Price discrimination of health food

A basic tenet of economics is that some customers are willing to pay more than others for a given product. So it’s in any company’s best interest to charge more to customers who are willing to pay more. This practice, called “price discrimination,” is illegal in its most basic form. But it is commonly practiced in many more subtle ways. One example is coupons: customers willing to find and cut out coupons tend to be willing to pay less than customers that don’t want to spend time finding the coupons.

Another prevalent example of price discrimination is first-class vs. coach-class seating on trains and planes. People willing to pay a lot of money for a plane ticket will buy a first-class seat if the experience is significantly better than in coach. I remember reading in Econ 101 that many train companies purposefully degraded the experience in coach class so that anyone who could afford first class would pay the premium. Fortunately, this trick doesn’t work well in a highly competitive marketplace because other providers can win over the low-paying customers by providing them a better coach class experience.

I’ve started to think that the same principle applies to health food. People who want organic, pesticide-free, low-calorie, whole-grain food tend to be people lucky enough to have the luxury to think about such things. In other words, they tend to be richer and have more money to spend on food. Conversely, people who have just barely enough money to get by are more interested in getting the most calories per dollar so they can eat a satisfying meal without breaking the bank. In other words, restaurants and grocery stores know they can get away with selling health foods at a premium, because they know the people most interested in those products are willing to pay more.

I think this explains why healthy food often costs so much more than junk food even when it doesn’t actually cost more to produce. Williams College, which is big enough to purchase directly from food producers, saved money by using more local, organic dining hall food.

Job satisfaction findings from last century

Bill Buxton, in a presentation at CHI 2011, recommended the work of Melvin Kransberg, a pioneering historian of technology. Kransberg apparently published the definitive textbook on the subject, but that is many pages and several volumes long; instead, I read By the Sweat of Thy Brow (1975) by Kransberg and Joseph Gies.

It is worthwhile to read a decades-old book now and then to remind yourself that many of the important problems of today were also problems of the past. What’s most astonishing is how many solutions exist that were proven decades ago, yet are still not widely known, let alone widely implemented.

I found the most interesting examples of this in By the Sweat of Thy Brow to be the solutions for job satisfaction. I leave you with a series of quotes.

…the classic (1932) British motivational study of girl workers threading embroidery needles…. The girls were told first that they had to thread a hundred dozen needles a day instead of the seventy-five dozen they had been threading. The announcement produced consternation that turned into delight when it was added that on finishing the hundred dozen they could go home. They got through the new quota in time to leave at 2:30 in the afternoon.

At [a Bell Telephone Company plant], phone directories were formerly compiled by women employees each of whom performed only one of the 17 operations necessary in compiling a directory…. Management found itself endlessly hiring and training new workers. Under the job enrichment ideology, each worker was given an entire directory to compile, performing all 17 steps, from scheduling to proofreading. Turnover dropped substantially.


Frederick Herzberg, a prominent industrial psychologist, has identified [in 1966] five factors as strong determinants of job satisfaction—achievement, recognition, work itself, responsibility, and advancement…


‘Perhaps the most consistent complaint reported to our task force,’ said the Work in America study, ‘has been the failure of bosses to listen to workers who wish to propose better ways of doing their jobs.’

What motivates a child?

That seems like a simple enough question.  If you asked a selection of teachers, parents, and psychologists to answer it, I wonder how their answers would differ from each other.  Is it a solved problem? Or a complex mystery on the frontier of science? Or somewhere in between?

The myth of ability

“Historically, societies have always been divided by myths of difference: between peasants and nobility, slaves and slave owners, or minorities and majorities. Today, the most pervasive and enduring of those myths — the myth of ability — is being challenged.”

-John Mighton (The Myth of Ability)

There are no excuses for letting children fail

John Mighton writes in The Myth of Ability:

As far as I am aware, no program in mathematics was ever developed with the expectation that every child in the program would excel. To most educators, the idea of an entire class doing well in any subject seems absurd.

That was published in 2003, but today it is still widely assumed that the “curve” in test scores is a “natural” result of innate differences in human intelligence.

Through a tutoring program that he later extended to classroom teaching, Mighton showed that in fact every child could excel. And he found that such a result requires only two essential ingredients (which match my definition of profound: obvious only in retrospect). They are:

1. The teacher must actually believe that every student can excel.

2. The curriculum and teaching methods must be designed, tested, and refined in a way that treats any student’s failure to learn as being a failure of the curriculum and teaching methods.

This is entirely analogous to creating usable software. Instead of blaming problems on “user error,” you blame the software — and, critically, use that knowledge as an opportunity to improve the design. Creating great software is not easy, but it’s also not rocket science.

Mighton has experimented with various best practices in teaching, many of which have been well documented elsewhere in the psychology literature (and popular literature by authors such as the Heath brothers, Malcom Gladwell, Carol Dweck, Martin Seligman, etc.). For example, he neatly sums up the research on the importance of flow:

Nothing focuses the attention of children more sharply than the feeling that they are meeting a series of challenges and succeeding brilliantly.

But the crucial thing that John Mighton has shown is not in the particulars of his curriculum or philosophy. Rather, it is the simple, incontrovertible fact that he made every single student succeed in math — without requiring extra money or super-human energy or even teachers who previously knew anything about math.

It is an existence proof.

And it means that all of the excuses are bogus. “They can’t focus.” “They don’t care.” “There’s not enough time or money to get through to them.” Every student brought to him as “unteachable” was in fact taught to excel. And it was not even particularly difficult. It was certainly not rocket science.

But if we know how to teach in such a way that every child succeeds, why are we not doing it? Mighton says,

I believe the answer lies in the profound inertia of human thought: when an entire society believes something is impossible, it suppresses, by its very way of life, the evidence that would contradict that belief.

I think it’s harder than that, and a good analogy is racism or sexism. When injustice is ingrained — when “that’s the way it has always been” — elaborate excuses and rationales must be crafted to avoid the conclusion that well-meaning people are perpetuating discrimination (in this case, discrimination against the very students they purport to help). It’s a terrible conclusion to come to. To accept it means admitting that for decades we have been undermining the potential of millions of eager young students.

After seeing how children flourish with even a modest amount of attention, I have come to believe that when a child fails a test it should be regarded as a failure of our system of education. And when millions of children, year after year, fail tests they could easily pass, it should be regarded as the failure of an entire society to care for its young.

Supporting change implies acceptance of this terrible conclusion: that for generations we have been letting students fail, letting poverty persist, and letting the economy correspondingly sink — and that there is no excuse for it. How can we live with that guilt? Especially as a student or teacher in the system that is perpetuating the injustice — someone who has the power to make change?

I think that Dweck’s “growth mindset” is a good place to start. It helps us accept the truth as a learning opportunity to do better.

Because the fact is, we already know how to do better. And putting it off is only making the situation worse. As Matt Wilka and I concluded, “just do it!”

Know the history

I found out today that IBM Research was working on scenarios for computers in education as early as the 1960’s (when programming meant feeding stacks of punched cards into a machine the size of a building).