Category: Food and Drink

My Conversation with Charles C. Mann

Here is the audio and transcript, Charles was in superb form.  We talked about air pollution (carbon and otherwise), environmental pessimism, whether millions will ever starve and are there ultimate limits to growth, how the Spaniards took over the Aztecs, where is the best food in Mexico, whether hunter-gatherer society is overrated, Jackie Chan, topsoil, Emily Dickinson, James C. Scott, the most underrated trip in the Americas, Zardoz, and much much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: But if you had to pick a leading candidate to be the fixed factor, I’m not saying you have to endorse it, but what’s the most likely fixed factor if there is one?

MANN: Well, water is certainly a big candidate. There just really isn’t that much fresh water.

COWEN: But we can price it more, and since we have growing wealth — global economy grows at 4 percent a year — we can subsidize those who need subsidies…

MANN: You’re right. But water’s obviously one of them. But hovering over it is these questions about whether these natural cycles . . . is kind of a fundamental question about life itself. Is an ecosystem an actual system with an integrity of its own, with rules of its own that you violate at your peril? Which is the fundamental premise of the environmental movement. Or is an ecosystem more like an apartment building in which it is just a bunch of people who happen to live in the same space and share a few common necessities?

I don’t think ecology really has settled on this. There’s a guy in Florida, Dan Simberloff, who is a wonderful ecologist who has kind of made a career out of destroying all these models, these elegant models, one after another. So that’s the fundamental guess.

If it turns out that it’s just a collection of factors that we can shift around, that nature’s purely instrumental and we can do with it what we want, then we have a lot more breathing room. If it turns out that there really are these overarching cycles, which seems to be the intuition of the ecologists who study this, then we have less room than we think.


COWEN:  Jared Diamond.

MANN: I think an interesting guy who really should learn more about social sciences.

COWEN: Economics in particular.

MANN: Yes.

COWEN: Theory of common property resources.

MANN: Yeah.

And finally:

MANN: …What I think is the underrated factor is that Cortez was much less a military genius than he was a political genius. He was quite a remarkable politician, really deft. And what he did is . . . The Aztecs were an empire, the Triple Alliance, and they were not nice people. They were rough customers. And there was a lot of people whom they had subjugated, and people whom they were warring on who really detested them. And Cortez was able to knit them together into an enormous army, lead that army in there, have all these people do all that, and then hijack the result. This is an act of political genius worthy of Napoleon.

Self-recommending, and I am delighted to again express my enthusiasm for Charles’s new The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.  Here is Bill Easterly’s enthusiastic WSJ review of the book.

Washington, D.C. New York City fact of the day

Washington also seems to be full of economists. We have 10 economists for every one member of the clergy, whereas in New York City there are 15 members of the clergy for every economist.

D.C. is the only major metropolitan area with more economists than clergy.  The Miami area is the one with the highest ratio of chefs to economists.  Here is the source, via Paul Winfree.

The miracle of Israeli water policy

“Israel should have been a water basket case,” says Siegel, listing its problems: 60% of the land is desert and the rest is arid. Rainfall has fallen to half its 1948 average, apparently thanks to climate change, and as global warming progresses, Israel and the whole Levant are expected to become even drier – and from 1948, Israel’s population has grown 10-fold.

During that time, the country’s economy grew 70-fold. But instead of starting to waste water, as happens when a society becomes wealthier, it used its new affluence to implement what Siegel calls “the Israel model” of water management.

That model includes drip irrigation, the world’s highest rate of water reclamation and recycling, high prices when necessary, massive desalination, fixing leaks early and frequently, discouraging gardening, and mandating water-efficient toilets.

Are you listening California?  Here is the article from Ruth Schuster at Haaretz.  Here is Wikipedia on water policy in Israel.  Here is the miracle of Israeli dairy; Israeli cows are far more productive than most other cows, mostly because of technology.

South Korea kimchi deficit fact of the day

If you are going to worry about bilateral deficits, here is one to keep you up at night:

According to South Korea’s World Institute of Kimchi, 89.9 percent of the kimchi purchased by South Korean restaurants in 2016 was imported from China.

The kimchi trade first went into deficit in 2006, triggering soul-searching and a headline-grabbing scandal…

South Korea imported more than 275,000 tonnes of kimchi last year, 99 percent of it from China, the Korea Customs Service (KCS) said, and exported just more than 24,000 tonnes.

The deficit stood at US$47.3 million by value, up 11 percent year-on-year and the largest since the KCS began tracking the data in 2000.

Price is a major factor in the trade, with imports costing just US$0.50 per kilogram in 2016, according to Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corp, while exports — primarily destined for Japan — averaged US$3.36 per kilogram…

UNESCO inscribed South Korean kimchi on its intangible cultural heritage list in 2013, saying: “It forms an essential part of Korean meals, transcending class and regional differences.”

Here is the full article, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

Do markets underprovide genetic insurance?

Perhaps you know that both mainstream bananas and chocolate are threatened by blights.  There is even talk of “bananas as we know them” going under, although I believe the hardier (and tastier) Brazilian bananas are in much less danger.  They are also harder to grow, stack, and transport to the United States.

More generally, to the extent societies opt for monocultures, disease can threaten an entire crop.  So when breeding and choosing genetic strains, do markets get this problem right?  Or can we identify a systematic market failure?  Will farmers produce too many kinds of corn of the same kind, or too few?  For background, you might wish to read this Charles C. Mann article.  Here are a few points:

1. In old line Chamberlain-style monopolistic competition theory, producers selected too many product varieties because product differentiation boosted their market power and thus their profits.  Appropriately, people accused him of excessively differentiating his theory from that of Joan Robinson.

2. In the A. Michael Spence product quality papers from 1976-1980, producers with market power choose too little product variety, because they don’t sufficiently count the inframarginal gains from bringing new products to market.

3. There is now a risk/insurance argument.  If you breed and grow a different strain or corn, or simply invest in keeping an old strain around, no single blight can wipe out all the corn.  This is a kind of substitute for corn insurance markets.  I have seen Taleb make a version of these arguments on Twitter, in an anti-GMO context.

4. Is crop insurance that imperfect?  A corn blight won’t succeed right away, and in the meantime the price of corn is going up.  If I am worried about this, I can go long corn.  Admittedly, this is not a hedge for society as a whole against the loss of corn, though it is a hedge for individual investors or farmers.  The biggest losers can purchase some protection.

5. Maybe you just love corn diversity, as I do.  But sticking within an economics context, corn is a pretty small part of most people’s budgets in the United States, but not in rural Mexico.  It is therefore a major potential problem in Mexico but not for most consumers in the United States.  In the U.S., I suspect many corn producers are non-diversified and reap producer surplus, but I don’t have hard data behind those judgments.  Rural Mexicans also find it harder to diversify through asset markets, though they diversify by painting amates and taking up other alternative occupations.

6. You will note that diversity of corn strains persist in rural Mexico, and to a great degree.  It is the United States that has moved much more toward the monoculture.  Of course there may be transitional problems, as part of Mexican agriculture modernizes, but some farmers are left behind with older strains and methods.

7. We can admit that not all gdp is created equally, but then which are the foodstuffs we really could not afford to lose?

7b. Chocolate.

7c. Rice.

7d. Water, a drink.

Yikes!  But mainstream corn and bananas I can do without.

8. Does the Chamberlain mechanism in #1 outweigh the Spence argument in #2?  In today’s food markets, I certainly think so.  So given the risk of extinction, a market structure of monopolistic competition may in fact be better than perfect competition.

How do these arguments apply to the breeding of other living beings?

What should I ask Charles C. Mann?

I will be doing a Conversation with Charles (no public event), what should I ask him?  Charles is one of my favorite writers, as he is the author of 1491, 1493, and the new and excellent The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.

Here is yet another excerpt from the latter book:

Rodale died in 1971 — bizarrely, on a television talk show, suffering a heart attack minutes after declaring “I never felt better in my life!” and offering his host his special asparagus boiled in urine.

I thank you all in advance for your wisdom and inspiration.  Here is Charles’s home page, he also has many excellent magazine articles.

College Party Culture and Sexual Assault

This is really a paper about alcohol, and indeed “the a word” dominates the very first paragraph of the text, here is the abstract:

Jason M. Lindo, Peter Siminski and Isaac D. Swensen

This paper considers the degree to which events that intensify partying increase sexual assault. Estimates are based on panel data from campus and local law enforcement agencies and an identification strategy that exploits plausibly random variation in the timing of Division 1 football games. The estimates indicate that these events increase daily reports of rape with 17–24-year-old victims by 28 percent. The effects are driven largely by 17–24-year-old offenders and by offenders unknown to the victim, but we also find significant effects on incidents involving offenders of other ages and on incidents involving offenders known to the victim.

That is from American Economic Journal: Applied Economics; from that same issue we also learn that “…increases in [Russian] alcohol prices would yield significant reductions in mortality.”

How they eat at the National University of Singapore

Visitors to the 700-seater Flavors food court can choose their reasonably priced meals from more than a dozen separate outlets, each offering a different type of cuisine from Southeast and East Asia, including Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian, Korean and Japanese. It is not even the biggest dining area, either: a further three 850-plus-seat canteens and numerous smaller restaurants and cafes are dotted around the university’s Modernist campus. In total, they feed about 50,000 people each day, serving a meal every 1.4 seconds on average.

…While the incredible variety of dining options on campus might seem incidental to this success, [recently retired president] Tan believes that it has played an important role in the university’s improvement on his watch.

“These are not just places where you eat — it’s where students and staff linger, mix and also learn from each other,” he said, adding that this element of campus life is “a cultural dimension that makes Singapore special.”

Here is the full story from Jack Grove.

*The Wizard and the Prophet*

The author is Charles C. Mann, and the subtitle is Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.  What a splendid book, this is, all rolled into one the reader receives two distinct biographies, a history of mid-20th century environmental science, a book on technological progress in agriculture, and one of the best overall frameworks for thinking about environmentalism.

Oh how many good sentences there are:

Until I visited post-Katrina New Orleans I did not realize that rebuilding a flooded modern city would involve disposing of several hundred thousand refrigerators.

Here is one fun bit:

So ineradicable was the elitist mark on conservation that for decades afterward many on the left scoffed at ecological issues as right-wing distractions.  As late as 1970, the radical Students for a Democratic Society protested the first Earth Day as Wall Street flimflam meant to divert public attention from class warfare and the Vietnam War; left-wing journalist I.F. Stone called the nationwide marches a “snow job.”

By the way, as for the subjects of the dual biographies:

The two people are William Vogt and Norman Borlaug.

Here is the framing of the book:

…the dispute between Wizards and Prophets has, if anything, become more vehement.  Wizards view the Prophets’ emphasis on cutting back as intellectually dishonest, indifferent to the poor, even racist (because most of the world’s hungry are non-Caucasian).  Following Vogt, they say, is a path toward regression, narrowness, and global poverty.  Prophets sneer that the Wizards’ faith in human resourcefulness is unthinking, scientifically ignorant, even driven by greed…Following Borlaug, they say, at best postpones an inevitable day of reckoning — it is a recipe for what activists have come to describe as “ecocide.”

Where along the Wizards-Prophets spectrum should one be?

This will end up as one of the very best books of this year.

Should You Accept a Coffee at a Meeting or Interview?

A person on Quora asks Should you accept an offer of either tea or coffee in a serious meeting or a job interview?. Most say yes. I say no. Here’s my answer:

As an encyclopedia salesperson, (yes—a long time ago), I was taught that you should decline an offer of coffee. Here’s why. Suppose you spend 20 minutes talking with someone about encyclopedias. At the end of your pitch, you have given them your time and wisdom and people feel a need to reciprocate—they feel a little bit guilty that if they don’t buy, your time was wasted—so the need to reciprocate inclines them towards buying. But, if they have given you coffee, then there was an exchange, a quid pro quo, your time for their coffee, and since an exchange was made and your time wasn’t wasted they feel less need to buy.

Political Incorrect Paper of the Day: Food Deserts

Here is the abstract to The Geography of Poverty and Nutrition: Food Deserts and Food Choices Across the United States (free version) by Allcott, Diamond, and Dubé:

We study the causes of “nutritional inequality”: why the wealthy tend to eat more healthfully than the poor in the U.S. Using two event study designs exploiting entry of new supermarkets and households’ moves to healthier neighborhoods, we reject that neighborhood environments have economically meaningful effects on healthy eating. Using a structural demand model, we find that exposing low-income households to the same food availability and prices experienced by high-income households would reduce nutritional inequality by only 9%, while the remaining 91% is driven by differences in demand. In turn, these income-related demand differences are partially explained by education, nutrition knowledge, and regional preferences. These findings contrast with discussions of nutritional inequality that emphasize supply-side issues such as food deserts.

This is a good paper with a credible research design and impressive data from some 35,000 supermarkets covering 40% of the United States. Moreover, because of the widespread attention given to “food deserts” this paper probably had to be written. But color me un-surprised. The results are obvious.

Indeed, I feel that in recent years I am reading a lot of papers that aim massive firepower on weak hypotheses. As an explanation for obesity and poor eating habits, the idea of “food deserts” was absurd. The reasons are manifold. Even in food deserts it’s actually not that difficult to get healthy food and, contrary to popular belief, healthy food is not especially expensive. Try an Asian supermarket for plenty of cheap produce. Indeed, in any part of the United States you can find plenty of poor-people eating healthy foods and plenty of rich people eating unhealthy foods.

The food deserts idea was especially implausible for America because Americans spend less of their income on food consumed at home (6%) than any other nation. The Dutch, for example, spend (12%) of their income on food, the Italians and Japanese (14%), the Vietnamese (35%). There is plenty of room in the American food budget for healthy eating. Finally, Allcott, Diamond, and Dubé show that relative to unhealthy food, healthy food is actually a bit cheaper in low-income areas.

More importantly, just open your eyes. Walk into a fast food joint in a food desert and ask yourself, do the customers really want brussel sprouts but are reluctantly settling for Chips Ahoy? The idea is ridiculous and not a bit insulting in denying agency to the people who live in low-income areas. If what people living in food deserts wanted was brussel sprouts, they would get them.

The Whole Foods class think their kale and kombucha are so obviously superior to what the poor eat that the only possible explanation for poor eating is that poor people are denied choice. Yet put an inexpensive but colorful produce stand next to a McDonald’s and you can be sure that the customers will differ by class. Why the poor choose to eat differently than the rich is an interesting and important question but one more amenable to answers focusing on culture, education and history than price and income. The idea applies widely.

Lessons from the Washington, D.C. dining scene

Contrary to what many people will insist, it’s now possible to eat excellent Mexican food, including tacqueria-style tacos, in D.C., Northern Virginia and nearby Maryland. But this is not the result of a sudden influx of Mexican migrants — long an underrepresented group in the D.C. area — into the dining scene. Rather, earlier Mexican migrants are assimilating, opening larger businesses and spreading quality versions of their food to more parts of this country, just as hamburgers and pizzas earlier transcended their regional origins. This development is consistent with research showing that Mexican-Americans are assimilating more rapidly than previously we had thought. So the next time California, Texas or Arizona snobs complain about Mexican food offerings on the East Coast, tell them it’s better than they think.

The D.C. area also has some stagnating ethnic cuisines. Vietnamese food has continued to penetrate the market in Texas and Oklahoma, but in the Mid-Atlantic region mainstream Vietnamese restaurants seem to be in slight retreat. Vietnamese pho soups and banh mi sandwich shops are popular, and those dishes are feeding into fusion cuisine. But the full-menu restaurants don’t compete well with Thai and Chinese offerings. I am reminded of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which decades ago had fine and reasonably authentic German restaurants, but now they are mostly gone or are shells of their former selves. In the D.C. area, Bolivian is another cuisine that’s holding steady but not advancing in either the number of restaurants or the popularity with non-Bolivian customers.

The broader lesson is that America isn’t going to become endlessly more diverse, whether in its culinary offerings or otherwise. There are natural limits to these processes, and some are self-reversing as immigrants either assimilate or reach a peak influence on the broader American culture. In dining markets for the last 10 years as a whole, I would say the biggest development has been the spread of high-quality hamburgers and pizzas to all price ranges and dining styles, not the growth of cuisines cooked by recent immigrants.

Here is the rest of the column.