Category: Food and Drink

Canadian expense arbitrage markets in everything

Good Fortune Burger of Toronto has named its menu items after office supplies so that customers can include them on expense reports:

Fortune Burger: Basic Steel Stapler
Diamond Chicken Burger: Mini Dry Erase Whiteboard
Double Your Fortune Burger: Ergonomic Aluminum Laptop Stand
Emerald Veggie Burger: Wired Earphones With Mic
Parmesan Fries: CPU Wireless Mouse
Ginger Beer: Yellow Lined Sticky Notes
San Pellegrino: Ball Point Black Ink Gel Pens
Build Your Fortune Burger: Silicone Keyboard Cover

“There’s no malice intended in it,” Director of Operations Jon Purdy told blogTO. “It’s all just fun and games.”

Here is the menu, via John Thorne.

Which small changes in pandemic habits will stick?

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

I for one will miss the Saturday evening Zoom meeting. Since the pandemic started, I have found it easy to schedule calls at 5:30 or 6:30, even when more than one person is involved. Everyone just says yes. Why not? You’re not going out to the movies or dinner. Even if you think Zoom calls are oppressive — especially if you think Zoom calls are oppressive — it is better to have somewhere to put your marginal Zoom call other than 2 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon.

For a lot of people, the blurring of work and private time has been a burden. But I’ve been living that way most of my life. For the last year, the rest of the world has been forced to adopt my work habits, and I am going to miss it when they return to traditional socializing. I’ll still be offering you that Saturday night slot. We’ll see how many takers I get.

And:

I also will miss early lunch, a practice also noticed by New York Times columnist David Brooks. Like a lot of people, I miss eating in a variety of settings — not just restaurants or coffee shops, but cafeterias or my desk — so I look for that variety temporally. The early cooking of a hamburger does indeed provide that break in routine, and with lunch at 11, why do I need breakfast anyway?

Recommended.

Personnel economics working in the supermarket

Yesterday I outlined my supermarket job from ages 16-18 in suburban New Jersey.  I did know plenty of economics at that time, including Adam Smith and Paul Heyne and most of classical economics, and here are some of the observations I made.  Please note this is all n = 1 or n = 2, these may or may not be generalizable.  Here goes:

1. Mockery was the relevant incentive at the margin, and the “enforcer of first resort.”  If you did something wrong you were mocked, sometimes mercilessly.  My first night on the job I put too many fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator, relative to expectations, and so I heard about that multiple times on my next appearance.  The jokes at my expense were funny.

2. There was strong competition to win overtime hours. Working Sunday 12-5 was a prime slot, and not hard work either because customer demand was slow that day.  Saturday 1-9:30 had extra payoffs as well.  These labor supply curves definitely sloped upwards.  And allocation of overtime hours served to keep the better workers around.

3. My sense was that the demand for labor was pretty inelastic in the following sense: once you were soundly established as someone who would show up, complete your list of tasks, and not steal too much, they really were not looking to fire you.  You were “a keeper,” and in principle they would pay you more in response to a minimum wage hike, rather than firing you.

4. My sense was that the demand for labor was quite elastic in the following sense: the lower-tier workers were given a lot of luxury hours.  For one thing, if you didn’t get an average of at least fifteen hours a week, you might leave for another job.  Second, and more importantly, a lot of the night hours were optional.  Did they really need you back there that Tuesday night after 6 or 7 p.m.?  Well, maybe yes, maybe no.  There was a sense that if customers came by with questions, it was useful to have someone around to help them.  But if the produce department was not making a lot of money, they would cut back on these hours quite readily.  In slow times I didn’t get the 5-10 p.m. slot a whole lot.

5. Department managers, including in produce, were paid an “efficiency wage time profile” of returns, a’ la Eddie Lazear.  That is, in early years they would pay you below marginal product, but pay you above marginal product in the later, outer years.  That schedule would keep you in line, because you needed to avoid getting fired to reap the high later returns.  That said, in the outer years you would end up getting canned, because the prescription is not entirely time consistent.  Why keep someone around who is getting paid above marginal product?  It was called “getting busted.”  At that point you would typically start all over again with another supermarket.  (I did understand this all at the time, though I hadn’t yet read Lazear and a lot of the work hadn’t yet been published.)  A minority of department managers ended up promoted to store managers, but that was hard to pull off, especially without a college degree.

6. There was plenty of employee theft, though never from me.  Things disappeared off the back of trucks, and in this time there was no CCTV.  At a smaller scale, to be caught eating or taking food without a receipt was considered a fireable offense, though if you were a good worker and kept it to brief snacking within limits they did not try too hard to catch you.  They didn’t want to have to fire you, yet they did want to keep the rule in place.  Collusion between male line workers and female cashiers sometimes was a problem, as it meant some people would just take foodstuffs home.

6b. Shoplifting was rampant, though much more in the meat department than in produce.  Overall, the customers and workers were less honest than the bosses.

7. Correctly or not, the line workers typically were cynical about the union.  You paid dues to it, and you were told it gave you higher wages, but otherwise it had no presence in your life.  People saw the dues that left their paycheck, but were not convinced they were getting comparably high wages because of the union.

8. Due to gas prices and commuting costs (you had to keep your car in OK shape, which took competence as well as money), there was a modest degree of monopsony.  Still, everyone understood that a higher cost of labor meant fewer hours and in the longer run fewer hires.  No one thought that allowing vastly more shoplifting would lead the company to hire more labor, which is in fact what the more radical monopsony models imply.  Nope, it wasn’t monopsony of that sort.

9. The store manager, and in turn the department manager, would be terrified when the regional boss would do a store walk-through, and typically that happened by surprise.  That was when they really wanted you to scurry and have everything looking spic and span.

10. Workers had various personality types, and within a given type only so much motivation was possible, no matter what the rewards.  All rewards were seen as temporary, and to be followed by an eventual firing or demotion.  Slackers were slackers, and you had to accept that and work around them accordingly.

My history of manual labor

Here is another request:

What is the hardest manual labor you’ve ever done? I love intellectual policy wonk commentary, but I can’t help but feel some small amount of disdain for people who SEEM (a possibly faulty assumption) to have never really suffered trying to solve problems in the physical realm. There’s so much abstract data/policy up for debate, but how many talking heads have even replaced a toilet or turned a wrench in their lives?

From ages 16 through 18 I worked in the produce department of a supermarket, and that involved a fair amount of lifting of heavy boxes and additional physical labor, though nothing as hard as digging ditches or as unpleasant as cleaning toilets.  My first job was at Hillsdale Valley Fair, where at the same time James Gandolfini (Sopranos star) was a shopping cart fetch boy.  My second job was at Hillsdale Stop & Shop, again in the produce department.

These were fundamental experiences for my core outlook, for these reasons and more:

1. I learned that earning money is very good for people’s psyches.  No amount of money, neither large nor small, ever should be taken for granted because somewhere along the way someone earned it.  At the time I felt very rich.

2. The people slated to fail in life might be just as intelligent as those set to succeed.  And often they are funnier and more fun to hang around with and sometimes in these kinds of jobs more productive as well.  Yet somehow they do not have the conceptual frameworks that might put them on the road to success, nor could they acquire such frameworks easily.

3. It is not that easy to find a good produce department manager.  Really quite a few skills are required, not the least of which is the ability to handle and motivate the junior staff.  The most difficult quality to find in the produce managers, however, was the discipline to avoid saying “**** you” to the store bosses, who were always busting their chops.

4. They all thought I was weird.  It was periodically remarked that I didn’t smile very much.  Yet most of the time I was having a blast.  I was producing stuff.

4b. I learned that being called “****head” a few times a week is not such a terrible thing.  Sometimes it made me smile.

4c. I had to wear a tie or they would send me home.  That seemed just to me.

5. I continued working several nights a week for the first half of my freshman year at Rutgers Newark.  After I got back from the long drive to classes (I lived at home still), accompanied by Bruce Springsteen music, I would either wrap lettuce or go read Nassau Senior and Malthus.

6. Back then they did not hire women to work in the backrooms of the produce department, so it was quite a “guys club” in terms of rhetoric and ethos.  I remained polite.

7. It was stupid that they ever wrapped bananas in clear wrap in the first place, and I was relieved when they stopped the practice.  Plums were by far the most fun fruit to wrap into packages.

*Resetting the Table*

The author is Robert Paarlberg and the subtitle is Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat.  This book is a refreshing change of pace from most of the other food books, which tend to be illiterate on the economic side.  Here is one excerpt:

Modern farming protects the environment not only by using less land compared to several decades ago; it also uses less water, less fossil energy, and fewer chemicals for every bushel produced.  One major contributors here is no-till farming, which is a method for planting seeds in unplowed fields.  This method requires specialized equipment, but it reduces soil erosion, protects soil moisture, sequesters carbon, and requires much less burning of diesel fuel, which is why farmers began doing it in the 1970s, a decade of high fuel prices.  According to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture, more than twice as much cropland is now under no-till or reduced-till compared to intensive tillage.  In parallel fashion, new irrigation systems such as center-pivot and drip have replaced simple flooding, thus conserving water.  Lasers are employed to help level farm fields, which eliminates surface runoff.  GPA auto-steering eliminates wasteful overlaps in the field.  Genetically engineered seeds help farmers protect against insects and weeds with fewer and less toxic chemical sprays.

Recommended, sensible throughout.

What I’ve been reading

1. Jan Golinski, Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820.  One of the best books on the history of Enlightenment science, in addition to the core material it focuses on how the leading researchers went about creating public audiences for their investigations and for the scientific questions that interested them.  Indirectly, it is also a good book for understanding the importance of social media today.  And unlike many books of science, it properly places the “could you actually make a career out of doing this?” question in the forefront.

2. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 1: 1898-1922.  It is striking how quickly in his life Eliot is corresponding with very famous people, including Bertrand Russell, Ezra Pound, Conrad Aiken, Julian Huxley, Herbert Read, Wyndham Lewis, and others, all before Eliot himself is renowned.  I also enjoy the 23 March 1917 letter to Graham Wallas where Eliot boasts about his new job at Lloyds, praises the extraordinary nature of banking work, and roots for a salary boost.  Later Hermann Hesse and James Joyce and Virginia Woolf are added to the mix, and this is only volume one (out of eight).  I have ordered more.  Simply reading the short bios of the letter writers, at the end of the book, is better than most other books.

3. Lara Lee, Coconut and Sambal: Recipes from my Indonesian Kitchen.  Yes, I have been learning how to cook Indonesian food, a natural extension of my previous interest in cuisines from India, Malaysia, and Singapore.  This is an excellent book for several reasons, and a better book yet for a pandemic.  First, you can fold it open easily on the kitchen counter.  Second, the pages can take some wear and tear.  Third, the key ingredients are readily storable.  Galangal, turmeric, and narrow red chiles all freeze very well.  Refrigerated lemon grass stays good for at least a few weeks.  Shallots and garlic and coconut milk and cream are easy enough to buy and store.  This is actually the #1 issue for a cookbook, if like me you cannot so often plan your cooking in advance.  The Thai grocery in Falls Church has all the “marginal’ ingredients as well.  On top of everything, the resulting food product is yummy!

Vaccines Are Not Like Emergency Rations!

According to the Guardian the First Minister of Wales explained their policy of doling out the Pfizer vaccine evenly over the next six weeks:

the Pfizer vaccine has to last us until into the first week of February.

…We won’t get another delivery of the Pfizer vaccine until the very end of January or maybe the beginning of February, so that 250,000 doses has got to last us six weeks.

That’s why you haven’t seen it all used in week one, because we’ve got to space it out over the weeks that it’s got to cover.

Bonkers! A vaccine isn’t like a limited supply of water that needs to be rationed until you arrive at the next oasis. The sooner you get the vaccine out the better! Start lowering R now! If you run out of vaccine, well scarcity is bad but running out means that at least one part of your system is working well! It’s a bad idea to kill people to make it look like you are following some sort of numerically neat plan.

One year into the pandemic and people still don’t understand vaccines or viral growth.

Hat tip: Arthur Baker.

My Conversation with the excellent Noubar Afeyan

Among his other achievements, he is the Chairman and co-founder of Moderna.  Here is the audio and video and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss which aspect of entrepreneurship is hardest to teach, his predictions on the future of gene editing and CRISPR technology, why the pharmaceutical field can’t be winner takes all, why “basic research” is a poor term, the secret to Boston’s culture of innovation, the potential of plant biotech, why Montreal is (still) a special place to him, how his classical pianist mother influenced his musical tastes, his discussion-based approach to ethical dilemmas, how thinking future-backward shapes his approach to business and philanthropy, the blessing and curse of Lebanese optimism, the importance of creating a culture where people can say things that are wrong, what we can all learn by being an American by choice, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

AFEYAN:

I should point out, Tyler, what these people don’t yet realize is that mRNA, in addition to being unique in that it’s really the first broadly applied code molecule, information molecule that is used as a medicine and with all the advantages that come with information — digital versus analog — or where you actually have to do everything bespoke, the way drugs usually work.

The other major advantage that it has is that it is something that is actually taking advantage of nature. There was a lot of know-how we had going into this around how the process could be done. In fact, let me tell you the parallel that we used.

We have a program in cancer vaccines. You might say, “What does a cancer vaccine have to do with coronavirus?” The answer is the way we work with cancer vaccines is that we take a patient’s tumor, sequence it, obtain the information around all the different mutations in that tumor, then design de novo — completely nonexistent before — a set of peptides that contain those mutations, make the mRNA for them, and stick them into a lipid nanoparticle, and give it back to that patient in a matter of weeks.

That has been an ongoing — for a couple of years — clinical trial that we’re doing. Well, guess what? For every one of those patients, we’re doing what we did for the virus, over and over and over again. We get DNA sequence. We convert it into the antigenic part. We make it into an RNA. We put it in a particle. In an interesting way, we had interesting precedents that allowed us to move pretty quickly.

And at the close:

Imagine if all of us were also born imagining a better future for ourselves. Well, we should be, but we’ve got to work to get that. An immigrant who comes here understands that they’ve got to work to get that. They have to adapt. The problem is, if you’re born here, you may not actually think that you’ve got to work to get that. You might think you’re born into it.

This will be a funny thing to say, and I apologize to anybody that I offend. If we were all Americans by choice, we’d have a better America because Americans by choice, of which I’m one, actually have a stronger commitment to whatever it takes to make America be the place I chose to be, versus not thinking about that as a core responsibility.

Definitely recommended, he is working to save many many lives, and with great success.

Does soil heterogeneity induce greater individualism?

Itzchak Tzachi Raz says maybe so:

This paper studies the impact of social learning on the formation of close-knit communities. It provides empirical support to the hypothesis, put forth by the historian Fred Shannon in 1945, that local soil heterogeneity limited the ability of American farmers to learn from the experience of their neighbors, and that this contributed to their “traditional individualism.” Consistent with this hypothesis, I establish that historically, U.S. counties with a higher degree of soil heterogeneity displayed weaker communal ties. I provide causal evidence on the formation of this pattern in a Difference-in-Differences framework, documenting a reduction in the strength of farmers’ communal ties following migration to a soil-heterogeneous county, relative to farmers that moved to a soil-homogeneous county. Using the same design, I also show that soil heterogeneity did not affect the social ties of non-farmers. The impact of soil heterogeneity is long-lasting, still affecting culture today. These findings suggest that, while understudied, social learning is an important determinant of culture.

Here is the full paper.  See also his paper on homesteading: “…we find that areas with greater historical exposure to homesteading are poorer and more rural today.”

Globalization is older than you think

Asian spices such as turmeric and fruits like the banana had already reached the Mediterranean more than 3000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought. A team of researchers has shown that even in the Bronze Age, long-distance trade in food was already connecting distant societies…

Working with an international team to analyze food residues in tooth tartar, the LMU archaeologist has found evidence that people in the Levant were already eating turmeric, bananas and even soy in the Bronze and Early Iron Ages. “Exotic spices, fruits and oils from Asia had thus reached the Mediterranean several centuries, in some cases even millennia, earlier than had been previously thought,” says Stockhammer. “This is the earliest direct evidence to date of turmeric, banana and soy outside of South and East Asia.” It is also direct evidence that as early as the second millennium BCE there was already a flourishing long-distance trade in exotic fruits, spices and oils, which is believed to have connected South Asia and the Levant via Mesopotamia or Egypt.

Here is the full account, I strongly suspect globalization is much older than is commonly believed. Via Bruno M.

Dan Wang’s 2020 letter

Most of it was about China, but here was my favorite part:

The key to reading Proust is not to pay too much attention to the plot. It’s of no great import, and one has to get used to abrupt shifts. In this way the novel is like Moby-Dick, which can shift from the politics of dining at Ahab’s table to a loving tour of the literal interior of a sperm whale’s head. Couldn’t find the transition? No matter, that detracts not at all from the wonderfulness of the scenes. Focus instead on the humor. There are many funny things that take place in the aristocratic set pieces, such as the constant misunderstandings of M. de Charlus at the dinner of the Verdurins, or his suspicion at the violinist who professes to enjoy solving algebra equations until late into the evenings, or his interactions with the Duc de Guermantes. Really anything with Charlus portends comedy.

Interesting throughout.  And:

I may not not have accomplished much in life, but I’m proud at least to have eaten thalis in Chennai, pizza in Naples, and mie goreng in Singapore.

I know that Beijing is not the world’s best food city, but it might be the best food city for me. One can grab expensive sushi at the restaurant favored by the Japanese embassy or walk a few blocks and order five plates of dumplings for $20. One can find decent dosas, lots of Thai food, and even a bagel store whose breads would be out of place on the Upper West Side but would not be in San Francisco. Best of all, every region of China is represented in this city. To deal with the various challenges of a pandemic year, I found solace in stuffing my face.

I managed to sample dishes from all the provinces this year, including the relatively obscure cuisines from places like Anhui, Guangxi, and Jiangxi. My favorites are: Shanghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan…

Here is my four-step process for ordering success in China:

  1. Greens are usually the glories of the cuisine: order as many vegetables as there are people
  2. If you will have a meat, consider the juiciness that pairs well with the starch: something saucy if you will eat with rice, or less saucy if you will have soup noodles
  3. Order Yunnan mushrooms if they are on the menu
  4. Fill out the rest with cold appetizers, they are never a bad idea

Here is the full piece.

Jeff Holmes does a CWT with Tyler

Here is the summary:

On this special year-in-review episode, producer Jeff Holmes sat down with Tyler to talk about the most popular — and most underrated — episodes, Tyler’s personal highlight of the year, how well state capacity libertarianism has fared, a new food rule for ordering well during the pandemic, how his production function changed this year, why he got sick of pickles, when he thinks the next face-to-face recording will be, the first thing he’ll do post vaccine, an update on his next book, and more.

Here is the full dialogue, with audio and transcript, here is one short excerpt:

I also tell you what I thought of the guests we had on for the year, and also which episode had the most downloads.  Self-recommended.

And if you have enjoyed this year in Conversations, please consider donating here before the end of the year.  Thank you!

*Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition*

By Mark Lawrence Schrad. From the Amazon summary:

This is the history of temperance and prohibition as you’ve never read it before: redefining temperance as a progressive, global, pro-justice movement that affected virtually every significant world leader from the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries.

I have been reading the galleys, I will blurb it, it will be one of the best non-fiction books of 2021, more in due time you can pre-order here.

Les priorités

F.D.A. Wants to Stop Regulating French Dressing

The federal agency said it was seeking to revoke its definition for the carrot-colored dressing, effectively erasing a government-required list of ingredients at the request of an industry group…the federal government has shown great interest in the humble dressing, painstakingly regulating since 1950 the ingredients that it must contain and revising the rules at least five times since then…

The lengthy and legalistic regulations for French dressing require that it contain vegetable oil and an acid, like vinegar or lemon or lime juice. It also lists other ingredients that are acceptable but not required, such as salt, spices and tomato paste.

Ahem.  Here is the full NYT story.

p.s. It is disgusting, and it is not even French.

This has been quite a week for science

Vaccine approval in the UK, protein folding advances, isn’t there a SpaceX launch today?, and now this:

Cultured meat, produced in bioreactors without the slaughter of an animal, has been approved for sale by a regulatory authority for the first time. The development has been hailed as a landmark moment across the meat industry.

The “chicken bites”, produced by the US company Eat Just, have passed a safety review by the Singapore Food Agency and the approval could open the door to a future when all meat is produced without the killing of livestock, the company said.

…The product would be significantly more expensive than conventional chicken until production was scaled up, but Eat Just said it would ultimately be cheaper.

…The growth medium for the Singapore production line includes foetal bovine serum, which is extracted from foetal blood, but this is largely removed before consumption. A plant-based serum would be used in the next production line, the company said, but was not available when the Singapore approval process began two years ago.

As Eli said on Twitter, what are they planning for Thursday?  Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson.  Just yesterday I was rereading my CWT with her, it is very good.