Public Schools in the United States Should Rename the “Free Lunch”


If you live in the USA, you are probably familiar with the phrase “free lunch,” or “free and reduced lunch,” as used in a public-school context. For those outside the USA, though, an explanation of what that phrase means, in practice, may be helpful, before I explain why a different name for such lunches should be used.

The term “free and reduced lunch” originated with a federal program which pays for school lunches, as well as breakfasts, with money collected from taxpayers — for students whose families might otherwise be unable afford these meals. The program’s eligibility requirements take into account both family income and size. There’s a problem with it, though:  the inaccuracy of the wording used, especially the troublesome word “free.” The acronym above, “TANSTAAFL,” is familiar to millions, from the works of Robert A. Heinlein (science fiction author), Milton Friedman (Nobel-Prize-winning economist), and others. It stands for the informally-worded phrase, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” which gets to the heart of the problem with the terminology we use when discussing school lunches. (Incidentally, I have seen an economics textbook use the phrase “TINSTAAFL,” in its place, to change “ain’t no” to “is no.” I do not use this version, though, for I am unwilling to correct the grammar of a Nobel laureate.)

The principle that “free lunches” simply do not exist is an important concept in both physics and economics, as well as other fields. In physics, we usually call it the Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy, or the First Law of Thermodynamics. This physical law has numerous applications, and has been key to many important discoveries. Learning to understand it, deeply, is an essential step in the education of anyone learning physics. Those who teach the subject, as I have in many past years, have an even more difficult task:  helping students reach the point where they can independently apply the TANSTAAFL principle to numerous different situations, in order to solve problems, and conduct investigations in the laboratory. It is a fundamental statement of how the universe works:  one cannot get something for nothing.

TANSTAAFL applies equally well in economics, where it is related to such things as the fact that everything has a cost, and those costs, while they can be shifted, cannot be made to simply disappear. It is also related to the principle that intervention by governments in the economy always carries costs. For example, Congress could, hypothetically, raise the federal minimum wage to $10 per hour — but the cost of doing so would be increased unemployment, especially for those who now have low-paying jobs. Another possible cost of a minimum-wake hike this large would be a sudden spike in the rate of inflation, which would be harmful to almost everyone.

To understand what people have discovered about the fundamental nature of physical reality, physics must be studied. To understand what is known about social reality in the modern world, economics must be studied. Both subjects are important, and understanding the TANSTAAFL principle is vital in both fields. Unfortunately, gaining that understanding has been made more difficult, for those educated in the United States, simply because of repeated and early exposure to the term “free lunch,” from childhood through high school graduation. How can we effectively teach high school and college students that there are no free lunches, when they have already been told, incessantly, for many years, that such things do exist? The answer is that, in many cases, we actually can’t — until we have first helped our students unlearn this previously-learned falsehood, for it stands in the way of the understanding they need. It isn’t a sound educational practice to do anything which makes it necessary for our students to unlearn untrue statements.

I am not advocating abolition, nor even reduction, of this federal program, which provides essential assistance for many families who need the help. Because I am an American taxpayer, in fact, I directly participate in funding this program, and do not object to doing so. I do take issue, however, with this program teaching students, especially young, impressionable children in elementary school, something which is untrue.

We need to correct this, and the solution is simple:  call these school lunches what they actually are. They aren’t free, for we, the taxpayers, pay for them. Nothing is free. We should immediately replace the phrase “free and reduced lunch” with the phrase “taxpayer-subsidized lunch.” The second phrase is accurate. It tells the truth, but the first phrase does the opposite. No valid reason exists to try to hide this truth.

My Four Favorite Authors

favorite authors

Whenever people ask me to name my favorite author, I always have to ask them to be more specific, for I cannot bring myself to choose just one. If gender is specified, and either fiction or non-fiction is, as well, then I am able to choose a favorite author in each of the resulting four categories.

My two favorite writers of fiction, Flannery O’Connor and Robert A. Heinlein, are shown at the top. Flannery O’Conner was often described as a Southern gothic writer with an excellent ability to describe the grotesque, mostly with short stories, while Robert Heinlein was often called the greatest of all writers in the genre of science fiction. I wish it were possible for them to write even more, but, unlike the two authors described next, they are no longer living.

Shown below O’Connor and Heinlein are my two favorite authors of non-fiction, Jung Chang and Sam Harris. Jung Chang writes about Chinese history, eloquently, from the perspective of someone who actually was a Red Guard during the utterly insane period known as the Chinese Cultural Revolution, as a teenager, but later managed to get out of the People’s Republic — and, crucially, she was also able to mentally escape the powerful cult of personality which surrounded that nation’s leader for over two decades, Chairman Mao Zedong. She has gone on to become one of Mao’s harshest critics.

Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, began his career as an author by writing books criticizing religion, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. He has since moved on to other topics (and writing better books than his earlier work, in my opinion), such as the corrosive effects of lying, the question of the existence or non-existence of free will, and a scientific approach to dealing with issues involving good and evil. He also has a new book coming out in September.

Other than their amazing skill at the difficult craft of writing, these four have little in common . . . but who wants to read the same sort of books all the time? If you aren’t familiar with their work already, I recommend giving each of them a read, and seeing what you think of their books. For one of them, Sam Harris, you can even give some of his writing a try for free, for he maintains a blog you can check out for yourself, at

For the other three, it isn’t quite that easy to get started, but their books may still be found in any decent public library, or, of course, websites such as Amazon. For O’Connor, the best place to start is with her collected short stories (Amazon link: For Jung Chang, I recommend starting with the story of what happened, against the tumultuous backdrop of Chinese history, to her grandmother, mother, and finally herself, in Wild Swans:  Three Daughters of China (see Heinlein’s works are numerous, and there are many good starting places to be found. Among the best books with which to start reading Heinlein are Stranger in a Strange Land (his most famous work), Friday, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and Job:  A Comedy of Justice. Amazon’s Robert Heinlein page may be found at

Enjoy, and, if you have book recommendations of your own, I invite you to leave them in a comment to this post.