post by Bill Gardner
I commented recently on Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz's arguments that no real solution is in sight for the problems of inequality in the US. I argued that there were solutions in plain sight, including a) universal prenatal care, b) universal high-quality preschool, and c) reform of our prison system.
Gracefully ignoring the sarcasm in my post, Arnold Kling left a completely civil comment:
I could support all of these policies. Unlike a lot of notions discussed these days, your proposals are focused on helping the poor rather than on hurting the affluent. Where we disagree is that you are confident that these are solutions. My guess is that they would have small positive effects.
I agree strongly with this, and I am truly puzzled why Kling is not on my side here. How can these interventions have small positive effects and not be solutions?
Assuming that these interventions are likely to clear the hurdle of cost-effectiveness, then why not do them? Is there a minimum number of people that we need to help to make it worth our time? Moreover, are the effects here likely to be small? The likely per-child benefit of prenatal care is small, because most infants are healthy. Even for preschool the likely per-child benefit is modest. But the denominator -- the number of poor children -- is huge, so the absolute benefit for the society, accumulated across the lifespans of the population of poor children, can be very large.
It is sometimes argued that we do not know what the unintended effects of social interventions might be. But this is a difficult argument to make for prenatal care. These interventions have been performed millions of times: prenatal care is a service that almost every affluent woman takes advantage of. Similarly, nearly all affluent children receive preschooling -- if you include home schooling -- with few adverse effects to children or family.
Criminal justice reform needs to be approached with much more caution. I included it in the list because of the scale of the suffering, the human capital losses, and the fiscal damage to government at every level. The potential per-person benefits of successful prison reform are large, and the denominator of incarcerated persons is large, but the path from where we are now to where we want to be is less well mapped.
I guess that Kling expects that America could do all these things and still be highly unequal. Yes, that is how I too would bet. But because these interventions are targetted directly at the poor, making these reforms should make us at least slightly less unequal than under the counterfactual in which we continue on as usual. Reducing inequality, however, is just a positive second-order effect. The main point is that that the interventions would benefit the children of the poor, which Kling also wants.
(photograph by Alex Bath)