Scones, Happiness and School Choice

Recently, I’ve been struggling with blueberry scones.

I know scones aren’t everybody’s thing. As breakfast breads go many prefer the light flakiness of a croissant, or that creamy, sugar of a donut. In a pinch, there’s that old standby toast and a little butter… maybe some jelly too.

A scone however, is not everyone’s “cup of tea”.

First, it is a dense bread. It is not a light little snack, it can top even the heavy, boiled dough of many bagels for sheer wheat per square inch.

Second, it is a risky food. A scone can go dangerously wrong. A scone walks a fine line between wonderfully chewy and inedible, chalky nightmare.

This all leads to a consistent conclusion for those of us who consider ourselves fans of un-yeasted quick bread: When you find a scone you like, stick to it.

I do like… pausing for “buy local” up-turned noses… Starbuck’s blueberry scones.

The giant corporate scone is one of my favorites and the favorite of many of you I would assume, because they are ubiquitous in Starbuck’s across the country. I have come to rely on that scone when I see the weird green lady sign on the closest caffeine pusher.

Walk in. “Venti americano with room and a blueberry scone please.” Walk out. Good to go.

We thus arrive at my problem.

As I have recently returned to school to pursue additional learning (or signaling if you’ve been reading Bryan Caplan), I have gotten a chance to partake in all of the improvements to campus since I was last there 15 years ago. One huge change is the total remodel of the Student Union and with that remodel, the recent arrival of Starbuck’s on campus.

I arrived on campus at 7:30 the first morning, with the pleasant prospect that I could pop in for my usual order and spend an hour or so surfing, writing, emailing and overall enjoying some well-brewed coffee and my morning scone.

To my horror, however, when I turned the corner in the queue bringing me face-to-face with the glass pastry case, my little blueberry expectation was nowhere in sight. I asked, they checked the back, no scones. I checked again the next day and next, still no scones. In the end, this Starbuck’s does not receive scones for sale.

Well you can imagine, it was a disappointment.

As I continued exploring my new surroundings over the next couple days a curious thing happened, I discovered that Starbuck’s was not the only purveyor of the bitter brown on campus, or even in the Union buildings. I found not just a couple of bagel places like Einstein’s and a few coffee carts in other areas of the University, I actually found another espresso cafe-style establishment called Canyon Coffee just around the corner from the Starbuck’s.

Lo and behold, here they had the scone AND the beverage for which I was looking.

Happiness is…

Now in my carbohydrate, gluten fueled fever dream, my econ-mind involuntarily took control, I began thinking…

Why are there multiple coffee shops in the Union? Isn’t that “inefficient”?

Even if we lose a few little variations on the theme (including my precious scones), why would the Union management contract with multiple coffee shops? Canyon Coffee is run by the Union’s general food services contractor and the prices are lower, why not just let them have multiple locations?

In the news and from politicians, we hear all the time, “If only we didn’t have all these different systems, we could bring down prices for everyone. Bigger will be better. Consolidation will bring improvement.”

Let me pause for one moment to define my terms. What does “efficiency” mean anyway?

In economics it is a measure of output to inputs. Sometimes it is calculated as a ratio of “utility” to “cost”. Utility is a general word for usefulness or even happiness. How much of what we “want” do we get for what we “pay”. The higher that ratio the more efficient the system.

So back to me…

As I thought about hearing politicians and academics complain about the inefficiency of this process or that system, another question popped to my mind,

“Inefficient for whom?”

It certainly would be more “efficient” for Canyon Coffee if they could run the whole campus, but would that mean more “efficiency” for those whose utility, pleasure, happiness are based on getting Starbuck’s? If they gave it to Starbuck’s, wouldn’t I lose the utility of getting my scone?

There are plenty in the world today who want to control and plan. Diversity makes their lives harder because they cannot plan and control the wild variations we see in our nation’s marketplaces. Thus generally, I have to believe when they speak of this, they mean it is “inefficient” for them.

It costs more to provide Starbuck’s AND Canyon Coffee. So they see that as inefficient.

But for me that’s not the important calculation.

If you remove one of those options, the system is easier for the managers to run but it is a loss to the consumers, to the users of the system — who don’t get their blueberry scones.

In the end who is the system built for? Those who run it or those who depend upon it and utilize it? Is a system of any inherent value if it is run as a means unto itself or should systems be judged by their external contributions?

Our schools are a good example of this. They have more and more over time become systems run for their own benefit.

It is empirically true that we are graduating fewer and worse prepared students each year than the last, while we add more resources, time and money to our schools each year than the last.

It has become a system that says always, bigger is better. Large school districts are more “efficient”. Regardless of the evidence to the contrary, the drive is ever for more money, greater size, more consolidation, more top down, central control.

The problem is again one of perspective. “Efficient” for whom?

I agree the system is easier to run, and more lucrative, for those managing it. One policy developed and disseminated down through the ranks. A bigger tax pool to draw from means higher salaries. A larger group of parents means less individual voice making it easier to push through administrative prerogatives (fewer potential objectors or alternate opinions). Customers assigned by their home address means you have a captive user-base and true monopoly power over the market.

For the organization that sounds like a slam dunk.

However, is that the right perspective? Should not the perspective be that of the parents and students?

If it was up to the providers, I wouldn’t have a choice of blueberry scone AND Starbuck’s coffee. It would be more efficient for one or the other to own the contract for the whole service. An expert on high would decide what food items were in the case and how drinks would be prepared. I would have only one option (maybe I would get my scone but someone else would certainly lose that coffee cake they were looking forward to).

But when the critical perspective is that of the consumer, the user, the beneficiary; choice becomes obvious. Because with choice I get MORE. And more is better. When that perspective is put ahead of those who run the system, the winning calculation is clear.

Not every little innovation will be an improvement. No one could guarantee that having blueberry scones would make me happier than not. In fact Starbuck’s bet against that outcome. Some things will fail while others succeed, but it was the diversity of available options that allowed me to find what I wanted. It is sustainable diversity that makes a system robust, and allows it to meet the needs of the widest number of users.

It is NOT the dictate of some expert panel, but instead each of our individual choices which allows the good outcomes to emerge out of the noise of experimentation.

But we must be allowed choices before that process can even begin.

I am happy to be attending a school that gives me the option of blueberry scones and Starbuck’s coffee; but I am BLESSED to live in a state which is leading in the area of school choice.

If you didn’t know already, it is currently National School Choice Week and I hope as many people as possible will speak up for the parents and children who are stuck in schools “by zip code” and “one-size fits all” mandates.

If I can get the choice of blueberry scones in the morning, certainly a parent has a right to choice in what education their child receives.

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