolen any Thursday in Chicago than the entire annual budget of the NEH and NEA. And considering all the things the federal government is doing that it should not be doing—consuming a third of the national income, inflating the currency, bombing Serbs, policing Haitians, incinerating members of obscure religious cults, interfering with schoolchildren, subsidizing the proliferation of illegitimate babies with low IQ’s, subsidizing the murder of other babies, etc.—the arts and humanities subsidies are somewhere below number 200 on the list of things that need attention.

Egregious abuses have been perpetrated by the NEA, without any question. But it has not been pointed out that this was largely an administrative failure. The Republicans controlled the executive branch for 12 years. In this broad and goodly land are hundreds of people who are knowledgeable and dedicated in the arts, who are conscientious and talented citizens, and who even voted for Reagan and Bush. Instead of finding such people and getting them into management—the natural thing to do considering that the NEA was, for the nonce, established by law and not going to go away—the Republicans appointed Washington establishmentarians indistinguishable from Democratic appointees. It was under the execrable Frolinmayer, a Bush appointee, that the worst obscenities were perpetrated and defended.

Here, as in so much else, the failure was in the implementation of the “Reagan Revolution.” Imagine if, as originally planned, M.E. Bradford, a great gentleman and a great scholar, had been put at the head of the NEH in 1981. Wonderful things might have happened, things that would have been good for the country, the administration, and the cause of scholarship. Instead, neoconservatives took over the NEH and made an effort to turn it into another patronage machine for themselves. They failed, largely due to a dedicated, professional, and honorable staff, and soon moved on to the Department of Education, where the} had more luck. The NEH staff, in fact, has a good record of restraining politicization by both neocons and conventional leftists and adhering to responsible standards. Ethically, it certainly compares favorably to Congress, the federal courts, the armed services, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, etc.

Another aspect of the situation that has not been remarked on at all is the scandal of Indirect Costs. Indirect Costs originated with scientific grants which often reqmred maintenance of extensive physical facilities. They were written into the arts and humanities law without rhyme or reason. This means that every time a grant is given to cover the costs of a certain project, the necessary amount is multiplied by a factor of the Indirect Cost rate. The I.C. rate for Harvard University is 200 percent. For my own institution it is 49 percent.

Without I.C., the same projects could be accomplished at much lower cost, or a greater number of projects could be supported with the same amount of money. I.C. constitutes an immense subsidy for the higher education establishment, a hidden agenda. These funds, moreover, are generally at the command of administrators with fewer controls than normally budgeted funds, which explains the famous Stanford University scandal of a few years ago. In addition, the intrusion of I.C. into budgets complicates every potentially worthwhile endeavor. Whatever the case for I.C. in the sciences, they seem unjustifiable in the arts and humanities.

None of us—not even the most knowledgeable Washington insiders—really know at this point what, if anything, will happen in regard to NEA and NEH. If the Republicans really want to dismantle the Great Society, there are a couple of hundred better places to start. What I would recommend, which would be reasonable for Washington, is: abolish the NEA; keep the NEH, with I.C. eliminated. This would both reduce expenditures and preserve what is worthwhile.