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Compare and Contrast: American Public Schools and Supermarkets

Posted: 2011-05-06

Because I used to send Wall Street Journal outrages to Jerry Bracey, I sent the one below to EDDRA2 in his memory. The piece left me sputtering, but Guy Brandenburg did more than that on his blog, May 6, 2011.

NOTE: Boudreau's article was second-most popular of the week at the Wall Street Journal. Most popular? Nudists Seek Out the Young and Naked. It comes with "interactive slide show."

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal [see below] written by a George Mason University prof-for-sale named Donald Boudreau, funded by one of the Koch brothers' far right-wing think tanks, recently tried to make the case that the public has no more business funding and running public education than the government should be running supermarkets. Boudreau asked, rhetorically, what if supermarkets were run like our public schools?

Having lived in various lower-income regions and mostly-black ghettos in Boston, DC, Manhattan, and Chicago, as well as in poor rural areas of VT, NH, MO, and MD, as well as in nicer parts of various cities, towns and suburbs, I can say that yes, American supermarkets ARE a lot like our public schools.

When I lived in those low-income, segregated regions of some of our great American cities and countryside, and I would walk or drive to the local supermarket, guess what: I found that they sucked. There were rats, roaches, and mice; the tiles on the floor were coming up; the shopping carts wouldn’t work; the refrigeration often was broken; you risked getting robbed walking home with your bags in your arms; the food was old, of poor quality, and almost guaranteed to give you high blood pressure and to make you obese. Plus, numerous studies showed that the prices for this crappy merchandise was often higher than at fancy supermarkets in more well-to-do neighborhoods. Any laws to prevent this sort of nasty racial and economic discrimination are and were toothless and/or gutted by business interests.

And yes, that's very comparable to the situation with our public schools. So I guess that the author of this pro-education-DEFORM writer hasn't actually spent any time in our urban or rural ghettos, or he would have known this already.

It's basically a management decision to leave the poor folks (often of color) in the poor neighborhoods with crappy, nasty supermarkets. After all, it leads to higher profits! Such conditions are not the fault of the sometimes-unionized supermarket employees, though supermarket management often do their level best to convince the public that the reason for high prices and inefficiencies was solely due to those evil unionsâ€Â¦ Similarly, in the field of education, we see that billionaires and their paid-for policy wonks are currently trying to blame all of the faults of public education on those who are actually trying to do the teaching. Just imagine. The folks who are actually teaching in those urban and rural ghettos, working their butts off for really not very much money, are getting blamed for pretty much ALL of America's problems -- especially if they happen to belong to a big bad union.

But wait a second. I thought the reason we are in a crisis right now, and that so many folks are out of a job, is because the billionaires who run the big banks and Wall Street. . .

(a) Shipped all the good manufacturing jobs to low-paid, seriously exploited workers overseas and are doing the same thing with a lot of high-tech jobs as well;

(b) Played such incredibly irresponsible gambling games, for their own benefit, that they have brought the entire world near the brink of bankruptcy, not once, but repeatedly;

(c) Changed the tax and regulatory and legal climate over the past 20 years so that the super rich have gotten an ever larger part of the national (and world) pie, while the rest of us get less and less and have to pay more and more for everything;

(d) Are doing their very best to organize an all-out attack on workers' rights, pensions of all types, medical plans of any sort, and all of the rest of the 'social safety net', by blaming us, the working class, the middle class, and the poor, for our own problems!

(e) Have ushered in an era of nearly endless war and foreign interventions and invasions, violating just about all of our own Constitutional protections and international laws, and justifying each and every one of those violations.

Meanwhile, yes, you can go to another, better supermarket, if you have a car or are willing to take a taxi or public transportation to get there and back. Just as it is possible -- particularly here in DC -- to enroll your kids at out-of-boundary public schools for some reason or other. Which is what my wife and I certainly did with our own kids. But what we really need to do is to improve the conditions in the poor neighborhoods, at those public schools, and at those dilapidated supermarkets.

Not to wait for gentrification. Or for Superman.

A little background:

From: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Sent: Thu, May 5, 2011 8:31:01 AM

Subject: Re: [EDDRA2] If Supermarkets Were Like Public Schools

Mr. Boudreaux is professor of economics at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center.

The Mercatus Center was founded and is funded by the Koch Family Foundations. According to financial records, the Koch family has contributed more than thirty million dollars to George Mason, much of which has gone to the Mercatus Center, a nonprofit organization. (SourceWatch)

A brief history of the Mercatus Center:

The Mercatus Center was founded as the Center for Market Processes by former economist Rich Fink, executive vice president of Koch Industries and former president of the Koch Foundations, who went on to found Citizens for a Sound Economy. Fink heads Koch Industries' lobbying operation in Washington. In addition, Fink is the president of theCharles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, the president of the Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, a director of the Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Foundation, and a director and co-founder, with David Koch, of the Americans for ProsperityFoundation. In the early 1980s the center moved to George Mason University. It merged with the Center for the Study of Public Choice during 1998 to become the James M. Buchanan Center for Political Economy. The Mercatus Center brand was developed in 1999 from the JBC. (SourceWatch)

The Koch Brothers are funding many of the attacks on public employees across the country (Lipton, Eric "BillionaireBrothers' Money Plays Role in Wisconsin Dispute" New York Times, Feb. 21, 2011).

Boudreaux is certainly not going to bite the hand that feeds him.

If Supermarkets Were Like Public Schools

Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2011

What if groceries were paid for by taxes, and you were assigned a store based on where you live?

By Donald J. Boudreaux

Teachers unions and their political allies argue that market forces can't supply quality education. According to them, only our existing system—politicized and monopolistic—will do the trick. Yet Americans would find that approach ludicrous if applied to other vital goods or services.

Suppose that groceries were supplied in the same way as K-12 education. Residents of each county would pay taxes on their properties. Nearly half of those tax revenues would then be spent by government officials to build and operate supermarkets. Each family would be assigned to a particular supermarket according to its home address. And each family would get its weekly allotment of groceries—"for free"—from its neighborhood public supermarket.

No family would be permitted to get groceries from a public supermarket outside of its district. Fortunately, though, thanks to a Supreme Court decision, families would be free to shop at private supermarkets that charge directly for the groceries they offer. Private-supermarket families, however, would receive no reductions in their property taxes.

Of course, the quality of public supermarkets would play a major role in families' choices about where to live. Real-estate agents and chambers of commerce in prosperous neighborhoods would brag about the high quality of public supermarkets to which families in their cities and towns are assigned.

Being largely protected from consumer choice, almost all public supermarkets would be worse than private ones. In poor counties the quality of public supermarkets would be downright abysmal. Poor people—entitled in principle to excellent supermarkets—would in fact suffer unusually poor supermarket quality.

What if groceries were supplied in the same way as K-12 education?

How could it be otherwise? Public supermarkets would have captive customers and revenues supplied not by customers but by the government. Of course they wouldn't organize themselves efficiently to meet customers' demands.

Responding to these failures, thoughtful souls would call for "supermarket choice" fueled by vouchers or tax credits. Those calls would be vigorously opposed by public-supermarket administrators and workers.

Opponents of supermarket choice would accuse its proponents of demonizing supermarket workers (who, after all, have no control over their customers' poor eating habits at home). Advocates of choice would also be accused of trying to deny ordinary families the food needed for survival. Such choice, it would be alleged, would drain precious resources from public supermarkets whose poor performance testifies to their overwhelming need for more public funds.

As for the handful of radicals who call for total separation of supermarket and state—well, they would be criticized by almost everyone as antisocial devils indifferent to the starvation that would haunt the land if the provision of groceries were governed exclusively by private market forces.

Naomi Schaefer Riley analyzes two competing movies about U.S. education: "Waiting for Superman" and "Race to Nowhere."

In the face of calls for supermarket choice, supermarket-workers unions would use their significant resources for lobbying—in favor of public-supermarkets' monopoly power and against any suggestion that market forces are appropriate for delivering something as essential as groceries. Some indignant public-supermarket defenders would even rail against the insensitivity of referring to grocery shoppers as "customers," on the grounds that the relationship between the public servants who supply life-giving groceries and the citizens who need those groceries is not so crass as to be discussed in terms of commerce.

Recognizing that the erosion of their monopoly would stop the gravy train that pays their members handsome salaries without requiring them to satisfy paying customers, unions would ensure that any grass-roots effort to introduce supermarket choice meets fierce political opposition.

In reality, of course, groceries and many other staples of daily life are distributed with extraordinary effectiveness by competitive markets responding to consumer choice. The same could be true of education—the unions' self-serving protestations notwithstanding.

Mr. Boudreaux is professor of economics at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center.

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