Squeezing Smithsonian

aerial view Few ever talk about it, but one of the cornerstones of the American way of unrestrained corporate capitalism is the intentional hamstringing, or even outright killing, of public enterprise. Think Amtrak, as compared with the SNCF and the Shinkansen.

Well, the same starvation strategy also applies to the Smithsonian Institution. As reported in this morning’s New York Times:

The new secretary has his work cut out for him. He inherits an institution that has been struggling with how to cover a $2.5 billion shortfall to pay for the maintenance of its buildings, many of which are in dire need of repair. Although the Smithsonian gets 70 percent of its $1 billion operating budget from the federal government, Congress has been pressuring the organization to raise more of its own money.

The nation’s foremost public museum system needs a one-time injection of $2.5 billion plus a stable $1 billion budget, but can’t get it? This, in a $14 trillion economy with $4 trillion of annual government spending.

What this means is not just further intentional starvation of the Smithsonian, but also the further commercialization of whatever activities it can manage to sustain. Where do you think Congress thinks the Smithsonian will have to turn to “raise more of its own money”? It won’t come from Joe and Jane Sixpack, that’s for sure.

This story also has a special connection to those interested in the effort to expose big business marketing for what it is. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has an Archives Center. For a while, the Archives Center had money to collect actual documents and oral history interviews from those involved in planning and executing some major corporate marketing operations. That money and that program — the Center for Advertising History — expired over a decade ago, but the CAH collection nevertheless remains one of the very few places a member of the public can get a direct, comparatively unfiltered, first-hand look at the utterly coercive, dishonest, and dangerous big business marketing process.

Think the mega-corporations to whom Congress is selling the Smithsonian wouldn’t like to “lose” that little batch of stuff?