New Jersey Governor Chris Christie may have waffled on whether he wanted to run for president, but on the subject of whether taxpayers should foot the bill for the MTV reality show “Jersey Shore,” Christie issued a resolute no. The governor vetoed the so-called “Snooki subsidy” last week. This is welcome news to any New Jersey taxpayer uncomfortable with the idea of financing a show that features stereotypical Italian-American characters engaging in embarrassing and idiotic behavior.
Why were taxpayers on the hook for such low-brow entertainment in the first place? The blame rests with government incentive programs, in place in numerous states, that discount production costs for TV and movie studios. These incentives make for poor policy, as they rest upon economically misguided and morally hazardous notions.
The aim of the incentives is to create economic growth and jobs by encouraging new industries to move to a given state. But study after study has revealed the obvious: such programs merely take money from some businesses and give it to others. This weakens the taxpaying businesses just as much as it helps the studios. Hurting efficient, self-reliant industries in order to prop up artificial, subsidized ones does not grow a state’s economy in any meaningful way.
In my home state of Michigan, entertainment studios can bill the state for a staggering 42% of their production costs. So, who is Michigan subsidizing? The Mackinac Center for Public Policy recently identified a dubious recipient: a film called “House of the Rising Sun.” The production was awarded $435,000 from the state, but the final product only made $100,000 in DVD and Blu-Ray sales.
“House of the Rising Sun” flopped because it was a terrible film. And it was a terrible film because it was financed by investors — taxpayers — who had no say in their investment.
But the economic concerns are only half the problem. Indeed, if by some centrally planned miracle the entertainment subsidies did greatly benefit a state, they would still be unjustifiable. This is because forcing private citizens to finance the artistic pursuits of other private citizens is at odds with the principles of a free society.
The prospect of New Jersey taxpayers funding Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and Mike “the Situation” Sorrentino’s drunkenness is just one example. In Michigan, Michael Moore sought a subsidy for his quasi-socialist documentary, “Capitalism: A Love Story.” Moore is welcome to peddle his ridiculous films to whomever he likes, but doing it on the taxpayer dime is absurd. Why should they pay for the ideological crusade of a citizen with whom they may not agree?
Subsidies aren’t just a bad deal for taxpayers. Ultimately, they won’t have a positive impact on the entertainment industry, either. Many incentive programs stipulate that in order to qualify for a subsidy, the proposed project must show the state in a positive light. In fact, Christie used this logic to squash the Snooki subsidy. He argued that “Jersey Shore” perpetuates misconceptions about the citizens of New Jersey.
While it’s tough to feel sympathy for “Jersey Shore,” it’s easy to imagine a more deserving production being vetoed because its contents were politically disfavored. This is a reverse propaganda of sorts, where the government discourages certain viewpoints by rewarding those with which it agrees. Florida, for instance, maintained an incentive program that subsidized films promoting traditional family values. That’s quite a slippery slope upon which to start building rival Hollywoods.
And so it is for reasons both economic and moral that New Jersey and Michigan should completely disband their incentive programs. If we care about movies, about video games, about TV — and yes, even Snooki — we should demand an end to subsidies that degrade their quality, stifle their message, and stick us with the bill.