Supermarkets Are Educational!

Tom Scocca, at Slate:

In today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription only), George Mason economics professor Donald J. Boudreaux defends the greatness of the free market, and argues for privatizing education, by posing a thought experiment: “Suppose that groceries were supplied in the same way as K-12 education.”
The result, according to Boudreaux, would be a system crippled by monopolism and union greed…
Maybe the thought experiment works better when it’s turned around. If public education were run like supermarkets, as the free market runs supermarkets, rich people would enjoy access to an assortment of the freshest, highest-quality education, while poor people would live with lousy schools, or no schools at all. School companies would redline the ghetto and refuse to open stores there. The Department of Education would have a county-by-county online atlas to locate “education deserts,” areas where schooling was effectively unavailable.
Actually, our public-education system looks a lot like that already. (Perhaps it’s not the government monopoly that’s to blame?)…

Of course, Prof. Boudreaux (and his offspring, if any) no doubt lives in an area with a choice of excellent grocery stores and schools, so why should he or the WSJ care about those luzers on the wrong end of his thought experiment?

51 replies
  1. 1
    Just Some Fuckhead says:

    I wish the grocery store was a free market.

  2. 2
    joeyess says:

    These freemarketeers are really something, aren’t they? Turns out, one of our most illustrious freemarketeer families, Koch Industries, was built, not on free market ideas, but Stalin. Yep, you read that right. The Kochs got rich on building energy infrastructure for one of this planet’s worst mass murderers.

  3. 3
    scav says:

    A comparison of a stereotype of how education is with a stereotype of how supermarkets work, intended as an example of what to do. Yup. Economics.

    yes, I know they can be better than this but those that do aren’t given a lot of press

  4. 4
    Zifnab says:

    I think there’s something to be said for school choice. Right now we do have a serious segregation issue in local schools. That red-lining and those “education deserts” already exists. There are plenty of schools in Texas where you’ve got the “rich kids school” and the “poor kids school” within a mile or two of one another, and by some mysterious zoning line, all the minority kids end up in one and the white kids end up in the other.

    Yeah, the grocery store model is a bit telling. But imagine having two stores in town and knowing that all the fresh fruits and veggies are in one but you can’t send go there because the state will throw you in jail. That’s a reality, too.

  5. 5
    KG says:

    There’s a decent argument to be made that if we privatized the education system that companies would create education subsidies to train future workers, even in poor neighborhoods. Businesses need employees that are marginally educated, so it behooves them to invest in education.

    The problem is, who gets to set the curriculum? IBM or Google or Microsoft might be willing to open some schools in the inner city (good PR if nothing else), but what interest do those companies have in teaching 18th Century American Literature? Or Shakespeare? And what if you get sent to a school sponsored by Toyota that teaches you how to build a car but what you really want to do is be an actor? Oh, yeah, we don’t really have music, art, or drama much in schools anymore anyway…

  6. 6
    Douglas says:

    Of course, Prof. Boudreaux (and his offspring, if any) no doubt lives in an area with a choice of excellent grocery stores and schools, so why should he or the WSJ care about those luzers on the wrong end of his thought experiment?

    You know, if all these OPED writers, politicians, experts etc. were forced to live one year or so in poverty, maybe we wouldn’t have stupid ignorant crap like this.

    Aw hell, who am I kidding – they’d just go full “I got mine, fuck you”

  7. 7
    negative 1 says:

    He’s a professor of economics? Where to begin with this ridiculous analogy? OK, I’ll give it a shot…
    If supermarkets were run like public schools than they would be growing their own food fresh in the back of the store. Public schools are not resellers, so in effect the service that they provide (education) is all grown in house. In order to ensure that the food was fresh and of the highest quality, neighborhood grocery store patrons would elect representatives to oversee quality. If they hated the food, they would likely vote out the party in charge. A whole field of education would be devoted to ensuring that the food got better year after year. We would be concerned if poor people would eating more poorly than rich people. We would have minimum standards of nutrition that people would have to meet. We would be concerned if only the rich had good nutrition. The jobs that the supermarkets provided would be able to pay for a basic standard of living.
    But yeah, free market and unions bad or some such I’m sure.

  8. 8
    El Cid says:

    Jeffrey Sachs gets all doctrinaire, extreme, and uncompromising in his wild, radical screed about the people who create the jobs, and he does it precisely where it will project the worst image of America and the Freemarkit.

    The world is drowning in corporate fraud, and the problems are probably greatest in rich countries – those with supposedly “good governance”.
    Poor-country governments probably accept more bribes and commit more offenses, but it is rich countries that host the global companies that carry out the largest offenses. Money talks, and it is corrupting politics and markets all over the world.
    Hardly a day passes without a new story of malfeasance. Every Wall Street firm has paid significant fines during the past decade for phony accounting, insider trading, securities fraud, Ponzi schemes, or outright embezzlement by CEOs. A massive insider-trading ring is currently on trial in New York, and has implicated some leading financial-industry figures. And it follows a series of fines paid by America’s biggest investment banks to settle charges of various securities violations.
    There is, however, scant accountability. Two years after the biggest financial crisis in history, which was fueled by unscrupulous behaviour by the biggest banks on Wall Street, not a single financial leader has faced jail. When companies are fined for malfeasance, their shareholders, not their CEOs and managers, pay the price. The fines are always a tiny fraction of the ill-gotten gains, implying to Wall Street that corrupt practises have a solid rate of return. Even today, the banking lobby runs roughshod over regulators and politicians.

    Yeah, you’re always going to have one or a million or so bad apples, but you take the good with the bad. Or vice versa, whatever.

  9. 9
    Belafon (formerly anonevent) says:

    If schools were like supermarkets, they would eventually start importing their students from China.

  10. 10
    kdaug says:

    OT, but kudos to the webdevs: the mobile site is back up. Just swap out the icon and we’re ready to dance.

    (Well, except me needing reading glasses, but that’s a personal problem.)

    Are you auto-detecting the platform? Seems flawless on Droid.

  11. 11
    PeakVT says:

    Another point that makes the comparison ridiculous is that it doesn’t matter much to grocery shoppers if other shoppers get fat. However, it matters to kids and society at large if other kids get educated well. Somebody with a Ph.D in mechanical engineering isn’t going to find much use for that knowledge in a village in a rain forest somewhere. That Ph.D is only useful with lots of other well educated people around to interact with.

  12. 12
    Joel says:

    As Roger Clemens would say, “what a dushbag

  13. 13
    Sloegin says:

    School district funding is the last holdover of Jim Crow in this country. Maybe not deliberately racial, but it’s certainly classist.

    It’s discriminatory, pervasive, and largely unquestioned. Tom Scocca’s analogy is pretty much spot on.

  14. 14
    opal says:

    as the free market runs supermarkets

    Well, except for all that collectivism.

  15. 15
    cmorenc says:

    It’s wonderful how, when a purported free market solution fails (see: Mitch Daniels subcontracting services to IBM in Indiana), the problem is never with the fact that some economic realms are inherently better suited to markets, and others are inherently not well-suited at all. Rather, the problem MUST be with a flaw in the structural design that prevented proper free market mechanisms from being allowed to correctly work their magic, because a true free market solution will ALWAYS work much better than any other approach. Therefore, effort should be directed at figuring out what artificial forces prevented a true free market from operating, and fixing those distortions so the free market can do its thing correctly and efficiently. Free markets don’t kill success, people improperly meddling with them do.

    /Randoid rant

    Notice that the STARTING POINT of most “free market” type education proposals (vouchers, state subsidies for charter or private schools in addition to public schools) is always: let’s artificially pump money to a large number of potential players in market so that they can participate, which isn’t much different than the “cash for clunkers” with automobiles for stimulating the auto industry back toward health and making better products. Um…a bit of a disconnect here, yes? Unless you suppose that the true longer-term plan is to implement this scheme as a way of first destroying public schools in favor of private ones, and later on, removing the subsidies to lower-income people because (see: medicaid) government can no longer afford such generous spending to divert money needed for more tax cuts to stimulate the economy….

  16. 16
    Son of Prog says:

    Everyone I know who works at a supermarket (Stop & Shops) is a union worker, so… what now?

  17. 17
    burnspbesq says:


    Not exactly. I grew up in a town where every spring, the voters dutifully trooped to the polls and volunteered to pay some of the highest property taxes in the country, because they wanted the best-of-breed public schools that those taxes would buy.

    I’m ok with a floor under spending on public education. Start talking about a ceiling, and “somebody’s going to Emergency, somebody’s going to jail.”

  18. 18
    Sloegin says:

    @burnspbesq: Would you argue that your town is the exception, or the norm?

    Spreading a bigger chunk of that funding around would be the right thing to do, but it would also be amazingly unpopular. At a minimum it would negate all the effort and cost homeowners have put into moving to the ‘right’ neighborhoods.

  19. 19

    here is a thought experiment, lets run the study of economics like a grocery store. wait, better yet, lets run it like an actual competitive business, since the grocery stores are already monopolies or or effective oligharchys.

    even that side of the thought experiment is broken, because it assumes the free market is alive and well in the grocery business. i mean if you are living in the 1950s sure there is a place that specializes in produce, a place that does meat, they have other things, but the people in that neighborhood know what their main line is. then you have slightly bigger stores, you might see them, in old scary city neighborhoods, these big box stores of their day have been repurposed as drug stores, in many locations….

    nope the free market is not functioning in the grocery business.

    lets let the economists compete in a real free market. lets make economists work like drug dealers, or gypsy cab drivers, businesses with higher risk to be sure, but lower costs to enter. lets see economists have to work around the world that actually exists, in their thought experiments.

  20. 20
    malraux says:

    @burnspbesq: That’s why its pretty good evidence of a jim crow holdover. Some places are willing to spend a bit to raise up public education, but in lots of places voters don’t want to increase taxes to pay for “those people”. Or county lines get drawn conveniently to keep the taxes for the right people, etc.

    If supermarkets were run like schools, a few customers would get arugala, tofu, and everything from the ethnic isle banned from the store.

  21. 21
    Walker says:

    Suppose education was offered on the free market, like high speed Internet is. Then they would pocket government money and still refuse to build out in my area.

  22. 22
    Jay C says:

    I also noticed that Prof. Boudreaux – in his zeal to defend “free markets”- makes a fundamental, and to my mind, utterly unsupportable, assumption: i.e., equating education, an intellectual process which take years to accomplish, with a business model centered on the high-volume sale of objects: as if “education” is an indistinguishable economic concept from a can of tomatoes, a head of lettuce, or a frozen pizza. Now I’m not a hotshot economist from George Mason U. – but somehow, something just doesn’t seem right about this facile equation…

    I wonder what it could be?

  23. 23
    sneezy says:

    George Mason economics professor Donald J. Boudreaux

    Knowing he’s at GMU Econ means you have about 90% certainty that he’s a crank. I don’t know how it got that way, but the place is full of loons.

  24. 24
    MikeBoyScout says:

    George Mason University is to the economics profession what
    Liberty University School of Law is to the legal profession.

    I’m sure it is just a coincidence they are both located in the state of Virginia.

  25. 25
    Bill Murray says:

    @KG: but since the purpose of the educational system is not to train future workers that argument is kind of beside the point.

  26. 26
    Calouste says:


    Last week it was completely random on my WP7 if it would show the mobile or the desktop site (desktop more often than not actually), but since about the weekend it has shown the mobile site reliably.

  27. 27
    Bill Murray says:

    @sneezy: I’m pretty sure GMU Econ got that way because the Koch’s gave a lot of money to their department to make sure the department is filled with Libertarian/Austrian economists

  28. 28
    Keith G says:

    Parental expectations and involvment are the most consistent predictors of children’s academic achievement.

    Two problems with this:
    1) Hard as hell to hold parents accountable.

    2) Families that stay stable in both geography and personnel are not compatable with the economic realities that our business class has chosen to pursue.

    We have chosen a social model that best suits the needs of the sconomically powerful. Its impact on the foundations of public education can best be described as a negative exturnality.

    So, the easiest thing to do is to just blame the teachers.

  29. 29
    Suffern ACE says:

    @KG: Parents want their kids to have jobs. What the parents don’t realize is that currently, our education system is sitting on huge assets that could be reallocated more profitably. Capitalists don’t want choice…they want access to the profit potential of the $1-2 trillion we spend on education each year. You see someone who needs to learn Shakespeare. I see an little money sack who needs a textbook or a collection of buildings cold be bought and leased back.

  30. 30
    PeakVT says:

    @MikeBoyScout: GMU is a state school and in Northern Virginia about 25 miles from US Capitol, whereas Liberty is private, religious, and way down in hicksville. It’s a co-incidence.

    @Bill Murray: It still seems odd to me, however, that a state school ended up with such a strongly ideological department. Perhaps it happens a lot and I just don’t know about it.

  31. 31
    hhex65 says:

    @sneezy: i remember when I was in high school in VA (yeeeears ago) GMU was known as 13th grade but since then they’ve merged with the Cato Institute so they’re all respectable and stuff.

  32. 32
    Mike in NC says:


    Knowing he’s at GMU Econ means you have about 90% certainty that he’s a crank. I don’t know how it got that way, but the place is full of loons.

    Yup, there are a bunch of libertarian whackjobs in the GMU Economics Department. Another with a newspaper column is Walter Williams, who also is on the payroll of the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

  33. 33
    Cerberus says:


    It’s amazing (in a horrifying way) that the often racist and classist extension of Jim Crow that school funding mechanisms have been, have also artificially extended the life on suburbs.

    You need to move to the “right” neighborhoods to make sure your kid isn’t screwed and that just happens to correspond with middle class white communities with a bunch of religious fundamentalism and a huge dearth of culture, diversity, social education, and an overwhelmingly conformist general culture.

    Gets a nice extend on a population that can be pushed into loony-bin conservatism very easily (population with not enough life information to disbelieve whatever you say about minority populations and enough boredom and lack of real cultural stimulus to eagerly accept conspiracy theories and abstract fears and treat them as one’s sole motivator).

    Couldn’t be more perfectly evil if it was planned that way.

    Though it has lead to a few confrontations as populations from more diverse upbringings went to the suburbs for the “good” education and ended up clashing with the first generation of “white flight”.

  34. 34
    Cerberus says:

    @Jay C:

    Like he cares?

    He doesn’t care that he’s right. He doesn’t care if he even sounds wholly coherent.

    All he cares about is that he sounds “smart” and that this conveys the effect of sounding learned and logical to the mass audience he will be pimped to. The media structure has wholly become propaganda and advertising.

    Which is why larger and larger populations are foregoing it completely and becoming more informed than if they hadn’t.

    The burgeoning numbers of “I don’t own cable”, “I don’t bother with the newspaper” is a direct result of these groups more and more viewing themselves as means to advertise better for their “true clients” than meet the need that people used to turn to them for.

    And now the only people who really care are getting older and older because they still remember when those news sources did their damn jobs.

  35. 35
    quaint irene says:

    I keep waiting for one of these clowns to attack public libraries as socialism. I mean, why should tax payer dollars go to providing free reading material to the undeserving slackers? You want a book? Buy a Kindle!

  36. 36
    sneezy says:

    @Bill Murray:

    I’m pretty sure GMU Econ got that way because the Koch’s gave a lot of money to their department to make sure the department is filled with Libertarian/Austrian economists

    Thanks. That explains just about everything about the place. They’re not just loons, they’re well-paid shills.

    This “public schools should be more like supermarkets!” stuff is exactly the kind of sophomoric bullshit you can expect from them.

  37. 37
    gbear says:

    Of course, Prof. Boudreaux (and his offspring, if any) no doubt lives in an area with a choice of excellent grocery stores and schools

    My guess is that Prof. Boudreaux has the hired help pick up the groceries and hasn’t seen the inside of a supermarket in ages.

    …OR a school, for that matter.

  38. 38
    Stefan says:

    There’s a decent argument to be made that if we privatized the education system that companies would create education subsidies to train future workers, even in poor neighborhoods. Businesses need employees that are marginally educated, so it behooves them to invest in education.

    Businesses no longer need educated American employees, though. Why pay tens of thousands to educate an American kid when IBM can pay only a few thousand to educate a Bangladeshi and then hook him up to the Internet?

  39. 39
    NobodySpecial says:

    Anyone who lived in Rockford, IL in the 70’s and 80’s knows all about this style of ‘hiding the bad/evil minorities in the bad schools’ stuff and how well it worked out. Perhaps we could arrange a new version of it in his school district.

  40. 40
    goblue72 says:

    @sneezy: The libertarian cranks of the GMU econ dept are classic conservative douche-bags. They bray about the evils of government while sucking at the public tit. In this case, the Koch Bros funded libertarian crank tank called the Mercatus Center. All these douchebags in the GMU econ dept are also “fellows” or “scholars” at Mercatus – so they pull a publically funded paycheck (& healthcare plan and pension) by being tenured faculty at GMU and then they pull a second bribe-check from the Koch Bros. Mercatus Center. In exchange, the Koch’s and their ilk get a bought and paid for university department to provide an intellectual veneer to their pyschopathic ideologies.

  41. 41
    Cynicor says:

    Has Boudreaux ever heard the Blueberry Story? It’s actually an exact rebuttal to the “if only schools were run like industry” story, told by Jamie Vollmer. Moral is that an ice cream company gets to pick through the blueberries they use. A school has to take the entire tray, no matter what’s in it.

  42. 42
    WereBear says:

    This is apples and oranges, to use a “produce metaphor.” In this case, we all benefit when everyone gets a shot at the freshest produce; not all of them are going to slice and dice the best, but we have to let everyone have their “cut,” you know, or we are going to miss the next genius who got born to poor parents.

    Frankly, looking at the likes of Donald Trump and Paris Hilton, the best thing we can do for civilization is to make sure everyone gets a shot at showing off their brain. For the love of humanity!

    Also, too: I went to a crappy public school system that soothed their soul by putting some money into the “gifted program,” which I got into after the test giver’s eyebrows crawled into her hair and stayed there while I took the test. (Genius me; I thought that meant I was not doing well.) But it was all wasted when they threw me into a Pit of Calcutta high school; no one followed up to help me GET to college, and once I wound up in community college, they overloaded me with classes, so happy they were with my potential, and they wound up burning me out. I was lucky I didn’t have a breakdown.

    Thanks an enormous bunch, stupid system. And guess what? I’m still not using my genius for good; I’m a cat blogger!

  43. 43
    Just Some Fuckhead says:


    Liberty University School of Law is to the legal profession.

    Liberty University got out of law. Regent would probably be a better comparison.

  44. 44
    TheF79 says:

    Fucking public goods, how do they work?

    Seriously, as an economics professor myself, this thought experiment is embarrassing.

  45. 45
    James E. Powell says:

    This corporate flack does not care whether his ‘schools as grocery stores’ analogy holds up on examination. It doesn’t have to. It’s a bullshit story to put into the discussion for the people who do not think about what they hear and read. They accept it because it is an on-the-surface plausible reason to turn public education over to corporations. They accept it and they repeat it and they will vote based on it. It’s a very good story for those purposes.

  46. 46
    Jay C says:


    Yes, checking out Donald Boudreaux’s CV (it’s unclear whether he is still a teaching prof at GMU), I found out that he has a blog: unsurprisingly named Cafe Hayek. And amazingly, chockablock with glibertarian crapola! Do tell…

  47. 47
    burnspbesq says:


    The exception, no doubt. Very affluent suburb of NY. People wanted the best for their kids, could afford it, and were willing to tax themselves silly to get it. They also understood the correlation between school quality and property value.

  48. 48
    burnspbesq says:


    but in lots of places voters don’t want to increase taxes to pay for “those people”. Or county lines get drawn conveniently to keep the taxes for the right people, etc.

    That was totally not it, at least in New Jersey in the 60s and 70s. County lines were drawn in the 1700s. There was a great deal of de facto segregation at the municipal level because people chose to live with “their own kind” (the Jewish flight westward along South Orange Avenue, leaving East Orange and Orange almost completely African-American, is well documented). And property taxes were imposed at the municipal level, so if you voted against your school budget you were cutting off your nose to spite your own kids’ faces, not keeping “them” from having good schools. If municipality A (e.g., Maplewood) had much better schools than municipality B right next door (e.g., Irvington), it was because the citizens of municipality B were unwilling or unable to pay for quality education for their own kids.

  49. 49
    HoosierPoli says:

    In today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription only), George Mason economics professor

    OK, this sentence tells you EVERYTHING you need to know about whatever this douche said. I’m a George Mason political science grad student, and the econ department here is a fuckin punchline. They are bought-and-paid-for Randians to a fucking man. Frankly the econ department here does a disservice to every single graduate and faculty, because it tars them with a label of a university with a SOLD-OUT department. It’s like U of Chicago but without all the prestige.

  50. 50
    Luthe says:

    @burnspbesq: Well, the thing about New Jersey is that for a long time, if you wanted a school district you had to incorporate your own town. I’m sure some of those towns had conveniently drawn borders to keep out the “others.”

    The school district thing, btw, is part of the reason why NJ has 566 municipalities in such a small state. It is also part of why property taxes are high; no one wants to pool services, so everyone has their own expensive contract for busing, maintenance, etc.

  51. 51
    Don says:

    DB is indeed still listed as still associated with the uni, Jay C.

    Boudreaux, Donald J.
    General Dir, Ctr for Study of Public Choice, Economics
    331 Enterprise Hall, Ffx, MSN: 3G4

    As was said, Mason econ is strongly Chicago school. I suspect a large part of why it gets so much time in the media is the proximity to DC. I’ve not a bit of doubt why it gets so much NPR time.

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