Free Lunch and Iraq

Two very different articles highlight just how little cost-benefit analysis matters sometimes, whether at the highest policy levels or in the most mundane of circumstances.  Humans evolved in a world of threats and status, and oftentimes that runs counter to any sort of logic.  And so we face many opportunities lost and much damage done. 

Bob Herbert writes today about “The $2 Trillion Dollar Nightmare,” the on-going estimate of the total cost of the Iraq war.  He notes the lack of public discussion of the “consequences of these costs, which are like a cancer inside the American economy.”  Then he discusses the testimony of a Nobel-prizing winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, and the vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, Robert Hormats: “Both men talked about large opportunities lost because of the money poured into the war. ‘For a fraction of the cost of this war,’ said Mr. Stiglitz, ‘we could have put Social Security on a sound footing for the next half-century or more’.” 

Carol Pogash wrote recently about “Free Lunch Isn’t Cool, So Some Students Go Hungry.”  Many students who qualify for federally-subsidized lunches go without:  “Lunchtime ‘is the best time to impress your peers,’ said Lewis Geist, a senior at Balboa and its student body president. Being seen with a subsidized meal, he said, lowers your status’.” 

Pogash writes later, “Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services for the public schools in Berkeley, Calif., said that attention to school cafeterias had traditionally focused on nutrition, but that the separation of students who pay and those who receive free meals was an important ‘social justice issue’.”

Beyond threats and status, cultural distinctions matter in these sorts of decisions.  The war on terror was framed, from the very first moment, as a war of civilization against barbarians—our very way of life seems to be under threat.  And students know what eating a subsidized meal signifies, that all that effort in having “spiky hair and sunglasses” goes to waste in that moment of being seen on the wrong side of the American Dream. 

In the end the costs do matter, particularly in opportunities lost, as our own biological and cultural heritages conspire together.  That’s more than the market, more than being predictably irrational, it’s the tragic acting out of our own selves at the smallest and largest of scales.  But they are dramas we ourselves write, and so can change. 

But it won’t be easy.  Write what you know best, one writer’s rule goes.  In everyday life it’s what we do all the time.  Breaking free from that, from lamenting what might have been to seizing what could be, will take courage and vision and work.

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