In case you missed it, there was a very interesting article in the NY Times about philanthropy. ScienceBlogling Jonah has some thoughts on the matter:
I think it’s pretty tough to defend tax deductions for cultural organizations. As much as I love the ballet, I’m not sure I want my tax dollars going to support a theater named after a rich person.
But one aspect of philanthropy that this article didn’t touch upon was the deep reliance of modern American science on charitable donations, which almost always take the form of gifts to universities. It’s the rare science building that isn’t named after somebody. I think this reliance is especially clear when it comes to avant-garde science, be it stem cell research or computational neuroscience or artificial life. These are areas that the NIH isn’t prepared to fully fund yet, and so the void is filled by people like Jim Stowers, or Jerry Swartz, or Eli Broad, or the Picower Foundation.
I agree with the second part, but I think Jonah’s dead wrong on the first part. Government should much more involved in funding the arts than it currently is. To pose this as a choice between helping the poor versus supporting the arts is a false choice. In a country where we use infrared technology to flush toilets, we can fund both. While I would rather do it through a direct funding (tax deductions are tax expenditures which I dislike as they foul up income tax collection), federal support for the arts is a good and necessary thing. If the price is that some wealthy narcissicist gets to name a building after himself, so be it. It beats the alternative, which is no (or less) funding.
The other part of the false dichotomy is that certain functions of government aren’t outsourced. At the risk of sounding like a bumper sticker, the Defense Department doesn’t have to hold fundraising drives to fully fund its programs. Certainly, the arts should be considered as worthy as the ability to invade the wrong fucking country.