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Contra Robinson On Public Food


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?


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?


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.