I know it is a contentious position these days, but I have always been in favor of public schools. I went to a public school. I enjoyed myself there. I believe it taught me some things. I’ve also always been suspicious of privatization schemes. That’s because I tend to think that when a service is for profit rather than for the public’s benefit, all sorts of perverse incentives arise. If schools operated for profit, with education subsidized by vouchers, the companies running the schools would have an interest in spending as little as possible actually educating the students, because every dollar they could save would be a dollar they could keep. That strikes me as dangerous, and I can’t help but think that it will lead inexorably in the direction of giving children iPads rather than teachers.
Once, though, when I voiced my dubiousness about “voucherization,” a gentleman challenged me. Why, he said, did I think private schools with vouchers would be worse than public schools? We entrust other areas of life to the private sector and they work just fine. Consider, for example, grocery stores. We don’t have government-run grocery stores like we have government-run schools. And yet most people in the country seem pretty happy with their grocery stores. They can get whatever they want there, and if they can’t afford it, we subsidize it with a “voucher” (i.e. food stamps). The profit motive hasn’t led to a rapacious system of exploitation. In fact, it has given consumers the ability to get an astonishing variety of goods for incredibly low prices. Why are you uniquely suspicious of what the private sector would do to education, when it provides us so efficiently with our food?
The gentleman’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.
Then I remembered that nutrition in America is a total disaster, that ⅔ of the country is obese or overweight, and that half of the country either has diabetes or is at high risk of having diabetes soon. If we start providing education like we provide nutrition, then God help the little children…
Food is actually the perfect example of a system in which the presence of a profit motive is having incredibly destructive human consequences. That’s because it introduces a terrible incentive: to sell people the products they’ll get addicted to rather than the products that are good for them. Americans live on junk food; they have terrible diets, with too much sodium, too many calories, too much sugar, and too few fruits and vegetables.
And as food companies seek to increase their revenue, the problem is spreading internationally. The New York Times recently reported that “multinational food companies like Nestlé, PepsiCo and General Mills have been aggressively expanding their presence in developing nations, unleashing a marketing juggernaut that is upending traditional diets from Brazil to Ghana to India.” Nestlé, for instance, hired legions of Brazilians to sell its products door to door, and regularly sent a barge down the Amazon river offering pudding, cookies, and candy. The result, according to the Times, has been “more obese Brazilians,” with “a new epidemic of diabetes and heart disease.” In places that “struggled with hunger and malnutrition just a generation ago” there are now “soaring rates of obesity,” with “the growing availability of high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods” causing more people to be “both overweight and undernourished.” In poor Brazilian towns, one can find 17-year-olds who weigh 250lbs and suffer from hypertension, problems once unknown in the developing world.
We know precisely why this happens. Bob Drane, the former Kraft Foods executive who invented Lunchables, described the logic of the industry:
“Discover what consumers want to buy and give it to them with both barrels. Sell more, keep your job! How do marketers often translate these ‘rules’ into action on food? Our limbic brains love sugar, fat, salt. . . . So formulate products to deliver these. Perhaps add low-cost ingredients to boost profit margins. Then ‘supersize’ to sell more. . . . And advertise/promote to lock in ‘heavy users.’”
Lunchables themselves were the result of this logic. They’re bad for kids, since they’re largely comprised of baloney and cheese, but Oscar Mayer realized that parents with little time would snap up something that eliminated the need to make lunch, and kids would crave them because it came with a big block of fatty cheese. (Experiments with healthier Lunchables were called off due to poor sales.)
Food and beverage executives are fairly open about how they think. “Half the world’s population has not had a Coke in the last 30 days,” said the president of Coca-Cola International. “There’s 600 million teenagers who have not had a Coke in the last week. So the opportunity for that is huge.” According to the Times, a former Coke vice president said that “the goal became much larger than merely beating the rival brands; Coca-Cola strove to outsell every other thing people drank, including milk and water. The marketing division’s efforts boiled down to one question… ‘How can we drive more ounces into more bodies more often?’” Coke has specifically targeted poor areas around the world. Coke’s former North American president, Jeffrey Dunn, was horrified by what he saw when he toured one of the impoverished districts the company was targeting: “A voice in my head says, ‘These people need a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke.’ I almost threw up.” But when Dunn raised his concerns and tried to change the business, he encountered “very aggressive” resistance and was fired.
The usual response here is to blame the consumers: if people get fat and die from eating garbage and drinking poison, perhaps they shouldn’t be buying it. If companies are selling products loaded with sugar and fat, it’s because people really like sugar and fat. This is is always the way the industry responds. At a meeting of food executives in which a Kraft vice president tried to convince his peers to step up on nutrition, discussion came to a close when the CEO of General Mills vigorously defended existing practice. As the Times summarized:
“[Consumers were fickle.] Sometimes they worried about sugar, other times fat. General Mills, he said, acted responsibly to both the public and shareholders by offering products to satisfy dieters and other concerned shoppers, from low sugar to added whole grains. But most often, he said, people bought what they liked, and they liked what tasted good. “Don’t talk to me about nutrition,” he reportedly said, taking on the voice of the typical consumer. “Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.” To react to the critics, Sanger said, would jeopardize the sanctity of the recipes that had made his products so successful. General Mills would not pull back. He would push his people onward, and he urged his peers to do the same.”
The former CEO of Philip Morris (now Altria), which owns Kraft, affirmed this, adding that it partially arises from the pressure of a highly competitive market:
“People could point to these things and say, ‘They’ve got too much sugar, they’ve got too much salt… Well, that’s what the consumer wants, and we’re not putting a gun to their head to eat it. That’s what they want. If we give them less, they’ll buy less, and the competitor will get our market. So you’re sort of trapped.”
This has been the consensus view. Those within the industry who have pushed for reform have gotten nowhere, and it’s obvious why: as the Philip Morris CEO points out, 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.
It’s long past time to discard the idea that companies just give people “what they want,” and that blame for the popularity of inferior products rests with consumers. First, it’s easy to understand why there needs to be a conceptual difference between “what people buy” and “what people want.” That’s because people don’t want to die of heart disease, and yet they buy things that make them more likely to die of heart disease. And it’s not enough to say that they must simply prefer “eating badly” to “not dying”: if you ask them, they’ll tell you they’d much rather not have diabetes. But they do. And part of the reason they do is that an entire multibillion dollar industry is dedicated to finding ways to make sure they keep eating poorly.
Companies don’t just aggregate consumer preferences and try to satisfy those preferences. They also try to shape those preferences through expensive scientific research. Consider the Cheeto. The Cheeto is specifically designed to trick the human body through its “vanishing caloric density,” which means that “if something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it . . . you can just keep eating it forever.” People do not just eat piles of Cheetos because they are “dangerously cheesy,” or because Chester Cheetah told them to. They eat piles of Cheetos because Kraft Foods consciously took advantage of an error in the way the human brain decides whether to keep eating something. As reporter Michael Moss says, “it’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive.”
Moss found an internal Frito-Lay memo from 1957, which described the “fears and resistances” that were causing people to steer clear of potato chips, e.g. “You can’t stop eating them; they’re fattening; they’re not good for you.” But Frito-Lay was not focused on making sure people could stop eating potato chips, they wanted to find a way to make sure people felt okay with not stopping eating potato chips. So, for example, they stopped referring to their chips as “fried” and started referring to them as “toasted,” because this made people feel less guilty about eating them. We can see here that consumer preference isn’t being satisfied in any meaningful sense. The “preference” stated by the consumers was for potato chips to be less fatty and addictive. Instead of “giving the people what they wanted,” companies found ways to fool them into thinking they were getting what they wanted. People are not asking for “a chip that seems healthier than it is,” they’re asking for “a chip that is healthy,” so consumers have actually not been given what they want.
You could try to say that consumers still bear the responsibility for figuring out whether they’re being deceived. But that’s (1) more difficult than it sounds, (2) incredibly time-consuming, and (3) oblivious to the biological reality. First, large amounts of money are spent figuring out the answer to the question: “How can we make something that seems healthy but is actually addictively tasty (and thus not actually healthy)?” Yogurt has taken off in part because the industry realized it could be branded as a health food, but loaded up with sugar in a way that made people keep craving more of it. From a revenue perspective, the optimum food is the food that seems both tasty and healthy, which will often involve a lot of deception. I’ve fallen directly into this trap before. For a while, I ate Raisin Bran for breakfast, and I thought I was choosing a nutritious cereal. (It has fiber! And protein!) Nope: Raisin Bran has more sugar than Lucky Charms. I’d also been proud of myself for eliminating sodas entirely. Instead, I drank Minute Maid’s “Cranberry-Apple-Raspberry Juice” with my lunch. The label has pictures of leaves and fruits, and it looks so natural, so unlike Coca-Cola. Unfortunately, it also contains 57 grams of sugar, more than root beer.
Now, you could blame me here. These products had labels (thanks only, by the way, to strict government requirements). I could have looked at them, and instead I made an assumption. But I refuse to accept all of the blame here. It was not because I am stupid that I thought Raisin Bran was healthy. It’s because the Kellogg’s company wanted me to think that. They spent a lot of time thinking about the various ways that they could leave people with the impression that Raisin Bran is good for them without resorting to outright fraud. So it says “Heart Healthy” prominently on the box. It says “Real Fruit” and “Whole Grain.” It says “Delicious Raisins Perfectly Balanced With Crisp, Toasted Bran Flakes” rather than “Delicious Sugar-Coated Raisins,” which is what they are. And this is all designed so that I will do exactly what I did for a period of months: gobble Raisin Bran every morning, and think to myself “Wow, I can’t believe Raisin Bran tastes so good, even though it’s healthy. I guess because it’s good for me, I can eat another bowl,” without noticing that the whole reason it tastes so good and I want to eat another bowl is that a heap of sugar has been dumped into it.
It’s tough to eat healthily, even when you want to, because you’re fighting a massive industry that’s trying to deceive you. Hacking your way through the thick web of manipulative branding techniques takes a lot of time and psychological energy. Figuring out how to eat well is not actually especially easy. You’ve got to spend a lot of time examining and comparing nutrition facts, and even those aren’t designed as intuitively as they could be. 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. Providing consumers with the information they actually need in order to make their decisions well, e.g. giving them a more obvious and meaningful sense of what’s in the products they’re buying, would impact the revenues of companies that rely on people not asking too many questions. (If we really believe that consumer “preferences” should be satisfied, we should include warnings on processed foods the same way we include warnings on tobacco. The more informed consumers are about reality, the more defensible it is to say they have made a choice.)
The “consumer choice” defense also ignores the biological reality of what is going on. Cravings are not manifestations of human choice. They are biological urges that are extremely difficult to resist. “Once you pop, you just can’t stop” is not a slogan, it’s a fact. It is incredibly difficult to stop eating Pringles once one has started. I have tried and failed many times, and I am a person of uncommon stubbornness and willpower. The Pringle has been specially engineered to make me not just want to eat it, but need to eat it. Nutritionists and food scientists take very seriously the idea that food can have addictive properties. That’s not surprising, because the industry tries so hard to make sure that it does. Yet the “individual responsibility” ethic prevails.
The harms of a corporate food system do not affect everyone equally. Instead, they fall disproportionately on the poor, who have less time for food preparation and information gathering, and thus default to fast food for its convenience. Disparities in health consequences reflect that fact: less well-off people have worse diets and suffer obesity, heart disease, and diabetes in greater numbers. A privatized system of nutrition delivery, predictably, delivers the worst outcomes to those with the least money.
Examining the food system in detail is instructive because it reveals a lot about how free markets work and don’t work. We can imagine how things would play out if the same system were relied upon to deliver education: a few big companies would end up running most of the schools. Individuals could go to whichever school they could pay for. But since school companies would be competing with each other, and trying to maximize profits, they would be incentivized to spend as little as possible educating students, while deceiving parents into thinking their children were learning more than they actually were. Just as food companies do better not when they offer health but when they offer the appearance of health, school companies would adopt branding techniques that made them appear high-quality (use of the word “academy,” fancy seal, uniforms, etc.) while trying to spend as little money as possible on actually educating the child. For-profit education will be as “educational” as for-profit products like Coca-Cola are “nutritional.”
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.
Capitalism is very effective at increasing production. Even Karl Marx was impressed with its achievements. But it also only works to the extent that the institutional incentives will, when followed, produce good results. 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 it would be best if the school system did not operate like the food system. But perhaps we should be thinking about the opposite as well: what if the food system operated more like the public school system? What if there was a “public option” for food?
Public schools are an “option” because they already exist within a market for schools. If you’d like to, you can opt out of the public school system and send your children to a private school. Even Britain’s single-payer health service, the NHS, is a public “option” of a kind, because people can still pay for private health insurance and private hospitals if they choose. (Because most people are satisfied with the NHS, however, only a fraction of people do this.) A public option is useful because it doesn’t have to think about profit, it can just think about providing the public with what they need.
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. Now, the question is: what would happen? I think you’d see a lot of people taking their meals at the American Free Diner. That’s because the food is free. And that would be a very good thing indeed, because every meal eaten there is a healthy meal. Who wouldn’t eat at the American Free Diner? Well, rich people wouldn’t eat there, because they can afford even nicer food. But rich people also enroll their children in private schools. They’re not the target population here. What we’re trying to do is make sure that everyone has access to a baseline level of nutrition, just like everyone should have access to a baseline level of education.
Personally, I think the Free Diner is our best way of solving our national nutrition crisis. Currently, we try to provide nutrition to the poor with a “voucher” system. That has a couple of problems. First, people don’t know what to buy, so they are highly susceptible to being manipulated. Second, buying groceries and making meals at home is incredibly time-consuming, which is one reason people tend toward fast food. The Diner solves these problems. It doesn’t restrict your choices, you can still buy whatever you want on the free market. But it does offer you one more choice: eat free, healthy meals at the Free Diner.
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.
Frankly, I don’t see many other easy ways out of our collective nutrition crisis. You could try to legislate the activities of companies like General Mills and Coca-Cola, restrict their advertising and regulate their product more. But ultimately, this won’t change their incentives. You could try to publicly campaign to get people to make better nutrition choices. But this is probably doomed, since lack of desire/willpower is only a minor part of the reason why people eat bad food. You could try to restrict what people can spend food stamps on. But that only helps people who are on food stamps, seems invasive and nannying, and will be difficult to enforce. A better idea is to just open restaurants, and incentivize people to go there by making them free, and by deploying the same marketing/branding techniques that companies use presently to get people to make bad decisions. (It’s called the American Free Diner to conjure patriotic associations.)
I used to to think grocery stores were a good argument against public schools. Now, I think public schools are a good argument against grocery stores. The American diet is killing us, and people are making money encouraging us to continue eating badly, tempting us with pudding barges. It’s time to introduce a public option for food. It’s time for an American Free Diner.
This article originally appeared in our Sept./Oct. 2017 print edition. get yours today in our online store or by subscribing.