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Nov 18, 2019

Is preschool a deniable service?

Karen, and Associate Dean, and I had exactly the same thought while visiting a preschool in Shenyang: “Why they can afford it, and we cannot?” The preschool is a gorgeous building with large windows, a number of role-play areas (a toy kitchen, a supermarket, a hospital). There was a multi-layer crawl construction in the middle, bedrooms for all children, classrooms, a pond with real fish, a fruit and vegetable garden… Whatever stereotypes you may have about Chinese preschool, definitely did not apply – the kids were happy, outgoing, curious, and busy playing and socializing. I specifically asked if this private preschool is an exception. I was told that it is one of the 5-stars, better preschools, but by no means is an exception in the city of 8 million. In fact, many university faculty kids went here. In China, university professors are solidly middle class, of course, making more than an average person, but still one can tell – this is not a place only for the elite.

Now, the median salary in Shenyang is $14,826 per year, while the median household income in in Sacramento is $ $56,943. Those are not the same measures, but still. Why is it again that they can afford such preschool, and we cannot? I actually know all the answers – about the labor cost, about the taxation structure, about the paternalistic state… Yet somehow, none of these answers satisfies. We have the money build and run quality preschool for every child. What we lack is a political consensus on whether such a service is undeniable.

There is a class of services I call undeniable – they are impossible to deny to anyone. And the list of those services have been expanding with time. For example, anyone who shows up at an emergency room will be served regardless of income. That right cannot be denied anymore, even though it is a relatively recent achievement. No one can starve in this country. While some people’s diet may be terrible, there has not been starvation. No child can be denied a K-12 education. Its quality may be questionable at times, but K-12 education is an undeniable service.

As the scope of undeniable services grows, so does the role of the state. You may or may not be a fun of socialism (I am definitely not one), but the practical reality is strikingly obvious: the list of deniable services keeps shrinking, while the list of undeniable services keeps growing. Preschool is still a deniable service, but for how long? Higher education is deniable, but we are not sure if it lasts. Basic healthcare has been deemed an undeniable service in most of the developed world, with the exception of the US, but the exception will not last for long. The existence of disposable wealth itself drive the process. It becomes morally impossible to see a starving person in the middle of an affluent society. There are many socialist and even communist institutions in the US, you only have to make an effort to see them. Public libraries are utopian communist organizations – free to all, unlimited. The military and the police, public education, community health clinics, environmental protection, fire departments, urban infrastructure - all socialist institutions, already here.

As anyone who grew in the Soviet Union, I am wary of all things socialist. A powerful bureaucratic state contains many dangers, including over-rich into private lives, and inefficiencies. At the same time, I cannot ignore the growth of undeniable services, and am not at all surprised at the rise of the Left wing of the Democratic Party. I am not sure what it would do to the next election, but the long trend seems to be towards more socialism, and more redistribution of income. We will have preschools in Sacramento like that one in Shenyang, sooner or later.

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