How well do they feed the Marines?

by on January 3, 2008 at 6:13 am in Economics | Permalink

I do not know.  Or how about the Army, Navy, or Air Force?

But my suspicion is this: if you are in the Armed Services, you have the chance to eat better than the average American.  Not at gourmet levels, but better than the median.  Better taste and better nutrition.  The median person in the United States eats some pretty bad food.

And how much does this food cost our government and thus our taxpayers?  Again, I am curious to hear what you know.  But I’ve read lots of stories about thousand dollar hammers and toilet seats, but I have never heard a peep about the Pentagon paying $70 for a Brussels Sprout. 

So, I’ll also predict that this food comes at reasonable cost.  We therefore seem to have above-average food service at OK prices.   

Given that possibility (fact?), how many of you would advocate government provision of food for the entire economy?  How many of you would advocate government-run food finance for everyone, and not just for the poor?

Show of hands? 

How many of you know what I am really talking about in this post?

Don’t forget this post either.

Addendum: The successes of the VA system stem most of all from avoiding the cost-escalating features of "fee-for-service" for medical suppliers, and not from its single-payer features.  Not so many people are willing to advocate abolishing fee-for-service for most of the medical sector; here is further discussion.  But unless you abolish fee-for-service, the successes of the VA system are not a replicable model on a larger scale.  And it is much easier to workably abolish fee-for-service within the Armed Services than across the entire U.S. medical sector.

c smith January 3, 2008 at 7:00 am

As the son of a son of a sailor, and Naval Reservist myself,
I feel more attention should be paid the VA health system,
as it is an instructive prototype for any of these various
universal health programs.
It’s a mixed bag at best. You really can argue it any way
you want in the freedom/cost/value tradespace: the answer
ends up being subjective.
My contention is that, unless
a proposal is an unambiguous win, then the less gubmint, the better.

Mike January 3, 2008 at 7:08 am

While I am not cognizant of the economics of food purchasing done by the armed services, I can definitely vouch that the food served there (at least as of eight years ago, when my service ended) is usually well-prepared, seemingly nutritious, and I had no complaints about it all. I was stationed on Fort Bragg for most of my term, but the food in Egypt, at the MFO dining facility in South Camp, is some of the best food I’ve ever eaten in anywhere, even better than in some so-called high-end restaurants. They had broiled, fresh fish there that was to die for.

apostate January 3, 2008 at 8:07 am

You are also given little to no choice in what food you eat. Trying being a vegetarian or other restrictive style diet in the Army. When I was in most guys would still go out for dinner, if they could, despite it being free, just to eat something different.

Also the quality of food could vary significantly from Dining Facility to Dining Facility. You quickly learned which ones were better and then went to those (even though you really weren’t supposed to).

matt wilbert January 3, 2008 at 8:27 am

The VA doesn’t supply medical care to the armed services. It supplies it to veterans. That isn’t the same thing.

enrique January 3, 2008 at 9:16 am

One of my students was recently assigned to a base in kuwait and is now in southern iraq; he informs me that the kuwait base was almost like a US-style shopping mall with a wide-variety of private firms and fast-food choices, like pizza hut, taco bell, and even starbucks. So it looks like with regard to tyler’s posting, it’s the other way around!

save_the_rustbelt January 3, 2008 at 10:04 am

The VA has improved, but it would not be a good model for anything but… the VA.

And with the chuckleheads in the Bush administration failing to provide more downstream resources to account for Iraq casualties, the VA is going to be in trouble soon.

Of course the war is only gonna cost $40B because it will be over in a few months and we will get the oil dividend – per Dick Cheney.

John Dewey January 3, 2008 at 10:54 am

My military experience ended three decades ago, so I’m not sure how relevant it is. Food at my three Air Force bases was much more nutritious than what I ate as a child or as a college student. My unit was detached to an Army post for months, and the food was nowhere near as tasty.

Over the past 35 years, Navy veteran friends have frequently praised the quality of food on board ships. They explained that living in close quarters was a strain on morale, and the Navy wanted to ensure that meals enhanced rather than detracted from the experience.
Similarly, oil companies generally hire quality chefs for offshore oil platforms. My relatives who worked offshore all gained weight.

SamChevre January 3, 2008 at 11:23 am

Another huge advantage of the VA is that it is almost 100% utilized–that’s why it is so hard to get into the system. Spare capacity is expensive; the VA deals with the issue by letting acute care be done by non-VA providers.

Parris_Island January 3, 2008 at 11:53 am

A favorite memory of mine from Parris Island boot camp 15+ years ago was the senior drill instructor’s contempt for the re-modeling of the chow hall: “it’ll probably be some Arby’s-looking bullshit.”

Rex Rhino January 3, 2008 at 12:57 pm

“Now I believe that view to be mistaken. If it’s my money I’m spending or directing, and my own utility is increased by seeing it spent on food instead of liquor or drugs, then why not insist that the money be spent that way, even if the recipient has different preferences?”

1. Infantizing a population can have long term negative social effects.

2. It is far easier to insert pork into services vs. cash payouts. For example, a national soup kitchen program could lead food suppliers to bribe politicians in order to get overpriced contracts.

3. Government services are destructive to diversity. Is this soup kitchen going to accomidate Kosher diets? Hallal? Vegetarians and Vegans? People with peanut alergies? People on the Atkins diet? If you don’t accomidate my religious restrictions against eating noodles because it is an affront to the flying spaggeti monster, add a hundred million dollar class-action lawsuit for violating the religious freedoms of pastafarians.

ed January 3, 2008 at 1:36 pm

As Matt said, the VA does NOT provide health care to active duty armed services.

And from what I’ve heard, while the VA has world-class information systems, the armed forces have pretty bad health information systems. So just having “government” run the system doesn’t ensure good management. My guess is the VA just got lucky and had some extraordinarily good leaders for a while.

DG January 3, 2008 at 2:31 pm

All I know is…

“The Navy gets the gravy but the Army gets the beans!”

Rimfax January 3, 2008 at 4:02 pm

How much of the VA’s positive perception has to do with the fact that the VA measures itself against the private sector? In other words, without the private health care system, as an example and as a force for medical and logistic innovation, just how good would the VA be? Would it even have attracted administrators who are interested in maintaining a positive perception?

Trakker January 3, 2008 at 4:14 pm

You wrote “But my suspicion is this: if you are in the Armed Services, you have the chance to eat better than the average American. Not at gourmet levels, but better than the median. Better taste and better nutrition. The median person in the United States eats some pretty bad food.”

I know you’re trying to make a point here about health-care, but I had trouble getting past “The median person eats some pretty bad food.” I split my residence between a middle class suburb of DC and one of the poorer counties of rural West Virginia, and if I had to guess I would say that the median person in America eats pretty well – if they choose to. I’m not sure at what percentile of income level three decent nutritious meals is simply too expensive, I don’t know but I’m pretty sure its below the median.

Okay, I’m past that, now on to health care. Fortunately there are many, many different models for providing basic health care to a nation’s citizens out there available for study. The hard part is defining what our ultimate goal is. Do we want a plan that covers everyone? What should be included in the plan? Should there be co-pays? How much? etc., etc. This should be our very first step in the discussion. But we know it won’t be.

Trakker January 3, 2008 at 4:15 pm

You wrote “But my suspicion is this: if you are in the Armed Services, you have the chance to eat better than the average American. Not at gourmet levels, but better than the median. Better taste and better nutrition. The median person in the United States eats some pretty bad food.”

I know you’re trying to make a point here about health-care, but I had trouble getting past “The median person eats some pretty bad food.” I split my residence between a middle class suburb of DC and one of the poorer counties of rural West Virginia, and if I had to guess I would say that the median person in America eats pretty well – if they choose to. I’m not sure at what percentile of income level three decent nutritious meals is simply too expensive, I don’t know but I’m pretty sure its below the median.

Okay, I’m past that, now on to health care. Fortunately there are many, many different models for providing basic health care to a nation’s citizens out there available for study. The hard part is defining what our ultimate goal is. Do we want a plan that covers everyone? What should be included in the plan? Should there be co-pays? How much? etc., etc. This should be our very first step in the discussion. But we know it won’t be.

cure January 3, 2008 at 5:06 pm

A student of economics…I think you misunderstand what economists mean by “utility”. By definition, utility is a function that maps preference relations onto the real line, along with some very basic assumptions (i.e., if A is preferred to B, then B is not preferred to A). A preference is a relation that (in its strict form) implies that A is preferred to B by an agent if A R B.

If an agent can decide whether she prefers A to B for all feasible bundles of goods, and the agent has a utility function, then it’s not possible, under the very simplest economics assumptions, to have the agent “prefer” some bundle when it lowers their utility.

“Notes on Choice” is a fairly straightforward work that delves into these topics, but you can also check out Ariel Rubinstein’s free micro textbook (the first few chapters in particular).

Jon January 3, 2008 at 5:29 pm

DoD contracts out almost all of their dining facilities nowadays. It is very rare to have actual uniformed cooks except for special situations like naval vessels. If you are on an Army base and eating in a dining facility chances are that a major defense contractor is the one cooking your meals.

You might also be interested to know that the military also provides cash in lieu of services/food to some servicemembers. Officers receive on or about $180/mo tax free as a food allowance while enlisted receive somewhat more, around $250+ I think. Officers receive this amount as a flat ration, however for enlisted servicemembers when government provided meals are not available they are given the tax free food allowance instead.

David Andersen January 3, 2008 at 5:56 pm

The median person in the United States eats some pretty bad food.

I’m guessing this isn’t the final draft for a new paper.

A student of economics January 3, 2008 at 7:37 pm

cure at 5:06pm
I do understand utility, but I must not have written my comment clearly. What I mean is that I (the provider of funds, e.g. the taxpayer) prefer that the recipient have food. It increases MY utility to see him eat. Meanwhile, the recipient may prefer to have liquor or cocaine. That would increase HIS utility. The traditional neoclassical argument that intro economics courses often make is that we should give poor people money, not food, if we want to maximize their utility. That is what they prefer. Supposedly it is a pareto improvement to give money instead of, say, food or healthcare: seemingly the same cost to donor, potentially greater value to recipient. That’s typically where the argument triumphantly ends, with the implication that programs that provide in-kind services are at odds with economics.

What I am saying is that MY utility is not maximized if recipients spend charity on liquor or cocaine. Thus, there is no conflict with utility maximization, or economics generally, to give benefits in-kind. Giving money may make the donor worse-off than giving food or healthcare.

Does that make sense to you?

Incidentally, this is all using standard neoclassical reasoning, except the common, if often hidden, assumption that people don’t care about other people (no altruism or envy makes the math much easier). Although I don’t do so to make my case, one could add behavorial economic arguments as well, e.g. recipient may actually wish they could avoid alcohol and would “prefer” not to have the choice (that is, they have time-inconsistent preferences, which has been well-documented and which, regrettably, conflicts with neo-classsical frameworks such as Ariel Rubinstein’s).

Similarly, some people, outside the military at least, may become “infantilized” by getting certain goods, instead of getting cash, etc. There might also be various incentive and control costs and benefits of limiting spending to predefined categories instead of completely fungible cash. But that’s a different argument.

Robert C January 4, 2008 at 12:14 am

Yeah and the average american views 6 hours of TV per day, is overweight, believes TV preachers and calls heating up packaged food cookin……The great food for the army comes from Sodexo for the most part and other contractors. Nope not $60.00 bucks for brussels sprouts but about $13 per meal on average……….

A student of economics January 4, 2008 at 2:40 pm

“I’m impressed that you are willing to own up to valuing smug self-satisfaction…”

Gee, you almost make me feel like I should be ashamed about preferring to help other people to eat instead of to do cocaine.

Almost.

A student of economics January 4, 2008 at 5:17 pm

JWK: with all do respect, I think it is an insult to economics to suggest that the “economics view” necessarily rules out altruism as a perfectly legitimate preference that people have, and one that enters into the social welfare function.

It’s true that introductory models often assume that an individual’s utility is unaffected by consumption by other people (i.e. there is zero altruism or envy). This is done in order to make the mathematics of general equilibrium tractable, not because it is an accurate description of the world. Starting with this assumption, one can come to conclusions such as “money transfers to the poor are better than in kind transfers” that you reference. As you note, this frames the question too narrowly by assuming there are no effects on other’s utility.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that far too many people think that the assumption that their is no altruism is a positive description of what it means to be “rational”, or worse yet, a normative implication about how people should behave.

IMHO, a proper understanding of economics certainly encompasses all types of preferences. In particular, it’s manifestly obvious that people do care about other people’s consumption. Indeed, that’s a primary rationale for giving even money transfers. But if that’s the case, and maximizing utility is the goal, then it would be internally inconsistent to ignore the utility of some of the population (i.e. the donors) when assessing social welfare. Their altruism is just as legitimate as any other component of utility.

One of the weaknesses of the way economics is often taught is that many people never get past the intro economics course with its simplifying assumption (made for mathematical convenience) and erroneously come away with the impression that those assumption are meant to be descriptions of rational behavior or even recommendations for policy.

Bottom line: there is no difference between my view and the “economics view”, properly understood. This is true even if one defines economics narrowly to include only the neoclassical framework, let alone if one opens the door to behavioral economics.

JWK January 5, 2008 at 3:01 pm

Student: I essentially agree with what you just said, my point is that the best course of action depends on whether we consider “pure” altruism (just care about the poor person’s utility) or a more qualified altruism where your ultility (including your preferences over their consumption) and their utitility is considered. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the latter, though I personally think that sort of thing is better suited to charity than to government programmes, YMMV. Preferences over other people’s consumption can be very hard to pin down.

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