The Nobel

Perhaps children learn better on a full belly? Or perhaps parents keep children away from school simply so that they can feed them? Or even send them to work so there’s enough money to feed that child? Any of those would suggest that feeding the child at school will lead to more learning and a better attendance record. Michael Kremer has evaluated just that, and finds that it’s true. Feeding children in absolute poverty (the $1.90 a day income kind, not something that exists anywhere in the United States) leads to much better educational outcomes. So if we subsidize school lunch in places too poor to afford it, we make the world a better place.

At which point we come back to one of the older lessons of economics: Just because something should be done doesn’t mean that getting government to do it works. A charity called Mary’s Meals does just this for $20 per child per year. The U.S. government has a program to do the same, which costs about $200 per child per year. Both are feeding millions a year — which is great, but think how much more could be done if it were all being done efficiently?

Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer are well deserving of their Nobel Prize — not so much for making this vale of tears less dreadful, but for arming us with more of the tools we need to work out how to do that.

19 comments on “The Nobel

  1. Sometimes I fear the dismal science as one of the two greatest enemies of individual liberty.

    The other, of course, being domineering prodnoses.

  2. Foreign aid is destructive. It DISCOURAGES local development.

    Poverty with a free meal is still poverty. Better schooling due to a full belly in a land of poverty better prepares one for a life in a land of poverty.

    ‘Despite recent dramatic improvements, one of humanity’s most urgent issues is the reduction of global poverty, in all its forms. More than 700 million people still subsist on extremely low incomes.’

    A justification for colonialization. It is not our duty to fix the world. It is usually evil for us to interfere, imposing our ways on other people. Just because we think our ways our better is not sufficient justification.

  3. @ Gamecock
    You have vastly benefited from your ancestors’ participation and/or connivance in colonialisation. But now, like Tony Crosland, you want to pull up the ladder behind you.

  4. When I was a school governor we worked out that it would cost us a marginal amount to collect all the free meals funds and top it up and simply pay the canteen to provide meals free at the point of consumption to all and any who wanted. But we found it to be illegal. Something about not using school funds to provide “benefits”, and using school funds to provide “benefits” to those who didn’t “deserve” them. But in the long run it would have ended up being cheaper.

  5. John77, we might be pulling up the ladder, but as most of our colonies chucked us out and insisted they could do better on their own, our opinions don’t matter.

    (I’m not convinced that the benefi0ts delivered to colonies and the poorer people thereof were not far more beneficial than the good colonization did for the ordinary people in the UK. Countries without colonies seem to have done OK..)

  6. I’m still wondering what they did with my milk bottle tops. Yes, I can remember when milk came in bottles and had foil tops. We sent them to Blue Peter, they sent them to Africa, what happened next?

  7. Mary’s meals and their competitors can do a certain amount, quite a lot even, and use the cash in a way that looks like excellent bang per buck, because of the amount of volunteer labour that doesn’t appear on the cost side.

    The US government doesn’t get very much volunteer labour, and probably not a lot of supplier goodwill impact on prices. So what they do will look, in bang for buck terms, less effective than what the charities achieve.

    Is that a case for the US government not reaching the empty bellies that the charities cannot?

  8. This is entirely wrong. The whole point of economics is to make astrology look like it has scientific rigour behind it. Now if economists are going to start using the scientific method, rather than hand waving and “woo”, we are going to need to come up with a whole new subject that makes the others look better.

  9. “You have vastly benefited from your ancestors’ participation and/or connivance in colonialisation.”

    And your point is?

    I have vastly benefited from abortion being illegal in 1949. So fvcking what?

  10. The US government doesn’t get very much volunteer labour
    This is good surely. The correct level is that the citizens of the Union States of America gets lots of volunteer labour, but wars excepted the government of those States should get close to zero in voluntary labour if government is doing only those things that have to be provided by or enforced by government, public goods, sound money, common defence, a tolerable administration of justice, protection against communicable diseases, basic literacy and numeracy, that sort of thing.
    Is that a case for the US government not reaching the empty bellies that the charities cannot?
    I like your idealism BiG, I really do, but I think that it’s unrealistic to expect government to be able to identify and provide for those who want to be found and helped but have been missed out by employers, families, friends, community groups like churches and societies, and by charities too.
    In discussions on religion there is a ‘God of the gaps’ theory, and admittedly God does a good job of filling those gaps in our understanding of the universe for those who have already decided that there is a God. The UK food bank network started out as provision for people who had fallen through the safety net offered by government.
    Are we to believe that Government officials getting a salary can identify the gaps in provision of basics for people who have fallen through any better than people who do not request the wages of mammon to seek them out and help them?

  11. The US govt number is purely the cost of the food. The operation of the programme is a different budget….

  12. I’m still wondering what they did with my milk bottle tops. Yes, I can remember when milk came in bottles and had foil tops. We sent them to Blue Peter, they sent them to Africa, what happened next?

    I can still recall the stench from the pile of milk bottle tops that were stored in the room under the stage at our school!

    They seemed to be there forever – I don’t know if they eventually got sent to Blue Peter or if Bangladesh (?) ever benefited from them…

  13. I’m still wondering what they did with my milk bottle tops. Yes, I can remember when milk came in bottles and had foil tops. We sent them to Blue Peter, they sent them to Africa, what happened next?

    I thought they were sold to provide money for wells closer to villages so that girls didn’t have to go and fetch water. Then they found out why those wells were so far away when more of the villagers came down with malaria and the wells were abandoned.

  14. @BiND

    “I thought they were sold to provide money for wells closer to villages so that girls didn’t have to go and fetch water. Then they found out why those wells were so far away when more of the villagers came down with malaria and the wells were abandoned.”

    I had never heard that, but if it is true it is a wonderful example of patronising Westerners interfering in local customs to deleterious effect. It is also a great example of why conservatism works and not all progress is progressive.

  15. Years ago a Missionary told me about a charity worker who had written a report for his HQ in the UK and mentioned that since there was no sanitation villagers squatted over latrines dug a short distance from their villages.

    The charity sent a thousand lavatory seats so that the villagers would be able to sit instead of squat.

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