Publication day for *An Economist Gets Lunch*

by on April 12, 2012 at 8:21 am in Books, Food and Drink, Uncategorized | Permalink

Adam Ozimek writes:

Cowen’s history of how American food came to be so mediocre is a strong counterargument to those who look to blame the phenomenon on commercialization, capitalism, and excess of choice. In contrast to the usual narrative, Cowen tells us how bad laws have played an important role in shaping our food ecosystem for the worse over time. This includes prohibition’s negative and long lasting impact on restaurants, and the government aggressively limiting one of our greatest sources of culinary innovation: immigration. This is not to lay the blame entirely on the government. Television and a culture that panders to the desires of children have also incentivized poor culinary trends.

The book contains many other other important arguments against popular food ideas, including defenses of technology and agriculture commercialization against critiques of locavores, slow foodies, and environmentalists. For example, if you live in an area where it takes a lot of energy and resources to grow food — like the desert — the most environmentally friendly way may be to grow it somewhere else and ship it. An apple grown locally may be refrigerated for months, which consumes a lot of energy, whereas it may be both fresher and better for the environment to grow it elsewhere and ship it in from afar by boat. He also defends genetically modified crops as the likely cures to the biggest food problem we have today, which is not obesity but malnutrition.

But Cowen is not an apologist, and he doesn’t argue that we can just deregulate our way to a better food system. In fact he has many words of support for policies and values often supported by progressives.

…If there is one overarching lesson it is that looking at food through the framework of supply and demand can help you both understand our food system better, and also help you be a smarter consumer and get more out of every meal.

You can pre-order the book on Amazon here.  For Barnes & Noble here.  For here.

dearieme April 12, 2012 at 8:28 am

Surely the first question for anyone who sets himself up as a food critic is “Do you drink coke at table?”.

AndrewL April 12, 2012 at 8:54 am

I just bout the kindle version of this book and so far it’s a very interesting read.

So far in your first chapter you talk only about the street food, make a hypothesis about the correlation of “good food” and pricing, but never fully test it. You’ve tried all the sub 5$ meals, have you tried any of the 10-20$ meals just prove the hypothesis?

Also, instead of waiting for change for the tamales, why didn’t you just get two more tamales? =P you were willing to let of the change anyway, at least you could have gotten more tamales for later.

Anyway, back to reading…

bartman April 13, 2012 at 2:05 pm

“…prove the hypothesis?”

Huh? How do you “prove” a hypothesis?

Tom April 12, 2012 at 8:57 am

I had this in on my Amazon wish list for a long time and when it came time to put it in my cart, I noticed my local library already had a copy on the way and I was able to put in the first hold!

mel April 12, 2012 at 9:14 am

I am really looking forward to reading this! After our trip to Istanbul last year, upon advice from Tyler we ended up at a small cafe frequented by locals – no beautiful people except for my companion, the food was hearty really good and was reasonably priced.

Unfortunately on my side of the planet, can’t get the kindle version yet, and worse still can’t gift it for my beautiful companion either!

dead serious April 12, 2012 at 9:31 am

Congrats on the book – hope it does well for you.

Pierre-Louis April 12, 2012 at 9:33 am

why does the kindle version cost as much as $12.99, and why do I pay a sales tax of 14 cents if I live in the UK? I bought it anyway… but kindle books should be much cheaper than physical ones… no?

Chris April 12, 2012 at 10:01 am

Publishers fear a sale of an ebook is the loss of a sale of a physical book. Amazon used to sell books at ridiculously slim or negative margins so the publishers (possibly illegally) started selling ebooks with required retail prices. Price competition now exists at the publishing level but not the retailing level.

GiT April 12, 2012 at 10:07 am


“The government’s decision to pursue major publishers on antitrust charges has put the Internet retailer Amazon in a powerful position: the nation’s largest bookseller may now get to decide how much an e-book will cost, and the book world is quaking over the potential consequences.”

Zachary April 12, 2012 at 1:10 pm

Regardless of collusion, you still bought the digital one? Seems like they are only tapping more of your total willingness to pay. Until they force you to purchase something, I don’t have a problem with it.

You are right that the digital version ‘seems’ too expensive. It is in a sense. [see GiT's link]

Rahul April 12, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Does the sales-tax go to the US or UK?

Rahul April 12, 2012 at 1:34 pm

If aggressive anti-immigration policy makes food in America bad; then which nations have good food because of laxer immigration policies? The only contenders I can think of are (maybe) Canada and Australia; hardly paragons of culinary taste and variety.

Thor April 12, 2012 at 5:28 pm

I’ll have you know that our sushi beaver tail in curry, with a jerk olive and peanut chutney is superb.

Actually, given where the majority of our immigrants (legal, generally) come from, I’d better add: on rice.

Guy In The Veal Calf Office April 12, 2012 at 3:18 pm

The title interests me. How would most people prioritize titles on the Food Book Shelf such as “A [Celebrity Chef/ Athlete/ First Lady/ Hobo/ Mother Of 5/ Economist/ Gangster/ Blogger/ Bus Boy/ Appalachian Moonshiner] Gets Lunch”? Does “Economist” have positive brand value in general or in this sector in particular?

The title is not “Tyler Cowen Gets Lunch” and, no offense to this crowd, the generic “Economist” isn’t a compelling source of wisdom for knockabout fun. The foodies I know prolly think that generic “Economists” graze at faculty cafeterias on the cheap, relishing only the argument on utility maximizing the bill split, and offer food advice on par with CPAs. Lawyers are better foodie-qualified than economists, and you can take offense to that.

P.S. Has D.C. imposed occupational licensing on food-advice yet?

Jim April 12, 2012 at 6:32 pm

“An apple grown locally may be refrigerated for months, which consumes a lot of energy, whereas it may be both fresher and better for the environment to grow it elsewhere and ship it in from afar by boat. ”

False choice. For one thing apples do not have to be refrigerated for months, they have to be refrigerated only if you insist on crunchy apples year-round. That is a really artifical food tic. It’s the same with shipping anything in from distant places – eat what is in season. Fresh strawberries in January are a rather tasteless extravagance, almost as bad as those fools on Food Network shows that put asparagus alongside absolutely everything even in mid-November. Clueless and tasteless.

Yes, there are places where nothing is in season for months at a time. Those aren’t really habitable regions anyway.

Rahul April 12, 2012 at 11:33 pm

If it makes sense to “eat local” how come people are OK wearing shirts made from, say, Egyptian cotton processed in India and stitched in Cambodia?

Is the energy overhead in shipping food vastly higher than other commodities? Just because someone lives in a coal-mining region do we insist he abhor gasoline-cars?

bartman April 13, 2012 at 2:08 pm

At Trader Joes you can get a jar of pink rock salt mined in Pakistan, packaged in South Africa and sold in New Jersey for less than $2. I almost feel guilty using it, and I’m about as laissez-faire as they come.

Rahul April 13, 2012 at 4:25 pm

I hope the pink salt isn’t what this forum-post is talking about!

zuki April 12, 2012 at 7:48 pm

mmm…. just made me hungry. congrats.

Randall Brown April 25, 2012 at 4:19 pm

This article is very interesting. Tyler Cowen makes some good points about where to eat at. For example how the restaurants he described as being hard to find are better. It makes sense that if a restaurant is very popular and easily recieves a large number of customers the food being served at these restaurants may not have as much quality or value as other restaurants that are smaller. Restaurants that have been around for many years and are a small franchise will have high quality food and will be more consistent in pleasing regular customers. Some things Cowen were saying seemed more opinionated than fact. I have never walked into a restaurant and judged what type of restaurant it is based on the expressions of the people that are in the restaurant. Cowen’s idea of making food more efficient is very good idea. If the average cost of producing a product is high for an area, why not lower the cost by producing the product at another location and ship products to where they are needed. These ideas are very interesting and I would like to read the book to learn more.

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