Art Rolnick's economics wisdom would be worth hearing during an election-year summer, even if he weren't about to end 25 years as senior vice president and director of research at the Minneapolis Fed.
But his visit to the Star Tribune last week was pegged to his pending move down river. Accordingly, news before wisdom: On July 30, Rolnick will leave his perch at the beautiful Federal Reserve Bank just north of the Falls of St. Anthony. Sometime in September, he'll be ensconced just south of the falls as codirector of the Humphrey Institute's Human Capital Research Collaborative, with an emphasis on early education.
That means that one of Minnesota's best sources of research-based advice about how to keep this state prosperous won't be gone long. But candidates for governor and the Legislature -- and the voters who will evaluate them -- would benefit now from a dose of Rolnick's thinking. As is his wont, he cheerfully obliged:
•Education has been key to Minnesota's success. "Sometime in the early 1950s, we started to pour money into education. Today, we're one of the most educated states in the country. This is more than just a correlation. It's causality. Human capital investment in education is what helps to create strong economies.
"The education premium -- the increased lifetime earnings if you get a college degree rather than just a high school diploma -- used to be 40 percent. It's now 70, 80, some have it as high as 100 percent, and growing. The market is telling us something: As our economy has progressed, human capital is a critical ingredient to economic growth."
•The Great Recession is confirming the value of Minnesota's education spending. "Minnesota's unemployment right now is 7 percent, well below the national average. I attribute that to having an active and highly educated workforce. Relative to the nation, we shine."
•"Are taxes too high?" is the wrong question. "The question should be, are we providing high-quality public goods at the least cost? There are certain public goods which the market fails to produce enough of -- education, clean air, safety. Any economy needs these public goods in order to progress.
"All taxes distort. We know taxes are a problem. Nevertheless, if you are getting a high public return, that's an argument for tax-and-spend. ... I have no trouble with a relatively high-tax state that produces really good public services. I would argue that Minnesota has been that for years, and we have one of the best economies in the world."
•Capital is more mobile now -- but the need for government services is also greater now. "Businesses don't want to locate in areas with high crime and poor educational systems."
•The next governor and Legislature need to rigorously prioritize spending. "We have to make sure that the high-return public investments are funded. What's driving our deficits at the state level are medical costs.
"We've got to get more disciplined about controlling that. We're going to have no choice.
"I wouldn't say 'Don't raise taxes.' But you can't raise them too far above other states. I've supported expanding the sales tax to clothing in a progressive way. There are ways to reformulate the tax system to make it more efficient."
•Minnesota has been missing the biggest public investment opportunity -- early education. "We're way under-investing in early education. There's all kinds of research to say that if you provide a healthy environment for our children starting as early as prenatal, so that kids when they start kindergarten are healthy and cognitively ready and socially ready to learn, our children are much more likely to be successful in life. The return we've calculated for this is extraordinary. Yet we've hardly invested in it. ... Other states are passing us by."
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Rolnick has been sounding an alarm about early ed since 2003. The results to date are more public awareness of the issue and an exciting pilot program involving 625 parents in St. Paul, sponsored by the privately funded Minnesota Early Learning Foundation.
And too little else.
Little kids don't vote. The good that a proper preschool can do them isn't much evident for a decade or more. The adult institutions that champion education for learners older than 5 haven't taken up the cause for younger kids.
Yet smart investment in early education may be the best thing Minnesota could do to keep its economic edge in 2020 and beyond. Early ed has a champion in Rolnick. Now it needs one in the governor's office.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.