Why American Food Used to Be So Bad and Other Lessons From Tyler Cowen

Adam Ozimek -- blogger at Modeled Behavior and associate at Econsult Corporation

For the past four years, I've been ordering the most unappatizing sounding item on the menu when I eat at nice restaurants. This counterintuitive advice from Tyler Cowen's 2007 book Discover Your Inner Economist has worked surprisingly well. Cowen's newest book, An Economist Gets Lunch, is a combination of practical eating advice like this, and also a history, economics, and science book about food. If there is one overarching lesson it is that looking at food through the framework of supply and demand can help you both understand our food system better, and also help you be a smarter consumer and get more out of every meal.

Like the advice about ordering the most unappetizing item of the menu, there are a lot of lessons in the book I will likely carry with me and use. For instance, knowing you can identify highly Americanized Thai food because it is too sweet, and pay attention a restaurant's real estate cost and it's customers. Other lessons, like the specialization of Singaporean street vendors, or what to watch out for when ordering Italian food in Japan, will likely prove less useful. But wherever you are traveling, it is worth searching for your destination it in the index and seeing what advice Cowen offers.

Other readers will likely differ, but while the advice parts may generate more lifetime utility for me, the history and economics lessons in the book captured my interest more. In particular, Cowen's history of how American food came to be so mediocre is a strong counterargument to those who look to blame the phenomenon on commercialization, capitalism, and excess of choice. In contrast to the usual narrative, Cowen tells us how bad laws have played an important role in shaping our food ecosystem for the worse over time. This includes prohibition's negative and long lasting impact on restaurants, and the government aggressively limiting one of our greatest sources of culinary innovation: immigration. This is not to lay the blame entirely on the government. Television and a culture that panders to the desires of children have also incentivized poor culinary trends.

The book contains many other other important arguments against popular food ideas, including defenses of technology and agriculture commercialization against critiques of locavores, slow foodies, and environmentalists. For example, if you live in an area where it takes a lot of energy and resources to grow food -- like the desert -- the most environmentally friendly way may be to grow it somewhere else and ship it. An apple grown locally may be refrigerated for months, which consumes a lot of energy, whereas it may be both fresher and better for the environment to grow it elsewhere and ship it in from afar by boat. He also defends genetically modified crops as the likely cures to the biggest food problem we have today, which is not obesity but malnutrition.

But Cowen is not an apologist, and he doesn't argue that we can just deregulate our way to a better food system. In fact he has many words of support for policies and values often supported by progressives. To help improve both the long-term budget gap and the growing environmental problem, he advocates ending subsidies for big agriculture, and argues for a carbon tax. In addition, he believes that meat should be "taxed" for environmental reasons, and that one easy way to do this is to enforce more strict animal welfare laws.

In typical Cowenian style, there are far too many topics covered in An Economist Eats to mention here. My hope is that the book will be widely read and the issues debated further, as was the case with his last book, The Great Stagnation. I think it would be edifying for foodies to defend themselves against Cowen's charges, and I look forward to some back-and-forth on these topics in the blogs.