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.

Even if there is a way to manage local food for millions, it would put an immense strain on already overburdened and heavily subsidized water systems. The environment is better off if the residents of Albuquerque import most of their food from far away. It feels greener to buy from the local farmer than to patronize a large, multinational banana company, perhaps with a dubious political history at that. But there’s nothing especially virtuous about the local farmer, even if it feels good to affiliate with him. Sometimes the local apple is put into refrigerated cold storage for several months, which of course consumes energy. It would be better to buy a fresher apple, sent by boat from further abroad.

I’m skeptical of most boycotts. Boycotts are a morally popular stance, but often they are not effective and thus I view many boycotts as a way of feeling good about ourselves.

Studies of successful boycotts bear out this prediction. Brayden King of Northwestern University, who has studied the issue, finds that boycotts are most likely to succeed when they are directed against declining companies with good reputations. Those companies fear a further loss of business and thus they respond, to some degree, to address the concerns of the boycotters. The notion of finding a declining company corresponds to how I am pinpointing the importance of an unprofitable or not very profitable company.

Unlike a lot of other fish, sardines are in no danger of running out and they are at the bottom of the food chain, not the top. They also taste good out of a can, so they are always handy for a meal.

Up through 1917 there were few restrictions on migration from Mexico. The Border Patrol started only in 1924 and even then casual crossing continued at high levels for decades. To this day, many people live in Juárez but work in El Paso, crossing daily with special work passes.

Higher rents mean that the waterfront is dominated by higher-volume, higher-expenditure activities. Restaurants near the water require high turnover. This usually necessitates a bar, a heavy investment in décor, and a polished atmosphere. Volume must be correspondingly higher, which means that they will order their fish from larger-scale and better-organized suppliers. The fish will be processed, stored, and maybe frozen or refrozen to a much greater degree than is the case in Tijuana.

Tourists are often impressed by Mexican offerings of fruit. Visitors to Cancún are often amazed by the quality of the fresh pineapple. The better restaurants in Cíudad Juárez have more and better fruit juices than would be found in an American-Mexican restaurant. But many of these offerings are not affordable to most Mexicans. Many Mexicans consume only their locally grown fruits, such as watermelon, oranges, guava, peaches, papayas, mangoes, pineapples, as well as tunas, capulines, nanchis, mamey, jocote, nance, or quince, among other options, varying by region. These fruits will be high in quality and fresh but usually available only seasonally and in some parts of the country. Good supermarket fruits are expensive and hard to come by.

What Jodi understands is that eating out while traveling isn’t just about the food, it’s also a quest. It’s a chance to create an adventure, a memory, a connection to the local culture; and it’s also a chance to help define what your trip, and indeed your life, is about. Traveling can spur the realization that eating is a creative art.

Population density shapes the commercial structure of the city, including the dining. Within a few hours of the city center there are tens of millions of potential customers and they support an unprecedented density and variety of commercial activity.

Layer 1, Japanese food: Americans are used to the idea of an all-purpose Japanese restaurant with tempura, sushi, noodle dishes, tonkatsu, and so on. This horrifies the Japanese, who expect a restaurant to specialize in one of these genres. A good rule of thumb is to find a restaurant that serves from only one of these food areas and then eat there.

(Indian food, which often simmers, is especially well-suited to the buffet format.)

India is also probably the world’s best country for eating vegetarian. Even if you’re not vegetarian, I find that many of the best dishes in the Indian hotel restaurants are the vegetables. (You’re also less likely to get sick eating vegetarian there, because there is no question of what the animals have been eating.)

Here’s another way of putting the point. More people enjoy Parisian Michelin-starred restaurants than ever before. But mediocre food is now remarkably cheap, and Parisians are going to pay more for the better stuff only if they’re really interested in it. And that brings us to the result: In Paris the food is more splendid, but you have to pay a higher premium than before for the fanciest meals. What this means is that if you stop on the boulevard of the Champs-Élysées for a random meal, it’s probably not going to be special. I’d rather eat in the suburbs of San Diego.

5 comments on “Book Notes: An Economist Gets Lunch
  • God, I’d hate to be a server to this belligerent gastronome Tyler Cowen, the Max Headroom of partisan economics, what with his hateful mindset towards the ‘help’. He’s probably a 15% man, max.

    Not sure why an economist who’s been wrong about almost everything (Ireland, IS-LM, “structural” unemployment problems, unemployed workers having a zero marginal product, calling the rebuilding of East German infrastructure fiscal stimulus, et al.) is supposed to have some special insight into the economics of food; but I can certainly understand why a man who advises you to enjoy your expensive French cuisine in Japan rather than France feels such visceral antipathy for locavorism.

    I wouldn’t want to do without my Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, but I am glad that Italy heavily regulates its production (take that, Invisible Hand).

    It’s weird that a foodie should write so dispassionately about food, especially one who has a mouth just made for eating lots and lots of tortillas (his waistline would indicate that it does).

    Does he mention that one of the reasons the US has cheap food is that corn production by giant corporate agribusiness farms (pdf) is heavily subsidized by the federal government?

    And, as any Frenchwoman can tell you, no man who politicizes dining could possibly be any good in bed– you’re not fucking a human, you’re fucking a dining room table.

  • Michael, thanks for your reply, but I’m not going to respond to most of your remark, because you ignore everything else I said, of course. I will be quick to admit that I might be wrong about something, but it may come as news to you that I am not dogmatically against agricultural subsidies. I know this doesn’t address your point, but I’m really not interested in anything Tyler Cowen has to say– I think he’s dishonest. He hasn’t admitted he was wrong about much of anything, and is rewriting his own history. I decided he was a shill for the Koch brothers when I found out he supervises work by professional liar Veronique de Rugy at Mercatus, who routinely uses false data (a polite way of saying she falsifies data).

    By the way, hip and conservative is an oxymoron.

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