Review: An Economist Gets Lunch by Tyler Cowen

I recently read “An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules For Foodies” by Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University. The blurb at Amazon made it sound like something right up my alley:

Tyler Cowen discusses everything from slow food to fast food, from agriculture to gourmet culture, from modernist cuisine to how to pick the best street vendor. He shows why airplane food is bad but airport food is good; why restaurants full of happy, attractive people serve mediocre meals; and why American food has improved as Americans drink more wine. And most important of all, he shows how to get good, cheap eats just about anywhere.

In the end, it was an interesting book, but not the rigorous, scientific approach to food I was expecting. The typical passage starts out with a presupposition. e.g. how to get cheap, good food anywhere, and then tosses out a few anecdotes illustrating how the author was able to get cheap, good food in an unusual place, with some economic principle thrown in to show it is all very analytical, don’t-you-know.

The problem is it all seems backward. It seems like Mr. Cowen starts with the answer and then comes up with an economic explanation for what he believes to be true. In the beginning, he explains how Prohibition is to blame for U.S restaurants being so bad until recently. OK. Sounds plausible. Restaurants make most of their profit from alcohol sales. If they cannot sell alcohol, they naturally go for cheap food rather than quality.

The next section of the book discusses how to shop at the supermarket and says that ethnic markets are the place to shop. Their customers are more geared to cooking at home so they know more about how to shop at a market, thus forcing the markets to stock higher quality items. Maybe things are different in the D.C. area where Tyler lives, but around here the produce is much fresher in most traditional markets than it is in the ethnic (Asian and Latino) markets. Of course, it must be economic pressures, but that is my point. You cannot do economics by starting with the answer and fitting the problem to fit the solution. It requires a broader scope.

Overall, this is an entertaining book, but it does not offer any unique insight or economic perspective. Or maybe I just don’t understand economics. Maybe economics is a lot fluffier than I thought and the economic descriptions in the book are the way economists really discuss ideas.

No, probably not. More likely, it has been fluffed so it will appeal to a wider audience. That’s OK. It is just not what I expected. An Economist Gets Lunch  is worth reading if only to learn how to find good, cheap food wherever you go.

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