Sep 02 2010
A classic method of teaching the basic economic concept of the production possibilities curve is to illustrate the relationship between a nation's decision to invest in military goods versus civilian goods. The model typically includes two “products” that a nation can choose to invest in: guns and butter. The specific goods themselves are not so important, rather what they are meant to represent: the tradeoff any nation faces between allocating more of its scarce resources towards national defense versus goods and services that benefit the nation's consumers.
Today the United States faces a very real version of the old “guns vs. butter” model. Rising global food prices have put public school districts in a bind: how to feed kids nutritious meals as the prices ingredients has risen at unprecedented rates:
Rising food prices are making it harder for schools to cook up ways to give kids the nutrition they need.
Right now, they're taking shortcuts and shuffling ingredients to make up the difference, but that's only a short-term solution with long-term consequences on the horizon.
“I've been in school service for 27 years and this is the worst it's ever been,” said Sara Gasiorowski, food service director for Wayne Township Schools in Indianapolis. “I have never seen food prices jump up so far…”
Food prices nationwide have risen 4.5% between March 2007 and March 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index, with flour and eggs rising even more dramatically than milk. Grumbles said milk prices in her district are up 22% from last year, which means an increase of 3.5 cents for each of the federally required 16,000 half-pints she provides every day.
“For every penny on a carton of milk, it costs me $30,000 a year,” she said. “That's $105,000 extra on my food bill.”
Flour prices have roughly doubled over the last year, according to Grumbles, to $19 per 50-pound bag. To make up for the difference, she substitutes canned peaches for fresh apples “to save a couple pennies” per meal, or she uses ground beef in place of chicken.
Unfortunately, federal funding for school lunches has increased at a much slower rate than cost to districts of providing those meals:
Federal reimbursement programs cover all or part of school districts' lunch tabs. Congress lifts reimbursement rates every year, but Gasiorowski said it hasn't been enough: “We need to be looking at an increase of 12% to 15%, instead of our usual annual increase of 2 or 3%.”
The current federal reimbursement program is based on household incomes; the poorest American students receive $2.47 of federal funding towards their “free lunches”, while students from the highest income bracket only receive $0.23 per meal. The problem is, the average school lunch now costs $3.10, so these days no one is actually receiving a “free lunch”, not even the poorest American students.
This article struck me in that is truly does illustrate the concept of tradeoffs as illustrated in the production possibilities curve. Society must allocate its scarce resources towards the goods and services it deems most desirable based on the needs of its citizens. Complications arise in this basic model, however, when government is involved.
The commitment to subsidizing school lunches is based on the idea that if the responsibility of feeding American school children were left to the free market, resources would surely be underallocated towards nutritious meals, representing a market failure. School lunches are a merit good, meaning they would be underprovided by the free market, since without public provision and support, millions of American children would come to school every day without nutritious meals to get them through the day.
National defense is another service that governments find it necessary to provide. If it were left completely up to the free market, national defense would probably not be provided at all. Instead, only individuals who could afford it would hire private security forces to protect their property. To protect a whole nation, however, government provision of defense is a necessity.
Clearly, both “guns” and “butter” create benefits for society. Among the countless other goods and services the government provides or supports the provision of, the United States faces a tradeoff arising from the scarce resources at the government's disposal. Currently, the US government spends far more on its military ($660 billion in 2010!) than it does on lunches for American school children. Clearly, military spending is necessary, but it may be that in the tradeoff between these two important services more resources should be allocated towards “butter” at a period in the US economy when low income households are finding it harder than ever to provide their children with one of life's most basic necessities, nutritious food.
- What do “guns and butter” represent on the PPC above? Why have economists found it useful to use these two goods on their analysis of the tradeoffs faced by nations?
- Why doesn't the United States just make all school lunches FREE for all American school children? Wouldn't that make sense? Give an economic argument against this suggestion.
- Why does the government feel it necessary to allocate any resources towards school lunches? Shouldn't the government just let American families provide their own children with lunch?
- Say the US government decided to increase its provision of both national defense and school lunches, without reducing its provision of some other good or service. How would it do this? Why wouldn't the government do this?
Update: I received an email message from a reader about the above blog post:
I have to say that your “guns and butter” diagram is “interesting.” I am not clear on why the United States should spend vastly more on school lunches than on defending the free world While government provided school lunches may have a place, most Americans feed their own children and do not depend on Federal financing.
Where did you get the notion that feeding our children would be “under-provided by the free market”
Here was my reply to this reader. I'm posting it here because I want to make it clear the the diagram above is not meant to make any political statement about US military spending:
Actually, the PPC was included simply to illustrate the basic tradeoff that society faces when it chooses how to allocate its scarce resources.
Having taught at least for a short while in public schools, I can say that nutritious lunches are definitely “underprovided” by the free market, that is, many students in poor communities in America depend on the “free and reduced” lunches that are provided through federal and state funding programs… I once volunteer taught in a poor Elementary School in Spokane, Washington where 40% of the students ate only two meals a day, both provided free by the school district: one at 8 in the morning, one at noon. Many of these children had parents who were poor, unemployed, often addicted to drugs, who failed to put any food on the table whatsoever.
In other words, I do think that nutritious meals are a “merit good” which by definition is one that is underprovided by the free market, therefore requires subsidies from the government. Otherwise, why would the government offer such subsidies at all, if these meals were something the free market could adequately provide on its own?
Again, I was not making any political statement with the graph, only pointing out the basic economic concept of tradeoffs and the idea that society must allocate its scarce resources towards an “optimal” combination of goods and services. The article indicates that in this time of rising food prices, not enough of America's resources are going towards providing nutritious meals for school children, indicating that a movement along the PPC might be in order. The degree of such a move is irrelevant, only the fact that a movement must occur if nutritious meals are to continue to be provided. In fact, the x-axis could have represented any other public good the government provides for society, I chose “military spending” so that the current example was consistent with the classic example of “guns vs. butter”.
Hope that clears things up… Best regards,