February 15, 2013

President Obama’s State of the Union address offers a fine example of the liberal adage that if something is a good idea, the government must do it — specifically, the federal government must do it. This overlooks several inescapable facts: We are out of money; the government doesn’t have any particular expertise to do certain things (e.g. pick successful green-energy companies); and the federal government often adds an extra level of bureaucracy and cost to what will be run by state or local authorities.

President Obama
President Obama reads to schoolchildren (Jim Young / Reuters)

Take preschool. Here, we’re not certain it is even a good idea. The results from years of Head Start have been abysmal and, while a number of state programs are more promising, data on them is sketchy. David Brooks writes that the Head Start results are “dismal.” (How much money have we spent on this since 1965? Why do we keep funding it?) He concedes:

These state programs, in places like Oklahoma, Georgia and New Jersey, have not been studied as rigorously as Head Start. There are huge quality differences between different facilities in the same state or the same town. The best experts avoid sweeping conclusions. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that these state programs can make at least an incremental difference in preparing children for school and in getting parents to be more engaged in their kids’ education.

What evidence? How much is “incremental”? How much more “engaged” and what flows from that? The Post’s Glenn Kessler zeroes in on the lack of evidence of these programs’ long-term success.

The point being that this proposal, of which Brooks is much enamored, can’t even pass the gateway question for these proposals: Is it a good idea?

But let’s concede that similar programs are doing well in places like Oklahoma, Georgia and New Jersey (whatever “well” means). Why do we need the federal government to do this, and why shouldn’t we, as the phrase goes, let the states be the laboratories of democracy to figure out what works and what doesn’t? Oh well, Brooks argues, the federal government can set “standards” and establish a revenue stream. What “standards”? And, again, why do we need the federal government to come up with them if Oklahoma, Georgia and New Jersey are doing just fine with their own versions?

As for the nub of the matter, the money, understand that some of the federal money will go to pay for the federal bureaucracy to overlay the state programs. In other words, some of it will be wasted if the feds deliver no added value. And there’s the issue that bedevils all spending ideas: How are we going to pay for it? What other program (original Head Start?) are we to cut in order to fund this? Let’s not forget that we don’t have money for the things we are doing, let alone new things that the states might be able to do. I strongly suspect President Obama’s answer is that nothing will be removed in order to add this on to the federal government’s responsibilities. No wonder the White House doesn’t want to discuss how much this will cost.

What the federal government would be doing is alleviating the states of a key responsibility: the obligation to set priorities. Are public-employee pensions more valuable than universal preschool? Are electric trains to nowhere more important than universal preschool? If states would start making some hard choices (or even some pretty easy ones), they’d then have the dedicated revenue stream from their own taxpayers to do things they think are good ideas and they can administer in ways they have found effective.

Now, all of this said, one of the primary reasons for entitlement reform (aside from the going-broke part) is to correct our over-shifting of government benefits from the young to the old. So let’s ask a different question: Is giving Warren Buffett free health care more important than spending money on universal preschool? If the president would ever relinquish his fantasy that we can keep Medicare and Social Security exactly the way they are, we’d have more money to think about human capital development, early childhood education, etc. Some of those still might be better done at the state level. But I would submit we cannot begin to have that discussion about federal vs. state control until we stop the entitlement beast from swallowing the entire federal budget.

This is precisely why liberals should be the first ones demanding entitlement reform, especially means-testing. If we don’t do that, we’ll not have the money (as we now don’t) for all the things they think are good ideas and they can show are best done by the federal government. Obama never wants to make those “hard choices,” as he says. But in the real world, lawmakers and voters must.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.