In one of the episodes, Food Fight, Gladwell invites us to sample canteen food at the Bowdoin College, a liberal arts and science college in Maine. Here is what I’ve copied from the College website:
"Bowdoin meals are made from scratch by a staff of talented culinary professionals dedicated to providing a wide array of healthy and delicious options, many drawn from a variety of international cuisines and recipes submitted by students and their families. Our dining halls offer vegan options and selections made with no gluten ingredients at every meal, including plentiful salad bars and entrée salads at lunch and dinner. Because we prepare our dishes using mostly fresh ingredients, we have eliminated most trans fats and high fructose corn syrup from the dining hall menus.
We are constantly improving our methods of food preparation and experimenting with new recipes. The Student Dining Advisory Committee meets several times each semester to provide Dining with menu ideas and feedback to ensure we are providing the best service possible."
Indeed, the website displays photos of kale and asparagus, fresh berries and even lobster. Thinking back to my student days when I was waitressing in my College Hall, the best evening meals were lasagne and toad-in-the-hole, while the lunch buffet offered baked potatoes, coleslaw drenched in mayonnaise and soup, which gave me indigestion. Bowdoin food seems unreal in comparison, and listening to the podcast, I was silently congratulating the college for taking such good care of student welfare.
Once Gladwell ensured his audience was salivating, he introduced us to another College, Vassar, which is a similar private liberal arts and science college, based in the Hudson Valley of the New York state, and competing essentially for the same would-be students as Bowdoin. The food at Vassar is atrocious: you won’t find lobster there. However, what you will find is a generous financial aid programme. In fact, it’s the College goal "to make a Vassar education affordable and accessible to all admitted students”. In an interview with the College president, it becomes clear that the College budget (fees and endowment) is heavily skewed towards financial aid at the expense of other areas, such as fancy food.
I’ve written about the concept of opportunity cost before, but it never ceases to amaze me how often people seem to forget that every choice requires them to give something else up. Fancy college food is a great idea, but it must be weighed against other, arguably more important, subsidies. The British Parliament last month voted to replace Trident, UK’s nuclear submarines, ballistic missiles and nuclear warhead, which will cost the the UK taxpayers over £18 billion. In the age of ubiquitous international terrorism, military drones and cyber wars, I find it surprising that nuclear arsenal gets priority treatment. Looking at the required investment from the opportunity cost point of view, we must realise that Westminster voted to renew Trident at the expense of investment in healthcare, education, conservation, science, etc. Even the main opposition party, which supposedly stands against the austerity, has backed the renewal of the nuclear programme.
Last night I watched a video about Josh Coombes, a London-based hairdresser, who gives free haircuts to the homeless people, who receive a much-needed boost in self-esteem through his generosity. Josh is 29, and I could not help but think about his sense of priority. He could spend the time he gives to the homeless to earn money at a salon or to put his feet up, yet he chooses to do good at the expense of riches or leisure.
Gladwell implores his listeners to send their kids to Vassar, where equal opportunities for the brightest kids, irrespective of their means, are prioritised above gourmand food. I would only add that any decision, be it over your next meal or the state’s budget, must be weighed up against its opportunity cost rather than just on its own merit.
Here is a link to Revisionist History on itunes. (It’s free.)