Food Lessons from an Ecomomist

Tyler Cowen’s “An Economist Gets Lunch” is pretty self indulgent. Firstly, Cowen really loves his food and is happy to share his enthusiasm for high quality meals. The second sense of self-indulgence is of an academic doing what he loves. I don’t mean to imply this negatively; when people do what they love it can often make for great results. That said, I don’t especially love food, and I’m not sure I can recommend the extensive descriptions of great meals that Cowen has eaten around the world. (Given he isn’t that much older than me I’m not sure how he managed to a) fit all these meals in, and b) visit quite so many places to eat.)

Cowen’s is one of many books that seek to sneak economic lessons into discussions of something else. The ratio of interesting points to random text about food is a bit low to my non-foodie perspective — but some bits of the book are quite interesting. The idea is that an economist’s perspective can help explain certain food related puzzles. An especially interesting discussion is when Cowen explains how he thinks prohibition, and a few others things, hurt the quality of US restaurants. Without the margins from alcohol the best restaurants found it hard to keep going given the drink profits could no longer subsidize the food. Connected to this children became more important to dining. Together these factors meant that adventurous, high quality meals simply weren’t rewarded by customers.  U.S. restaurants moved towards cheaper and quicker meals that could work the facilities more, i.e. get more throughput of diners.

As is typical in a lot of economists’ books he has some potentially provocative things to say. He isn’t a fan of eating local, at least as the only strategy to help the planet. He also defends agribusiness (a little). He doesn’t like “mediocre frozen and canned food.. but don’t damn commercialization for that reason. The printing press brought us both and bad novels…” (Cowen, 2013, Page 10).

If you love food this might be a great way to ingest your economic lessons.

Read: Tyler Cowen, (2013) An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, Penguin