Bring Your Food Questions for Foodie Economist Tyler Cowen

Our latest full-length podcasts are “You Eat What You Are,” Parts 1 and 2. They were inspired in part by Tyler Cowen‘s latest book An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies. Here’s what I had to say about the book in a blurb: “Tyler Cowen’s latest book is a real treat, probably my favorite thing he’s ever written. It does a fantastic job exploring the economics, culture, esthetics, and realities of food, and delivers a mountain of compelling facts. Most of all it’s encouraging — not a screed, despite its occasionally serious arguments — and brings the fun back to eating. Delicious!”

Cowen, who has shown up on this blog before, is an economics professor at George Mason University who blogs at Marginal Revolution as well as at Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide. Here, from Part 1 of the podcast, is Cowen on the relationship between economics and food:

COWEN: If you read the early economists like Adam Smith, or Frederic Bastiat, they were obsessed with food and food markets. A lot of early economics, it is a theory of food and the food supply, because at that time food was a very large percentage of national economies. It was an important issue. People could die or starve if the harvest didn’t go well. So economics and food have been intimately related really from the beginning. And I’m trying to put food back in the centerpiece of economics.

Cowen speaks at length about how American food “got so bad” in the early- and mid-20th century, and here he is on the current state of food:

COWEN: If you are a foodie today you have more options than ever before. But there’s also more bad food than ever before. There’s more obesity. There’s more junk food. The food world is getting a lot worse and a lot better at the same time. That’s one way to think about the crisis. 

Now Cowen has agreed to field your questions about food. He is a nimble and diverse thinker, so feel free to ask him about specific foods and preferences, prices, the agricultural infrastructure, and anything else you can think of. As always with our Q&A’s, we’ll post his replies in short course.

To help get things started, here’s the Table of Contents from An Economist Gets Lunch:

1. On the Eve of the Revolution

2. How American Food Got Bad

3. Revolutionizing the Supermarket Experience

4. The Rules for Finding a Good Place to Eat

5. Barbecue: The Greatest Slow Food of All

6. The Asian Elephant in the Room

7. Another Agricultural Revolution, Now

8. Eating Your Way to a Greener Planet

9. Why Does Mexican Food Taste Different in Mexico?

10. The Finding Great Food Anywhere Encyclopedia

11. The Stuff and Values of Cooking at Home

This post is no longer accepting comments. The answers to the Q&A can be found here.

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  1. Foody says:

    Seems to me if Martineau is `correct” and Italy brings to the table their “genius” for creating the art of the deal: France brings its superiority in philosophical and political matters such as this one of “order” , the Germans contribute their “natural” aptitude for reasoning it through– then maybe we all can get back continuously to our individual work at-hand.

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  2. Jim Chazer says:

    If the people paid to work in the fields picking crops were paid double what they’re paid now, what effect would it have on the price of produce we purchase? I’m guessing that it wouldn’t double the price in the market. Would it raise it 50%? 25%

    I read where farmers can’t get Americans to do the back-breaking labor of picking crops. My initial reaction is that, while Americans may have gotten lazy when it comes to physical labor, the farmers simply aren’t paying enough to lure unemployed people in. My guess is that the laborers are making about $10/hr. For $20/hr, I would start considering doing the work as a second job on the weekends. ((Although considerations such as location and the work being part time would play into the decision too.))

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    • Eric M. Jones. says:

      Jim Chazer–

      Also, take into consideration that picking crops is a highly developed skill. Farm laborers who pick peaches can’t really pick tomatoes. So migrancy is advantageous. They show up when the crop is ready to be picked–then go back to Mexico for the winter.

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    • Bill says:

      Actually, Phil Martin agricultural economist at U.C. Davis, has done some very interesting work on this exact subject. I haven’t looked at the research in some time so I can’t give the numbers but impact on costs is minimal.

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    • Jack Skellington, ESQ says:

      —-. My guess is that the laborers are making about $10/hr. For $20/hr, I would start considering doing the work as a second job on the weekends. —-

      I, too, assume that I could do most things I’m completely ignorant about. I could probably play the banjo. I mean how hard can it be, right?

      The problem you overlook in regards to US workers replacing migrant pickers is twofold. Firstly, picking crops seems like it would be unskilled labor if you knew nothing about it. It isn’t. Secondly, most migrant pickers are paid per piece of unbruised fruit picked (or bushel or whatever). Highly skilled pickers regularly earn more than $20/hr. Low skilled pickers (ie: you on the weekend) earn well below minimum wage. This is the real problem. Your virtually non skilled part time work is close to worthless. The idea that “laziness” is the issue, is a red herring at best. The issue is that there is no existing US Citizen workforce with the necessary skills to be productive enough to earn a living wage picking fruit.

      The “solution” of heavily subsidizing unskilled labor at above market rates to avoid just employing an already skilled workforce is idiotic. You can make $20/hr picking fruit tomorrow….if you’re good enough at it.

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  3. frankenduf says:

    what’s ur take on Bloomberg taking the Big out of the Big Gulp?

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  4. Tim says:

    Why is the myth that it cost less to eat unhealthy foods so prevalent? Eating fast food every day is so much more expensive than packing a relatively healthy meal. It may be more convenient and some may think it tastes better, but unhealthy food is not cheaper.

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    • Anna Turtle says:

      Thank you… seasonal fruit and vegetables are always cheap (fruits imported from Australia during the dead of winter, maybe not). A bag of rice is a dollar, so is a bag of beans. And yet somehow the idea has pervaded our culture that $5 to feed one person one meal at a fast food restaurant is the cheapest thing you can do. What a bunch of crazy b.s.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Frozen veggies and canned veggies are cheap year round, and the frozen ones normally have more vitamins than the fresh ones, since they don’t spend several days losing vitamins during transport or while sitting in the store or while sitting in your home. They’re also less likely to get tossed in the trash due to going bad. If we want people to eat more nutritious foods, we shouldn’t forget these benefits.

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      • anon says:

        I can’t imagine ordinary people who aren’t recent immigrants, or crunchy granola types, or hippies living in the middle of nowhere, living on beans and rice when there are fast food places all around us. Bacon cheeseburger and small fries off the value menu? Or a bowl of rice and beans at mom’s kitchen table?

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      • James says:

        “I can’t imagine ordinary people…”

        We are not responsible for the failure of your imagination.

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    • crquack says:

      Agreed. The availability of high quality cheap ingredients for healthy meals in North America is second to none. Eating “bad food” is a choice, not a necessity.

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      • anon says:

        Hey, I am thrifty and we eat healthy, when I say “ordinary people”, I’m saying ordinary middle-class kids packing a lunch for school, or dad packing a lunch for the office. Is that kid going to eat his home grown bean sprouts on whole wheat sandwich in the lunch room, or toss it and buy himself a heated up personal pan pizza? (I suppose if he doesn’t have any money he might eat the sandwich, but won’t he want to fit in with his friends eating the chicken tenders or pizza or ice cream at lunch? Is dad going to pour the rice and beans out of his thermos when the guys in the office go out for KFC or a sub sandwich?) You have to consider peer pressure. If you start with the beans and rice from day one, that’s one thing. But all of a sudden you decide to send them out with your healthy little organic meal, well, that ain’t gonna last. It’s like going out for a beer with your co-workers, after work, and you order a kale smoothie? That ain’t gonna last.

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  5. Grecian says:

    What about the “Green Light.”?

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  6. Geoff says:

    Please comment on low-carb diets and their contention that the human body is ill-suited to eat grains, and that high-carb foods in general cause repeated insulin spikes which cause insulin resistance and improper fat storage, with many resulting deleterious health effects.

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  7. Marty S says:

    Is our food supply safer/better – and more economical, with a few regional mega-slaughter houses and dairies as big food says or would we be better off with smaller, local ones?
    Is there scale in size over shipping?

    Is taking a plant that’s “resistant to” or “better than” and breeding it to mass productivity a form of Genetically Modifying foods?

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  8. Bill N. says:

    What restaurant or food type would Tyler Cowen, Murray Rothbard and Ludwig Von Mises enjoy for lunch? Why?

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