Last night’s State of the Union address by President Obama was not his most memorable speech, although it was not devoid of heart-wrenching moments and reasonable (if unlikely to succeed) policy proposals. Sadly, what caught my ear the most* was Obama’s explicit and implicit invocations of economists. The implicit was the more consequential: the call for universal pre-school. Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman has been pushing the universal pre-school argument hard for years now, based in part on evaluations of the Perry preschool experiment conducted in Ypsilanti, Michigan. While economists are not the only ones pushing for universal preschool, the language President Obama choose suggests the influence of social scientists and especially economists, rather than a moral or purely educational argument:
.Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.
Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on — by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.
Elsewhere in the speech, in reference to the deficit, Obama explicitly invoked “economists”:
Over the last few years, both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion — mostly through spending cuts, but also by raising tax rates on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. As a result, we are more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say we need to stabilize our finances.
In 2011, Congress passed a law saying that if both parties couldn’t agree on a plan to reach our deficit goal, about a trillion dollars’ worth of budget cuts would automatically go into effect this year. … They would certainly slow our recovery, and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs. That’s why Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, and economists have already said that these cuts, known here in Washington as the sequester, are a really bad idea.
President Obama is not the first president to invoke “economists” in the State of the Union, though he is the first to do so multiple times, and he has done so the most of any President. A quick search of UCSB’s Presidency Project database of State of the Union addresses shows that Cleveland in 1895, Harding in 1921, and FDR in 1938 mentioned economists, and then the term went unused until Obama’s 2010 and 2011 addresses, both of which mentioned economists (in reference to the stimulus bill and health care respectively).**
I’m not sure what to take away from this exercise, except perhaps to say congratulations economists, President Obama seems to be paying attention.***
* Ok, second-most. The bit about 102-year old Desiline Victor waiting in line six hours to vote was amazingly touching. But seriously, she deserves more than a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience.
** The State of the Union was not always been given as a speech, especially throughout most of the 1800s. Notably, in the 1860s, Andrew Johnson mentioned “political economists” (the predecessors of modern economists) three times, in reference to questions of public debt and currency.
*** It probably goes without saying but “sociologist” has never been used in a State of the Union address. A broader search of documents in the USCB archive reveals a few references to sociologists by presidents, but not many. Perhaps most amusingly President Clinton referred specifically to Max Weber in 2000, in a discussion with Reverend Bill Hybels: “In 1918 the German sociologist Max Weber wrote an essay. You and I never talked about this before; I just thought about it while you asked me the question. It’s called “Politics as a Vocation.” And Weber was a Christian Democrat, a devout Catholic. And he said politics is a long and slow boring of hard boards. And anyone who seeks to do it must risk his own soul.” Clinton accounts for most of the “sociologist” usages, including other references to that essay, and references to Margaret Mead (oddly enough).