"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Contra Robinson On Public Food

I.

Earlier this year, Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs wrote an article against school vouchers. He argued that private schools would be so focused on profit that they would sacrifice quality, and that competition wouldn’t be enough to keep them in line.

I counterargued that yes it would, and cited among other things the success of food stamps (ie “food vouchers”). These give poor people access to the same dazzling variety of food choices as everyone else, usually at reasonable prices and low profit margins. If school vouchers worked as well as food vouchers, they would succeed in their mission of improving choice without sacrificing quality.

Now Robinson doubles down, sticking to his anti-voucher position and also proposing A Public Option For Food.

He starts by granting that food stamps give poor people access to an impressive variety of grocery choices:

[Scott’s] argument was a strong one. I will confess that I felt a bit stumped by it. He was right. Every week I go to the grocery store and I get relatively tasty things for relatively low prices. And so I found myself tempted by his idea that education could be provided by “learning stores” just like nutrition is provided by grocery stores.

And that capitalism deserves some credit for this:

Capitalism is very effective at increasing production. Even Karl Marx was impressed with its achievements.

But he counters that much of this food is unhealthy and addictive. Worse, it’s pitched in ways that trick people into thinking it’s healthier than it is. For example, the average Minute Maid juice bottle has about as much sugar as soda, but deceptive corporate branding ensures most people won’t realize that. And this is inherent in the logic of capitalism. If companies can lie about the nutritional value of their food, the ones that do will outcompete the ones that don’t. If the government tries to enforce truth in advertising, companies will somehow thwart it. Maybe the box will have some small print telling you how many grams of sugar are inside – but also a giant picture of a reassuring-looking doctor, whose gentle smile is infinitely more persuasive than nutritional information pegged to a carefully mis-selected serving size. Capitalism will find a way.

Robinson compares this to the paperclip maximizer AI scenario:

My friend Sarah likes to describe capitalism by comparing it to the “paperclip maximizer.” The paperclip maximizer is a thought experiment used to warn about the potentially deadly effects of artificial intelligence. It’s about how a machine given the wrong instructions will produce the wrong results. You have an intelligent robot, and you’d like him to collect paperclips. So you program the robot with the following instruction: “Maximize the number of paperclips in your possession.” Then you set it loose. The robot first goes around the world collecting all the existing paperclips. But once it has them all, it still isn’t finished. After all, it must maximize the number of paperclips it has. So it begins turning everything it finds into paperclips. Soon, the entire planet is nothing but a wasteland of paperclips. Eventually, the universe itself will be a vast cosmic heap of paperclips. A seemingly benign instruction, carried out with precision and efficiency, destroyed the world.

Corporations can operate similarly. The Coca-Cola company follows a mandate: “raise revenue by selling drinks.” It sounds innocent. But the result is perverse: the company simply tries to get “as many ounces as possible into as many bodies as possible.” Every additional Coca-Cola sold is an additional dollar of revenue. There is no upper limit, then. “Growth potential” is all that matters, regardless of other consequences. And the lives of people only matter to the extent that keeping them alive longer will allow them to drink more Coke. I’m not exaggerating here. Those are the words of the Coca-Cola executives. And they flow perfectly rationally from the structure of the institution […]

People who defend capitalism do think it produces good results, because the incentive is to sell as many goods as possible, and that means selling the products that people want to buy. But, like the paperclip maximizer, “sell the goods that people will buy” is a benign rule that leads to a perverse result. A company that takes a poll of the things people want in a snack, and sells a snack with those qualities, will probably do well. But a company that researches ways to trigger biological cravings, and use subtle branding cues to trick people into thinking the product is better than it is, will do even better. The theory of a free market works at the “lemonade stand” level. Yet the paperclip robot, too, works at first: it’s what happens when the imperatives are carried to their endpoint that is so destructive. Capitalism, carried to its endpoint, will devour the earth, because that’s what its programming requires.

So, says Robinson, not only should we continue resisting school vouchers, but maybe it’s time for a public option for food:

Let us imagine a public option for food. It is a state-funded restaurant called the American Free Diner. At the American Free Diner, anyone can show up and eat, and the food is free. It’s designed to be as healthy as possible while still being pretty tasty. It’s not going to be tastier than McDonalds fries, but the aim of the American Free Diner is not to get you to hooked on having as many meals as possible, it’s designed to get you to have a satisfying and nutritionally complete meal. And there are options. For breakfast you can have eggs and (veggie?) bacon with fruit, oatmeal, avocado on toast, or a smoothie. Lunch is soups, salads, and sandwiches. Oh, and you can also always stop by and grab free fruit or other snacks. Now, you have to eat your meal during the time you’re in the restaurant, so there’s no smuggling food away and selling it. Anyone can have up to three meals a day there; you sign up with an ID and then you get a card. If you ate at the American Free Diner for every meal, you’d be meeting every possible recommended nutritional guideline. Every town has an American Free Diner in it. The music is great and there’s a buzzing neon sign. but it’s nothing too fancy.

Our “public option” for food does not mean people can’t go elsewhere, just as our public school system doesn’t mean that people can’t enroll in private schools. But it does ensure that anyone who wants to can turn up and get a high-quality meal for free, without having to have much information on their own, without having to have any money, and without having to do very much

Objection! Wouldn’t the…

One of the reasons people will be skeptical about the Free Diner is that they have little confidence in the state to do anything right. There is a tacit acceptance of the basic idea of “public choice theory”: that state actors are just as much selfish maximizers as anyone else, and that the only difference between the state and a corporation is that the state doesn’t have to be as accountable to its consumers. But this view only captures part of the truth: sometimes states are selfish, sometimes they are not, just as human beings themselves are sometimes avaricious and sometimes benevolent. Which motive is acted upon will depend on who is in charge and how the institution is set up.

There’s nothing inherent about a public school being public that requires it to be crappy. As I say, I went to a fantastic public school. But a few things are necessary for a public institution to run well. It needs to be free of bureaucratic constraint. It needs to have a clear mandate. It needs to be run by the right people. And it needs to be well-funded. When people think of the state offering food, I think they probably recoil: they think of Soviet canteens, perhaps, and government cheese. But there’s no reason things need to be this way. I could give you a dozen people who could run a nutritious, delicious, and decidedly non-dreary nonprofit diner given a sufficient budget.

I agree with this last part. I can think of many people who could run Nathan’s diner program well – but I notice Trump hasn’t put any of them in charge of anything. In fact, I can think of many people who could run a country well – but I notice Trump. Maybe things are more complicated than this?

II.

Capitalism sells healthy and unhealthy products with equal enthusiasm. But there’s a standard neoliberal solution here: taxes and subsidies. So for example, many cities place a special tax on sodas to increase their price and discourage consumption; soda is no longer quite so attractive relative to other options. I see a couple of advantages of selective taxation compared to Nathan’s public food option:

First, vouchers + taxes/subsidies let the rich and poor participate in the same system. I guarantee you that a public cafeteria system constructed to serve rich and poor people alike would be 90%+ poor within a year. I don’t even care if it’s a good cafeteria that rich people would otherwise enjoy. It would naturally start out with an overrepresentation of poor people. Rich people would feel uncomfortable there, both for signaling reasons (they don’t want to look like a poor person who can’t afford anything better than the public cafeteria) and for safety reasons (ie the same way rich people feel nervous going into poor neighborhoods, taking public buses, or hearing that their kids are going to be bused to poor schools). As the least tolerant rich people leave, the effect will amplify until slightly-more-tolerant rich people leave, then middle class people, and so on until it’s 100% people too poor to go anywhere else. At this point, going to the cafeterias will be stigmatizing to the point where school bullies will taunt poor kids by saying their family “eats at the cafeterias”. Also, any service that only serves poor people quickly deteriorates since none of its clientele have enough political power to demand its maintenance. You could have all this, or you could just have the poor people go to the same nice air-conditioned supermarkets as the rich people, blend in perfectly, and know that if anything goes wrong the rich people will make enough of a stink to get it fixed for them and their poor neighbors.

Second, vouchers + taxes/subsidies balance the government’s interest in preventing mis-alignment with poor people’s ability to control their own lives. If I love soda, and it’s the only good thing in my life right now, and I’ve thought long and hard about how unhealthy it is, but I’d rather improve my health some other way and stick with the soda – I can. I can buy soda (at slightly higher price) and compensate by cutting back on something else – maybe Twinkies. If I’m stuck going to the government cafeteria which only serves healthy foods, I’m out of luck. Maybe they’ve decided that my exactly-2000-calorie-diet today will include zero soda but one Twinkie. Oh well.

Will the government cafeterias include kosher food? Probably: there are lots of Jews and they have good political clout. Will they include halal food? Well, um, are the Democrats or the Republicans in power this year? Vouchers + taxes/subsidies don’t make poor Muslims choose between starving and blaspheming because the government decided their religion wasn’t worthy of inclusion. Will the cafeterias include food satisfying the complicated dietary requirements of a tiny New Guinea fertility cult with all of three members in the United States? Even if the people in power are competent sympathetic, this is just asking too much.

Third, under vouchers + taxes/subsidies, everyone could eat in their own kitchen, with their own family, on their own time. Under a public option, rich people could eat in the privacy of their own home, but poor people would have to go to the centralized cafeteria. That involves travel time (many poor people already work two jobs and desperately want time to themselves) and expense (many poor people don’t have cars and already spend much of their limited budget on mass transit). It might be impossible for people who are disabled, agoraphobic, or live in very rural areas. And once you arrive – well, it’s basically high school lunch all over again. Did anyone except the top-ranking bully enjoy high school lunch? Would they have enjoyed it more if it were limited to poor people, who [insert several paragraphs of apologies and caveats here] can sometimes be on the louder and more aggressive end? Do we really want transgender people, gay people, etc to have to spend three meals a day in the middle of High School Lunch Hour Ascended To Omnisocial Phenomenon, forever?

I assume a competent administrator could grant worthy exemptions. Maybe if you have celiac disease, or PTSD, or you live too far away, or you’re in the aforementioned New Guinea fertility cult, you can get permission to skip the cafeterias and just get food vouchers. But neoliberalism means not forcing poor people to spend six months groveling to upper-class administrators before they’re allowed to live their lives the way they want. It means just letting them live the life they want, the same way rich people can.

You’re probably thinking this is an argument that vouchers + taxes/subsidies are a great solution. Nah. I’m saying that in principle they’re a great solution. In practice, they’ve failed spectacularly, because we subsidize the least healthy foods and restrict the production of healthy ones. From Physicians’ Cooperative For Responsible Medicine:

Between 1995 and 2009, USDA distributed more than $246 billion in subsidies. USDA programs tend to favor the production of the unhealthiest foods. The subsidy system, updated approximately every five years, provides financial support primarily to producers of “commodity crops,” which include more than a dozen nonperishable crops. However, five commodity crops—corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, and rice—receive the vast majority of subsidies. Corn and soybeans are largely used as animal feed for production of meat, dairy products, and eggs, either domestically or for export. Other commodity crops, including barley, oats, and sorghum, are also used for feed…

The USDA refers to fresh fruits and vegetables as “specialty crops.” Specialty crops do not receive subsidies. In fact, farmers who participate in commodity subsidy programs are generally prohibited from growing fruits and vegetables on the so-called “base acres” of land for which they receive subsidies. This provision, enacted in 1996, restricts the ability of both small and large commodity farmers from diversifying their crops and including fruits and vegetables as part of their production.

Corn in particular is heavily supported, so much so that corn farmers end up with way more corn than anyone knows what to do with. Around the 1980s, they finally hit upon a solution: high-fructose corn syrup. From NYMag:

[A soda tax sounds good], except that your tax dollars are simultaneously being used to promote soda-drinking. Since the eighties, the sweetener in most non-diet sodas has been high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS. It is made from American corn rather than imported cane, and it is inexpensive, at about 30 cents a pound wholesale. (A pound is enough to make about eleven cans of Coca-Cola.) Mind you, it’s not really cheaper than cane sugar: Federal farm subsidies, amounting to about $20 billion per year, are twinned with a sugar tariff to stack that deck in favor of HFCS. In a free market, the bottom would fall out of corn prices, and the Midwest’s economy would start to look like Greece’s.

In short: We pay federal taxes to make that can of Mountain Dew cheaper than it should be, encouraging us to buy it. Then we are scolded by public-health authorities for doing so. Then New York proposes another tax, to discourage us from buying it. This is nuts.

HFCS is, today, slipped into practically every prepared food, from ketchup to soup, because consumers respond to sweetness, particularly when it comes cheap. It’s the legacy of Earl Butz, the Nixon-era secretary of Agriculture, who had one mission: Increase production to stamp out hunger. It worked a little too well, giving us a consistent corn glut.

Some of us might not even mind subsidizing wholesome family farms in hard times, but most of the money heads straight to megacorporations like Archer Daniels Midland, in an egregious bit of corporate welfare. (Kansans who vote hard-line Republican and howl about federal spending tend to go quiet and look at their shoes when you mention this.) ADM makes HFCS by the megaton, and the Cato Institute has figured that every $1 of profit ADM earns in this business costs consumers $10.

Even Earl Butz might have had second thoughts if he’d seen the study released last month by Princeton University. It showed decisively that rats gain more weight from eating HFCS than from cane sugar. Chart the adoption of HFCS by the food industries, and it lines up pretty closely with Americans’ thickening profiles…The brain-dead-obvious solution is to eliminate both taxes and even things out, right? Well, two words scuttle that idea: Iowa caucuses. As long as a corn-producing state holds the definitive first primary, we’re going to have pro-corn presidents.

If subsidizing soda isn’t enough for you, how about pizza? From Washington Post:

Pizza is popular because it’s delicious. But the roaring success of pizza isn’t entirely a free-market story. “In recent years, [the USDA] has spent many millions of dollars to increase pizza consumption among U.S. children and adults,” explains Parke Wilde of Tufts University, who runs the excellent U.S. Food Policy blog.

Here’s what he’s referring to. The USDA runs a “dairy checkoff program,” which levies a small assessment on milk (15 cents for every hundredweight of milk sold or used in dairy products) and raised some $202 million in 2011. The agency then uses that money to promote products like milk and cheese. And, as it turns out, pizza.

The USDA claims its checkoff program has been well worth it: For every $1 that the agency spends on increasing cheese demand, it estimates that farmers get $4.43 in additional revenue. But the results have been mixed. Milk consumption has declined in recent decades, while cheese consumption has soared.

The government doesn’t just economically subsidize unhealthy food. It also spreads misinformation about which food is or isn’t nutritious. For example, from NBC News:

The U.S. government’s latest eating guidelines came out Thursday — only to be greeted with the usual accusations that they go too far, or don’t go far enough, or leave out something important.

But this time some of the hottest criticism comes from cancer researchers. And other experts are upset that the guidelines don’t say more about eating less meat.

“We are pretty disappointed the report doesn’t recommend limiting red and processed meat because of the link to cancer,” said Katie McMahon of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Evidence goes back decades linking diets high in red and processed meats (like bacon and sausage) to cancer, McMahon told NBC News […]

Some nutritionists also said the federal government was pressured by the meat industry and by other lobby groups. “From my standpoint, Congress has caved in to the will of special interest food groups,” said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University.

Dr. Walter Willett, who heads the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, agreed. “Unfortunately, the USDA has censored the recommendation of the Scientific Advisory Committee to consume less red meat,” Willett said.

“In fact, the dietary guidelines promote consumption of red meat as long as it is lean, which is not what the science supports. There is strong evidence that red meat consumption increases risk of diabetes, heart attacks, stroke, and some cancers (especially processed meat), and there is not good evidence that this simply due to the fat content,” Willett added.

“This appears to reflect the powerful influences of the beef industry. Unfortunately, the public is being misled.”

So, what’s my point here?

Given a decent government that really wants what’s good for the people, we wouldn’t need a public option for food. We could just cancel all of our bad subsidies, replace them with good subsidies, and let people eat what they wanted.

Given our existing government, it shouldn’t be let within a light-year of getting to determine anybody’s diet. Speculating that maybe the people who administer the program will be virtuous competent individuals who act for the good of the public, is saying that the thing which has already happened won’t happen.

I mean, sure, maybe one of Nathan’s dozen competent people who could run the program correctly will get in charge. But then why haven’t they been put in charge of our agricultural subsidies? Why haven’t they been put in charge of the dietary guidelines? Why aren’t they in the White House?

III.

Because the whole “public food” argument hinges on a giant case of double standards.

Presented with evidence that corporations do bad things, it concludes that the inherent logic of capitalism demands badness.

Presented with evidence that governments do bad things, it concludes that if we just put some nice people in power, everything would go great.

Why is that? Could someone with the opposite bias propose that Coca-Cola Inc would be fine if it just got a socially responsible CEO? But that the inherent logic of government demands that people who focus on electoral demagoguery and bureaucratic empire-building will always outcompete the altruistic public servants? Why is that any less plausible than the original article’s treatment?

Props to Nathan: this is a rare time the paperclip maximizer metaphor is appropriate. Capitalism is an agent more powerful and creative than any individual human, programmed with the imperative: “Give people with money what they want.” And Nathan correctly points out some ways this can go wrong:

1. Companies can just lie to consumers about the product they’re providing. They can say their drinks are healthy, then fill them with sugar. In fact, since this allows them to create products more desirable than any honest product could be, of course they will do this.

2. Companies can appeal to consumers by satisfying empty addictive desires that their best selves wouldn’t endorse them having, like for sugar-laden drinks. Worse, it can use advertising to encourage such desires on a society-wide level, since this will make its job easier.

3. Although it will claim to be socially responsible in order to attract consumers, in reality it only cares about people proportional to how much money they have. It will care about poor people a little, because even poor people have a little money, but it will be much more attuned to the needs of the rich – which is why pharma companies invest more into curing baldness than curing malaria.

But government is the same kind of misaligned system. It’s an agent more powerful and creative than any individual human, programmed with the imperative: “Give people with [votes] what they want,” where [votes] is a proxy for real votes or any other kind of power or king-making ability – campaign-contributing-ability, lobbyists, thought-leader-status. And so:

1. Candidates can just lie to voters about anything from their personalities to the effects of their policies. Somebody can say their plan will cut taxes on everybody while slashing the deficit, and people will believe them. In fact, since this allows a candidate to propose policies more popular than any real policy could be, of course they will do this.

2. Candidates, parties, and governments can appeal to voters by satisfying empty addictive desires that their best selves wouldn’t endorse us having. Worse, it can use the media to encourage such wants on a society-wide level. How much of the news cycle is devoted to real discussion of what will improve the country, versus clickbait, outragebait, identity politics, and the latest in who’s collaborating with Russia? This isn’t a coincidence – politicians find it useful to encourage these discussions, because it’s easier to win and keep voters with identity politics issues than it is by being competent, cf. Decision 2016.

3. Although it will claim to be civic-minded and altruistic in order to win voters and maintain the consent of the governed, in reality the government only cares about people proportional to how much power they have. It will care about ordinary people a little, because even ordinary people have a vote. But it will be much more attuned to the powerful – which is why we get tax breaks for billionaires more often than medical care for the poor.

Capitalism is Moloch. But democracy is also Moloch. Both are intense competitions. Both are going to be won by people trying to win the competition, not people trying to be nice and do the right thing. In both, we expect that winning the competition will have something to do with being good – capitalists win partly by making good products, candidates win partly by making good policy. But both systems have equally deep misalignments that can’t be eliminated just be filling them with nice people.

I’m focusing on democracy and elections here, but this is potentially true of any government. It’s true of the bureaucracy – bureaucrats who focus on empire-building and gaming metrics will outperform the ones who focus on running their bureaucracy virtuously and well. It’s true of dictatorships; colonels who optimize for helping the people will get replaced by colonels who optimize for pleasing the military / seizing and holding onto power. Start a revolution to sweep away everyone else and institute a form of government that isn’t Moloch, and your revolution will surrender to Moloch in all of of ten seconds. If there’s some elite force of commandos and technocrats to prevent your communist revolution from becoming Moloch, five seconds. The problem isn’t any contigent part of the system. It’s the concepts of competition, optimization, and selection. “Oh, but our system won’t be competitive”. Really? How do you decide who the leaders are? “Oh, we won’t have a single leader, we’ll make decisions by…” Two seconds to become Moloch, and and if your non-leader ends up with a death toll of less than a million you got off easy.

(cf: that famous scene from A Man For All Seasons, and the sentence here beginning “Soviet industry in its last decades”).

The rookie mistake is: you see that some system is partly Moloch, so you say “Okay, we’ll fix that by putting it under the control of this other system. And we’ll control this other system by writing ‘DO NOT BECOME MOLOCH’ on it in bright red marker.”

(“I see capitalism sometimes gets misaligned. Let’s fix it by putting it under control of the government. We’ll control the government by having only virtuous people in high offices.”)

I’m not going to claim there’s a great alternative, but the occasionally-adequate alternative is the neoliberal one – find a couple of elegant systems that all optimize along different criteria approximately aligned with human happiness, pit them off against each other in a structure of checks and balances, hope they screw up in different places like in that swiss cheese model, keep enough individual free choice around that people can exit any system that gets too terrible, and let cultural evolution do the rest. In the market/government case, you end up with taxes, subsidies, redistribution, compensation for externalities, providing public goods, maybe breaking up monopolies – I’m not saying there’s not a lot for government to do! I’m saying it’s specific, labelled things, specific actions that compensate for specific misalignments. Try to do more, and you’ll just make matters worse.

Both Nathan and I agree that poor people should have food. But we disagree on which misaligned system should give it to them. He favors the misaligned government. I favor the misaligned free market, plus some government-led redistribution and correction.

He says that “our public option for food does not mean people can’t go elsewhere, just as our public school system doesn’t mean that people can’t enroll in private schools”. But in practice, without some system of vouchers or redistribution, only the rich would have that option; poor people wouldn’t be able to afford anything else.

And “ability to go elsewhere” is probably the most important ingredient. If I really want, I can spend some time looking into the dangers of sugary fruit juice. In fact, I did this a few years ago and haven’t bought any since; just like that, all of the horrors of capitalism lost their power over me. The last drink I bought was a sugar-free sparkling organic kiwi dragonfruit french soda with a total of five calories, because I personally preferred that to the two-thousand-or-so other options available within a five block walk of my house.

On the other hand, I also spent a long time looking into the dangers of Trump. I voted against Trump. I begged other people to vote against Trump. I wrote a blog post officially endorsing literally any person in the world who was not Trump. Despite all of this, Donald Trump is my president. I feel less satisfied with this system than with the other one, honestly.

Getting to choose my own food (and schools, and health care) works for me. I don’t want poor people to have to settle for anything less.

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611 Responses to Contra Robinson On Public Food

  1. reasoned argumentation says:

    How can anyone possible understand that incentives exist in capitalism that lead to Coca Cola Corp only caring about whether or not their product kills people to the extent that it will interfere with their ability to get more money to buy more of their product and yet write something like this:

    Let us imagine a public option for food. It is a state-funded restaurant called the American Free Diner. At the American Free Diner, anyone can show up and eat, and the food is free. It’s designed to be as healthy as possible while still being pretty tasty. It’s not going to be tastier than McDonalds fries, but the aim of the American Free Diner is not to get you to hooked on having as many meals as possible, it’s designed to get you to have a satisfying and nutritionally complete meal. And there are options. For breakfast you can have eggs and (veggie?) bacon with fruit, oatmeal, avocado on toast, or a smoothie. Lunch is soups, salads, and sandwiches. Oh, and you can also always stop by and grab free fruit or other snacks.

    One of the reasons people will be skeptical about the Free Diner is that they have little confidence in the state to do anything right. There is a tacit acceptance of the basic idea of “public choice theory”: that state actors are just as much selfish maximizers as anyone else, and that the only difference between the state and a corporation is that the state doesn’t have to be as accountable to its consumers. But this view only captures part of the truth: sometimes states are selfish, sometimes they are not, just as human beings themselves are sometimes avaricious and sometimes benevolent.

    The problem isn’t that “the state” is failing to act benevolently or is acting selfishly or whatever – it’s that the state isn’t acting at all – people who work for the state are acting and they have zero incentive to act in the way he describes (free avocados!) and he doesn’t even begin to come up with a solution to this problem – he just assumes it away by positing that there are great people out there. Wonderful – now how do you plan on systemically finding those people and putting them in charge? Capitalism has an answer for this. Governments where there is personal responsibility to an owner have an answer for this. This guy just pretends “I know people like that” is some kind of solution to the principal agent problem.

    There’s nothing inherent about a public school being public that requires it to be crappy. As I say, I went to a fantastic public school. But a few things are necessary for a public institution to run well. It needs to be free of bureaucratic constraint. It needs to have a clear mandate. It needs to be run by the right people. And it needs to be well-funded. When people think of the state offering food, I think they probably recoil: they think of Soviet canteens, perhaps, and government cheese. But there’s no reason things need to be this way. I could give you a dozen people who could run a nutritious, delicious, and decidedly non-dreary nonprofit diner given a sufficient budget.

    Yes, there are (reasons)! For starters there’s the principal agent problem. That he doesn’t even notice that there are reasons why it tends to be this way and why exceptions exist means he hasn’t come up with a solution!

    • Naimalj Khan says:

      Under a certain worldview, there are. Under a certain worldview, there aren’t.

      The standard account of Confucianism after Confucius goes like this: there were two influential Confucians, Mencius and Xunzi. Mencius said that humans were naturally good, and Xunzi said that humans were naturally bad. In less summarized terms, Mencius said that humans had a natural tendency toward goodness which could be nurtured in the standard Confucian ways — the rites, the classics, tending to social relations in the prescribed manner, and so on — and Xunzi said that humans have no such tendency, which leads them to conflict and disorder, but that morality could be inculcated in the standard Confucian ways. Mencius’s view took hold in Confucianism, and Xunzi’s view was transmitted to Legalism via Han Feizi, who studied under Xunzi, said that humans have a natural tendency to seek the carrot and avoid the stick, and did not particularly care for the standard Confucian concerns.

      If you prefer an example closer to home, consider Carlyle and one of the economists that he railed against. The economist, one may assume, would say that, since humans have a natural tendency to seek the carrot and avoid the stick, the way to build a good institution is to build it with good incentive structures, so that seeking the carrot and avoiding the stick naturally produces a good institution. And then this institution must be subject to incentive structures from outside (that is, competition) ensuring that it doesn’t get too bad, and so on. Carlyle, on the other hand, wouldn’t have any of that, and would say that the way to build a good institution is to put a good person in charge, and that these good people (people with “flood-like qi“, as Mencius would put it) will build good institutions because… because they’re good people. True Kings or whatnot.

      (Compare and contrast Great Man Theory vs. (for example) Marxist historiography. Recall that Carlyle literally wrote the book on Great Man Theory.)

      It seems that you and Scott are Han-Feizians. What about Robinson? His objection to capitalist food provision seems to be that its inherent logic determines the actions of its participants:

      …[A] company that unilaterally decided to make its products healthier would not actually make the world healthier. It would just watch its market share plummet. So long as a company is concerned primarily with revenue and profit, asking it to care about nutrition is asking it to stop caring about its entire institutional purpose. It is like asking a drug pusher to sign on to an initiative to make heroin less addictive. Good luck.

      His proposal for how to make government-run food provision work, on the other hand…

      There’s nothing inherent about a public school being public that requires it to be crappy. As I say, I went to a fantastic public school. But a few things are necessary for a public institution to run well. It needs to be free of bureaucratic constraint. It needs to have a clear mandate. It needs to be run by the right people. And it needs to be well-funded. When people think of the state offering food, I think they probably recoil: they think of Soviet canteens, perhaps, and government cheese. But there’s no reason things need to be this way. I could give you a dozen people who could run a nutritious, delicious, and decidedly non-dreary nonprofit diner given a sufficient budget.

      In other words, “find good people, tell them what you want done, and make sure nothing gets in their way, not even well-defined incentive structures”. We could imagine the actual Han Feizi saying something like this — he’d mumble something about action through inaction, let’s say (he was aware of Laozi, after all), but tell the king to have well-defined incentive structures and ensure that no word leaks downward about them (he was aware of Goodhart’s Law, after all), and kill anyone whose performance isn’t up to par — but we can imagine the shocked response of our idealized Han Feizi. “What, leave them alone in the carrot stable?!”

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        I’m as Carlyle-ian as you can get but that’s not really the central issue.

        Yes, finding the best person and giving him personal responsibility and power to run a national cafeteria would actually work very very well.

        No, that is not possible without massive other changes and it is not what Robinson is actually proposing.

        First Robinson is allergic to the idea of giving some particular man power to do what would be necessary for running a national cafeteria charter.

        Second he has no way to identify men who are capable of running such an enterprise other than claiming that his friends are up to the task because they’re such great people – they’re not. We live in a kakistocracy and his friends are those who rose up high enough to have influence under this system – they’re the worst people (well the worst people who are functional).

        Finally – even if you somehow got past the first to insurmountable problems – the entire system is set up to crush anything like what you’d need to actually succeed. The lord high chancellor of cafeterias makes a rule to solve the signalling problem – poor behavior is not to be permitted in his cafeterias or you will be thrown out (and possibly beaten), respectable dress will be worn in his cafeterias or you will be thrown out (and possibly beaten), etc. In other words it would look like Singapore only much more so with a huge dose of “disparate impact” because of the huge behavior differences in races. Courts would get involved, court orders would be issued, press releases would be written, academics would write papers, etc., iow, the entire progressive state would stamp it out.

        To make it work, all you’d have to do is entirely defeat the progressive state apparatus and set up a government with a unification of ownership and control. By that point a public cafeteria is about 24,438th on the list of things that would need to be done.

        • len says:

          In other words it would look like Singapore only much more so with a huge dose of “disparate impact” because of the huge behavior differences in races. Courts would get involved, court orders would be issued, press releases would be written, academics would write papers, etc., iow, the entire progressive state would stamp it out.

          Funny enough that you mention it, but Singapore did do something similar to the whole government provided public food thing, c.f.: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawker_centre#In_Singapore

          They solved the problem of nutrition and choice by not directly providing food, but instead renting out food stands to entrepreneurs, who then compete for customers. Food isn’t free but is presumably subsidized by subsidizing rental, not exactly sure how that works. Food stands are probably chosen to increase choice, though if you’re a New Guinea fertility cult you’re probably still SOL.

          Surprisingly, the demographics of hawker center goers aren’t exclusively or even mostly the poor, they’re frequented by pretty much everyone, which is why the quality hasn’t completely gone to shit. Food quality can vary, cleanliness can vary, tables are usually shaky, people are noisy, and it’s entirely self-service — but even well-off families won’t mind dining in one, and it’s pretty much the default choice for the middle-class. Maybe having hawker centers become part of the country’s culture helped to prevent a demographic shift?

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            They solved the problem of nutrition and choice by not directly providing food, but instead renting out food stands to entrepreneurs, who then compete for customers. Food isn’t free but is presumably subsidized by subsidizing rental, not exactly sure how that works.

            If true, that’s very interesting. Economically speaking pricing should be unrelated to rent costs directly – meaning if the restaurant were to be located on the same spot one in a world where it has no rent, the other where it is paying huge rent economic analysis dictates that the prices in the restaurants are going to be identical and both set at the profit maximizing point. Fixed costs (meaning costs that don’t vary with output) are irrelevant to pricing (for the pedants – unless the bankrupt the enterprise).

            That implies either you’re mistaken or that the authorities in Singapore are allocating space not as profit maximizing property owners but as an entity willing to bear costs to create social value.

            Surprisingly, the demographics of hawker center goers aren’t exclusively or even mostly the poor, they’re frequented by pretty much everyone, which is why the quality hasn’t completely gone to shit. Food quality can vary, cleanliness can vary, tables are usually shaky, people are noisy, and it’s entirely self-service — but even well-off families won’t mind dining in one, and it’s pretty much the default choice for the middle-class.

            The US has a huge confounding factor here which is race. The poor in Singapore might just be poorer versions of the middle class but in the United States the “poor” are a worldstar video waiting to happen whenever they gather in large numbers. The result is that anyone sane – rich or poor – avoids those groups if they know that their skin color marks them as a target rather than a member of the mob.

          • Mary says:

            if the restaurant were to be located on the same spot one in a world where it has no rent, the other where it is paying huge rent economic analysis dictates that the prices in the restaurants are going to be identical and both set at the profit maximizing point.

            This is why restaurants are not situated in high-rent areas except where the distance to low-rent areas is a price in additional to the menu prices, so that people will stay in high-rent areas and pay higher prices

          • syrrim says:

            @reasoned argumentation:

            Economically speaking pricing should be unrelated to rent costs directly

            That’s not strictly true: it’s clear that anyone whose revenue is lower than their costs will go out of business; it follows that a restaurant whose prices times their sales is lower than the cost of rent will need to either raise their prices or go out of business. It’s also clear that the value people assign to something is related to the price of that thing. Here in america, we consider a restaurant to be a luxury item, and so go to them infrequently, but are willing to pay large amounts when we do. It’s possible that another society, perhaps that of singapore, considers restaurants to be an everyday thing. If so, then they would only go to restaurants that cost the same as a home cooked meal. You are right in that if a restaurant got lower rent than a competitor, they would probably charge the same as the competitor, and take the difference as profit. However if all restaurants in a country had lower rent, since they would all be able to lower prices, they would have to do in order to compete.

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        We could imagine the actual Han Feizi saying something like this — he’d mumble something about action through inaction, let’s say (he was aware of Laozi, after all), but tell the king to have well-defined incentive structures and ensure that no word leaks downward about them (he was aware of Goodhart’s Law, after all), and kill anyone whose performance isn’t up to par

        About this specifically – part of the argument is that having a king solves the principal agent problem at the top level – he owns the realm. Then it’s about someone with the proper incentive working to actually find solutions to his lower level principal agent problems. He then will at least try to find the best men because he has a reason to.

        • Mary says:

          I note that in what I have read of his works*, Han Feizi was aware of the principal/agent problem, but didn’t really offer much of a solution.

          * Han Feizi Speaks by Tsai Chih Chung. Legalism in — graphic novel form, which can be interesting.

      • andagain says:

        It’s curious how many people think a Good Society is one that does not reward people for doing Good Things. That is relying on selfishness!

      • Mary says:

        Legalism is an interesting mix of cruel and unrelenting punishments with the naive belief that you really can make people good that way.

    • stucchio says:

      Note also that the author doesn’t even address the core issue here: consumer choice.

      He never advocates cutting food stamps. He just pushes the government canteen as an alternative. But if the government canteen serves sauteed spinach while food stamps provide cheetos, which one will the obese poor people he advocates for actually choose?

      Remember, according to him, the issue is that consumers then eat cheetos and get fat. But note that food vouchers already pay for spinach. Why would putting the spinach in a government canteen somehow fix the problem that consumers make choices he disagrees with?

      I think the author definitely needs to clarify whether or not he favors cutting food vouchers entirely and replacing them with public canteens (which would paternalistically enforce good food choices on those who use them).

      • Naimalj Khan says:

        It’s at least possible that people would prefer free sauteed spinach to a $2 bag of Cheetos and a $2 bag of Cheetos to a $2 bag of spinach that you have to prepare yourself.

        • stucchio says:

          It’s theoretically possible. But we’d expect the money rich/time poor to be more sensitive to the time cost of food prep, and the money poor/time rich to be less sensitive.

          I know folks who’ve run a failing vegan healthy hippy free lunch for the homeless; they always let me have food since it would otherwise go to waste. I knew people who set up a subsidized vegetables for NY’s “food deserts” (for an extremely broad definition of “food desert”), and it was shut down since mostly just gentrifying yuppies shopped there. There have been quite a few large scale controlled trials on similar things.

          What evidence – if any – will convince people that the poor will choose cheetos over broccoli under virtually all circumstances?

          Note: I do personally favor replacing food stamps with public canteens that provide only healthy choices (and reduced portions for anyone visibly overweight). But I’m still waiting for even one left wing “help the poor” type to agree with me.

          • At a considerable tangent, I remember a long ago proposal, I think by Bill Buckley, that the poor be provided for free with the lowest cost full nutrition meal in the form of ingredients, not cooked dishes. I have a vague feeling that Bulgar Wheat was part of the suggested bundle.

    • This guy just pretends “I know people like that” is some kind of solution to the principal agent problem.

      You have just proved that all pubic education everywhere must be terrible, although it isn’t. There’s been a mechanism for identifying the virtuous since forever, long before capitalism. The tendencies to associate with the virtuous, and increase ones own virtue are part of humans.

      • bbeck310 says:

        I don’t see how. The solution to the principal-agent problem in most American public schools is local control. The little middle-class to wealthy suburbs of Chicago have some of the best schools in the country, and it’s not all because of money–many of them don’t pay substantially more per student than Chicago Public Schools. But they do have small enough districts and a small enough voter base that the school board is elected based on local concerns, and has a strong incentive to pick good administrators (who in turn pick good teachers). CPS, on the other hand, is a huge bureaucracy where voters have no real say–when it was an elected school board the district was so huge that the board members were machine politicians; now, the mayor runs everything, and the mayor is the political hack who wins the Democratic primary.

        Or as Megan McArdle puts it, we have plenty of private schools in this country–the tuition just includes granite countertops.

        • albatross11 says:

          WRT vouchers, it seems like the fundamental problem here is that we don’t all agree on what problem we’re trying to solve.

          If the goal is to improve how well the students learn stuff, as measured on standardized tests, my understanding (I’m definitely not an expert here) is that we don’t have a lot of techniques that really work well here, other than more one-on-one time between teachers and students. Private schools mostly seem to look rather like public schools in their basic operations.

          That limits how much good we should expect to see from vouchers, up front. I mean, if private schools all looked radically different from one another and from public schools, then you could at least imagine that some of them would be way better at teaching kids, and we’d be able to get the market to shift us over to that. But if we’re really talking about the public schools, plus a prayer in the morning and some school uniforms and a religion class, and with somewhat less explicit sex-ed and somewhat better-behaved kids, it’s hard to see where we’d get huge gains from.

          • Cliff says:

            Most of the gains from school reforms have come from shutting down poorly performing schools and opening new, good ones. Not from reforming existing schools. It seems quite difficult to reform a school without scrapping the whole thing and starting over.

          • albatross11 says:

            Cliff:

            That works if we have schools whose bad performance is mainly driven by bad teachers/administration/physical plant/etc. I’m sure that’s sometimes the case, but an awful lot of the time, “bad school” seems to mean “bad students.” Sometimes, that means students who aren’t all that bright and don’t get good test scores or bother doing their homework; often it also means a fair number of really disruptive students and a few violent ones.

            To the extent the main thing that separates good and bad schools is the teaching or administration or physical plant, yeah, you can make things better by shutting down the bad schools (assuming the bad teachers/administrators go get a new job in another field, rather than just move across town to another school).

            But if most of the difference is about which students you get, then your competing schools have a lot of incentive to compete on getting the best students. Filter out all the kids with serious behavior problems, and you have much quieter classrooms in which maybe some teaching can happen. Filter out all the dumb kids, and suddenly your test scores get better.

            My impression is that the main difference between good and bad schools most places is in the quality of the students. That’s something vouchers can only help a little with, particularly if they have to take every kid that applies and can’t kick them out.

        • secondcityscientist says:

          Chicago municipal elections are all non-partisan, there isn’t a “Democratic Primary”. Rahm Emmanuel is a Democrat, but was definitely not the left-most choice in the last mayoral election. In fact, he’s been in a long-simmering fight with CPS and the teachers’ union, mostly over money and school closures.

          CPS also has 7 of the top 10 high schools in Illinois, including the top 5. Test scores for CPS elementary and junior high school students are rapidly moving towards the US mean, and that is with a school district that has more poor and minority kids than the US as a whole. White and Asian kids in CPS average about two grade levels above US mean by the time they enter high school. CPS might be huge and bureaucratic, but it seems to be working.

          Please tell me more about my city though.

          • tronpaul says:

            Those top 5 schools are all magnet high schools. I’m not very familiar with how magnet high schools work, as I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, but wouldn’t being a magnet high school mean that you filtered out the students who wouldn’t preform well? That study grades schools on AP participation. A special ed student, to my knowledge, wouldn’t be sent to a magnet school, and at a normal school, wouldn’t take an AP test. I don’t think their ranking system took that into account.

            I haven’t been a huge fan of CPS since moving to Chicago, but I admit I haven’t done much research into what they’re spending my tax dollars on. This has piqued my interest as to how they stack up against the high schools where I grew up.

      • andagain says:

        You have just proved that all pubic education everywhere must be terrible, although it isn’t.

        Well, all we know is that it is less terrible in some places than others. For all we know, people a thousand years from now might well think that every school in the world right now could be thirty or sixty times better. And we say:”This school is really good, because it is twice as good as that other one!”

    • Deiseach says:

      I could give you a dozen people who could run a nutritious, delicious, and decidedly non-dreary nonprofit diner given a sufficient budget.

      You know what that reminds me of? A rather gimmicky TV series from 2005 called Jamie’s School Dinners which was very trendy, had the government of the day nodding approvingly and swearing they’d make sure meals in schools were healthy etc etc etc, and which at the end of the day, after the initial enthusiasm fizzled out, means that it’s still mainly middle-class schools which provide these options and the current Tory government is actually cutting eligibility for free meals.

      Given a sufficient budget is the killer here. There’s a story run in The Independent but picked up from the Mail On Sunday (which gives you the right-wing credentials right there) about how the Jamie Oliver backed scheme did not in fact produce the results alleged; I don’t know if that’s correct. Other news stories claim on the one hand that studies demonstrated increased academic achievement, but the sting in the tail here is that

      But the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society also heard that the poorest pupils – those who are eligible for free school meals – did not seem to benefit. Instead it was mainly children from more middle class homes who saw their scores boosted after Oliver’s junk food ban was implemented.

      However, the larger point is that critics of this scheme call it “expensive gesture politics” (I imagine in terms used here that would translate as “virtue signalling”), which makes it a very attractive target to pare back or even scrap, and I see no reason American Diners would fare any better:

      Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said:

      “The Government’s free meals scheme is expensive gesture politics. In these straitened times, the money would be much better spent on education itself.”

      A government determined to find savings would not give an adequate budget which would make the scheme a failure, and that’s without even getting into the worst case scenario where the whole idea would fall prey to identity politics (why are white people/the privileged getting to avail of these? why are they not safe spaces for LGBT+ persons? why are the menus not culturally correct? where are the vegan options and by the way I’m a vegan and I will not eat in the same place as animal corpses being offered?) and yes, I do think people who see government intervention as a legitimate area to impose right-thinking and proper values would hop on the band wagon, in a mirror image of “separating church and state” where the duty of the state is to promote diverse etc values if they’re going to spend public money on providing something.

  2. The Nybbler says:

    This is an idea that is obviously terrible, for all the reasons you listed (and I’d add my public alma mater’s cafeteria system: Grade D hamburgers, inedible pizza-like substances, and Food Services director with a very nice mansion). If he’s serious about it, maybe time to take him off the reading list.

    To another point: Fortunately, the nutritional sins of the USDA are probably canceled out by the complete failure of nutritional science in general. Any recommendations they made would probably be wrong, whether corrupt or not.

  3. Tracy W says:

    I agree with a lot of what you say. But I’m not sure about the signalling argument.

    If you’re very rich, who cares if someone sees you at a public cafeteria? No one whose opinion matters is going to think you’re poor because you stepped into a public cafeteria. If you want to signal prosperity you can do so via clothes (not just price, but how you put them together too). It’s the lower classes who can just about afford prosperity who worry about being mistaken for poor. (Kate Fox has a fascinating discussion of this in her book Watching the English).

    Schools are a different matter because you’re picking your kids’ peers.

    • Dedicating Ruckus says:

      In practice, any space that becomes de facto marked as For Poor People will suffer a calamitous decline in quality, due to the combined factors of 1. no one having enough resources to maintain it or induce others to do so, and 2. the set of poor people overlapping disproportionately with the set of people who are pretty terrible. The bus system in my city is actually pretty good (it’s my normal commute), but this is still true of all its permanent spaces; much more so systems with a stronger rich/poor gradient that there’s more ability for the rich to ignore completely.

      • Tracy W says:

        Maybe. But I’m sceptical that public cafeteria will get marked out as for poor people. Public parks are accessible by all but this doesn’t seem to happen. In fact they’re disproportionately accessed by the relatively-well off.

        • martinw says:

          That depends on the location of the public park. Rich neighborhoods tend to have more parks and other decorations, and those parks will be frequented by rich people because they are the ones living nearby. But if a public park is located in the middle of a poor area, chances are it’s not a very nice place to visit after dark.

          Likewise, if the government were to institute Robinson’s public cafetaria idea, it would make sense to locate them in the poorer areas of town, since that’s where they will do the most good. You can easily imagine the criticism if tax money was used for building nice free restaurants in rich neighborhoods. But if you build them in poor areas then that will just accelerate the effect of eating there becoming a low-class status marker.

          • Tracy W says:

            It’s one thing to say that public parks in low-income areas are unsafe, it’s another thing to say that being there signals low-status, regardless of other signals in their life.

            If you saw someone you knew leaving a public park in a poor area, would you mark down your assessment of their social status? Or someone you don’t personally know, but who is wearing nice clothes (whatever that means in your local area), expensive haircut, right turn-of-phrase (in England the right accent)?

            Them using the park would only be relevant if your assessment of their social status was already borderline.

          • stucchio says:

            Tracy W, I can answer this. Back when I lived in the East Village of NYC, I worked out in Tompkins Square Park.

            During the day, the workout area was full of yuppies who prefer pullups outdoors to a gym, as well as some really strong homeless guys and poorer folks from the nearby housing projects. I have no worries that people will think negative things about me simply because I’m talking with a poor person about wrist position on a muscle ups.

            But there were signs that during the night, the crowd was very different. Those signs include used condoms, broken drug paraphernalia, etc. If I see a wealthier person coming out of the park at 1AM, I don’t think they were practicing planche pushups or their back lever, and I am judging them a bit.

            So yes, under some circumstances, a person’s status will be lowered by coming out of the wrong park. It’s not strictly about poverty though, it’s also about the behaviors that tend to be highly correlated with poverty.

          • Tracy W says:

            @stucchio: I don’t disagree with you. But in this case you’d presumably be thinking your acquaintance is probably a drug addict or a dealer, not that they’re poor.

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            Rich, or even middle class, drug users, addicts, and dealers, do not work out of seedy public parks at 1am.

            If you see a upper middle class man leaving a seedy public park at 1am, especially if he doesn’t want to be noticed, he’s probably been cruising without his wife knowing.

            But even that has stopped being a Thing, with the deployment of Grindr.

          • stucchio says:

            Tracy W, that’s of course the point. Poverty is generally a red herring; it’s actually behaviors or cultural associations attached to it that people try to avoid.

            Similarly, what’s the difference between a youth hostel and a homeless shelter? The only real difference I can see is that the homeless shelter is full of homeless people. In contrast, the materially identical youth hostel has a bunch of friendly 20-somethings who happen to have neither money nor a home.

        • Watchman says:

          Whilst I agree with you that parks are not particularly socially-stratified spaces, I’m sceptical that cafeterias and parks work the same way here. Parks are simply a space in which people choose to perform activities, and whilst their may be a status thing attached to this from some audiences (so from a UK perspective, going for a run in Central Park sounds quite high-status), I suspect it is the activity that is the main status marker – if you are at the park to have a barbeque and drink beer it is very different from if you are taking your baby to a Buggy-cise class. But since the equivalent of choosing an activity at the park is choosing where to eat, the public cafeteria does not function as a space but as a choice (which may be the only choice open) and so will be subject to the same social dynamics as particular activities at a park.

          • Tracy W says:

            @Watchman: but if you see someone at a park standing over the BBQ with a beer in one hand and you know they went to Oxbridge, are a trainee barrister at a top London law firm, and haven’t worn sweatsuits outside exercising since they were 13, you presumably don’t think they’re lower class. You just think they’re upper class with a lower class hobby.

          • martinw says:

            @Tracy W: sure, being spotted at a park in a low-income area is a pretty weak signal, easily countered with more concrete evidence of being high status. In fact that is where the entire concept of countersignaling comes in.

            But, first of all, not everybody is an Oxbridge don with high-status evidence to spare. Countersignaling only works when you really do have plenty of reasons to be confident that nobody will confuse you for a low-class peon.

            As you said in another post, “them using the park would only be relevant if your assessment of their social status was already borderline”. Sure, but that covers quite a few people.

            And secondly, 99% of this does not happen at a conscious level. When an upper-class person decides to go to a nice restaurant instead of a McDonalds, it’s not a carefully calculated plan to make the right impression on anybody who might happen to spot them there. Rather, it’s mostly an instinctive feeling that they don’t belong at McDonalds, similar to the kind of instinctive feeling that you would probably get if you were reading a website written in purple Comic Sans with a garish background and lots of borderline-pornographic banner ads.

          • Tracy W says:

            @MartinW:
            But rich people do eat at McDonald’s. People in the richest quintile in the USA at least do eat fast-food a little less often than the lowest quintile, but that works out apparently at about one meal less every three weeks.

            And, as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t think this is about counter-signalling. Do you bother worrying about signalling that you have a grade school education? Or counter-signalling that you don’t need to worry about signalling that you have a grade school education?

            I have my social insecurities for sure. But I don’t seriously worry that people will think I’m poor if they see me saving money on basics.

        • The Nybbler says:

          If a municipality doesn’t take active steps to keep homeless people from monopolizing public parks, they do so.

        • Aapje says:

          @Tracy W

          Providing a park to people is really, really costly and the surplus is pretty much impossible to monetize; which is why the parks are public and not private in the first place. In such conditions, having an alternative park for a subgroup is very hard to achieve, so people tend to go for regulation to their own benefit instead.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Private parks are easy to monetize in Japan. It’s probably a matter of cultural expectations.

          • Tracy W says:

            @Aapje: that’s odd to hear. London has a bunch of private parks, owned by the surrounding homes. (Generally in the centre of a square.) You buy one of the houses and you also buy the rights to use the park and an obligation to pay your share of maintenance.

          • Aapje says:

            @Douglas Knight

            Do they ask entry fees?

            @Tracy W

            I was a bit unclear. What I meant was that it’s very expensive to privately own a park and then open it up to the general public.

          • Tracy W says:

            @Aapje: that’s odd to hear too. I spent a fair bit of my visits to my grandmother being taken to various private gardens that were open to the public, for a fee. And that was not in a place and time known for its tourist activity.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Yes, they charge money. That’s why I used the word “monetize.”
            I don’t know if it’s per entry or memebership, if that’s what you’re asking, but I think it is per entry.

      • There’s a difference between “for the poorest 90%” and “for the poorest 10%”. Most people aren’t going to be ashamed about making use of something that is for most people. Public schools tend towards the former, public transport towards the latter.

        I’m surprised Robinson didn’t use what I would consider to be a better argument against school vouchers: that as you encourage better-off people to leave the public school system, the more it becomes like public transport. Once it gets below 50%, politicians suddenly lack an incentive to do anything but run it as cheaply as possible. Plus the shame factor starts kicking in and accelerating the process.

        • When people buy out of public provision, it helps them and hurts others.

          • Watchman says:

            There is a liberatrian argument that it helps them and ultimately helps others, but forcing the others to also take responsibility for their own choices and not rely on the uncaring bureaucrats.

            Not sure I’d totally agree with that, but considering you are positing the same difference as Robinson between public and private providers, you seem to leave yourself open to the same point that private providers (in this case responding to vouchers) at least have to be responsive.

          • 1. Public providers also have to be responsive if enough people are involved.
            2. Getting from mostly public to all private incrementally means an intermediate stage with a shrunken public sector.

          • cassander says:

            >When people buy out of public provision, it helps them and hurts others

            how does it do that? one kid leaves a school, and takes with him the expense of educating him. all the other kids are just as well off.

          • Mary says:

            He’s not available to set a good example. Or help the other kids learn. And his parents will not act as unpaid school inspectors.

            Which are all arguments I have seen offered.

            The last tends to get the most ridicule from parents of kids in bad schools, who ridicule, hard, the notion that anyone at the school would do anything about their complaints.

          • > how does it do that?

            I explained that immediately above. Once public provision goes below 50%, the motivation to maintain it vanishes, and the motivation to cut costs takes over.

          • Watchman says:

            1. Public providers also have to be responsive if enough people are involved.

            They have more stakeholders to whom to respond (politicians, tax payers, lobby groups etc), and therefore are less responsive than a private provider, unless that private provider is particularly large and unwieldy. And frankly, as in Scott’s original argument, equally-efficient public provision is not a believable proposition.

            2. Getting from mostly public to all private incrementally means an intermediate stage with a shrunken public sector.

            Yes, but you are relying on your assertion that a shrunken public service will be neglected for this. I don’t see any evidence that this is a problem that is actually recognised (in particular, that 50% figure is too convenient – people are not that self-interested and rationale decisions about voting may obscure individual signals like a particular services funding anyway). Most governments seem to run mental health services for example, which are used by far less than 50% of the population.

          • He’s not available to set a good example. Or help the other kids learn.

            On the other hand the teacher is then free to teach to the level of the kids remaining in the classroom instead of having to divide his efforts between the (presumptively better) kids and the rest.

            Is the usual response of kids who don’t want to learn to one who does positive?

          • They have more stakeholders to whom to respond (politicians, tax payers, lobby groups etc), and therefore are less responsive than a private provider, unless that private provider is particularly large and unwieldy.

            Stakeholders aren’t a uniformly bad thing. for instance having potential employers as stakeholders is a good thing.

            Responsiveness to parents isn’t a uniformly good thing. They might think the world is 6000 years old.

          • Yes, but you are relying on your assertion that a shrunken public service will be neglected for this. I don’t see any evidence that this is a problem that is actually recognised (in particular, that 50% figure is too convenient – people are not that self-interested and rationale decisions about voting may obscure individual signals like a particular services funding anyway). Most governments seem to run mental health services for example, which are used by far less than 50% of the population.

            Man public transport systems give evidence of what neglected for-poor-people things look like. Mental health services are part of health services, not some separate thing.
            The 50% figure is of course notional.

          • Mary says:

            On the other hand the teacher is then free to teach to the level of the kids remaining in the classroom instead of having to divide his efforts between the (presumptively better) kids and the rest.

            Eh, he was free to do that all along. And tell the parents of the better kids that their child doesn’t need education because he can manage on his own. (Which is not a made-up anecdote.)

          • albatross11 says:

            I think there are several different ways for this to work out:

            a. The best students may leave your school system for something that’s better for them. And that may make the school system they left behind worse off–the proportion of smart and well-behaved students goes down.

            b. The parents who care most about good education may pull their kids out of the school system. The result is fewer parents who care a lot about quality of education being involved.

            c. As fewer people use the public school system, fewer people will feel like supporting it. Parents who are paying private-school tuition for their kids to keep them out of the local bad schools are *really* unlikely to vote in favor of property-tax increases for the local schools.

            Against all of those, there are arguments the other direction. For example, if the local schools are just horrible, then making my smart, well-behaved kids go there just means screwing three more kids out of a decent education. And it’s hard to see why my kids owe their chance at a decent education or a pleasant life to the local public school system.

            Similarly, if the local school board is a bureaucratic nightmare with little meaningful accountability to parents, having more involved parents who care about education may not move the needle much.

            And a voucher plan shouldn’t invoke (c) at all–every parent gets $X/kid as a voucher, so the ones draining their savings to send their kids to Catholic school don’t have an incentive to vote against the latest school tax increase.

        • shenanigans24 says:

          That just means the poor people will take their vouchers and go elsewhere also.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            But rich/middle class people don’t want that, which is why it’ll probably never really happen. I paid more to buy a house in a nice upper middle class area with a good school system where the kids are not likely to be slinging dope and bringing knives to school. And now you’re going to give vouchers to the people from the dopey stabby areas to come to my kids’ school? Hmmm…maybe I’m not really that incentivized to support candidates in favor of school vouchers.

          • shenanigans24 says:

            The vouchers would mean a bunch of private schools get created. You seem to be talking about school choice that exists in many places where the parents can take their kids to any public school. There’s still convenience issues but some do make the drive to other districts.

            In the voucher case you would more likely get the same schools in the suburbs but a tiered school system in urban more populated places.

          • Mary says:

            I suspect that the ones that would stab your kids have parents who won’t bother to use the voucher.

    • martinw says:

      I think for the purpose of this essay, “rich” means anybody who can easily afford their own food, not just Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. So it includes the lower classes who can just about afford prosperity.

      If Bill Gates was spotted in a free food cafetaria, of course everybody would understand that he isn’t there because he can’t afford anything better. And the more cynical among us would understand that he probably arranged to be spotted there as part of some countersignaling strategy to bolster his reputation as a man of the people who hasn’t let his riches go to his head.

      But most rich people aren’t Bill Gates, and some of the borderline-rich may worry about getting tarred by association if they are seen in the vicinity of the lower classes too often.

      • Tracy W says:

        Yep, I was using ‘rich’ in the sense of anyone who can easily afford their own food, not merely the Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Worrying about being tainted is only for the borderline-rich and the nouveau riche – and marks you as such.

      • shenanigans24 says:

        Considering the number of people starving in the US is approximately zero I see little reason to entertain the idea. The only purpose I can see for exposing it is to signal that the author “cares” and is one of the good guys. He doesn’t care enough to help people in any real way, or in a way that would require his own resources, but he cares enough to say it and maybe spend other’s resources on solving a problem that doesn’t exist.

        • rlms says:

          How much money do you have?

        • mdet says:

          The number of Americans literally starving to death is relatively pretty low, you are correct. But the number of people whose income is not enough to cover food, housing, utilities, transportation, healthcare, childcare, etc. is much larger, and the number of people who are living paycheck to paycheck in such a way that a single emergency expense could send them into debt is even larger. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggests that if someone can’t afford to cover all their expenses, not-starving will be one of their first priorities.

          Food stamps (and probably a public cafeteria by extension) don’t work by literally saving starving people from death. Food stamps work by covering the very bottom rung on Maslow’s Hierarchy (food) so that people can put the money they save on groceries towards other essential-but-not-life-threatening expenses, like rent, childcare, healthcare, transportation, etc. Maybe they can even open an emergency savings account (or any bank account, given that many poor people don’t make enough to avoid minimum balance fees).

          I’d also suggest googling “food insecurity”, ie people who aren’t literally starving to death but still don’t have three healthy meals a day.

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            The minimum balance for my (very large) credit union is zero. With that one gets a checking account, a savings account (with overmarket interest rates on the first $1000), an ATM card, and optionally a credit card. Also zero-fee ATM access to nearly every CU ATM in the country, free Quicken online, free TurboTax-simple online, free billpay to every utility provider in the state, every government agency in the state, every account in the US that has a routing number and account number, and every major credit card issuer in the US. If the subscribers credit rating is poor, the credit limit on the credit card is the sum of the money on deposit. I think I can write 12 checks a month for free, but I’m not sure, I’ve not actually written a paper check in over 3 years.

            This is not unusual, this is in fact pretty standard fare for most Credit Unions.

            There are real and understandable and justifiable reasons why many of the people who do not have a bank do not, but minimum personal account fees are not one of them.

          • mdet says:

            Thanks for the correction

          • shenanigans24 says:

            Are you suggesting that the current welfare programs are meeting Maslow’s survival needs? Because if that’s the case then you may want to look at what things are necessary for survival as people around the world and throughout history actually survived with far less than central air and electricity, etc.

            I don’t think welfare has any relationship to Maslow’s hierarchy, it’s an arbitrary standard based off what people have today which is obviously extraordinarily wealthy by historical standards, well past the lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy.

            But my point was the free restaurant solves zero problems. Do you disagree? I cannot find a single person in the US who starved from lack of access to food.

          • mdet says:

            I don’t think that the people who came up with welfare and food stamps were literally thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy. I was referencing Maslow as a way to explain why I find it intuitive that someone can both be not-starving and still not have enough money to afford the essentials, and also to illustrate that even if someone does have food, reducing the amount of resources that they spend to acquire it can still help by freeing up those resources for other, more productive things.

            I agree with Scott that government is just as much of a misaligned system as any corporation, so replacing private for-profit grocery stores with public government-run ones will not improve things, and will likely make them worse. But I disagree with your comment that the only reason someone would even propose the idea is to virtue signal by solving a problem that doesn’t exist. I do think that making it easier for poor people to get/make healthy meals is a laudable goal, even in a society like ours where life-threatening hunger is pretty rare.

            Imagine a hypothetical person who only makes the exact amount of money it takes to afford water, a roof, a cot, and enough soylent drink to keep them alive. It is both true that this person is not starving AND that giving them free food / food vouchers would greatly improve their life.

    • vV_Vv says:

      Also, why doesn’t the same signaling argument apply to supermarkets?

      We do observe that there are supermarkets with different price tiers, but even in lowest tier Lidls and the like, you can still find rich, or at least upper-middle class people doing their shopping, it’s not just bums buying cheap booze.

      • Murphy says:

        In charity shops I’ve seen people asking for a waitrose(upper middle class supermarket) bag rather than a lidl one because they didn’t want to be seen by their neighbors with a Lidl bag.

        There’s lots of people who are disdainful of the bargain supermarkets.

      • shenanigans24 says:

        The reason people don’t ride busses isn’t because they’re full of smelly poor people it’s because they’re totally impractical to anyone who can get ahold of a car. Food is so damn cheap the the transportation cost to get to the restaurant would likely exceed the cost buying a can of Spaghetti O’s for $0.40.

        • Tracy W says:

          Also, buses rattle around a lot more than trains or cars (for most car drivers). And train stations tend to have more shelter than bus stops. So buses are an uncomfortable way to travel.

        • maybe_slytherin says:

          Really depends on the urban planning of wherever you happen to live.

          Most of America was literally built for cars, and other transportation infrastructure was literally ripped up (especially streetcars). Many modern bus systems do have the problem of only being used by poor people and so having very little political importance.

          In lots of places, streets are small and congested (to some extent by design), parking is scarce and expensive, and buses go pretty well wherever you want. Bikes also exist, and with good bike lanes they have all the convenience of a car while being much cheaper.

          • ThirteenthLetter says:

            > Bikes also exist, and with good bike lanes they have all the convenience of a car while being much cheaper.

            As long as you live somewhere it never, ever snows, and don’t have children, and don’t need to carry more than a bag of groceries at a time.

          • Watchman says:

            Or hills. Hills are a definite argument for using the internal combustion engine (or equivalent).

    • dockovich says:

      I agree that rich people will slowly stop patronizing the hypothetical diner, it reminds me of how rich people behave in my town. I live in a suburb of Boston, H, filled with very rich and annoying people. To our west is a very working class city, W, that has all the usual American problems (drugs, crime, very poor people, etc.) and thus feels worlds away from our town’s absurd wealth derived mostly from Boston’s financial sector. Located within W is a Wal-Mart that is about ten minutes from my house.

      Twenty minutes to the south of my town is a less rich, but not poor, suburb of P that has a Target. Everyone in H drives to Target because it’s a better “experience.” Based on my own observation, patrons of Target are decidedly more blue collar than my town, but not necessarily the unemployed, sweatpantsed, neck-tattoo’d, drug-addled masses of the closer Wal Mart (that also sells diapers, wipes, cleaning supplies and Patriots t-shirts).

      This is the exact type of thing I believe Scott was talking about.

      Also, our westerly neighbor of W has several delicious and reasonably pizza restaurants. No one from H patronizes them, and instead pays $25 for a mediocre “artisanal flatbread” at a place that serves beer in mason jars. My point is that there is a premium paid to avoid poor people and poor neighborhoods.

      • AnthonyC says:

        As someone who has been living within a 2 minutes drive of that Wal-Mart for the past three years, you describe a remarkably worse picture of my town of residence than anyone who lives in (most parts of) it would recognize, albeit a picture most residents of your town seem to share. I would also add, a la grocery stores, that while your Fresh Market is quite nice compared to even our Whole Foods, your Stop & Shop is much more poorly organized than ours. And I agree we have better pizza 🙂 I also completely agree with your actual conclusion, I just felt vaguely and (unjustifiably, for no reason) very slightly insulted by the process for reaching it.

        • Protagoras says:

          Yeah, in most cities the actually dangerous and nasty parts constitute only a small fraction of the parts which outsiders view with suspicion.

        • dockovich says:

          I fully realize that everyone from Hingham is really annoying. I didn’t grow up here but have lived here for four years and it’s absolutely changing the way I view everywhere else. Didn’t mean to insult you, I’m just fascinated by the huge difference between Hingham and Weymouth that I never saw growing up and it seemed very appropriate here. My wife is sick of me talking about it.

      • Tracy W says:

        I think that’s avoiding “drug-addled masses”. In my hometown no one has a problem going to the weekend fruit & veggie markets that sell at half the cost of the New World supermarket, or going to a free concert at the park or the free library.

        And if no one from neighbourhood H goes to the pizza places in W, how do you know they’re delicious?

      • Lillian says:

        Target is genuinely a better shopping experience than Walmart. The lights in Walmarts are brighter and colder than those at Targets, the walls and floors starker white, the shelving less appealing, and the layout less intuitive. So just from a plain atmosphere and design standpoint, Target is superior. On top of that Walmarts are generally dirtier, louder, and full of lumpenproles, so yeah it’s completely reasonable to drive an extra ten minutes to Target if you can afford it.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      The only way that could possibly be is counter-signalling. Ashton Kutcher with trucker hats. “I’m so obviously rich I’m eating here to show I’m so rich no one will possibly confuse me with a poor person eating at the Poor People Cafeteria.”

      • Tracy W says:

        Close but not quite. It’s more like not bothering to signal. Do you worry about signalling that you have a grade school education? Only if you have some reason to worry that people might think you don’t.

    • Alex Zavoluk says:

      Combining some personal anecdotes and hearsay, it seems that many well-off but not super rich people will spend most of their incomes on high-visibility goods (expensive alcohol, large but cheaply constructed homes aka McMansions, BMWs) while really wealthy people don’t need to do so. Sort of like this post.

    • maybe_slytherin says:

      Yes, thank you.

      I get so annoyed at arguments that total stratification by income is both inevitable and in some sense the natural order. It seems like a failure of imagination extrapolated from the worst parts of American society, and often has a racial tinge that’s conveniently omitted.

      Like…in most big cities with a subway system, it’s regularly used by everyone from millionaires to beggars. All these arguments about signalling and safety and successive tiers of wealth suggest that should never happen. And yes, some people drive, and extremely wealthy people might have a chauffeur. But for the most part, people use it because it’s a fast and cheap way to get places, and there’s no stigma.

      • Cliff says:

        And you think the same would apply to free-food government restaurants? I think most middle–class people wouldn’t want to go there because it would be taking advantage of charity they don’t need.

        • 1soru1 says:

          If that is true of a country, then that country has a cultural misadaption to the laws of economics, and so over time will be outcompeted by other, better-adapted countries.

          You may be able to think of real-world examples of that process in action.

      • albatross11 says:

        Perhaps one explanation for this stratification is that we often have terrible mismanagement of stuff like public transit or public schools (or public safety!) in the US. I’m not sure why, but it’s not all that uncommon for the public transit system to be kind-of unsafe to use because of crime or poor maintenance, or for the public schools to be such pits of dysfunction that nobody with any choice sends their kids there. My impression is that this is much less common in most of Europe, but I may just be naive about that.

    • spurious says:

      Schools are a different matter because you’re picking your kids’ peers.

      A fair cop. ‘Tis okay for one to co-opt the look and feel of the proletariat in order to scare off the middle-middle-class, as long as one’s darling daughter is in no danger of meeting the former.

      (I assume you’re pointing your dowsing rods to Quentin Bell in this case.)

  4. romeostevens says:

    Maybe we should encourage people to add msg to these foods the way they do with ramen so they are more palatable:
    http://www.miketuritzin.com/writing/eating-healthily-for-3-a-day/

    (tangentially, 6 of the 7 of those are present in mealsquares in some form due to nutrition density :D)

  5. Jiro says:

    If I love soda, and it’s the only good thing in my life right now, and I’ve thought long and hard about how unhealthy it is, but I’d rather improve my health some other way and stick with the soda – I can.

    The same applies if the poor person really likes drugs or alcohol and would rather buy that instead of either food or soda.

    But you know what? I may want poor people to have things such as food, clothes, and shelter, but I don’t want to increase their utility; if they get more utility from things other than food, clothing, and shelter, I still want them to have the food, clothing, and shelter, and not the other things. I may not mind being taxed to give the poor food, but I certainly mind being taxed to give the poor utility-increasing things, even if they are drugs or alcohol.

    This also applies to “healthy food” versus “food with not enough healthiness for its price”. They may want the latter. I don’t want to donate it to them, and I’m not alone in this.

  6. MugaSofer says:

    He says that “our public option for food does not mean people can’t go elsewhere, just as our public school system doesn’t mean that people can’t enroll in private schools”. But in practice, only the rich would have that option; poor people wouldn’t have enough to afford anything else.

    Isn’t this exactly the argument people have been making about the standing-only seating in airplanes?

    I think about the media. What would life be like with a single government-run news source? Best case scenario, it’s NPR, which I can’t stand. Median scenario, it’s CNN, which is, well, CNN. Worst case scenario, it’s the Trump News Network (don’t worry, he gave it to Ivanka, so there’s no conflict of interest).

    I’m pretty sure the actual best case is the BBC.

    Capitalism is Moloch. But democracy is also Moloch. Both are intense competitions. Both are going to be won by people trying to win the competition, not people trying to be nice and do the right thing. In both, we expect that winning the competition will have something to do with being good – capitalists win partly by making good products, candidates win partly by making good policy. But both systems have equally deep misalignments that can’t be eliminated just be filling them with nice people.

    Which is why we should let states compete with each other in an Archipelago system, to escape competition, right? (Possibly with a strong unelected central government comprised of Nice People ensuring that people receive education and exit rights and so on without overstepping their bounds.)

    • Jiro says:

      I’m pretty sure the actual best case is the BBC.

      Which doesn’t exactly make a good case for it.

      • Protagoras says:

        It doesn’t?

        • Standing in the Shadows says:

          Jimmy Savile wasn’t outed and couldn’t be outed, until the BBC had real local-national UK-wide competition. Soon after it did, the story could no longer be suppressed at the “highest levels”.

          Everyone in a position of power inside the BBC knew, or very carefully made sure they never quite saw enough to confirm their suspicions.

          • Protagoras says:

            Stories coming out of Hollywood these days hardly suggest that the free market has been much better at exposing bad actors in their ranks. And do you have a similar attitude toward, e.g., the Catholic church?

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            You make my point for me.

            Those stories coming out of Hollywood are coming out precisely because the Oligopoly of Approved Media Sources staffed with people who are themselves priests in the Cults Of Celebrity has been breaking down over the past two decades, with multiple expanding popular public information conduits owned and operated by people who are not cowed or impressed by a threatening bribe from a studio head’s consigliere.

            If you want to invoke the sickening and long suppressed stories coming out of Hollywood, that is the opposite of being in favor of a Nationalized Approved News Source.

        • Jiro says:

          I was thinking more of things like the Balen report, not abuse scandals.

        • Huh? ITV started in the fifties. And what about the press? I remember a press story about Saville in the nineties, which hus lawyers quickly squashed.

          • Watchman says:

            Because it’s easy to squash a story if the organisations that can investigate are more concerned with hiding the evidence. And as any organisation has to protect its own reputation, this sort of thing happens and is hushed up.

          • Inasmuch as that is pretty general, it is not much of an objection to the BBC.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “Isn’t this exactly the argument people have been making about the standing-only seating in airplanes?”

      I don’t think so; my impression is that Nathan wants to replace food stamps with this. If he wants to add it as a possibility in addition to food stamps, I have no problem (except maybe cost, since I expect food stamps would be more efficient)

      • Matthew Reinert says:

        You should probably make it clear in the original post that your objection is aesthetic rather than ideological.

        Also, without a central government voice (or some sort of central truth authority) what is the way to combat weaponized misinformation? Just as capitalism for food optimizes it to be hyper palatable… capitalism for information optimizes it to be hyper engaging.

        • Incurian says:

          Also, without a central government voice (or some sort of central truth authority) what is the way to combat weaponized misinformation?

          I can’t tell if this is serious.

          • Matthew Reinert says:

            Edit: I just realized my original post above was in response to the wrong comment by Scott Alexander. I meant to respond to the comment talking about why he didn’t like NPR. My comment has absolutely nothing to do with food stamps.

            Honestly, neither can I. I do think our current news situation is akin to telling 5 year olds that they can choose between the cabbage and the candy.

            I don’t know what the solution is… a Ministry of Truth is not it… but “all you can eat lies” seems like a bad status quo to accept.

        • Also, without a central government voice (or some sort of central truth authority) what is the way to combat weaponized misinformation?

          With a central government voice, what is the way to combat weaponized misinformation?

    • blacktrance says:

      Isn’t this exactly the argument people have been making about the standing-only seating in airplanes?

      It would be more analogous if sitting passengers had to pay for part of the cost of standing passengers’ tickets. If I don’t want a standing ticket, I pay for a sitting one instead, but if I don’t want to go to the government cafeteria, I still have to subsidize it with my taxes.

      • Standing in the Shadows says:

        They already do.

        The cheapest seats don’t even cover their marginal cost, but since the seat has to fly no matter what, the airlines instead try to lower their losses on them instead of make a profit on them.

        The people paying for the expensive seats pay for the airplane, including subsidizing the cheap seats.

        • indexador2 says:

          That doesn’t make any sense, an airline is not a charity. If they made no profit from most of the passengers they would buy smaller planes.

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            One, I didn’t say “most of the seats” I said “the cheapest seats”. The purpose of yield management is to drive the number of seats that don’t pay for themselves towards zero, but the total number is not zero, and can’t be.

            Two, they do buy smaller planes. As the airlines have gotten better at load management, they fly more smaller planes than they used to.

            Three, by one metric, they are a charity. As has been pointed out many times by investment observers, the entire airline industry summed over it’s history, has in the aggregate total, lost money. Not even counting the insane costs of military flights.

          • bean says:

            One, I didn’t say “most of the seats” I said “the cheapest seats”. The purpose of yield management is to drive the number of seats that don’t pay for themselves towards zero, but the total number is not zero, and can’t be.

            As I pointed out below, not true unless we replace ‘marginal’ with ‘average’.

            Two, they do buy smaller planes. As the airlines have gotten better at load management, they fly more smaller planes than they used to.

            This is also not true. The big change has been the dramatic increase in range from smaller planes making it easier to fly them on routes. Higher frequency means happier business travelers. Operating economics are complicated, but in general the per-seat cost is lower on big planes. But the load factors are likely to be lower, too.

            Three, by one metric, they are a charity. As has been pointed out many times by investment observers, the entire airline industry summed over it’s history, has in the aggregate total, lost money. Not even counting the insane costs of military flights.

            Why would military flights count? And I think they’re in the black in net now, but that’s only been over the last 5 years.

        • bean says:

          The cheapest seats don’t even cover their marginal cost, but since the seat has to fly no matter what, the airlines instead try to lower their losses on them instead of make a profit on them.

          This is very much not true, but I think it’s because you’re confusing ‘marginal’ with ‘average’. The marginal cost of filling the last seat on an airliner is basically zero. The cheapest fares definitely do not cover the average cost of the flight, but they’re also basically pure profit because the marginal costs are so low. (And by that, I mean that you’re literally looking at a single-digit number of gallons of fuel, a soda, and a bag of peanuts, so something like $25. Less for Spirit, who charges for soda and peanuts.)

        • The cheapest seats don’t even cover their marginal cost

          The marginal cost of filling a seat that would otherwise be empty is very close to zero–perhaps the cost to the airline of a bag of peanuts and a can of soda.

          What were you intending “their marginal cost” to mean?

          • Nornagest says:

            There’s also fuel cost — more heavily laden planes burn more fuel, so it costs more to the airline to haul a couple hundred pounds of meatsack and luggage than to haul an ounce or so of air. But that’s only a small fraction of the ticket cost.

            ETA: I see bean made the same point above. Well, I’ll leave this up anyway.

    • Alex Zavoluk says:

      Isn’t this exactly the argument people have been making about the standing-only seating in airplanes?

      The relevant institutions are attempting to solve entirely different problems. Airlines are not in charge of making sure that everyone has access to some minimum standard of airline travel, but lots of people want government to ensure that everyone has food and education of some particular standard.

      Also, a budget airline is still subject to market forces. Other cheap airlines can compete. If the government is involved, they can subsidize a terribly inefficient institution, as happens with education. You would expect that the government cafeteria might drive competitors (cheap restaurants) out of business by not charging anything at all. The only remaining “budget” private schools seem to be religious ones, at least as far as I can tell. Poorer people can choose from among budget airlines, all less-budget-airlines-that-are-still-a-good-deal, but there are generally no such choices in education.

  7. Nabil ad Dajjal says:

    This was a few thousand words more than are needed for an argument that amounts to “Hey why don’t we collectivize the food supply! What could possibly go wrong?”

    Command economies for food are the single deadliest policy choice you could make short of literally herding people into death camps. It has a 100% track record of mass starvation.

    I don’t normally make #currentyear arguments but seeing this sort of stuff in the 21st century is mind-blowing. We really learned nothing…

    • reasoned argumentation says:

      Well argued rebuttals to painfully stupid arguments are useful.

    • shakeddown says:

      This isn’t a command economy, it’s a welfare program. The worst-case scenario is regression to 1963 levels of starvation in America. This isn’t a good idea, but it’s not Mao-level bad.

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        You’re probably right. In the short term this is more about bringing back Government Cheese than liquidating Kulaks.

        The reason I get nervous with this stuff is that, to a certain mindset, the answer is always to double down. Failure in the private sector is evidence that we need more nationalization, and failure in the public sector is also evidence that we need more nationalization.

        This guy doesn’t show any awareness that what he’s proposing isn’t untested. We’ve seen what nationalized supermarkets and restaurants look like. Until very recently you could go visit some yourself in East Berlin. All the ostalgie in the world can’t cover up the fact that people scaled walls in order to escape that kind of society.

        • maybe_slytherin says:

          The reason I get nervous with this stuff is that, to a certain mindset, the answer is always to double down. Failure in the private sector is evidence that we need more nationalization, and failure in the public sector is also evidence that we need more nationalization.

          On the opposite side of the spectrum, consider this framing:

          The reason I get nervous with this stuff is that, to a certain mindset, the answer is always to double down. Failure in the public sector is evidence that we need more privatization, and failure in the private sector is also evidence that we need more privatization.

          This is a pretty good framing of liberal hostility towards libertarianism. An analogous version would apply to social conservatives’ hostility towards sexual liberalism, and I’m sure to many other situations. Everyone sees their opponents as going down a slippery slope.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            The symmetry breaks because excess privatization hasn’t killed 100 million people in living memory.

            If things go too far in a libertarian direction I can still buy a boat ticket and head overseas. If things go too far in a socialist direction there will be very insistent men with machine guns there specifically to keep me from leaving.

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            Up on Youtube today there is an uncut security camera footage of someone trying to leave a socialist people’s paradise just over a week ago, and his loving comrades gifting him with at least 5 pieces of steel and lead to try to convince him not to make such a mistake.

            Every Communist apologist should be sent to that paradise of people’s solidarity. The Dear Leader there can put them to work hand tilling the farms fertilized with their own “night soil”. The parasitic worms are just a crowning touch.

          • maybe_slytherin says:

            In trying to decide everyday policy issues, I might suggest it’s unhelpful to immediately extrapolate to the worst possible version of any given position and compare kill scores.

            I think there are some things that should be private, and some that should be public, and while we may not all agree on which is which, when one approach fails we should consider a different one.

            For the record, I think food should be private, with some assistance in the form of food stamps (or UBI). Health care and transportation…not so much.

      • Standing in the Shadows says:

        How many dekaHitlers is Mao?

    • onyomi says:

      I think the most important insight here is how common it still is to compare idealized or best-case-scenario socialism with real-world or worst-case-scenario free markets. The numbered comparisons under III are especially good.

      • Matthew Reinert says:

        Though there… there’s a definite problem in America to never use foreign examples which sometimes are ideal socialist version.

        The example from this post would be Scott’s non inclusion of Finland schools. Which seem to work really, really well and are public and mandatory. He just takes it as given that government schools will suck without explaining the international exceptions.

        • onyomi says:

          I don’t think Scott’s argument is “free markets always produce better results than socialism,” or “government never does anything right”; I think it’s that it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison when you say “real-world capitalism has some bad incentives, so let’s contrast that to a version of socialism in which we assume the different set of incentive problems inherent to socialism have already been overcome somehow and we just have some competent, well-meaning, well-funded government employees doing the same task.”

          And while it’s true most Americans (and most people) could probably do with a more global perspective, there’s another apples-to-oranges problem introduced when citing international examples: the Finnish school system may work better than most US public school systems for reasons having to do with differences between the US and Finland other than capitalism vs. socialism. Of course, the US at point x in the past is also different from the US in the current year, but probably not nearly as different as America and Finland given most, if not all, values of x.

          • Matthew Reinert says:

            Agreed. The process is always the most important. Otherwise it’s an underpants gnomes problem. This is especially true when you do have an “achieved elsewhere” end goal like say “Single Payer” or “Finland Schools.”

            Yes, the destination is real but what vehicle are you going to use to get there? What does their system have, that ours doesn’t, which avoids the pitfalls?

          • These discussions tend to start with someone denying that the end point is achievable, usually using simple axiomatic arguments, and then, when the empirical evidence is pointed out, fall back to “we can’t get there because…errr…race?”. But given how common it is to deny the possibility of the end point, that’s important too.

            The underpants gnomes have the problem that they think the end point is achievable, but don’t know how t get there. Their counterparts are people who think the end point is unacheivable, but are guessing about what is blocking it.

        • Which are easily explicable: governments don’t suck always and everywhere , but they do suck in places where they are expected to suck.

        • Watchman says:

          Finland’s school system is probably non-replicable outside of a few other similiar countries. For a start it requires a relatively homogenous population (it’s a one-size fits all comprehensive system – the UK can act as proof this fails in non-homogenous situations) and teachers are due to a strong Lutherean culture highly regarded (I might ask what went wrong in Wisconsin…) and therefore highly paid, despite the supply of potential teachers heavily outstripping the demand. The one substantial minority in Finland is Swedish speaking and traditionally well-integrated, including sharing a similiar religious history.

          Also, in terms of scale, it is worth remembering Finland is small (just under 5.5 million people) and has a fairly old population (it might be the population is starting to fall due to lack of replacement births). 22 US states have larger populations than Finland, and I would not be surprised if several others had larger school-age populations (I am almost certain Puerto Rico does as well). A system which works well, at the moment (Finnish education was not good thirty years ago), for one relatively-small country is not an indication that that system will work well for the whole USA, any more than a system that works well in say Montana (selected because Wikidpedia thinks it tops US educational attainment) can be expected to work in New Jersey.

          • he UK can act as proof this fails in non-homogenous situations)

            Could you expand on that?

          • Anything might not work. and that is a completely general argument for never trying.

          • Watchman says:

            TheANcientGeekAKA17,

            Comprehensive schools in the UK can be very good (mine was, although my younger sister’s wasn’t – same place, slightly less than a decade apart..) but there is a strong correlation between poor schools and non-homogenous cultures. Interestingly when you get schools that are almost entirely homogenous cultures that have migrated to the UK they tend to do much better than non-homogenous schools, so it is unlikely just to be a problem of lack of homogenity meaning deprived communities, especially because there is a metric, contextual value added, that gives at least a crude attempt to deal with this.

            The best arguments I’ve seen around this suggest different cultural expectations and attitudes towards education make it more dificult to target a good offer to students. I would also allow that the potential for conflict in the non-homogenous schools is greater (children are rarely politically correct) and therefore they are tougher places to work meaning they have less chance of retaining good staff.

            Incidentally, I agree with your comment about trying. But what part of the Finnish system needs trying in the US, which has not already been tried somewhere? In fact I’d be quite surprised if the Finns, as the current poster child for state education (I’m old enough to remember it being the French…), have not inspired some school districts to copy the model. My point though is that there is no reasonable expectation that the Finnish case would work on the much larger scale of the US or even the UK: remember the US has an county that is more populous than Finland in Los Angeles, which implies a whole load of different problems, and London is also more populous than Finland. That said, Scotland, with its own education system and high levels of homogenity (give or take religious intolerance around Glasgow) might have suitable characteristics, although the slightly Calvinist background may not produce the same respect for educators the Lutherean background managed.

          • rlms says:

            @Watchman
            “interestingly when you get schools that are almost entirely homogenous cultures that have migrated to the UK they tend to do much better than non-homogenous schools”
            Citation needed. My school was very good and also near-maximally heterogenous. Of course, anecdotal evidence isn’t worth much, but you don’t even seem to be giving any in the opposite direction.

          • This is all a bit beside the point, because no-one is saying that the Finnish system would definitely work in the US. Rather, some people are putting forward examples of public education that work, and others are responding with “well it wouldn’t work here” as a fallback.

            I need an explanation of why scale is relevant. It is too glib to note that there is a difference between country A, and country B, and immediately conclude that it will prove a stumbling block.

          • Germany’s education is nearly as good as Finland’s and it is a large country.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Germany, however, has a tracked education system, not a one-size-fits-all one.

          • Why is that a “however”?

          • I need an explanation of why scale is relevant.

            One general explanation is that it is easier for a small group to solve the public good problem than a large group.

            Suppose you are a parent in a small town where the town controls the local public school, enrollment 100 students, two of which are your kids. The authorities are more willing to listen to your complaints than in a school system in a city of three million, because you represent a much larger fraction of the electorate–especially if we include a few of your friends who are influenced by your views on something important to you. And you are more willing to make the effort to improve the school, because you will get 2% of the benefit instead of .001%.

            Add in cultural homogeneity, and now all the parents want about the same thing, which makes it in the interest of the people running the schools to provide that thing, even at the cost of opposition from (say) the Teachers Union, supposing that the thing is costly for teachers (not providing tenure, for instance, so that bad teachers can be fired).

            Make that cultural homogeneity where the culture is one that puts a high value on education of their children, and the school may find it necessary to provide that. Especially if the teachers, being of the same culture, share that value.

            Communism can work for very small groups, most obviously families. It can work for somewhat larger groups with enough in common–the Oneida Commune, for example. It scales badly. Democracy seems to have a similar pattern.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            Any discussion of why scale is relevant really needs to be preceded by a discussion of why Finland is relevant. What, specifically, are they doing that we’re not? (Further questions: Might there be a reason why we’re not already doing those things here? What’s going to make that reason go away?)

          • John Schilling says:

            Why is that [Germany’s educational tracking] a “however”?

            Because German-style educational tracking is presently infeasible in the United States. Too easy to denounce any actual implementation as “racist”, and conflicts with the new interpretation of the “American Dream” wherein Everyone Should Go To College.

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          If America was populated by Finns or Swedes then Nordic socialism might work.

          But as Finland and Sweden are discovering with their new African and middle eastern populations, it’s not a cure-all.

          This is why the ability to notice is important. It keeps you from constantly repeating the same mistakes over and over.

          • Is social democracy a failure in Canada an new Zealand as well?

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Isn’t Canada a little more selective about who they let in than Sweden has been?

          • I don’t think there are lot of Finns and Swedes there.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @TheAncientGreekAKA1Z

            I can’t speak for New Zealand, but comparing Canada to Sweden, I think, shows multiculturalism working much better in Canada than in Sweden, or in the other European social democracies, as well as better than in the US. There’s a whole bunch of reasons for this, but the end result is that Canada is a country that has managed to balance a high level of immigration (over double the per capita legal immigration of the US) with a political culture lacking the anti-immigration elements most Western countries have (our Conservatives are far more immigrant-friendly than the Republicans, and we don’t have anything like the Sweden Democrats).

            Some of the reasons Canada could do this Sweden (or Germany, or the US, or wherever) could adopt – so, some basis for the traditional Canadian smugness. Some of the reasons are due to history (which is hard to change). Some are due to geography (even harder).

            But people who bring up Canadian successes in the European context are missing stuff or being disingenuous, just as people who bring up (exaggerated or not) European horror stories to justify anti-immigration politics in Canada are doing likewise.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I mean I was under the impression Canada had a far more merit-based immigration process. Regardless of ethnic background, immigrants to Canada are more educated and of higher socioeconomic status than the recent migrant arrivals to Europe.

          • dndnrsn says:

            TL;DR I’m a multiculturalism-loving pinko leaf who thinks our public policy is super good, you guys, eh

            The points system is, I think, one big advantage over not just Europe but also over the US. The average immigrant to Canada is not only better educated, higher SES, more skilled, etc than the average person from their country of origin, but also than the average Canadian. Under the points system, most Canadians would not qualify to enter Canada were they not already Canadians. Immigrants are thus not perceived as a draw on the system – because, on average, they are not a draw on the system – which seriously limits xenophobia in Canada. It exists, but nowhere near to the extent of the US, let alone Europe. Especially considering the high relative level of immigration Canada has.

            We also want immigrants a lot more than Western Europe does – even the countries that profess great eagerness for immigrants come off to me as wanting to want, rather than wanting, immigration. Which is part of what is preventing European countries from having good immigration systems – instead, asylum seeker and refugee policy appears to be standing in for proper immigration policy.

            Canada’s system works well because, as noted, immigrants are perceived as contributors to the system. Further helping things is that all three major national parties have a realistic expectation of getting the votes of modern-day immigrants who become citizens, their kids, etc. Whereas the US Republican party is increasingly the party of native-born whites, the Conservatives here are able to attract significant numbers of voters who are neither native-born nor white; conversely, the Liberals and NDP can’t rely on those votes in the same way the Democrats can. The upshot of this is that none of the three major parties has an incentive to treat immigration policy as a political football, and there is little incentive to engage in anti-immigrant rabble-rousing (what of that there is focuses on refugees and asylum seekers – who don’t go through the points system). And, as I said, we have nothing like the more or less single-issue anti-immigrant parties of Europe.

            (the obvious contrast is to the Quebec-nationalist parties, which are not hugely friendly to multiculturalism; the failure of a referendum was notoriously blamed on “money and the ethnic vote” by separatists; it’s not a coincidence that by some accounts Trudeau senior saw multiculturalism as a way to outflank the Anglo-Quebecois divide)

            Of course, there’s geography – Canada is relatively hard to get to. And both the US and Canada have the advantage over Europe that our national cultures are much more malleable (which is, sadly, in large part due to the way the people inhabiting these lands were dispossessed – the treatment of aboriginals in Canada is probably the worst thing about Canada right now). For Europe to successfully integrate immigrants (which I think they have to do, because Europeans seem to not want to go about the business of making more people on-site) will require hard work (and luck) to change national cultures such that they can simultaneously integrate newcomers and remain recognizable (in the same way that while Canada of 2017 is very different from 1917, and in ways that might horrify the median Canadian circa 1917, the two are still recognizably the same thing). The current Western European approach appears to be to try and make as few hard decisions as possible and hope it all works out somehow.

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            If the US replaced all our immigration with a points based system, especially with a points based system as rigorous and with as high cut-offs, as Canada and New Zealand do, and reworked our jus soli rules to be like those in Canada and New Zealand, that would cut the legs out from under anti-immigration sentiment in the US.

            But that can’t be allowed to happen, because of All the Reasons, most especially because it would hurt the feelings of progressives who keep saying that they want the US to be more like Canada and more like New Zealand.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Would the people who want to bring in a points system be happy with more than doubling the # of immigrants per capita, though?

          • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

            Would the people who want to bring in a points system be happy with more than doubling the # of immigrants per capita, though?

            How much of the previous inmigration waves do they get to roll back?

          • Jesse E says:

            “If the US replaced all our immigration with a points based system, especially with a points based system as rigorous and with as high cut-offs, as Canada and New Zealand do, and reworked our jus soli rules to be like those in Canada and New Zealand, that would cut the legs out from under anti-immigration sentiment in the US.”

            Except of course, the problems people supposedly have with our current immigration system simply don’t exist. There’s basically no low skill immigration anymore since Mexico’s economy is getting better.

            The evil “chain migration” that immigration restrictionists hate is indeed, the main way highly skilled immigrants have gotten to the country and it’s partly the reason why we’re having such an easier path to assimilation than other countries.

            In reality, immigrants are doing a great job at becoming Americans, in all the ways they can control.

            https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-03-24/immigrants-are-making-the-u-s-economy-stronger

            https://www.bloombergquint.com/view/2017/11/21/immigrants-do-a-great-job-at-becoming-americans

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Jesse E

            Regardless of the details, these things are about perception as much as about reality. The combination of the points system and how it is perceived with the way that the Conservatives are not (like the Republicans) limited in who will vote for them by ethnicity has many positive effects for Canada.

            That the US is better at assimilating immigrants than Europe (or anywhere else “Old Country”) has relatively little to do with the system used in immigration – after all, Canada is just as good if not better – and more to do with our more malleable national culture. If Germany or Sweden or wherever adopted the US’ immigration system 100% would it aid integration? Maybe, but it would not get it to the US’ ability. Likewise, adopting Canada’s system would not get things the way they are in Canada.

          • hlynkacg says:

            @ Jesse E
            In addition to what dndnrsn says above there’s also the apparent equivocation between immigration and illegal/undocumented immigration.

            People who jump through the hoops to come here legally have already demonstrated both a respect for the law and a willingness to put in the effort. We expect them to integrate quickly.

            Meanwhile, the existence of “Sanctuary Cities” thoroughly falsifies your claim that the problems people have with our current system don’t exist.

          • apollocarmb says:

            “Nordic socialism” does not exist. Social democracy is not socialism.

            You completely fail the ITT here

          • rlms says:

            @apollocarmb
            To be fair, by that standard e.g. Bernie Sanders would fail too.

          • The stuff about the Canadian immigration system is all very well, but is anyone going to defend either of the two racial theories that prompted it, or has the conversation been successfully derailed?

          • dndnrsn says:

            @TheAncientGeekAKA1Z

            Talking about horrible banned discourse is usually discouraged, and thus is usually limited to Dark Hinting(tm) of varying degrees of subtlety. I don’t subscribe to such theories, and think that the discussion of the Canadian vs other immigration systems, in showing that there is far more going on than “country of origin” or whatever, helps to stand against such mistaken theories.

            The softer version is the “cultural explanation” which holds that homogeny: higher trust. This isn’t really a racial theory, is it? Because it would predict that homogeny is the deciding factor – doesn’t matter what the particular geny is, so to speak. Further, “homogeny” is more than just “everyone is roughly the same shade” – it would predict that a country made up of a mix of Swedes, Poles, Germans, and English would be lower-trust. Again, Canada seems to have a pretty good thing going, despite being quite heterogeneous these days, especially in some places.

          • Actually, it is just the terms that are banned.

          • dndnrsn says:

            The banning of terms is, in part, an attempt to keep people from discussing those things? And, as far as I know, the “no race/gender in the open thread” rule was never actually gotten rid of.

          • Protagoras says:

            @dndnrsn, No, the banning of terms is not an attempt to keep people from discussing those things. It is explicitly an attempt to keep people from being brought to SSC by searching for those terms, because the people who search for those terms are mostly not the people Scott wants stopping by and joining the discussion.

        • Paul Zrimsek says:

          Life on the right would be pretty easy if we could wave away any instance of the market not working well for some people with “well, it’s working fine for these other people”.

        • JohnBuridan says:

          I love Finland. Finland is my number one. Any State in the U.S. can try the Finnish system if they want to (I would love to see them try), but I think it is truly impossible for any state in the U.S. to adopt the Finnish system.

          Finland has the population of Missouri.
          Finland adopted it’s education system under Urho Kekkonen, and it took 20 years of really high taxes before they started seeing results.

          In the U.S. 20 years an unimaginably long time-horizon.

    • fion says:

      You’re wrong. I am an intelligent, educated person who is rather tempted by public food as an idea. This post was interesting, avoided being insulting or condescending, and persuaded me somewhat away from public food.

      At the end of the day, people like me exist and if you want to persuade them, you need to take their arguments seriously and write a thorough, polite, intelligent response that explains why you’re right and they’re wrong. Reminding them what century we live in does the opposite of help your cause.

  8. drethelin says:

    Here’s the thing: Money is the Unit of Caring. Maximizing money will to some extent involve fraud or theft or graft, but on a fundamental level capitalist businesses have to actually provide something that people care about, because otherwise they won’t spend their hard-earned money on it.

    Governments simply don’t have to do this. Votes are worthless on margin, and so people throw them away on obvious warmongers and lunatics and idiots and charismatic farm-girl types. 99.99 percent of our government isn’t elected in the first place anyway. There’s nothing a citizen can do to effectively convey to a bureaucrat with a job for life that he’s unsatisfied with the service they’re providing, short of terrorism. You have no voice when it comes to most of what the government does. If you decide not use the government’s service, it’s no skin off their nose, because they get your money anyway, at gunpoint.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Came here to say this, surprised it wasn’t in the post! People make better decisions when they have to stake something.

      • shakeddown says:

        Do they? I get the theory, but are is there any data backing this claim?

        • Watchman says:

          There was this huge experiment, from 1945-89, where one bunch of countries maintained strong state control, whilst another bunch went from a post-wartime central control to increasingly free-market economies allowing individual choice. Can’t remember how it turned out…

          The United Kingdom tried another experiment in the eighteenth century, allowing increased monetary flow and effectively ending non-monetary transactions. Last I heard that had produced a few interesting spin-offs and had involved a large chunk of the planet.

          There may also be some academic papers – economists (other than the outliers) are pretty clear than a transactional economy produces better outcomes than a controlled economy.

        • shenanigans24 says:

          Considering the nature of value is subjective a study would be impossible. You could look at people’s decisions and decide they made the wrong ones but that would be replacing ones subjective opinion on another and declaring it objective.

        • theory says:

          My favorite example of this is that Las Vegas oddsmakers are consistently better at predicting outcomes of sports games than pundits and experts at sports journalism sites. One example: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/11/upshot/the-folly-of-nfl-season-forecasts.html

          • antiquarian says:

            What’s especially interesting about that is that the bookmakers aren’t trying to predict outcomes. What they are trying to do is get the same amount of money on both sides of the bet. That way they use the money from the people who lost to pay the people who won, and make their profits from the money they charge people to make the bets.

    • Matthew Reinert says:

      That seems to be making an awful lot of assumptions about the voting system. Also, the “job for life” thing.

      It seems over general.

    • reasoned argumentation says:

      Here’s the thing: Money is the Unit of Caring. Maximizing money will to some extent involve fraud or theft or graft, but on a fundamental level capitalist businesses have to actually provide something that people care about, because otherwise they won’t spend their hard-earned money on it.

      Governments simply don’t have to do this.

      That’s true but not sufficient (I originally started to write that it wasn’t true but actually it is – it’s not a necessary feature of governments to act that way).

      On the other hand, governments can have incentives to provide high quality services. Businesses observably do have those incentives. People have been convinced that all sorts of things other than “is correctly incentivized to provide quality services” and “is correctly incentivized not to slaughter millions” should matter when designing governments.

      Discussing how to incentivize governments to act like this is a whole other topic that Nathan Robinson would likely be equally insane about treat with the (ahem) same level of rigor that he applied to the part where he described how to set up a government bureau that would run a nationwide chain of Applebees without any of the techniques that Applebees uses (and with the giant additional hurdle of having no price mechanism to help out).

    • suntzuanime says:

      I can figure out the warmonger, lunatic, and idiot, but who’s the charismatic farm-girl? Jill Stein doesn’t seem to fit.

    • businesses have to actually provide something that people care about,

      Or something mislabelled as the thing they want. something they have become addicted to, etc. You haven’t answered any of the objections to the pure capitalism approach.

      • Watchman says:

        Isn’t this a strawman? I’ve never seen anyone advocate capitalism without the rule of law, although I’ve often seen people opposing capitalism assume that supporters of the system want this. And law should ensure misselling and sale of dangerous materials are regulated appropriately.

        • NB: “Pure”. You are saying capitalism works if you bolt something else on.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            What leads you to believe that the OP was talking about “pure capitalism” per your crabbed definition, as opposed to actually existing capitalism?

          • if OP was talking about pure capitalism, they were making points reduted by Scott. If they were talking about a mixed system, they were agreeing with Scott. Pointless either way.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            If they were talking about a mixed system, they were agreeing with Scott.

            Don’t worry, OP, they haven’t enforced that law in years.

          • Watchman says:

            @TheAncientGeekAKA1Z

            Yes, I am saying that capitalism works best with something (the rule of law) bolted onto it. Indeed, I would argue that this is the only way capitalism works, since the significantly few situations where rule of law has broken down in a capitalist society (normally as a result of an attempted revolution) suggest that results not in capitalism but in mercantilism or in the collapse of a market economy: the most recent example being Venezuala. Capitalism depends on law to protect the capital on which it is based – without law, the necessary underpinning of contracts and the like is unenforcable and capitalism fails to function.

            All of which means that I see ‘pure’ capitalism either to be a description of some variant of what we already have or more likely a strawman construct used to argue for state intervention to a degree which the actual practice of capitalism would not justify.

            I sometimes wonder whether there is an idea on the political left that capitalism can be like Marxism or other socialist philosophies and have a form that is pure in the sense of being true to its origins. No proponent of capitalism or neo-liberalism I have seen thinks it is a philosophy at all, but rather just an economic system which has developed and evolved, and tends to be able to exist pretty well by striking appropriate equilibria with state power. Yet opponents of capitalism tend to write pieces that give the impression that they understand there to exist an ideal type of capitalism which can be contrasted (unfavourably) with their ideal solution. I don’t know where one might find proponents of pure capitalism as opposed to people who advocate capitalism as a system including a role for the state, since it is only a concept that is used to oppose capitalism in my experience.

          • All of which means that I see ‘pure’ capitalism either to be a description of some variant of what we already have or more likely a strawman construct

            What do you think Ancaps and libertarians want?

          • I don’t know where one might find proponents of pure capitalism as opposed to people who advocate capitalism as a system including a role for the state

            Since you asked.

            Those of us who support capitalism without a role for the state argue that the framework of law and law enforcement can be produced endogenously.

          • What do you think Ancaps and libertarians want?

            Ancaps. Most libertarians are minarchists, hence believe in a (minimal) role for the state.

          • Because private law is just the thing to reign in powerful corporations and wealthy individuals.

      • shenanigans24 says:

        So fraud? Is that an objection to capitalism? I would say a free market necessarily means voluntary exchange and misrepresentation is not voluntary exchange since one party did not receive what was agreed. But fraud exists everywhere. In a capitalist society where the law backs the market you could file a lawsuit, in a communist one I suppose you could file a complaint with a bureaucracy and in an anarchist one you could go shoot the guy or take your money back. Regardless fraud is not a feature unique to capitalism.

        • Steve Winwood says:

          “Fraud” less relevant than something like Facebook packaging an infinite wireheading timesuck that measurably makes the user less happy under the guise of “greater social connections.” To be more general, capitalism ruthlessly exploits the gaps between true human goals (to have sufficient nutrition) and the things we’ve evolved to crave as benchmarks of that goal (sugar, processed foods, etc.)

          I don’t doubt that other systems would seek to hijack human psychology in similar ways, but I don’t think there’s any way they would be nearly as efficient.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Isn’t naked force more efficient than clever algorithms, marketing, etc? I mean, FaceBook has to do an awful lot of work to make itself rich and powerful and “oppressive,” I suppose. But some goons with big sticks who whack you if you don’t do what you’re told is way more efficient.

          • shenanigans24 says:

            This objection comes down to “people buy stuff I don’t like.” You may think FB is a stupid waste of time but a society where you or anyone else decides what services are allowed by the plebes is a hell of a lot more oppressive than one where the plebes decide it for themselves.

          • Aapje says:

            @Conrad Honcho

            It’s extremely inefficient to have a goon physically present to ensure that people drink their coke and eat their fries. It works much better to make people want it, especially since people tend to dislike goons, but are far more OK with people exploiting their weaknesses.

          • It works much better to make people want it, especially since people tend to dislike goons, but are far more OK with people exploiting their weaknesses.

            This way of putting it confuses two different arguments. One is that firms can, by some mysterious enchantment, make people want whatever the firms desires them to. The classic version of that involved flashing images on a screen too quickly to be consciously viewed. Unfortunately for the argument, the research on which that belief was based turned out to be fraudulent.

            A different, and correct, argument is that firms will provide individuals with what they want, whether or not it is what they should want–will, for instance, provide sweet foods because evolution has programmed us to value sweetness even when it is not good for us. That is true, but it is not clear that there is any mechanism which will provide people only with what they should want.

          • John Schilling says:

            That is true, but it is not clear that there is any mechanism which will provide people only with what they should want.

            However, there are many mechanisms which will provide people only with what I think that they should want. It isn’t even necessary to make me the dictator to do that – a strong democratic socialist government with the power to ban products from the marketplace but with all major media run by people who think like me and outside of government control, will have that result.

            Very tempting to people for whom “what people should want” and “what I think people should want” are synonyms.

          • That is true, but it is not clear that there is any mechanism which will provide people only with what they should want.

            And only perfection avails.

          • Kevin C. says:

            @Steve Winwood

            To be more general, capitalism ruthlessly exploits the gaps between true human goals (to have sufficient nutrition) and the things we’ve evolved to crave as benchmarks of that goal (sugar, processed foods, etc.)

            It’s funny, on the visible open thread I also made an argument, on a slightly different topic, involving the distinction between “true human goals” and “things we’ve evolved to crave as benchmarks of that goal”. And got a lot more pushback than you did; nobody here seems to have claimed that the “true human goals” are irrelevant and meaningless, and that the only thing with moral weight is pleasing those taste buds in whichever way each individual chooses.

      • toastengineer says:

        It still has to be within a certain radius of what they actually want. If Nestle begins selling food that, say, doesn’t actually provide any calories, or is actually poisonous, people will notice that pretty shortly and stop buying it.

        Compare that with the government which takes our money, buys massive amounts of corn with it, and then makes us by the corn again anyway. The government would probably just let a lobbyist convince it to buy Nestle’s Lead Acetate Drink Mix, Certified 100% Nutrient Free with tax dollars and then when the poor refuse to buy it at the subsidized price, say “they’re clearly making unhealthy choices” and mandate that they do.

  9. jonmarcus says:

    It’s not just that capitalism has failure modes like “my soda tastes too good” and government has failure modes like “my family got rounded up and sent to death camps”

    Oh come on.

    Wait, I can play too…

    Government has failure modes like “You can’t put that decoration on your house” but capitalism has failure modes like Bhopal. Or “The company sent Pinkertons to massacre me and my family.”

    • Jiro says:

      If you insist in putting the decoration on your house, and you defend your property from the intrusion, and don’t pay the penalty decreed by the government. at some point you will be rounded up, and if you resist that, you will be massacred.

      The initial step isn’t massacre, but it’ll get to that.

      • adelaybeingreborn says:

        The initial step isn’t massacre, but it’ll get to that.

        Legally, there’s a critical distinction. Each penalty is associated with a distinct offense. If I start with speeding, the penalty for that offense is a small fine. If I voluntarily escalate my crimes repeatedly until I end up murdering cops in order to resist arrest, and refuse to stop murdering them, then the penalty for that last offense would be lethal use of force.

        This is important to me because I have some “more libertarian than thou” friends who insist that all government action even in liberal democracies is essentially at the point of a gun. That’s wrong, because it rests on an equivocation: they pretend to be talking about speeding or another minor violation, but really they’re talking about armed insurrection that merely happened to be motivated by the speeding ticket. It would be flatly false to say that the penalty for speeding is death, or even that the penalty for speeding is “ultimately” death, or any such circumlocution. What we can correctly say is that death is the penalty of last resort, in that it’s the last penalty that can be applied when someone chooses to violently resist to the end. The first act and last act are distinct crimes with distinct penalties.

        • The Nybbler says:

          I’ve been threatened with a stay at Rikers Island for riding my bicycle on the sidewalk (which I only did to avoid the cop who stepped in front of me). I’ve also been jailed for speeding. The point of the gun is never very far away, and most people, while they they may deny this is true, _act_ as if it is when dealing with government officials.

        • albatross11 says:

          adelay:

          Exactly the same statement is true of mafia goons demanding protection money. I mean, you *say* you’re only paying at the point of a gun, but really, if you don’t pay your protection money, usually a couple windows just get broken, or maybe you get roughed up a bit. It’s only if you keep refusing and fighting back that the mafia goons end up dumping your body in the river.

          To clarify: I’m not saying government=mafia, I’m saying your argument proves too much.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Both government and private property rely on the threat of initiation of violence for non-compliance. If government=mafia, then property=mafia, as well. But then why do people view the state and property as good, but the mafia as bad? The reason is that mafia use violence to peruse their own interests, at the expense of the public, while the state and property are seen as serving social functions.

            The “failure modes” that Scott and jonmarcus are talking about aren’t “failures” because violence was used. They are failures because they resulted in a situation where maintaining the sovereignty of the institution (be it capitalism or the government) overrides serving the public good.

    • pontifex says:

      Yeah, I winced at that point as well. It’s not fair to compare failures of capitalism from 2010s Berkeley with failures of government from 1940s Germany. We should talk instead about 1940s failures of capitalism: things like lead paint, asbestos, PCBs, rampant smoking advertisements, and so forth. Although– yeah, capitalism still looks a lot better, if the alternative is Literally Hitler.

      • Dedicating Ruckus says:

        Failures of government from the 2010s also include starvation in Zimbabwe, murdered farmers in South Africa, everything about the Middle East, and trucks plowing into crowds all over Europe.

        In situations anything like what we find in history, government has way more power to do bad stuff to people than capitalism does. (Occasionally government and capitalism are aligned in doing bad things to people, but it still generally looks like the operative force of the badness is coming from the government’s side.)

        • Chalid says:

          The death toll from cigarettes alone vastly exceeds everything you’ve cited put together.

          Really quick Google says 7 million deaths a year, so a decade of that handily beats any dictator you care to name.

          (But wait, it’s more complicated than that? True.)

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            This may be why we shouldn’t just measure utility in lives.

            People like smoking a lot more than they like being subject to genocide and war.

          • Chalid says:

            Does smoking actually make people happier though, or is the positive feeling cancelled out by them feeling worse when they’re not smoking, so that on average they feel the same or worse? I don’t think the answer is clear. But we all know about hedonic adaptation so you should rather expect that most things you consume *don’t* make you happier.

            Anyway, just because you *want* to consume something doesn’t mean it’s actually making you happier even when you’re actually consuming it. Capitalism at its worst is a ruthless exploitation of this. I remember doing annoying grinds in World of Warcraft and my principal feeling upon getting the achievement I had been seeking was relief that it was over.

          • The death toll from cigarettes alone vastly exceeds everything you’ve cited put together.

            In this case and others, the implicit assumption seems to be that if government made the decisions, it would make them right. But in the Soviet Union and its satellites, where government did make the decisions, people smoked. Factories polluted.

            Where people correctly perceive their self interest, capitalism produces the right result, government often doesn’t. Where people incorrectly perceive their self interest, there is no reason to expect either to get the right result.

          • Tibor says:

            Factories polluted is a bit of an understatement. Pollution was far worse than in the capitalist countries, whole areas were devastated environmentally because of the communist obsession with heavy industry. Developing heavy industry perhaps made some sense for a backward barely industrialized 1920s Russia but unfortunately all Soviet satellites were essentially forced to copy its economy, including previously very developed countries like Czechoslovakia and Eastern Germany. Sometimes this meant actually outright changing things from better to worse (in terms of production methods) in order to follow the Soviet example.

            My parents told me how it was common to have black dust on the windows as late as 1980s (and this is also probably why many old buildings look kind of grayish unless they have a new façade). Factories did not really bother much with filters and such until the Velvet revolution.

            A different planned economy might not have these exact issues. Maybe the ideology would prescribe deindustriralization “healthy lifestyle”. But the effect would likely be the same. While it might be a good idea to reduce pollution a bit compared to the current state and perhaps it would be better if people ate a few more avocados, I’d expect the same thing to happen as with the communist heavy industry crush. A planned economy cannot respond to demand (which might be partly driven by playing tricks with our genes, but largely is not) so it does not adapt. It rewards those who can deliver more of the set goal and whether the goal is “more steel bars!” or “less grams of pollution!” (or “more paperclips!”) it will drive it to the extreme where its effect is way into the net negative territory.

            A free market economy is not perfect, but it is much more responsive to change and so it simply cannot produce failures as spectacular as those of the planned economy. And while some benevolent experts with limited power might tweak it here and there, there is no guarantee that the relevant offices go to these benevolent experts. The track record has been pretty bad so far.

          • P. George Stewart says:

            I’m not seeing what people deciding to smoke cigarettes and dying from it has to do with government policies.

            It would only have something to do with it if the government had decided that everyone should smoke, and enforced it. Then, certainly, you could say that the government was to blame.

            But government can’t be held to account for just any aggregate result of individual action.

            This reminds me of other weird rationalist political illusions, like, for example, the idea the produce of a country is available for “distribution”, as if it were some sort of windfall (in which case the fair distribution would of course be equal).

          • PeterDonis says:

            @DavidFriedman:

            Where people correctly perceive their self interest, capitalism produces the right result, government often doesn’t. Where people incorrectly perceive their self interest, there is no reason to expect either to get the right result.

            In this connection, I notice that the one example Scott gives in the article of successfully combating “the horrors of capitalism” involves him making the effort to correctly perceive his self-interest.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        To what extent are lead paint, asbestos, and PCBs failures of the market rather than just people not having sufficient information? I don’t see how a different institution would do better if it’s similarly lacking in information.

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        Lead paint is a solution to making paint. Asbestos is a solution to buildings burning down. PCBs are useful chemicals that have harmful side effects which make them not worth using. All of those things might have had bad effects but they all had benefits – which is why they were invented and sold.

        Governments don’t look too good on that measure anyway – compare Chernobyl to privately build nuclear reactors.

        • balrog says:

          Compare reactor without heavy protection so it could be refueled while working (ie. extract plutonium for nuclear warheads) with reactor with heavy protection and almost negligible plutonium production capacity?

          Also base kaboom rate per year is so low I’d consider it in noise.

          But good bait, made me reply.

          • roystgnr says:

            So although it killed thousands of innocent people by accident, that’s understandable because it was an unavoidable side effect of the design capacity to kill millions of innocent people on purpose?

            I’m not sure this is the pro-government defense you were looking for…

          • balrog says:

            UN says 64 dead.

            64 deaths as side effect of the design capacity to kill millions of innocent people on purpose sounds ok to me.

            This is of course assuming that you want to be able to kill millions of innocent people, but I think that is self-evident truth.

        • beleester says:

          All of those things might have had bad effects but they all had benefits – which is why they were invented and sold.

          Fascism also had benefits, if you were lucky enough to be the right nationality. I don’t think “It was intended to be beneficial, it just had bad side effects” is a defense for capitalism any more than it is for a government.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            That’s not a great misreading – it’s a defense of particular products that were harmful that (like everything else) capitalism was better able to produce than socialism. Socialist countries were just as all in on producing asbestos and PCBs and weren’t doing it in any more environmentally friendly ways they just sucked at making things. Asbestos and PCBs aren’t unique to capitalism – they’re products that any system will try to produce if people know about their benefits but don’t know about their costs.

      • John Schilling says:

        We should talk instead about 1940s failures of capitalism: things like lead paint, asbestos, PCBs, rampant smoking advertisements, and so forth.

        In what sense are these things “failures of capitalism”? The United States Government did all of those things in the 1940s, and I’m pretty sure Soviet Russia did likewise except maybe for smoking advertisements in the narrow sense of the word “advertisement”. Likewise pretty much everyone else in the 1940s. Lead makes really good paint, asbestos is a really good insulator, PCBs are really good coolants and dielectrics, nicotine is a really good stimulant, and the health hazards of these things were poorly understood in the 1940s.

        And, without google or wikipedia, can you even guess with 50% accuracy which of the things on your list were invented or popularized by A: capitalists, B: socialists, C: academics or D: traditional preindustrial cultures?

      • cassander says:

        > We should talk instead about 1940s failures of capitalism: things like lead paint, asbestos, PCBs,

        All those things were promoted, and sometimes mandated, by governments.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      I’d call that an equivocation on “capitalism”. It looks to me like you’re using the word in the leftist sense, whereas Scott is clearly using it in the “free market” sense. In which case, Pinkertons massacring your family isn’t a failure of the market, it’s a failure of rule of law. Things like this are why I advise avoiding the word “capitalism” in the first place. Just, imagine Scott wrote “the market” everywhere he wrote “capitalism”, you know?

      • Brandon Berg says:

        In which case, Pinkertons massacring your family isn’t a failure of the market, it’s a failure of rule of law.

        That’s more true than I suspect you know. In the popular leftist narrative about anti-union violence, companies responded to strikes with the following plan:

        1. Call in the Pinkertons to kill the striking workers.
        2. ???
        3. Profit!

        I’ve always been suspicious of this story, because it doesn’t sound like a particularly effective plan. So I looked up the details, and to my total lack of surprise, it didn’t go down that way. Here’s what actually happened during the Homestead Strike:

        After the workers went on strike, they took over the surrounding town in order to fight off any replacement workers. There was indeed a failure of the rule of law—specifically the one that occurred when the union enforcers rounded up all the sheriff’s deputies, forced them onto a boat, and sent them down the river. The Pinkertons weren’t called in to massacre the strikers or force them to go back to work; they were called in to try to restore rule of law and protect the replacement workers from union violence so that Carnegie Steel could reopen the factory.

        • rlms says:

          Were the strikers to blame in all the >100 other examples of “worker deaths by law enforcement and companies’ militia, armed detectives and guards” listed here?

          • hlynkacg says:

            No, but skimming the list, the vast majority are examples of precisely the sort of mutual combat/tribal warfare that rule of law is intended to prevent.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Okay, fine, I deleted that and about another thousand words that weren’t really saying much.

    • onyomi says:

      Bhopal… Pinkertons…

      I notice that critics of capitalism, when they want to argue for some kind of equivalency, seem to always bring up the same two or three, very specific examples.

      And before one says “opponents of socialism always point to Stalin and the Great Leap Forward,” it’s not just the sameness of the examples I’m commenting on, but the narrow specificity.

      Like, if every time a capitalists wanted to say “socialists have made big mistakes, too,” they happened always to bring up the “Four Pests Campaign” it would arouse my suspicion about the strength of their argument, not because the Four Pests Campaign wasn’t bad, but because if that very specific example is all they’ve got after a century of socialism, then maybe socialism’s overall track record isn’t so bad.

      • negative_utilitarian says:

        I’m not sure why someone would use them as standard criticisms of capitalism.

        Personally, I would use workers burning alive in locked sweatshops, the Radium Girls, US sharecropping post Reconstruction, factory towns with invasive control over their worker’s lives on threat of being fired, and perhaps on a less dire note, industries that peddle in addiction and encouraging compulsive behavior, such as the tobacco industry, online gambling and modern video games filled with micro-transactions.

        As for socialism, I personally don’t think it makes sense to call Stalin or Mao socialists. It makes more sense of the history to say they were adherents of a rival ideology of Stalinism:
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stalinism
        I think the flaws of Stalin and Mao speak more to the flaws of attempting violent revolution, in that whichever movement prevails in such a conflict is likely to have been captured by someone more interested in violence than the details of your ideology.
        For better or for worse, I think socialism as an actual form of government look more like Cuba and the USSR under Khrushchev, which both still had plenty of flaws worth criticizing.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          Those are a much better set of examples, I think. Except the Radium Girls one — how is that one not just a failure of information that any system would have produced?

          • negative_utilitarian says:

            My understanding was that the US Radium Corporation intentionally withheld information about the dangers of radium from their employees. That might be mistaken, but that was my impression at least.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            Oh, huh, you seem to be right about that…

          • engleberg says:

            My granddad’s brother used to scare my mom in the 1930s by waving his huge, horribly gray and deformed by radium hands at her. He was a doctor who worked with radium a lot, died forty years later. People knew radium was dangerous, but the risks and rewards hadn’t sorted out yet. And I’d sure believe poor working girls weren’t overinformed by their company.
            That said, the cheka wasn’t killing the Radium girls for speaking up.
            If I was looking for failures of capitalism, I’d look at the naked, malnourished mobs along British rivers around 1900. Or run a comparison of the British exporting food from Ireland in the Potato Famine, the Tsars exporting food from Russia during famines, and the Soviets exporting food from Russia during famines.

        • cassander says:

          >As for socialism, I personally don’t think it makes sense to call Stalin or Mao socialists. It makes more sense of the history to say they were adherents of a rival ideology of Stalinism:

          No, of course not. Now please explain how, say, Venezuela isn’t real socialism either, now that they’ve been reduced to eating zoo animals.

        • n8chz says:

          Must say I’m quite intrigued at seeing “negative utilitarian” used as a handle. Do feel free to get in touch. I was starting to think I might be the only one.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        If capitalism is to be blamed for poverty in capitalist countries, then state communism (my best current term to distinguish between the USSR/communist China etc. and democratic socialism) should be blamed for much more pervasive poverty.

      • apollocarmb says:

        Just a nitpick but the four pests campaign has nothing to do with socialism. Capitalists have this hysteria regarding socialism. Anything that happens under the rule of Socialists is socialism and socialism is to blame but not everything that happens under the rule of capitalits is capitalism and capitalism is not to blame for all the disasters/failures. How convenient.

        • cassander says:

          Just a nitpick but the four pests campaign has nothing to do with socialism.

          Really? because the socialists who implemented it thought it did, and the exact same sort of thing happened under every other socialist government.

          Capitalists have this hysteria regarding socialism. Anything that happens under the rule of Socialists is socialism and socialism is to blame but not everything that happens under the rule of capitalits is capitalism and capitalism is not to blame for all the disasters/failures. How convenient.

          I’ll happily take on “everything” that happens under capitalist rule, but you don’t want me to. Let’s just talk about excess deaths. Socialist countries in the 20th century manifestly failed to reach western levels of development. Care to do the calculations to figure out how many excess deaths there were caused by the failure of socialist countries to reach western levels of per capita GDP, then add it to 100 million outright murders?

          It’s not the defenders of capitalism that are constantly excusing their failures as “not real capitalism.”

    • drethelin says:

      Orders of magnitude, man. You’re analogizing a few people or even 16,000 killed to TENS of millions.

    • syrrim says:

      The Bhopal disaster was a gas leak incident in India, considered the world’s worst industrial disaster. Over 500,000 people were exposed to methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and other chemicals. The government of Madhya Pradesh confirmed a total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas release.

      Wow that’s terri-

      The Holocaust was a genocide during World War II in which Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany systematically murdered some six million European Jews.

      The ensuing battle between Pinkerton agents and striking workers led to the deaths of seven Pinkerton agents and nine steelworkers.

      Nine poor union members? Downright disgus-

      The Khmer Rouge government arrested, tortured, and eventually executed anyone suspected of belonging to several categories of supposed “enemies”, including:

      – Anyone with connections to the former Cambodian government or with foreign governments.
      – Professionals and intellectuals – in practice this included almost everyone with an education, people who understood a foreign language and even people who required glasses.
      – Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Thai, and other minorities in the Eastern Highlands, Cambodian Christians, Muslims, and the Buddhist monks.
      – “Economic saboteurs” – many former urban dwellers were deemed guilty of sabotage due to their lack of agricultural ability.

      Various studies have estimated the death toll at between 740,000 and 3,000,000, most commonly between 1.4 million and 2.2 million, with perhaps half of those deaths being due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease.

      (All quotes selectively edited from wikipedia)

      The lesson is that capitalism isn’t interested in massacring people. Bhopal was a tragedy not just for the victims, but for the company as well. Their plant was shut down and they were charged a large fine. Capitalism normally tries to prevent such disasters, and bhopal is therefore by far an exception. Government can have the goal of killing people purely for the sake of killing. For such a government, the killings are not a problem, and will continue indefinitely. They stop, actually, due to capitalism. Hitler’s loss is sometimes attributed to the fact that he was fighting a war on 3 fronts – the russians, the americans, while also massacring jews. If he hadn’t made a goal of eliminating the jewish race, he may have drawn out the war even further. Khmer Rouge fell because the government was so terrible that few soldiers wanted to defend them.

      That’s not to say governments aren’t necessary, in fact we need governments because corporations are extremely limited in what they can accomplish. They are only capable of protecting citizens or responding to a tragedy when it benefits them economically. Governments are tasked with doing anything and everything the citizenry needs. This makes them capable of doing greater goods than a corporation, but also capable of doing greater evils than a corporation. This distinction should not be dismissed out of hand.

      We require from our governments that they do not censor our speech, and yet we do not ask this of corporations. Why is this? When a corporation censors our speech, they do so in a limited way; they merely stop distributing our speech (a newspaper might choose to stop publishing articles by a particular author). When a government decides to censor speech, they do so completely and absolutely. They might track down the speaker, jail him, even kill him. The power to do this is necessary when used against murderers – but we need to be very careful not to use this power against speech we don’t like. This offers us a distinction between what we should ask of us governments, and what we should ask of our corporations. They are not the same as each other, like Nathan suggests. If you ask the government to be the sole provider of food, then you might find the food hasn’t necessary nutrition, isn’t provided in sufficient quantity, etc. If this were the case, you would starve, because there isn’t anything else to eat.

      We can’t ask corporations to protect us from murderers on the other hand, and so need the government to provide this task. A corporation doing this would need to demand money of people in exchange. This money might be payed upon a successful prevention of a murder. But an effective corporation of this kind would not just prevent murders when they are attempted, but also lower the number of attempts, such that practically nobody would have an attempt made on them. We might instead try to sell murder protection insurance – the corporation prevents you from being murdered for a monthly fee. We would find, however, that many people wouldn’t get such insurance, but would still benefit from the corporation due to a lowering of murders across the board. The people who were paying would feel cheated, and so stop paying as well. Once no one was paying, the number of murders would return to baseline. A government needs the power to be able to force everyone to pay for murder insurance (police). Even if you never expect to be murdered, you would still have to pay. This in turn ensures that very few attempts at murder are made.

      I don’t know what point scott was originally trying to make, but we need accountability from government not just because they are moloch, just like corporations are, but because they are government, and because of the massive power we entrust in them.

  10. pontifex says:

    Well said.

    There is a weird mental bias where most people seem to spend a huge amount of energy thinking about systemic problems with capitalism, but almost no mental energy thinking about systemic problems with government. If people do think about governmental problems at all, it’s usually framed through a culture war lens of “that other bad tribe screwed everything up.”

    I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it’s culture war turning off people’s brains? Or perhaps it’s a legacy of traditional leftist thought. Marx spent a long time thinking about what was wrong with capitalism, but seemed literally incapable of imagining what could possibly go wrong with communism (or at least the summaries of his work that I have read give that impression.)

    On a related note, most people seem unable to view political systems as incentive systems, or conceive of alternative economic models besides capitalism.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      It is striking that Robinson name-checks public choice theory.

      (Didn’t someone write about “memetic vaccination”? Maybe it was this, but it is mainly about other topics, so linking to it communicates the wrong thing. Here is someone mentioning it even more in-passing.)

      • It is striking that Robinson name-checks public choice theory.

        Yes, it is a very good sign. He kind of hand-waved it away, but it is a good thing that those advocating more government solutions have heard of the good arguments against government intervention instead of the usual strawman comments (i.e. trickle down theory). Is it a sign that public discussions are becoming more balanced and less partisan? Probably not, but it is the right direction.

    • reasoned argumentation says:

      Because the “point out flaws of capitalism” part was just supposed to be a coordination mechanism to keep a group cohesive enough to kill enough people to overthrow a government.

      The same evolutionary process applies to men forming gangs as it does to capitalism and government – if your group gets cohesion from all critiquing capitalism, great – if they then critique your planned replacement the group falls apart and you get wiped out by in-fighting. Marxism solved the problem of keeping the group from killing each other for long enough for Marxists to take over a few governments. Evolutionary success.

    • davidweber2 says:

      There has been plenty of criticism of democracy and the specific implementations of it in modern America (and I assume the world at large, but have less experience). The electoral college and gerrymandering are examples that come to mind immediately.

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        Neither of those is a criticism of democracy in the sense of relating results to structure.

        Scott’s post contains lots of detail about the particulars of public choice in the United States – “get rid of gerrymandering / the electoral collage” doesn’t solve or change any of those unless you believe that the solution to democracy is to set up a system where Republicans don’t win. The “government programs are great and work well but are sabotaged by the other side” perspective has the appeal of having a defined set of bad guys who are preventing utopia but doesn’t actually seem to work as an explanation since areas in the United States that are governed solely by one party government programs all still run into public choice problems all the time.

        • SamGamgee says:

          There are always ways around that. E.g. the reason Democrat-controlled Baltimore and DC have problems with gun violence is not because of Democratic policies like gun control but because of local criminals can still import guns from red states with lax controls. So even though those red states have relatively low crime, it’s still their fault.

      • SamGamgee says:

        That isn’t a critique of democracy as a whole. It assumes that democracy is what we want and that the electoral college is bad because gets in the way of the system being more democratic. It doesn’t address fundamental concerns about democracy, e.g. the ways in which democracy undermines individual liberty. If you’re a libertarian, there are reasons to like the electoral college precisely because it makes the system less democratic.

  11. Imperatrix says:

    This is the neoliberal solution. Use capitalism, the most powerful misaligned optimization process we’ve got, to promote human flourishing. When we get to the misalignments have the government ready to fix it. Limit the scope of government to those things absolutely necessary to fix capitalist misalignments, lest it get too misaligned itself. Hope the systems screw up in different places, like a swiss cheese model of civilization.

    This seems like it would be a perpetually unstable system. You have actors who stand to gain by maximizing the power of Capitalism and actors who stand to gain by maximizing the power of Government. If Capitalism can accrue small amounts of real power from Government (e.g. regulatory capture, gerrymandering software), how does this not lead to Capitalism eventually reducing Government to a bought and paid for subsidy of Capitalism inc.?

    Similarly, if Government can encroach on Capitalism, say through economically distorting taxation and regulation, how does this not end with Government bringing Capitalism to heel and dictating the commanding heights of the economy in order to perpetuate Governmental stability and empire building?

    Power is a zero sum game and a two player game rarely has a stable tie, particularly if you can invest power in Moloching up more power. Two player games of this sort with nation-states (e.g. US vs USSR, everyone vs The Axis Powers, The Entente vs The Central Powers) have historically been either horrifically costly endeavors (e.g. The Cold War), ended in the extirpation of one side, or more commonly both.

    Perhaps a better option would be to have three or more stable power bases. Thus when one base gets too strong, the other two can make an alliance of convenience to overcome the dominant power. Historically, we had this. Western society rested on competing power blocs of (at least) government, industry, and religion. At times industry allied with religion and at times industry allied with government against religion.

    These days, religion has simply ceased to be a powerful bloc. Only the faithful care what a given religion has to say about a policy issues and most of religion’s affects come through voting or the market-place. The old-school social pressure that said even if something was legal and even if people might want to exchange money for it … you might want to think twice before doing so if it was religiously frowned upon is basically dead in the West.

    Nor do I see a viable replacement to be the third leg for balance. Science is deeply in hoc to both Government and Capitalism. We have also proven quite adept as a society at ignoring problematic science (e.g. that Head Start has terrible educational outcomes). Journalism is basically just another industry at this point and most of the most respected outfits are the playthings of billionaires. The military is currently subsumed massively within government. Education is basically just some of the government’s turf over which the Red and Blue tribes fight.

    I predict that the current sort will continue to subsume more small centers into a dichotomous fight. Maybe between Capitalism and Government or maybe between Red and Blue. Regardless two player games in a zero sum context will get increasingly brutal, but I do not see any easy way to get a better stable stalemate.

    • Tracy W says:

      Power is a zero sum game and a two player game rarely has a stable tie, particularly if you can invest power in Moloching up more power.

      But a two player game can have an unstable tie. Consider England and France – a sea power and a land power, neither able to destroy the other over centuries.

      Capitalism and good government also have an advantage that both of them are good for people (or, in a more Churchillian manner: the worst systems except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.) The government can enroach on capitalism, but people can notice the overall decline in tax revenue compared to less encroaching states. Rich people can relearn the advantages of the rule of law the hard way. Maybe it is a case of 4 steps forward 3 steps back, but I’m optimistic.

    • drethelin says:

      This is a bad analogy, because Capitalism is not an entity in the same way that governments are entities (even though they’re in many ways no entities with agency either). Capitalism in and of itself is a millions-of-players game.

    • 27chaos says:

      If they weren’t dying, I’d say that social and interpersonal relationships should be the third leg.

    • Ketil says:

      If Capitalism can accrue small amounts of real power from Government (e.g. regulatory capture, gerrymandering software), how does this not lead to Capitalism eventually reducing Government to a bought and paid for subsidy of Capitalism inc.?

      Perhaps because it is in the best interest of capitalists to have a functioning government? My experience is that especially larger corporations benefit from government regulation of the market – for one, they have the resources to do the necessary bookkeeping, moreso than small businesses, and as long as it is a level field, it doesn’t disadvantage them compared to their competitors. At the same time, good regulation can avoid tragedies of commonses and races to the bottom, which aren’t really productive to anybody.

      • Imperatrix says:

        Perhaps because it is in the best interest of capitalists to have a functioning government? My experience is that especially larger corporations benefit from government regulation of the market – for one, they have the resources to do the necessary bookkeeping, moreso than small businesses, and as long as it is a level field, it doesn’t disadvantage them compared to their competitors. At the same time, good regulation can avoid tragedies of commonses and races to the bottom, which aren’t really productive to anybody.

        My experience is that virtually all major corporation want much more than a level playing field. Consider the costs government engagement runs. Official industry lobbying is somewhere around $10 billion per annum in the US, unofficial estimates are higher still for off the books, non-official lobbying. Legal services are an order of magnitude more. Following the trendlines suggest that we should expect these values to continue to rise.

        Further I cannot think of a single piece of legislation that actually levels the field, virtually everything favors one set of firms over another set. Net neutrality pits content generators against fiber owners, internet sales tax pits large scale vendors (i.e. Amazon) against small scale venders, and let’s not even talk about all the ways to price carbon dioxide.

        If government, for its own sake, was so useful to industry I would expect there to be far less political spending and vastly less spending to both sides of the political spectrum.

        • toastengineer says:

          This seems a lot like saying “if river power is so handy, why do people spend so much time and effort building water wheels?”

          Is that not also consistent with the government being extremely useful but expensive to harness; the proof of the extreme usefulness being the costs companies are willing to expend harnessing it?

          • Imperatrix says:

            I have no doubt that government is extremely useful to harness. I am completely skeptical that all these firms want is a “level playing field”. Government is a highly cost effective way to cripple your opponent by ensuring that the rules are written in your favor.

            If you do not want favors from government why have lobbying costs grown so much? Has government gotten orders of magnitude better at managing a level playing field in the past few decades? If the point is merely to enact good policy why do so many corporations donate to ideologically opposed candidates and parties? Why are former Capital Hill staffers paid a massive premium only as long as the Senator or Congressman whom they used to serve is still in office? Why do industries reliant on Government largess lobby so much more?

            I mean heck, why did the congressional districts of the members sitting on the Finance Committee have lower start rates on foreclosures the last financial crisis just when major regulation was going in front of the committee?

            All of this sounds not at all like industry seeking a level playing field and sounds everything like industry attempting to secure favor.

            I do not doubt that water power is useful, I just think it horridly naïve to think that it will not be used divert water into one fiefdom at the expense of another.

          • The Nybbler says:

            It’s a huge multi-player prisoners dilemma. If you _don’t_ lobby, those who do will lobby government to either put you out of business or use you as a cash cow (and they won’t warm their hands either).

    • Watchman says:

      Power is a zero sum game

      For a key point of your argument, you spend no time demonstrating this assertion. For power to be zero sum, there has to be a finite amount of power. Yet (to continue a theme of harking back to postmodernism that seems to underlie all my comments here) power is not a measurable and finite thing in the way electrical power is. Power is simply the anglicisation of the French word pouvoir, which is also the verb which translates pretty well as ‘to be able/can’, and the root of power is ability to be able to do anything. Foucault, who being French probably picked this up quite easily, qualifies this with consensually and opposes power to oppression, although allowing that an oppresive relationship will eventually switch to a power relationship when all participants consent. Power is simply the ability to get something done with consent – so despite all opposition, President Trump does have power because people acknowledge (grudgingly in many cases) he has the ability to get things done through the powers of his office, and if Scott Adams is to be believed, the power of persuasion. What he can actually achieve with his power is however limited by the requirement to get people to consent to it e.g. getting police forces to agree to round up illegal immigrants. If he is replaced in 2021 by a much different president, who also has something against illegal immigrants (perhaps a problem with the illegal bit?) but whom is widely approved of for having said the right things to please everyone other than illegal immigrants, the new-and-improved president might be able to get far more illegal immigrants rounded up by more police forces despite only having the same official power as President Trump. No-one else has lost power (the various people in charge of police forces still have the power to help or not) but the new-and-improved president clearly has more power than President Trump simply because they can achieve more.

      The point here is that power can be created whilst other power still exists. Community leaders are an example of this – people with no formal structual position who with the consent of others take a position of power. They have not taken that power from another: all the elected or appointed representatives still exist and still have the same relationships with the community, at least until the community leader causes them to be re-negotiated by their actions. But a new figure with power exists. And a community leader can be removed without being replaced – their power is not taken by another but simply ceases to exist. Power is something created by actions, not something that already exists: Scott has power created by being the author of this blog (and from the interactions and respect he gets as a result), as witnessed by the fact we are discussing his debate with a writer for Current Affairs. Scott is able to get noticed by people working in national journalism (which was always an industry, never, despite some practioners airs and graces, a separate institution – did you not notice that journalism is a child of capitalism, developing alongside modern economic systems?) and therefore has the power to alter opinions even of those who do not read him closely.

      • Imperatrix says:

        Nonsense

        In your scenario neither Trump nor the future president has power over the police as in both they explicitly can decide to follow or not. Just because you do what I say, does not mean I have power over you. After all, just because Helter Skelter convinced Charles Manson to take certain actions does not mean that the Beatles had power over Manson.

        Your definition breaks down pretty heavily if there is a stochastic component to power. Does Trump lose power when he’s asleep? Obviously he accomplishes less while asleep, yet few would say that diminishes his power. Likewise, suppose that there is a bored senator who votes via coin flips (heads with Trump, tails against), does Trump acquire more power when a sequence of flips goes all heads.

        Regardless of what your or my pet theory says, do the relevant actors believe that power is zero sum?

        The answer to that seems to be yes. Democrats have done nothing I can name to build additional power into the system. Instead they have concentrated all their efforts into fighting a zero sum game with Republicans. How about corporations? Well as noted by their multi-billion dollar lobbying efforts they sure seem to think this is a zero sum game. Certainly their press releases read like zero sum games (e.g. “war on coal”, Trump’s changes to insurance policy).

        How about conservatives and liberals? Well it sure looked like a zero sum game over DOMA and Oberfell. How about global warming? I have seen basically everything from emission controls to loan guarantees being treated as zero sum affairs. The tax code? The Republicans want to raise some taxes on the rich that happen to fall most heavily in Blue urban strongholds … and suddenly this is taking from us (wealthy metropolitans) to give to them (corporate shareholders).

        Okay how about corporate policy? How many times has Facebook gone out and either bought out the competition or bulldozed them with all-but-infringing copying and supplanting.

        When it comes to controlling society, I cannot think of any major player who does not claim it is a zero sum game. That is awfully strong signal that we should have very strong priors that power in society is zero sum.

        • Watchman says:

          If you think that a suitable argument that power is a zero sum game is to state those that play the game of politics believe it to be so, then I may see the problem in your argument. Politicians are playing within a game, seeking the powers available to them under the appropriate constitution or whatever, which may be zero sum in that only one party can exercise them at a given time. But what you are conceiving as power is the government’s ability to make laws and the like, which is only the sum total of power if no-one else can also enforce their will or persuade others to follow their suggestions.

          I’m also not inclined to believe that a political establishment that produces Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump as presidential candidates is really able to see how power is distributed – they can’t even see what a good candidate looks like, which ought to be a hell of a lot simpler.

          We are basically using different definitions of power here. I defined mine above, but every example you use is simply of the ability to influence or execute government policy, which is not a viable definition of power. A government might continue to make rules whilst unable to enforce them consistently – witness prohibition and the creation of totally new power structures in many cities on the back of this (and again with drugs). An extreme example of the folly of a systematic approach to analysising power would be the Roman Senate, which, after effectively conceding the (extensive, but not universal) powers of the dictator to Octavian and his successors for the final time, did not technically lose further power over Rome for hundreds of year, but rarely had actual power over the empire.

          Anyway, you somehow manage to claim power is a zero sum game but then claim Facebook has power. Who did Facebook, whose power rests online, actually take that power from then? MySpace will probably not do as an answer… Facebook created their power anew where no power previously existed, because there was a sphere of activity in which they could act, and where they got the implicit consent of their users to develop this power. They didn’t just take power from an existing organisation.

          And how is lobbying an indication that power is zero sum (and how is Trump, who is the President, a corporation?). If power was zero sum, you wouldn’t have much point in lobbying – you just try to buy the control of the power. But if power can be created or reduced, you need to lobby to ensure this suits you.

          • Imperatrix says:

            You did not answer any of the questions. If Trump is asleep does he lose power? If you have random elements influencing voting does that increase your power (e.g. does Trump gain power due to short term quasi-random fluctuations in the stock market)?

            As far as the political elite being ignorant of the rules of the game. Please. If I ask 100 ornithologists “is this a duck?” and they all say “yes”, what is a reasonable prior to estimate the odds that “this is a duck”. You are talking about collective experience running into the thousands of man-years. Why exactly should I doubt their collective experience? Because they did not predict Trump would win? Okay, then blew one election. Of course they have collectively and successfully contested thousands.

            But again I ask, who actually in the game does not treat it like it is zero sum? If the current political establishment is wrong, who is right and doing anything with this highly valuable knowledge? Not the activist billionaires like Adelson, Steyer, or the Kochs. Not any of the retired military brass I have ever read. Not any of the political historians or theorists I have read. Certainly not the NRA, Tea Party Factions, MoveOn, or any other “grassroots” organization. It is not just the career politicians, the campaign masters, the federal civil servants, and the normal DC hacks who act this way; it is pretty close to everyone who has any real experience with the system.

            Ultimately the problem is that your definition of “power” is utterly useless (and your knowledge of history remarkedly deficient, prohibition was sufficiently well enforced to result in a major drop in cirrhosis; fairly early in the Roman Empire the emperor could appoint senators by decree as well as unilaterally decrease the Senate size, these both being new powers show a very clear change in the balance of power of the Roman State). Suppose President Trump, Congressman Walker, and Senator McConnell all announce they favor a policy already on the books. Various officials enforce the policy with greater alacrity. Where was the power gained? Cannot be determined, in your world we can only note that something was not possible before but is now. At best we can credit everyone who supports the policy and was known to the officials. Maybe they were convinced by Ryan, maybe by Trump … somehow power was created immaculately in a manner that cannot be quantified or qualified.

            But let us say your definition is correct, what are some practical implications of it?

            If power is zero sum then we should see arms race-like spending patterns to influence loci of power. Spending twice as much as someone else matters a lot, absolute numbers are meaningless. We see this in lobbying budgets, we see this in campaign contributions, and plenty of other places. If power is zero sum then we should expect that the most successful individuals at acquiring power will be those who have few, if any, goals other than seizing power. That sounds an awful lot like out current elite power brokers.

            Lastly, I suggest you actually read up on what “zero sum” entails. Formally, a non-zero sum game with N players is equivalent to a zero sum game of N+1 players (where the N+1th player is some combination that represents the net gain or loss of the non zero sum game outcomes). Power, like anything else that can be modeled with game theory, is by definition a zero sum game, the only question is how many players it takes to adequately define the game.

            Scott A. suggested that Capitalism and Democracy were two discrete entities that seek to govern human affairs. Okay that is an N of 2. What other player(s) make it a zero sum game?

            We all know reality is far more complicated, neither Capitalism nor Democracy are unitary actors. Arrow’s impossibility theorem applies to both. Nitpicking the model is trivially easy. So let’s not waste the time. What is your evidence that there is a stable equilibrium between Capitalism and Democracy? That one will both remain distinct systems in the long run that can give us “Swiss Cheese” effects by dint of having a stable equilibrium (after all non-zero sum games may lack stable equilibria). So do tell, what mechanism or decision matrix will give us a stable equilibrium?

      • russellsteapot42 says:

        Of course power is zero sum. In this usage, I would define power as something like ‘the ability to influence outcomes to your liking’. No matter how much ability I have to influence the outcome of things to my liking, if you maintain any influence over those same outcomes then your power over them is necessarily an area where I lack power, and would gain more power by taking yours.

        To absolutely dominate the outcome of some possibility, I must not only increase my own ability to influence that outcome to the maximum, but I must eliminate all power that other actors have to influence the same outcome.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Crowds might be shaping up into a third force.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      These days, religion has simply ceased to be a powerful bloc.

      The red states disagree.

      • Imperatrix says:

        Sorry, new to the interface and somehow accidentally clicked “report” no idea how to undo that.

        Do the red states actually disagree? When was the last time you heard a single red state senator argue that some social policy was not Biblical and therefor should be ignored? Trans individuals in the military is being argued from the red states from grounds of medical costs and logistics. How about the death penalty, when did you last hear a red state governor justify an execution as a criminal “reaping the whirlwind” or some other religious reason?

        What is the single biggest religious on the map? Religious freedom and accommodation. Red state politicians are actively fighting for individuals, not states or municipalities, to be free to practice beliefs outside of the liberal consensus.

        Okay, so let’s ignore government. How are those red states doing with social conformity. Is there any difference in porn consumption? How about alcohol consumption? Clothing styles? Premarital sex? Swearing?

        This does not sound like a force that can compel or induce all that many people to do things they would otherwise not do anymore.

    • rahien.din says:

      Power is a zero sum game and a two player game rarely has a stable tie

      Well, “zero-sum” is a subset of “Pareto optimal.” And the distribution of power always has a balanced budget. By Holmström’s theorem, Pareto-optimal and budget-balanced incentive systems never have equilibrium. So yeah. Stability is off the table.

    • joop says:

      >Perhaps a better option would be to have three or more stable power bases

      Have you read 1984?

  12. two_circles says:

    This is fantastic! Read the Current Affairs article a few days ago and had the exact same response regarding using the market and subsidies rather than a public cafeteria.

    A few thoughts:
    -From my undergrad Econ days, the relevant buzzword here is a Pigouvian tax – designed to offset the externalities from a transaction. In this case, we’d see the future effects on your health as an intrapersonal externality.
    -I’d be curious if we could increase palatability by combining an increase in food stamps with a food stamp specific tax/subsidy program. Would likely see more support from the right due to allaying concerns about “wasting our money on soda”, but less support from the left due to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics. Also, maybe this idea wouldn’t work at all, because arbitrage.

    • The Nybbler says:

      The problem with Pigouvian taxes is no one knows how to accurately measure the externalities, so they end up just being someone’s ideological finger on the scales.

  13. Matthew Reinert says:

    While I think the public food option is idiotic, I think you are far too down on government.

    I have two main quibbles.

    A) The parents choosing schools for school vouchers are not the clients, the kids and the larger society are.

    In the sequence on Lost Purposes, Eliezer talks about the absolute nest of perverse incentives that characterize the school system.

    The actual consumers of knowledge are the children – who can’t pay, can’t vote, can’t sit on the committees. Their parents care for them, but don’t sit in the classes themselves; they can only hold politicians responsible according to surface images of “tough on education”.

    He takes the view that the ultimate clients are the kids. They are one of the clients.

    The other client is the society at large. No one wants to live in a society of idiots. We want to have rational discussions with people. The goal of education should be to make people cognizant of the systems we live in and how to harness their own actions towards the ends they seek. Basically, make them aware of Moloch.

    I don’t trust schools who are competing for parent directed school voucher money to optimize towards inculcating knowledge so much as just pleasing parents. Finland has reputation for having mandatory and very successful public schools… I don’t know much about it… but I feel like the “Public schools will always be terrible” needs to look at the international stage a bit more.

    B) My second issue is your seeming preemptive surrender to Moloch and skirting close to committing the fallacy of grey.

    But democracy is also Moloch. Both are intense competitions. Both are going to be won by people trying to win the competition, not people trying to be nice and do the right thing. In both, we expect that winning the competition will have something to do with being good – capitalists win partly by making good products, candidates win partly by making good policy. But both systems have equally deep misalignments that can’t be eliminated just be filling them with nice people.

    This seems to be throwing in the towel on improving government a bit. It’s not a matter of the right people, but you can alter the structure quite successfully. I’m worried that you are stopping the conversation too fast.

    To take an example from the recent elections, millions of people voted in protest of our awful two party system for Ron Johnson or Jill Stein. This did not do anything but show their personal feelings. This is the essence of buying into the “Good people will save us” fallacy.

    But, in Maine, voters used a ballot initiative to enact ranked choice voting. They changed the structure and made it so third parties are no longer spoilers. They expanded the choices for voters.

    There are many of things we can do to a government and there are some areas such as healthcare where more government control is empirically better. (See such communist strongholds as Taiwan, Israel and Singapore.)

    • jw says:

      Regarding throwing in the towel on fixing government…

      Have you Seen the US Government?

      The only real solution is a return to Federalism and a massive removal of the power overreach of the US Government.

      It’s also the one thing we’ll never get out of government reform.

      I say throw in the towel. The only way the US government gets fixed in any way will be after its total collapse due to it growing and massive inabilities to solve any problem.

      • Matthew Reinert says:

        As satisfying as that sounds… it’s morally monstrous.

        Part of the reason the government has problems is that we elect people who say, “the government is inept and can’t solve anything… and I aim to keep it that way.” Cynicism about government doesn’t make it less broken.

        There are ways around it. Ranked choice voting in Maine was done via ballot initiative. It didn’t require either party to acquiesce to blowing their own knees off. It bypassed them altogether. The way to fix it is to attack bad systems not so much bad people. (Though those exist too)

        A return to federalism isn’t the answer. Local governments are no less corrupt and inept then higher levels of government. They both have the same misaligned incentives issue.

        The government can solve problems… the internet we are writing this on was a government program. Neither of us have small pox because of a government program.

        “Let it all sink” sounds satisfying, but it also absolves us of having to do anything. There are people on that ship. We started social security or medicare because they were popular… true. But why were they popular? They were popular because you had old poor people dying on the street in the 1930’s and old people in general being actuarially unsound in the 1960’s. Are they perfect? No, but they went a long way to solving the problems they were intended to. If they were to disappear… well, those are all people who would go down with the ship.

        Also, living in a failed state where there is a gun for every single citizen… seems like it would be bad.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Part of the reason the government has problems is that we elect people who say, “the government is inept and can’t solve anything… and I aim to keep it that way.” Cynicism about government doesn’t make it less broken.

          We elected Obama, he said government could fix healthcare. Then he got his plan passed and went ahead and fixed it, good and hard. Blaming the problems on cynical opponents is fun but non-viable.

          • So he implemented a sweeping NHS style system? Or he implemented a wretched compromise, as a result of having to compromise with cynics?

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            If it weren’t for all those wreckers in Congress, Comrade Obama would have easily met the goals of his five year plan!

            Wait, this sounds familiar somehow…

          • shenanigans24 says:

            He implemented a program with zero republican votes. Hard to blame compromise there.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            Snowball destroyed HealthCare.gov!

          • Lillian says:

            He implemented a program with zero republican votes. Hard to blame compromise there.

            The bill as written was a bipartisan effort, the Republicans didn't refuse to vote for it because they had no input on it, they refused to vote it because they had zero incentive to do so. The Democrats got themselves outmaneuvered, they attempted to compromise with the Republicans, and the Republicans let them believe they were going to play ball right up until they didn't. Another major source of compromise was the Blue Dogs, Democrats from more right wing districts, who were terrified that if they passed something too radical they would lose their seats. Their caution was for nought, they lost their seats regardless.

            That said, it's doubtful the ACA would have been substantially different had the Republicans refused to touch it and the Blue Dogs thrown caution to the wind. The plan Obama pitched on campaign is pretty much what we got. Anyone who was expecting single payer or even a public option out of the Obama Administration and the 111th Congress was not paying attention.

        • Paul Zrimsek says:

          I always thought the causal mechanism behind that argument was supposed to be that if you don’t believe a thing can be fixed you’ll give up trying to fix it. But when I look at the history of public education, “give up trying” is absolutely the last thing I see; it’s been one failed reform attempt after another.

          • Matthew Reinert says:

            Failed relative to what?

            What is the baseline?

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            Whatever baseline you like. Finland, perhaps. I took you, up to now, to be agreeing that the schools are bad, and blaming it on a general lack of belief that they can be fixed. (That last bit is the part I’m disagreeing with.) If you’re denying that they’re bad, well, that leads to a very different debate.

        • cassander says:

          Part of the reason the government has problems is that we elect people who say, “the government is inept and can’t solve anything… and I aim to keep it that way.”

          No one says that, and no one does that. At most, they say “and I’ll get it off your backs”. And then don’t do it.

          > Cynicism about government doesn’t make it less broken.

          It does if it stops people from giving a broken system even more money and power.

          There are ways around it. Ranked choice voting in Maine was done via ballot initiative.

          GReat, so what? that doesn’t come anywhere near solving the fundamental problems that have been discussed here.

          A return to federalism isn’t the answer. Local governments are no less corrupt and inept then higher levels of government. They both have the same misaligned incentives issue.

          they have very different incentives. It’s very easy to move to the next county, harder to move to the next state, and extremely difficult to move to a different country. local government faces more competition, and is thus more accountable.

          The government can solve problems… the internet we are writing this on was a government program. Neither of us have small pox because of a government program.

          That it can solve some problems does not mean it can solve all problems. this argument amounts to saying “This hammer is a great tool, it knocked in all these nails. Why are you complaining when I try to use it for brain surgery?”

        • Watchman says:

          Small pox is proof that government can do things. Private initiatives to eliminate diseases seem to be a lot quicker though…

          And the internet was developed as a government scheme, yes. But the government did not develop anything we are using here beyond the basic concept, because the actual useful innovations for our use were done by private concerns. Most notably, the entire WWW protocol which is required for the internet to work as it does was invented by one man moving between private companies and academic institutions. Government is actually pretty good at basic innovation, but crap at adding value.

    • roystgnr says:

      Finland has reputation for having mandatory and very successful public schools

      I have discovered a truly remarkable disproof of this theory, which this spam filter is too small-minded to not contain.

      Too many hyperlinks for documentation, I guess? Honestly, I put in a link to books.google.com, one to a blogspot post, one to stanford.edu, and one to rangevoting.org. If that is what a spambot comment looks like these days then clever UFAI is already here and we’re all doomed.

    • SamGamgee says:

      My impression was that we do live in a society of idiots. If that isn’t evidence for the failure of government schools, what is?

      OK that was snarky. But seriously, are you able to quantify the benefits of public schooling? I know the theory is that it gives us an educated population etc, but where is the evidence that this is actually the result as compared with how people would learn without public schools?

      • albatross11 says:

        I think the best way to find out would be to find lots of paired similar places where public education was adopted at different times, and then see if you could see any impact. My intuition is that if education wasn’t free, most people in the middle-class-and-up would either pay for it or provide it to their kids themselves via homeschooling or tutoring. Probably most people in the working class would, too. But there would be people who didn’t care or didn’t value getting their kids an education, and their kids would kinda get screwed. (Though probably those kids are mostly getting screwed over anyway.)

        • But there would be people who didn’t care or didn’t value getting their kids an education, and their kids would kinda get screwed. (Though probably those kids are mostly getting screwed over anyway.)

          Yes that is the question. I don’t have a satisfactory answer to this. My priors would say that most kids would come out better if the parents had full charge, although I am far from certain. And I know many have opposite priors. I have no idea where to find good evidence in either direction. Most that I’ve heard amount to anecdotes about say India or the 19th Century.

    • Macrofauna says:

      The other client is the society at large. No one wants to live in a society of idiots. We want to have rational discussions with people. The goal of education should be to make people cognizant of the systems we live in and how to harness their own actions towards the ends they seek. Basically, make them aware of Moloch.

      I object both to the assertion that education should achieve this goal and to the assumption that education can achieve this goal. This smells of “everyone should study my field, which is the best field”.

  14. negative_utilitarian says:

    Out of curiosity, what can’t you stand about NPR? Based on their reputation as this kind of shibboleth of high-liberalism, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how good their reporting seems to be compared to, well, every other major news outlet I know of. I only really listen to them during my commute, so maybe All Things Considered and Marketplace are just better than some other program I haven’t heard of which justifiably tanks their reputation, but per hypothesis I haven’t heard of it.

    In recent memory, I remember positively stories about the guy who won the Nobel Prize for inventing the blue LED, a story about former coal workers in China including a profile of a pretty absurd ‘coal museum’ and comparisons to the rust belt, a pretty sympathetic story about the economics of the use of Dicamba in farming with interviews of both individual farmers using it illegally and scientists explaining the negative externalities, and an interview with some mathematicians about a recent discovery regarding the tessellation of some figure, just to give a few.

    Despite a slight editorial bias, they subjectively seem to be less heavy handed than any other major news organization I can name, and have at least in my mind reasonable sensibilities as to what to cover. I can’t really think of any reason why one would find it harder to listen to than reading Current Affairs, Vox or any of the other culture war mags you seem constantly drawn back to.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I agree they’re good, which is why I said best-case scenario. I just can’t stand them. Part of it might have to do with the radio format. Everyone sounds so weird-combination-of-concerned-and-chipper. “Here’s some atrocity that just happened, let’s talk about it in very concerned-sounding tones for three minutes, switching speakers frequently. And now on the lighter side, a new movie is out!”

      • negative_utilitarian says:

        Fair enough. I suppose certain aspects of listening to radio have the implicit cudgel of “It’s this or random pop music” helping to smooth over things like that on my end. They do have individual segments archived on their site, which might be less annoying along those lines. I sometimes like to find and queue up some of the more interesting looking ones while walking the dog and whatnot.

        In retrospect, I think the above was a bit more accusatory than I’d like, so sorry for the tone.

    • lambdaphagy says:

      My favorite “see a world in a grain of sand” moment on NPR was the episode of This American Life where the staffers got their testosterone checked. All of the men had practically clinical levels of T.

      In fairness to NPR, the program itself was unexpectedly Noticey:

      Producer Alex Blumberg explains that he wanted to do this show because of his conflicted relationship with his own testosterone.

      Could a phrase be any more NPR than “conflicted relationship with his own testosterone”?

      He tells host Ira Glass that the reasons go back to a girl in his eighth-grade homeroom and the 1970s seminal feminist novel The Women’s Room. We also hear from a man who stopped producing testosterone due to a medical treatment and found that his entire personality was altered… He explains that life without testosterone is life without desire—desire for everything: food, conversation, even TV. And he says life without desire is unexpectedly pleasant.

      Presumably the program was followed by an All Things Considered spot on the puzzling shortage of women in the Navy SEALs or something.

      • Nick says:

        He explains that life without testosterone is life without desire—desire for everything: food, conversation, even TV. And he says life without desire is unexpectedly pleasant.

        What?!?! I couldn’t understand this attitude at all. I had to go read the transcript of the episode (bless them for putting up transcripts, by the way). Money quotes:

        [Anon guy]: It wasn’t that I was behaving. It was that I was not behaving at all. I was, when I was awake, literally sitting in bed and staring at the wall with neither interest nor disinterest for three, four hours at a time. If you’d had a camera in the room, you would have thought I was comatose.

        I would go out. I would buy some groceries early in the morning. And that would be it. My day had no content. I had no interest in even watching TV, much less reading the newspaper or a book. Food– I didn’t want my food to taste good or interesting. And when you’re blessed with that lack of desire, you can eat a loaf of Wonder Bread with mayonnaise. And that will be your day.

        [Anon guy]: Which is a very strange-sounding thing, which is, “that is beautiful.” Everything I saw, I thought, “that is beautiful,” which is odd-sounding, I know, because that sounds like the judgment of a person with passion. But it was the exact opposite. It was thought, and sometimes even said, with complete dispassion, with objectivity.

        And you see, I was looking at absolutely everything, the most mundane sight in the world– a weed in the sidewalk– and thinking, oh, that’s beautiful. The surgery scars on people’s knees, the bolts in the hubcaps of cars, all of it. It just seemed to have purpose. And it was like, oh, that’s beautiful.

        This sounds just bizarre to me. I don’t think I’d want to trade “doing anything at all ever” for “seeing the beauty in everything.” Especially because I can see the beauty in everything already, and not just by being so-depressed-I’m-comatose. This guy sounds like one of Scott’s wirehead gods—lying in his bed of lotuses contemplating the perfection of all things. Or like a Buddhist, I guess:

        Alex Blumberg: Well, I can understand that because desire often feels like a burden. It often feels like, if I just didn’t want that thing, not having it wouldn’t be so painful.
        [Anon guy]: There you go. All that wanting.

        I’m somewhere between amused and confused by the later section on testosterone levels. Why do they care so much? I’d be kind of interested in finding out, personally, although I think I already know the answer. I have to give them credit for going through with it on air like that.

    • Incurian says:

      Some friends forced me to listen to a few of their science podcasts on a road trip. It reminded me of “I fucking love science” more than anything like education.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      I’m an utter NPR/BBC junkie, but…

      There may be issues with the sound. I forget the details, but they do something to flatten out the voices.

      Also, there may be lack of variety in tone/emotion. I’m not very sensitive to it, but I remember one of their black show hosts (sorry, can’t remember his name) complaining about it.

    • SamGamgee says:

      They’re kind of like the New York Times for me. In many ways they’re excellent, but on certain important issues they really frame the issue to exclude reasonable counterarguments. I think that’s bad considering they’re supposed to be politically neutral.

    • albatross11 says:

      I listen to NPR relatively often, particularly their 5-minute headline summary and sometimes Morning Edition or All Things Considered (I think that’s still what they call it) in the car. My impression is generally favorable, but I’ve noticed one phenomenon that bugs the hell out of me: There are times when they’re reporting a story, and they’ll utterly ignore some relevant fact or question–either because they don’t want to mess up the story they’re telling, or because they don’t want to offend their listeners, or just because their minds don’t work that way. This is especially true with anything involving numbers or statistics, and with anything involving a culture-war-y story where they don’t want to mess up the narrative.

    • Janet says:

      I just want to add my 2 cents to what others have said. They do put some quirky and unusual stories up, and some of their work is more in depth than is typical for news radio (which, these days, is either 100% partisan blowhards, or somebody reading the wire reports, traffic and weather every 10 minutes on a cycle). Plus, there is Car Talk. And, if you’ve ever had to chaperone a field trip of teenagers anywhere, turning on a 35th anniversary analysis of the Falklands Islands War on the van’s radio is Awe. Some. Guaranteed dead silence for the whole trip.

      Nonetheless, as others have said, they have the narrative, and facts which would contravene the narrative are not permitted to appear. That is, “All Things Considered”… isn’t going to consider, say, that the second amendment advocates might have some solid arguments, or that restricting due process for college men accused of sexual misconduct might destroy a non-trivial number of innocent lives, plus have some very disturbing racial implications.[1]

      I would also add a more vague complaint, that they favor “book knowledge” (or maybe “wonkiness”) over wisdom and practical experience. I mean, the difference between being able to spout off the names and thumbnail sketch of (somebody’s description of) the political alignment of the main tribes of Libya, without any real experience of trying to get something complicated/difficult done in a tribal society, or the Arab/Islamic world. It lets their listeners think they deeply understand the issues of Libya… but really, they don’t have the first fargin’ clue what they’re talking about, and they advocate the most lunatic policies based on this misunderstanding.

      [1] A specific example: the local NPR station had a segment on the transit system cracking down on fare-jumping. Excuse me, “fare evasion”. It was entirely presented as a question of “racial justice” and “social justice”, and as a cruel, pointless burden on poor people-of-color. Not a whisper of the need for the transit system to balance its books; nor of the passes given to genuine poor people which should eliminate the need for jumping fares; nor of the fact that fare-jumpers are disproportionately likely to go on to panhandle, pick-pocket, mug, etc. paying customers; nor to the vandalism and (ahem) public hygiene issues fare-jumpers pose, as unfortunately demonstrated on video multiple times; etc. The issue was just, “callous transit police push innocent, poor, people of color, who had no other options whatsoever, into the maw of the criminal justice system, where they will never recover at all.”

  15. Baeraad says:

    The opportunity to find and enjoy the tiny little bubbles of non-crap are one of the only things that make life worth living.

    See, this is where we fundamentally disagree, and why I disagree with your answer – though I can’t actually offer any better ones.

    Thing is, there aren’t any tiny bubbles of non-crap. It’s all crap. It’s wall-to-wall crap. There aren’t any virtuous Randian superhumans upholding the ideals of Quality and Integrity in a crumbling, mediocre world. There are only people who make a great show of pretending to be such Randian superhumans, and other people who like their particular brand of crap well enough that they don’t look closely enough at it to realise that it’s very similar to all the other crap.

    All those bold entrepreneurs you hold up as ideals? I guarantee you, one hundred percent – if you actually took an unbiased look at them, you’d find that they’re crap. They’re crap because they’re human, and humans create mostly crap, most of the time. Oh, there are a few glimmers of quality here and there, but those exist everywhere, even in those bureaucratic nightmares you hate so much. Every so often, people accidentally manage to get their shit together for a few moments and achieve non-crappiness. But then they go right back to being crap. And no one has a noticeably higher success rate at achieving those moments than anyone else.

    What I’m saying is, you can’t outsmart the system. Not because the system is perfect or allpowerful, but because you’re just not smart enough. If people were smart enough to outsmart the system, they’d have built a system that worked well enough that it didn’t need outsmarting.

    The reason you think otherwise, I would argue, is because for you, the alternative is unbearable – you can see the faults of the system so clearly that convincing yourself that you are able to stand above and outside it is “one of the only things that make life worth living.” I can sympathise, because I see the faults of the system just as clearly and don’t have a security belief to cling to in the face of it, and as a result I often don’t feel like life is worth living at all, and that’s no fun. But I’m still driven to speak out against the conceited elitism of it. As depressing as it is, you, sir, are not noticeably superior to all us other worthless morons.

    • Dedicating Ruckus says:

      Thing is, there aren’t any tiny bubbles of non-crap. It’s all crap. It’s wall-to-wall crap. There aren’t any virtuous Randian superhumans upholding the ideals of Quality and Integrity in a crumbling, mediocre world. There are only people who make a great show of pretending to be such Randian superhumans, and other people who like their particular brand of crap well enough that they don’t look closely enough at it to realise that it’s very similar to all the other crap.

      Is there any point to this comment, other than waving your notionally superior taste in everyone’s faces?

      The contention “the things you like are actually terrible” is information-free and pointless. The contention “terribleness rates are uniform across human institutions” is falsified by momentary experience. The contention “there is no hope and everyone should despair” is similarly information-free, and also actively hostile to any listener, and therefore shouldn’t be expounded even if it seems true in the moment.

    • drethelin says:

      I don’t know if there’s any nice way to say this, but Based on this comment you may want to be seen for depression.

    • Watchman says:

      So if there are glimmers of non-crap, not everything is crap. But if as you say, all humans will mostly produce crap, any system that depends on humans to do something such as run public cafeteria well is doomed to fail, and therefore we need a system that somehow rewards and prioritises those little glimmers of output over the general crapness of humans, by taking human crapness out of the equation. Fortunately capitalism, which doesn’t depend on humans (entrepreneurs are not capitalism, where most of the value at any given time is established technologies such as food) does exactly this by offering up the glimmering bits and allowing us to focus on buying those or not as we choose (after all, not everyone might want the same glimmer – some people like Will and Grace apparently…). As people are crap, we do need ways of mitigating crapness against those seeking to mitigate their crap existence with the glimmery things of their choice, which is where the glimmers in government can be put to use defeating the crapness that would otherwise prevail.

      So my reading of your somewhat negative approach to humanity is that it is actually leading towards agreement with Scott – neo-liberalism is about right as a system. You get there from a very different place (and you still need to finish the journey), but it’s still the same destination.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      1) I agree with drethelin that you may have depression.

      2) I would like to see you and DrBeat compete for “best SSC screed about All Being Lost.”

  16. Charlie__ says:

    Sounds like you had pretty bad time in the school system, and felt a lot more socially isolated than average. I’m sorry.

    But I’m pessimistic about how much school choice would help cases like yours. Schools aren’t like soda, where there’s lots of variety and it’s easy to keep trying them until you know what suits you. It’s costly to switch schools, hard to evaluate them (especially as a parent who isn’t the person who attends the school), and unless you live in a big city there might just not be space in the market for a school that caters to your specific needs.

    This is not to say that the idea of removing resources from public schools and putting it towards subsidies for private schools is a crazy idea. It just means that there are going to be lots of problems that won’t go away just because you’ve theoretically expanded school choice.

    • shenanigans24 says:

      That’s an argument that not all problems will be solved with school choice. But if more than zero problems will be solved than it’s still a better option.

    • SamGamgee says:

      I’ve seen this objection but rarely any attempt to a) analyze the causes of problems like expense of changing schools or difficulty of evaluation and b) propose solutions that don’t involve giving the government the power to choose for everyone else. If there are constraints on people’s ability to make informed choices, then you want to empower people to make those informed choices, not take away what little choice they have.

  17. SEE says:

    Once upon a time there was a popular argument going around (especially favored on places like Daily Kos) that government programs worked fine when allowed to, they were just sabotaged by Republicans for ideological reasons whenever Republicans were in power. Insofar as government programs ever did things badly, it was entirely the result of electing Republicans.

    At which point I’d always ask the people making the argument something along the lines of, “Well, then, before we establish the new government program you’re proposing, what’s your plan to prevent Republicans for ever taking power again and sabotaging it? And if you’ve got one that’ll work, why didn’t you use it to stop George W. Bush?”

    • Lillian says:

      This is actually a significant problem with the government cafeteria proposal. The program will have to pay for not just the food, but also also the cafeteria facilities and staff. This means that it will provide less food per dollar, so in order to give poor people access to the same amount of food, the program will require a significantly bigger budget. The Republicans are extremely likely to resist expanding the SNAP budget, and if it is expanded when they’re out of power, they’re very likely to cut it back when they return to power. As the consequence the most likely real result of government cafeterias would be poor people having less food and being hungrier.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Robinson’s argument could be rephrased as “it’ll totally work this time, we just need the right people in charge: me and my friends!”

    • adelaybeingreborn says:

      There is no system that cannot be ruined by its enemies.

      Given that premise, the first reaction is that hiring the right people is essential. Government or private – it makes no difference. For example, if I run a private business and hire a CEO based on their track record of rejecting expert advice, spiting customers, embezzling funds, sowing rancor, and setting fires, then my business will be shortly going down the tubes. This is the Daily Kos conclusion you mention regarding putting Republicans in charge of government agencies.

      The second reaction is the libertarian one – that sometimes it’s better to forgo solving a social problem than to risk letting an institution fall into enemy hands.

      The third reaction is the leftist one – that our enemies are not libertarians and are definitely going to establish government institutions aimed at making things worse for us, so we’ll need to get our people in charge of those institutions anyway just to minimize the damage. At that point we might as well let our people in power do good things with the power too. If we abolish the institution, then as soon as we lose power the other side will simply restore it, making the libertarian option futile. The leftist strategy strictly dominates the libertarian strategy so long as the rules of the game stay the same.

      The fourth reaction is that there’s got to be a different set of rules we could play by so that government agencies were as likely to hire a good person as are private firms.

  18. pipsterate says:

    Good post, but I wonder if you might be overgeneralizing based on the state of American public schools. Finnish students, for example, do significantly better than American ones, but their education system is almost entirely public. Don’t you think you’re giving up on the general concept of public schools a little too easily?

    I’m honestly not sure how I feel about school vouchers. I see the appeal (especially because I went to some terrible public schools), but I’m also cautious.

    • shenanigans24 says:

      I don’t know much about Finnish schools but I’m guessing that they are not sitting in the inner city trying to educate Lashawnda who’s mom is on drugs and misses school 20 days a year. They’re probably more equivalent to Connecticut with a mostly white group and a culture that values education. Comparing those two might be interesting, but it may just show that a place like Connecticut could have more rigorous standards to achieve better results while that might not be true for rural West Virginia or Detroit.

      Any cirriculum that challenges affluent areas will fail a lot of students in less affluent areas. It’s nice to think we can turn inner citiy youth and hillbillies into engineers who read Shakespeare with the right schools but there’s a real difference in these communities in how much parents value education and are willing to put into it.

      At best you could provide a leveled system where the people that put more effort in can get in more difficult programs.

      • Sp how does private education solve that?

        • Civilis says:

          Private education separates the families that value education from those that see school as a daycare. It’s an imperfect sorting mechanism, but still better than not sorting at all.

          • Your take on which problem needs to ge solved is one sided.

          • Civilis says:

            Your take on which problem needs to ge solved is one sided.

            It’s triage. There are a lot of problems that need to be solved. For some, there’s no way to solve them at this time. I see that we can help some people with a fix that is potentially possible to implement. It won’t help everyone, but helping some people is good. It also doesn’t rule out other fixes to other problems.

            Based on your posts below, you seem fixated on improving public services as the solution. That’s a very hard problem to solve. If there were a viable way to do so, I wouldn’t object to it, but we haven’t found one. I prefer an implementable solution we can do now to waiting for a magic bullet for a problem which keeps getting worse and worse.

          • That’s a very hard problem to solve. I

            Yet again, it is not the case that all public services everywhere are terrible.

            And my original point was that the alternative solution actualy makes things worse for some people.

      • Janet says:

        I couldn’t easily find Connecticut, but for the 2015 PISA tests for 15-year-olds, Massachusetts was just a whisker behind Finland:

        Science: Finland = 531, Massachusetts = 529
        Reading: Finland = 526, Massachusetts = 527
        Math: Finland = 511, Massachusetts = 500

  19. poignardazur says:

    Eh, I’ve been to government-funded cafeterias; the one I went to in middle school was superlatively terrible (seriously, they never, ever, ever served a dish that wasn’t bad), the one I went to in high school was pretty okay, so there’s some variance.

    Then again, back when I was in middle school, I definitely remember thinking it would be neat if the school could just give us lunch money and let us choose our own restaurant.

    (also, I live in France; sometimes I keep hearing about US horror stories and I start to think that everything public in the US is terrible)

    • Which could well be explicable by the difference between a culture of sticking with, and improving , pubic services, versus a culture of buying out.

      When people buy out of public provision, it helps them and hurts others.

      • Tracy W says:

        That seems counter-intuitive – Why would an institution be improved by people being unable to leave? Do you have some comparative examples?

        • There are many examples of public healthcare, education and transport systems that work well.

          • Tracy W says:

            Yes but how many of them don’t have alternatives? E.g. you can catch public transport, or you can drive.

            I’ve lived most of my life in NZ and the UK and both countries have private schools and private healthcare available. Even Finland has a few private schools.

            Do you have examples of countries changing the rules to stop people from leaving the public system and consequently seeing an improvement in performance?

          • I’m not saying don’t have alternative s, I’m saying tweak incentives to keep most people in the public system.

          • Tracy W says:

            @AncientGreek: That may be. But you also said, to quote you:

            When people buy out of public provision, it helps them and hurts others.

            I asked if you have any evidence to support that assertion, as opposed to any other assertions you might happen to make.

            Right now, it sounds like you don’t.

        • Aapje says:

          @Tracy W

          Why would an institution be improved by people being unable to leave?

          Because then people will often focus their energy on improving the institution, rather than creating a new one.

          Of course, that is dependent on there being a way to have influence.

          • Watchman says:

            As you seem to imply, an institution that does not let people leave tends not to let them govern it either. I struggle to think of one obligatory government scheme that actually effectively engages with its users to effect improvements.

          • Tracy W says:

            @Aapje: if you are the employee of an organisation where people can’t leave, why would you put effort into improving the institution?

            People can’t leave prisons. Where do you think people are treated better: at a prison or at a private budget hostel?

    • jw says:

      Thngs in the US are way better than you are seeing. Our media really doesn’t like our country much and tears us down at every chance.

    • Doug S. says:

      As much as we like to make fun of it, apparently the US has the #1 postal service in the world.

      Source.

      • toastengineer says:

        I remember the time I bought a single tiny capacitor online, shipped via U.S. mail, and it arrived two years later. I’d moved in the meantime though, so I suppose that was impressive.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      But you only hear the horror stories. A variation of “if it bleeds it leads.” I had perfectly fine public schools with perfectly fine cafeteria lunches. But I lived in a perfectly fine upper middle class suburb. “Things Perfectly Fine In Perfectly Fine Area” doesn’t make for a gripping news narrative.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        My school cafeteria experiences were at least adequate.

        I’m pickier about food now, but I don’t remember actively disliking what was offered, and I remember Sloppy Joe’s (hamburger in red sauce) fondly.

        I was harassed enough that I’m probably still dealing with the psychological fallout, but for some reason it didn’t happen at lunch. All I wanted was to be left in peace to read, and that was how it worked out.

  20. shakeddown says:

    The opportunity to find and enjoy the tiny little bubbles of non-crap are one of the only things that make life worth living.

    I think this is currently threatened by capitalism more than excessive government control (disclaimers: in the US, for people who are citizens). The thing that threatens my current bubble of non-crap isn’t possible government action, it’s that my employer goes to great lengths to enforce their PC ways (which would be potentially neutralized by stronger labour protections). For most people in America, it seems like their employer or landlord is much more likely to destroy their bubble than the government. So while overall excessive government is worth worrying about, on the margin, in the current situation, excessive capitalism seems like a bigger threat.

    There’s another problem with this narrative, about the part where people have a hard time in government-controlled systems like schools and such: American schools seem famously and uniquely bad, especially for non-central students, compared to schools in countries less worried about excessive government control. I can think of a bunch of just-so stories explaining it, but can’t really back them. So I’ll just say “Government can be really bad, so we should worry more about excessive government control” seems to also have the ability to cause government to be worse.

    • jw says:

      If your employer is enforcing PC, they’re an ally of government. You will not get a law keeping your employer from pushing PC crap. See: all the laws mandating service industries to use the correct pronoun for transgenders or else.

    • shenanigans24 says:

      My employer is the government and PC gets pushed with the added threat of jail time as well as firing.

    • Civilis says:

      The thing that threatens my current bubble of non-crap isn’t possible government action, it’s that my employer goes to great lengths to enforce their PC ways (which would be potentially neutralized by stronger labour protections). For most people in America, it seems like their employer or landlord is much more likely to destroy their bubble than the government. So while overall excessive government is worth worrying about, on the margin, in the current situation, excessive capitalism seems like a bigger threat.

      How much of that threat from your employer / landlord is government mandated? I know most of the annoyingly stupid HR bureaucratic stuff is a result of government or legal policy, not as a result of a desire to make more money.

      For that matter, which side of the fence does the legal protectionism fall on, government or private? Most of the lawyers are in it for profit, of course, but the whole scheme is one that wouldn’t exist without exploitable government decisions to fall back on.

      • Watchman says:

        Being fair to government, a lot of the PC crap you find comes from people enforcing what they think government wants, not what government requires, or indeed anything like what reading the badly written crap that passes for guidance requires. Why this happens I don’t know, but it’s a recognised phenomenon. There was a similiar complaint in the UK about the ridiculous enforcement of health and safety legislation a while ago, and eventually the actual government inspectorate responsible pointed out that every one of the stupid cases that had made the papers were total over-reactions and not anything they required.

        • Matt M says:

          Being fair to government, a lot of the PC crap you find comes from people enforcing what they think government wants, not what government requires, or indeed anything like what reading the badly written crap that passes for guidance requires. Why this happens I don’t know, but it’s a recognised phenomenon.

          I think you’re being overly charitable here. I don’t think most of these cases are innocent misunderstandings. These are PC people who are enforcing what they themselves want but then using “the government requires this!” as a smokescreen to avoid responsibility when they get called out for their nonsense.

  21. fortybot says:

    And once you arrive – well, it’s basically high school lunch all over again. Did anyone except the top-ranking bully enjoy high school lunch? Would they have enjoyed it more if it were limited to poor people, who [insert several paragraphs of apologies and caveats here] can sometimes be on the louder and more aggressive end? Do we really want transgender people, gay people, etc to have to spend three meals a day in the middle of High School Lunch Hour Ascended To Omnisocial Phenomenon, forever?

    I think this is a rather weak argument. In my experience, this behavior is a symptom not of large groups in a cafeteria, but of younger personalities. I eat fairly regularly at a college cafeteria where most of the clientele are students eating off a meal plan. There are none of the problems you suggest; people eat with their friends and most of the time no one encroaches on anyone else. This argument seems like a filler third point, and I don’t think there is any reason for it to be a problem when it is not already a problem in restaurants and cafeterias today,

    • SpaghettiLee says:

      I’ll also chime in with “My public high school cafeteria was a perfectly decent place.” Scott pretty clearly had a terrible experience (or two or three) in school, but it annoys me when he (and others) say “public school is universally horrible”, people in the comments say “mine wasn’t”, and then he doesn’t even acknowledge it. I had a great time in high school but this site has opened my eyes to how bad some peoples’ experience can be, but that sense of realization doesn’t seem to flow in reverse for whatever reason.

      • toastengineer says:

        “public school is universally horrible”, people in the comments say “mine wasn’t”, and then he doesn’t even acknowledge it.

        I’m pretty sure you’re a very tiny minority.

        I changed schools pretty much every year when I was in elementary and while some were more terrible than others, none seemed to have anything but purely negative effects on their students. Two were straight-up physically abusive. Three if you count that one “alternative program.” Being put in a chokehold (as a six year old, by a stranger, remember) any time someone didn’t like what you were doing, being shut in a tiny padded cell all day any time someone didn’t like what you were doing, pretty extreme bullying behaviors by school authorities, having packets of smelling salts forced up your nose… not exactly conducive to a positive learning environment.

        I remember in 6th grade realizing that I was the only one in the class who knew what country I was in. The teacher was talking about geography, one student asked “where’s the United States,” didn’t understand when told that that’s where they were right now; no-one else seemed to understand either. They thought the state was the country and that the U.S. was something else.

      • Nornagest says:

        High school was boring, bureaucratic, and generally a poor use of time, but there wasn’t a lot of bullying or viciousness in mine. Some petty teasing and posturing, but I’m pretty sure you’d get that anywhere you have a group of more than three teenagers. Junior high on the other hand was about as bad as the stereotype.

        I get the impression that this varies a lot school to school, though.

        • albatross11 says:

          Nornagest:

          That’s pretty much my experience in a couple small towns in the midwest–junior high was like Lord of the Flies but less civilized; high school was way nicer. (Though some of that is that I got a lot bigger and stronger, so trying to bully me wasn’t as much fun.)

      • rlms says:

        Thirded. I’m not American, maybe things are different there.

    • Watchman says:

      Isn’t the fact this is a college cafeteria pretty self-selecting for the non-bully type: even school bullies who go to college pretty rapidly adopt a different mode of demonstrating status when the fact their behaviour is unacceptable becomes obvious. I doubt the same social constraints apply amongst poor people, at least some of whom are poor due to the fact their social skills are less developed.

      Public schooling can be good – but the chances of this increase if the average wealth of the pupils’ families increase, unsurprisingly. I went to a pretty good school (although the canteens could be rough, so I tended to grab something to eat elsewhere) in a pretty poor area, which was made good by its leadership. Ten years later, with different leadership, it was a really bad school though, so my luck was of being the right age to go during the good leadership. Do we really want a system where good public schooling is conditional on the wealth of the intake or the chance of good leadership, as opposed to a system where good schooling is the norm not the result of set circumstance.

  22. negative_utilitarian says:

    I largely agree with the conclusions here, but I’m a bit worried about the general principles used to achieve them. I worry that the conclusion as to what a government can and can’t do effectively are drawn from too small of a sample size, that ultimately amount to a kind of universalizing caricature of the events of the early to mid 20th century.

    For one thing, I would avoid treating the outcomes of communist revolutions in Russia and China as a kind of universal law as to how revolutions turn out. I think the effects of violent revolution in a largely backwards feudal society existing in an unstable equilibrium while new technology that renders said equilibrium unstable is very unevenly distributed while trickling in slowly from the outside world. Comparing the history of socialism and communism in Latin America against the history of capitalism in Latin America paints a somewhat murkier picture.

    Further, I also worry about over-generalizing the problems of the US to all possible forms of government. Imagine the following scenario:
    I have a somewhat poorly designed engine that hasn’t been maintained very well for decades, but one day I suddenly decide that I want to do everything in my power to make this engine better. I start doing the proper maintenance, pouring as much money as I can into expensive oil and other car stuff my uncle probably told me about at some point. Nonetheless, it still keeps breaking down. After pouring an unreasonable amount of money into it, I see the light, and realize that engineering is fundamentally a futile endeavor, and start cynically discouraging anyone from trying to maintain their engines. Every time I see a sign of failure in anyone else’s engine, I see it as further proof that my thesis is correct, regardless of whether it is within the planned degree of tolerance and redundancy the engineer might have built into it.

    The US has a fundamentally flawed legislative body, designed around weird forms of democracy that never really made sense in any context other than trying to appease slave-holding states into not seceding, and even for that purpose it didn’t even work right.

    I could honestly see the public food option working reasonably well in Canada, even if it was inferior to what a well-designed voucher system could achieve.

    • jw says:

      Yeah, amazing how government in Canada works different, what with them having 1/10th the population of the US…

    • shenanigans24 says:

      I don’t know what you mean about a legislative body designed around avoiding secession. The legislature was around for 100 years before the south thought of seceding.

      People don’t just say the government fails at things because it has so many times, they’ve looked at the fundamental reasons why things succeed and things don’t.

      The government has little incentive to make customers happy, or certainly not more than 51% of its customers. It has no way to measure cost benefit when the customers are forced to pay. It has no mechanism for acquiring talented leaders and no way to measure talent. In place of these mechanisms that exists in markets they create quotas and standards designed to mimic efficiency and productivity but merely encourage fraud or diverting of all resources regardless of cost benefit to making the reports look good. Businesses can do this too but at some point the bottom line is the bottom line and they will go out of business.

      An example is one I see in government. The workers maintain a fleet of trucks that are rarely used. So how do you tell if they’ve done a good job? They file reports on how often they are operational. So let’s say one has a flat tire on a Friday but they can’t fix it until Monday they just won’t “find” the flat until Monday so it’s only non-operational for a few hours instead of 3 days over the weekend. I see dead batteries where it takes a month to get a new one so they just swap them out to make the reports good. Managers know these reports are bull but they get graded as managers by these reports and since everyone is lying on the reports telling the truth will just end their career. The managers managers know the reports are bull too but they know it’s just how you deal with the problem and there’s no incentive to fight the system. Whether any of the tricks ever run doesn’t mean much to anybody, just whether the report looks good. They’re accountable to the voters indirectly but the voters don’t have a clue whether the trucks run or exist, and if they did they would just look at the reports.

  23. Sniffnoy says:

    I’m focusing on democracy and elections here, but this is potentially true of any government. It’s true of the bureaucracy – bureaucrats who focus on empire-building and gaming metrics will outperform the ones who focus on running their bureaucracy virtuously and well. It’s true of dictatorships; colonels who optimize for helping the people will get replaced by colonels who optimize for pleasing the military / seizing and holding onto power. Start a revolution to sweep away everyone else and institute a form of government that isn’t Moloch, and your revolution will surrender to Moloch in all of of ten seconds. If there’s some elite force of commandos and technocrats to prevent your communist revolution from becoming Moloch, five seconds. The problem isn’t any contigent part of the system. It’s the concepts of competition, optimization, and selection. “Oh, but our system won’t be competitive”. Really? How do you decide who the leaders are? “Oh, we won’t have a single leader, we’ll make decisions by…” Two seconds to become Moloch, and and if your non-leader ends up with a death toll of less than a million you got off easy.

    While I’m all for cautioning against revolution, I think your specifics are a bit off here. The problem isn’t not having a single leader; the problem is failure to actually think about — or really, failure to notice — the relevant problems at all. You can design systems without a single leader while still thinking about these sorts of problems (e.g. futarchy; how well it will stand up remains to be seen, but it certainly at least attempts to account for this sort of thing).

    But you do have to think about how you’re going to address the alignment problem. (Markets and voting are good starts.) Because the thing is that if you make no effort to avoid it, whatever you’re doing will just sort of collapse into this sort of default human social structure, where getting to make the decisions is determined by charisma and ingroupishness and… well, you know, all that awful human winning social status games stuff that Ialdabaoth likes to talk about. In other words by things not bearing on actual competence and maybe even inversely correlated with it. And that’s something you really want to avoid. (And then it gets worse when the fact that ingroupishness puts you on top throws everything into a positive feedback loop…)

  24. jhertzlinger says:

    I’m reminded of Calvin Trillin on the possibility of everybody eating in One Big Kitchen.

  25. Sniffnoy says:

    And “ability to go elsewhere” is probably the most important ingredient. If I really want, I can spend some time looking into the dangers of sugary fruit juice. In fact, I did this a few years ago and haven’t bought any since; just like that, all of the horrors of capitalism lost their power over me. The last drink I bought was a sugar-free sparkling organic kiwi dragonfruit french soda with a total of five calories, because I personally preferred that to the two-thousand-or-so other options available within a five block walk of my house.

    On the other hand, I also spent a long time looking into the dangers of Trump. I voted against Trump. I begged other people to vote against Trump. I wrote a blog post officially endorsing literally any person in the world who was not Trump. Despite all of this, Donald Trump is my president. I feel less satisfied with this system than with the other one, honestly.

    As messed-up as it is… there seems to me to be a contingent of Leftists who really do effectively favor the reverse. I say “effectively” because I don’t think they’d necessarily judge the latter worse in a straight-up comparison, but that without being told they’d notice something objectionable in the former but not the latter. Part of it seems to be this idea that as long as something bad is going on, it doesn’t matter that you can opt out of it, as long as someone is being hurt by it. And actually opting out of it raises some sort of Copenhagen-interpretation-of-morality thing where see by opting out you are acknowledging the problem but not taking on the responsibility of saving everyone and so that’s bad (and also it’s inequality that you have the sense to opt out and others don’t). That… might be a bad and uncharitable explanation, since I have to admit I don’t really understand that way of thinking myself. But I thought it needed to be pointed out.

    • Part of it seems to be this idea that as long as something bad is going on, it doesn’t matter that you can opt out of it, as long as someone is being hurt by it.

      That is stealmanable.

      There is no reason to think that everyone making the optimal individual decision leads to the optimal group decision. specifically opting out public institutions can lead to their decay.

    • benwave says:

      Most of the actual leftists I know (and here by actual leftists I mean people who self-identify as anti-capitalist, and who actively attend disruptive actions like blockades) have a high level of distrust of government. Faith in government seems to be more of a sort of Sanders-type characteristic, lefter than a democrat but less so than an anti-cap. The anti-caps Do seem have a pretty large degree of faith in democracy in general though.

  26. Brandon Berg says:

    The USDA claims its checkoff program has been well worth it: For every $1 that the agency spends on increasing cheese demand, it estimates that farmers get $4.43 in additional revenue.

    That actually sounds like a huge bust to me. The government is spending $1 to get consumers to reallocate less than $5 of spending from something else (probably other foods or beverages) to dairy products. Even putting aside the question of whether that’s a worthwhile thing to do at any price, shifting around $4.43 in revenues (not even profits) surely can’t be worth $1 of taxpayers’ money.

    • suntzuanime says:

      The USDA doesn’t serve the interests of consumers, it serves the interests of farmers. And the money in the checkoff program isn’t taxpayers’ money, it’s dairy farmers’ money. From that perspective it’s successful.

      Now, whether the US government should run a department which betrays the populace at large in favor of farmers specifically is debatable, but it is Working As Designed.

      • jw says:

        Scott kept using the word neoliberalism. I know he doesn’t mean it this way, but every time I hear that word I hear crony capitalism, because that’s what modern neoliberals always do.

  27. Ketil says:

    The interesting part of this debate is the division between state and market. Capitalism has two things going for it, it gives people freedom to choose for themselves, and it is a system that optimizes distribution of scarce resources. The first is important from a sociopolitical liberal (or in American: libertarian) perspective, but also economical: if I buy something from you, the thing is worth *more* than the price to me, and *less* than the price to you. The difference here can amount to a substantial but hidden part of the economy. The second is remarkable, because capitalism is the only system that inherently both stimulates production of scarce resources and eliminates waste. Other systems (“plan economy”) lead to overproduction and shortages and wasteful practices.

    Capitalism fails when consumers (or producers, probably) are insufficiently informed, or when scarcity is not something that can be easily remedied by an industry, or when resources aren’t entirely owned. So we need regulation to ensure fair information (Coca Cola can’t lie about their products), there are natural monopolies like defense and possibly police, and situations with tragedy of the commons where — well, although libertarians and authoritarians will probably disagree about where the exact border lies or wheter the state necessesarily must be the entity that interferes, I think we can all argue that the case for state intervention is stronger.

    • Tracy W says:

      Capitalism fails compared to what? What system do you have in mind which works better when people are imperfectly informed or scarcity can’t be easily recommended or etc?

      • The system Ketil has in mind is something like the hybrid we have, so pure capitalism fails in comparison to the that.

        • Tracy W says:

          So the implicit claim is that democracy works better than capitalism when people are imperfectly informed? Or when scarcity can’t be easily remedied?

          • No, it is that government regulation can mitigate all the problems Ketil mentioned.

          • Tracy W says:

            So how is government regulation affected by things like voter ignorance? Wouldn’t voter ignorance be an even bigger problem in government. After all, if I inform myself about a product, under capitalism I can buy it or not buy it, even if everyone else is ignorant. But under government I can’t opt out of government regulations passed by ignorant politicians or unscrupulous politicians elected by ignorant voters.

          • You don’t get a perfect solution with government and you don’t get a perfect solution
            without. See the Swiss Cheese model.

          • You don’t get a perfect solution with government and you don’t get a perfect solution without.

            Surely true. But that doesn’t tell us whether the optimum is a mix or zero (or for that matter total) government.

            You don’t get a perfect solution with antibiotics or surgery and you don’t get a perfect solution with faith healing.

          • The swiss cheese model indicates that things don’t get better by removing slices.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            Is there a version of the swiss cheese model in which the slices bore holes in each other?

  28. luispedro says:

    “3. Although it will claim to be socially responsible in order to attract consumers, in reality it only cares about people proportional to how much money they have. It will care about poor people a little, because even poor people have a little money, but it will be much more attuned to the needs of the rich – which is why pharma companies invest more into curing baldness than curing malaria.”

    This is wrong. Companies care about people proportional to how much money they’ll spend on their products.

    Over very large wealth differentials (the people who suffer from malaria vs wealthy country denizens), then “how much money you have” correlates pretty well with “how much money you’re willing to spend on their products”, but this is not so much the case for the (relatively) smaller differences of the rich and the poor within the same country (which is why in this case, you reached for a cross-country comparison while the rest of the post is about rich Americans vs poor Americans).

    I’m pretty sure that Coca-Cola execs discuss the preferences of lower income consumers much more than they discuss the super-wealthy (to attach a negative connotation, this can be phrased as “Coca-Cola exploits lower income consumers”).

    I’m also pretty sure that the opposite is true for yacht manufacturers (who “exploit the rich”).

    • onyomi says:

      Also important to note that capitalism caters to groups of people in proportion to their willingness and ability to pay as a group. As a group, the middle class of the US has much more money it is willing and able to spend on consumer goods and services than do the billionaires of the US as a group. Hence McDonalds having much bigger total profits than any five-star restaurant.

  29. SpaghettiLee says:

    I’m generally on board with ‘society can’t be altered easily’, but…maybe it’s worth kicking the tires on ‘this will never work because all but the poorest people will be shamed into abandoning it, and no one will invest in or take care of something meant for the very poor’? There are lots of things that used to be shamed-out-of-society-level sins that people are mostly OK with now: non-hetero sexual orientations, premarital sex, smoking weed, living at home until later in life (Yes, obviously 100% society isn’t on board, but compared to any given point in the past, I think tolerance has only increased). Is there some fundamental reason why teaching increased tolerance for government-assistance-recipients wouldn’t work?

  30. balrog says:

    Has anyone had good experience with public food?

    My alma matter had awesome dirt-cheap subsidized food. Decent taste and had magical weight losing abilities. Would eat there again every day if I could.

    • Murphy says:

      The UK has many schools which serve significant meals. They’re apparently good, particularly in poorer areas since even kids with kinda crappy parents get fairly significant, fairly healthy reliable meals. (school meals seem to be a general net win most of the time since you’ve already got most of the disadvantages Scott mentions so might as well claim some of the advantages)

      During disasters government supplied food is a significant lifeline.

      I’ve been told that places you can go to just get some kind of generic free meal without paperwork/questions/ID can be a boon to people in dire straits (think in terms of when you’ve spent a week trying to sort out why your vouchers haven’t come through etc) but whether they’re government run is optional.

    • eccdogg says:

      My daughters go to a very nice public school in an upper middle class neighborhood. And I have gone to eat lunch with them on several occasions. The school has a decent number of free and reduced lunch kids bused in.

      The school lunch food is unhealthy crap. This is as close to a public option in food as exist in the USA. There are healthy options usually poorly done, but none of the kids actually choose those options. It is more often pizza or hot dogs and fries.

      They cook the unhealthy stuff because the kids won’t eat the other stuff. I imagine public cafeterias would look much the same except have a clientele more like the central bus stop.

    • Ghillie Dhu says:

      Easily the best value for the money eating I’ve ever done was at the enlisted mess at Charleston AFB; four meals a day (providing round-the-clock offerings to cover all the shifts), you could get a tray so full of cooked-to-order food that you’d have trouble lifting it for under $2 (c. 2001).

      Obviously there are several asterisks to that arrangement (e.g., I only got to eat there for the three weeks while I was TDY; cadets & officers are expected to be able to pay market rate for their meals and don’t have equivalent facilities).

    • CatCube says:

      I loved eating in the DFAC during my deployments, and I liked my college dorm’s cafeteria. The college dorm was overpriced, but the food was decent.

  31. Murphy says:

    I’d be quite keen on a voucher system under which schools which accept vouchers are still bound by the same basic rules as public schools. Particularly separation of church and state. ie: they’re still public schools but they’re run in competition with each other.

    I think such a system could work quite well. Become an employee or arm of the government, be bound by the same rules as the other arms.Simple.

    But unfortunately the vast….vast….vast majority of people who support voucher systems don’t seem to want that. Their one and only singular goal seems to be to tear down separation of church and state. They don’t give much of a damn about quality or choice, they just want to be able to turn the “Jesus” dial up to 11 with the support of the government.

    If they’re in a small town with few schools even better since those dirty [insert minority here] can be turned into proper christians.

    Suggest the same voucher scheme but organized such that it’s not just a thin pretense for transferring government money to the local church and suddenly they’re no longer in favor of vouchers and instead you just get a thin screeching like the dying hive queen at the end of an alien film. Because that is the only feature that most of them care about.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      Today I learned something important.

      I always thought that separation of church and state meant that the government couldn’t establish a state church. But apparently you don’t actually have separation of church and state unless you adopt full laïcité including mandatory secular public schooling.

      See I had figured that it was about freedom of conscience, making sure that people aren’t being coerced into faith. Evidently that’s too bourgeois. Evidently the real purpose is to grind those silly superstitions out of people one generation at a time and to hell with any parents who want to preserve their ways of life.

      Thanks for the lesson.

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          No, which is a shame because we athiests can at least say what we do and don’t believe.

          Secularism is “it’s nice to be nice” topped off with whatever PC nonsense is fashionable that week. It’s the lowest common denominator of culture with nothing to recommend it.

      • rlms says:

        “Today I learned something important… But apparently you don’t actually have separation of church and state unless you adopt full laïcité including mandatory secular public schooling.”
        Where did you learn that? It clearly wasn’t from the post you replied too, which said nothing of the sort (and it isn’t true outside of France).

        But you are correct in saying that your previous belief that “it was about freedom of conscience” was wrong. It’s perfectly possible to have freedom of conscience without separation of church and state — government-funded churches wouldn’t violate the former unless attendance was mandatory. The issue is that the ability to promote a specific religion is too dangerous a weapon to put in the hands of a government unless you are totally sure it will always agree with you on religious matters.

      • Nabil wasn’t very nice about it, but I agree with him on the principle that allowing people to have religion in their private schools is completely compatible with a separation of church and state. It is interesting that the commenters from UK and NZ seem to feel that even public funding of churches is compatible with separation of church and state (ok, Tracy didn’t quite say that). I don’t agree with that. But I don’t see why schools can’t have a component of religious instruction, as long as they have the usual subjects also, and still receive voucher money without it being the state supporting religion. To me this is no different from a highly political school imparting their values along with the usual curriculum.

        It is true that the latest US Supreme Court case on this subject (Lemon v Kurtzman, 1971) is more in agreement with Murphy than me and Nabil and cassander. That is unfortunate.

        • It is interesting that the commenters from UK and NZ seem to feel that even public funding of churches

          That’s church schools

          is compatible with separation of church and state

          No. We have state religion, not separation of church and state. The point about funding, or even fallowing, ISIS training camps is that it is a bad outcome, not that it violates a deontolotical rule.

          If your particular church-state laws allow this sort of thing, then you need to ask yourself what good they are doing. If expected consequences don’t justify rules, what does?

        • Murphy says:

          The UK does not have seperation of church and state.
          The head of state is also the head of the official state religion.
          The government contributes towards funding churches directly.
          The government has various legal rights to order the church around.
          Top bishops have a right to a number of the seats in the house of lords (Lords Spiritual), similar to if the US reserved seats in the senate for top church staff.
          Many properties come with a potential legal obligation to fund repairs to the local church Chancel regardless of the feelings or religion of the property owner.

          The UK does not pretend to have separation of church and state in any way.

          there are only two countries in the world today in which clerics have guaranteed places in the legislature: Britain and Iran.

          It does have various laws on the books protecting non-CoE members and various equality laws.

          Separation of church and state is not something to throw away lightly.

    • Tracy W says:

      Interestingly NZ and the UK have government-funding of church schools and are far more secular culturally than the USA. It’s been argued that church-state separation in the USA is one of the factors keeping the US more religious because churches have to attract money by maintaining people’s beliefs rather than being given it by the state.

    • cassander says:

      Particularly separation of church and state

      Nabil ad Dajjal is exactly right on this one.

      But unfortunately the vast….vast….vast majority of people who support voucher systems don’t seem to want that. Their one and only singular goal seems to be to tear down separation of church and state.

      The only way you could think this is if you have never talked to anyone you clearly haven’t talked to any of them. There are a lot of us in this thread, why not ask rather than make assumptions?

      If they’re in a small town with few schools even better since those dirty [insert minority here] can be turned into proper christians.

      and they’re racists too! Well of course there are. because clearly it’s not possible for anyone to your right to not be racist.

  32. Will the government cafeterias include kosher food?

    Will an all-private education system fail to include schools that are basically just ideological indoctrination. Do you want to encourage madrassas?

    • Watchman says:

      If they provide a decent education and turn out well-rounded and high-attaining students, why not? Are you telling me a traditionally-based Islamic education cannot benefit students? That the fact there is a religious ethos means that they cannot teach science or tolerance? Or do you not know that madrassas are not just means of conveying extremism?

      I think you meant “Do you want to encourage madrassas teaching a certain strain of theology and little else”, which would almost certainly be excluded from any voucher system even if it did allow religious education, because all voucher systems include some quality control and that would in this case include meeting the basic requirement of being a school in the sense it is understood in the USA. It’s exactly the same system as that that means you can’t spend food vouchers on heroin (although you could barter them for it I suppose). So the question becomes rather irrelevant.

      • You are arguing that a heavily regulated private system is the least bad kind of private system. Which may be the case, but then you also build choice into a public system.

        • Watchman says:

          Yes, no problem with that. I tend to believe private outcomes would be better though, but choice (and the incentives for the managers being determined by the exercise of choice) in a public system is better than a public system without choice and with incentives being to superiors in the system.

          I doubt thought that in the UK we’d get away with publicly funding a maddrassa, despite the fact the existence of a maddrassa is no more difficult to cope with than a cathedral school (although none of those are publically-funded that I know about).

    • Well Armed Sheep says:

      “basically just ideological indoctrination”

      Not to be *too* snarky but… what do you think existing US public schools are? Students literally begin the day by standing in unison, facing a totem, and reciting a loyalty oath in monotone unison. That’s before we get to any actual material.

      That this is unremarked on is a demonstration of the intensity, depth, and success of the indoctrination project.

    • cassander says:

      Will an all-private education system fail to include schools that are basically just ideological indoctrination. Do you want to encourage madrassas?

      There is no such thing as education without indoctrination. Even if all you teach are facts handed down on stone tablets from SCIENCE himself, which facts you taught, in what order, would matter. I would much prefer a world where there is competition between various indoctrination systems than one overarching one.

  33. SpaghettiLee says:

    Also, going back to the plane-seating thing, I could easily see/invent a scenario where the same thing happens; the rich opt out of flights with standing-room passengers for comfort/status/whatever reasons, continuing on down the income ladder until standing room becomes the default option for all affordable flights. Unless I’m missing a step, that’s what you’re worried would happen with public cafeterias, right? Something that was originally intended to be an extra option for the poor becomes, via social sorting, their only option, and falls into disrepair because people generally don’t care about the comfort of the poor? So why is the plane situation overblown and not worth worrying about but the food situation will inevitably lead to such a downward spiral?

    I admit the metaphor is not perfect; it’s harder to self-sort on a plane (If there’s only one plane going from Phoenix to Dallas at 8 in the morning, you’re taking it; income levels of your fellow passengers be damned) and the gap between ‘good plane experience’ and ‘shitty plane experience’ is much narrower than it is for food. But I do think there’s something you haven’t explained as to why one ‘additional option’ is harmless and/or beneficial while one is doomed to inadequacy.

    Apropos of nothing, I suspect that if this experiment actually happened, the clientele would be mostly senior citizens and college students, and the actual working poor would keep going to McDonalds or whatever.

    • Doug S. says:

      Rich people used to fly first class. Now they have private jets. Many people blame the decline of airline service quality on this…

      • Glen Raphael says:

        The chief cause for the perceived decline of airline service quality was the end of price-controlled routes. From 1938 to ~1983, most airlines were legally prevented by the Civil Aeronautics Board from competing on price – they were price-takers rather than price-setters. Prices on any given route were set by government fiat at a level that was deemed appropriately profitable to the biggest firms; establishment of any new routes or new airlines was also heavily restricted. Since airlines couldn’t compete on price, they instead competed on quality, frittering away the high profit margin on uncompetitive routes by including hot meals, generous free baggage allowances, free magazines, newspapers, free decks of playing cards and plastic toys for the kids, decent legroom, extra-attractive flight attendants, and half-empty planes.

        When price regulation ended, it turned out most customers preferred cheaper fares to all the perks. Freer market competition produced flights with fewer “frills” while fares dropped by half and then some.

    • John Schilling says:

      Also, going back to the plane-seating thing, I could easily see/invent a scenario where the same thing happens; the rich opt out of flights with standing-room passengers for comfort/status/whatever reasons, continuing on down the income ladder until standing room becomes the default option for all affordable flights.

      Back up a step. “…continuing on down the income ladder” would seem to mean that the upper middle class and then the middle middle class will also opt out of the standing-room-only flights until only the poor or lower-middle-class people ever take those flights. In that case, the default option would still be seated economy class on Big Three or national flag carriers, which most people fly, and there would be separate airlines along the lines of Spirit, Ryanair, Valujet, People Express, etc, that only the poorest flyers ever take.

      Unless I’m missing a step, that’s what you’re worried would happen with public cafeterias, right?

      It seems clear to me that cascading opt-outs(*) until only the really poor people ever use the service, is what he had in mind. And I agree – with both soup kitchens and standing-class airline tickets, that is the most likely outcome.

      * Really, failures to opt in, but for rhetorical purposes Scott is granting that the imagined system is implemented fully-formed and made to work gloriously at the outset, and showing why it still fails in the end.

  34. TheZvi says:

    Needless to say I agree that public food would be an absurdly stupid idea, to the extent I wonder why you thought the smackdown was necessary. Doesn’t seem like a Worthy Opponent. And I did like that you’re back to saying Moloch explicitly, but with many of your posts in the last few months there’s this vibe that I don’t know if you’ve noticed. Let me try again (while I also try to do this at full length for real)…

    Oh the Moloch defeatism! Moloch the all-powerful! Moloch, the bane of perfect competition! Moloch the capitalist! Surrender and try to reach an accommodation!

    But competition isn’t perfect. Nor is the toy model the territory. Your competition has different costs, different products, different reputations and knowledge and skills. Reputation and iterated experience matter, on multiple meta levels. People are not stupid local-utility-maximizing CDT agents. Well, most of them aren’t. They don’t know its name, but they (sometimes) know a Moloch when they see one, and they do not take kindly to it, and the battle moves up the meta levels.

    That’s true of government, of capitalism, of all your other inevitable horsemen.

    Yes, Elua does seem to keep doing well and Moloch’s army does seem to keep experiencing unfortunate accidents, because people don’t worship Moloch, they worship Elua. We need to stop leaving the Elua-worshiping step out of our models and equations when we talk about this, and realize that this is the thing that’s keeping us from getting eaten.

    I worry, Scott, that you are continuing to conjure up models in your head that correctly include the Moloch part but leave out Elua, and assume perfect competition everywhere now as opposed to in the AGI-future, so you assume Moloch will always win, and you respond to this by effectively joining his army and doing his bidding, saying things like “no one cares about truth” and “I don’t really know anything and doubt anyone can ever know anything” and responding to people who want to say “get a look at the Moloch over there” with “I notice them about to write letters to Stalin and want to stop them.” Where Stalin is more like mild social disapproval with a tiny tail risk of more social disapproval. To consider it good and right to praise that which follows Moloch’s CDT-trap-logic, and criticize that which doesn’t as a bad idea, and oh wait that’s how you summon him and maybe you should stop?

    • Murphy says:

      They don’t know its name, but they (sometimes) know a Moloch when they see one

      Everyone starts off saying “we’re on the side of Elua that’s why our glorious revolution is different and all we have to do is put the good people in charge!”

      and 10 years later the country has “the people republic of” in it’s name and those same people are standing on the senate steps fitting heads atop pikes shouting “this is what happens to the enemies of Elua!”.

      Also you seem to be mixing up epistemology and Moloch. Moloch is the god of flailing responses to perverse incentives not just [badness] or even [bad epistemology].

    • The rationalsphere in general seems to have a problem with noticing that the coordination problems they worry about have irrational solutions — solutions based on status, myth, virtue and its signalling.

  35. vV_Vv says:

    Getting to choose my own food (and schools, and health care) works for me. I don’t want poor people to have to settle for anything less.

    I tend to agree, but I would also like to consider the contrarian position:

    If wealth in developed societies is mostly determined by intelligence, broadly defined as the ability to make good choices, wouldn’t be often in the interest of poor people to have their choices restricted by a paternalistic entity such as the state?

    To be concrete, since we are talking about food, we observe that poor people tend to be fatter and thus less healthy than middle-class and rich people, and as far as we know the main environmental risk for obesity is eating junk food. Should the state limit the ability of poor people to eat junk food, at least by not subsidizing it?

    If I love soda, and it’s the only good thing in my life right now, and I’ve thought long and hard about how unhealthy it is, but I’d rather improve my health some other way and stick with the soda – I can. I can buy soda (at slightly higher price) and compensate by cutting back on something else – maybe Twinkies. If I’m stuck going to the government cafeteria which only serves healthy foods, I’m out of luck. Maybe they’ve decided that my exactly-2000-calorie-diet today will include zero soda but one Twinkie. Oh well.

    Yes, in theory poor people could make a cost-benefit calculation and rationally decide that they’d better having their soda and cutting their their sugar intake on Twinkies or just having more sugar and accept the increased risk of obesity. In practice, if they were able to do this calculation properly, they would be probably trading stocks on Wall Street rather than depending on the state for their food.

    Since they can’t be trusted to make the proper choices for themselves, should someone else make them? This does not solve the problem of the incentives of government officials, of course, but it is something worth considering.

    • Murphy says:

      ” if they were able to do this calculation properly”

      hang on, actual observation implies that people actually tend to make choices that are pretty close to optimal by many measures.

      Before you declare that group X are making terrible decisions consider that perhaps they’re optimizing for something different to you and making fairly not-awful ones.

      https://imgur.com/a/7rylN

      There’s a small subset of people completely unable to care for themselves with severe learning disabilities or similar who need actual care but most people who even approach normal cognitive function are pretty good at things like food choices under their own set of constraints.

      • Jiro says:

        Before you declare that group X are making terrible decisions consider that perhaps they’re optimizing for something different to you

        But I’m the one who’s paying. I only want to pay for poor people optimizing for certain types of things, such as healthy food, clothes, and shelter, maybe some degree of medical care. I don’t want to pay for them optimizing for the pleasure they receive from gambling, heroin, or alcohol, or unhealthy food beyond a certain level.

        Your graph cheats by picking the most sympathetic possible example of poor people optimizing for the wrong things. Furthermore, it’s absurd to 1) use a median wage to talk about the poor, and 2) claim that a meal of rice and beans costs two hours to make, even counting shopping and prep time. And if a family of four eats at McDonalds (and the implication of comparing it to Outback is that they don’t bring the food home), all four people must engage in travel, which should multiply the travel cost in man-hours by 4, and they didn’t do that.

        • Murphy says:

          ” I only want to pay for poor people optimizing for certain types of things”

          At that point then it’s not a matter of intelligence. Merely values.

          If you want to only give money to people who are willing to adopt the worship of Cthulhu and do a gratitude dance for you to claim the money then you’re free to do so personally. If you want to set similar constraints on people claiming things from a government program you’re going to first have to convince a reasonable majority of citizens that your conditions should be used.

          You no more get to choose constraints individually than if you happen to believe the speed limit shouldn’t apply to you by dint of your taxes helping pay for the highways.

        • Jiro says:

          If you want to set similar constraints on people claiming things from a government program you’re going to first have to convince a reasonable majority of citizens that your conditions should be used.

          I think a reasonable majority of citizens already think the poor should be given food, clothing, shelter, and medicine, but not gambling, alcohol, or heroin.

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            If The Last Psychiatrist is to be trusted, we’ve backdoored giving the poor free Xanax, but in a way that we don’t have to admit that that is what we’ve done, don’t have to tell the voters that is what we have done, and we don’t have to see it being done.

      • dndnrsn says:

        That chart is weird. The way it does things, as Jiro notes, is too clumsy to be sleight of hand: most people don’t do grocery shopping per-meal, and even if they were, where is that two hours number coming from? On the other hand, it doesn’t bring up the far more (to me at least) convincing point that cooking for yourself requires a potentially large up-front expense for your pots and pans and such, and that people without much money may not be living somewhere with a proper kitchen.

      • vV_Vv says:

        https://imgur.com/a/7rylN

        Two hours of work for a meal? Where does that come from?

        Even intuitively it does not seem possible that McDonald’s is cheaper than cooking your own food if you count the time spent as minimum wage labor.

        Because McDonald’s employees do work at least at the minimum wage, and McDonald’s has to pay rent, insurance, all sorts of regulatory compliance costs, taxes, and on top of that make profits. McDonald’s may have some economies of scale, but it seems extremely unlikely that they can offset for all of this.

        Anyway, I’m not sure how your comment was relevant to my point: you can eat junk food at home and you can eat healthy food even at McDonald’s.

        • Nornagest says:

          They’re not counting it as minimum-wage labor, they’re counting it at the median US wage of sixteen-something an hour. Which is a crappy assumption if we’re talking about anything related to poverty, but not a terrible one if there’s an Outback Steakhouse on the same graph.

          I’m skeptical of the time figures too, though. Even taking shopping and travel times into account (which we really ought to amortize over a few days’ worth of groceries, especially if we’re cooking something as shelf-stable and amenable to bulk purchase as rice and beans), it seems implausible that a modern staple meal would take two hours of prep and cleanup — rice takes twenty minutes to cook, pinto beans are ready as soon as you heat them up, and if you’re spending an hour scraping burned rice off the bottom of the pan you’re doing it wrong. If you’re buying dry beans you do need to soak them overnight, but we’re still talking about the same amount of active time.

          Plus, when I was a kid and my parents were short on time and money, I remember eating a lot of leftovers. That ought to have a time cost of zero. (Okay, maybe a couple minutes to wash off your plate.)

    • Watchman says:

      If wealth in developed societies is mostly determined by intelligence, broadly defined as the ability to make good choices, wouldn’t be often in the interest of poor people to have their choices restricted by a paternalistic entity such as the state?

      Even if poor people are less intelligent (and that rules out the fact that intelligent people can make bad life choices, and unintelligent people can find good careers on the basis of what they can do) how do we know they are so unintelligent as not to be able to make a rationale choice? I am not sure whether your contrarian presentation does this argument justice (I have never really seen a proponent of it do more than assume it is correct), but there is the generally unspoken assumption that those making the argument are not only more intelligent but therefore able to understand the problem when the less intelligent people are not. In the context of the UK vote to leave the EU, this has been explicitly stated by those who think the vote should be overturned by referencing the fact that polling shows more university-educated people voted to remain,* with similiar views I belive being expressed about the election of Trump in the US. The same attitudes probably apply to paternalistic thinkers around choices about food but no-one has to the best of my knowledge proven that less-intelligent people are making less rational choices, unless the only definition of rationale is healthier.

      I think the problem here is a lazy assumption that the intelligence level required to make a rationale decision is that of the person making the assumption. It might be possible to scientifically prove there was no rationale decision making by less-intelligent people (at the extremes it would be easy to do so…) but without this being done, and probably done for each decision as we cannot assume a rationale decision about buying a car requires the same intelligence as a rational decision about what to have for lunch, then this entire argument is basically either saying ‘I am superior to you and know best’ or ‘poor people are too stupid to be trusted’, neither of which is a good look.

      * Amusingly the EU referendum complaint mainly showed the lack of practical intelligence on the behalf of the complainants, who seized on figures in polls without considering how they were constructed. As it happens the younger the voter the more likely they were to vote to leave the EU. Also, higher education access in the UK has steadily increased as a proportion of each age cohort over time, so the younger someone is the more likely they are to go to university. So what these figures showed, with almost perfect correlation, was that younger cohorts of voters were more likely to have gone to university, and voting figures reflected this. It was not a great moment for those trying to claim they were more intelligent than the masses and therefore should be given special attention, but then again they were already trying to equate having a degree with being intelligent so deserved the scorn they attracted…

    • If wealth in developed societies is mostly determined by intelligence, broadly defined as the ability to make good choices, wouldn’t be often in the interest of poor people to have their choices restricted by a paternalistic entity such as the state?

      Why not go the whole hog and put the 150IQ peopel in charge of the 140Iq people and all the way down the line?

      • vV_Vv says:

        Doesn’t that pretty much happen already?

        • The Nybbler says:

          No. The high-charisma medium-IQ people are in charge, while the big brains talk about how it’s a great thing for those high-charisma people to take the high-IQ people’s resources and hand them over to the low-IQ people, since obviously the high-IQ people don’t need them as much.

          • Well, Nybbler, if you are literally starving, maybe you could spend your broadband subscription on food.

          • vV_Vv says:

            No. The high-charisma medium-IQ people are in charge,

            Do you have a reference for this claim?

            This study estimates the IQ of most US presidents to be in the 130-150 range, with an average of 137. I’ve seen various other articles that estimate the IQ of other politicians and celebrities at exceptionally high values. I can’t vouch on their accuracy, but I don’t find this claim surprising.

            Obviously if you always hang out with low-charisma high-IQ nerds you might get the impression that IQ and charisma are negatively correlated, but this might be just sampling bias, and in general IQ and charisma may be well positively correlated, just like IQ is positively correlated with pretty much all good traits.

          • High IQ+High Charisma is possible, just rare.

            Although I don’t think that’s the biggest problem here.

          • Watchman says:

            If IQ and Charisma can both be trained, it may be rare to have particularly high-IQ and high-Charisma individuals as the training to be either high-IQ or high-Charisma might be mutually exclusive. No reason to think this is the case, but it is a consideration here.

          • vV_Vv says:

            IQ can’t be really trained, you can train to a specific test, but, as far as I can tell, you can’t increase your g factor.

            Charisma might be trainable to the same extent that, say, math ability, or atletic ability, are trainable: the baseline level, the maximum level and the maximum progression speed will be probably highly dependent on immutable factors (either genetic or environmental but fixed at some early stage of development).

            And since charisma is largely a mental trait, I expect it to be positively correlated to the g factor. Even to the extent that charisma is not a mental trait (depending on e.g. high stature, good looks), I also expect it to be positively correlated with the g factor, as these physical traits typically are.

      • wouldn’t be often in the interest of poor people to have their choices restricted by a paternalistic entity such as the state?

        I assume that “paternalistic” here means “making the choices for other people that are in the interest of those other people.”

        Why would you expect the state to act that way?

    • cassander says:

      If wealth in developed societies is mostly determined by intelligence, broadly defined as the ability to make good choices, wouldn’t be often in the interest of poor people to have their choices restricted by a paternalistic entity such as the state?

      This question amounts to “wouldn’t it be great if people couldn’t make bad choices?” Yes, obviously, but that’s meaningless unless you have a system that can enforce that, without creating problems worse than it solves. we have no such system, we just have a government.

  36. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are a lot of metaphors about money as water. As taoists know, water is a very fine symbol for power combined with flexibility.

    Two more points about government getting nutrition wrong– being too anti-fat, which is connected to being too pro-simple carbs, and being too anti-salt.

    I’m in general agreement.

    For some reason, the idea of nations is very sticky and expansive. People are generally hooked on the idea that every thing should be under control of a nation.

    I’m inclined to think that, after generations of public schooling, parents aren’t good at telling whether their children are being educated well, and this suggests that public schooling isn’t all that competent. I may be unfair.

  37. Deiseach says:

    Let us imagine a public option for food. It is a state-funded restaurant called the American Free Diner. At the American Free Diner, anyone can show up and eat, and the food is free. It’s designed to be as healthy as possible while still being pretty tasty

    As someone who has worked in local government services and is tangentially involved with the public service, let me say HELL NO, ARE YOU CRAZY? (Before launching into the rant, let me remark that it won’t necessarily be only the traditionally perceived poor who will want or need to avail of this; there are always struggling middle-class families or people who have lost jobs and are not able to find one quickly who find themselves looking for help from the St Vincent de Paul when they never expected to be in that situation).

    Because let me tell you what will happen, and it doesn’t much matter if the government at the time is Republican or Democrat (for the Yanks), or Labour vs Tories (UK), kinda Labour in a coalition with Fine Gael vs kinda Labour in a coalition with Fianna Fáil (for Ireland).

    (1) This will be paid for out of the public purse. Therefore it will be an easy target for cost-cutting when the budget needs to be adjusted, public expenditure has to be controlled, employers’ unions like IBEC and ISME lobby the government for tax cuts and ‘do we have to pay our lazy workers all these expensive benefits’ and the Opposition (and it doesn’t matter who is the party in power and who is the opposition) get up in the parliament to complain about government waste and inefficiency. Funding will be pared to the bone, the requirements to qualify for Free Food will be Byzantine in their complexity, and like the complaint about the USDA encouraging pizza consumption to increase sales of dairy products, every large commercial food producer will be trying to get a plum contract to supply (at knock-down prices, naturally) the Government Free Food Cafés. “Cutting public spending, trimming government waste” is a perennial vote-getter in political campaigns, and ‘we’re cracking down on welfare fraud’ is a popular choice of governments when it comes to “what are we doing for you, the hard-pressed tax payer”. Our own new Taoiseach, back before he was Taoiseach and was still Minister for Social Protection, talked about people who get up early in the morning (to go to work because they’re not like the lazy poor on the dole – the people under the aegis of his department at the time – who can’t be bothered to get out of bed, was the subtext and it wasn’t all that sub).

    (2) They will also be targets for screeching harpies, like my vegan brother. You think the Soda Sugar Tax and the Obesity Crisis! Alarmism are bad now? If the government is paying for your food, you will damn well eat what the government puts in front of you, and Official Nutritionists (plus all the screeching harpies pushing compulsory vegetaranism etc.) will get their spoke in, meaning it may be “healthy” but it will not be tasty. Chewing on cardboard will be more enjoyable. You can forget the eggs and bacon, for a start. Eggs are cruelty to chickens, as is anything like meat, and besides we eat too much meat anyway. Porridge perhaps, maybe fruit (though again, fruit is Loaded With Sugar, Sugar Makes You Fat and Leads to Diabetes, and Diabetes Costs The Health Service A Fortune. So stop stuffing your greedy face with fruit!)

    It’ll be carefully managed appropriate portion sizes of recommended foods, so it’ll be mainly raw vegetables with no seasoning or sauces. The consumers of the Government Healthy Free Food may get tea as a sop to their traditional tastes, though no sugar and probably have to use almond or soya milk instead (but you should all be drinking PLAIN WATER as the healthiest option, anyway).

    So the worst of both worlds – nutritional meddling from people invested in POOR PEOPLE EAT BADLY AND UNHEALTHILY, WHICH LEADS TO THE OBESITY CRISIS WHICH IS COSTING BILLIONS PER ANNUM and who like telling others what to do, setting out what kinds of meals can be offered in the Government Cafés, and then the foodstuffs are sourced from large commercial processors on top of that.

    People who don’t need to eat at the Free Food Café can have their “sugar-free sparkling organic kiwi dragonfruit french soda with a total of five calories” (at least until the Food Police come after you, because as described in that linked Government Guide, plain water is best, fruit juice should be restricted to one serving a day, and by the way do you know how bad for you those sweeteners replacing the sugar which brings your drink down to five calories are, hmmm?) but for everyone else, it will not be the dream menu Mr Robinson seems to envisage.

    It’d be a great idea if it worked according to the ideal of “appealing food that is healthy and plenty of choice without the stigma of ‘spongers leeching off our tax money instead of getting a job'” but eh, that’s not this world. It’s not a bad idea as such, in fact schools in disadvantaged areas run Breakfast Clubs to be sure students get at least one meal in the day:

    Breakfast Club
    The Breakfast Club is a project devised by and funded through the School Completion Programme with assistance from the Department of Social Protection’s School Meals Programme. The Breakfast Club offers a universal service to students at [name redacted of local school] each morning from 8.15 a.m. to 8.45 a.m. Breakfast is served in the Oval Area where students can avail of a choice of juices, cereals, toast and hot drinks.

    The aim of the breakfast club is to provide a nutritional and balanced breakfast to young people while creating a welcoming atmosphere in the school each morning. Research has shown that students who eat a breakfast are better able to concentrate, participate and learn. Students can meet their friends and share breakfast or just enjoy a hot drink before school starts. This service is provided free of charge to students.

    But that’s run by people who know the individual students and their circumstances. Scaling this up for adults on a nationwide basis? I’m not so sure about that.

  38. eccdogg says:

    It might be a state by state thing, but I was under the impression that you could not use food stamps for soda and most other junk foods. In my grocery there are many things labeled WIC approved.

    Ok I just looked it up and this only applies to the WIC program and not SNAP. You can buy junkfood on SNAP.

    But there is no reason you could not change those rules to only allow healthy foods (looks like WIC already does that). And there is no reason you could not put some limits on where a school voucher is used.

    • Watchman says:

      I believe that when there are restrictions on voucher use, a trade in the vouchers (at below face value) develops to allow the recipients of the vouchers to exchange them for cash to spend on goods such as soda. The people receiving the below-value stamps of course redeeming them for goods they want at full value. It’s a wonderful example of how market economies break out everywhere…

      • Jiro says:

        That has the effect of making it more expensive (by the cost of the trade fee) to use the vouchers to buy soda, which still has some effect.

        • Watchman says:

          Yes, but the immediate effect is to reduce healthy food consumption in favour of consumption of the unhealthy thing, to the detriment of the recipient of the vouchers or stamps who has less than what is presumably considered a minimum value to spend on food.

          It might change some behaviours, but at the cost of actively doing harm.

      • Lillian says:

        According to what i’ve heard, food bought with SNAP EBTs usually trades for 2/3rds its value in cash. Pretty good deal for the person with the cash, since they’re getting 50% more value out of that shopping trip.

    • Lillian says:

      Rhode Island tried to restrict its SNAP recipients from buying junk food, and the resulting regulations were a pain in the ass for everyone involved. For starters, it’s actually pretty hard to define what junk food is, which leads to tortuous and overcomplicated regulation. For example in order to avoid accidentally banning bread, the legislature declared that if a food item has flour, then it’s not junk food. Problem is, many sweets have flour, so the regulations explicitly required store owners to read the ingredient labels of their products in order to determine which items were not eligible to be bought with EBT. Also in order to avoid accidentally banning healthy dairy and/or frozen products ice cream was implicitly allowed. Not sure what the rules were with respect to sodas, but i believe the ban was on carbonated beverages, so you could still buy brightly coloured sugar-water concoctions.

      More specific regulation could have no doubt been written, but with additional aggravation and cost on store owners. These regulations have since been repealed, since they provided little actual benefit to the state or SNAP recipients, but came at a significant cost to food sellers. This is in fact precisely the rationale why Congress refused to implement any such limitations when the food stamps program was first written and implemented.

      So that’s the reason why SNAP is not limited to healthy foods: it’s difficult to implement, the benefits are marginal, and enforcement is not free.

      • Lambert says:

        Sounds like the British VAT laws.
        HMRC once sued McVitties over whether Jaffa Cakes are cakes or biscuits.
        (verdict: they go dry rather than soggy over time, therefore tax-exempt cakes, not taxable biscuits)

  39. Trofim_Lysenko says:

    You cannot mass produce tasty food, period. the more people you have to serve, the blander it necessarily has to be. This has nothing to do with government vs. private, and everything to do with making things minimally palatable for the widest possible variety of people.

    Cilantro? a sizable minority of the population can’t stand it! Can’t use that in your mexican food.

    Chili peppers, Paprika, etc? Tolerance for ‘heat’ is massively variable across your target population.

    The solution: Bland, unseasoned food which you can then dump the cheapest possible universal seasonings on at your table. Salt, Pepper, Red Pepper Flakes or Generic Tabasco sauce for heat, etc. Maybe some garlic or onion salt if you want to get fancy.

    • caryatis says:

      You make a good point, and that’s a big reason why non-poor people would not eat at the government cafeteria, aside from safety and status-signaling concerns. Food is relatively cheap. If I can spend say $200-500 a month and get exactly the kind of food I like, prepared the way I like it, with exactly my preferred ingredients, spices, and nutrient levels, I’d have to be quite poor indeed to choose the free, bland food instead.

    • adelaybeingreborn says:

      Huh, I’ve literally never seen a restaurant follow your proposed solution.

      Empirically, in 100% of cases I’ve personally seen (“anecdata” FWIW), the solution has been that the menu lists the ingredients and the spiciness level. Then people either order a dish off the menu that has what they want, or they request a customization.

  40. alchemy29 says:

    The reason people are passionately upset about this issue is quite simple. Betsy’s “school choice” policies – in the current educational environment – are really a transfer of money from poor people to rich people (and roughly a transfer of money from black people to white people in private schools). Obviously oversimplified – but right now that is a large bulk of what her preferred policies would do – the Indiana data bears this out. Slightly separate issue – school vouchers are an attempt to have your cake and eat it too. Private schools want the ability to dismiss or block students who would drag down their metrics, but they also want government funding for supposedly providing an essential universal service like emergency departments do. Well that is not the case – their services are not equal and open to everyone who needs them – in theory perhaps, but not in reality.

    • Witness says:

      I remember reading an article about a decade ago (during the W era, I think) about a school voucher program in Sweden (I think?) that worked pretty well. It had the following restrictions on it:

      No school that accepts vouchers can charge more than the cost of the voucher (i.e., no economic discrimination).
      No school that accepts vouchers can deny entry based on academic merit (i.e., no putting all the best students in your school and claiming your school is the best). Don’t know exactly how this was enforced.

      I think there was a third restriction, but I can’t recall it any more.

      Anyway, the upshot of the article was that after a few years under this system, education as a whole had seemed to measurably improve (don’t recall the metrics, sorry). But the weird part was, it was the public schools that had seen all the gains – enough to basically match private school performance, which had stayed flat.

      Anyway, I guess my point is that I think we could get a lot of value out of trying to build a good voucher system, but that requires enough of us willing to both consider voucher programs at all and also reject voucher programs that are structured badly. (Or possibly: try voucher programs tentatively, and axe those that perform poorly). Unfortunately this coalition seems difficult to build in the current political environment.

    • Well Armed Sheep says:

      Do you routinely refer to Secretary Tillerson as “Rex,” or Secretary Mattis as “James”?

      It doesn’t stop being sexist (or at least sexism-adjacent) to call women in positions of authority by their first names just because they happen to be conservative.

      • alchemy29 says:

        I wasn’t attempting to be irreverent, perhaps this is a blind spot that I need to re-examine. I do call Hillary, “Hillary” (because Clinton is ambiguous), Elizabeth Warren I call “Elizabeth Warren” and Kamala Harris I call “Kamala Harris”. I don’t know why I am more predisposed to call female politicians by their full name or first name. I feel that this is more common in written media in general. That doesn’t make it right of course, and perhaps I should avoid it.

    • cassander says:

      Betsy’s “school choice” policies – in the current educational environment – are really a transfer of money from poor people to rich people (and roughly a transfer of money from black people to white people in private schools)

      this makes ZERO sense. What world do you live in where you think black kids won’t get the same voucher as white kids? It’s black kids that will benefit the most, by getting out of shitty urban schools.

  41. Walter says:

    Man, you plowed this guy. I hope he reads this and changes his mind.

  42. Standing in the Shadows says:

    We already have free food restaurants and free food disbursements.

    You can go find your local Hari Krishna temple. The food is even pretty good. Pity about the lack of onions, but whatever.

    Or go to your local Food Not Bombs, or to a local food bank.

    If you are Mormon, there is the Bishop’s Storehouse (but then they have a todo list of volunteer labor items they would like you to start working on, in exchange for that food.)

    Food is cheap. Food is so cheap, it’s already free. The cost of food is almost all retail positioning and marketing costs and luxury upgrades. I can go to Costco, Sams Club, or even better yet one of the local Asian staple grocery outlets, and buy 20lb bags of brown rice, wheat, corn, soybeans, chickpeas, powdered milk, and many different kinds of beans, for literally less than the cost of buying dirt at the garden store. One of the local grocery progressive co-ops nearby has in their bulk items section a whole-protein dried multibean premix, with cooking instructions, at a “pocket change” price point, and you don’t have to be a member of the co-op to buy it. Clean drinkable tapwater in “fill a drinking pitcher and to cook with” is just this side of “too cheap to meter”.

    We have free food. It sounds like what he wants is “free restaurant workers”, but either doesn’t want to say that, or is to stupid to realize that is what he is asking for.

    • Jiro says:

      If you are Mormon, there is the Bishop’s Storehouse (but then they have a todo list of volunteer labor items they would like you to start working on, in exchange for that food.)

      Free food with social pressure to pay for the food is not free.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      You can go find your local Hari Krishna temple.

      The nearest one is 7 miles away.

      Or go to your local Food Not Bombs

      The nearest one is also 7 miles away. And only open once a week.

      If you are Mormon, there is the Bishop’s Storehouse

      And if I’m not Mormon? Like most people aren’t?

      a local food bank

      Yep, these exist. But they’re not restaurants, and don’t provide prepared food.

    • adelaybeingreborn says:

      > We have free food. It sounds like what he wants is “free restaurant workers”

      Robinson is on record as being favorable to the branch of leftist thought that sometimes gets called “Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism” in a ha-ha-only-serious way. A more sober way of putting it is that it’s the opinion that everyone should be guaranteed both the necessities of life and also many niceties, the nicer the better. A ubiquitous, free-at-the-point-of-service, healthy, tasty restaurant chain is an example of the kind of luxury this perspective endorses.

  43. P. George Stewart says:

    Robinson either forgets or is ignorant of the fact that one of the main reasons capitalism caught on in the 19th century was precisely because people realized that food production and distribution was far better left to the market (cf. repeal of the Corn Laws).

    IOW, that’s just about the most important human need apart from water and shelter.

    So really the only leg statists/socialists have to stand on is wrt to certain types of public goods – and even that’s on fairly shaky ground.

  44. theory says:

    Neoliberalism is the theoretically correct solution to many problems, but not always the most practical, and sometimes liberals are tempted to cheat in order to reach a better world state.

    For example: in New York City, during the summer, businesses used to run the A/C with their doors open. This was a gigantic waste of electricity but businesses did it anyway because it brought in customers. The tragedy, of course, being that once every business on the block did it, it offered them no benefit. Some people were quite bothered by this waste.

    The conservative sees nothing wrong here. They would say: climate change is just a myth, and if they want to spend their money on this, they are free to do so.

    The liberal and the neoliberal would say, this is a race to the bottom, perfectly primed for the government to step in and do something. The neoliberal would say: well, clearly, electricity is too cheap if you can waste it like that. But what’s the implementation going to be? A complicated system of Pigovian taxes with systemic ramifications for all sorts of interests, all of whom will want a seat at the table in trying to hammer this out? Your efforts would be impossible to sell to voters, much less other politicians.

    The liberal would say: let’s just ban businesses from doing this. It isn’t theoretically right: businesses that waste electricity on other things get a pass. It’s susceptible to corruption: some industries lobbied and won exemptions (e.g., restaurants with outdoor seating). It adds more to the impossible burden of regulations facing small business owners in NYC.

    But it was an easy sell, and it fixed the problem.

  45. Worley says:

    Speaking toward school vouchers specifically, it turns out that there is a practical problem: The “outcomes” for students are affected both by the educational effectiveness of the school itself and the nature of the other students. And these effects seem to be roughly the same size in terms of the amount of variance they account for. Of course, what we want is a system that applies incentives to maximize the educational effectiveness of all schools, and there is hope that allowing parents some school choice will help apply those incentives.

    Unfortunately, parents don’t do that. They’ve done a big study of the New York City school choice system and the data shows that parents are powerfully concerned with the quality of the student body (measured by test scores, but of course strongly correlated with socioeconomic status), and (when you control for that) entirely unaffected by school educational effectiveness.

    So school choice becomes a fight over the rivalrous good of “how well-off are the students in the school”.

    The popular version is in Megan McArdle’s column https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-10-23/we-libertarians-were-really-wrong-about-school-vouchers and the study can be obtained at http://sci-hub.bz/http://www.nber.org/papers/w23912.pdf .

    • Standing in the Shadows says:

      Anyone who has taught kids in groups larger than one knows about outcome being driven by the nature the other students. Anyone who has been permitted to observe an operating classroom in a failing school district has it rubbed in their face, along with certain unspeakable closely related facts. Which is much of the reason why ordinary people are no longer allowed to observe random classrooms.

      A good teacher with good classroom management skills can counter one, maybe two, ahem, “disruptive” students, IF they are permitted the tools to put the Fear Of God or at least the Fear Of Pain in that student, or kick them out never to return. If they are not allowed to kick them out, or have someone physically overpower them, it cannot be done.

      Once one or two disruptive students are allowed to continue being disruptive, that will pull in another dozen students who are on the margins. Once that happens, you are just completely wasting the time of and making abjectly miserable all the rest of the students in that room.

      And the vast majority of the time, it’s very easy to predict in advance who the one or two disruptive jokers are going to be. And, here is a hint: their greatgrandparents are not Nordic, and are not Chinese….

    • The Nybbler says:

      The “outcomes” for students are affected both by the educational effectiveness of the school itself and the nature of the other students. And these effects seem to be roughly the same size in terms of the amount of variance they account for.

      The linked study says otherwise. Peer quality is more important, by a lot.

      “Consistent with the estimates in Table 4, both peer quality and school effectiveness play roles in generating variation in school average outcomes, but peer quality is generally more important. Peer quality explains 47 percent of the variance in average Regents scores (0.093/0.191), while average treatment effects
      explain 28 percent (0.054/0.191). The explanatory power of peer quality for other outcomes ranges from 45 percent (PSAT scores) to 83 percent (high school graduation), while the importance of average treatment effects ranges from 15 percent (PSAT scores) to 19 percent (log college quality).”

      They’ve done a big study of the New York City school choice system and the data shows that parents are powerfully concerned with the quality of the student body (measured by test scores, but of course strongly correlated with socioeconomic status), and (when you control for that) entirely unaffected by school educational effectiveness.

      That is because the parents cannot measure the part of school effectiveness uncorrelated with peer quality.

    • cassander says:

      so the worst case for vouchers is……nothing gets better? That’s it? that’s the big potential downside? Because if that’s it, we should run with them tomorrow, the consequence if it fails is nothing.

      • hlynkacg says:

        I know right?

      • Worley says:

        Change is never free, and you gotta conserve your energy for the battles where victory will gain something.

        • cassander says:

          change would be free if people stopped fighting it. then they could point and say “we did your thing, and it didn’t work, now we try our thing”. Instead, nothing gets done.

      • No, the worst case scenario is the private schools don’t get better and the public schools get worse. As explained in my other comments.

        • cassander says:

          if the private schools got worse, then with vouchers, people could just leave them.

          If all education is just shuffling around the bad kids to minimize their impact, then it doesn’t matter how you’ve organized, so the downside remains nothing gets worse on average.

          • Matt M says:

            Right. It seems so bizarre to me that the anti-voucher argument seems to rest entirely on the assumption that the only way to affect the quality of schools is to increase or decrease the amount of rich white kids who attend them.

          • Except that it doesn’t. The argument isn’t that the mere presence of higher SES pupils changes things, it is that the involvement of their parents does, and that having more voters invested in public education also motivates politicians.

          • cassander says:

            @TheAncientGeekAKA1Z says:

            Except that it doesn’t. The argument isn’t that the mere presence of higher SES pupils changes things, it is that the involvement of their parents does,

            Alright, so those parents will just get as involved at the new private school they’re going to, and nothing changes.

            and that having more voters invested in public education also motivates politicians.

            That’s the best part about vouchers. You don’t NEED to motivate politicians to do things anymore, if you don’t like how they’re running the school, you can leave!

          • and that having more voters invested in public education also motivates politicians.

            The risk of losing students, and the money that comes with them, to voucher private schools would be a much more direct motivation to the people running the public schools to do a better job.

          • Theory, again.

            But results were not promising― at least at first. Chile introduced the voucher program with almost no regulation and without discriminating between rich and poor students, both of whom received the same subsidies. As parents assumed that the private voucher schools were superior, this resulted in a migration away from public schools. Public school enrollment plummeted from 78% of students in 1981 to 39% in 2013. Middle and upper-middle class students abandoned the public school system, and that system became poorer and less diverse.

            The shift in school composition had another insidious effect. It reinforced the belief ― or illusion― that private schools were superior. Students in private voucher schools did in fact perform better on standardized tests. However, this was not because the schools were better, but because their students were wealthier, with more educated parents and greater resources; because, in short, they were better prepared. Rules that allowed private voucher schools to charge co-payments and accept or reject students only exacerbated that bias. Yet, these schools did little or nothing to add academic value. Indeed, numerous studies have shown that, when controlling for socioeconomic factors, test results in public and private-voucher schools were virtually indistinguishable.

            It might be possible to tweak and hedge round these problems, but who is arguing at that level of detail? All I am seeing is “give people a choice, and that is a nett plus”

            Speaking of which:

            Alright, so those parents will just get as involved at the new private school they’re going to, and nothing changes.

            .

            If all the involved parents are at the rich kids school and none are at the poor kids school, something changes.

          • albatross11 says:

            AncientGeek:

            Is there good evidence anywhere for this idea that the high-SES parents are the secret sauce that’s going to make the school perform better? I mean, I can’t prove you’re wrong. But the more plausible model, to me, is that high-SES parents tend to have smarter and better-behaved kids for both genetic and upbringing reasons, and so schools with lots of high-SES parents are usually good schools (because the kids are reasonably well-behaved and smart).

  46. perlhaqr says:

    There’s a timing issue too. If I eat at the public cafeteria, that’s $10 I’ve saved right now. With school vouchers, the savings from that happens once a year, far removed from the time of choice. I’m not sure the two scenarios really compare that well.

  47. Yuri 'Arara' Oliveira Petnys says:

    Hi, Scott. Long time lurker, first time commenter. I’d like to share some data that’s relevant and interesting for this discussion.
    I live in Brazil, more specifically in São Paulo, and we have a number of government measures to fight back poverty and famine. Whether they’re really effective or not is besides the point – that’s another discussion – but the simple fact that they coexist may give you some perspective.
    Before that, some base data. Minimum wage in the state of São Paulo is about 332 USD/mo. A Big Mac in São Paulo costs 1.58 USD.
    The first measure one is Bolsa Família, a general “voucher” for very poor people whose families earn under 50 USD/mo. It starts as low as 25 USD, but can double if all their children are properly attending school. Of course, it might be used for clothing and other necessities, but most of it usually goes for food.
    The second measure is included in our body of law regarding work conditions, that establishes that every registered employee must receive a certain amount of money that should be used exclusively for food. This can be done either with a “basic basket” – a standard crate containing rice, beans, coffee, pasta, sugar, flour and other groceries – or with a “food credit card” that’s only accepted by supermarkets or (in some cases) restaurants/diners. “Basic baskets” are sold by private companies, who compete to make the best product for the lowest price, while adhering to certain basic guidelines. The “food credit card” functions just like a “food voucher”.
    Both of the measures above are country-wide, but there’s a third measure specific for the state of São Paulo (it might have different versions in other states – I’ll speak of what I personally know.) There’s a chain of state-run restaurants called Bom Prato (Good Plate), which provide meals for 1 BRL (0.30 USD), containing a serving of rice, beans, protein, salad, bread, fruit and juice. There are more than 30 of those restaurants, and state government claim they’ve served over 166 million meals.

    So you have two types of “food voucher” and two measures where the government decides more or less what you should eat. The systems do not compete with each other – they complement each other. With Bolsa Família and Bom Prato, a very poor single mother of one earns enough money to buy meals for her and her child of every day of the month – but if she gets a little bit of extra money, she’s free to splurge a bit or buy other stuff. A head of family that has a minimum-wage job has either a guaranteed influx of decent healthy food or enough money set aside to buy that food if he wants, but that’s aside his normal wage, with which he can do as he likes. There’s both freedom of choice and some government control.

    • Standing in the Shadows says:

      How does a company that makes a “basic basket” get the certification that their product counts under this program?

      • Yuri 'Arara' Oliveira Petnys says:

        Certification is given by Inmetro, the Brazilian equivalent of NIST, that certificates almost everything. I can’t find easily what they ask of the companies, but some items include proper labeling, good sanitary conditions, a nutritionist in the staff and probably a whole bunch of stuff.
        They also list all certified companies in their website ( http://www.inmetro.gov.br/qualidade/cestas_alimentos/ ), although I’m not sure if it’s properly updated. The certification seems to be valid for three years.

    • albatross11 says:

      I’m curious—does anyone who isn’t very poor eat at the Bom Prato restaurants?

  48. Yosarian2 says:

    One basic problem here is that most people have an easier time telling the difference between good food and bad food then they do trying to tell the difference between good eduction and bad education based on the few publicly available data points.

    Anyway, my original position on vouchers was that charter schools and secular private schools are ok in theory, although almost no secular private schools are around that will take just vouchers, you usually need to pay the voucher plus another large sum of money, so a problem there is that you’re just subsidizing rich parents who would probably send their kids to private school anyway. But we absolutely should not be subsidizing religious education with taxpayer money. That’s harmful in any number of ways, and IMHO constitutionally problematic.

    Since then though, my opinion of charter schools has gone down a lot. The data doesn’t seem to show that they help improve average test scores or graduation rates or college admission or really any objective measure of education quality. And anecdotally I have some bad experences with them; my impression is that many start out giving a good education, get a good local reputation, and then gradually cut more and more spending to increase the profit of the owner, and usually several years pass before people realize how much the quality has fallen. Others are terrible from the start but limp along collecting money and failing to educate students for a few years before they close down. I’m sure that’s not all of them, and I’m still not opposed to charters in theory, but if we’re going to have them I think they need tighter supervision from the city or state then what I currently see..

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      They may or may not be able to tell a good education from a bad education, but they can certainly tell the difference between a good school and a bad school. In my opinion, the latter is much more important than the former. Nobody is going to stab you for not being proficient with fractions*.

      That’s not hyperbole on my part. I’ve told this story here before, but my mother worked as a teacher at the public school one town over from mine, and in her first and only year there three of the students in her class were murdered. When I say in her class I mean the kids in her English class, not the entire student body.

      That’s the real difference between a good and a bad school. The quality of education is a distant second place concern next to safety.

      *Well ok, I might stab you for that if you’re a tech in my lab.

      • Yosarian2 says:

        I mean, if you’re literally just worried about getting kids getting stabbed in school and not worried about the quality of education, then don’t have a school at all.

        I agree that school safety is a big problem in some areas, but I don’t see how charter schools address that issue (except maybe by moving the problem around so it affects different children.)

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          Think about it as a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Safety is way down at the base, education quality is towards the middle.

          You need to make sure that your kids are out of immediate danger first, then you can worry about the number of AP classes.

          I agree that school safety is a big problem in some areas, but I don’t see how charter schools address that issue (except maybe by moving the problem around so it affects different children.)

          Right now, if you want your kids to go to a good (stabbing-free) school you have to pay out the nose. Either by moving to a more expensive neighborhood with a better district or by paying private school tuition.

          Depending on the details of the voucher scheme, it may be able to lower the cost of getting your kids into a good school. As long as private schools are allowed to be selective enough in their admissions and/or raise their prices above the cost of the voucher then they could provide good schools at a fraction of the current cost.

          So yes, you’re moving the problem around. Specifically, moving it as far away from your own children as possible. That would be a pretty good outcome.

          • Yosarian2 says:

            >So yes, you’re moving the problem around. Specifically, moving it as far away from your own children as possible. That would be a pretty good outcome.

            If you’re trying to set public policy, the goal should be “reduce the total number of students in a dangerous environment/ make schools on average safer for the average student” ect. Which is an extremly important goal.

            As far as I can tell, charter schools might just move some kids into less dangerous environments while moving other kids into more dangerous environments. That’s not necessarally an improvement, unless you think that more kids are being helped by it then harmed by it.

          • Aapje says:

            @Nabil ad Dajjal

            Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is nonsense, as it treats preferences as if they were binary. People don’t actually demand 100% safety before they move on to favoring other needs. So Maslow’s hierarchy of needs makes a lot more sense if you turn it sideways.

          • John Schilling says:

            As far as I can tell, charter schools might just move some kids into less dangerous environments while moving other kids into more dangerous environments. That’s not necessarally an improvement

            The “more dangerous environments” aren’t an arbitrary inconvenience for us to work around, they are being caused by the kids. If we take all the kids who cause the dangerous environments and move only them into an environment of concentrated self-induced danger while sparing everyone else, that’s an improvement.

            There’s a legitimate question as to what rate of false positives is consistent with this still being an improvement, and how to minimize that rate.

          • albatross11 says:

            Also, there is a political problem caused when your reform schools (whatever they’re called) turn out to be like 40% black and 30% hispanic, which is almost sure to happen. (Those are the approximate fractions for prison population in the US, from here. This seems like the best first-cut estimate for the racial proportions for violent / disruptive kids[1]. Depending on where you are, you may end up with like 90+% of your reform school kids being nonwhite—as in DC, where there’s a big poor black population and a big white
            middle class/educated population.)

            This split will show up whether you explicitly have reform schools for the violent kids, or whether you allow parents or schools to somehow sort out to avoid the violent kids. It’s the mirror image of the political problem with ability tracking and selective magnet schools.

            [1] Justice Dept statistics don’t track ethnicity separately from race, so there’s some overlap between black and hispanic in those numbers (mostly Puerto Ricans who are often black and I think are always listed as hispanic), but I’m not sure how much.

    • Questioner says:

      But we absolutely should not be subsidizing religious education with taxpayer money. That’s harmful in any number of ways, and IMHO constitutionally problematic.

      1: No, it’s not “Constitutional problematic”, any more than giving student loans to someone going to Notre Dame is “Constitutional problematic.” Look up “Trinity Lutheran”, it was 7-2 for the Church being eligible for gov’t $$$.

      2: “Harmful”? how? in insuring that poor kids can actually get a decent education? In allowing parents to decide how their children will be indoctrinated, rather than letting the NEA decide?

      • Yosarian2 says:

        No, it’s not “Constitutional problematic”, any more than giving student loans to someone going to Notre Dame is “Constitutional problematic.”

        Not even close to the same thing. An adult (someone over 18) getting a loan and using that to get a religious education is their own decision. But if you require children to go to school, and you create a system where the only decent/ safe schools are religious ones (and usually only religious schools or terrible schools can afford to run on a voucher plan, since they’re partly funded out of the church collection box), then you are imposing your religion onto large parts of the population by force. You are forcing children into an environment where they have to memorize and repeat religious propaganda in a classroom in order to pass school, are often required by school to go to church services and participate in them, ect, no matter if that’s what the children or their parents believe. That is unacceptable, period.

        (I would also strongly dispute that religious schools, in general, are better then public schools. Some Catholic schools are ok, although even there most of the advantage is just that they can kick out troubled students while public schools can’t, but a lot of the religious schools that get vouchers in some states are horrifyingly bad.)

        • albatross11 says:

          Yossarian:

          FWIW, my wife went to a Catholic high school some years ago that had a large number of non-Catholic students, some of whom she’s still friends with to this day. The Catholic kids (the ones who’d marked “Catholic” on their religion) were required to go to religion class, whereas the non-Catholics got a study hall that period. The Catholic grade school my kids all went to when they were younger, and which one of my kids is still attending, has a lot of non-Catholic students. I’m not sure how they handle religious education for those kids, but it’s clearly not too offensive to the sensibilities of the parents of those kids, since they’re paying their own money to send their kids there.

          It seems to me that you’re starting with the idea that religious schools receiving vouchers is a bad idea, and then creating a parade of horribles for us out of your imagination. (And omitting the other parade of horribles where the public schools indoctrinate kids into some belief system that their parents (or objective reality) find stupid or offensive.)

          My best (not all that well-informed) guess is that vouchers are just another way to fund schools. They probably don’t lead to substantially different educational outcomes overall, assuming the program is run competently. (And assuming the public schools are run competently.) And they seem *much less* likely to end up with kids being force-fed some hostile belief system, since the parents have some choice[1].

          They’re not going to close the achievement gap, or revolutionize education. Probably they’re just going to make parents a little freer to move their kids to different schools. Sometimes, that’s worth a lot–if you can tell things just aren’t working for your kid and he’s miserable in his current school, being able to move him is a big deal. I’ve done this a couple times with my kids, and it’s worked out very well for them. I’m extremely thankful I had the opportunity to do this rather than having to keep them in a school where they were unhappy or being bullied or bored to tears with the classwork.

          On the downside, parents may want to move their kids for reasons you dislike. Maybe they would like whiter classmates and you don’t think this should be available. Maybe they don’t like the particular indoctrination given by this school, but you think that indoctrination is the right kind and everyone should get it. Maybe they want their kids segregated out by religion or gender or social class, and you think it’s better to make everyone mix in school. Maybe parents are mostly not all that good at figuring out what’s good for their kids, and so they’ll screw up their choices somehow. Those aren’t necessarily wrong, but I think they need to be argued on their own merits.

          And there’s an existing functioning system with public schools. The strongest argument for replacing it with vouchers is that some public schools are really lousy[2]. To the extent those schools are lousy because they’re getting lousy students, adding vouchers is just going to dismantle an existing system with a new one that will work about the same, which doesn’t really seem all that worthwhile.

          [1] Of course, you can imagine a world where there’s only one school available for your voucher, at which point we’re back in the same situation as with public schools.

          [2] There’s also a personal freedom issue, along the lines of allowing subcultures/communities to be weird and different and not to have the dominant culture crammed down their throats. My impression is that a lot of the original goal of public schools was, to some extent, to cram the dominant culture down the throats of, say, immigrant kids so they’d assimilate more quickly to being generic Americans. Again, this could be argued either way.

          • Nornagest says:

            An ex-girlfriend of mine got through Catholic high school as an openly practicing Wiccan, with good enough grades to make it into a decent university afterwards.

          • Yosarian2 says:

            FWIW, my wife went to a Catholic high school some years ago that had a large number of non-Catholic students, some of whom she’s still friends with to this day. The Catholic kids (the ones who’d marked “Catholic” on their religion) were required to go to religion class, whereas the non-Catholics got a study hall that period.

            Interesting. I know Catholic schools did not used to be like that, and the Catholic school my sister taught at in Texas required everyone to go to religion class and to go to church once a week, but perhaps in some other areas they are run differently.

            In a Catholic school where all religious classes were completely optional, I would have less of an issue with it getting vouchers. It still seems like a situation we should be avoiding though.

          • Nick says:

            I’ve attended Catholic schooling all my life and all the schools I attended (two parish schools and a Jesuit university) required religion classes for non-Catholics. That said, the content hardly qualifies as “indoctrination.” These schools aren’t turning non-Catholics into good little Catholics—they’re not even turning the Catholics into good little Catholics. And the Jesuit university of course did not require any Catholic content in said religion courses.

            Of course, data point of three here. Both of the schools I attended prior to my university education were small town parish schools, but it’s possible that big-city Catholic schools have something different going on, since many are trying to position themselves as top-tier private schools and draw in talent and money Catholic or not. Or that charter schools angling for a Catholic population may not have this sort of thing as a priority. Or that there’s been a sea change since I attended, though I doubt it, as I’m just 22.

            I recall Diane Ravitch remarking in Death and Life of the Great American School System that she had hoped her support for school choice would improve the lot of failing Catholic schools; she had a soft spot for them because they had been better than public schools at helping lower-class students. But she didn’t provide a citation in the chapter and I don’t have the book where I’m at for Thanksgiving, so take that with a grain of salt.

        • and usually only religious schools or terrible schools can afford to run on a voucher plan

          So you would be in favor of a voucher plan if only the voucher was for the full per pupil cost of the public schools? It’s hard to see why a private firm couldn’t produce at least as good education as a government firm for the same amount of money.

    • albatross11 says:

      If we allow churches to run hospitals and universities that can receive government money to pay for the services they provide (spoiler: we do), then why are elementary / high schools any different? I mean, if St Mary’s Hospital[1] is allowed to do surgeries and collect from medicare, and St Mary’s University is allowed to educate veterans and cash the GI benefit checks, then why is it a problem if St Mary’s Elementary School is allowed to educate third-graders and cash the checks from the state voucher program? I don’t see why there’s a first-amendment issue in one of these cases but not in the others.

      [1] To a first approximation, about half of all Catholic institutions are named for the Virgin Mary in one form or another: St Mary’s, Mother of God, Our Lady of Good Counsel, Notre Dame, etc.

      • Yosarian2 says:

        It seems very clearly different to me. In a religious school, you have to learn about the religion in order to graduate; St. Mary’s hospital or whatever doesn’t require you to go to church and pray in order to get medical treatment, but religious schools do exactly that. Also we require by law children under 16 to go to a school.

        If parents choose to send their kids there with their own money, that’s fine, but once you take resources from public schools and channel them into a religious school system, you create an environment where any student who wants a decent education is forced to get a religious one.

        • Nornagest says:

          once you take resources from public schools and channel them into a religious school system, you create an environment where any student who wants a decent education is forced to get a religious one.

          A voucher system removes assets (public funds) from public schools, but it also removes a corresponding volume of liabilities (students). To a first approximation it seems like it should balance out.

          A second approximation would include economies of scale, so it’s not quite balanced, but schools (especially at lower grade levels) traditionally only scale up so far, so I don’t think this would be a crippling blow. A lot of our current ones are overcrowded anyway. Unless you’re saying that public schools would give you a poor education either way, but that’s (a) textbook Copenhagen ethics, and (b) not something I’d expect from someone arguing this side of the issue.

          • Yosarian2 says:

            Economies of scale, and the fact that you can’t quickly scale down expensive infrastructure like school buildings, are significant factors.

            Still, overall that’s a fair point; vouchers won’t necessarally reduce the per-pupil funding levels for the public school systems. I think a lot of the problems come from with student selection; Catholic schools usually refuse to take any special education students, saying that they don’t have the ability to meet their needs. In addition, students who are a behavior problem are often kicked out of Catholic schools and sent back to public schools, who don’t have that option. And in some cases private schools also take other measures to select their student body. So you often get in a situation where the “good” students go to Catholic schools and the more disruptive or violent students go to public school, which then tends to self-perpetuate as that drives more good students out of the public schools, ect.

            The same thing can happen in other systems, like charter schools. Often you get in a weird position where the charter school is in many ways an objectively worse school with a worse building and lesser services and the teachers aren’t as well paid, but good students still want to go to the charter school (because the charter school doesn’t take bad students) and good teachers still want to teach at the charter school (because they don’t like dealing with the bad students either.)

            The situation is caused by the asymmetry between schools that have to take everyone and schools that can select their students, and I’m not sure what the solution is, nor am I sure if it’s a good or a bad thing overall But I do think it’s a bad thing when that process combined with a voucher system that funds religious schools creates a system that forces all the “good” students to go to a religious school.

          • cassander says:

            Economies of scale,

            School is an incredibly labor intensive activity that requires very little capital. there are basically zero economies of scale, and very large diseconomies, as there are in all human activities.

            and the fact that you can’t quickly scale down expensive infrastructure like school buildings, are significant factors.

            Yes you can, you can sell or rent them off immediately,

            vouchers won’t necessarally reduce the per-pupil funding levels for the public school systems.

            not “they won’t necessarily”, but “they necessarily won’t”. At least not if implemented as desired by voucher advocates.

            I think a lot of the problems come from with student selection; .

            Require any voucher accepting school to admit a certain portion of its student body, say half, by lottery. problem entirely solved.

          • albatross11 says:

            It seems like the obvious way to address special needs kids with vouchers is to make the vouchers more generous to deal with more expensive special needs.

            The thing about being able to kick kids out is that this is probably the biggest advantage that private schools have. And it seems like maybe the problem here isn’t that private schools are allowed to kick disruptive kids out, but rather that public ones *aren’t* allowed to do so. One disruptive, out-of-control kid can basically run a denial-of-service attack on a whole classroom for a year. If there’s any educational reform that’s likely to actually make a school work better, kicking out the disruptive kids is probably it.

          • shenanigans24 says:

            If there’s a profit incentive for special needs students someone will take them. There’s already schools that do just that, they would increase with vouchers.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Except that “special needs” in a bad school district often means “stabby kid”.

          • Watchman says:

            Except that “special needs” in a bad school district often means “stabby kid”.

            Seems a pretty clear case of extra funding needed then. Not sure how a kid being violent is any different than a kid being stuck in a wheelchair – there are still ways to ensure they get an education and they still need to be funded, whether it be counselling and a safe environment or a ramp and a ground-floor science laboratory (note these are normally on higher floors because flames go upwards…).

          • The Nybbler says:

            Not sure how a kid being violent is any different than a kid being stuck in a wheelchair – there are still ways to ensure they get an education and they still need to be funded

            The kid stuck in the wheelchair doesn’t stab other kids. And there may or may not be ways to ensure the stabby kid gets an education. I personally doubt it, and doubt it would do any good if they did; if you could educate them they’d just use their newfound knowledge to do violence more efficiently.

        • shenanigans24 says:

          With any public service you should do what the paying public desires. Carving out an exception that you can teach whatever cirriculum no matter how stupid as long as it’s not religious is just an attempt to get around the public’ choice and impose something close to indoctrination on the unwilling. If schools are funded locally they merely need to meet the requirements of the locals. Even if someone thinks those requirements are dumb. I think a lot of what my school taught my kids was stupid propaganda no better than religious dogma but I don’t get to call all those things “religion” and have them banned federally.

          The issue for me is I decided to check out of this system and homeschool. Which in a world with internet, and essentially free information is quite cheap. Public schools are absurdly expensive and perform very poorly. My kids easily surpassed the public cirriculum in math and reading while having shorter days. But I still have to fund these schools. My taxes are still going to the school with no student for them to teach. Why shouldn’t I get that money back? Or why does anyone deserve to take my money to educate my children when they are not doing it?

          • Yosarian2 says:

            I think a lot of what my school taught my kids was stupid propaganda no better than religious dogma but I don’t get to call all those things “religion” and have them banned federally.

            Well, yes. Our system treats religion inherently differently then other kids of ideas and memes, and has specific prohibitions on the govnerment establishing a religion or imposing or supporting specific religious beliefs. Primarily because we’ve learned the hard way that if you let the majority try and push their religion on the minority the results are usually extremly bad.

            I’m glad you’ve been having success homeschooling your children. Well educated parents do often have success at homeschooling, at least for part of their children’s education. It’s probably inaccurate to think of that as “cheaper” then public schools, though; it seems cheaper because you’re not paying yourself for your time. 30 parents spending 8 hours a day home schooling 30 students probably does “cost” more then having 1 teacher teach them. If your opportunity cost (what you could be doing otherwise) of doing that is more than minimum wage, it’s probably more expensive yto homeschool.

          • manwhoisthursday says:

            Primarily because we’ve learned the hard way that if you let the majority try and push their religion on the minority the results are usually extremly bad.

            Because, of course, the results of extreme left wing ideas have been demonstratively less murderous!

          • Glen Raphael says:

            @Yosarian2:

            30 parents spending 8 hours a day home schooling 30 students probably does “cost” more then having 1 teacher teach them.

            What makes you think homeschooling requires 8 hours a day, or can only teach one student at a time? The post you’re responding to mentions “kids” rather than “kid”, and also mentions “having shorter days”, does it not?

            So let’s suppose that teaching what public school does only needs, say, an hour a day of instruction time in a home environment, then add that parents who homeschool often have more than one kid, then add that neighboring families might get together and share the load. Then add that 30 is more of a “maximum” than a “typical” classroom size, and that parents tend to ENJOY spending time with their kids…

            Add it all up and I suspect the numbers come out a bit better for the homeschoolers.

          • Consulting my wife and home unschooled daughter …

            Actual time spent on education for two kids–about an hour a day by my wife.

            Time during which one of us, usually my wife, had to either be at home with the kids or have the kids with her when she was out of the house–all day.

            In addition, my wife and I each spent about half an hour a day putting the kids to bed, which involved a lot of conversation, poetry, story telling, and the like–but we were doing that before they were being home unschooled as well.

            My wife adds that not leaving the kids alone (roughly high school age–before that they were being unschooled in a very small and unconventional private school) was mostly concern that other people might think we were neglecting them, not that it wasn’t safe to leave them in the house by themselves.

    • albatross11 says:

      One datapoint: A friend of mine taught in Houston-area charter schools for a few years when she and her husband moved there. As soon as her kids were school age, she quit and homeschooled them. I took this as a pretty negative statement on her firsthand assessment of the local charter schools.

      • shenanigans24 says:

        And the public schools since that was also an option. I don’t know how damning it is though. No matter the school some people won’t like it. That’s true for everything. It’s why people like choices, and one size fits all doesn’t work well.

  49. bizdakka says:

    A lot of people are commenting as if the current set up is the free market in action as opposed to the heavy hand of government “public cafeterias.” I agree that Scott has put forth some pretty solid objections to the scheme, but I don’t think enough attention is being paid to the USDA farm subsidies as corporate welfare angle. It’s such a large thing that it distorts everything in American governance and it is nearly invisible to the average person. It has implications for health care, heavy equipment manufacturing, trucking, immigration, rural labor, city/country divides, finance, land value, nearly every unoptimized hobbyhorse discussed in this community along with literally distorting our bodies. These subsidies are orders of magnitude larger than any food stamp scheme, but are untouchable politically whereas food stamps are endlessly wrangled over. This strikes me as the failure point for the neoliberal side. We have no way of even framing the problem as solvable.

    • albatross11 says:

      I’m a little skeptical that the agricultural subsidy program has all that large an effect. It probably raises prices a bit, but is there a good measure somewhere for how much of an actual distortion it causes? (Like, how much lower would milk prices be without various market interventions? And how much of an impact does that really have on the world?)

  50. eqdw says:

    Corporations can operate similarly. The Coca-Cola company follows a mandate: “raise revenue by selling drinks.” It sounds innocent. But the result is perverse: the company simply tries to get “as many ounces as possible into as many bodies as possible.” Every additional Coca-Cola sold is an additional dollar of revenue. There is no upper limit, then. “Growth potential” is all that matters, regardless of other consequences. And the lives of people only matter to the extent that keeping them alive longer will allow them to drink more Coke. I’m not exaggerating here. Those are the words of the Coca-Cola executives. And they flow perfectly rationally from the structure of the institution […]

    YES THERE IS, IT’S CALLED OTHER PEOPLE.

    “There are no upper limits to the growth of Coca-Cola” YES THERE IS. The upper limit is you, or me, or anyone else saying ‘no thank you’.

    These kinds of discussions are infuriating to me because they always start with a crippling assumption: “Let’s assume that people are stupid and powerless and have absolutely no agency whatsoever”. In the case of the quoted passage, we are assuming that people lack the ability to stop drinking coke. This is insane. Also, trivially disproven: are you drinking coke right now? Did someone force you to stop drinking coke? No? You don’t say…

    Like, if you’re going to start from the assumption that people have no meaningful ability whatsoever to achieve their wants and needs, and they need it to be handed to them from a benevolent higher authority, then you will never, ever, ever get what you want.

    • Murphy says:

      You’re confusing the epidemiological view and the personal view.

      The personal view: lets imagine nobody forces you to eat more but you do get treated for a mental health problem of some kind and as a result you’re required to take clozapine.

      patients on clozapine usually gain a lot of weight – fifteen pounds more on average.

      Your way of looking at things: nobody is forcing you as an individual to eat more. No matter whether you’re on clozapine you can just choose to not eat more. Not literally everyone on clozapine gains weight after all.

      Problem solved! Personal responsibility! Yay!

      If someone put on clozapine does gain weight it’s because they’re spineless and have no willpower and you can shout abuse at them while telling yourself that you’re better than them!

      epidemiological view: if you put a large group of people on clozapine then on average you’ll see a weight gain of about 15 pounds. This does not tell you much of anything about the group of people you’re dosing with clozapine other than that they’re normal humans.

      If you put an all you can eat buffet packed with candied meat, coke and fast food in front of a thousand people you’re likely to see a notable average weight gain. This does not tell you much of anything about the group of people other than that they’re normal humans.

      run one of the worlds biggest marketing campaigns for billions of people to get them to drink tasty sugar syrup and you’re likely to see a notable average increase in sugar consumption. This does not tell you much of anything about the group of people other than that they’re normal humans.

      • roystgnr says:

        The personal view:

        Telling people about the difference between the personal view and the epidemiological view is fine, because it’s just one new concept to add to their mental arsenal. No matter how much that concept is hammered into them, they can just be responsible and not misuse it!

        The epidemiological view:

        If you scare people into believing that having choices taken away from them will generally help them, they are more likely to accede to that even when, as is more typical, their choices are not really being restricted for their own benefit. Maybe a few will look just one level deeper, but on average, normal humans behave like normal humans, who latch on to this “individual rights” thing once in a blue millennium but mostly just band together in big groups to fight and oppress each other at the drop of a hat.

        According to the epidemiological view, you should avoid suggesting that people use the epidemiological view. Proof by contradiction, Q.E.D.

    • shenanigans24 says:

      That and people have other considerations than growth because people are people.

  51. dark orchid says:

    The UK government actually did something like that, but it was during a time of war and rationing so the incentives were very differently aligned. Also the food was cheap rather than free, but there were clear instructions not to make the place look “like a soup kitchen”. During WWI we called them National Kitchens [1], during WWII British Restaurants [2].

    [1] https://www.thegazette.co.uk/all-notices/content/100292
    [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Restaurant

  52. James Miller says:

    Following Scott’s logic, why even have food stamps or school vouchers? Why not instead give poor people money and let them decide how to spend it?

  53. ragnarrahl says:

    One of Robinson’s examples of failure is

    ” Industry lobbying has kept the FDA from listing sugar quantities in “teaspoons” rather than “grams,” because hearing that something contains “five teaspoons” of sugar might make you far more likely to avoid it.”

    I don’t get it. I don’t have an intuitive understanding of how good or bad five teaspoons is at all. People who follow a lot of strict recipes rather than cooking by feel or not at all might, but I don’t follow recipes when I cook, and hence, I have a vague visual idea of a teaspoon but nothing intellectually useful.

    By contrast, for grams even though I’m mostly imperial centric (I have no intuitive feel of, say, a kilogram when talking about bodyweight for example), I know the follow things, coincidentally mostly from public education and not from making an actual effort at learning about nutrition:
    A gram is ~ a paperclip.
    It’s a cubic cm of water, by definition (subject to blah blah blah conditions, that in reality mean “here on earth.”
    A gram of sugar or protein is 4 calories. 9 for fat. I get roughly 2000 calories a day, assuming I’m not doing anything too physically exerting. Sugar is naughty, so I should not hit more than 1 or 2 hundred calories from it, i.e., 25 to 50 grams, and the official view currently leans toward the first of each pair. (After writing, I verified that these are the old and new WHO recommendations, but they came to mind just as ballpark guesstimates).

    If I am looking at the “sugar” part of a nutrition label, i.e., caring enough to read the label but not enough to do actual research, these will be going through my head. On days where I care how nutritious food is, it’s really that easy– and it would be actively harder if Robinson got his way and had it read out in teaspoons instead to spite the industry lobbyists. Am I just weird? Do normal people actually grok the nutritional meaning of a teaspoon of sugar?

    • The Nybbler says:

      Measuring by teaspoons would be a measure _designed_ to get people to avoid things, rather than provide a good measure. Grams are clearly more precise than actual teaspoons, and provided a precise teaspoon-equivalent has no purpose but to discourage consumption. So the industry has rightly lobbied against it.

    • dionisos says:

      A gram is ~ a paperclip.

      AI’s creed !

  54. Questioner says:

    Well, two words scuttle that idea: Iowa caucuses. As long as a corn-producing state holds the definitive first primary, we’re going to have pro-corn presidents.

    Not necessarily so. Ted Cruz won the Iowa Caucuses while campaigning against ethanol subsidies.

    Of course, the response to that, both among the Republican establishment, and among Democrats, was to support Trump v. Cruz in the GOP Primary.

    How’d that work out for you all?

  55. Nornagest says:

    For example, the average Minute Maid juice bottle has about as much sugar as soda, but deceptive corporate branding ensures most people won’t realize that.

    This has nothing to do with deceptive corporate branding and everything to do with being made of juice. I could have gone out on a cold October morning on my grandpa’s farm, picked a bucket of oranges straight off the tree, squeezed them into a hand-blown glass jug, wrote six pages on the true value of family, posted it to a food blog, and then drunk a glass, and it’d still have about the same sugar content as a glass of soda. (I looked it up, actually — fresh orange juice averages about 110-115 calories per cup. Coca-Cola has 98.)

    It’s about as sweet as soda. It gets its sweetness from sugar. Soda also gets its sweetness from sugar. It seems pretty obvious that it is therefore about as sugary as soda.

    • Standing in the Shadows says:

      To be fair to the other side, those oranges on your grandfather’s farm have been very heavily genetically engineered (the old skool way) for hundreds of years, to have that much sugar, and the pressure for that engineering and costs of doing so were driven by so-called “capitalist logic”.

      Nearly everything that today we call “fruits” and “vegetables” have been through that same logic-of-capital genetic engineering wringer. Even the ones that are now marketed as “antiques” that promise to be less heavily so engineered, were still heavily engineered to that point.

  56. deciusbrutus says:

    The only solution, of course, is to slay Moloch.

    That would mean causing perverse incentives to not exist; the paperclip maximizer and analogous corporation and government cease to be coherent concepts in that case.

    I have no reason to believe that state is even possible, and yet I find it a worthy goal.

  57. rahien.din says:

    Regarding signalling, I have a very different experience.

    We are reasonably well-off but like to save money. So, even though we could afford not to, we shop at discount grocers like Aldi and clothing overrun stores like Gabe’s. And I sometimes feel bad doing it. I could afford a new pair of pants from a department store, so if I buy my pants at Gabe’s and a less well-off person goes without pants, I’ve taken something from them. I have just as many opportunities to buy new pants, but they have no opportunities even to buy overruns.

    So it’s not that I dread losing status by being recognized at a poor person’s store, it’s that I am a little ashamed to be utilizing services I genuinely don’t need. I want to signal that I’m not the cheapskate asshole who will eat government food that should be going to the poor.

    Intellectually, I recognize this reaction as stupid. If more people shop at Gabe’s and Aldi, then Gabe’s and Aldi will respond by increasing the availability of Gabe’s and Aldi, and thus poor people will see their purchasing opportunities increase and/or become more widespread.

    But that doesn’t totally assuage my guilt at maybe I don’t deserve to shop here.

  58. spandrel says:

    Public schools have public food; the less fortunate kids eat it and the others bring their own. The positive bit is that they all eat together.

    Anecdotal thoughts on vouchers: I sent three kids to private school, and in this particular school it was clear that the profit motive created moral hazard for the administration, in that they could not afford to alienate parents, especially wealthy ones, whom they relied on to pay their salaries. One example, one of my sons was serially bullied in front of teachers; the bully’s parents had donated a wing to the school; the bully was barely reprimanded, just asked