Food for thought from Tyler Cowen

This month, just for fun, I’m doing to devote most of my writing to food and sustainability. My plan is to write about organic vs. conventional yields, a controversy around Fair Trade, the giant candy company Mars, clean cooking fuels in Mozambique and the goings-on at a pair of upcoming events where I’ll be moderating: the 2012 National Policy Conference of CropLife America, about “The Politics of Food and the 2012 Farm Bill,” and the always-fabulous Cooking for Solutions extravaganza at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Today, though, I want to tell you about a quirky, provocative and enjoyable book called An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies (Dutton, $26.95), by Tyler Cowen.

A free-market economist who teaches at George Mason University, Cowen writes for a broad audience. His blog, MarginalRevolution, is extremely popular. He contributes  to the Sunday NY Times business section. His interests are wide ranging (see this Grantland column on the end of football) and he seems to read every nonfiction book that matters.  His short ebook, The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, is very smart, and a bargain at $3.99: It argues that what ails the US economy is not merely the aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis or the distortions caused by the collapse of the dot-com bubble but a more fundamental slowdown in innovation that dates back for 40 years.

In An Economist Gets Lunch, Cowen muses about loosely-connected topics, ranging from how American food got bad (it’s not what you think) to the mysterious differences between Mexican food in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, its neighbor across the border (US regulators comes into to play) to what happened when he spent a month shopping at an Asian supermarket called Great Wall in Merrifield, VA (he ate healthier, fresher, cheaper foods).

Tyler Cowen

If, like me, you’re interested in the social and environmental impact of the food, you’ll want to read Cowen’s defense of agribusiness, technology and global supply chains. He rejects the argument summed up by the title of the movie Food Inc. that American food is bad for us and bad for the planet because of the commercialization of food. While Cowen is no fan of donuts or McDonald’s, he notes that by the end of the 20th century “more people ate well than ever before” and “the American poor are more likely to be obese than starving.” He writes:

Cheap, quick food–including its embodiment through our sometimes obnoxious agribusiness corporations–is the single most important advance in human history. It is the foundation of modern civilization, and the reason why most of us are alive.

The reasons why American food isn’t very good, he says, have less to do with business than with us, i.e., our government and culture. Prohibition all but killed fine dining because restaurants make more money from liquor than from food. Anti-immigration policies “kept American food away from its best and most fruitful innovators for decades.” Because “Americans spoil and cater to their children,” he argues, we grow up eating food that is “blander, simpler and sweeter” than food elsewhere:

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What’s wrong with economic growth?

Dave Gardner is a gutsy guy.  Gardner, who is 56, a former corporate filmmaker, set his career aside a few years ago to run for office in his hometown of Colorado Springs, CO, and make a documentary film called Growthbusters: Hooked on Growth that puts forth an unpopular idea–that economic growth is bad for the environment and bad for human happiness.

“I want to make it OK for people to be against growth,” Dave says, when asked why he ran for office and made the movie.

Dave and I fundamentally disagree. I think economic growth is vital, not just to lift billions of people out of poverty–global per capita income is currently about $10,700, if Wikipedia is to be believed–but because societies that are more prosperous are better able to deal with the issues of environmental and social justice that matter most to me.

Nevertheless, I would urge you to see Dave’s film (screenings are listed here, or you can buy the DVD) both because he raises a number of important questions and and because, to his credit, has managed to capture on film some of the world’s most provocative thinkers on the topic of growth–Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford professor and author of the controversial 1968 book The Population Bomb, sociologist Juliet Schor, whose books include The Overworked American, the heretical economist Herman Daly, environmental activist and author Bill McKibben, and the charismatic political economist and author Raj Patel. [click to continue…]

GE, AT&T, Facebook and DC: a lament

Living inside the Beltway, I’m acutely aware of how much time, money, energy and creative thinking are poured into struggles over how the federal government should regulate business. The winners in this game are the powerful: Republicans, Democrats, corporate America, government employees and the industry associations, law firms and lobbyists who keep Washington’s restaurants full and its upper-end real-estate market healthy, even as the real economy struggles. The losers are everybody else.

The way out of this conundrum, I’ve come to believe, is, first, to radically shrink the size and complexity of the government. Then, regulate modestly, carefully but aggressively when necessary—in such areas as energy/climate and banking. Then, allow markets to do what they do well, which is create wealth.

Three recent stories from The New York Times and one from the Wall Street Journal that just got my attention prompted me to offer up these ideas. The headlines:

GE’s strategies let it avoid taxes altogether

AT&T Lobbyist Faces Beltway Test in T-Mobile Deal

Facebook Prepares to Add Friends in Washington

Cash softens a trade blow

These stories share a common theme. The show how big corporations exercise influence in Washington (or are just starting to, in the case of Facebook) in ways that damage their competitors, consumers or taxpayers. The Times’ GE story—which should be required reading in college government classes—is the most shocking and revealing, reporting, as it does, that GE in 2010 [click to continue…]

China, cappuccino and cell phones: reasons to cheer!

Let’s start the new year on an upbeat note:

When we focus on the day’s headlines, or get caught up in the petty frustrations of everyday life, it’s easy to overlook how dramatically the world has changed for the better in the last decade or two.

We get frustrated when a call gets dropped on the cell phone, forgetting that mobile phones were a luxury until the mid-1990s. I got my first phone–no texting! no photos! no maps! no web access!–in 2001.

We don’t like to wait in line for cappuccino, forgetting that few Americans had the chance to enjoy such brews until recently.  Hard as it may to believe, there were a mere 165 Starbucks’ stores in this great land of ours when the company went public in 1992. Today, there are more than 11,000. We forget, too, the magic that goes into the making of a cappuccino.

More importantly, we worry–as well we should–about the state of the U.S. economy, but we overlook the happier news that about half a billion people have emerged from poverty in China since 1990. Well, that’s China, you says, but even here in the U.S. — despite legitimate concerns about income inequality and declining social mobility — Americans are demonstrably wealthier, healthier and more free than we were at any time in our history.

Declinism–the idea that things are getting worse–has a long history, and it remains fashionable on the left and on the right.

But if history is any guide, and it is, there’s overwhelming evidence that life on this planet, and in this country, is, in the words of Lennon & McCartney, “getting better all the time.”

I’m feeling unfashionably upbeat at the moment because I’ve been reading The Rational Optimist (Harper Collins, $26.99) by Matt Ridley, a sweeping history that attempts to explain how prosperity evolves.  The book is controversial, especially around the issue of climate–here’s an attack by George Monbiot, and Ridley’s response–but its core argument is persuasive: That prosperity is driven by man’s unique ability to trade, specialize and innovate. (“The propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another” is the way Adam Smith put it.) Ridley’s claim that the world is richer, healthier and kinder seems to me to be unassailable, based as it is on both statistical and anecdotal evidence:

Ridley writes:

In 2005, compared with 1955, the average human being on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer….She was more likely to be literate and to have finished school. She was more likely to own a telephone, a flush toilet, a refrigerator and a bicycle. All this during a half-century when the world population has more than doubled, so that far from being rationed by population pressure, the goods and services available to the people of the world have expanded. It is, by any standard, an astonishing human achievement.

They had it right: It is getting better all the time.

He goes on to say:

The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going rapidly upwards for 200 years and erratically upwards for 10,000 years before that: years of lifespan, mouthfuls of clean water, lungfuls of clean air, hours of privacy, means of travelling faster than you can run, ways of communicating farther than you can shout. This generation of human beings has access to more calories, watts, lumen-hours, square feet, gigabytes, megahertz, light years, nanometres, bushels per acre, miles per gallon, food miles, air miles and, of course, cash than any that went before. They have more Velcro, vaccines, vitamins, shoes, singers, soap operas, mango slicers, sexual partners, tennis rackets, guided missiles and anything else they could even imagine needing.

Ridley’s book is an intellectually ambitious, touring 10,000 years of human history and building upon the insights of Smith and Charles Darwin. (The prologue is called “when ideas have sex.”) How prosperity evolves is through trade–simply put, the idea that people are always working for one another, whether they know it or not. Trade is among the most boring of journalistic topics, but if you set aside the back-and-forth about negotiations with Columbia or Korea, it is a marvelous thing. [click to continue…]