Thursday, October 1, 2015


I spent part of the weekend at the National Zoo in Washington DC. I didn’t visit Congress – it was the actual animals in their faux habitat. Lions lounging, lizards slithering and elephants dancing – it’s an extraordinary thing to see these creatures. Unlike the First Lady earlier in the week, we weren’t able to see the Panda live, we got to see it on closed circuit television. (It could have been a replay for all I know, but that’s vestiges of my life in LA!) I’m well aware of the arguments for and against zoos – that’s not what got my attention. What struck me was that it was free. And packed – with locals, tourists and many people on a pleasant Saturday afternoon. Had we opted to, we could have visited a huge number of other Smithsonian sites at no cost. Free is relative, so what are the costs?

The Smithsonian currently has 19 museums in all in the Washington DC area. The institution has additional 144 affiliates around the U.S. where their collections are on long-term quasi-permanent loan status. It’s about to open its first overseas branch in the United Kingdom within London's Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Wikipedia reports: “The birth of the Smithsonian Institution can be traced to the acceptance of James Smithson's legacy, willed to the United States in 1826. … The Smithsonian has expanded to twenty separate museums with roughly 137 million objects in their collections, including works of art, natural specimens, and cultural artifacts. The Smithsonian museums are visited by over 25 million people every year.”

The original gift of $500,000 was bequeathed to the U.S. mint to fund a national museum and Congress voted to accept the gift and oversee it using the proceeds and earnings. In today’s dollars that would have been a gift of $1.49 billion dollars. With a B. Plenty of funds to acquire objects and oversee its collection over a long period of time if the resources are managed efficiently and effectively.

Today nearly 80% of the Smithsonian budget comes from Federal funding. The Fiscal Year 2015 budget request was $851 million. That works out to $34.04 per visitor.

Disneyland  for 1 day for an adult is $99 and $93 for a kid. Universal Studios in Orlando is $147 for adults, $142 for kids. Six Flags New England is a relative bargain at $61.99 for adults and $51.99 for those under 54” in height. Certainly the experience of an amusement park is much different than that of a national museum … but both are activities that seek to engage people.

Entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare consume the lion’s share of the Federal budget and in a $3.9 trillion (with a T) budget the Smithsonian line item represents 0.00002% of the fiscal 2015 budget. That’s 2-thousandths of a percent – not even a full percent or half a percent but a thousandth of a percent of the budget. It’s ridiculous to talk about such a small thing, right? I mean we’re talking about 1 penny out of every 3,900 dollars. If there were 3,900 sitting on a table would you miss one? Probably not – and the payback for providing unlimited access for nothing yields many benefits.

Why make it free? Charging $15 or $20 would halve the federal contribution to the budget. 25 million visitors kicking in an average of $17 generates $425 million dollars. Keeping it free, though, means that the users – TAXPAYERS – are feeling that for their thousands and thousands of tax payments that they’re getting something for free. In the case of a Government shutdown (or using my term: slowdown) it’s a visible and horrible tragedy to close national parks and zoos. It’s the worst kind of pandering. It’s PANDAring.

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