DRI-179 for week of 12-23-12: Shoot the Shooter

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Shoot the Shooter

By this time, few if any Americans can be unaware of the slaughter of 20 elementary schoolchildren and 6 teachers and administrators at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT, on Dec. 15. The perpetrator, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, used a semi-automatic rifle belonging to his mother, whom he killed first of all. The shootings have maintained a stranglehold on the attention of the news media since they occurred, fending off even the “fiscal cliff” for primacy.

The news media, mainstream politicians and the left wing reacted to this horrific act with utter predictability. They all blamed the physical instrument used to commit the crime – a gun – for the purposive acts of the perpetrator. Calls went out for heightened gun control. The word “heightened” is apropos because guns are already the most heavily regulated consumer purchase in America.

The apogee of this predictable reaction was reached with a call by President Barack Obama for legislation to be recommended by a committee headed by Vice-President Joe Biden. The legislation would purportedly be directed at “gun violence,” but this is widely understood as a euphemism for gun control; e.g., further restrictions on the possession, purchase and use of guns.

This is the latest in a string of mass shootings, each of which has received lavish publicity, triggering (no pun intended) similar calls for regulatory screw-tightening. There is a rapidly forming consensus that “this time is different.” The reasons for the difference vary from cumulative disgust (“Enough is enough,” proclaimed President Obama in heralding the formation of his commission) to the ostensible escalation of horror resulting from the murder of children.

This space thoroughly analyzed the last mass shooting (in an Aurora, CO cinema premiering the latest installment in the Batman franchise) and provided the logical response. Not surprisingly, that response was thoroughly ignored – although the evidence has continued to mount in its favor. Now, with the Second Amendment rights of Americans and their very safety at risk as never before, those arguments are well worth rehearsing.

The Problems

There are three problems associated with mass shootings of the Newtown type. Listed in descending order of importance, they are:

The problem of dealing with the shooter. The overarching problem is the fact that a group of people is faced by an armed man intent on killing as many of them as possible – or at least killing until his need or desire to kill has been satiated. The immediate imperative is an emergency of the highest order: to stop the killing as quickly and completely as possible.

The problem of deterring further shootings. Once the killing has been stopped, the highest remaining need in the hierarchy of urgency can be addressed. That is the need to deter further shootings of this type. In criminal justice generally, deterrence is accomplished by apprehension and punishment. Mass shootings present a unique and anomalous case. Apprehension is not a problem because the shooter continues to shoot until interrupted by the arrival of the police and then either commits suicide or (rarely) surrenders. Punishment does not deter because the shooter is obviously fully prepared to die at the scene or, failing that, following conviction. The shooter is someone for whom life holds no further attraction and meaning is reduced to taking random vengeance for the perceived slights he has suffered. Thus the problem of deterrence appears in a peculiar and unique guise.

The problem of uncovering the “root cause” of the shootings; e.g., of discovering the precise motive that constitutes the perception of injury and source of homicidal rage. The ostensible presumption is that this discovery will unlock the door to deterring further shootings.

Mainstream media attention has focused on these problems in inverse order of their actual importance. From the first media reports – long before any of the details of the crime were accurately relayed – the obsessive focus has puzzled over the shooter’s motive. Of course, motive plays a key role in a typical murder investigation, but that is because the murderer’s identity is usually unknown or in dispute. Motive, means and opportunity form the triad of elements necessary to secure a criminal conviction under those circumstances.

That is all too obviously not true here. The shooter is known. Even in the unlikely event of a trial, even given the proverbial difficulty of actually proving simple guilt in a capital case, the issue of motive is surely peripheral to guilt or innocence because the physical circumstances are utterly damning.

If we don’t need to know the shooter’s motive to convict him, why does motive matter? The vague presumption is that if we only knew what makes people do these things, we could prevent them – somehow, some way. That explains the repeated references to “mental illness” as a common denominator among shooters and the blaming of the de-institutionalization policies adopted in the 1970s for allowing time-bomb killers to roam the streets.

“Mental Illness” as Scapegoat

Unfortunately, the mental illness paradigm is doubly disappointing as an answer to the problem of mass shootings. It can neither satisfactorily explain their incidence nor offer the key to deterrence. The term “mental illness” is a throwback to the days of Freudian psychology, before neuroscience came along. The days of belief in “diseases” of the unconscious mind, analogous to diseases of the body but treatable via psychotherapy rather than medicine, are blessedly behind us. What we once called mental illness has gradually revealed itself largely as aberrant brain chemistry, treatable with drugs. Psychiatrists have traded in their couches for a pharmacopeia. Cultural lag has restrained public recognition of the fact that “mental illness” is an obsolete term.

Despite the claims of institutionalization proponents like Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, however, we cannot confidently sort out potentially violent sufferers of (say) bi-polar disorder, let alone distinguish dangerous psychotics from harmless ones. The traditional legal definition of insanity has long been the inability to distinguish right from wrong, but there is little or no reason to believe that today’s mass shooters are insane in this sense, although they may well be mentally ill in the physical sense.

Institutionalization of the mentally ill fell from favor for the very good reason that the practice was routinely and grossly abused. The protections against seizure and detention that all of us take for granted were suspended on supposed medical grounds that we now know to have been all too often spurious. State mental institutions were not always the hellholes depicted in the 1948 movie The Snake Pit, but the shoe fit well enough to touch off a nationwide furor and set events in motion that culminated in the 1970s.

Now that the pendulum of political theater has swung back to focus on mass shootings, the political establishment has whistled up a dragnet for scapegoats and the mentally ill are easy pickings. How many votes do they command, after all? It is much more politically correct to come out as homosexual than as mentally ill. While it may be easy to pretend to solve the problem of mass shootings by stigmatizing a vague class of people that are hard to identify, actually getting results that way is a different story.

The attempt to use mental illness as a scapegoat for mass shootings is really a variant of the old left-wing “root cause” approach to criminology. For decades, garden-variety criminality was excused as the product of sociological deprivation. The only way to fight crime, the left insisted, was to abolish poverty by fighting a “war on poverty.” That war was lost long ago when we discovered that fighting it benefitted the fighters more than the poor and that poverty was a relative, not an absolute, phenomenon. Ironically, the only viable “root-cause” solution is one we refuse to adopt; namely, drug legalization.

The Real Solution

As originally noted in our first discussion of this problem, the most urgent item of business is to neutralize the shooter. The following thought experiment is instructive: Assume that an experienced policeman happens to be on the scene of a mass shooting. What would he do when the shooter produced one or more weapons and opened fire? The answer is blindingly obvious.

He would draw his weapon – policemen are required to carry one even when off duty – and shoot the shooter. There is only one way to handle an armed perpetrator bent on immediate and indiscriminate homicide – by shooting him. The policeman would not try to negotiate with the shooter. He would not call for backup, call for a SWAT team or call for Phillip Morris. And his shots would have only one objective: to kill the shooter. A wounded armed opponent can still kill you and other people in the vicinity.

The crystal clarity of this insight contrasts jarringly with the public refusal of most people – particularly politicians and journalists – to face it. When Wayne LaPierre, President of the National Rifle Association, declared that “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” his call to station a policeman in schools was met with derision. A typical reaction from academia was that return fire from police would increase risk by increasing the number and sources of fired bullets that might injure students.

That a response so staggeringly inept could originate with an educator – ostensibly a font of wisdom and reasoned thought – speaks volumes about the degradation of education in general and current public discourse in particular. Failure to shoot the shooter will (as it has in every case to date) allow him to kill his fill of innocent citizens until the police arrive. Return fire, even if ineffectual, will draw the shooter’s attention and shots toward the retaliator and away from the audience, allowing the unarmed to escape.

Another inane argument advanced against retaliating fire is that mass shooters now often sport so-called bullet-proof vests. This is not only true but also quite significant, since it shows that shooters are not too deracinated to carefully plot their crime and anticipate opposition. But the use of (say) a Kevlar vest is no reason not to shoot the shooter. First and foremost, a vest does not protect the shooter’s vulnerable head and neck. Equally telling, a vest-wearing shooter does not continue his work unperturbed like Superman while bullets bounce off his vest harmlessly. A bullet-proof vest is designed to prevent a mortal wound, not to completely overcome all effects of a fired bullet. The impact of a slug from a large-caliber handgun will probably knock down and badly bruise a vest-wearing human target. At the very least, it will allow an audience time to escape and a retaliator time and opportunity to finish him off. (Vest-wearing police normally conduct firefights in pairs or teams and rely on their colleagues for protection when struck.)

The Anti-gun Movement: Cynicism and Hysteria

The foregoing arguments are a sample of how the left wing wages its current fight to control guns. (The word “debate” does not apply to these exchanges since the left wing proffers neither logic nor empirical evidence and makes its points by shouting down the opposition.) The left runs the gamut of emotional reaction from cynicism to hysteria.

President Obama’s reaction to the shooting was political cynicism in its purest (or impurest) form. “Enough is enough,” he intoned solemnly. The nation could no longer afford to indulge the freedoms traditionally accorded gun owners. But enough only became enough after the President’s reelection, not after the previous mass shooting in the Aurora, CO movie theater in July, 2012. Had some sort of cumulative numerical threshold for mass murder been surpassed?

No, the hurdle presented by the President’s reelection had been surpassed; that was the difference in the two situations. Now the President could apply his trusty rule-of-thumb: Never let a crisis go to waste. The President’s black constituency is a dedicated group of gun-bearers. Prior to reelection he could hardly have risked incurring their wrath by threatening their rights and property. Now, with 94% of their votes safely recorded and his tenure secured, he can go back to ignoring their welfare in favor of the hard-left agenda of gun proscription and confiscation.

At the other emotional pole is the hysterical fringe. Their poster boy is British-born Piers Morgan, host of CNN Tonight. His notion of hospitality to guest Larry Pratt, longtime Second Amendment defender and gun educator, was to hurl imprecations at him. Morgan called Pratt an “idiot,” “dangerous” and “an unbelievably stupid man” – all within the space of less than a minute. Later, Morgan asked rhetorically “how many more kids have to die before” more restrictive gun laws are passed.

The reaction to Morgan’s tantrum is instructive. To date, over 70,000 signatories have urged his deportation (!) in an online petition posted to a White House website. The episode is a classic illustration of what F.A. Hayek called absolute or unlimited democracy at work. Opposing sides expend vast quantities of resources to gain political power which, when attained, they then use to deprive the other side of its rights. The left tries to deprive the right of the right to self-defense; the right tries to deprive the left of freedom of movement.

Readers of the world-famous British weekly The Economist know how Morgan came by his arrogant tunnel vision. The magazine noted that mass shootings in Great Britain and Tasmania in 1996 led directly to a ban of most private handgun ownership in Great Britain and a ban on most semi-automatic weapons in Australia. “If similar laws had been in effect in Sandy Hook,” the magazine piously declared, “some of those lost might have survived.” In fact, England’s gun ban was followed by an epidemic of gun-related violence. Handgun crime doubled and English police began carrying guns for the first time. In Australia, assaults – particularly sexual assaults – went up dramatically following the bans, while homicides continued a modest decline that started prior to the ban.

A once-great magazine has sunk to unimagined depths of demagoguery and incompetence. Bad enough to have refused to face the truth of a single historical example, but The Economist has turned its eyes away from 25 years of pathbreaking social and economic research spanning the globe.

Guns are the Answer, not the Problem

The left-wing movement for gun control was sparked by the political assassinations of the 1960s and turbo-charged by the attempted assassination of President Reagan and his press secretary in 1981. Serious research into the incidence of gun ownership and violence followed later in that decade. Gary Kleck, a liberal academic at FloridaStateUniversity, began with the general expectation of documenting the case for gun control. To his great surprise, he found that cases of gun use for self-defense and protection vastly outnumbered cases of criminal use – by a factor of six in 1993, according to his estimates based on a household survey of 5000. Economist John Lott did extensive research on the extension of rights to carry and conceal firearms, finding that rates of violent crimes in general and murder in particular declined when and where these rights were granted. David Kopel was another researcher whose work in this field has been widely noted and cited. The field of research eventually broadened to include worldwide study of violence and mass killings. The latter are not, as often claimed, unique to the United States. They are a trans-national and cross-cultural global phenomenon, perpetrated with and without guns.

As one would expect, critics (i.e., the left wing) did everything but dismember these men in order to discredit them. But those efforts failed, because all Kleck, Lott, Kopel, et al were doing was empirically bolstering a case that was already logically airtight. Even if recorded instances of handgun defensive use were actually outnumbered by numbers of crimes committed using handguns, this doesn’t even start to make a case for gun control, let alone a gun ban. We can never record all the cases in which citizens interrupt a crime in progress by brandishing a handgun. We can never even begin to imagine all the times in which criminals are deterred from crime by the knowledge or the suspicion that the potential victim is armed. It is no accident that mass shootings occur in so-called “gun-free” settings, where guns are available only to criminals, not law-abiding citizens in need of defense.

Gun control and gun bans do virtually no good at all, only bad. They do nothing to prevent mass shootings or, indeed, crime of any kind. Criminals do not obey laws – including gun laws. Ordinary criminals prefer to work with guns whose identifying marks have been erased; these are available in the black market. Black markets in beverage alcohol and recreational drugs developed quickly and massively in response to the combination of widespread demand and official proscription. Minutes after restrictive gun laws or gun bans were officially put on the books, black markets in guns would spring up.

It is both ironic and fitting that the left-wing solution is especially inappropriate in the case of mass shootings. Adam Lanza obtained his weapons illegally. Like other mass shooters, he had access to wealth that he could and would have used to acquire guns in the black market had they been illegal. Mass shooters are the last people in the world to be deterred by the high price and inconvenience of black-market transactions; after all, they are preparing to leave this world. They face only one possible deterrent – the possibility that they cannot execute their plan to kill large numbers of people. The only roadblock to that plan is the presence on site of somebody with a gun to shoot them.

Economists use two Latin phrases that explain the fallacy under which gun controllers operate. Gun bans implicitly assume a condition of ceteris paribus (“all other things the same or unchanged”); the left believes that they can ban guns without causing huge behavioral responses by the public. But economic reality follows the principle of mutatis mutandis (“let those things change that will change”); behavioral changes will accompany severe gun restrictions. Those changes will create black markets that will neutralize the effects of the gun restrictions and wreak havoc on our lives. Criminals will have guns but law-abiding citizens will not have them for self-defense. So, law-abiding citizens will have to become criminals in order to protect themselves.

It would be bad enough if gun control and gun bans were only ineffectual, if the left wing were guilty only of good intentions gone wrong. But the truth is much worse. It indicts the left of exactly the crime of which they accuse gun owners and the NRA – indifference to the fate of innocent children and adults. Guns themselves are the solution – the only solution – to the immediate problem posed by gun-related violence. The police recognize that; in response to the increased firepower utilized by drug cartels, the police have become virtually paramilitary in size, scope and technique.

Police in the Schools?

The proposal put forward by Wayne LaPierre of the NRA is a perfect reflection of the zeitgeist. In these times, the only politically way to oppose a big-government power grab is to respond with a Newtonian equal-and-opposite-reaction – your own big-government counter-proposal. That is what the NRA has done. Presumably they did it for political reasons, because they believe that putting somebody in authority behind the gun will somehow soften or sanctify a reaction that would otherwise be objectionable. Predictably, this did not work. The left wing reacted just as emotionally as if the NRA had proposed installing a Tea-Party-certified marksman in each school. The same left-wing media figures who recoil in horror from armed police in public schools send their own children to private schools like Sidwell Friends, which employ armed guards.

Now the right wing is stuck with its own big-government proposal, made in the heat of panic. The vague notion that each policeman is somehow well-versed in the care and handling of firearms is periodically dispelled when a gaggle of policemen take a dozen shots to dispatch a “dangerous” neighborhood pit bull or expend fifty rounds or so inside a bar or into the body of an unarmed suspect. These days, the real experts on guns are detailed to SWAT, where they are much too valuable on drug patrol to be wasted as public-school monitors.

The likely government alternative to the police would be the HSA, another unlikely source of genuine protection. Retired military veterans are the only source of actual expertise in weapons and combat who might be available for this duty. As one might expect, the best way to handle the problem of mass shootings in schools is to stop the government from getting involved.

But stopping the government from getting involved in something – anything – has now become just about the most difficult thing in the world to do.

DRI-335 for week of 9-30-12: The Economic Concept of the ‘Free Lunch’

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

The Economic Concept of the ‘Free Lunch’

“Give me liberty or give me death!” “54-40 or fight!” “What do you want – good grammar or good taste?” “Where’s the beef?” “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Aphorisms, slogans and catch-phrases decorate the American idiom like Christmas-tree ornaments. They punctuate our points, intensify our insults, amplify our arguments and rationalize our rituals. They often start life as political or advertising jingles, only to outlive their original inspiration to become part of the language.

Economics has left its mark on our idiomatic heritage. Its most famous contribution has been: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Although both the phrase and the concept date back to the 19th century, the line didn’t hit its stride until the 1940s, when a few economists revived it. Just as these origins would lead you to expect, the slogan contains a hard core of imperishable truth.

The Literal Free Lunch That There’s No Such Thing As

Today, children at K-12 public schools (and many private schools) commonly eat at least two meals at school. These meals are planned and paid for, wholly or partly, by government using taxpayer funds. Current programs evolved from the original federal program of “free” school lunches provided to poor elementary schoolchildren, begun in 1946. Today, some 31 million children receive subsidies, which go to those in families with incomes up to 185% of the poverty-level income. (Some children in wealthier families also receive subsidies, particularly for after-school snacks.)

Debate over the wisdom of the program attracted the attention of economist Milton Friedman, who reoriented the focus of the debate with his famous declaration: “There’s no such thing as a ‘free lunch.'” Before wasting time arguing about whether it was morally or constitutionally justifiable for government to provide free school lunches, Friedman maintained, we should first acknowledge that the lunches weren’t “free” in the true economic sense.

In the first place, somebody was paying for them. Sure, neither the children nor their impecunious parents were effectively plunking down cash in payment, but the foodstuffs were nevertheless being purchased by somebody. But even this wasn’t the ultimate point. Suppose, for example, that government had simply ordered private-sector firms to supply food to school cafeterias as an act of charity. That still wouldn’t make the lunches truly free.

The food was grown or raised. It was prepared and packaged. It was transported to the schools. All this required the use of resources – human labor, natural resources like land and water and chemicals, capital goods of various types. These resources had alternative uses, which meant that alternative output was sacrificed in order to produce the food and make it available. The sacrifice of that alternative output was the true economic cost of the food. Even if the school lunches carried no nominal price to their consumers, they still carried a real economic cost in the form of a foregone output. This is the only meaningful concept of the word “cost” – the highest-valued alternative foregone in production or consumption.

Friedman objected to free school lunches – not because he lacked compassion for poor schoolchildren but because he had compassion for children, their parents and everybody else. He wanted to see resources used as efficiently as possible, thereby making everybody as happy as possible.

The General Fallacy of the Free Lunch

To maximize happiness, we should use resources where people value them the most. To do that, we need to place a market value on the output produced using the resources, then let people compare that to the personal value they get from consuming those things. People will increase consumption for so long as their personal value exceeds the market value, finally arriving at their stable, ongoing consumption point when the two values coincide.

But school-lunch programs misled consumers by presenting them with a false picture of the market value. By presenting children and parents with a false market value of zero, the school-lunch programs encouraged poor children to consume far more food than they would have otherwise. (Some qualifying children pay a flat fee of $.40 for a lunch, but this does not alter the logic of the case.) Indirectly, parents were deceived as well, since they would otherwise have reacted to market-value prices of food by economizing on the lunch-money budgets they allocated to their kids.

Over time, free lunches for poor children have gradually metamorphosed into free or subsidized lunches for many schoolchildren in both public and private schools. Is it any wonder, then, that we have gradually developed a nationwide problem of childhood obesity pari passu with the escalating phenomenon of “free” and subsidized school lunches (and breakfasts) provided by government?

The inefficiency of free school lunches extends far beyond the current epidemic of child obesity. The fact that children consume too much subsidized food is complemented by the fact that producers produce too much. Indeed, agricultural subsidy programs for certain crops are the mirror image of the consumer school-lunch subsidies. One original rationale for the school lunch program was to complement agricultural price-support programs by liquidating or reducing crop surpluses.

Consumer subsidies artificially present a price that is too low; agricultural price supports artificially hold the price too high, creating a surplus. Production and consumption are driven beyond the point where the true personal value placed on the goods produced and consumed equals the opportunity cost of producing them. Instead, the opportunity costs exceed the value; the subsidies make us poorer.

The “us” in the last sentence includes nearly everybody, even the schoolchildren. By subsidizing the children with cash instead of lower lunch prices, they could consume alternative output that would make them better off overall than do the lunch subsidies. (Obviously, the cash subsidies would enable children to meet their varying individual nutritional needs.) There are only two possible net losers from abolition of food subsidy programs. Farmers might not gain enough from consumption of the additional output produced to compensate for capital losses on the value of their agricultural land. The other loser-candidates are the people in government whose incomes are directly dependent on the programs.

Milton Friedman’s position is now clear. Now we know why there is no such thing as a free lunch. But why did government insist on giving us something that made us worse off? And why do we insist on receiving it?

The Lure of the Free Lunch

Government’s behavior is conditioned by our responses, so the two questions above are not independent. The disconnect between tax collections via withholding on wage and salary income and provision of free school lunches means that taxpayers have traditionally failed to add up all the various government expenditures and gauge their personal value against their cost. Instead, they have said to themselves: “This individual subsidy is such an insignificant pro rata fraction of my total tax bill that it is not worth the time it would take me to mount an effective protest against it – which would only end up making me look selfish and insensitive, anyway.” Food consumers – parents of schoolchildren – say to themselves: “All I can be sure of is what I see in front of me – a free lunch for my kids. Refusing it won’t get me a cash subsidy. Maybe I’ll consider voting for somebody who makes that proposal – if anybody does.” But nobody does – and the subsidies are enacted, and grow ever larger and more inclusive.

The incentives offered government by these programs are utterly perverse. The beneficiaries of the subsidy – more specifically, the parents of the schoolchildren – represent a huge pool of potential votes. So politicians have an obvious incentive to propose and approve the program. Administering the program requires a large staff of bureaucrats and a much larger army of low-level employees. The larger the program, the more money bureaucrats make. This is an obvious incentive for bureaucrats to lobby for the program’s approval and enlargement. The low-level employees are getting secure government jobs; they are another obvious source of potential votes for politicians.

The longer this process goes on, the more entrenched and secure the program becomes. The more tenacious and vehement are its defenders – farmers, bureaucrats, politicians, government employees, even many ill-informed parents and schoolchildren. The more established the program becomes in the government budgetary process, where programs are routinely extended from year to year with an allowance for increases in prices and population. Any decrease in this routine increase is referred to as a “budget cut,” belying the fact that the actual spending on the program has risen.

The Free Lunch Pretext

The reader will have noticed at least two outstanding ironies in the foregoing explanation. First, the “solution” to the original problem of poor schoolchildren suffering inadequate nutrition ended up making practically everybody worse off – including the schoolchildren. Second, an actual solution that would have solved the initial problem for a fraction of the actual cost – a cash subsidy – exists but is spurned by the ostensible problem-solvers.

This seeming irony is explained by the fact that the problem-solvers are not really trying to solve the problem posed. The provision of the supposed free lunch is only a pretext. It is only an excuse for doing what politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists and other enthusiasts for big government want to do; namely, expand the power and reach of government. The schoolchildren themselves are only pawns, convenient fronts and poster-children, a sympathetic public face for a most unappetizing enterprise.

Any doubts on this score have been expunged by the recent shift in emphasis by the federal school-lunch program. The Obama administration, supported by allies in academia, regulatory agencies, leftist think tanks and municipal authorities like Mayor Bloomberg of New York City, has proposed mandatory menu standards for school lunches in the Healthy Foods Act. The Act drastically modifies calorie, fat, carbohydrate and salt content of K-12 school lunches. Calories have been set between 650 and 850, depending on the age of the students.

The purpose of these modifications has been to preserve the free-lunch pretext of using government subsidies and mandates to help schoolchildren while really serving the interests of big government. Whereas the free-lunch pretext was to alleviate the effects of poverty by making lunches “free,” the pretext here is curing obesity by making healthy eating mandatory.

And as before, the real purposes are left unstated. The regulatory standards will require more and bigger government to formulate and enforce. They will absolve government from blame for the childhood obesity epidemic in the familiar way – by making government look as active as possible. This entails spending as much money as possible, which in turn serves the interests of bureaucrats, lobbyists and government employees.

Washington, D.C. is an official irony-free zone, but inhabitants outside the beltway may appreciate the irony that the same federal government now purporting to cure childhood obesity was a key contributor to it. The artificial underpricing of school lunches were one substantial contributor to child overnutrition. The new learning on obesity reveals another government link to obesity and to other worrisome trends – early- and late-onset diabetes.

In the last decade, research into Type II diabetes has confirmed a relationship hinted at by doctors such as Robert Atkins, whose low-carbohydrate diet gained tremendous popularity in the 1970s and 80s. Obesity is not always, or even primarily, the simple outcome of excess calorie intake relative to energy expended. Nor is it necessarily conducive to treatment via low-fat and low-calorie diets.

Many people suffer a double whammy of blood-sugar fluctuation and weight gain. Blood-sugar spikes occur when carbohydrates – particularly simple carbohydrates such as sugars – are ingested and enter the bloodstream quickly. This process drives blood sugar levels above the safety zone, causing neurological damage that eventually leads to peripheral neuropathy and other symptoms of Type II diabetes. Meanwhile, the spikes trigger a bodily alarm that releases insulin into the blood stream. The insulin restores the blood sugar level to normal, but causes the carbohydrates to be stored as fat molecules. These later produce arteriosclerotic plaque in the veins and arteries, causing heart disease – the common ultimate cause of death among diabetics. (The primary difference between Types I and II diabetes is that Type I sufferers cannot produce insulin, which must be supplied externally to prevent diabetic shock and coma.) And the fat storage produces weight gain – another commonly observed symptom of diabetes.

The new nutritional approach is to minimize carbohydrate intake and/or combine carbohydrates with substances like fiber, protein, fat and acid – all of which retard the quick release of carbohydrates as metabolized sugar in the bloodstream. Far from being the villain in obesity, fat plays a beneficial role by providing taste in food, preventing food cravings and satisfying hunger by filling you up. This fat doesn’t make you fat because it doesn’t accumulate in the cells; protein and fat are the primary source of energy and are burned by the body. Thus, meat is a dietary staple, along with fish. Fruits and vegetables are encouraged as long as they are high in fiber – whole fruits like apples with the skin on for fiber and nutrients, and vegetables like broccoli and beans.

How did the federal government figure in this nutritional revolution? Just prior to the emergence of the Atkins diet, the federal government’s nutritional recommendations followed the conventional thinking that carbohydrates should be the primary source of energy. White bread and potatoes were healthy and wholesome; fruit juice was wholeheartedly recommended; meat was highly suspect and eggs were virtually verboten due to their high cholesterol content. As noted cardiologist Dr. Arthur Agatston has ruefully pointed out, today we know that the reverse is nearer the truth.

Nobel laureate Milton Friedman once compared the behavior of politicians and bureaucrats to leaders of a flock of ducks flying in V-formation. Periodically, the leader looks back to discover in confusion that the formation has deserted him and is flying away. Immediately, he scrambles to catch up and get back in front of the V, where he can pretend to be the leader once again.

Today, the public has flown away from government leadership with the help of doctors like Atkins and Agatston. The flock of commercials on television advertising treatments for the symptoms of peripheral neuropathy testifies to the prevalence of Type II diabetes. The ubiquitous sight of restaurants and grocery stores nationwide offering foods catering to low-carbohydrate diets – sweet-potato fries, unsweetened iced teas and the like – shows that the free market moves faster to meet the needs of consumers than do federal regulatory agencies. Federal agencies are scrambling to get back in front of the nutritional V by imposing standards to make up for the obesity crisis that they played an important role in causing. It remains to be seen whether government standards will ever again regain the prestige they once enjoyed, or whether they will increasingly come to be recognized as pleas for special interests.

Economists vs. the World

The foregoing makes it clear why special interests embrace the free lunch pretext. It explains why the general interest – in this case, taxpayers and schoolchildren – cannot or will not mobilize sufficiently to overturn the current status quo. But why do so many people actively oppose reform? That is, why does the general public so often oppose efforts to end, let alone mend, subsidy programs like school lunches, food stamps and agricultural price supports?

Recall the arguments mobilized above against the free lunch. The one question never debated by economists is virtually the only question the general public considers worthy of argument. That is: Should the federal government give lunches to poor schoolchildren?

Economists don’t ask the question because they generally stipulate an answer. Given the assumption that “we” (e.g., the government in its capacity as executor of the collective will) have already decided to help schoolchildren who are too poor to afford adequate lunches, what is the most efficient way to do that job? Economists stipulate this answer because most of them are leftist in sympathy and owe their living to government employment. But that is misleading. The answer to the economic question (“what is the most efficient way to do the job?”) is purely a function of analysis, not of ideology.

There are at least three sensible answers to the general public’s question (“Should we or shouldn’t we subsidize poor schoolchildren via the government?”). 1. Government should subsidize poor schoolchildren in the most efficient way possible. 2. Government has no legal or moral authority to subsidize schoolchildren while private citizens have the legal authority but no special moral duty to do so. 3. Government has no legal or moral authority to subsidize schoolchildren but private citizens have both legal authority and a moral duty to do so. And no matter which one of these sensible answers you select, the current “free lunch” system is horribly wrong.

That is the unique contribution made by economists to the debate – the realization that the free lunch is a sham and a delusion that makes a bad situation much worse, rather than better. And unless you accept the likelihood that government can be persuaded to reform itself, economic analysis also tells you that you’re probably wasting your time selecting alternative 1. So, the choice is between alternatives 2 and 3 above.

Alas, the only issue that receives much public airing is “compassion for kids.” Ostensibly, free-lunch supporters are compassionate while opponents are hard-hearted and insensitive. In reality, the issue of compassion is a non-sequitur. Everybody, whether compassionate or hard-hearted, should unite in opposition to free lunches.

Yet the major issue is not a moral one. If you believe that bad parents or freeloaders are a burden on society, then you support alternative 2 above. If you believe that the only important question is how to improve the lot of poor children, then you favor alternative 3. But nobody should support what we have now and nobody should defend free school lunches or any of the other subsidy programs. Not only do they make most people worse off, they don’t even help the poor schoolchildren they were supposedly designed to benefit.

The widespread support that these programs do command is the strongest kind of proof that economists have failed in their primary mission – to teach basic economic logic to the general public. We cannot even persuade people to defend their own economic interests.

There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

There is no such thing as a true, legitimate free lunch in the economic sense. There is only the pretext of a free lunch, which buys time for authorities to pretend that one exists. And the special-interest beneficiaries of the free-lunch pretext are very different than the supposed beneficiaries of the ostensible free lunch.

Having outlined the concept, we will devote the next EconBrief to an exploration of more expensive free lunches.