Today in Choice Architecture: Healthy Lunches are Terrible and Google is an Adequate Home Page

If you use Firefox as your browser, your default search engine is Google. This means two things: 1) there’s probably a search bar on your browser, and that bar probably says Google on it and 2) your default homepage has a Google search bar in it. Like so.

Evidently, Mozilla, who manages Firefox was in a position to get a 3-year contract from Google for $300 million per year so long as they continued doing things the way they have been. And apparently this is pretty much the only way Mozilla makes money. Like, upwards of 90% of its revenue in recent years.

This may seem like a fucking ton of money to spend on something that people can easily change (i.e. their homepage), or at least it might until you realize that until this year, the number one browser in every previous year has been Internet Explorer or some other Microsoft offering. Internet Explorer has historically been terrible, but because of its status as the default browser with Microsoft operating systems, it has at times controlled the market to a somewhat anti-trust-inducing degree despite having a bad product. But still, it’s narrowly in second place despite its reputation as the number one browser for downloading a better browser. Ironically enough, its Google’s own browser, Chrome that is now number one and cutting into both IE and Firefox.

I’m not sure what the point of this all is, except to say that the way Google makes its money is when people click on advertisers’ links, and the way those advertisers make money is when people buy their goods/services. And so, presumably Google’s share of that money must be a small portion of the advertisers’ profits on any individual sales. And that Mozilla now will get a small share of Google’s small share, but only on customers that it directs, and the only influence they have are a default home page and a search bar. And that small share of a small share is worth $300 million annually. As it turns out, there are times when changing default choices can be remarkably powerful. And then you read something like this

For many students, L.A. Unified’s trailblazing introduction of healthful school lunches has been a flop. Earlier this year, the district got rid of chocolate and strawberry milk, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, nachos and other food high in fat, sugar and sodium. Instead, district chefs concocted such healthful alternatives as vegetarian curries and tamales, quinoa salads and pad Thai noodles.

There’s just one problem: Many of the meals are being rejected en masse. Participation in the school lunch program has dropped by thousands of students. Principals report massive waste, with unopened milk cartons and uneaten entrees being thrown away. Students are ditching lunch, and some say they’re suffering from headaches, stomach pains and even anemia. At many campuses, an underground market for chips, candy, fast-food burgers and other taboo fare is thriving.

Acknowledging the complaints, L.A. Unified’s food services director, Dennis Barrett, announced this month that the menu would be revised. Hamburgers will be offered daily. Some of the more exotic dishes are out, including the beef jambalaya, vegetable curry, pad Thai, lentil and brown rice cutlets, and quinoa and black-eyed pea salads. And the Caribbean meatball sauce will be changed to the more familiar teriyaki flavor.

Take that, Cass R. Sunstein and Richard H. Thaler! As it turns out, people will happily switch from pizza to Cheetos, rather than eating pad Thai or whatever. The lesson is as always, that when you weigh the benefits of something, it’s important to weigh the costs as well. The Google-Mozilla thing costs nobody anything. Anyone who wants to opt out can, but ultimately, leaving Google as your homepage is pretty benign, and it wouldn’t make much of a difference if it were Bing, or even Ask Jeeves or something instead of Google. A search engine is a pretty harmless default and many people don’t know or care how to change their home page anyway.

However: if you take away kids’ junk food that they love (and, it must be said, withstands mass production and long-term storage much better than fruits and vegetables) and replace it completely with weeks-old health food, then you’ve gone well beyond a little nudge in the right direction and are out and out shoving people into meals they don’t want to eat. Oh, and Americans are like, or something.

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