Matt Yglesias' Economic Ideas Are Often Out to Lunch

Slate Moneybox writer Matt Yglesias, we're on to you: Your economics ideas are coming to you on your lunch runs.

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When news about David Einhorn betting against Chipotle came out today, it was obvious there was at least one person who would disagree: Slate Moneybox writer Matt Yglesias, who believes in the innovation of Chipotle so much, he famously compared Chipotle (a food place) to Apple (you know, that one). But that was no one-time economics and food comparison. Matt Yglesias, we're on to you: You love getting econ ideas at lunch.

Idea: Food service industry innovates just like tech companies.

Entrepreneurs in the food industry don't get enough credit for innovating, such as Steve Ellis of Chipotle, as Yglesias wrote in February.

Ells invented a way to maintain the basic speed and experience of the standard fast-food experience and make the quality of the food a little better. The better food costs a bit more money, but consumers turn out to be happy to pay a premium for a superior product."

Idea: Innovation can't be calculated.

In a post Tuesday about the poor methods of calculating innovation, Yglesias references one of his favorite restaurants, Chop't, a New York/DC salad chain. Its innovations might not necessarily make it into a typical economic innovation calculator, like counting patents:

One thing they do is that at peak demand times when the store gets crowded and things get hectic, they employ a guy to serve as a kind of 'traffic cop' who directs customers to the optimal line to order at. This might be a good idea or might be a bad one. But if it's working for them, it's a real example of [total factor productivity]-boosting innovation.

Idea: Structural factors impact the deliciousness of some foods.

When Reuters columnist Felix Salmon wondered why taco trucks are so good in March, of course Yglesias had some input. It's not fresh tortillas that do it. It's that trucks have low overhead so "the only competitive edge available is to make the food good," and tacos, which can be eaten while standing, are particularly suited to trucks.

Idea: Menu labeling promotes an idealized market for lunch.

Back in November 2010, when Yglesias wrote at ThinkProgress, he turned a lunch of tacos in Los Angeles, where restaurants had to post calorie counts, into a post about the failures of the free market. "The utter failure of the unregulated market for lunch to meet the 'perfect information' standard of an idealized market seems very obvious." (Lengua tacos, by the way, are the lowest calorie.)

Idea: Menu labeling does not have short-term impact for all restaurants.

In another menu labeling post for ThinkProgress in July 2011, Yglesias argued that posting calorie counts does not have financial cost. As for actual health impact, he divulged his own food habits to say it would not have strong short-term impact across all types of restaurants.

I lost about 60-70 pounds last year based on rigorously counting calories. But that didn’t mean that I never went to Five Guys for a burger and fries, and it also didn’t mean that I made “healthier choices” when I did go to Five Guys. ...Everyone understands that a bacon cheeseburger has a lot of calories, but the gap between the Cobb Salad and the Steakhouse Salad at Chopt isn’t obvious unless you actually look it up.

Idea: Health in restaurants will probably come through chains.

Yglesias argued in September 2010 for ThinkProgress that the path to healthier, more sustainable food will come through big chains, since as technology advances, more people will want someone else to make food. And it can be healthy too, as demonstrated by another one of Yglesias's favorite spots: Mixtgreens, another salad place.

Idea: Food descriptions require a little sanctity.

Okay, so this isn't really an economics idea. But Yglesias did use his Slate Moneybox perch to rant about his fave joint Chop't's overuse of the descriptor "cobb" in salads. A Tabago Jerk Cobb, Chesapeake Bay Cobb, Harvest Cobb, Kebab Cobb, and regular old normal Cobb—all with few similarities between them. "The madness has to stop," he declared.

Bonus ideas

Then there are the one-off food-inspired ideas from Yglesias's Twitter that further suggest even when he's munchin', the mind's still crunchin':

We emailed Yglesias for comment, and he said it made sense that he was writing so much about food:

Well, I don't think it's very unusual to frequently have ideas arise out of conversations that happen while people are going to get lunch. And I guess when I'm getting lunch we're often talking about food. Then a lot of the folks reading stuff on the web are at the office, slacking off and thinking about lunch. So what I always wonder is why other writers don't have more lunch-related ideas? 

So here's the lesson: Want to be like Matt Yglesias? Start thinking when you're eating. That seems to be a huge source of inspiration for that guy.

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