The Economic Consequences of My Dislike for Blutwurst

Blutwurst was on the menu last night at the local restaurant where we ate. Yuck! And I imagine most Americans would agree. They would also agree about Vegemite, Scotch eggs (probably the single worst food I ever made the mistake of eating), and gusanos fritos.

No doubt we can think of examples from many countries’ cuisines; and probably we eat some things that disgust most other people. But these differences should cause worries about using economic theory to understand behavior: if our preferences (utility functions) differ so much across countries, how can we hope to have a universal science (which is how I like to think about economics)?

Saying that these are cultural differences begs the question: do we have an economic theory of culture? I suppose we could render unto the sociologists what they believe is theirs; but I’ve never seen any positive (in the sense of refutable) predictions come out of sociological explanations.

We need a serious economic theory of culture. We can’t just point out that culture as proxied by attitudes affects behavior: an increasingly common approach in macroeconomics and even in my own area of labor economics (and even by me).

(Hat tip: Margard Ody)


jonathan

Perhaps you could begin with a model that analyzes absorption of immigrants into a culture, one that predicts which cultural attributes fall away and which then could also predict which cultural attributes are more likely to be absorbed for use by the larger culture. For example, one could have predicted that pad thai would become popular because it uses noodles - though rice noodles were then unfamiliar - and other familiar ingredients like shrimp, maybe chicken and peanuts. We're not, however, likely to see snake blood or snake heart on US menus in the reasonable future. I don't know what existing data sources - food preference / nutrition surveys?

If that model coheres, then you might be able to use it to discuss why certain cultural traits remain. For example, essentially all Jewish males are circumcised but most Jewish males (certainly in the US) don't keep Kosher and many eat pork. Circumcision is hidden, while eating is not, and one might think eating pork in public would be more of an issue than having a foreskin that almost no one ever sees.

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Mike T

Scotch eggs are a very yummy component of the modern English picnic, along with mini pork pies. As for Vegemite, I think the trick is to have a very thin smear over hot buttered toast - if you get the balance right, it's brilliant.

Charlotte K

I am happy to see that these comments feature a paean to the scotch egg, which is simply delicious! I don't even remember what the posting was about, all I can think of now are scotch eggs....

Margard

Hi Dan,

when walking home from work yesterday I passed a rather fancy restaurant, read the menu (as i always do) and found something that is definitely a step up from 'just Blutwurst': Wine-and-Apple-Soup-With-fried-Blutwurst' - even my German guts felt slightly queasy just imagining what that might taste like...

H Dizzle

The Travel Channel has an interesting piece called "bizarre foods" where the host travels to different countries and purposely finds foods to try that will make the average American squeamish. He mentions at one point that it has enlightened him into how we put so many resources into making so few products (chicken, beef) plentiful, and creating a stigma around naturally plentiful resources such as worms, spiders, and rodents.

Granted, I don't the average family to simply turn around and have worm night every Monday, but I think the issue of such limited protein sources should be explored as a cultural phenomenon.

HildaCMS

No, we do not have an economic theory of culture. But, is one really necessary? When we make a decicision that is considered economic behavior it does not necessarally entail the detail of the options. Meaning, I can order chicken and someone across the world can order scotch eggs but they are still ordering what they believe is best. So isn't this in a way still economic theory, even though it is a bit more general than what is desired?

Steve Bell

"If our preferences (utility functions) differ so much across countries, how can we hope to have a universal science?"

I don't know, man. I don't like hamburgers. How can we possibly believe mathematics?

Mike

I'd never heard of Scotch eggs. I looked it up on wikipedia, and I have to say that it sounds pretty good. Hard boiled egg covered in ground sausage then deep fried. Sounds to me like something that should be pretty popular in the US. We love our fried fatty foods!

denis bider

Mr. Hamermesh:

Eh?

I thought that finding efficient ways to distribute resources to people with different preferences is what economics is _about_.

Is someone losing it?

erik de koster

ahhh... my kingdom for burgundy snails, frog's leggs, and horse meat (filet d'anvers, as they call it locally)... well, since I have no kingdom, I'll have to spend some money to acquire these goodies. And don't spoil them PLEASE with ketchup... Food culture obviously has to do with where you live, but also with your age: children hate brussels' sprouts (witlof as we call it over here) because it tastes bitter, but many adults enjoy it (I know I do now but not when I was force-fed it as a kid).

Matt K

Perhaps Steven Levitt's April Fools' joke has more truth to it than I thought...economists increasingly seem to be eyeing the traditional domain of sociologists and waiting to pounce, positivism bared.

It's not like we haven't tried this kind of thing before. I'm not saying it's impossible, but you should consider that social sciences aren't necessarily capable of the same things as natural sciences, and maybe they shouldn't try. There are so many variables in the social world that are difficult or impossible to control for that it's hard to definitively state a positivistic theory of something like culture.

JayT

How could you not like Scotch eggs? It's like an entire breakfest wrapped up and deep fried. HOW COULD THAT BE BAD?!?

Caliphilosopher

Well, there's no economic theory of culture because cultural facts don't reduce to economic facts. You almost sound like a logical positivist; always trying to reduce something to the flavor of your favorite discipline.

The most that you should wish is that there are ways to study the interactions between economics and culture. Allow me to be the first to tell you that an economic theory of culture ain't gonna happen.

Matt

No Scotch Eggs? You're crazy! Long live Scotch Eggs! (Because those of us who eat them probably won't live that long...)

Jason L.

Scotch Eggs are a gift from heaven. In these trying times I stand on a platform in support of Scotch Eggs!

saurabh

I think that this is an excellent example of a forced blog post.

sunshine

A good analogy is to psychology and individual differences. Individual differences are the bane of some psychology studies because they force psychologists collect data from vast numbers of subjects, which is tedious. In other psychology studies, the whole point is to predict individual differences. In yet another type of psychology study, the information inherent in the variance across individual differences is exploited to address a related question.

It sounds like you're interested in the first type of study. OK, by analogy you'll need to collect data over a large number of cultural markers. Time to hire some undergrads.

sara

Well, easy answer here--economics is just really bad at answering lots of kinds of questions, even here in the U.S. Where we're talking about incentivized behavior that's economic in nature, fine, but there's lots that falls outside of that both here and in other countries. It's like the question of why do people vote when their cost of doing so is so much higher than their chance of actually being the deciding vote in the election. Modelers want to throw in a D term to represent the amorphous "benefits" that people get from voting (non-economic, varying from person to person, etc.). Fine, but at that point I think it's better just to admit that people aren't making this decision based on economics and there are a lot of other forces at play that would be much more interesting if we would just study them on their own terms.

Kirilius

I agree with #1: "Why do we need an economic theory of culture?" Does economics apply to everything?

Speaking of cultures, the books by Geert Hofstede are a good start in trying to understand cultural differences. This one is fundamental:

http://www.amazon.com/Cultures-Organizations-Software-Geert-Hofstede/dp/0071439595/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1221665300&sr=8-1

In fact I think this is one aspect, which is often overlooked in this blog. The authors are always trying to explain certain effects in economic terms while completely ignoring the cultural differences.

emily

I found blutwurst to be earthy tasting & not actually bad, but given that there are many many sausages better than blutwurst, it is not something I would choose to eat again. I feel the same way about tongue -- why bother? Scotch egg? I kind of liked it, but wished for more egg. Vegemite, now -- that's kind of icky.