By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Soup, a sandwich and deficit reduction

donation box

I recently saw a fascinating article in The Boston Globe that caught my eye, both on its own terms and in terms of possible implications for government.

The article was about the sandwich chain Panera Bread establishing a new "Panera Cares Café" in downtown Boston. The café, owned by the Panera Bread Foundation, looks like any other Panera Bread outlet and has the same menu. However, it has no cash registers. Instead, the menu shows suggested prices for each item. People who can afford it are asked to put that amount or more into collection baskets in the restaurant; those who cannot may eat for free or for whatever amount they feel they can pay. Panera is only asking/hoping that the café will cover its costs; there is no expectation that the outlet will make a profit for the company.

My first reaction to this story was that this is a wonderful idea, and an innovation. Some creative person thought up the idea of giving paying customers at the café the opportunity to keep the operation going for those who can’t afford to pay. This kind of approach was pioneered in India several decades ago, where the Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai used revenues from paying eye surgery patients to fund free operations to save impoverished villagers from cataract-induced blindness.

In a strange (and not quite analogous) way, the gift shops that are now a major source of museum revenue represent a similar idea, namely getting revenue from one group of customers to fund or partly fund a nonprofit operation that otherwise would be dependent on donations.

So a shout-out to Panera Bread for doing this. (I hope it is not abused by people who could afford to pay and choose not to, or by people taking large amounts of food from the restaurant, perhaps for resale.)

I bring up this story in my blog, though, for slightly different reasons related to government management. First, to remind those in government of the power of innovative ideas. I doubt this idea was associated with profit-and-loss responsibility or financial reward. It was just thinking creatively, something that government folks should be able to do just as well.

Second (and much more speculatively – indeed, some may think I'm crazy), I wonder whether some government agencies might experiment with a version of this idea. I like to believe that there are at least some Americans who would like to make a contribution beyond their taxes, however small, to reducing the federal deficit.

People are of course in principle free to pay more taxes than they owe, but when we fork over our taxes, we are probably thinking more about how much we are paying, and not very much in the mood to help more. But what if some government agencies made available the possibility of an additional voluntary donation towards deficit reduction in the context of paying fees for various government-provided services, such as getting a passport or buying tickets to national parks?  Obviously, at best the amount of money such contributions would raise would be the tiniest of drops in the deficit ocean. But it would give citizens a chance to show patriotic engagement – and perhaps send a signal to politicians about some willingness to sacrifice in order to get our deficit down.

OK, so maybe I’m crazy. Any reactions?

Posted on Jan 29, 2013 at 12:09 PM


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