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.


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.

Jim Chazer

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.))

Eric M. Jones.

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.


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


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.

Anna Turtle

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.

Enter your name...

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.


What about the "Green Light."?


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.

Marty S

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?

Bill N.

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

jack sparrow

I have spoken to several economists and biologists about the Malthusian trap. Economist don't take Malthus seriously because of technological progress and biologists (the ones i spoke to atleast) think that economists are delusional about technological progress and that the malthusian trap can come back and haunt us unpredictably even though past 100 odd years are evidence against it.
1) What is your take on this?
2) Why is the opinion between the economists and biologists isn't converging on this topic?
(ie why biologists don't appreciate technological progress as much as economists do and why economists' don't appreciate malthus on this?)

Luc renierkens

I've got a question concerning beer. With the european soccer championship in poland and the ukraine being played, Dutch supermarkets started a beer pricing war. There has been a lot of debate on this topic. One supermarket offering three crates of beer for the price of two received a lot of critism from the healthmanagement communitie. My question is: do you think people will drink larger quantities of beer in a given timeframe as a result of this pricing policy, or would people (like I've done) go for the bargain but drink no more - and no less for that matter - and keep the extra quantities in the garage for later use?


Let's say the ~$20B in US subsidies for corn wheat, rice, soybeans, dairy, etc are gradually dialed down to 0 in the next 10 years.
What do you think the impact on food would be ? Would prices rise? Would flavor and health improve?


While you say on your food blog that "all food is ethnic food," what is your stance on authenticity. Does it exist? Does it matter? What's your take about David Thompson's or Andy Ricker's Thai food? Or what about Jose Andres opening restaurants of various types? Lastly, what's your take on a Chinese restaurant where the vast majority of the clientele isn't Chinese? (could substitute Chinese for any other traditionally considered ethnic cuisines like Thai/Mexican/Vietnamese/Indian/etc)


The book discusses how easy it was to incorporate vegetables into a meal after shopping at the Asian market. Further, in the podcast at econtalk he discusses how much more enjoyable vegetables are when properly spiced (or served with spicy food). Assuming the two are related, what Asian spices is he using to make the vegetables something to look forward to? I'm really trying here, but when I'm eating a meal I still can't bring myself to say that the best part is the bok choy, and not the steak.


How do you make a grilled cheese sandwich that tastes like white bread, butter, and American cheese, but which is actually somewhat healthy AND -- most importantly -- that a 3-year-old will eat?

Same for mac-and-cheese.

And french fries.

And all the other one food that they will not refuse?

Finally, can you make it on the cheap?

What is it about these foods that guarantee that tired, angry, no-oriented kids will stop throwing tantrums and eat? And why do I look forward to eating the leftovers?


I just read The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart by Tracie McMillan, investigating how food gets handled, how it gets distributed. She worked with Mexicans in the fields picking tomatoes and peaches. She was paid about $20 A DAY. All that backbreaking labor in the hot fields, and you get about enough for you and a friend to get a tall-whatever and a cookie at Starbucks.