Monday, April 21, 2008

Imagine if Restaurants Worked Like Public Schools

I just finished filling in the Idaho Education Association's candidate questionnaire (a very good one, by the way, if a bit unintentionally self-revealing), and I found myself wondering: What is we had a public restaurant system similar to our public school system, that provided lunch and dinner to every Idaho resident who lived in that restaurant district, funded entirely from taxes?

1. No one would go hungry--especially the poor.

2. We could guarantee that everyone was served a nutritious and well-balanced meal. Now, a lot of people wouldn't eat their salad or vegetables, and some people might not eat enough of the broiled chicken, but at least they would have the opportunity.

3. I'm sure that the public restaurant system would provide at least one vegetarian entree. It might even (after lawsuits were filed by the ACLU) offer at least one kosher meal and one halal meal. But in many parts of Idaho, a lot of those specialty meals would be stored in freezers waiting for an Orthodox Jew or Muslim to show up. I suspect that they wouldn't be terribly appetizing by the time someone came to eat them.

4. Vegan meals? I rather doubt it. There's no Constitutional basis for demanding the government provide what a strong majority would regard as bizarre or unnecessary accommodations.

5. There would be a few kooks (or so some would call them) who would insist that their religion requires them to eat meals with their family in a private setting. Well, they would be free to do so. But there would be no reduction in your taxes that paid for the public restaurant system. You chose not to use the perfectly fine public system that is already in place.

6. Of course, being a public system, the restaurants would have very, very limited options on refusing service. I suppose that "no shoes, no shirt, no service" might survive court challenge, but someone who hadn't bathed in a month (and there are homeless people in that situation) would have just as much right to eat at the table next to you as anyone else. Much of the inappropriate behavior that would get you bounced out of a private restaurant would have to be tolerated--and the public restaurant workers wouldn't be happy about this, either.

7. Because only pretty gross incompetence or misconduct would get a public restaurant worker fired, some of the waiters would be surly, and completely unconcerned about whether they did their jobs right. Most of them would make a serious attempt at doing their jobs, of course--but seeing that you didn't get rewarded any better for doing more the minimum necessary would, over time, take away your incentive to work hard.

8. Private restaurants work hard at keeping costs under control as well as looking for new and interesting dishes to attract in customers--because they have competitors. The public restaurants would have effectively no competition--since you couldn't on a regular basis eat outside of your district.

9. If you weren't happy about the food or service provided in the public restaurant system, you would be, of course, free to go to private restaurants. You would still be paying taxes to support a public restaurant system that you didn't like or use. After all, this way we can be sure that no one goes hungry, no matter how poor they were.

10. If you suggested that this wasn't fair--that you shouldn't be required to pay for a system that you didn't want to use--indeed, might regard as violating your right of conscience--the Idaho Restaurant Workers Association would insist that the public shouldn't be forced to fund your weird restaurant choices. They would hunt around until they found a biker bar somewhere in the U.S. with swastikas on the walls and tell the public that this is where money would be spent in a voucher system.

11. Because most people couldn't afford to fund the public restaurant system and either buy their own groceries or eat out very often in private restaurants, the private restaurant market would be highly distorted. It would have a few places that catered to the very wealthy, or it would have a lot of places that provided meals for those who felt that the public restaurant system was failing them. Consequently, the private market would be overwhelmingly dominated by kosher, halal, vegetarian, and vegan restaurants. Not surprisingly, many of those who were not happy with the public system would not be particularly enthused about these other choices.

12. The shortage of funding, because most people were already paying for the public system, would mean that private restaurants that weren't for the wealthy would have continual struggles to stay afloat financially. The pay for workers in the private restaurants would probably be lower than it was for the public system employees, and often, private restaurant workers would be doing so because they saw what they were doing as a mission: to provide members of their faith/eating belief system with an alternative to the public system.

13. Because the public restaurant system was effectively a monopoly (with 95% of all meals served being ultimately paid for by the state government), wages for workers would be lower than in a free market system--but the Idaho Restaurant Workers Association would simply refuse to believe that working for a monopoly system was bad for their wages--and they would then point to the lower wages in the private restaurant industry as proof this, with no awareness that there was a significant market distorting effect caused by the monopoly.

Okay, I've had enough fun with this analogy. Like most analogies, it isn't perfect. I'm not proposing that we scrap public education--only provide a voucher system to provide more choices. There are definitely parents out there who, if they had to pay for education for their kids, either couldn't afford it, or would put a higher priority on beers, cigarettes, and meth.

But let's not exaggerate this problem. It costs somewhere between $600 and $2400 a year to put basic foodstuffs on the table on the table for a child. A private school tuition right now costs about $3600 to $5000 a year (depending on the school). There are parents who would simply neglect their children's education, if the government didn't provide for it free of charge. There are parents who do neglect their children's need for food--and the government doesn't run a public restaurant system. That's why we have laws about child neglect--and they are needed. Over the years, I have met very, very few parents who didn't care at all about whether their children received an education. Nearly all parents care some, and many care a lot.

There are parents who, without question, would make poor decisions about what sort of education their children should receive--just like there are parents who keep the house stuffed with potato chips, cookies, and soft drinks, producing the current epidemic of obese kids. Still, I've met a lot of fat parents with fat kids who still cared about getting their kids a decent education. I can't recall ever running into a family where the parents had healthy, properly nourished kids but who didn't care if their kids were getting a good education.

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