Tyler Cowen's Talk: Sponsoring of Culture in U.S. and Europe

Every day I am reminded of the role luck and randomness / serendipity play in my life.

Yesterday morning I was reading one of my top 10 blogs — Marginal Revolution, written by Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason — and saw that Tyler was in Zurich for a day to give a speech. I emailed him saying I was in Zurich, too, and asked where he was giving his talk. He responded a couple hours later and by 6 PM I was at a fancy Zurich hotel where he was to give a talk titled "Sponsoring of Culture in the U.S. and Europe: Empirical Findings and Normative Reflections." What an amazing coincidence!

Loyal blog readers know Cowen has influenced my thinking in significant ways, especially on the areas of globalization and in particular its cultural effects. His article in Slate prompted the lengthy debate on this blog about independent book stores. His book Creative Destruction informs my admittedly minority viewpoint that commercialism and trade produce richer and more varied cultural options. And of course he writes prolifically on his blog, in the New York Times, and in various journals, providing near daily thought food.

So, I was quite excited to meet Cowen in person. I did. We had a nice, brief chat beforehand, and I also met his wife.


His talk, not surprisingly, engaged me all the way through. His remarks touched on the U.S. funding and attitude toward the arts, compared and contrasted the U.S. to Switzerland in this respect, and then posed some general questions applicable to Europe and to the world. My notes are below.

The American system of sustaining the arts involves three prongs:

1. Low subsidies — The government provides some $120 M in arts funding nationally. This is a tiny figure. It’s important, but not that important. U.S. citizens give way more to charity per capita than any other country, though. Extremely philanthropic.

2. Strong incentives to give — Our tax system doesn’t discriminate how we give our money away, making it attractive to donate to the arts b/c of tax breaks.

3. Indirect influences — A strong science policy. Cowen made a big deal about this: strongly supporting the sciences leads to much creative blooming. He cited the computer, internet, and airplane as three major scientific inventions which have had a direct and positive impact on the arts. Other indirect influences include American universities, which house thousands of museums and the like.

Cowen made an interesting point about young people. He said America empowers youth as influencers — college students sit around and listen to music, start fads, build web sites, etc. They may not be "working" per se, but they are contributing enormously to American popular culture. Indeed, most of our popular culture is created by young people, and this is the culture that is exported abroad. If a country cares about the influence of its culture abroad, they should ask how much power is given to youth. He noted that Latin America and Asia have huge youth populations, making it prime for a lot of cultural influence in this next generation.

In comparing Switzerland to the U.S., Cowen said Switzerland has had great success within its own borders in creating arguably the richest culture scene per capita of any country in the world. This is because of their emphasis on local funding and direction (at the canton or "state" level). However, Swiss culture has not been very successful in its export. Why is this? Is this important?

When debating the funding of the arts, Cowen thinks too much time is spent on the size of government subsidies, when really some of these indirect causes are perhaps more important. A few questions to add to the debate: Will the internet remain neutral? Will broadband become ubiquitous? Cowen believes this may be the single most important question when thinking about the future of a vibrant cultural arts scene. Another: How can philanthropy work better and be more effective? Tax incentives are not enough. Somehow we need to encourage more and smarter philanthropy.

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