Admitting Failure is the First Step Toward Success | Citizens Against Government Waste

Admitting Failure is the First Step Toward Success

The WasteWatcher

If President Obama's State of the Union Address could be said to have a message - a common thread, as it were - that message might have been, "There is a whole pile of wonderful legislation with bipartisan support just waiting to be passed.  What are you waiting for, Congress?" Unfortunately for the President, reality is a bit less favorable to his agenda.  To see why, consider the difference between A) believing that the government should fund the military and B) believing that defense spending should rise - or the difference between A) acknowledging that America's infrastructure could stand to be updated, and B) agreeing that throwing money at the Department of Transportation will solve anything.   Agreeing with A does not imply acceptance of B. For example, while it may be the case, as President Obama said on Tuesday, that federal funding for "classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math [STEM]," is a concept endorsed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, the case for creating new STEM programs when the federal government already funds 209 of them across 13 different agencies is a significantly tougher sell.  But perhaps the President's biggest stretch was his proposal for a new initiative to provide universal access to preschool for America's children, which he presented as a no-brainer of an "investment," one for which every dollar "can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime." What's not to like?  Well, the President failed to mention that a similar program already exists.  It's called Head Start, and it's run by the Department of Health and Human Services.  Also, it's not very good.  As Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason magazine points out, "the federal government has done a huge study [of Head Start], tracking 5,000 kids and comparing them to kids who did not have access to [it]."  The results?  The benefits essentially vanished by first grade, and were completely gone by third grade. The results President Obama referred to were from a famous trial set up by James Heckman, a University of Chicago economist.  In Heckman's experiment, students were give access to really good, really expensive preschool (with a price tag on the order of $20,000 per pupil per year), and those students did indeed do better than their counterparts without early education.  Unfortunately, there have been literally hundreds of studies that try to measure the effect of early education on a wide variety of variables, and Heckman's are among the most favorable. In short, the President was cherry-picking.  He was also ignoring the fact that the government has been spending billions for many years on a program that probably doesn't work.  It is beyond my capabilities to know with any certainty whether a reformed version of Head Start could be effective, but it would be nice to have some acknowledgement that what is currently being done (and costing taxpayers dearly) is lousy, and that we should stop throwing money down a hole before we start spending it anew.