January 20, 2008

The Economics of Eating

Thankfully, the second half of Tyler Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist was much better than the first half, with Chapter 7 being the best of all. Of course, the sections on the benefits of playing hard to get, his beliefs on tipping, and how to capitalize on sin were interesting, but Chapter 7, which was about how to find and cook the best food at the best prices was the most applicable to me and my family.

Although I think that much of the advice, such as exactly what dishes to order at each kind of restaurant, was based more on Cowen’s personal culinary opinions than on solid economic principles, I appreciated his honesty throughout the chapter. For example, many people in America avoid discussing the economic and ethnic disparities between the cookers (producers) and the eaters (consumers) in restaurants. But Cowen is not worried about being politically correct. He openly admits that food is getting better in America and other western countries, because we pay Mexicans next to nothing to make it. This means that restaurant owners can spend more to buy quality ingredients. Of course, if I were one of those grossly underpaid cooks, I would be upset at being treated so poorly simply because my boss knows that being treated poorly in America pays better than being treated well in Mexico, but this really has nothing to do with me, as a consumer, picking a restaurant.

Some of the advice was common sense, such as it is cheaper to eat at a restaurant off of 5th Avenue in New York than it is to eat at a restaurant smack dab in the middle of 5th Avenue, but some other advice was definitely worth taking home. For example, Cowen explains that low-rent areas can sustain more mom-and-pop ethnic restaurants with good food—which is common sense—but then he goes on to explain that the low-rent areas around a Wal-Mart or other large chain store are not so good, because those places can survive on volume alone, regardless of the quality of their food. Once Cowen mentions this, it seems like common sense as well, but taken along with all of the other advice (like it is better to eat at a Korean restaurant in Chinatown than at the same restaurant located somewhere else) and economic principles discussed in the chapter, the whole thing becomes an overall eye-opener. If nothing else, it confirms many things that I already thought but had nothing “expert” to back up.

One of these confirmations has to deal with ordering weird stuff off the menu. Whenever my wife and I go out, she likes to point out all the gross dishes on the menu and then come up with her own ideas about why in the world and who in the world would order something like calf brains or a whole fish, eyes and all, when a perfectly good T-bone or salmon filet were also offered. I try to tell her that the restaurant would not offer such dishes if they were actually “gross,” because it is too expensive to buy those ingredients and then throw them away because they can’t cook them well enough to make the taste good. Cowen agrees with me, and in fact, he advises his readers to “Look at the menu and ask yourself: ‘Which of these items am I least likely to want to order?’ Or, ‘Which of these sounds the least appetizing?’ Then order that item” (140). Although, again, I am not sure how much this deals with economics as it does with making sure I that have a new, tasty meal to enjoy, I will definitely take this advice the next time we go out to dinner. Oh, the economic principle here is actually that the restaurant has most likely spent its valuable time and money to learn how to make these unusual items taste good, so we shouldn’t waste our own valuable time and money trying to perfect them ourselves.

So, if someone reads only one chapter of this book, I say to read Chapter 7. It’s highly applicable and interesting, even if it isn’t based 100% on solid economics.


w atkinson said...
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w atkinson said...

Chapter seven was ok. However I really though he went on FAR FAR too long about his own opinions and experiences, his own opinions and basic common sense, all of which added only his own splash of personality to the book. A little of that is good, sure, but he WAY exceeded the point of diminishing marginal returns.

My favorite chapter was chapter 6, which I rally took to be the through-line and thesis for the whole book, for all the chapters both before and after it. everything rested on it's premises of deception, or as I say "value-conditioning."

Roman Kozhevnikov said...

I agree with you that chapter 6 was probably one of, if not THE, underlying point of the whole book. But, I thought chapter seven was great because it applied to what many Americans like to do best--eat. And, I also agree that a lot of ch. 7 was common sense, but common sense is not so common to a lot of people! :)

As for ch. 6, I wrote in my book review that "economically, we must be more critical of our choices and more honest to ourselves about our choices. If people want a status symbol, tell them to buy a Picasso; if they want a beautiful piece of art, tell them to buy a Bob Ross (the painter guy with an afro on PBS) original or even a reprint or re-creation of the original. Chapter six provides a road map to help readers find ways through self deception and into the truth, both mentally and economically."

Although this is a little more practical and important, it's not nearly as fun as trying to find the best food!