An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, by Tyler Cowen, is really two books in one. The first is about where and how to find food that is tasty and reasonably priced. The second is about solving the world’s food problems. The overall effect would be better if this book were actually broken into two slightly longer books.
Since I wrote this post there has been quite a bit of push back against Cowen and in particular his views on ethnic food. You can find one such argument in this article.
In the early going of An Economist Gets Lunch, Cowen an economics professor at George Mason University, shows the same thing. In particular, how prohibition hurt American dining habits. Cowen then goes on to apply economic principals to our dining habits. For example, ethnic restaurants in strip malls will likely produce better, cheaper food. One reason for this is lower fixed costs. In general Cowen prefers ethnic over American food, because there is likely to be more attention to the food. He suggests looking for family run ethnic restaurants, because they often employ family at lower labour costs. Examples like these good be multiplied throughout the book. Beyond this though, Cowen does give some insight into various types of food. He devotes a whole chapter to B-B-Q. He suggests ordering the least familiar items of the menu, to give yourself a better taste experience. I will say that I’ve found most of what he says about maximizing the value of your dining experience to be true in my own life of dining out.
Of course Cowen’s ideas only work if you are a completely rational diner. Cowen himself acknowledges as much, but doesn’t pay much attention to the social dynamics of eating. He seems to feel we should treat them as second order matters in dining. Also, the diner needs to be fairly adventurous, which may take more imaginative rather than rational thought.
An Economist Feeding the World:
In the second half of the book Cowen moves on to the task of feeding the world. The fault here doesn’t lie so much in the arguments he makes. Instead, it lies in the fact that they are not well enough developed. For example, his discussion on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), ends up being more about the ineffectiveness of boycotts. I realize Cowen is an economist, but if you are going to defend GMOs take more time to discuss the pros and cons of GMOs, not of boycotts.
Cowen believes more agri-business is needed to feed the world. However, read him carefully, because he is not suggesting agri-business be given free reign. Here he does much better than with the GMO arguments as he gives a bit of fleshing out to the ways in which this could be done. As I said, this is two books in one.
I would take chapters nine and ten, on Mexican food in Mexico, and where to find great food anywhere in the world, and put them after chapter six. Then I would take the remaining chapters and use them to write a second book. An Economist Gets Lunch, isn’t particularly revelatory. It does however give some good rules to follow when dining out. Given these rules, this book is one that will pay for itself in dining savings. I think most economists would find that a good trade-off.