9 Bucks and Age 4

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In the end, I didn’t get to hear Obama’s SOTU speech at all. Things just didn’t work out, somehow. Still, I note this morning that he was unusually  non-fuzzy about a few things. First, he wants to raise the minimum wage to $9 and index it to inflation. Bravo! When it comes to anti-poverty measures, I’m in favor of doing lots of little things, rather than putting all my eggs in a few baskets. An economist might sniff that the minimum wage isn’t the most efficient way to help low-income workers, and it probably isn’t. So what? At modest levels (and $9 is a modest level), it helps a lot of people and almost certainly does little or no harm to the broader economy. It’s also very visible, very easy to understand, viewed as very fair, and politically popular. That stuff matters a lot.

Keying it to inflation is also interesting, but for a subtle reason: Obama is putting good policy ahead of good politics. Indexing the minimum wage to inflation will help the working poor, but it comes at the cost of allowing Democrats a cheap and easy issue to bang on every few years. Typical Obama.

Obama’s other proposal dear to my heart was his call for universal pre-K.The truth is that age four is too late. Age two would be better. Age one would probably be better still. But starting at age four makes the most political sense. But if Congress does act on this (unlikely, I know, but humor me), I hope they put in place extensive experimentation requirements. What we really want to know is what kind of pre-K programs work best, and we’ll only find out with a rigorous, fairly well-controlled program of experimentation. On this issue, I’m a Manzi-ite.

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