Category: Food and Drink

Facts about Starbucks against free bathrooms charge them all

In May 2018, in response to protests, Starbucks changed its policies nationwide to allow anybody to sit in their stores and use the bathroom without making a purchase. Using a large panel of anonymized cellphone location data, we estimate that the policy led to a 7.3% decline in store attendance at Starbucks locations relative to other nearby coffee shops and restaurants. This decline cannot be calculated from Starbucks’ public disclosures, which lack the comparison group of other coffee shops. The decline in visits is around 84% larger for stores located near homeless shelters. The policy also affected the intensive margin of demand: remaining customers spent 4.1% less time in Starbucks relative to nearby coffee shops after the policy enactment. Wealthier customers reduced their visits more, but black and white customers were equally deterred. The policy led to fewer citations for public urination near Starbucks locations, but had no effect on other similar public order crimes. These results show the difficulties of companies attempting to provide public goods, as potential customers are crowded out by non-paying members of the public.

That is from a new paper by Umit Gurun, Jordan Nickerson, and David H. Solomon.  Can there be any doubt about the excellence of Kevin Lewis?

Lubbock, Texas notes

Hill BBQ is perhaps the best I have had — ever.  It is open Thursday and Saturday only, get the burnt ends and beef ribs.  Next in line is Evie Mae’s, better known on the barbecue circuit, but still mostly unsullied by tourists and so the lines remain manageable.

There is no real center of town, but you can visit the world’s largest windmill museum (it is windy there), a prairie dog park, and Robert Bruno’s self-constructed, funky Steel House on a nearby lake.  There are Confederate memorials remaining by the main courthouse.  You will see tumbleweed.  There is a strange man walking around town with a tricolor hat.

The economy is cotton, health care, and Texas Tech at about 40,000 students.  Buddy Holly was from Lubbock.

It still has a strong regional feel, much as say parts of the Dakotas do.  The dinosaur displays in the museum are labeled “The Original Longhorns.”

I would go long on Lubbock: no NIMBYs (yet), the housing stock is rising in quality, they are opening an entertainment center downtown, and it could be the next Marfa but on a larger scale.  What’s not to like?

San Antonio Zoo Valentine’s day markets in everything

For $25, you can name a rat after your dreaded ex. This rat, who now bears that terrible person’s name, will then be fed to a snake on February 14.

And yes there is price discrimination too:

FYI, you can also pay $5 to the San Antonio Zoo to have a cockroach named after your ex if you’d like to go a cheaper route.

Here is more, via Ellen F.  Should this be understood as a reductio ad absurdum of “takedown culture”?  Somehow I don’t think so.  I am in fact surprised that our gentle age would permit such an emotionally hostile practice.  For what is this a “gateway drug?”  What if you believed in a strange kind of voodoo and thought such feedings in fact placed causal pressure on the so-called real world?  I would be surprised if this market still were up and running in three years’ time.

My Conversation with Tim Harford

Here is the transcript and audio, here is part of the summary:

Tim joined Tyler to discuss the role of popular economics in a politicized world, the puzzling polarization behind Brexit, why good feedback is necessary (and rare), the limits of fact-checking, the “tremendously British” encouragement he received from Prince Charles, playing poker with Steve Levitt, messiness in music, the underrated aspect of formal debate, whether introverts are better at public speaking, the three things he can’t live without, and more.

Here is one bit near the opening:

COWEN: These are all easy questions. Let’s think about public speaking, which you’ve done quite a bit of. On average, do you think extroverts or introverts are better public speakers?

HARFORD: I am an introvert. I’ve never seen any research into this, so it should be something that one could test empirically. But as an introvert, I love public speaking because I like being alone, and you’re never more alone than when you’re on the stage. No one is going to bother you when you’re up there. I find it a great way to interact with people because they don’t talk back.

COWEN: What other non-obvious traits do you think predict being good at public speaking?

HARFORD: Hmmm. You need to be willing to rehearse and also willing to improvise and make stuff up as you go along. And I think it’s hard for somebody to be willing to do both. I think the people who like to rehearse end up rehearsing too much and being too stiff and not being willing to adapt to circumstances, whereas the people who are happy to improvise don’t rehearse enough, and so their comments are ill formed and ill considered. You need that capacity to do both.

And another segment:

HARFORD: …Brian Eno actually asked me a slightly different question, which I found interesting, which was, “If you were transported back in time to the year 700, what piece of technology would you take — or knowledge or whatever — what would you take with you from the present day that would lead people to think that you were useful, but would also not cause you to be burned as a witch?”

COWEN: A hat, perhaps.


COWEN: If it’s the British Isles.

HARFORD: Well, a hat is useful. I suggested the Langstroth beehive. The Langstroth beehive was invented in about 1850. It’s an enormously important technology in the domestication of bees. It’s a vast improvement on pre-Langstroth beehives, vast improvement on medieval beehives. Yet, it’s fairly straightforward to make and to explain to people how it works and why it works. I think people would appreciate it, and everybody likes honey, and people have valued bees for a long time. So that would have been my answer.


COWEN: I’ve read all of your books. I’ve read close to all of your columns, maybe all of them in fact, and I’m going to ask you a question I also asked Reid Hoffman. You know the truths of economics, plenty of empirical papers. Why aren’t you weirder? I’ve read things by you that I disagreed with, but I’ve never once read anything by you that I thought was outrageous. Why aren’t you weirder?

The conversation has many fine segments, definitely recommended, Tim was in top form.  I very much enjoyed our “Brexit debate” as well, too long to reproduce here, but I made what I thought was the best case for Brexit possible and Tim responded.

What causes car deaths and how to limit them

Perhaps the biggest reason why we don’t see more fatal crashes on freeways is that there are no intersections on them (with a few exceptions). In fact, there are more drivers killed in intersections (20%) than on freeways.

After accounting for freeways (18%) and intersections and junctions (20%), we’re still left with more than 60% of drivers killed in automotive accidents left accounted for.

It turns out that drivers killed on rural roads with 2 lanes (i.e., one lane in each direction divided by a double yellow line) accounts for a staggering 38% of total mortality. This number would actually be higher, except to keep the three categories we have mutually exclusive, we backed out any intersection-related driver deaths on these roads and any killed on 2-lane rural roads that were classified as “freeway.” So, to recap, 3 of out every 4 deaths in a car occur on the freeway, at an intersection/junction, or on a rural road with a single lane in each direction.


In drivers killed on 2-lane rural roads, 50% involved a driver not wearing a seat belt. Close to 40% have alcohol in their system and nearly 90% of these drivers were over the legal limit of 0.08 g/dL. About one-third involved speeding, and 16% did not have a valid driver’s license.

Here is the full piece by Peter Attia, interesting throughout.  Via Anecdotal.

Is (productive) big business taking over services?

From today’s WSJ, by Chang-Tai Hsieh and Esteban Rossi-Hansberg:

If you live in a midsize American city, you’ve probably noticed that an increasing share of local services are provided by chain establishments such as the Cheesecake Factory and Wegmans. Why? It’s because the industrial revolution that transformed U.S. manufacturing more than a century ago is finally reaching many local services, which had long resisted standardization.

…Locals sometimes lament when a new chain in town bears down on a mom-and-pop shop. But in the past four decades industries in which top firms have grown in share have created many more jobs than ones where market share is dispersed among small peers. Companies that have taken advantage of the industrial revolution in services grow by expanding into smaller cities or exurbs, and provide competition to previously dominant local monopolists. This brings jobs, as well as cheaper and higher quality services from groceries to health care, to areas that need them most.

In contrast, employment has shrunk in sectors still dominated by small independent operators, such as plumbing and electrical wiring. Over the past four decades, the growth of the top 10% of firms in local services in a given year has accounted for 80% of the cumulative wage and employment growth in the U.S.

Might this also someday mean that services will become easier to export?  I am also happy to recommend the authors’ underlying piece The Industrial Revolution in Services.

What is the best way to tax food?

We analyze how a sales tax levied on all food products impacts the consumption of healthy food, unhealthy food, and obesity. The sales tax can stimulate the consumption of healthy meals by lowering the time costs of food preparation. Moreover, the sales tax lowers obesity under more general conditions than a tax on unhealthy food (fat tax) and a subsidy on healthy food (thin subsidy). We calibrate the model using recent consumption and time use data from the US. The thin subsidy is counterproductive and increases weight. While both the sales tax and the fat tax mitigate obesity, the former imposes a lower excess burden on consumers.

It seems that if you try to tax fat directly, individuals can readily substitutes into other foodstuffs that are bad for them, or bad for their weight.  If you place a sales tax on food in general, individuals substitute into eating more at home, and there the food is healthier in the first place and furthermore the time-intensiveness of production will limit the number of dishes prepared and thus quantity and in turn obesity.

Here is the article by Zarko Kalamov, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My chat with Brendan Fitzgerald Wallace

He interviewed me, here is his description: “My conversation with economist, author & podcaster Tyler Cowen covering everything from: 1) Buying Land on Mars (for real) 2) Privatizing National Parks 3) Setting up aerial highways in the sky for drone delivery 4) Buying Greenland 5) London post Brexit 6) Universal Basic Income 7) Why Los Angeles is “probably the best city in North America” 8) How real estate can combat social isolation & loneliness 9) Cyber attacks on real estate assets and national security implications. 10) The impacts, positive and negative of Climate Change, on real estate in different geographies. 11) Other esoteric stuff…..”.

Here is the conversation, held in Marina del Rey at a Fifth Wall event.

Those new service sector jobs

Wanted: Restaurant manager. Competitive salary: $100,000.

The six-figure sum is not being offered at a haute cuisine location with culinary accolades, but at fast-food chain Taco Bell. Amid an increasingly tough U.S. labor market, the company is betting a higher salary will help it attract workers and keep them on the team.

The Yum! Brands Inc.-owned chain will test the higher salary in select restaurants in the U.S. Midwest and Northeast, and will also try a new role for employees who want leadership experience but don’t want to be in the management role.

Here is more by Leslie Patton at Bloomberg, via Joe Weisenthal.

“Let them eat Whole Foods!”

This latest front in the food wars has emerged over the last few years. Communities like Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Fort Worth, Birmingham, and Georgia’s DeKalb County have passed restrictions on dollar stores, prompting numerous other communities to consider similar curbs. New laws and zoning regulations limit how many of these stores can open, and some require those already in place to sell fresh food. Behind the sudden disdain for these retailers—typically discount variety stores smaller than 10,000 square feet—are claims by advocacy groups that they saturate poor neighborhoods with cheap, over-processed food, undercutting other retailers and lowering the quality of offerings in poorer communities. An analyst for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, for instance, argues that, “When you have so many dollar stores in one neighborhood, there’s no incentive for a full-service grocery store to come in.” Other critics, like the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, go further, contending that dollar stores, led by the giant Dollar Tree and Dollar General chains, sustain poverty by making neighborhoods seem run-down.

Here is the full article, via Walter Olson.

My Conversation with Abhijit Banerjee

I had an excellent time in this one, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the opening summary:

Abhijit joined Tyler to discuss his unique approach to economics, including thoughts on premature deindustrialization, the intrinsic weakness of any charter city, where the best classical Indian music is being made today, why he prefers making Indian sweets to French sweets, the influence of English intellectual life in India, the history behind Bengali leftism, the best Indian regional cuisine, why experimental economics is underrated, the reforms he’d make to traditional graduate economics training, how his mother’s passion inspires his research, how many consumer loyalty programs he’s joined, and more.

Yes there was plenty of economics, but I feel like excerpting this bit:

COWEN: Why does Kolkata have the best sweet shops in India?

BANERJEE: It’s a bit circular because, of course, I tend to believe Kolkata has —

COWEN: So do I, however, and I have no loyalty per se.

BANERJEE: I think largely because Kolkata actually also — which is less known — has absolutely amazing food. In general, the food is amazing. Relative to the rest of India, Kolkata had a very large middle class with a fair amount of surplus and who were willing to spend money on. I think there were caste and other reasons why restaurants didn’t flourish. It’s not an accident that a lot of Indian restaurants were born out of truck stops. These are called dhabas.

COWEN: Sure.

BANERJEE: Caste has a lot to do with it. But sweets are just too difficult to make at home, even though lots of people used to make some of them. And I think there was some line that was just permitted that you can have sweets made out of — in these specific places, made by these castes.

There’s all kinds of conversations about this in the early-to-mid 19th century on what you can eat out, what is eating out, what can you buy in a shop, et cetera. I think in the late 19th century you see that, basically, sweet shops actually provide not just sweets, but for travelers, you can actually eat a lunch there for 50 cents, even now, an excellent lunch. They’re some savories and a sweet — maybe for 40 rupees, you get all of that.

And it was actually the core mechanism for reconciling Brahminical cultures of different kinds with a certain amount of social mobility. People came from outside. They were working in Kolkata. Kolkata was a big city in India. All the immigrants came. What would they eat? I think a lot of these sweet shops were a place where you actually don’t just get sweets — you get savories as well. And savories are excellent.

In Kolkata, if you go out for the day, the safest place to eat is in a sweet shop. It’s always freshly made savories available. You eat the freshly made savories, and you get some sweets at the end.

COWEN: Are higher wage rates bad for the highest-quality sweets? Because rich countries don’t seem to have them.

BANERJEE: Oh no, rich countries have fabulous sweets. I mean, at France —

COWEN: Not like in Kolkata.

BANERJEE: France has fabulous sweets. I think the US is exceptional in the quality of the . . . let me say, the fact that you don’t get actually excellent sweets in most places —

And this on music:

BANERJEE: Well, I think Bengal was never the place for vocal. As a real, I would say a real addict of vocal Indian classical music, I would say Bengal is not, never the center of . . . If you look at the list of the top performers in vocal Indian classical music, no one really is a Bengali.

In instrumental, Bengal was always very strong. Right now, one of the best vocalists in India is a man who lives in Kolkata. His name is Rashid Khan. He’s absolutely fabulous in my view, maybe the best. On a good day, he’s the best that there is. He’s not a Bengali. He’s from Bihar, I think, and he comes and settles in Kolkata. I think a Hindi speaker by birth, other than a Bengali. So I don’t think Bengal ever had top vocalists.

It had top instrumentalists, and Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee — these were all Bengali instrumentalists. Even now, I would say the best instrumentalists, a lot of them are either Bengali or a few of them are second . . . Vilayat Khan and Imrat Khan were the two great non-Bengali instrumentalists of that period, I would say, of the strings especially. And they both settled in Kolkata, so that their children grew up in Kolkata.

And the other great instrumentalists are these Kolkata-born. They went to the same high school as I did. There were these Kolkata-born, not of Bengali families, but from very much the same culture. So I think Kolkata still is the place which produces the best instrumentalists — sitarists, sarod players, et cetera.

COWEN: Why is the better vocal music so often from the South?

Definitely recommended, Abhijit was scintillating throughout.

Airline markets in everything

Out of the many repulsive things about air travel, airline food probably ranks high. But not for AirAsia.

Asia’s largest low-cost carrier is betting people love its food so much that it opened its first restaurant on Monday, offering the same menu it sells on flights. It’s not a gimmick, either: AirAsia, based in Malaysia, said it plans to open more than 100 restaurants globally within the next five years.

The quick-service restaurant’s first location is in a mall in Kuala Lumpur. It’s called Santan, meaning coconut milk in Malay, which is the same branding AirAsia uses on its in-flight menus.

Entrees cost around $3 USD and include local delicacies such as chicken rice and the airline’s signature Pak Nasser’s Nasi Lemak dish, a rice dish with chilli sauce. Locally sourced coffee, teas and desserts are also on the menu.

Here is the full story, via Michael Rosenwald.  P.S. Pablo Escobar’s brother is now selling a folding smart phone.

My Conversation with Daron Acemoglu

Self-recommending of course, most of all we talked about economic growth and development, and the history of liberty, with a bit on Turkey and Turkish culture (Turkish pizza!) as well.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is one excerpt, from the very opening:

COWEN: I have so many questions about economic growth. First, how much of the data on per capita income is explained just simply by one variable: distance from the equator? And how good a theory of the wealth of nations is that?

ACEMOGLU: I think it’s not a particularly good theory. If you look at the map of the world and color different countries according to their income per capita, you’ll see that a lot of low-income-per-capita countries are around the equator, and some of the richest countries are pretty far from the equator, in the temperate areas. So many people have jumped to conclusion that there must be a causal link.

But actually, I think geographic factors are not a great explanatory framework for understanding prosperity and poverty.

COWEN: But why does it have such a high R-squared? By one measure, the most antipodal 21 percent of the population produces 69 percent of the GDP, which is striking, right? Is that just an accident?

ACEMOGLU: Yeah, it’s a bit of an accident. Essentially, if you think of which are the countries around the equator that have such low income per capita, they are all former European colonies that have been colonized in a particular way.


COWEN: If we think about the USSR, which has terrible institutions for more than 70 years, an awful form of communism — it falls; there’s a bit of a collapse. Today, they seem to have a higher per capita income than you would expect a priori, if you, just as an economist, write about communism. Isn’t that mostly just because of what is now Russian, or Soviet, human capital?

ACEMOGLU: That’s an interesting question. I think the Russian story is complicated, and I think part of Russian income per capita today is because of natural resources. It’s always a problem for us to know exactly how natural resources should be handled because you can do a lot of things wrong and still get quite a lot of income per capita via natural resources.

COWEN: But if Russians come here, they almost immediately move into North American per capita income levels as immigrants, right? They’re not bringing any resources. They’re bringing their human capital. If people from Gabon come here, it takes them quite a while to get to the —

ACEMOGLU: No, absolutely, absolutely. There’s no doubt that Russians are bringing more human capital. If you look at the Russian educational system, especially during the Soviet time, there was a lot of emphasis on math and physics and some foundational areas.

And there’s a lot of selection among the Russians who come here…

The Conversation is Acemoglu throughout, you also get to hear me channeling Garett Jones.  Again, here is Daron’s new book The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty.

Streets Vs Avenues Where to go to dinner in Manhattan model this


Yelp data and statistical sampling was used to determine that the average restaurant is better on Manhattan streets than avenues, with an average rating of 3.62 on streets vs 3.49 on avenues. The difference was statistically significant. In addition, you are almost 50% more likely to find an outstanding restaurant while on a street compared to when you are on an avenue. 18% of restaurants on the streets had a score of 4.5 or higher, compared to 13% of restaurants on avenues.

Download Paper



From the apparently awesome Alex Bell.

The First Words of Thanksgiving

When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth rock in 1620 they were cold, hungry and frightened. Imagine their surprise when on March 16 as they unloaded cannon from the Mayflower in preparation for battle an Indian walked into their encampment and asked, “Anyone got a beer?” Seriously, that’s what happened. Samoset, the thirsty Indian, had learned English from occasional fishermen.

Even more fortunate for the Pilgrims was that Somoset was accompanied by Squanto. Squanto had been enslaved 7 years earlier and transported to Spain where he was sold.  He then somehow made his way to England and then, amazingly, back to his village in New England around 1619. It’s a horrific story, however, because during his absence Squanto’s entire village and much of the region had been wiped out by disease, almost certainly brought by the Europeans. Nevertheless, in 1621 Squanto was there when the Pilgrims landed and he hammered out an early peace deal and most importantly instructed the settlers how to fertilize their land with fish in order to grow corn.

Squanto instructed them in survival skills and acquainted them with their environment: “He directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died.”

Anyone got a beer?