Russ Roberts

Cowen on Food

EconTalk Episode with Tyler Cowen
Hosted by Russ Roberts
PRINT
Autor on Disability... Taylor on Rules, Discretion, a...

Tyler Cowen of George Mason U. and author of An Economist Gets Lunch, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about food, the economics of food, and his new book. In this wide-ranging conversation, Cowen explains why American food was once a wasteland, the environmental impacts of plastic and buying local, why to stay away from fancy restaurants in the central city, and why he spent a month shopping only at an Asian supermarket while living in Northern Virginia.

Size: 28.4 MB
Right-click or Option-click, and select "Save Link/Target As MP3.

Readings and Links related to this podcast

Podcast Readings
HIDE READINGS
About this week's guest: About ideas and people mentioned in this podcast:

Highlights

Time
Podcast Highlights
HIDE HIGHLIGHTS
0:36Intro. [Recording date: April 16, 2012.] Russ: I kind of felt like saying, when I introduced this podcast, was this past week was on disability insurance; before that was on inequality; we've done a lot on the financial crisis: I felt like saying: "And now for saying something completely different." We're going to talk about today the economics of food and your love of food; and I want to start by asking you to talk about what a foodie is to you and what role food plays in your life. Guest: Well, let's start with economics. Early economics is the economics of food. If you read Adam Smith, if you read David Ricardo, so a lot of the early economics I read was classical economics. So, for me economics has always been economics of food. But as a foodie, I'd say I started in my early 20s. My food upbringing was quite conservative. Decent quality, but nothing unusual; no real diversity. And I was living in Germany, a completely foreign food environment; and I started trying to make sense of it using economics. Russ: And the rest is history. So, what would you say? You have a food blog? Guest: That's right. Russ: And you spend a lot of time--it seems to me, which is maybe not possible given how much time you spend on other things, but you seem to spend a reasonable amount of time trying to find good food and eat it. Is that accurate? Guest: I enjoy traveling around. I think it's very important if you live in Northern Virginia to be an anthropologist of suburbia, and to focus on food and to learn that one area very well. It's a good way of doing that. So I feel I'm doing social science. And the notion of taking small things and studying them in great detail--food for me is a window onto that perspective. Plus, it tastes good. Russ: And, do you think you are unusual in how much you enjoy food? Or would you say it's an intellectual experience, this combination of social science and gustatory habit? Guest: I'm not sure I would accept a distinction between the intellectual and the emotional side. But if you think of food, sex, and sleep as three primeval pleasures that virtually all human beings enjoy, I take the simple view that we should regard those things quite seriously. And the book is about one of them. Why should we not? It's in a sense the higher realms of culture, which are maybe a bit phony in some ways compared to food, sex, and sleep. Russ: Is finishing this book going to change anything for you, food-wise? Guest: I've eaten more vegetarian food as a result of having written the book. And that's a good thing. That's the main change. Russ: But is, going forward, is your interest in food going to change now that you've finished a book about this phenomenon? Guest: Uh, less of my research will be about the history of food, by quite a bit. But other than that I don't think my life will change very much. Russ: You're still going to be interested in finding a really good barbecue place in North Carolina. Guest: Whatever it may be. Absolutely. Russ: I don't want to lose this. Why have you become more vegetarian since writing the book? Guest: I think it's unethical how we treat animals in factory farms. By eating less meat, you cut back on that, however minimally. It's also good for the environment to eat less meat. Russ: Because? Guest: There's a climate change problem resulting from a lot of animals, which emit methane. The impolite word is fart. If you have a vegetarian diet, to a greater extent you make some minimal inroads on that problem. Russ: By reducing the size of the cow herds of the world. Guest: That's correct. Russ: I understand you are not solving the problem, but you are not participating and you are making a small, incremental--marginal, as we might say-change toward the different level of methane emission. Guest: Yes. I don't feel it's ethically wrong to kill and eat animals per se. But I do feel how we treat animals before killing and eating them is wrong. Russ: Sometimes. Guest: Sometimes. But in this country quite often.
4:58Russ: And on the palate side, how have you found this change? Guest: Vegetarian food makes much more sense when you eat spicy food. So, one good way to become more vegetarian is simply to cultivate your own taste for spicy food. To just eat vegetables straight up, unless they are very good, as you might find in Italy or France--in an American supermarket they're mediocre. It's not going to stick with you. So, for a greater vegetarian diet to stick, it has to be somewhat incentive compatible. So, think in terms of how you can spice your lentils or season your cauliflower. Russ: Are you a student at all of this paleodiet [?] literature that suggests that we all have to eat meat and that overconsumption of carbohydrates, for example, is not good for us? In fact any consumption of carbohydrates, maybe sugar, is not good for us? Do you give any credence to that literature? Guest: I read about it. I agree with some of it. I'm not convinced by a lot of it. Refined sugar, I think there's a lot of evidence it's bad for us. A lot of the paleo people are fairly ant-vegetable along some margins. I don't see the evidence they are right there. I think they underestimate how quickly some parts of human evolution can occur; and the notion that we have had agriculture and have lived in cities for quite a while now, I think they under-rate. So, I think if your diet has a lot of vegetables, even vegetables with carbohydrates, that's probably fine. I think, say, bread in moderation is fine. So the notion that you should just eat fruit, nuts, meat, cheese, for the most part--I don't see that there's been a strong case backed by data made there. Russ: Saying that you should or shouldn't eat fruit, nuts, and cheese? Guest: The notion that you should only eat fruit, nuts, meat, cheese and some number of other things--basically low carb diet--I've never seen any well-done statistical study showing that has a serious payoff. Russ: But for many viewing Gary Taubes's--I've become skeptical of this argument, that fat is bad for you. And you do a couple of times in the book allude to the health effects of that. Do you have a position on fat? Guest: I haven't seen serious evidence that fat in moderation is bad for you. Russ: Yeah, I don't think it is. Guest: I agree. Russ: Interesting question.
7:16Russ: Now, the book opens with a sort of a defense and a state of the American cuisine. We don't have a great reputation--Americans don't--of a great place to eat. So, talk about that. Some of that is true. Some of that, you suggest, is not true. For the part that's true, you have some interesting explanations. So talk about that. Guest: Well, some of our bad reputation is an illusion, precisely because America shifts so many of its culinary products overseas. So, if you are at a McDonald's in Europe, it's not necessarily the case that the raw materials come from the United States, but the idea of McDonald's does. And it's not very good. So, in essence foreigners are getting a lot of the worst of our food; and they overgeneralize somewhat. To actually live here and eat here is quite pleasant, I find. You have a lot of choice. And a lot of it's very tasty. And there is a lot of healthy food available pretty readily. So the overall picture has gotten much better in the last 30-40 years. But American food for a lot of the 20th century was quite grim. I think a few of the culprits are that the child is given too much authority in the American family. Prohibition and WWII, which combined had very long lag effects actually--America doesn't become among its elites a wine-drinking culture comparable to Western Europe until the 1970s. And that helps support a notion of quality food. And I think also cutting off most immigration in the 1920s had disastrous effects for American food. So the typical narrative is: We had bad food because of big business and capitalism; and I want to say, to the extent it's true we had bad food, a lot of it was the fault of the law. Prohibition and also immigration restrictions. Russ: And then a cultural preference for children, which you explain in the book: but the idea that children like bland food in general, don't like exotic food. Guest: They want soft and sweet, and that's [?] for really good food for the most part.
9:12Russ: You travel an immense amount, relative to me anyway. When you were abroad--you go to Latin America, you go to Asia--are there American restaurants other than McDonald's? Are there places, is there anything identifiable as American cuisine to foreigners other than fast food? Guest: Depends what you count as an American restaurant. So, if you go to the Caribbean, say, Central America, you can find Pizza Hut; but it's not like Pizza Hut here. It's generally quite good. And people might go out for a special meal to Pizza Hut there. Is it American food? They've made it their own cuisine. And as pizza American to begin with, you can debate these points at length. But I would say Europeans have crystalized this notion of American food which a. doesn't exist as American, and it becomes a sort of whipping boy for American mass society. But I think food here right now is quite creative. If I fly to Western Europe I don't necessarily think I'm going to eat better there than here right now. Russ: But this question of American cuisine: You make one reference to the fact that it's a little bit like English cuisine. It's got a bad reputation. Not particularly well deserved. But I think when people think of American cuisine they think of either these sort of Americanish foods--not really American. A hamburger. Hamburgers and frankfurters are I think named after German cities. Guest: Absolutely. Russ: And pizza again, seems to be another import. We've made them our own in some dimension. But I think that's what Americans think of when they are living in an exotic or foreign cuisine and they come back to America. What they miss, or what they long for is hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza--things that, for better or for worse have become American. In a little bit we'll talk about barbecue which certainly has a distinctive American set of versions. But there isn't a cuisine quite that's American per se other than it's enriched by that immigrant population or event. Guest: I would define it by the diversity, and not by particular foodstuffs. So, American cuisine is the ability to choose Indian or Szechuan or Mexican-American or whatever else. That's American cuisine. Russ: Which again obviously is a result of that immigrant population. Guest: And it's strongest in the suburbs, so Europeans that come to visit America, they think they are going to try to real American food. They are walking around in the center of Boston--which is okay for food--but it's not necessarily the best stuff. They never see the glories of the ethnic foods in the suburbs; and they go home rather disappointed and they decide they are critics of McDonalds were maybe right all along. That's a mistake. Russ: And you talk in the book about role of the center-city restaurants, which is where many tourists are going to spend a lot of their time, versus the suburbs. Why are the suburbs a decent place or great place to eat in America? Guest: The suburbs often have better schools. Asians are attracted by better schools. So most of the best Asian restaurants in the United States are in suburbs. That's one big reason. But another big reason is you have lower rents; there is more space; there is more room for experimentation. You have more strip malls. And you get a richer mix. I wouldn't say it's richer than what's in Los Angeles, but the cities that do best actually do well by being suburb-like, such as parts of Los Angeles, or Queens and Brooklyn in NY. Russ: And as you point out, if you are paying a high rent you've got to generate a lot of volume. Guest: Hard Rock Café. Russ: You can't cater to a niche clientele. You have to cater to a group that is fairly large. Guest: Or be very expensive, like the wonderful places on the upper East side of Manhattan. But you can't go to those very often, if at all. Russ: And you would argue the food experience there is merely okay for the money, and not great. Guest: Well, for the money the food often tastes quite good. But is it worth $300, is it worth getting dressed up, is it worth the hassle of getting a reservation? Not obvious to me. Russ: Or not to Tyler. But obviously there are people who are purchasing other than the food at those places. Guest: No one can make it their daily food lives. So you are still left with the other question of what to do.
13:36Russ: Now, you detail in the book a rather interesting experiment, shopping for a month in an Asian supermarket. I'd like you to talk about why you did that and how it affected you. Guest: First, I think as human beings we all have status quo biases. So, we have our ruts. We have our food ruts, we have our supermarket ruts. I thought by shopping at this Chinese market for a full month, I could just get out of my ruts and see everything fresh. To me it was also an experiment in information processing. The notion that I could walk into a store not know how to find anything, and not be very good at figuring out how to find it--this was exciting. It's a way of discovering the world anew. And so I did it. And it was great. Russ: A little bit like being a tourist, but close to home, too. Guest: A little more radical than being a tourist. Russ: So, what was that like? I think the average person--when I started that chapter, I thought: How interesting is this going to be? But it turned out to be quite interesting. Talk about some of the experiences you had in that supermarket. Guest: I found myself gravitating very quickly to foods I could see and touch. Because I knew how to find them. Russ: A lot of jars you mention that had labels that didn't always have English and if they did, weren't easy to find the English. Guest: Jars; it was like Borges's Library of Babble. You knew it was there but you weren't going to find it. The greens were there; you grabbed them; much better selection, greens you wouldn't get elsewhere, anywhere else. All fresh, all delicious, completely changed how I eat, immediately. Russ: Six types of bok choy. Guest: Yes. I didn't even have to keep track of which was which. Just grabbed one, buy, it bring it home. It always worked. Russ: Always interesting and tasty. Guest: That's right. Russ: And talk about the seafood. Guest: There were dozens of kinds of seafood. A lot of it I didn't recognize. Not all of it smelled fresh to me. But there was just far more choice than in a Giant or Safeway. And it was cheaper. And again, you would just see what looked good and ask for some, bring it home saute it, put on some garlic, some ginger, some olive oil, whatever--it was almost certain to taste good. Russ: Did that not turn out so well, that seafood? Guest: No, it was fine, actually. I'm careful in what I buy. Russ: A number of times in the book you refer to the virtues of cultures and cuisines that have different standards, say, of preservation and health, safety, than America's, which is of course quite high for a variety of reasons, some admirable, some maybe not so admirable. And you often talk about eating, especially abroad, as an adventure; and you praise the virtues of it. Have there been any dark times in those adventures? You don't mention any of them in the book. Have you ever had some experiences abroad where you ended up prone for extended periods of time? Guest: Two times I've gotten very sick. The last was eating a breakfast buffet in Zurich, Switzerland; and that was right before I was supposed to debate Jeff Sachs. Russ: Not a third-world country. Guest: I believe it was from the raw fish. I don't know. But it went very badly. Russ: The debate or the meal? Guest: The meal. The debate, I won. In the mid-1980s, the first time I was in Mexico, eating restaurant food I got very sick. Since then I've eaten street food and I've done fine. Russ: Any advice for those in exotic places for safety, who want to be adventurous but are a little bit anxious about what they are doing? Guest: Well, cooked food is best; if you can see it, even better. I think street food is safer on average in most parts of the world. If you know a little bit about municipal water supply you'll be able to figure out a lot of things. I wouldn't eat a lot of street food in India, for instance. But in Mexico, I think it's the safest food. Russ: Going back to the supermarket--so, you stuck with a lot of greens. There were a lot of other things; you didn't just go greens and seafood. You did venture into the jars and other parts of the store, right? Guest: Sure. If you are willing to spend the time, you can find what you want. Delicious sauces and spices. Russ: And how did it end up? You talk about some of the longer term impacts of that one-month experience. How has it changed you? Guest: I think I have a better understanding now. If people are to eat more greens, it has to make sense for them economically and it has to taste good; and lecturing people about it is probably not going to work. And it worked for me immediately. I was a convert within an hour upon arrival. So, I think there are some broader food lessons we could take from that supermarket, that we also could take from India. If you go to a public function in India, the food is typically automatically vegetarian. And if you want meat, you can ask; they might be able to bring it. But you simply assume that tasty vegetarian food will be served. When you are in India, your inclination is to want to eat more vegetables. So, we could be more like that. Russ: Either for health or for policy reasons. Guest: For both, yeah.
18:45Russ: Who else shopped in that supermarket? Guest: It's mostly Asian and Chinese shoppers. There's a pretty decent contingent of Latinos who shop there, because it's cheap; and there's a whole aisle with Latino goods. So I also picked up Latino goods when I was there because a. it was there, and b. that was something I understood much better to begin with. You could always ask in Spanish because the staff in the store spoke Spanish, not Chinese. Russ: And you did a little research on how reliably different or similar this store was compared to its counterpart in China. Guest: That's right. I interviewed some people from China. Russ: And what did you find? Guest: They thought it was remarkably similar in terms of what it offered, to the extent that they were surprised. But they thought the quality of the fresh items was not quite up to China. Here there's a longer supply chain. In China, more of the food comes from right nearby. Russ: While we're on the subject of Asian food, we talked earlier about how American tastes, income change; imported food styles when they come to America. You've presumably--I know you've eaten a lot of Mexican food both in Mexico and the United States; and you have a very interesting chapter we'll get to later about why they are different and how they are different. But in general, with Asian cuisine, a lot of Americans love Chinese food. They love sushi, Japanese food; they love Thai food. What do Americans find when they go and eat authentic Japanese and Thai food? Guest: Well, it's a big surprise to them. So, a lot of the food in Thailand tastes quite bad, because of the ingredients. Your median Thai meal might be better here. But that said, the peaks of Thai food in Thailand are greater than here. Most so-called Chinese food in this country isn't Chinese at all--some strange hybrid; it's closer to American food. I think Szechuan cuisine translates the best because it's based on spices which can be dried and shipped to some extent. But Cantonese food doesn't really exist here at all. It relies too much on fresh seafood and good vegetables. Russ: But through most of the middle of the 20th century, Chinese food in the United States was Cantonese in some sense of origin. Why was it so bad? Guest: In some hybrid sense--a lot of carbohydrates, a lot of goo, no sharp flavors. I grew up eating some of this. It just wasn't very inspiring. I guess it was okay. You could do worse. Russ: But a Chinese person eating that food would not have recognized it, presumably. Guest: That's correct. And if you would have gone simply to an American seafood restaurant, say in 1970, and ordered a plain piece of fish, you would be getting something closer to Chinese food than going to a so-called Chinese restaurant in New Jersey. Russ: What about the meat-vegetable ratio? Guest: You mean how it's changed over time? Russ: No, about the United States versus China. Americans like meat. Guest: Far more meat here. Absolutely. Russ: But seafood you say would not be that different. Guest: Depends which part of China, of course. But if you think of relying more on seafood and vegetables, you'll have gentler flavors, sauces and spices will matter more, subtleties will matter more. Meat is more overwhelming. American places serve meat--beef with broccoli, maybe with some sweet sauce. Russ: Brown. Guest: There you go. Brown. Russ: As you call it; you talk about the ubiquitous brown sauce.
22:21Russ: Let's talk about Mexico for a minute. You've spent a lot of time there, and you highlight how distinctive Mexican cuisine is from American Mexican food, even in American cities that have large populations of Mexican residents. I think you focus on El Paso. A lot of interesting things there. Talk about some of those differences and why they are there. Guest: I made a number of trips to Mexico with the deliberate purpose of tracking down the Mexican food supply chain and actually visiting it as it works; and then as a cook I tried replicating the dishes. And the thing I found--it surprised me--is how many of the differences spring from the meats and the cheeses. Mexican meats tend to be richer in flavor, and the beef will be dry aged. And it's very hard to get that at a reasonable price in the United States. The Mexican cheese are gooier and richer. So, if you can replicate for your own cooking, Mexican meats and Mexican cheeses, you can actually come fairly close to a lot of Mexican dishes. But for legal and regulatory reasons, to do it the Mexican way in the United States simply doesn't work. And our Mexican food is very different, and typically it's worse. Russ: Talk about the labor intensity of dry-aged beef. I didn't know anything about how dry-aged beef is actually created. But as you point out it's created differently in Mexico than in the United States. Guest: The way it's done in Mexico, at a small scale, is you simply put it out and wait till it starts turning green. And you have people monitor it and shake off the flies. And it's not just labor intensive; it wouldn't pass Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspection standards. Yet I've eaten it many times; I'm perfectly fine with it. I'd love to get it here. U.S. dry-aged beef is done in a more systematic, better-regulated way, inside of large institutions. And it costs a lot more. It can be several times more than beef which is not dry-aged. So, you can get it here; it's just expensive. And most supermarkets won't carry it. Russ: The demand's not there. Guest: Yeah. Russ: So, the meat is different; the cheese is different. Anything else that's important? Guest: Well, fresh fruit. In Mexico typically it's seasonal. So, when something's in season, it's fantastic. Otherwise you don't get it. So, here you have more choice, but it's choice among mediocrities. There you are more likely to get things which are special. But you can't just walk into a Mexican Walmart and have all the fruits and vegetables you want year round the way you almost can do in the United States. Russ: Let's talk about that general issue. It intrigues me. I'd say, somewhere in the 1980s and 1990s it became a common belief that American produce--fruit and vegetables--was second rate. And part of the reason was this idea that it had a lot of preservatives; it was available maybe year round even, but not very good. It seems to me--maybe it's an illusion--the choices we have now, I'm assuming that that supply chain has gotten more efficient. But to me, the quality of fruit in the United States compared to 25 years ago seems greatly improved to me. In the following ways. First of all, it's perfect. Which consumers demand. You don't get a bag of apples of which half of them are kind of rotten and bruised and full of problems. They are all gorgeous. And if you don't like the bag you can pick them out yourself and leave the rotten ones behind. There's plenty to choose from in your average supermarket. The variety of apples: when I was younger it was Delicious, maybe Macintosh. Maybe something else. Now the profusion of apple selection and the relative flavor in them seems much greater than when I was younger. Citrus seems much better. A Costco navel orange is a magnificent thing. A red grapefruit there is spectacular. Has it gotten better? Am I imagining it? Guest: It's gotten better. But I think it's one area that still lags behind. If you go, say, to Chile, which is now quite a developed country, and you get a fresh fig when it's in season, or strawberries, I think they are a full order of magnitude better than what you get here. Even from the farmers' market. So, we have a ways to go. California is much better than most of the rest of this country. The West is better than the East. We're getting there. But I'd say it's where we lag the most, fruits and vegetables. Even at Whole Foods. I'm a big Whole Foods fan, but I don't think that much of their produce. Russ: What would it take to make it better? Do you have any idea why it's not as good? Guest: Distance and freezing and transport and the desire to have it year round are all problems to me. They are not problems to everyone. Russ: People are happy to have it. Guest: But I'd rather have less choice, higher quality, and pay a higher price.
27:27Russ: You have a chapter on barbecue. One of your favorite foods. You have three rules for good barbecue, which are: a barbecue restaurant should open early, should be in a small town, and go for the ribs, not the brisket. Why are those good rules? Guest: If it's in a small town, the chance that they are skirting laws and regulations, or maybe the laws aren't there, are much higher. So, you want some kind of classic barbecue pit. This creates a problem with smoke. It potentially creates a problem with fire. In small towns there's more likely somewhere you can put it. Harder to do in midtown Manhattan. And more likely there's a special deal with the fire chief, where he overlooks some irregularities. Places that open early basically run out of meat, and that's great. You eat barbecue in Mexico, the food is gone by 1 p.m. or sooner. They don't reheat a new batch of it. That's it. Start eating at 10 a.m., maybe earlier; they bring it in from the countryside where it's been cooked underground. It's completely fresh; it's ready to go. Then it runs out. The stand closes up. End of story. That's the best barbecue. Russ: So, the issue is the--I think you describe it as the cooking process begins the night before. Guest: And it's not sitting around all day. So, foodstuffs that are served very rapidly at very particular points in time and then go away, they tend to be better. Russ: You mention for example fish tacos in Tijuana versus San Diego. Same thing. Why? Guest: Fish tacos in Tijuana, most likely something pulled out of the water. Capacity for refrigeration--it's better now, but most small taco stands are used to just getting in fresh supplies and serving them basically, more or less, right away. And it will taste very good. San Diego, you are part of this longer food supply chain where everything is regularized and you get a shipment, and it's more likely it's been frozen, and it's handled by more people. It still can be good. But it's not going to taste the same. Russ: You ever wonder whether you have any romance about these issues that cloud your palate and assessment? The sort of fresh-out-of-the-water, the fisherman himself is making the taco. Does that ever cross your mind? Guest: I would gladly volunteer to do a blind taste test. Russ: You're not worried about confirmation bias. Guest: Well, it would be a blind taste test. Russ: I mean in general. In a way it doesn't matter, whether you are fooling yourself or not. Guest: That it would be hard to run the test is an important point. To take the Mexican food and try to cross the border with it is not legal. And that to me says a lot. Russ: And it's not legal because? For health reasons? It's regulatory. Guest: Supposedly. There's a trade issue and a protection issue. But that fact to me suggests there is something to the difference.
30:22Russ: What's our biggest food problem? Guest: Agricultural productivity in the last 20 years is going up at much slower rates than it used to. In the longer run, this means higher prices for food; and it means more starvation. It means more malnutrition. This still afflicts many hundreds of millions of people in the world, very often young children. Half of the children in India below age 5 have malnutrition. That's awful. Russ: How do we fix that? Guest: There's not a single silver bullet, but having better local institutions. India itself needs more agribusiness. They need more economies of scale and agriculture. They need better roads so crops don't spoil as they are being brought to market. They need better fertilizer. They just need overall better governance, less corruption. Some idea of local attention to detail and monitoring and accountability and quality control, which is pretty good in a lot of countries and highly variable in India, and to solve problems like malnutrition in India or cholera in Haiti--there's many examples. It's a kind of slow building of institutions and trust and decentralization and market incentives, brick by brick, that's just hard to do overnight but can be done. Russ: And in America, malnutrition is not our main problem. Our main problem is obesity. Guest: That's correct. In terms of health. Russ: If you want to call it a problem. Guest: But it is to some extent. Some people are voluntarily obese, but I think there are people who want to be thinner and find it hard to get there. Russ: We need to cut our carbohydrates, Tyler. As I did. Works like a charm. Kind of a joke but kind of true. Guest: Well, I think any diet in economic terms--it's not a joke. Draw a map with indifference curves. And impose any restriction on what you eat, whether it be due to religion or due to a diet. Any restriction will limit your optimal choice bundles, and you'll consume less food. So there's a way in which any strict diet can have some positive effects, right? Russ: I'm not sure that's true. Guest: Not literally any. Not any diet that said: Eat all junk food. But a lot of reasonable-sounding diets work just by limiting your choice and then you want to eat less. Russ: As a kosher consumer, I'm not sure eating kosher keeps you thin. Just because I can't have the pork and shellfish that other people can eat. Guest: Impose more restrictions. Russ: Yeah. I need to get stricter. So, what might improve? Well, I guess there are two issues here. I don't believe, I don't like to view obesity as a public policy problem. It's viewed that way I think by people who like to meddle in other people's lives. I understand the argument for it; I don't find it convincing as a policy issue. But there are, as you say, many people who prefer to be thinner than they are. Or at least that's what they say. Guest: But some of them really mean it. Russ: I think so. So, you have some creative ideas on that other than just restricting eating white foods or not eating white foods or whatever those kinds of restrictions that some people suggest--eat grapefruits. You have some ideas about using the price system to encourage us to do better. Guest: Well, let's start with some simple empirics. The groups of people in the United States least likely to be obese are people who are quite wealthy, people who are quite well-educated, and Asians. Those are rough generalizations. Of course there are many exceptions. So, the more people become foodies and the wealthier society becomes, in the longer run we are aimed in a good direction overall. And obesity rates seem to have leveled out. So I think there's grounds for cautious optimism about the future. And people becoming foodies probably will make this issue better rather than worse. I don't think there's a single cure overall. I don't think taxes on junk food has a big enough effect to make people less obese in a significant way. I think innovation from consumers, people deciding they want to be less obese and doing things like shopping at Great Wall--we will make some gains. Russ: That's your Chinese supermarket. Guest: That's right. I don't think there is a silver bullet solution. And again, I think a lot of people will actually end up willing to remain somewhat heavier, to be able to eat what they want. Russ: Do you think being a foodie makes you thinner? Guest: There's a causal question, and there's a question of what we see in the data in terms of the correlation. But if you look at people--say, drive out to West Virginia, a rural area--you'll see much more obesity than you'll see around here, and you'll see fewer foodies. I understand causality is tricky. But I think as we move more in the direction of high education, wealthier, more interest in food in a serious way, this will be correlated with other good food and weight outcomes.
35:28Russ: Let's turn to some of the environmental issues you talk about in the book, which are very interesting. I'm reminded of an article by Mary Eberstadt in the Hoover Review where she talked about how we used to have a lot of taboos and strong feelings of stigma and other attitudes toward sex, but at some point food became the way we express our taboos and our preferences. And we are much less tolerant of people's food choices than we used to be. Which is fascinating to me. And food of course is a way--and your book is an example of it--that we often express our identity: through what we don't eat. We mentioned kosher; we could talk about vegetarians. That's just scratching the surface. Within those two there's all kinds of gradations and choices people make to identify in certain ways. Vegan being an obvious way on the vegetarian side. And it's a moral issue, not just a health issue; not just a "that's what I like," or what I choose. And the environment being an area where people's food choices are increasingly, I think, part of their identity and their worries about the impact of what they are choosing for other people in the world. You start your discussion of this in a really provocative way, by asking the question: Who is the greenest man alive? And you give us three choices. So what are your three--there are obviously more than three--but three interesting choices for the greenest man alive? Guest: Well, one is this fellow named Edward Begley who tries to burn as little fossil fuel energy as he can in his life. And he buys his carbon offsets for everything. There are then some references to the Wal-Mart Corporation, and people who have worked for that. And they have done a lot to make their supply chain more efficient. Russ: Shockingly more efficient. Guest: A big difference. That saved a lot of fossil fuel energy. And of course, that's been driven by their self-interest. And I cite the example of a man who is trying to make a new kind of cement which is more carbon-friendly. And then finally an African pygmy, who lives largely in the rain forest and hunts elephants and lives some kind of hunter-gatherer lifestyle, at least part of the year. And may have a shorter life expectancy, and is much shorter and have a lower rate. Those are all candidates for the greenest man on Planet Earth. Russ: And the winner is? Guest: Probably the African pygmy. Actually. Ed Begley consumes a lot more fossil fuel and energy than he thinks, just by being here and living in a house. Russ: Yeah. Guest: So, I don't think the ideal of being completely green really makes any sense. Resources are here to be used in some way. They should be used responsibly, and efficiently. And we don't always do that. And I think in terms of property rights and internalizing externalities is the way to go. Not some kind of absolute minimization of impact on Planet Earth. Russ: I remember an essay that Edward Wilson wrote on--a line I'll never forget. He said: Darwin's dice rolled badly for the earth. What he meant by that was that we became the dominant creature of the earth. It could have been the cockroach. The cockroach thrives, but not the way we do. There don't have to be 7 billion human beings. He was saying that evolution could have taken a different turn. Then the earth would be spared parking lots, fossil fuel. Fossil fuel would just stay safely pooled in the ground, not turned into gasoline, kerosene, natural gas, all the things that we do to change the climate of the earth. And his argument was the earth would be better off. And I always thought: How does the earth feel about that? I don't know--the earth, to me, is not a sentient creature. I never understood that argument. So, I'm in the human side of asking the question: What can we do? Like killing ourselves, mass suicide, would have some impact presumably on the environment. But if you are not going to go that way, it's hard. You stuck either becoming a Pygmy, or sitting around in our loincloths. Not over fires--we'd have to do what? Strange focus, perspective. Guest: Modern agriculture can support so many billions of people. It's the single biggest breakthrough in human history. Most lives are good lives. Even in a lot of the poorer countries. Russ: If you think people are important. Guest: Sure. Russ: You do have to take that step. Which, I do. I think you do, too. But, as you say, we have to be responsible. We don't particularly want to degrade the planet or destroy the planet or whatever that might mean. Make it hard for future people to enjoy the planet, or even our children or grandchildren to enjoy the planet. So, you take on some of the ways that some people presume are good for the planet, and sometimes that's true. You have some good things to say about plastic, for example. Guest: Plastic is often more environmentally friendly than having a paper bag, for instance. Russ: Because? Guest: Because it takes less energy to make it and to dispose of it. Studies seem to show pretty clearly plastic is better for the world. Plastic can even be better than having those reusable cloth bags. If you re-use those cloth bags, say, 200 times and up, and don't lose the bag, don't have to buy a new one if the bag gets torn, don't misplace the bag--then the reusable cloth bag does seem to be better. But that's hard to do; and even then you are just at the break-even point. So, the environmental virtues of plastic relative to a lot of alternatives are somewhat under-rated. Russ: Yeah. My county, Montgomery County, has recently put a nickel charge on plastic bags. If you want a plastic bag, you have to pay a nickel. And it's been fascinating to watch what people have done in response to that. My view is I like to pay the nickel. I kind of enjoy paying the nickel, even though I don't like where the nickel goes--which is to fund my county's activities. I kind of like the idea that I am not going to change my bag habit for a nickel. There is some pride left in me. My wife's very different. My wife has cluttered the back of her car with cloth bags and various other mechanisms. I think she usually remembers to bring them in. But, I talk to the cashiers; some people forget to bring them in. Other people, their protest, is to clutch all of the groceries to their bosom and carry them out to the car and sacrifice their time, loading them one by one into the back of their car; and then when they get home--something akin to Costco, by the way. They don't make it easy for you to get the goods en masse into your car. You've got to box them up in difficult ways. But I find that--it's a fascinating thing. You are suggesting that you'd have to use the cloth bag a great number of times. Guest: That's right. The more effective way to help Planet Earth is just to take fewer trips to the supermarket. Buy more when you are there. Save up; your car will burn less gas; you are more likely to have some beneficial impact that way than trying to clutch it all to your chest and then eventually making more trips to the store. Russ: And you also tout the virtues of stopping on the way to someplace you are going. That's obviously another way. Guest: That's right. We are programmed to reject plastic, to think it's corporate. The adjective "plastic" is negative: He's a plastic personality. So, you feel good rejecting plastic. It's a way in which we pursue what I call mood affiliation rather than actually trying to be effective.
43:39Russ: What about eating local--the locavore movement, the idea that we should eat locally grown foods, fruits, vegetables--is gaining in popularity quite a bit. What's your take on that? Guest: Local food often tastes better, as I mentioned before. But transporting food is 10-15% of the energy cost of food. So to think that by making a stand on eating local, you are addressing the main problem--you are not. A lot of the environmental impacts, the negative ones from food, come from eating meat. A lot of local farmers aren't very efficient. They make a lot of trips in their truck. They don't have economies of scale. Imagine you live in Albuquerque. Try eating local food there and think through your local water policy, and that's an environmental disaster. So, eating local food can be environmentally better, but lots of times it's environmentally worse. And it's in any case not the biggest issue. Russ: And you talk quite eloquently about the challenge of trying to parse out, for every product, its transportation costs. It reminds me a little bit of Hayek, in his understanding of the role of prices and steering things. Except for externalities--which are not trivial in these examples--the beauty of the price system is that the price captures the costs plus a little bit more, where the little bit more is the profit margin. So, in general, prices tell you which things are produced most efficiently. Guest: That's right. Russ: But there are these externality issues. So, your suggestion is that rather than becoming expert at how your shirt is produced or how your apple is grown, you are better off buying the cheapest one. And then, policy-wise, we should solve that externality problem through carbon taxation. Seems to me, one of the major externalities today is from climate change. And both fossil fuels and eating of meat--basically cows' farting--are areas we could to some extent remedy with a carbon tax. A methane tax, as the case may be. Russ: How would we do that? Guest: A carbon tax would be applied to fossil fuels. They would become more expensive, there would be an incentive to substitute. I think there's a very good chance carbon tax would not solve the problem of climate change. But I view it this way: The way the American budget is running, we will need more revenue from some sources. So, we have the choice of taxing people's entrepreneurship or taxing something at the margin which has some negative externalities. So, I prefer to put the taxes on those things that have the negative externalities. Russ: My worry, among many--I mean, you have some very subtle and interesting arguments for how the tax might be shaped. In general, the political system is not so good at subtlety. Guest: Oh, I agree. Russ: And it's just going to add on this carbon tax to everything else; it's not going to substitute for anything. Guest: But just to have a string of zeroes as the estimate of the externality, that's politics too. That's not exactly where we are now, but that seems wrong to me. Russ: Well, we do have a carbon tax, though. Guest: Partly, yes. There's a tax on gasoline. Various regulations. So there's a carbon tax. Russ: You talk about 6 ways to be more effective. It's on p. 183 of the book. Could you talk about each of them briefly? Personal things people can do if they want to have an impact instead of eschewing plastic and buying local--maybe they could do some other things? Talk about those. Guest: Well, one of them is to just make virtuous behavior more fun. So, if you want to eat better, eat greener, whatever it is you are trying to do: lecturing yourself is of limited value. It has to fit into your self-interest. Simple economics point. If there is something you like and it's environmentally dangerous, I say: Try eating the very best of that. It may spoil your taste for the inferior product. Russ: Because it's expensive; it will slow you down. Guest: So, say you feel guilty about foie gras, a reasonable point of view, I would think. Just have the very best foie gras once. Russ: Which is how much roughly? Guest: A lot. Go to Paris, have it; you won't crave American foie gras as much. Just give up refined sugar; it will also help the environment. It's in a lot of different processed foods; but you can eat an awful lot and avoid refined sugar. It's good for you. Limit food waste: the notion that you buy things and they decompose, that also has a problem with regard to climate change. So, just be more careful there. Don't buy things you are not going to eat. Minimize the number of car trips. There's one thing they asked me to cut out of the book, but in many ways it's the most important one: and that is, spend a lot of money educating your daughter. Russ: Why? Guest: Women who are educated are likely to have fewer children. Now you might think this is good or you might think this is bad. I'm not convinced it's good. As I said before, I'm happy for there to be more people. I'm just saying that if you have a single-minded obsession with making the world greener, what you can do that actually works is to either have fewer children or treat your children in such a way where they will have fewer children. Russ: Interesting. Guest: So, as a man who has no biological children, I actually think of myself as much, much greener than a lot of environmental advocates. This doesn't have to be a good thing, all margins considered. But again, if you are just looking at: How green are you?, I don't actually feel that guilty. For that reason. Russ: It opens up a lot more plane trips. Because you don't have biological offspring--they are going to be taking plane trips? Guest: And if you apply a zero discount rate to environmental evaluations, or a very low discount rate, if you are having no children or fewer children, then there are no children of yours to have children, and so on. And the net impact over time of having time of having children is quite substantial. Russ: Yeah. I don't believe you should apply a zero discount rate, but that's another topic. Guest: But within the framework of what's being discussed, if you are worried about the very distant future as being something very real. Again, I'm not saying one should do that. But if you want to start with effectiveness, go there. Russ: Interesting. Big shift of gears. That was fun, and I'd be interested. Did you try to put up a fight for that one? Guest: No. I think my editor was right. But it would have been viewed as a distraction. And people would have read it in a variety of different ways that I didn't intend, like thinking that I'm blaming them for having kids or that they are wrong to want kids; and that's not at all my view. I have long been pro-population, agreeing with Julius Simon, and so on. But if you are just going to obsess over green cost, start there.
50:36Russ: So, to shift gears, you give some advice on cookbooks; and you have some interesting things to say about cookbooks generally. I'm a big fan of cookbooks. I have a lot. And you point out many people who buy cookbooks don't use them. So, I have a handful that I use; and I have four or five handfuls I never look at more than one or two times. What's your advice on cookbook purchases and consumption? Guest: Like most things in life, it's common we buy books for their symbolic values, including cookbook books, as a kind of memorial for having visited a restaurant or thought about a particular cuisine or gone on a trip. If you want it for that reason, fine, but don't fool yourself into thinking it's about the food. For most people you should have, say, a half dozen cookbooks that you know quite well, and they present cooking in a conceptual manner; and you use the book to learn how to think about food. A cookbook should be more like an economics book, actually, explaining how things work and how to put things together. And then you'll be able to create your own recipes with much greater facility. Russ: And some of your favorites are? Guest: Oh, Diana Kennedy's books are very good; Rick Bayless's books are very good; Fuchsia Dunlop--her books on Szechuan cooking are fantastic. Again, those are relative to my taste, but I can vouch, relatively speaking, they are conceptual cookbooks that try to teach you how to think about the food. Russ: I like what you had to say about cookbooks from famous restaurants and authors. I know you just mentioned earlier that you might be fooling yourself. But there's a particular aspect of it that you were critical of. Guest: You can't duplicate the recipes. And you can't get on a learning curve. Russ: And that's the goal, I think. Guest: That's right. There's 37 things to do. The first time you try you won't get it right. Which is okay, but then there's no trial and error. Like, which one of the 37 did I get wrong? When there's a simpler, more conceptual recipe, you may screw it up, but then you know how to improve. And getting on that dynamic learning curve is a very economics idea. Russ: I can't remember which cookbook I have which had this characteristic. But there were always somewhat complicated things to do, and things would inevitably go wrong the first time. Certainly. Maybe every time. For a long time. And I remember the first step of a recipe was: Build a brazier. And I thought: Trouble. I don't know what a brazier is exactly--I think maybe it's a hole in the ground with fire. But it's not going to turn out well, this recipe. Close the book, turn the page, find something simpler. Guest: And it has to do with our theory of how market competition works. In a Hayekian way, it's about local competition over particular margins, trial and error, and learning. That's how competition works. Not that two totally different firms doing 4000 things somehow slug it out in this big arena and then at the end of it all someone is left standing. There are small, gradual improvements based on learning, seeing what works and what doesn't. Russ: You're saying--I don't understand the role of how competition entered into this cookbook discussion. Guest: If you think about how market competition works, it's that you have people competing doing relatively similar things, but with some variation on the margin; and there's something a bit akin to controlled experimentation and the ability to evaluate and compare rather than en masse evaluating one big thing with all its processes against another big thing. Russ: Oh, okay, so you are saying that the best strategy for improving your home cooking is to-- Guest: Take a lesson from Hayek on how markets work, local competition, trial and error. Russ: And get a little bit better, and hope you are moving in a good direction. Do you watch cooking shows? Guest: Usually I don't have time, so no. When I do turn them on, which I do periodically out of a sense of duty, I end up frustrated almost immediately. Russ: Because? Guest: They are not informationally dense enough for me. There's endless shots of things being put into pans and chopped up. And they feel to me like a kind of drug administered to people to keep them in like a stupor. I don't know. Russ: Why do you say that? The stupor part? The drug part? You think the educational component is so small? Guest: There's variation in quality. But I think people turn on the TV for a few reasons. They turn it on to relax. And they turn it on to have something to talk about with the person they are with. Which is fine. But again, that means in some ways, TV is not a great medium for food. Some of the cooking shows with competitions, I find those much more useful than the cooking shows. So, something like "Top Chef," where people dissect the food, I find that somewhat useful. Russ: To me, as someone who used to do a lot of fly fishing--and I watched some cooking shows; I don't have cable, which greatly limits my TV-- Guest: TV diet. You watch less TV. Russ: That's why I do it, and I want my kids to watch less TV. But I do have regular TV; and with our current regular TV package, which has like 8 channels, one of the channels is a PBS food channel. So, I get Jacques Pepin and Julia Child, reruns of this glorious, entertaining show where they banter back and forth in their peculiar personalities. That I enjoy just for itself. But I do watch occasionally, and to me it reminds me of--and cookbooks as well remind me of--fly fishing. So, fly fishing is something that you do sometimes. It's an expensive habit, it has a lot of technique, it has a lot of equipment. Like cooking. And when I'm not doing the actual act of fly fishing, the two closest things are to watch someone else fly fishing on TV--in a place I'll never go, which is again akin to the cooking show; I'm not going to use, make some of these dishes--or to read about it. So, cookbooks--of course cookbooks are more than just collections of recipes. As you point out in the book, there are tales and stories and childhood memories. I think people who like food--I think you are maybe an exception--people like consuming those either with their food, alongside their food, or when they are not cooking. Or when they are not eating. So, if you are not fly fishing, you read about fly fishing, you leaf through the catalogs of the waders you might get next year, the fly you might acquire. Similarly, I think for foodies there's this obsession with equipment. I don't know if you ever watch "America's Test Kitchen," but they have a whole segment every show where they go through what's the best mandolin or the best grill-top this or that. The best cheap knife. That doesn't appeal to you? Guest: Not that much. I think I really am an exception, and I deliberately wrote this book to, in a kind of bracing way, give people an alternative perspective on how to process information about the world of food. Through a more analytic lens. Russ: And you eat out a lot. How much time do you spend cooking at home? You cooking. Because I know you cook a lot. Guest: My wife doesn't cook much. If I'm not traveling the chance that I'm cooking at home is 60%. Since I'm traveling a lot, then it's hard to cook. So, I enjoy cooking; I like to read cookbooks if they are good; and I like to go shopping for food ingredients. Time is the constraint. Russ: The shopping for the food ingredients is a little like tying the flies. Guest: That's right. It's my version of that. Russ: There's an emotional, intellectual mix of anticipation. Guest: And I feel like I'm getting something done, but maybe I'm just postponing getting things done. It's my way of achieving some balance. Russ: It's a very high quality form of procrastination. Guest: That's right. Russ: You can delude yourself into thinking you are making progress sometimes, doing those activities.
58:39Russ: You mention Mexican cuisine. Is that the dominant cuisine of your home cooking? Guest: Indian, Mexican, Chinese--almost all ethnic. And just simple dishes, like fish with lemon and sea salt; lentils. Russ: I think you said you have four woks. Is that correct? That puts you above the median. Guest: One of them went bad, so I guess now it's down to three. Russ: What happened to it? Guest: Just too much use. It's still there, but I'm not sure I would use it. It feels past its best days. Russ: Probably needs an overhaul. Probably salvageable. Why do you have four woks? Guest: Sometimes you need woks to store things. They are great for storage. Sometimes you need two of them on the stove at once. If one is being used for storage and two of them are on the stove at once, and then you need a backup just in case one of those goes bad, you need four. They don't cost that much. Russ: Do you have a big stove? Sometimes it's hard to put two woks on at the same time. Guest: Not enough. We can manage, but it's not that easy. Russ: Have you been tempted to redo your kitchen and go super-industrial? Do you have a fetish for equipment? Guest: I've been tempted, but ultimately I believe it's a distraction. Russ: It is definitely a distraction. It's a form of consumption. Guest: Yeah. I have no fetish for equipment at all. Totally practical perspective on equipment. The joy I get from a really good, sharp knife--it's there, but I view it as an expense, not a toy for purchase. Russ: Anything closing you want to say about what you might suggest people might do more to get into the kitchen or out of the kitchen, into better food? Any closing inspiration? Guest: In general, I would say this: again, going back to the linkage between food and economics, the notion that economists should, at the micro level, become extreme anthropologists about something--it doesn't have to be food--I'm a big advocate of. If you make it food, one nice thing about that is it ties in with the rest of your life. You have to eat. There's some kind of economy of scope there. It helps you bridge cultures. There's a production angle, there's a consumption angle, there's a mass media angle, there's a literary angle; of course, there's an economics angle. And you get all of those things at once. So, I would recommend it to more people. Russ: And then after that, maybe a book on sleep. Or something else.

Comments and Sharing



TWITTER: Follow Russ Roberts @EconTalker

COMMENTS (35 to date)
Greg G writes:

Great interview Russ. You could have Tyler on every week as far as I'm concerned. He has an incredibly wide range of interests and an original take on many things. I can't think of anyone less likely to succumb to group think.

Good choice not to focus on the angle about beautiful women and restaurants. That has been overdone already in many places.

Steve writes:

Great podcast, but I have to correct a couple of things. Tyler really doesn't understand the paleo diet. First, he believes that the paleo diet does not encourage the consumption of vegetables, which could not be further from the truth. Second, he seems to believe that a paleo diet would include dairy, which is not part of an orthodox paleo diet. In short, he gets two main features of the paleo diet wrong.

Mark writes:

I disagree entirely with Cowen's take on individuals limiting the number of children they have. This isn't Cowen's fault, he's an economist, not a biologist. However, any basic biology class will teach you that the end result of having a whole class of individuals produce fewer offspring will be that you will end up with with a lower representation of the genes of those who choose not to reproduce. However, it does not follow that the population size as a whole will be reduced. You will simply free up resources for those more willing to reproduce.

I'm all for education, and I understand the literature that it often results in lower rates of reproduction. Indeed, many of my biologist colleagues subscribe to the philosophy that they can limit worldwide population size by changing their own reproductive habits. But the fallacy in the idea that people like Cowen are having any real impact, even at the margin, because they have fewer children ignores the action of every other individual who is competing for resources. Indeed, he assumes that he can compound his impact by including the unborn generations he never sired. But this assumes that his decision will not free up some other individual to make the decision to produce more offspring, and completely negate the impact of his decision to have none. To me, the argument against reproduction is made the more absurd because the argument is based on the fact that the Earth contains limited resources! And yet it ignores the impact of limited resources on reproductive decisions among all species, including humans.

The message is clear: Limit your reproduction, and you're really making a choice to limit your genetic representation in the gene pool going forward.

As a side note, I think it would be interesting to have an economics discussion about genetics and population change. We once had embarrassing policies in the US based on social Darwinism that were quickly jettisoned once we discovered how Hitler was implementing similar ideas on his people (and the inhumanity they created). However, the lessons we've learned from biology suggest that when modern medicine saves the lives of those with genetic defects or abnormalities we inadvertently increase the rate of these defects in the future, as these defects would otherwise remove themselves through natural selection. In the long run, every new scientific advance may potentially increase the cost of medical care on future generations.

That being said, I still think they're well worth doing, but I don't see conversations about how economics and biology meet very often. And too often the conversations are had by people whose knowledge of the subject is superficial at best. As in this instance. On the whole, I enjoyed the discussion about food. Well done, and thank you Roberts and Cowen.

Nick writes:

Why does anyone actually care about their "genetic representation" in the gene pool going forward? My genes might care about that, but I certainly don't. And it also seems are remarkably bad reason to have children.

Ralph writes:

I'm surprised at Cowen's condoning of a carbon tax, the artificial limitation of human production and innovation, not to mention raising the price of everything that is shipped and/or manufactured.

The underlying presumption of much of the discussion is that the anthropogenic induced climate change hypothesis is correct. In fact there is very little evidence for that hypothesis. The objective measurements of atmospheric temperatures by weather balloon and satellite demonstrate no significant warming. The atmosphere, where the greenhouse gases have their effect, demonstrates no warming. Much of the evidence produced for the hypothesis stems from evaluation of glaciers, polar bears etc, These examples too, have often been demonstrated as false. Surface temperatures are 'averaged' and include data from stations with faulty sensor placement and exclusion of stations in places like Siberia and the Canadian tundra. Also note that the hypothesis dictates that the warming would occur in the atmosphere, not at the surface.

Sensible conservation and efficiency are reasonable (turn off the lights when you leave the room), but limiting human production based on unproven theories, and even deliberately falsified data, is a recipe for economic suicide and frankly inconvenient and unhealthy lifestyles. The pygmy's life may be 'green' but it is also "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Restricting consumption to 'local only' presents a nutrition problem for most people, and a carbon tax makes importing more expensive.

There was a scene in a short lived prime-time TV cartoon in which a woman who was being shunned for her use of plastic bags reversed the disdain by saying, "Those cloth bags are made in sweatshops." I once read an article about the bacteria cultured from the cloth bags and the need to wash them after use, adding to the expense.

On food, southerners generally understand that the best BBQ joints are only open a few days a week, with the rest of the time spent preparing (wood, pig etc.).

Love these podcasts, Thanks Russ!

Max writes:

The paleo diet isn't mostly meat. I think Tyler is referring to a more general low-carb diet.

Peeig writes:

The worst part about this podcast was finding out that Russ doesn't have cable tv :)

peter1957 writes:

Hi Russ,

I have been listening to the podcasts from China and it really hit home with me when Prof. Cowen talked about the difference in the quality of fruits and vegetables between the U.S. and China. The Chinese produce tastes fresh and the people here always flavor it with moderate amounts of salt and spices. Garlic, ginger, and onions are staples in the Chinese diet and they don't go for breads and sugar very often. I think the Chinese overall have a wider variety in their diet and the vegetable-to-meat ratio is certainly more than half in just about all their meals. Regardless of anyone's feelings about meat, I think having a sensible balance of fresh fruits and vegetables is always healthy -- and it makes you feel healthier too. I feel that, in America, a common misconception is the idea that there is a tradeoff between nutrition and taste. This myth should be debunked immediately. Even things like broccoli and cauliflower are delicious when you add some garlic and spices to it.

Matt S writes:

I enjoy these types of podcasts. It's nice to hear something different; a topic I haven't heard much about.

Mr. Cowen is very well-spoken and clear with his message, however, I can't get over the fact that he sounds like an educated Milton from Office Space.

Stan writes:

Cowen doesn't seem to be consistent in his concern about global warming (unless he actually isn't concerned about it). He seems to profess a concern about increasing CO2 levels, and then his travels all over the world by plane. For someone who professes a concern about global warming, that is pretty hypocritical given the carbon intensity of flying.

But Cowen is thoughtful, so it's quite possible I'm not understanding his position.

Mark writes:

@Nick

The point is not that you care about whether your genes are passed on. The point is that whether you care or not, the slack of your not reproducing will be picked up by the next person. So your "I don't care" attitude, to the extent it is either genetic or passed through parental attitudes, will be less represented in the next generation as people who want children will take over. That's the point. However you feel about having children, making a conscious decision to have fewer children because you think it will benefit the environment is naive. Have children because you want them (or don't because you don't) but don't think you're doing the Earth a favor by having fewer children.

Adam writes:

I have loved the recent podcasts (especially Davidson, Black, Calomiris, Boudreaux, White, Autor) but this one fell flat for me. There didn't seem to be any chemistry between Roberts and Cowen. Cowen's responses were very terse; it would have been better for him to prattle on a bit. Even Roberts's laughing in the last 10 minutes didn't really help.

My only follow-up question is: why, at a BBQ place, should we order ribs, not the brisket?

In general I love this podcast, and have recommended it to a bunch of friends. Thank you.

Tom writes:
Guest: Yes. I don't feel it's ethically wrong to kill and eat animals per se. But I do feel how we treat animals before killing and eating them is wrong.

Russ: Sometimes.

Guest: Sometimes. But in this country quite often.

Russ, do you believe you have sufficient evidence to support having an opinion on whether the way animals are treated before slaughter in the United States is quite often ethically wrong?

Mike writes:

I thought this was good. Different insights.

But Cowen's autistic qualities shine through don't they? He just responds to the questions and doesn't ramble on like most of us might.

I was amused about your talking about fly fishing. I think I've read every one of John Gierach's books, and I've never been fly fishing in my life.

I used to do technical climbing. I really love, at my advanced age, to read what I call climbing porn.

I also love to cook and entertain. I'll be checking out the cookbooks mentioned. I do like the idea of being educated on how things go together to make a dish good and using that information to make improvements in my own cooking.

My daughter will start in the food science program at Arkansas next fall. I'll let you know what she has to say about this podcast in a few days.

Like Adam, I think the last few weeks have been terrific.

Danny Kao writes:

Russ,

Another great podcast. Is Tyler Cowen always as serious in real life as he sounds on your podcast? It's a shame he seems to occupy a humor-free zone, especially when talking about as fun a topic as food. BTW, I couldn't agree with you more about the marvelous-ness of the Costco Navel Orange.

Keep up the great work.

Gratefully,

Danny

Rufus writes:

Interesting show with a lot of ideas to chew on. I'm still digesting the serving, but do have a few thoughts for anyone interested in learning more about the Paleo diet (which was mischaracterized, as noted above).

Latest in Paleo is a podcast, and the most recent two episodes reviewed cookbooks with the authors in order to get some insight into their cooking philosophy, inspirations, etc.

If you can't wait, or aren't interested in cookbooks and want to dive into a visual feast, look up the Nom Nom Paleo blog. You won't be disappointed.

I have been eating 90% paleo for about the past year. The Gary Taubes podcast on carbs and diet was influential in making the transition to drop wheat, rice, and other grains from my diet. The podcast was most excellent, too.

Eli writes:

I always love it when Russ has Tyler Cowen on. Marginal Revolution is one of my favorite blogs.

But it's been a while since I've heard Tyler Cowen's lunchmate Bryan Caplan. I would love to hear a podcast of Bryan Caplan talking about Julian Simon and The Ultimate Resource. But maybe I'll have to wait for Caplan's education signaling book before I hear him on Econtalk again.

D. F. Linton writes:

Russ,
Another great podcast.

I think your problem with connecting with Tyler on Gary Taubes stems from an epistemic issue.

My take-away from Taubes is that we are highly individuated in our response to diet. Some of us can subsist on doughnuts and remain slim while for others only a meat-only diet seems to work. This necessity for person-by-person prescription cuts completely against the idea Tyler suggested (and which even Taubes seems to pine for) of large-scale statistically valid studies of the long-term effects of diet. How can group statistics validate the idea of each of finding what works for us and sticking with it?

I'm sure Tyler agrees with the concept that our preferences are purely subjective and not comparable interpersonally. He surely wouldn't suggest large-scale statistical studies to determine the kind of books I like.

Charlie writes:

Always great to have Tyler on. I recommend to anyone who hasn't to listen to Tyler's old podcasts. I think he's always been an excellent guest.

Mark,

You are wrong, but at least you point out why in your on post:

"You will simply free up resources for those more willing to reproduce."

"To me, the argument against reproduction is made the more absurd because the argument is based on the fact that the Earth contains limited resources!"

It's obviously not true that on the margin people are deciding how many kids they are going to have based on how many resources they have access to. If it were, people in poor countries would have lower birth rates than rich countries. Within countries, rich people would have more kids than poor people. Bill Gates would have a thousand kids!

Population of people on the margin isn't dictated by a competition for finite resources. I agree that if you kill a bunch of deer, the other deer will start having more babies, but this is a case where people are different.

Mike C. writes:

The first post stated that Tyler hasn't succumb to group think- I think it's to late. Tyler seems to be firmly attached to the global warming bandwagon. The global warming myth is unraveling, polar bears are reproducing like bunny rabbits, and the earth is probably entering a cooling cycle, yet this information seems to elude him.

That being said, Tyler is one of my favorite guest.

Rufus writes:

This week, I also listened to the Ed Leamer podcast on the state of econometrics.

http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2010/05/leamer_on_the_s.html

There is an important theme about the limits of science and models, that also affect the way we think of food and our diet. While Tyler sounded unconvinced about the efficacy of a paleo or low carb diet, in fact there have been studies (randomized controlled) like the Stanford A to Z that showed positive health benefits.

http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/297/9/969.full.pdf

At the same time, there has been a recent Harvard study that is very misleading about the dangers of eating red meat.

http://garytaubes.com/2012/03/science-pseudoscience-nutritional-epidemiology-and-meat/

And, since many vegetarians often cite the China Study as "proof" that eating meat is bad for you, here's an excellent critique and deconstruction of that study by Denise Minger (Russ - she would be a very interesting guest to talk about the misuse of statistics and confirmation bias)

http://rawfoodsos.com/the-china-study/

Part of the issue with the China Study is that the apparent statistical correlation of cancer with meat was actually higher with wheat.

So, at the end of the day, we have to eat something. It is an economic choice, and for me it seems the best option is to go organic (less pesticides) and Paleo (meat, fish, vegetables, nuts, some fruit). The price is higher than eating rice or lentils, but then again, shouldn't that be a signal to us?

Mark writes:

Charlie,

There are a number of very good reasons people in poor countries do well to have more children:

1. Higher rates of serious diseases make it less likely that single-child families will pass on their genetic heritage. This is also true in non-human species where many species of insects have huge numbers of offspring only to have large numbers of them die from predation or disease.

2. Poorer health care in these countries ensures that if they do contract a debilitating disease they will be less likely to recover, or will recover with greater disadvantages. (Again, higher birth rates in species that exhibit innate but not adaptive immune systems.)

3. After a certain point, more children do help somewhat with resource gathering and other efforts aimed at survival. This is not to say that the children "pay for themselves" from a resource perspective, but it does mean that the marginal cost of each additional child is not as great as the cost of the first child, especially in an agrarian society with fewer child labor laws.

4. Many individuals from poorer countries immigrate into richer countries. This is how many developed nations, including the US, can have a birth rate of below the replacement rate of 2.1 (last I checked it was 1.8 in the US) and yet grow in population year-over-year.

5. As was clearly pointed out earlier, we are not controlled by our genes, and my post was not attempting to make that point. Bill Gates is not compelled to have thousands of children just because he makes a lot of money. Indeed, if anything it seems that developed societies pour more resources into preserving the offspring they produce, than into creating more. There are many good reasons for this based on the limits of human physiology and reproduction, but this post is already too long.

We now produce more resources than at any time in the past. We also have more people on the planet than ever. While these two statistics are only correlative, it is clear that without increasing resources there would be no increased population growth.

Finally, I am happy to be proved wrong if you can find some evidence for it. But "it's different with humans" isn't an argument. Humans still respond to incentives, and group dynamics don't disappear just because sometimes individuals decide for whatever reason they don't want to have children.

Floccina writes:

Tyler Providence RI has some foods that you can not get many other places. Things like snail salad, calm cakes, the legendary NY system hot wieners, Italian bakery pizza, Italian spinach pies and more.

You should check it out.

Floccina writes:

One thing about a carbon tax is that it should be accompanied by a payout for the removal of CO2 from the air. It might be cheaper to remove CO2 from the air than to not put it there in the first place. I.e. biochar is an effort to remove co2 from the air.

Brian Clendinen writes:

For an economist I am surprised Tyler missed a glairing issue of why we have poor quality raw food products, farm subsidies. So we grow way more corn than in a pure free market. Therefore most meat is corn feed because of the huge subsides to corn production. This in-turn diminishes the quality of the food. I can usually tell grass feed verse corn feed just by the quality.

Also farmers will not grow vegetables because the returns are not the same because of the huge subsides Corn/Wheat/Soy have. Secondly, when it comes to seafood the quality has gone downhill because of the increase in Fish Farms. Shrimp taste horrible in most restaurants even though many more restaurants sell shrimp dishes than 20 years ago. It is because the product is no long ocean caught but from some farm in Southeast Asia that is shipped frozen over here. I love shrimp and have stopped ordering it because it is so bad so often. Regulations ,some of them well intentioned to reduce over fishing, have not helped either.

Tyler also talked about how much more rich cheesy were in Mexico. The dairy industry is heavily regulated and this effects the taste of the cheese. Growing up my mother went thru an (absurd) organic phase. The only good part of it was the Cheese and fresh bread made from freshly grounded wheat (after she worked out how to bake with it) . We got Amish cheese which was organic and it was the best cheese I have ever had and we tried many different kinds. The pasteurization process take a lot of the quality out of dairy products. Milk was the exception for me personal I like the pasteurized stuff. Non-pasteurized skin milk is like drinking pasteurized whole milk.
My point is if you get rid of all farm subsize and reduce a lot of the government regulation food quality will increase more than from any other single issue. It is not a silver bullet but it would help a lot for meat quality.

Also Tyle does seem to have a double standard. He thinks the best BBQ is in a smoke pit that is against regulation. Basically he is saying the best BBQ has the most CO2 emissions. Should he not be playing his small part and check to see how BBQ is made. Does he really think a Cow's lifetime of farts has more CO2 than the pit used to cook it?

Alex G writes:

Interesting podcast, but it is frustrating that Tyler just completely dismisses the low-carb hypothesis. I don't know, perhaps I am becoming way too indoctrinated, and the whole carb rich foods, insulin, and diabetes and other diseases of civilization link is not quite as strong, but my own variation of low-carb lifestyle has definitely helped me (and many others, including Russ) lose weight.

I think the main reason why people think low carb must be wrong is because of the so-called middle ground logical fallacy - we tend to believe that a middle point between two extremes is the right answer, that everything should be had in moderation. Which might be true in many cases, but the thing is we never question whether we are anchoring our idea of moderation on established dietary pattern, which could b (and I believe are) wrong to begin with. When people tell me 'you should lay off of fat and eat a more balanced diet', I ask them how do they know what a balanced diet should consist of? Should I also ingest paper and soap, just to make sure that I diversify what I put in my stomach? After all, no one is saying you should smoke in moderation, and smoking too much or too little could be bad for you.

P.S. Russ, I went low carb after listening to the Gary Taubes podcast and then getting and reading his book. I think in the most recent podcast with Art De Vany, he also mentions the whole insulin response deal - I believe you mentioned how you could eat a full plate of pasta and still crave seconds, which is exactly how I felt, and then Gary's book convinced me to try laying off of carbs. And it's working great for 5-6 months now!

Ralph writes:

The roadside variety of BBQ, as discussed in the podcast, is abundantly available throughout the southeast - and west I presume. The roadside BBQ, usually made from a 55 gallon drum on a trailer for portability, is to be found at gas stations, flea markets, and at many a roadside turnaround with the boiled peanut and fruit stand entrepreneurs. As Tyler notes, the BBQ is great and it usually doesn't last all day, but that doesn't mean the ingredients are any more fresh than the permanent restaurant variety BBQ. Often the roadside stand is just buying meat at the grocery where you would purchase the same. A really good permanent restaurant, on the other hand, is actually processing its own meat - that's the reason the best are only open a few days a week.

I don't recall any discussion of the much maligned "pink slime." That's the final product of finely processing and heating meat remainders not used in the store cuts to liquify the fat and spin it off leaving a more lean product - like meat tofu. It violates the sensibilitites of those with a more discriminating palate, but it's an innovation that decreases prices and make lean meat available to those who might find it difficult to afford the expensive cuts. That's certainly a topic for ecoomists discussing food.

Can't wait 'til Monday! Thanks Russ.

Greg Linster writes:

Great interview, Russ. I never tire of discussing or listening to others discuss foodie economics. Where I live, in Denver, some of the best ethnic restaurants are indeed located on the outskirts of the city and in the suburbs.

Jon writes:

Russ,
As someone who's interested not only in the "foodie" aspect of food, but who also grew up on a farm and still has a strong familial and emotional connection to its production, I was looking forward to this podcast. It wasn't what I was expecting, but took me to some interesting and thought-provoking places.

To start off, the claim, which seems to be taken as an element of faith by many these days, that meat is grown unethically is completely untrue. I have friends involved in both cow-calf and finishing operations who can testify to this. But reason itself ought to be enough - these are large biological systems bred over thousands of years to efficiently turn feed into meat. Producers, in seeking to create their product in the most efficient and successful manner possible, have every incentive to work in conjunction with that biology. Happy steers become economical beef. It's as simple as that.

On the topic of "American cuisine," I tend to think of what we've come to call a cuisines as having their origins in "poor people food." As the poorest elements of our society were various immigrant groups over time, it makes sense that American cuisine would be derivative of all such ancestor cuisines. Whether or not the 20th Century brought about the first "middle class food" in history as the dominant cuisine of a culture is something to consider.

Finally, the discussion of ethical and green eating brought to mind something I've been thinking of for a while. When I walk through the grocery store, I notice a preponderance of organic, fair-trade, shade-grown, sustainable products, all of which tend to cost a little more than their more conventional counterparts. It's come to the point that conscience is a commodity in itself, and an ingredient in many products we buy. A grocery store economics study that would be very interesting would be studying, and perhaps attempting to quantify, the role of conscience in the producing and marketing food.

Keep up the good work. I love listening in the car or while doing yard work.

Jon

Russ, as usual another great podcast. I'm not kidding when I say that your podcasts have had a major impact on my life and the way I think.

In this one Tyler often speaks about never having seen the evidence, whether it be fat in the diet etc. As he seems to base most of his opinions on evidence I wish you had asked him on what evidence he basis his belief in AGW. He obviously has a deep seated belief in it and seems to be trying to modify his life to accommodate the belief.

Aside from that Tyler is always a great guest. I love his deadpan delivery and lack of humour. I don't know whether he puts this on or he is really like that but for him it seems to work.

Charlie writes:

Mark,

When two variables are both increasing over time, the correlation between them is spurious.

At least you admit that other things also have strong effects on birth rates than fertility. Hopefully, thinking about the matter makes you less certain you know the elasticity of birth rates to resources. None of your explanations explained why wealthier people in America and Europe have lower fertility rates, though.

Kevin writes:

From above:
> Russ: And talk about the seafood. Guest: There were dozens of kinds of seafood. A lot of it I didn't recognize. Not all of it smelled fresh to me. But there was just far more choice than in a Giant or Safeway. And it was cheaper. And again, you would just see what looked good and ask for some, bring it home saute it, put on some garlic, some ginger, some olive oil, whatever--it was almost certain to taste good.

The cheaper seafood is likely from East Asia. I'd be really cautious about buying East Asian seafood because of pollution. From http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/40198123/ns/today-today_health?Gt1=43001 :

"Ron Sparks is commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture in Alabama — one of the few states that tests imported seafood for drugs like chloramphenicol, nitrofurans and malachite green, chemicals so toxic to humans that they’re banned in all food. “In some cases, between 40 and 50 percent of our tests will come out positive,” Sparks said. “That’s a disturbing number.”"

Chain restaurant seafood is often from Asia. Costco's frozen seafood is also often from Asia, especially if the label doesn't indicate the origin such as "Phillips Maryland Style Crab Cakes".

Until there's verifiable safety testing we'll be sticking to known safe sources of seafood. US farmed catfish is very tasty and catfish are vegetarian so feeding them doesn't mean exhausting stocks of smaller wild fish.

Harun writes:

Chinese fruits and vegetables may be fresh and nice in some places, but I've seen some nasty looking vegetables, brown and wilted, sitting on the ground next to restaurants.

The supermarket where I shopped also had the nastiest produce section, but that has been improved greatly.

The person who claimed Chinese don't eat breads and sugar has never eaten Bei Fang Cai...tons of breads, and they even eat a dish of raw tomatoes with tons of white sugar poured over it.

Finally, I'd wish Taiwan learned to keep it simple - not every steak has to be smothered in pepper sauce.

Rant off.

Mark writes:

Charlie,

It is true that correlation does not equal causation, as I noted in my post. You had previously mocked my point: that those who diminish their reproduction because they perceive they are severely limited in natural resources are creating a personal fiction. I admit that the Earth has a theoretical limit in its resources, but every time in the last two centuries we've tried to quantify that limit we've been very wrong. We now have over 200 times the theoretical limit of 300 million people postulated back in the 1800's. Now we've postulated a new theoretical limit. The limit continues increasing as we continue producing more capacity. This ENABLES increased population growth.

So yes, to say that increased available resources causes increased population growth would be a spurious argument, and I explicitly did not make it. I made the argument that WITHOUT that increase in resources the Earth would not be able to sustain even a fraction of the current number of inhabitants.

Of course multiple factors affect birth rates. But that still does not mean that having fewer babies on the margin will not be replaced with more babies from other people on the margin. It doesn't matter if there is a lower birth rate in developed countries. Indeed, every objective measure indicates that lower birth rates in Europe and the U.S. do not result in lower population growth over time. More people simply move out of poorer countries, and we see increased population growth in the nations that saw immigration as well as those that saw emigration. If everybody moves up the ladder one rung, there's more room at the bottom.

The data do not support your argument. Nor do you reasonably consider or respond to sound arguments when they are presented to you. Think about the evidence: Has reducing birth rates in any single group of people reduced the overall population of the Earth? Did the Shakers reduce the U.S. population by practicing celibacy? Unless you are part of an isolated population and you can get the buy-in of a majority of that population your efforts are in vain. As, it seams, are my efforts with you.

Keith writes:

This was really interesting, and thanks again for the transcript. I find it really helpful to read along as I listen.

I think there's a transcription error, though, at around the 32-minute mark. Tyler says "Impose more restrictions," but the transcript has him saying "Those are more restrictions."

[Thanks, Keith! You are right, and I've fixed it in the HIghlights.--Econlib Ed.]

Comments for this podcast episode have been closed
Return to top