Category: Food and Drink

My Conversation with Ezekiel Emanuel

Very much a fun one, here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the opening summary:

Do we overrate the importance of doctors? What’s the importance of IQ versus EQ in the practice of medicine? What are the prospect for venture capital in biotech? How should medical training be changed? Why does he think the conventional wisdom about a problem tends to be wrong? Would immortality be boring? What would happen if we let parents genetically engineer their kids?

Tyler questions Emanuel on these topics and more, including the smartest thing his parents did while raising him, whether we have right to medical self-defense, healthcare in low- versus high-trust institutions, and much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: How can we improve medical education?

EMANUEL: Cut it down. Make it shorter.

COWEN: Cut it down? Why does that make it better? Or does it just make it cheaper?

EMANUEL: No, I think it will make it better. So, we have a lot of memorization, a lot of . . . So, let’s go back to the start. The four years of medical school: two years of preclinical in the classroom learning about biochemistry, genetics, anatomy, microbiology; and the two years of clinical time in the hospital, on the wards.

That dates from 1910. We haven’t really updated it much, except in this one way: we’ve cut down the preclinical time because — less of it — and it changes so fast, by the time you learn it in medical school, get out as a doctor, it’s out of date, A; and B, it’s more or less irrelevant to managing most patients…

And then, by the way, in med school, spending your time in a hospital is not the future. The future of American medicine is out of the hospital. So we need more rotations, more experiences for students out of the hospital.

No med school has made that big shift, and those are the shifts that are going to have to happen over the next 15 or so years.

And:

COWEN: Is there a right to medical self-defense that should override FDA bans on drugs and medical devices? I want to try something that’s not approved —

EMANUEL: No. I don’t like that.

COWEN: I’m saying it’s my body. But why don’t you like it?

EMANUEL: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, Tyler.

Finally:

COWEN: Now, you’ve written a much-misunderstood article about how hard you would try yourself to live past the age of 75. Would not the suspense of world and national history always keep you wanting a bit more extra time?

So, say I’m 75. I’ve decided I agree with you, but the NBA Finals aren’t over yet. I want to see game seven. I want the Mueller report to come out. Isn’t there always something?

And then, it’s kind of intransitivity of indifference. Every day there’s something, and you just keep on hanging on, even if one accepts your arguments in the abstract. Can you talk me out of that?

EMANUEL: No, no, Tyler, I think you’re exactly right. That’s why people do hang on. It’s because . . . you know, so I talked to my father, who — he says, “Zeke, you’re absolutely right. I’ve become slower, physically slower, mentally slower. My life” . . . what ends up happening is your life cones down, and you begin to overvalue certain small things. Like the NBA Finals. Like what’s in the Mueller report.

We all know, from any cosmic standpoint — even not a cosmic standpoint, just a 2,000-foot standpoint — most of those things are not irrelevant. It’s really cool to know.

You often ask — and this happens to me all the time. I teach undergraduates. Pretty smart undergraduates. Very smart undergraduates. MBA students, nurses, doctors, right? They have no understanding of history. So, whoever finishes in the NBA Finals, in five years, people have forgotten.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

What is the optimal tax rate on restaurants?

bhauth asks me:

What do you think the optimal tax rate on restaurants would be? The current rates seem high to me:

1) The marginal substitution rate between restaurants and cooking at home is high.

2) Cooking at home uses untaxed labor. Cooking in restaurants uses taxed labor, and then customers pay sales taxes on that taxed labor. Those sales taxes are often *higher* than normal sales taxes, because food from restaurants is a “luxury good”.

Putting aside general fiscal considerations (e.g., to which other taxes are we comparing it?), I see a few main questions here:

a. Yes, eating in restaurants contributes to weight gain, but how much is that a self-control problem vs. an internalized decision of cost vs. benefit?

b. How much do cheap restaurants encourage families to have more children, a social positive in my view?

c. How much do cheap restaurants take away the bonding that arises from the family dinner table experience?  And how often is that bonding a net negative with lots of fights and screaming?

d. Will taxing restaurant meals — as opposed to specific taxes on meat — on net lower beef-eating and carbon/methane problems?

e. Do restaurant food suppliers treat farm animals better or worse than do suppliers of home-cooked meals?

I say a-e are mostly hard to measure, so this gives us a common problem in economics: you have one clear, and significant, effect, and a bunch of hard to measure effects which are hard to assign a net value to.  Should you be willing to recommend policy on the basis of the one effect you can clearly see, and then widen the confidence bands?  Or should you just keep your mouth shut altogether?

What if your audience finds a blog post like this one too complicated or too annoying?

Inegalitarian restaurants

Or maybe you’re a senior staffer for Steve Scalise, the second-ranking Republican in the House. The aide usually pings his usual server for one of his usual perches: table 10 in the main dining room. It’s the corner booth with a privacy curtain—the “rock-star table,” ever since Bono sat there. Only tonight he’d prefer a booth in the bar area. Trouble is it’s packed.

Not to worry. “A maître d’ always has a table in his back pocket,” Arnaud says. He adds the Hill staffer to the reservation system, and a bar booth with a reserved placard is his.

For these diners and the other VIPs on the books this evening—a congressman from Kentucky, a former media exec, a concierge from the W Hotel, a smattering of cherished regulars—the restaurant is extra-accommodating. Its maître d’s spot their special customers instantly, greet them by name, and immediately whisk them to their tables. Good cop, good cop…

First, the hierarchy. Because this is Washington, many restaurants naturally have a pecking order for their top clientele. All VIPs of Le Diplomate, the French brasserie in Logan Circle, are dubbed “PPX”—personnes particulièrement extraordinaires—and tracked in real time on a kitchen whiteboard as they dine. But some, such as a neighborhood regular, are classified as “TTA,” for Try to Accommodate. Others are “MA,” for Must Accommodate, including Jill Biden; Gérard Araud, the outgoing French ambassador; and Jim Abdo, the developer who basically rebuilt 14th Street. An MA commands a table, stat.

At Rare Steakhouse in downtown DC, former managing director Justin Abad categorized semiregular VIPs as “soigné,” French for “handled with care,” and those who came in three to five times a week or held multiple functions at the restaurant throughout the year as “super soigné.” The lower tier would often be treated to a complimentary Prosecco, while those handled with extra care—select media figures and lawyers, for instance—might be given a free shellfish platter on occasion.

Here is much more by Jessica Sidman.  Have you ever wondered why at some places, and no I do not mean the old El Bulli, it is so hard to get a table at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night no matter when you try asking?  Those tables are being rationed by status, or if you are a very regular (and lucrative) customer of some kind.

And yet almost everyone still seems to think that restaurants are super-cool, correctly or not.

The cutthroat world of children’s food

It’s all about the data:

After a year-long investigation, a top California exec has been arrested by the FBI for allegedly hacking into a competitor’s website and stealing their customer data in an effort to ruin their business.

There is an unusual twist, however: this isn’t the high-stakes world of big tech or high finance, but American school lunches.

Chief financial officer of Choicelunch, Keith Wesley Cosbey, 40, was collared last month over claims that he illegally grabbed details from competitor The LunchMaster on what precisely youngsters across the San Francisco Bay Area like to eat and are allergic to.

He has been charged with unlawful computer access and fraud, and identity theft. If found guilty, Cosbey faces up to three years behind bars.

According to the criminal complaint against him, filed in San Mateo County, Cosbey stole data on hundreds of students, and then sent it anonymously to the local government department that oversees the school lunch program in an apparent effort to undermine his competitor.

Here is the full story, and here is another story, both via the estimable Chug.

Do minimum wage hikes get rid of bad restaurants?

We study the impact of the minimum wage on firm exit in the restaurant industry, exploiting recent changes in the minimum wage at the city level. We find that the impact of the minimum wage depends on whether a restaurant was already close to the margin of exit. Restaurants with lower ratings are closer to the margin of exit on average, and are disproportionately driven out of business by increases to the minimum wage. Our point estimates suggest that a one dollar increase in the minimum wage leads to a 10 percent increase in the likelihood of exit for a 3.5-star restaurant (which is the median rating on Yelp), but has no discernible impact for a 5-star restaurant (on a 1 to 5 star scale). We expand the analysis to look at prices using data from delivery orders, and find that lower rated restaurants also increase prices in response to minimum wage increases. Our analysis also highlights how digital data can be used to shed new light on labor policy and the economy.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Dara Lee Luca and Michael Luca.  Obviously this will not be good for jobs, yet part of me believes that creative destruction in the restaurant sector is undersupplied…

Elizabeth Warren on food and agriculture

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is on excerpt:

The most striking feature of her team’s plan, called “Leveling the Playing Field for America’s Family Farmers,” is what it doesn’t call for: namely, an abolition of farm subsidies, a reform favored by virtually all economists. Those payments often run more than $20 billion a year, and are typically considered an inefficient form of crony capitalism.

And:

Warren’s document asserts that “food prices aren’t going down.” That’s true but misleading. When the Federal Reserve is targeting near 2 percent inflation, most prices in the economy will rise steadily over time. The link behind that claim, to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, offers some recent data, but it is hardly damning: In 2018, it notes, retail food prices rose 0.4 percent. “This was the first increase in 3 years, but the rate was still below the 20-year historical annual average of 2.0 percent.” Or how terrible are these numbers, from the same report: “In 2019, price growth may continue to remain low at the grocery store. Food-at-home prices are expected to rise between 0.5 and 1.5 percent, as potentially the fourth year in a row with deflating or lower-than-average inflating retail food prices.”

A look at the longer-term historical data also shows slow, steady inflation in the food and beverage sector, rather than a recent crisis of price spikes. Food price inflation does become higher after 1973, but that is probably due to higher energy prices and the more general productivity slowdown that has plagued the U.S. economy.

In this context, Warren’s lengthy complaints about monopoly and market power in the food sector just don’t seem that persuasive. Furthermore, America’s food sector has been remarkably innovative in terms of product choice and rising diversity of options.

Warren also calls for greater agricultural protectionism and the banning of foreign investment in American farmland.  And she is supposed to be the leading policy thinker in the race?  People, this is not good, and furthermore it is the same tiresome “tested by social media let’s bash the corporate villains” set of cliches.  My close:

If American voters want to be inspired, then opposing seed-company mergers won’t be nearly enough.

Demand curves slope downward incentives matter

The typical all-you-can-eat buffet customer serves herself more than 4 pounds of food—much of which winds up in the trash, he said. The by-the-pound guest, in contrast, serves herself 1-to-2 pounds and the more she takes, the better it is for the business.

Here is the longer story (WSJ), with additional points of interest, via the estimable Chug.

The culture that is Alexandria, VA

A proposal to open a halal butchery facility in Alexandria hit a snag Saturday after some local business owners and dog owners objected. DC Poultry Market wants to open a facility that would sell fresh, humanely killed chickens on Colvin Street in a mostly industrial area of Alexandria between Duke Street and railroad tracks. There are no residential properties in the immediate area, but pet businesses abound: Pinnacle Pet Spa & More, Frolick Dogs, Dogtopia, and the Wholistic Hound Academy.

Therein lay a problem. Though city staff and Alexandria’s planning commission recommended approving DC Poultry Market’s application, dog  lovers showed up to the Alexandria City Council’s March 16 meeting to object on olfactory grounds (“My dog can smell when there’s a cookie down the block,” one resident said) and on proximity to poultricide (“Knowing that my dogs may be walked by a business that holds chickens in a windowless room before their throats are slit while fully conscious does not make me feel that my dogs are in a safe environment,” another said).

Here is the full story, via Bruce A.  Few seem to be complaining about the chickens.

Ghent travel notes

Ghent is one of the loveliest small- to mid-sized cities in Europe, perhaps lucky to have never received UNESCO World Heritage status, unlike Bruges.  Ghent was one of the earliest seats of the continental Industrial Revolution, through textiles, and the city core has splendid architecture from late medieval times up through the early 20th century.  It is what Amsterdam should be, but no longer is.

The center is full of interesting, quirky small shops, along the lines of the cliche you do not expect to actually find.  Only rarely are restaurant menus offered in English.  Most of the tourists in the hotel seemed to be Chinese.

Walk around, don’t miss Graffiti Street, and the Ensors and the Roualt in the Fine Arts museum complement the more famous items there.  The Industrie Museum has numerous textile machines from the 18th century onwards; I found it striking how different the 1770 machine was from the 1730 vintage, but how little by 1950 the machines had advanced .

For dining I recommend the Surinamese restaurant Faja Lobi and the Syrian Layali Habab, the mainstream Belgian places seem to be good but no better than good unless you pay a lot of money.

Most of all, you should walk around and ponder why we seem unable (or is it unwilling?) to build such compelling cities these days.

My Conversation with Raghuram Rajan

Here is the transcript and audio, we covered so much, here is the CWT summary:

How much has the U.S. actually fixed the financial system? Does India have the best food in the world? Why does China struggle to maintain a strong relationship with allies? Why are people trading close-knit communities for isolating cities? And what types of institutions are we missing in our social structure? Listen to Rajan’s thorough conversation with Tyler to dive into these questions and much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: A lot of observers have suggested to me that the notion of a kind of Anglo-American liberalism as ascendant in India is now a dead idea, that ideologically, India has somehow shifted, and the main currents of thought, including on the so-called right, are just really not liberalism anymore. Do you have a take on that view?

RAJAN: I’m not sure I would agree. I would say that we’ve had a government over the last five years which has elements of the majoritarian, Hindu nationalist group in it. But I would argue the country, as a whole, is still firmly secular, liberal in the Nehruvian idea, which is that we need a country which is open to different religions, to different ethnicities, to different beliefs if we are to stay together.

And democracy plays an important role here because it allows some of the pressures which build up in each community to essentially get expressed and therefore diffuses some of the pressure. So I think India’s ideal is still a polyglot coming together in this country.

COWEN: But someone like Ramachandra Guha — what he symbolizes intellectually — do you think that would be a growing part of India’s future? Or that will dwindle as colonial ties become smaller, the United States less important in global affairs?

RAJAN: I think that an open, liberal, tolerant country is really what we need for the next stage of growth. We are now reaching middle income. We could go a little faster. We should go a little faster there.

Once we reach middle income, to grow further, I think we need an intellectual openness, which only the kind of democracy we have — the open dialogue, a respectful dialogue — will generate the kinds of innovative forces that will take us more to the frontier.

So I keep saying, and I say this in the book, we’re very well positioned for the next stage of growth, from middle to high income. But we first have to reach middle income.

And:

COWEN: Will current payments companies end up as competitors to banks or complements to the banking system? Or are they free riders on the banking system?

RAJAN: I think they’re trying to figure out their space. As of now, sometimes they’re substituting for . . . Certainly, my daughter uses her payment system completely separate from her bank account. But longer term, we’ll find ways of meshing these in and reduce the costs of making payments. Those costs are really too high at this point, and reducing those costs makes a lot of sense.

COWEN: Will banks ever be truly excellent at doing software?

RAJAN: I think we will have a combination of the guys who are truly good at software — the fintech companies — merging with banks who know how to do the financial side. They’ll bring each of their talents together. I’ve seen a lot of fintech people who have no clue as to what finance is really about. And I’ve seen a lot of banks who have no clue as to what tech is about. I think some merger will happen over time.

There is much more at the link.  And here is Raghu’s new book The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave Community Behind.

How to travel to India

From a reader:

I have really enjoyed your travel posts on various countries, and am currently planning a trip to India for the month of November. However, I have struggled to find much writing of yours on the country. Perhaps a post on tips/places/cities/culture is in order? It would be much appreciated.

I have only a few India tips, but I can recommend them very, very strongly.  Here goes:

1. You can’t just walk around all day and deal with the pollution, the bad sidewalks, and dodging the traffic.  This ain’t Paris.  Plan accordingly.

2. When Alex set off to live in India, I said to him: “Alex, after a few weeks there, I want you to email me “the number.”  The number is how many consecutive hours you can circulate in an Indian city without having to stop and resort to a comfortable version of the indoors.”  You too will figure out pretty quickly what your number is, and it won’t take you a few weeks.

3. India is one of the very best and most memorable trips you can take.  You should go repeatedly.

4. Every single part of India is interesting and worth visiting, as far as I can tell after five trips.  That said, I find Bangalore quite over-visited relative to its level of interest.

5. My favorite places in India are Mumbai, Chennai, Rajasthan, and Kolkaata.  Still, I could imagine a rational person with interests broadly similar to my own having a quite different list.

6. India has the best food in the world.  It is not only permissible but indeed recommended to take all of your meals in fancy hotel restaurants.  Do not eat the street food in India (and I eat it virtually everywhere else).  It is also permissible to find two or three very good hotel restaurants — or even one — and simply run through their menus.  You won’t be disappointed.

7. Invest in a very, very good hotel.  It is affordable, and you will need it, and it will be a special memory all its own.

8. Being driven around in the Indian countryside is terrifying (and I have low standards here, I do this all the time in other non-rich countries).  If it were safer, I would see many more parts of India.  But it isn’t.  So I don’t.

9. If you go during monsoon season, your trip will be quite memorable.  I cannot say I recommend this (I don’t), but I am myself glad I did it once, in Goa, when monsoon season started early.  I got a lot of work done.

10. Do not expect punctuality.

11. Most of the sights in India, including the very famous ones, are overrated.  The main sight is India itself, and that is underrated.

12. “In religion, every Indian is a millionaire.”

I thank Yana and Dan Wang and Alex for discussions relevant to this post.

The meaning of death, from an economist’s point of view

A few days ago Garett Jones came to my office door and asked “what do we really know about labor supply?”  I said we might as well extend the query to labor demand.  In any case, here was part of my answer, paraphrased of course:

I’ve been much influenced by having kept a dining guide blog/website for almost thirty years, and seeing so many places come and go.  On one hand, I see the stickiness of plans.  A restaurant opens up, and the proprietor has the intent to be a certain thing.  They’re not going to take the pupusas off the menu, just because the price of corn has gone up.  Similarly, increases in the minimum wage might not much alter the hiring plans of the restaurant.  The very act of starting a business selects, to some extent, for people who stick to their plans.  The dishes still need to be washed, and many owners are not at the margins of considering serious automation.

That said, sooner or later these restaurants pass from the scene.  And when the El Salvadoran place closes, there is a real competition across competing food visions.  Will it be pupusas, roast chicken, or kebab?  Once again, relative prices will exert their influence, on both the supply and demand sides of the market.  In fact, pupusa places are slightly in retreat, as they cannot always bid for their higher area rents — it is hard to sell a pupusa for more than a few dollars and at the same time the requisite labor is harder not easier to come by and demand seems stagnant at best.

Similarly, if the minimum wage is high, the new restaurant, if indeed it is even a restaurant, will economize on the number of laborers required to make the food.  The plan for a true Bengali sweets shop will not get off the ground.  You might see storage space or a less labor intensive means of food preparation.

We thus come to a truth that is both happy and sad: death and turnover are how relative prices imprint their impact on the world.

And that, to an economist, is the meaning of death.

Do land use restrictions increase restaurant quality and diversity?

Daniel Shoag and Stan Veuger say yes, but I am not so convinced.

It turns out that metrics of land use restrictions are correlated with restaurant quality, across cities.  To cut to the chase, Los Angeles ranks number one on this index, and I can agree with that assessment in terms of food quality and also diversity.  (Other good food cities, such as Miami, also rank high on the index.)  Yet for the metropolitan area near L.A., food is generally best where the land use restrictions are least binding.  Beverly Hills and Santa Monica have some decent fancy restaurants, but the real gems are to be found elsewhere, in fringes such as northeast Hollywood, Silverlake (gentrifying a bit too much these days, however), north Orange County, Monterey Park, and so on.  Pasadena has hardly anywhere excellent to eat.

I would suggest an alternative channel of influence: urban areas with high inequality have both better food (see An Economist Gets Lunch, but basically imagine the wealthier people generating demand and the poorer people supplying cheap labor) and more building restrictions.  The wealthier people decide to do something to keep the poorer people out of their neighborhoods.

I hate to say “correlation does not prove causation,” but…correlation does not prove causation.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.