Time For Reflection

On January 31st the White House announced that the 2011 budget would eliminate all funding for the Save America’s Treasures and the Preserve America programs. The White House blog explained the decision this way:


Cutting Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America grant programs at the National Park Service. Save America’s Treasures program was started to mark the millennium and was supposed to last for two years. Both programs lack rigorous performance metrics and evaluation efforts so the benefits are unclear.

This announcement certainly riled the historic preservation movement including a series of postings on the National Trust’s Forum listserv under the subject line, “It’s Time to Declare War.”

I don’t know if it’s time to declare war or not. But I do know that it is time for preservationists to rethink the progress we thought we had made over the last three decades. And I have to say I’m at the head of the line. Naively I sincerely believed that as we have broadened the definition of the roles that historic preservation plays in society, as we have documented the wide range of positive economic impacts of historic preservation, as we have demonstrated the contribution of historic preservation to Smart Growth, sustainable development, affordable housing, downtown revitalization – that after all of this I thought our message had finally gotten through.

I was wrong.

But the most angering, in fact humiliating part of the White House announcement isn’t that those programs were cut from the budget. These are times when I think it is perfectly legitimate to review every item in the budget for savings…we’ll go bankrupt if we don’t do that. And SAT and Preserve America should have to be defended like any other program.

No, I’m angered and humiliated because historic preservation was used as the poster child for programs deemed not to work.

Remember the second biggest bully on the playground in grade school? Well I remember the day he got beat up by the biggest bully. And what did the second biggest bully do the next day? Picked out the weakest, geekiest, most defenseless kid in the school and beat him up. Why? Because he knew he could get away with it.

That’s what this White House announcement was…they got beat up and so they pick out the perceived 98 pound weakling to slap around.

This announcement had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the federal deficit. The rounding errors in the budgeting process are ten times greater than the annual amount spent on these two programs combined. Here’s the analogy. You have a household income of $80,000 per year, but decide “We need to cut back.” So what do you do? Eliminate $0.04 from your monthly expenditures. That’s right…four cents a month of an $80,000 a year income is the equivalent of these cuts.

But it’s not even that. They did not spend an hour pondering the benefits of this program; they picked on the weakest kid on the block to give the illusion they were doing something about the theft from future generations that this deficit represents.

This is absolutely Nixonian in its manipulative hypocrisy. Save America’s Treasures supposed to last just two years? Yes, but it was extended because it worked! Too bad the same can’t be said for the stimulus package. Oh, no metrics or performance evaluations? One of the recommendations coming out of Laura Bush’s Preservation Summit was to devise a standardized set of metrics for preservation’s impact. In fact before the end of the last administration, the process of developing those metrics was begun in the Department of Commerce. What’s happened with that in the last 13 months? Absolutely nothing! I guess they’ve been too busy inventing ways to stimulate the economy that have been so measurably successful.

We had to have the stimulus, and Republicans are putting party over country to claim we didn’t. But what the money was appropriated for had everything do to with reelecting Democrats and almost nothing to do with good public policy.

Most of the developed countries in the world had a major heritage conservation component in their stimulus packages. Why? jobs, job training, local impact, labor intensity, affects industry most adversely affected, impacts local economies, long term investment, etc. etc. Historic preservation element in the US stimulus plan? $0.

In December the White House announced that so far the $159 billion spent in grants and loans under the stimulus plan had created or saved 640,000 jobs. But make the next calculation — that works out to $248,000 per job. I want one of those jobs!

The following week Australia released the results of the heritage portion of their stimulus package — cost per job? $21,818 — 11 times the cost effectiveness than whatever the hell we’re spending the stimulus money on. In other words, for every million dollars spent through the US stimulus programs, around 4 jobs were created. For every million the Australians spent on the heritage portion of their stimulus program, 46 jobs were created.

In contrast to the success stories in a dozen other countries using heritage as part of the stimulus, we have an administration dumping Preserve America and Save America’s Treasures. Or you can look at it this way….in 7 hours and 50 minutes the interest (forget paying back the principal) on the stimulus package is more than the combined annual budgets of Save America’s Treasures and the Preserve America program.

But beyond that, the people in the White House are way too smart for this to be accidental. This was a very public, very classless slap in the face to Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, the two first ladies whose programs they were. Hillary is one thing. But when Michelle Obama was getting heat from everywhere about her performance as First Lady, it was Laura Bush who stepped up and defended her. So how does the White House reciprocate? “Here’s the finger, Laura…you and your program as well.”

I blamed the Democrats on the Hill rather than Obama for the idiotic allocations in the Stimulus Bill. I happily crossed party lines to vote for him. But as for this new budget I can no longer give Obama a pass. This was the crassest of political demagoguery but also demonstrates how impotent the preservation movement is seen as being.

And if the White House action were the only bad news we could attribute it to some idiot in OMB who deserves a trip to the woodshed. But in the legislature in Arizona a Republican State senator has introduced a bill to end property tax reductions for historic houses. In Indiana a Republican state legislator is angry because CVS was denied permission to demolish a historic church in her district so she is proposing to emasculate the Indianapolis Preservation Commission. In Missouri, Iowa and elsewhere reducing the effectiveness of state historic tax credits is high on legislative agendas. In Washington the state Main Street program is proposed to be zeroed out. A new city council in Poughkeepsie, New York repealed the historic preservation ordinance just passed by the previous council.

How does the preservation movement react without just being seen as one more group crying, “Yeah, cut the other guys but not us”? I don’t know. But that’s the least of our problems. I don’t think I’m the only one who so significantly misjudged the progress we have made.

We either need to change the mission, change the message or change the messenger.

When I was in grade school I was neither the bully nor the kid that always got picked on. But at least now I know how the second one felt.