Right now, lots of people—especially young people—don’t believe in capitalism. And so Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan takes it upon himself to make the counter-argument, that capitalism is actually good: because the “free market” fights poverty.
But it doesn’t. And it can’t.
What Mullainathan describes, when food banks bid on donations (pasta vs. fresh vegetables, for example), is not really a market. As I explained back in 2011, in discussing the work on market design by Alvin Roth and others,
what Roth and others are designing—for schools, kidneys, and so on—are not markets but something else. The nonmarket mechanisms they propose are useful precisely when markets fail or don’t exist, which is often.
In the case of food donations, what’s going on is different food banks (using a virtual currency) register their needs for different kinds of donations.
Food banks sought some items, like diapers, that “sold” at relatively high prices. Some food banks focused on bidding on these items, which had the effect of lowering the prices of staples, like produce. The neediest food banks were able to obtain these staples at bargain prices.
But that’s not a market. It’s just a way of iteratively registering (via a pseudo price mechanism) different availabilities and needs of donated food across the country.
Even if Mullainathan and others want to call it a market, it’s certainly not an argument in favor of capitalism or the market system. As classically defined (by, among others, Karl Polanyi), a market system is a form of social economy in which land, labor, and money have become commodified, and in which the rest of society is subject to the dictates of markets.
It’s precisely such a market system that is responsible for creating mass poverty and hunger, in the United States and around the world. When people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work and receive (if they are successful) low wages (and, when they are not successful, no wages at all), and when in turn they are forced to have the freedom to purchase food as a commodity, many of them (more than 15 percent of the U.S. population in 2014) become food insecure.* Food-insecure households are then forced to rely on federal programs (like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and, when such programs come up short, on private food banks.
So, large numbers of people find themselves in the situation where—because of poverty and food insecurity created by the market system—they need to turn to food banks in order to survive. And no story about using a “market” to allocate donations among food banks can overturn that particular economic truth.
*In addition, when people don’t have access to the housing commodity (including the land on which the housing is built), or when they don’t have direct access to the land commodity (especially in countries where small-scale agriculture is still the norm), then they end up living in poverty and finding themselves in a situation of food insecurity. Similarly, the existence of money as a commodity—in the form of mortgage credit, financial derivatives, and the like—has enriched a tiny group at the top and pushed many more people into poverty.