Monday, May 21, 2012

Chow Hall Blues

Great piece from Reason on school meals. Over the weekend, I read Jonathan Haidt's new book The Righteous Mind. Putting those two together and adding a splash of EE, it seems as if we've got an interesting moral conflict.

Food is a big deal. Along with oxygen, water and shelter, it's one of the necessities of life. By default, the BATNA of going without is rather unfortunate. Luckily for those of us who live in relatively wealthy nations, alternatives are abundant. Even the dreadfully poor in the United States don't go hungry the way some folks do in the developing world. But as Haidt shows, there's more than just care the drives the nanny-sitters, there's purity.

In the book, Haidt shows pretty convincingly that our friends on the political left rely most heavily on  care and fairness as their chief moral dimensions, largely eschewing authority, sanctity, loyalty and liberty.  The more I think about it though, the more I suspect that these dimensions are there for the left, but they manifest differently. This school lunch thing is a good example of that.

In moral terms, the idea that school lunches ought be subject to monitoring by the USDA hinges on sanctity (though there are overtones of authority-by-expertise). I might argue that the organic/locavore movement has similar underpinnings. Food provided anonymously or by uncaring staff (or parents) is (presumably) unhealthy. Now, that's not all there is to it of course. Note the heavy use of fairness arguments made by officials in the Reason piece. Whatever the source of the moral ire, it appears as if feeding children is non-euvoluntary. Parents can't be trusted to provide lunch for their own children.

Of course, parents also can't be trusted to arrange for education of their children either. Classroom attendance is mandatory until age 16 (except in cases of circumstantial duress). Let's ignore that for the moment, and ask if there might be some alternative arrangements for feeding kids that might strike a nice balance between the moral concerns of all these interested parties.

Assumption: school nutrition is non-euvoluntary by BATNA disparity and by coercion by human agency (you go to school or you go to juvenile detention).
Claim 1: childhood obesity is increasing in frequency and severity.
Claim 2: parents' bad habits in feeding and exercising their children contribute to the obesity problem.
Claim 3: state-sponsored experts have the knowledge and capacity to change behavior and outcomes.
Claim 4: this is obviously a public health dilemma, since it's the public that's unhealthy.

Claim 4 is obvious balderdash, by the by. The only externalities to obesity that might exist are strictly a function of the odd way in which health care is provided in the United States. Still, as the state penetrates deeper and deeper into the relationship between doctors and patients, we should expect to hear more arguments like this. If, in my capacity as a taxpayer, I fund your health care, you have the responsibility to meet my demands for cost minimization. You can't free ride on my tax nickel. So on, so forth.

The other claims are less obviously completely stupid however. It's an empirical fact that America's kids are befattening themselves. There's probably some truth to the notion that some kids should be playing outside more and playing Diablo 3 less (though there was a sweetheart deal on Steam over the weekend and I picked up the 4 Assassin's Creed games for less than 50 bucks, and that included a few DLCs). It's entirely plausible that a steady diet of cheap burritos and Mountain Dew ain't exactly the recipe for fitness. There may even be some truth to the notion that nutrition experts know more about nutrition than average folks.

None of this necessarily implies anything about how to deliver nutrients to children however. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein favor preserving choice but highlighting healthy options. Libertarian economists favor more school choice from the get-go, to include lunch programs. There exist plenty of options to a strict, state-run, command-and-control, top-down, authoritarian (am I putting too fine a point on it?) scheme. There is also good reason to believe that hand-holding does exactly the opposite of inculcating good habits. Being told what to do, where to go, what to eat breeds resentment and rebellion. Hierarchy becomes intolerable when pushed too far and the backlash might be unpleasant. I know people who have pigged out on a quart of Ben and Jerry's after forcing themselves to eat nothing but watercress and rice cakes for a week. Coercion is acceptable only as a last resort. When it comes to food, there are still plenty of hotels on the way (wow, that was a forced pun. Ugh.)

So , for discussion topics, these occur to me. Should children enjoy any autonomy over what they eat? Should parents have any autonomy over what their children eat? Competition is good in the marketplace and bundling contracts usually violate antitrust law, so why is it that schools can so readily bundle education and food without tripping the Clayton Act (likely answer: because commerce is commerce and education is something else entirely)? What would be the likely equilibrium outcome if schools stopped serving meals altogether? If the USDA or the FDA installs monitors in schools for nutritional quality assurance, how do you imagine that program changing over time? Is metastasis likely? If there is a good role for the state to play in nutrition intervention, what might that role be?

Fair disclosure, I'm a big fan of more choice. I'm not especially opposed to subsidies for primary schooling, nor do I find objectionable the idea of cash assistance for low-income kids. I do think that mandatory, one-size-fits-all lunch programs teach the wrong sorts of lessons about responsibility and care. Part of the duty of schools as in loco parentis is to teach children self-reliance. This effort is stymied by micro-management.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?