By Wayne Sayles - Ancient Coin Collecting Blog
In today's Washington Post, on page 19, columnist George Will (one of my favorite people) writes about the problems facing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Mr. Will astutely describes a plenteous list of threats that Panetta has on his plate every day, but sees the biggest threat on that plate as being the congressional super-committee that will deal with the nation's budget that everyone agrees is out of control.
There will be many heated debates over the need and the cost of programs over the coming months (or years). In fact, those debates are already raging. As a retired military officer I can empathize with Mr. Panetta, albeit on a much lesser scale, as I frequently was faced with severe budget constraints in the post Viet Nam era. Yes, history does repeat itself and it seems we do learn nothing from it.
The national budget may seem very remote from coins and coin collecting, but not really. The federal propensity to throw money around like it's worth nothing does not begin at the desk of a Leon Panetta or of the President himself (not that they are immune). It begins at the desks of a quadzillion bureaucrats with special interests. One of those seemingly countless bureaucratic agencies is the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, an element of the U.S. State Department. How much of the government's budget funds the special interests of this small Bureau and its archaeological coterie's minions? That's a riddle wrapped in an enigma shrouded in mystery. In comparison to the dollar cost of America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that bureaucracy's war against coin collectors may seem like small potatoes, but the fallout in terms of public disenchantment and lost faith in government is huge. That's not to say that the budget impact is insignificant, it most surely is not. The programs managed or encouraged by the altruistic sounding Cultural Heritage Center cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year. Worse than that, what shows up on the budget appropriation each year for ECA and CHC is only the tip of the iceberg. Their programs have tentacles that leach dollars from many other government entities.
The State Department is not the only department of government that archaeologists have their claws sunk deeply into. The enforcement of controversial DOS import restrictions on common utilitarian objects, proclaimed by archaeologists as being threatened "cultural property", has cost Customs and Border Protection (and the taxpayer) dearly. Likewise, law enforcement agencies that are hard pressed for the resources to deal with serious crimes are increasingly involved in cultural property witch hunts that serve neither law, justice nor society. Even the National Park Service has succumbed on occasion to the hypnotic appeal of academic archaeologists. After being pummeled by a vicious and grossly exaggerated campaign of outright lies and distortions by archaeologists about looting of the Baghdad Museum, the Department of Defense is now spending time and money on training combat troops in cultural property sensitivity. This is nothing more than placation of the vocally indignant, and a concession to special interest proselytization, as archaeologists are employed to do the training—just as they do for Customs. It's little wonder that the law is often misinterpreted by those "trained". One British web site, Heritage Key, very frankly states: "The history of archaeology is populated with cavalier aristocrats, hard-nosed scientific geniuses — and no small amount of controversy, deceit and downright quackery." That is a harsh characterization, that calls up a lot of past misdeeds, but there is still an element of the discipline today that is not very far removed from that past. Unfortunately, that element often speaks louder than the silent and intimidated majority.
Just the expense of defending itself in court against public challenges to its own extralegal actions has proven costly to bureaucratic agencies that fall under the spell of radical crusading archaeologists. Add to that the huge cost of public subsidies to archaeology through educational grants, sponsored workshops, institutional funding, government contracts and tax exemptions. The cost of archaeology to the general public is huge and growing, just like the federal budget and deficit. Are we getting our money's worth? Can we afford this as a public largesse? While Leon Panetta must rightfully ponder the needs and cost of our defense system, he and his fellow cabinet members ought to take a look at the special interests of Washington bureaucrats that are constant and cancerous. They may be too small individually to show up on the radar screen, but in aggregate they form a huge hole that money pours into without restraint. I hope George Will rains a little on their parade.