Why We Won't Get Universal Pre-K

A blog about business and economics.
May 1 2012 1:51 PM

Why We Won't Get Universal Pre-K

Dana Goldstein says a push for quality universal preschool is the big idea missing from the presidential campaign. I'm inclined to agree with her analysis of the merits of this. But the question, as with everything in American politics, is how to pay for it.

And this I think highlights the cul-de-sac into which the country's economic policy debate has parked itself. Democrats say that it would be unconscionable to raise taxes on something like 95-99 percent of the population and Republicans say it would be unconscionable to raise taxes on the other 1-5 percent. Now of course you could pay for universal pre-K with a hefty levy on the one percent. Or you could reduce the structural budget deficit with a hefty levy on the one percent. Or you could avoid the need for post-2030 Social Security cuts with a hefty levy on the one percent. Or you could reverse the trend toward higher public college tuition with a hefty levy on the one percent. Or you could have a major infrastructure spending surge with a hefty levy on the one percent. And since the GOP will block all of those ideas, you can keep talking about each of them in isolation. But you can't actually do all that stuff unless you either persuade the broad public that it would make sense for middle class people to pay higher taxes in exchange for more and better public serices, or else make tradeoffs between different spending priorities. Within the education space, for example, there's a fair amount of evidence that early childhood education spending has much more bang-for-the-buck than things done later in life. But few of the progressive advocates of universal pre-k seem eager to suggest that they'd be willing to finance it with reduced higher education spending. And since existing spending commitments on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security already imply the need for higher taxes in the future I think we're likely to remain stuck in our current dynamic of massive underinvestment in the youngest Americans.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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