Sunday, February 20, 2005

My Predictions (Partly) Come True

Here’s what I predicted would happen if schools banned the sale of junk food in vending machines:
[S]ome of the usual libertarian insights on prohibition would seem to apply here. I predict that a vending machine ban would encourage enterprising youngsters to bring in junk food from the outside to sell to their classmates. Black markets are hardly unknown to the public schools. If the kids can sneak in coke, surely they could sneak in Coke – especially if the ban did not extend to junk foods that parents put in their kids’ lunches. The result? Higher prices, and drinks that aren’t refrigerator cold.
And here’s what actually happened when a school in Austin removed junk food from its vending machines:
The candy removal plan, according to students at Austin High, was thwarted by classmates who created an underground candy market, turning the hallways of the high school into Willy-Wonka-meets-Casablanca.

Soon after candy was removed from vending machines, enterprising students armed with gym bags full of M&M's, Skittles, Snickers and Twix became roving vendors, serving classmates in need of an in-school sugar fix. Regular-size candy bars like the ones sold in vending machines routinely sold in the halls for $1.50.
However, I did get one part wrong. I also predicted:
Upon observing a black market in junk food, school authorities would never see fit to lift the ban. At best, they would let the imperfectly enforced ban stand. More likely, given the personality types that typically gravitate to positions of authority in the public schools, would be the emergence of a “zero tolerance” policy. No longer could more permissive parents allow their kids to bring their own junk food, because such food might be sold to the children of less permissive parents. The process would culminate in a complete ban on junk food of any kind in school.
But here’s what actually happened:
The Austin High administration, which won't elaborate on how much or little it knew about the candy black market, has since replenished the vending machines with some types of candy.

Principal Barbara Spelman said the school did so after becoming more familiar with the minimal nutritional standards.
What do you know? Sometimes people actually learn the right lesson, and sometimes the cynic is wrong.

Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the pointer. UPDATE: I mean Alex Tabarrok, not Tyler Cowen.


Anonymous said...

'willy-wonka-meets-casablanca' -- that's hillarious.

gym bag full of candy; that can add up. i guess some of their parents gave the little entrepreneurs 'business loans'. or i guess if they had part time jobs, the starting inventory wouldn't be hard to stock up on.

now can you predict the stock market for us? =)

Anonymous said...

Speaking as someone who ran a successful candy business in a school with no candy vending machines for about a month in my senior year, this was hardly surprising to me. (The authorities eventually made me stop when a drug-sniffing dog started barking around my locker due to the smell. The reliability of drug-sniffing dogs is, of course, another issue.) The money is good, the work easy, and the policy is idiotic. I'm very surprised that the school ended up lifting an idiotic policy. I don't think I've ever seen that before. It seems that school districts just collect them like stamps.