Monthly Archives: June 2012

Book Notes: An Economist Gets Lunch

I read Tyler Cowen’s new book An Economist Gets Lunch a few months ago and, as a total non-foodie, I enjoyed broadening my perspective on a variety of issues related to food and dining around the world. Sometimes Tyler draws on economic theory to explain cuisine and offer dining tips; sometimes he just draws on his own bottomless well of travel experiences to teach you how to find, say, the perfect tortilla. In either case, I found myself highlighting many sentences on my Kindle, all of which are reproduced below as direct quotes (emphases my own).

Cheap, quick food—including its embodiment through our sometimes obnoxious agribusiness corporations—is the single most important advance in human history. It is the foundation of modern civilization and the reason why most of us are alive. Before there was an Industrial Revolution, which eventually brought the conveniences of modern life, there was an Agricultural Revolution, which created a large enough social surplus to make further economic development possible. It enabled us to pull people off the farm and employ them as scientists, engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs.

Foreigners have had a skewed picture. The further away a foreign country, the less likely they will see the fresh foods of the United States. The less likely they will see the barbecue or taste the fresh corn of the Midwest or sample the vegetables that are commonplace throughout much of the year in Alabama. The foreigners will, however, be familiar with our canned, prepackaged, and frozen items, namely everything we are good at shipping. Americans see less of the prepackaged foods of Europe, if only because Europe has less expertise in transporting food for long distances. Our European food memories are of wine, cured ham, and fresh strawberries; the Europeans get from us McDonald’s and frozen pizza. So while some of their criticisms of American food culture are correct, those criticisms also are not balanced.

The puritanical American attitudes toward alcohol, as codified in the law, are a major reason why our food and our dining stayed backward for so long.

One commentator of the time referred to a “gastronomic holocaust.” A British visitor noted “the wholesale assassination of the charm and pleasure of dining… practically every restaurant is a sepulcher.” The Saturday Evening Post argued that American gastronomy had been destroyed.

In addition to the loss of profits on drinks, no public restaurant could use a sauce with wine. French restaurants were almost completely abandoned, as this was before nouvelle cuisine and related movements made wine-based sauces less central to fine cooking. Most French chefs in the United States were walking the streets, looking for work, or they took a steamship back home.

Even after the negative shocks of war and national Prohibition were over, American dining still was not left free to grow and improve. Many state and county liquor laws continued for decades after these events. Texas allowed the sale of alcohol in restaurants only in 1971. A restaurant boom followed. Many counties still have dry laws. While the exact numbers fluctuate, of the 120 counties of Kentucky, 55 are dry and 35 more have partial restrictions on alcohol. Of the 254 counties in Texas, 74 are completely dry; more than half of the counties in Arkansas are dry. It is estimated that about eighteen million Americans live in dry areas. This overregulation has shackled innovation and also reflects broader and anti-alcohol attitudes. The United States did not really focus on wine, or wine as a complement to good food

Recent immigrants aside, Americans spoil and cater to their children more than do other countries. We buy them more toys, read more books about how to bring them up, and give them larger allowances to spend. Dr. Spock’s best-selling 1946 book told parents to cater to the needs of their children flexibly. Europeans often express their amazement at the child-centered nature of U.S. culture, how much we are always running to please the little tykes, and how little respect we give our elderly.

One of the most important strategies in dining is asking the waiter or waitress what to get. It is important to phrase the question properly. Think about the waiter’s incentives. Waiters often have an incentive to push a high-margin item or to market a standard dish, which the kitchen has prepared in large numbers that evening. This is true not only at expensive restaurants but is true especially at some kinds of expensive restaurants, in particular those that serve lots of tourists or non-regular or somewhat ill-informed customers. So don’t just ask the waiter “What should I get?” The waiter will likely direct you to the most high-margin item on the menu, and even more likely to want to get rid of you quickly so as to move on to his next task. The waiter probably thinks you are no smarter, in culinary terms, than the average face he hasn’t seen before. He will tend to remember his most stupid customers and this will lead him to associate you with them. As a default, walk into a restaurant expecting the waiter or waitress to have an insulting assessment of you, no matter how polite he or she may seem on the surface. They are used to idiots and they are used to people who don’t tip as well as they ought to, and for all they know you are one of them. I go at them pointedly. Even scurrilous waiters want a tip and they will relent in pushing their weak dishes if you stand up for yourself and signal your commitment to making every meal count. One way to proceed is to ask the waiter “What is best?”

The larger the number of restaurants serving the same ethnic cuisine in a given area, the more likely the food they serve is good. Why? Restaurants that are competing against each other can’t rest on their laurels. They are appealing to an informed customer base; and they can participate in a well-developed supply chain for key ingredients. In other words, a town that has only a single Indian restaurant probably does not have a very good Indian restaurant.

If you’re reading online reviews, don’t be too put off by negative reviews per se; any place that takes chances will have its detractors. Instead, focus on the positive reviews. How long are they? How smart and committed do they sound? If so, give it a try.

Most barbecue restaurants in North Carolina open early, but now more out of tradition than economics. The food is cooked in advance and then either frozen or placed in a heater. Sometimes the food sits for as long as a week;

If you don’t use sauces, sides, and condiments, as they were intended, your Vietnamese meal is almost certainly going to be far worse than it otherwise would be. The food will be either too dry or discordant.

If you are ordering bread in an Indian restaurant, your best chance at freshness is to order the bread least likely to be ordered by others, because it will require special preparation. Be pleased if you end up waiting.

Sadly, malnutrition (not obesity) remains the biggest global food problem by far. If it’s not starvation, severe hunger remains common in some parts of the world. It is suggested that there are more than one billion malnourished people in the world and almost one billion undernourished people.

India has perhaps more hungry people than any country in the world today, and it has been a democracy since the late 1940s.

The problem is worse because the United States is increasing its demands for foodstuffs through the use of biofuels, most of all corn-based ethanol. To put ethanol in gasoline, the government has to mandate that the private sector buys up a lot of corn and turns it into gasoline. This is a popular program in Iowa, and thus it is popular with many politicians, but it is reviled by both economists and environmentalists. It costs a lot more money than does traditional gasoline, once the cost of the subsidy is included. Sadly, it doesn’t even make the environment a cleaner place. The energy expended in growing and processing the corn is an environmental cost too, just as traditional gasoline would be; for instance the nitrogen-based fertilizers used for the corn are major polluters. Ethanol subsidies are a lose-lose policy on almost every front, except for the corn farmers and some politicians, especially those who care about the Iowa political caucuses.

The biggest losers of course are the people in poor countries who now face higher prices for food. For millions of them, it is literally a matter of life and death and yet we proceed with ethanol for no good reason. It is a sign of our political dysfunctionality. During the second half of 2010, the price of corn in the United States rose 73 percent and much of that increase is attributed to biofuels; about 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop now goes into biofuels.

Arguably government policies toward agriculture are the worst and most ill-conceived set of government policies in the entire world.

That’s one reason (we’ll see more reasons in the next chapter) why locavores have such a misguided philosophy. It overlooks that some parts of the world are running out of water and that trade of food—often long-distance trade—is the best or indeed the only real answer to that problem. Very often, trading across a distance solves more environmental problems than it creates.

GMOs already have had a big impact. In 1995, GMOs (in the modern sense of that term) were brought to market, and by 2010 over fifteen million farmers in twenty-nine countries were using them, though the vast majority of these crops are grown in the United States, Brazil, and Argentina. They currently account for about 94 percent of the soy crops and 88 percent of the corn crops in the United States. That’s mostly because they are easier to grow, more robust, and capable of producing more food more cheaply. The truth is that 300 million Americans, and millions of visitors to this country, have been eating these crops since the mid-1990s, without serious evidence of any ill effects or serious negative effects on the environment.

It’s true that giving poor people more money would help them buy food—but, whether we like it or not, the rest of the world isn’t that charitable and won’t be anytime soon. In the meantime, lower food prices help poor people get more to eat. GMOs increase the supply of food, thereby lowering food prices and feeding the poor, just as the Green Revolution did. It’s a sad kind of economic illiteracy—all too common in GMO critiques—that does not grasp this simple mechanism.

If we move beyond the bromides and look to formal laboratory studies, there are some startling (but perhaps not surprising) results. For instance, given a choice, a lot of people prefer to actually be wasteful than to do something that feels wasteful. In experimental settings, people hate the feeling of “I could have gotten this for less” and they will engage in wasteful behavior, such as inefficient methods of search, to keep that feeling at bay. This is part of our general tendency to incur costs to avoid a feeling of regret or inadequacy—and this is a testament to our powers of rationalization.

A consumer psychology study conducted by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong found that consuming “green products” does not make us better people. If anything, buying green products seems to encourage individuals to be less moral. In a series of experiments, the groups of individuals who were licensed to buy products in a “green store” had higher rates of cheating and lying during subsequent game-playing in the course of the experiment. That is, once they had assuaged their consciences with some green behavior, they became more rapacious and more self-seeking in other contexts.

Locavores—those who eat local foods, either mostly or exclusively—are also pursuing a feel-good attitude rather than effectiveness. In a lot of cases you shouldn’t worry much about where your food comes from. The shipping of food is only a small part of its total energy cost, no more than 14 percent by one U.S. government estimate. According to Rich Pirog, who developed food-miles analysis, transportation is only 11 percent of the total energy cost of food.

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What I’ve Been Reading

A brief round up of recent books:

1. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith. A great collection of non-fiction essays from one of my favorite writers, Zadie Smith. Savor sentences like “It’s a feeling of happiness that knocks me clean out of adjectives” throughout varied journalistic and literary essays.

2. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. If you’re not familiar with heursitics and biases, this is a good roundup volume of Kahneman’s groundbreaking research. I personally didn’t find much new here since I follow the field pretty closely already.

3. Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom by Catherine Hakim. I didn’t learn much beyond what’s stated in the subtitle: physical attractiveness matters in a big way in business. There were a few interesting, random stats sprinkled throughout — like Hugh Hefner says he’s had about 2,000 lovers and that half of women have never masturbated — but nothing big stuck with me.

4. Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State by William Voegeli. A thoughtful, steady look at the growing size of America’s welfare programs. The promises government has made to the people are unaffordable, as Voegeli shows. Yet so often, on ideas for how to fix it, you hear about taxing rich or cutting military programs. The tax-the-rich debate especially is a distraction. As Charles Kesler recently put it, “Not even the most piratical of liberal tax collectors could extort enough money from the rich to pay the enormous bills coming due.” We need bigger reform of the entitlement programs.

5. Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton. I wanted to love this, but tentatively decided that economics may not be the best primary lens through which to think about this topic. I did love the paragraphs on Erving Goffman, though. He’s awesome.

6. The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup by Noam Wasserman. Among academics, Noam is one of the most respected by startup folks. His latest book focuses on classic tradeoffs entrepreneurs have to make when getting a business going. He writes clearly, cites research and specific examples, and covers a lot of ground on everything from financing to co-founder relationships. I’ll be keeping this to my reference library for consultation in the future.

Where the Hell is Matt? 2012 Edition

Required viewing. Tell me this doesn’t make you want to buy a ticket to somewhere, anywhere right away…

What’s Driving Class Bifurcation?

On the economic and cultural gap between the so-called “Whole Foods people” (which has become a class in itself) and “Wal-Mart people”:

The vectors driving American class bifurcation are fundamental: the decline in demand for low-skilled labor, the rise in earning power and independence of women, the desire of people with talent and education to marry each other and socialize together. None of these things is likely to change, or even necessarily should change. Unless we abolish farm machinery and factory automation, good low-skilled jobs are never coming back. Women are not going to renounce their economic and social freedom. Yale-educated moms are not often going to marry high-school-educated dads.

Notice, too, how the vectors intersect with and reinforce each other. Low earnings and poor job prospects make men less marriageable, so women enter the work force without marrying, making work more optional for men and men more optional for women. More kids are thus born to single moms, who tend to wind up poor, disadvantaging the kids. Meanwhile, the very fact of not marrying reduces men’s earnings, so the less men marry the less they earn, and the less they earn the less they marry. As all the little gears and wheels turn, lower-class neighborhoods grow more disorganized and isolated. Wash, rinse, repeat.

That’s from Jonathan Rauch’s informative and eloquent review of Charles Murray’s latest book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010.

Other sentences from the review:

…marriage and family structure have surpassed race in determining socioeconomic standing. (If you are an unborn baby choosing parents and you want to avoid poverty, you should pick married black parents over unmarried white ones.)…

In my view (shaped by living and working in Britain), the overriding fact about Europe’s social systems and norms is their similarity to America’s, not their differentness; Europhobia, in my view, is one of modern conservatism’s more curious and unattractive tics.

How to Take Intelligent Risk and Become Resilient to Anything

Reid and I wrote a long post on how to take intelligent risk in your career and become resilient to anything. It contains some of my favorite material from one of the key chapters of The Start-Up of You. Leave a comment over on the 4HWW post, introduce yourself, and tell us:

– What change do you want to make in your career in the next 30-60 days? (e.g. Change jobs, ask for a raise, find a new opportunity within your company)
– How are you thinking about the risk involved in this move?

We’ll select the person who leaves the most thoughtful comment no later than 5pm PST, June 21 (Thursday), and personally invest in making that person’s next career move successful.

Here’s what we can offer:

– Over email and in a 30-minute phone call, we’ll suggest relevant opportunities, key people to meet, and provide motivational support. The initial 30-minute call will be with me (Ben), and the follow-up emails will include Reid.
– Two signed copies of The Start-Up of You.
– Your story will be highlighted in our LinkedIn Group.
– Free Linkedin Premium subscription


New to this blog? Here are some popular posts over the years.

Book Review: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney is a fascinating book about one of the most important traits in a successful person: self-discipline. The authors present a blend of research and practical how-to tips.

Their most famous claim (based on Baumeister’s noted research) has to do with the relationship between your glucose level and your willpower; if you buy the claim that they’re connected, you should have a strategy around glucose intake when you’re planning to make tough decisions or avoid procrastination or otherwise exert willpower.

Here are some detailed notes from LessWrong. Here are Derek Sivers’ notes. Both are thorough summaries. I’ve included some additional highlights below.

The old advice that things will seem better in the morning has nothing to do with daylight, and everything to do with depletion. A rested will is a stronger will.

“We simply ask our managers and other workers to set their top goals for the week,” Patzer says. “You can’t have more than three goals, and it’s fine if you have less than three. Each week we go over what we did last week and whether we met those goals or not, and then each person sets the top three goals for this week. If you only get goals one and two done, but not three, that’s fine, but you can’t go off working on other goals until you’ve done the top three. That’s it—that’s how we manage. It’s simple, but it forces you to prioritize, and it’s rigorous.”

Netherlands analyzed dozens of studies of people with high self-control, they found that these self-disciplined people did slightly better than average at controlling their weight, but the difference wasn’t as marked as in other areas of their lives.

The less-inspiring explanation is “warehousing,” to borrow a term used by some skeptical sociologists to explain what high school does. They see school as a kind of warehouse that stores kids during the day, keeping them out of trouble, so that its benefits come less from what happens in the classroom than from what doesn’t happen elsewhere.

George Loewenstein calls the “hot-cold empathy gap”: the inability, during a cool, rational, peaceful moment, to appreciate how we’ll behave during the heat of passion and temptation.

The Privilege of Standing in an Airport Security Line

Malcolm Gladwell, in an online exchange with Bill Simmons, had two noteworthy paragraphs. The first:

I was in the Orlando airport not long ago, waiting in one of those endless security queues, when I looked up and saw that the ticket agent was escorting someone to the head of the line. She takes him past at least a hundred people and inserts him right in front of the conveyer belt. He wasn’t in a hurry. In fact, the guy turned out to be on the same flight I was, which didn’t leave for another hour. Who was it? Ray Lewis. Two things. One — there is no way she does that for anyone but a sports star. She would have stopped Albert Einstein if his driver’s license looked a little fishy. Second — no one said anything. We all just kind of nodded and looked at each other and said, “Cool! Ray Lewis.” Here’s a man who makes millions of dollars for hitting people really hard and it somehow makes complete sense to the rest of us that he should be able to cut in ahead of teachers, salesmen, nurses, working moms, and hack writers. If you are someone like Ray Lewis and that kind of thing happens to you every single day of the year, how do you stay normal? Standing in line in airports and other everyday rituals of modern life are the kinds of things that civilize us: As annoying as they are, they remind us that we are all equal and they teach us patience, and they grant us a kind of ultimately useful anonymity. Ray Lewis and celebrities of his ilk never have the privilege of those moments. By the way, Lewis was wearing a daring ochre, Caribbean-style pantsuit that, at some future point, deserves its own Grantland exposé. So yes. It’s not easy being LeBron.

And the second, on the LeBron theme and on his taking his talents to South Beach:

A quick thought experiment on LeBron James. A young, white 22-year-old from a nice, preppy upper-middle class family graduates from Oberlin and goes to work for a small-market investment bank in downtown Cleveland. He quickly establishes himself as a brilliant trader, possessed of a freakish instinct for the markets. He makes his bank hundreds of millions of dollars. But he wants to take his talents to Wall Street, where he can be surrounded by other great traders and have access to global capital markets. When his contract is up in Cleveland, he shops around before agreeing to join the legendary trading desk at Goldman Sachs, at what turns out to be a slight cut in pay. On his first day on the job, he’s interviewed on CNBC about his “decision,” and he predicts that his skills in combination with the talent already at Goldman will earn billions of dollars for Goldman’s clients in the years to come. Is there a single person in the financial world who would raise even an eyebrow about that guy’s behavior?

How to Make Past Experiences Meaningful

Recently, I attended a birthday party in Las Vegas.

On Saturday morning, we rented a cabana at a day-time pool party scene that supposedly is the place to see and be seen in Vegas during the day. We had a good time. The sun was out, the people watching was lively, the food and drink were flowing. It was fun, but also expensive and a bit overcrowded. When I left the party, I gave it a 6.5 out of 10 on the fun scale (taking into account the $$$ required to get in).

Then something interesting happened. Later that night, the group of guys on the trip assembled around the dining room table in the birthday boy’s hotel suite. While eating pizza, we spent 90 minutes informally sharing our memories of the day. “Remember when….?” “Wasn’t it crazy when….?” “Can you believe….?” “Check out this photo of….” We immortalized certain phrases and performed reenactments of key exchanges. Embellishment of detail served the larger mission of hilarity. “That one girl ate a lot of our chips” became “That girl who parked herself next to the bar and stuffed her face full of nachos.”

By the time the pizza boxes were emptied out, the pool party earlier in the afternoon seemed positively epic. I felt closer to the people with whom I had shared the experience. And those feelings persist today.

Happiness research is clear: buy experiences, not things. Experiences make us happy in part because experiences often generate vivid memories, and memories we can recall over and over with pleasure, whereas we quickly adapt to purchased goods like a new car or house.

At the birthday party I was reminded that buying experiences is a start, but we want those experiences to be meaningful. Humans crave meaning. And we will do what it takes — which includes deluding ourselves slightly — to assign meaning to the events in our lives.

One way to do this is through a social process of collective remembering. You can backdate meaning to experienced events by doing postmortems, debriefings, retellings, memory sharing.

So yes, buy experiences over things. (Preferably experiences involving other people.) And keep in mind that for those experiences that’ve already occurred, it’s not too late to make them meaningful: get a group of friends together, and walk down memory lane…