Three new podcast episodes, starting with most recent:

  1. 2002 Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith talks about his work in experimental economics and how Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments influenced his work.
  2. Dan Hirschman of Brown University discusses “stylized facts” and their role in the process that takes ideas from academia to public policy, specifically inequality.
  3. Nell Compernolle of the University of Michigan tells the migration story of Nepalese men and its impact on marital attitudes.

Lots more episodes coming soon, hopefully. If you know anyone that would be interested in being interviewed, let me know!


I wouldn’t say I have much of a sophisticated palate. I am not very conscious of herbs, spices, oils, and different flavorings when I cook. That being said I do not eat fast food (and haven’t in probably a decade), eat relatively little red meat, and generally don’t like junk food. I believe my culinary tastes are purely a reflection of the household I was raised in as well as my generally active lifestyle. Growing up my mom always managed to make a pretty diverse array of meals each day of the week. My brother was also a vegetarian and so I became accustomed to, and developed a taste for, foods that were not based around a piece of meat.

There is a ‘food crisis’ in America, many would argue. Depending on one’s views it is one or more of factors including obesity, the over-industrialization of food production, the blandness of American food, rising food prices, and the need for quick and convenient food. I tend to not blame agribusiness or consumerism for any of these problems. I recently purchased (long overdue) Tyler Cowen’s An Economist Gets Lunch for my iPhone (also available in physical text form). In addition to explaining contemporary American culinary tastes, Cowen goes through interesting personal narratives of food exploration, macro-food solutions, locavorism, eating environemtally friendly, and some valuable general rules for finding the best bang-for-your-buck in terms of food.

While the book is interesting throughout, what I find most interesting thus far is how he explains how American cuisine got to where it is today. Despite having more options than ever, American cuisine is generally boring. He doesn’t blame it on agribusiness or consumerism, though. He divides it into three main historical occurrences.

Cowen notes that Europeans used to come to America in the 19th century and marvel at how fresh and high-quality our food was. Not anymore, of course. So what happened?

  1. Prohibition – Making alcohol illegal had a significantly negative impact on American culinary tastes. For decades America couldn’t cook with wines like Europeans do. Eating fine food with alcohol no longer became a regular occurrence. Speakeasies weren’t interested in developing a fine culinary reputation. Similarly, drink tastes in America switched to more hard liquor than beer or wine in an order to binge drink quicker. This has had a long-lasting impact. Think of ‘quintessential’ American eating establishments – the diner, the candy shop, the soda shop. Diners are a reflection of eating entirely without alcohol. They also, with candy and soda shops, reflect that without alcohol we suddenly were switching our tastes to cater more to children’s. He elaborates on this more, showing how as a culture we are more willing to give our kids what they want (sugars, salts, etc) instead of what we want. Having lived in Britain for four years, I can confirm that diners don’t really exist. Cowen argues convincingly how this has negatively impacted most of America’s culinary tastes.
  2. World War II – we switched from better quality meats to SPAM. Even in a world war, we Americans don’t want to cut back on meat. So we developed a taste for a conveniently packed but terribly tasting meat. Further, more women went into the workforce. This meant less time in the kitchen and suddenly more convenient and less time-intensive food were demanded by American consumers. Why didn’t this happen in Europe, which was literally destroyed in some areas? We had the infrastructure to mass transport foods, whereas Europeans necessity needed to eat local and have things fresh. If you can’t ship and store, you’ve got to have what’s nearby. Ironically, European cuisine had more in the way of quality cuisine by having less.
  3. Immigration – immigration was essentially open for the first century and a half in America. We had ‘old world’ tastes and recipes being mixed with American ingredients and ideas. Food innovation, Cowen argues, was our greatest contribution to world food. In the 1920s and for several decades later, nationality quotas and other immigration restrictions outlawed this. Suddenly “ethnic” restaurants were run by second or third-generation immigrants with little memory of what their ethnicity’s cuisine was like in the old world. This made for a blander cuisine all around. Furthermore, xenophobia and the desire to be more “America” produced a homogenization of foods. Only recently has immigration picked up and this trended started to reverse. Most interestingly, Cowen notes that barbecue and Tex/Mex are America’s greatest original contribution to food. Because of the history of lax immigration enforcement of the Mexican border, the immigrant influence was still felt in Texas and the southwest, producing barbecue and Tex/Mex food. Being in Austin, and never really having had such delicious barbecue before, I agree wholeheartedly with him.

These points obviously have much more elaboration than I have provided here. Still, I think thinking about these three things and their effect on American cuisine is pretty interesting. American tastes are thus not the effect of dumb consumerism or agribusiness tricking us into eating high levels of saturated fats and high fructose corn syrup, but instead cultural and historical events. Check out Cowen interviewed on the EconTalk podcast and the Freakonomics podcast. Also, consider buying the book. It has been positively reviewed by pretty much everyone (NYT, USA Today, The Independent) and is a very easy read.

I have always been pretty in favor of legal immigration. The most relevant immigration debate in America, of course, is Mexican immigration. The “data” shows that immigrants provide a benefit to the American economy as a whole. Any claims of job-stealing seems to be overpowered by the net impact immigrants have on the overall economy. Most importantly, the immigrants themselves are so much better off that any employment loss to natural-born Americans seems to be trivial from an overall human welfare standpoint. But I have come to see a different side of Mexican immigration in my current job. First hand I can see the frictions that widespread Mexican immigration can cause in a city like Austin.

75% or so of the students at my school are Hispanic, almost all second or first generation Mexican immigrants. What this means is that a significant portion of the students have parents that know little to no English. This means that communication between the teachers/faculty and parents can be very difficult. It also means that the kids are learning an English that is dumbed-down and almost never reading English.

The school of course accommodates this by providing bilingual classes and sending any note home in English and Spanish. But the English illiteracy is probably the greatest hurdle to overcome in the Title I school where I work. While the children are relatively competent at math operations, when it comes to word problems they can do almost nothing. “Plot” as in “plot the coordinates on the grid” means something totally different than “plot” as in the direction of a story. Without speaking anything close to academic English outside of school, how are they supposed to pick up on this difference?

The important thing for policy is how to adapt to this. It makes sense to have bilingual classes. But it crossed my mind that this gives too much of a coddling atmosphere to immigrants. Move to America and don’t worry if you don’t try your best to learn English – the “system” will take care of it. The public school system is obviously largely funded by the parents not sending their kids to these bad schools. Is it right for immigrants to be able to move to America and assume that public schools will do everything they can to make sure your kid can get by in an English-speaking America? The alternative I suppose would be to do everything at school in English. No flexibility for Spanish speakers. You can’t use dictionaries on standardized tests, we won’t have bilingual classes, and if you don’t get the English we’re speaking you better do something about it.

This would inevitably cause some kids who are so illiterate in English to just totally get discouraged and lose all hope. Inevitably these kids end up being picked up by “the system” anyways through welfare and what not. I think this would be bad and pretty wrong from a social justice perspective.

But the fact still remains – the lack of English proficiency of the students at my school is the source of a tremendous amount of resources and teacher-time. Is it right for any immigrant to move to America – legally or not – and expect the government-run system of public schools to totally acclimate their children and prepare them to be successful in an English-speaking America?

There was a kerfluffle in my home state this past week when two undocumented migrant farm laborers were detained after a traffic stop (both were passengers in the car). The Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project claimed that the two men were racially profiled in violation of Vermont State Police policy, which prohibits police from requesting immigration papers from people who are not suspected of a crime.

Governor Peter Shumlin’s reaffirmed the state’s commitment to a humane stance of immigration:

Shumlin said Vermont should “look the other way” when it comes to dealing with immigrants working illegally on Vermont farms. “We have always had a policy in Vermont where we kind of look the other way as much as we can,” Shumlin told WPTZ. “I just want to make sure that’s what’s we’re doing. [Vermont farms] can’t survive without workers from outside America. It’s just the way it is. ”


Shumlin ordered an investigation of the incident on Tuesday to determine whether the traffic stop violated with the state police’s “bias-free policing policy.”

Unsurprisingly, Vermont ( republicans are trying to demagogue the issue:

“Rather than turning a blind eye to laws he doesn’t like, Gov. Shumlin should be working with our congressional delegation, as former Gov. Douglas and Sen. Leahy did, towards finding legal solutions that would make every foreign worker in Vermont compliant with federal law, and that wouldn’t result in a depression of wages for those foreign workers that are in Vermont legally,” [ GOP chairwoman Pat] McDonald’s statement read.

“The hardworking officers of the Vermont State Police took an oath to uphold the law,” the GOP statement went on. “The governor’s new policy of ‘look the other way’ may sound good to those that support illegal immigration, but it is not the appropriate guidance a sitting governor should be giving to Vermont’s law enforcement community.”

Of course Shumlin should work with Vermont’s congressional delegation to advocate for immigration reform at the national level. But that doesn’t mean that Shumlin shouldn’t do what is directly within his power as a governor to promote a sensible immigration policy at the state level. These two measures are not mutually exclusive, as McDonald implies.

Immigration restrictionists often make the kind of argument put forth by McDonald. The police have a responsibility to uphold the law, so any policy telling them to “look the other way” forces them to violate their oath of service. Using the words “look the other way” was perhaps a mistake on Shumlin’s part, since it gave McDonald and the republicans a concise soundbyte that seems to be anti-law enforcement. However, upon closer scrutiny, McDonald’s argument doesn’t hold up.

There are many more criminal acts that take place each day than the police could possibly respond to. If this isn’t obvious to you, note how many people are driving over the speed limit the next time you’re on the interstate. Inevitably, the police have to choose the best way to deploy limited resources. It’s just common sense that they should prioritize law enforcement against crimes that endanger other people and have a significant detrimental effect on society.

Immigration involves human beings coming into the country in order to engage in peaceful,  mutually beneficial, voluntary exchange of labor for wages. They do jobs that Americans cannot or will not do, and they strengthen our economy. The fact that the United States has laws on the books that place such draconian restrictions on this activity is deeply unjust. But given that, for now at least, we are stuck with these laws, it makes perfect sense, and is completely legitimate, for the police to focus on fighting crime that actually hurts people.