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What follows is the fourth installment in a series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Part 1, Chapter 2 of Wealth of Nations.

The book commonly referred to as “Wealth of Nations” is actually an abbreviation of its full-length title “An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.” The question at this time was why, amidst millennia of abject poverty and subsistence-level living, a few countries mostly in the northwest of Europe had started to have a significantly better standard of living. For some, the answer was obvious: the farther from the equator you were, and the whiter your skin was, the more superior you were. For others, it was a country’s ability to hoard gold or other fine metals. Or maybe it was that good-ol’ Protestant work ethic? Smith rejected all of these explanations and instead used Wealth of Nations to argue that a nation’s standard of living is determined by its ability to utilize specialization and the division of labor.

Smith went farther than just rejecting the racial explanation as a determinant of wealth. He saw all humans as essentially equal in worth and dignity. What we perceive to be inequalities is actually the result of, and not the cause of, the division of labor.

The difference of natural talents in different men, is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labor. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. When they came in to the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps, very much alike, and neither their parents nor play-fellows could perceive any remarkable difference.

Smith uses the comparison of a street porter and a philosopher as extremes of social standing. One is near the lowest status of society as far as prestige and perceived skill level, the other considered to be a wise and distinguished profession. But before they enter into schools or the labor force, their skills are basically equivalent. Through different levels of education, parenting, and circumstance, these previously-indistinguishable individuals end up working two jobs with incredibly different reputations in society. Yet deep down the two people are not so different.

By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter.

This is a radical contrast to any “nature” arguments in a “nature versus nurture” debate. This specifically departs from Aristotilean thinking that certain people like the Barbarians were meant to be slaves (thus explains our lyric “so Aristotle was wrong about the slaves”). The commercial economy, in addition to giving us the capability to innovate and flourish, also gives us deep material inequality that deceives us into thinking we are less equal in worth or dignity than we actually are.

It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature…the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.

Just as with Smith’s conception of sympathetic fellow-feeling, this propensity to engage in commerce is universal across people. In fact, it is what separates us from other animals. Unlike dogs, for example, humans are able to engage in trade and specialize.

It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any species of contracts…The strength of the mastiff is not in the least supported either by the swiftness of the greyhound, or by the sagacity of the spaniel, or by the docility of the shepherd’s dog.

So the next time you go down to your corner store to buy a pack of gum or toothpaste, think to yourself, “damn, it feels good to be human.”

The complete lyrics to “The Street Porter & the Philosopher“:

Well at six years old we seem to be
In ability nearly the same soon changed by modernity
And our innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity

Whether you’re paid to think or move on street
Your disposition and genius were made in equity
In isolation they’d appear the same
Still that philosopher remains so vain

But the fellow dogs separately
Can’t utilize their different skills: strength, swiftness or docility
From no innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity

Whether you’re paid to think or move on street
Your disposition and genius were made in equity
In isolation they’d appear the same
Still that philosopher remains so vain

It’s our innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity

 

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What follows is the second installment in a long-overdue series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.” The first post for the titular track can be found here. Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by the first section and chapter of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Of the many misunderstandings of Adam Smith’s work, the idea that Smith saw humans as being motivated entirely by rational self-interest is the one that looms largest. The robotic Homo Economicus model of human nature so dominant in modern economic theory is far from how Smith explained human behavior. The first song on Silent Revolution, called “Fellow-Feeling,” invokes his idea that the basis of human behavior is not in rational utility maximization, but rather sympathetic fellow-feeling and a desire to share in the sentiments of others.

The first of Smith’s two books, Theory of Moral Sentiments, starts with this:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principals in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others…for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane…

A few things to emphasize here: 1) as selfish as we may appear to be and often can be, we exhibit behavior suggesting we are interested in the well-being of others ; 2) there is universality in his analysis (“by no means confined to the virtuous and human”). Smith was writing specifically in contrast to David Hume and Bernard Mandeville‘s writings that took more of a utility maximization perspective. People’s tendencies to exhibit altruistic, sympathetic, or ethical behavior could be viewed through a redefined utility function, they argued. In other words, we are nice to each other and follow rules because it’s in our best interest. Smith is not convinced. He gives a number of examples where we put ourselves in the shoes of others, with no discernible self-interest or rational calculation.

When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm…the mob, when they are gazing at a dancer on the slack rope, naturally writhe and twist and balance their own bodies…persons of delicate fibers and a weak constitution of body complain, that in looking on the sores and ulcers which are exposed by beggars in the streets, they are apt to feel an itching or uneasy sensation…

As another example, consider instances where we cry while watching movies. Our tears will not help the characters in the movie and the characters are often fictional and/or experiencing fictional events; there can be no explanation for our tears being out of expected reciprocity or benefit to anyone. So what gives? Smith would say our impulse towards fellow-feeling has put ourselves in the shoes of the characters concerned, and though we cannot feel exactly as they do, we respond as if it were happening – in part – to us. In his examples, seeing someone about to be hit, struggling for balance on a tight rope, or experiencing severe discomfort from homelessness, our reaction is so instantaneous that it’s hard to imagine it being the result of a rational calculation or perceived personal benefit.

This tendency towards sympathetic fellow-feeling not only governs our behavior, it is the basis for explaining what we truly desire. Rather than pursuing a straightforward utilitarian life of wealth, fame, and prosperity, what we seek is for others to share our sentiments. We want them to understand how we feel, like what we like, and – more importantly – dislike what we dislike. We can all relate to the giddiness of sharing with friends works of art that we enjoy. Knowing that they enjoy it as we do gives us a deep pleasure.

A man is mortified when, after having endeavoured to divert the company, he looks around and sees that nobody laughs at his jests but himself…When we have read a book or poem so often that we can no longer find any amusement in reading it by ourselves, we can still take pleasure in reading it to a companion…But both the pleasure and the pain are always felt so instantaneously, and often upon such frivolous occasions, that it seems evident that neither of them can be derived from any such self-interested consideration.

Similarly, when our friends dislike people or things that we disliked, we are even more pleased (more on this in the future). To me, Smith believes that the deep pursuit of our lives is to feel we are correctly understood by the peers we care about, and to be worthy of accompanying praise.

Nestled towards the end of this section in TMS is a quick teaser on how Smith explains our ethical behavior.

We sympathize even with the dead, and overlooking what is of real importance in their situation, that awful futurity which awaits them, we are chiefly affected by those circumstances which strike our senses, but can have no influence upon their happiness. It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave…It is from this very illusion of the imagination, that the foresight of our own dissolution is so terrible to us, and that the idea of those circumstances, which undoubtedly can give us no pain when we are dead, makes us miserable while we are alive. And from thence arises one of the most important principles in human nature, the dread of death, the great poison to the happiness, but the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind.

Through the mechanism of fellow-feeling, Smith says we put ourselves in the position of those we see that are dead and think “wow, that would really be a bummer to be that guy.” Again, mourning for someone that’s dead – especially one in fiction or someone you don’t know halfway across the world – cannot be explained through the lens of rational self-interest. Your tears cannot bring them back to life, being sad does not benefit you, and crying for a fictional character should have no real effect on your well-being. But from this tendency to sympathize with the dead, we refrain from killing each other and are given “the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind.” By understanding as best we can what it feels like to be dead – in the cold, dark grave, never again able to experience the pleasures of life – we aim to never put anyone in that situation nor put ourselves in that situation anytime soon.

So why can we sometimes be unethical? Aren’t there limits to our fellow-feeling? How does this square with the view of human nature found in Wealth of Nations and the market economy? Answers to all of that coming up later in this series!

 

The complete lyrics to “Fellow-Feeling”:

So I mourn for the dead, though they cannot hear my cries
What good is it unnoticed, what good is it to try
From that fear of cold and darkness, when imagined in that grave
Give power to restrain the injustice of mankind

The fortune of others, as I conceive
Not just the virtuous, or humane
However selfish that I may seem
Derive his sorrow
Though at ease I cannot feel his pain, imagination puts me in his place

The stroke is aimed (I shrink back) upon his arm
The beggar on the street, ulcers and sores
On the slackrope (I twist) the dancer writhes
Only conception
Yet enough to cause me that unease, the robust and feeble feel it too

To share the amusement of a book or a poem
And to enter in their sentiments just as if they were our own
The mortification when we jest and no one joins,
Feels so instantaneous that it cannot be self-love

 

P.S. here’s a selfie I took by the Adam Smith statue in Edinburgh last week

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A few months ago, I made a conscious decision to overhaul my Twitter feed. The vast majority of accounts I followed were not only economists, but they were white, male, and in an ideological range from libertarian to Technocratic Left. I eliminated a lot of those accounts, replacing them with accounts representing a diverse range of views/demographics. Even in this simple experiment, the A/B test gives me conscious conclusions about how one’s media bubble affects one’s line of thinking, and suggests there are even more implicit outcomes that I don’t recognize. It also made me realize how reasonable it is that nearly everyone is under-exposed to an optimally diverse set of views in their media diet.

B.O. (Before Overhaul), I was pretty sure there weren’t any smart socialist thinkers out there. And this extends past purist socialism and even into what you might now call the “Bernie Left.” Most arguments I read were caricature defenses of socialism that frankly could easily be refuted. Naomi Klein would make outrageous ad hominem attacks on Milton Friedman and claim it delegitimized the market economy, Jeremy Corbyn would defend the wonderful work Hugo Chavez did in Venezuela for the poor, college-aged kids would spew half-baked defenses of what they thought Marx meant, and a plethora of writers would accuse anyone against rent control as selfish idiots. If the best arguments I came across were entirely unconvincing, it only made sense that I became more confident in my views.

But that’s where the problem is. I assumed the views I was being exposed to were the best ones out there. By default, my media diet as a self-identifying liberal/cosmopolitan/technocratic/educated guy included MainstreamMedia sources like the New York Times, Washington Post, The Economist, The Atlantic, Vox.com, etc. Those sources don’t often include a prominent voice on the socialist left. Just as David Brooks and Thomas Friedman are unconvincing voices for a centrist conservatism, the voices I was being exposed to were making weak arguments for socialist and left-populist economic policy. The reasonable voices were in a narrow range of centrism somewhere between Paul Krugman, Matt Yglesias, and Greg Mankiw. In hindsight, this group of people has way more in common than I or they ever realized. What I mean to highlight is that these sources, the ones I was reading as an Enlightened Educated Gentleman, were not amply exposing me to economic arguments for strong pro-labor, pro-nationalization, massive taxation, or significant adjustment to labor laws aiming to equalize gender/racial disparities. The people I was reading were all pretty in favor of markets as a basis for economic policy, where technocratic solutions through NBER papers and incremental adjustments were the road to ideal policy. The debates, in retrospect, were over the magnitude of redistribution and balancing economic liberty with regulation. Joseph Stiglitz would enter into the picture every now and then, but not enough to really shake my worldview.

It turns out there are a lot of smart people that have very far left economic views. Matt Bruenig, Elizabeth Bruenig, Marshall Steinbaum, to name a few, consistently are writing things that not only give a drastically different point of view – they are writing things that I find very difficult to argue against given my current toolkit of existing knowledge. This is when you know you’re actually exposing yourself to new ideas. Before, it was as if I was unconsciously exposing myself only to straw men arguments and red herrings in order to simultaneously reenforce my priors and give me a false sense of being open-minded. These people were always out there, but they don’t have a prominent (enough) voice in where I assumed a good media diet was found. [Elizabeth writes for the Washington Post now, and many of these people have some exposure, but you get my point]

The same can be said for the level of female economists out there. I used to rationalize not reading many female economists by saying that the field just didn’t have many women. While the discipline does seem to be hostile to women and it’s not at total parity, I was dead wrong. Some of the best work in academia is being done by people like Alice Evans, Claudia Goldin, Dina Pomeranz, and many many more. But except for Janet Yellen, Joan Robinson, Anna Schwartz, and a handful of others, female economists don’t have too much exposure in the mass media. Only one woman has ever won the Nobel Prize in economics (and she could be considered more of a political scientist). Paul Krugman, Greg Mankiw, Mark Thoma, Brad Delong all seem to get much more exposure than their female counterparts. Without making a conscious effort to include more female voices in my media diet, I was left reading a much more homogenized set of views.

The same can be said for non-economists. I have made more of an effort to include historians, sociologists, and anthropologists in my twitter feed and blog roll. Robert Solow once quipped, “Everything reminds Milton of the money supply. Well, everything reminds me of sex, but I keep it out of the paper.” Economists are prone to see everything as an economic problem; it’s all about incentives. All other disciplines fall prey to their own unique narrow-mindedness. But forcing yourself to look through that lens can be quite revealing. Looking through a lens of “everything is gendered” or “everything is explained by our irrational cognitive biases” at least exposes you to the possibility of these ideas.

So far in my experiment, I’m happy to report I’m much less sure of any of my beliefs. When Matt Bruenig gives an analysis with thorough empirics and theory showing the greatness of socialism, I can scoff all I want but if I can’t convincingly refute his points, how sure am I of the greatness of markets? I think I have a good idea of how economic history shows that markets and liberalism set the stage for the industrial revolution, but when Pseudoerasmus talks about the oh-so-ridiculous conventional wisdom that I of course had wrong, how sure am I about any of those beliefs?

Twitter is pretty much the worst, but also can be used for good. The freewheeling platform made it pretty easy to find these new alternative voices once I made the conscious effort. My worry is not that people don’t have access to a diverse set of views, it’s that their habits and circumstances will inevitably lead to equilibria that perpetuates echo chambers.

There’s still one thing everyone in my twitter feed agrees on: Trump is the worst. I’m not yet ready to start following alt-right accounts, Holocaust deniers, or MAGA fanboys. Yet it does beg the question: if I did, what would the mere exposure to these accounts do to my confidence in my own beliefs?

Episode 4 is wheeling and dealing and causing havoc all over the RSS feed universe. Check it out on iTunes or if you need the RSS URL: http://upsetpatterns.podbean.com

Tyler Cowen has tried to explain the recent trend in wage stagnation by claiming we have reached a “Great Stagnation” – we have exhausted the low-hanging fruits of cheap labor from immigration, trade liberalization, increased education, and previously unused land and natural resources. Basically, we have reached diminishing returns in many of the areas from which we expected to keep getting high growth. A worker’s productivity is easy and cheap to improve when they are illiterate, for example; but increasing productivity when they’re already college-educated is a little harder, more expensive, and at some points not even possible.

I’d like to posit that we have also reached a great stagnation in music. Remember that the Great Stagnation does not claim growth has stopped or we will regress; it merely states that our rate of growth has slowed down. Much like the American economy, popular music extracted what it could in low-hanging fruits during a golden age and getting those incredible returns again is harder to come by.

By some metrics technological innovation peaked in the 1870s and we only realized all the benefits of these innovations decades later. By the same token, popular music had technical and creative innovations in the first half of the twentieth century that we did not fully exploit until the golden age of popular music, which I’d like to theorize was between 1964 and 1973. These progressions include many things, but chiefly the introduction of the electric guitar, increased access of music to influence wider audiences, and better access to recording studios and production equipment.

The Beatles recorded Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s in an incredible 18-month span. Bob Dylan released Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde in about 14 months. Today, regardless of your musical taste and what you consider the most relevant music, artists will usually take years upon completing albums. Releasing two landmark albums within a year is essentially unheard of. Radiohead took 4 years between Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows, 4 years between In Rainbows and King of Limbs. When I think of any of my favorite rock/indie/pop bands in my lifetime, their careers span twice as long as my Theorized Golden Age and often produce half a many albums as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, or the Kinks did in the same time period.

I want to emphasize again that the presence of a great stagnation in music does not mean we are no longer creating really awesome music, it just means you have to push that much harder to squeeze out valuable creative juices that turn something incredible. In the beginning to mid 60s there were so many low hanging fruits that the aforementioned could churn out excellent albums, often while touring.

Thomas Edison filed thousands of patents centuries ago, all without much formal education. In a sense, he had so much to work with because there was so much potential that was yet to be realized. Now such a renaissance man is impossible to come by. Even the greatest innovators are only known for one or two great inventions, spending their whole lives devoted to coming up with and perfecting one great idea. Edison managed to make hundreds or thousands, depending on how you look at it.

The artists of 64-73 encountered a similar atmosphere. Many production techniques, the electric guitar, a recovered post-WWII global economy – these were all things that made it very easy to release lots of high quality music very quickly. There is simply no other reason why John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Brian Wilson could poop out the music they did so quickly. Never before had the rate of fusion of so many genres of music – blues, jazz, barber shop, classical, folk, country – happened anywhere near what it did during the golden era.

And the music wasn’t just good, it was innovative. I think the reason why bands now have to take years to release an album is because they need to work so hard to be perfectionists and manage to create something unique. It’s still possible, just like making that college graduate more productive is possible; it just means you have to spend five years giving them a phd, whereas when they were illiterate all you needed to do was teach them to read to make them more productive. Fleet Foxes is awesome, but I’d hesitate to call them truly innovative. Whatever hip-hop is coming out may be good, but it’s not as innovative as Paul’s Boutique (yes, I know this wasn’t in the Golden Era, but I state it just as a point to emphasize the difference between quality and innovation).

Today recording equipment, access to audiences, and a richer global economy imply that the music industry has many tools and financial resources needed to create incredibly innovative music. Before, the industry was dominated by middlemen called record companies that basically decided who was going to even have a chance at succeeding. They owned the capital (the recording studios), the means of distribution, and an essential monopoly on the ability to promote, so there were huge barriers to entry for musicians. Today, musicians can record at home, go viral on the internet, play live shows, afford equipment because we’re all richer, have endless access to musical influences. No matter how one looks at it, the barriers to entry for musicians is a lot less than it was 70 years ago.

It is in spite of these facts, not because of them, that musicians in the golden era were able to produce the music they did at the quick rate they did. That they were able to achieve their quick rate of release makes it even more impressive that they were able to overcome the past barriers to entry for musicians.

Sure, musical culture has changed. Bands rely more on touring it seems to produce revenues. This means more time away from the studio and less time sitting around writing songs. But this didn’t stop the Beatles in the first half of their career, Dylan during his first three electric albums, or Frank Zappa from churning out quality music quickly.

Think of what the most famous classic rock musicians were able to achieve during this time period: those rich sounds and timeless songs on what we’d now think of as primitive technology. No ProTools to redo that one 10 second take to get that right sound from farting on keyboards, sometimes only 4 tracks at one time, and generally less sophisticated instruments. The Flaming Lips create new sounds because they have tons of new technology at the ready – new pedals/effects, lots of recording options, etc. The golden era musicians didn’t have this. Still Wayne Coyne needs to work tirelessly to create a new sound. Before, it seemed Phil Spector could open his fridge and find a new “Be My Baby” or another wall of sound gem.

Most of my favorite albums were not in the Golden Era, so I don’t state all of this as a dork who listens exclusively to classic rock. Instead, I merely see the rate of production during this time period to be phenomenal. Sure Radiohead has grown from Creep to Lotus Flower, but that happened over twenty years. The Beatles went from I Saw Her Standing There to Helter Skelter in FIVE.

Yeah, I am writing this from the perspective of my musical collection/taste. But maybe, though I may be wrong, you can extend it to genres I’m not as familiar with. I’d have to guess punk bands today can’t churn out stuff equal to Give Em Enough Rope and London Calling in the 13 month The Clash did. Overall, I think no matter what your musical preference, bands don’t release music nearly as quickly as they used to.

It could be that we are getting genre-defiers and massive innovators right now that will spur another golden age, and we just don’t know it yet. Much like we have arguably not extracted all productive efficiencies from computer or the internet yet, or it took decades for the mass innovations of the 1870s to be realized fully, we could be on the brink of another mass innovation fest.

What do I think this generally implies? We’ll have to have some sort of industrial revolution equivalent in music to reach the rate of innovation we had in the golden era. We’ll continue to have great music, but we’ll have to wait two or three times as long to get another OK Computer or Veckatimest than we did to get Pet Sounds or After the Goldrush.

This is an admittedly working theory, so I’m happy to hear criticisms or points that I have not mentioned.

I didn’t vote for President last time. A lot of people find this repugnant to some sort of degree. After all, the right to vote is something that people have risked their lives for over thousands of years to secure. Meh, so what.

I believe that a “reckless vote” is a lot worse than a “non-vote.” I think that a lot of people who vote do it based on bad reasons. Studies show that a decent chunk of people vote for candidates based on their personality only. That’s a reckless vote. I think that the large majority of voters are not as informed as they should be. Does anyone think that more than 0.1% of people voting for the Cook County judges to it on anything more than the Chicago Tribune endorsements and/or party affiliation? Am I obligated to vote just because I am a citizen? I believe voting for President is somewhat inefficient and irrational because my vote will not make a difference. I am registered to vote in Illinois, where Barack Obama will surely win. In that case, my vote is only going to be a “moral support” type thing and, frankly, I don’t want to feel in any way responsible for some of the policies he does.

Well, someone has to win Will, so you gotta vote for somebody. So do I have to vote for the lesser of two evils? Maybe I’ll vote for Gary Johnson. Johnson is the Libertarian Party nominee. He also happens to be a successful businessman, a popular ex-Governor of New Mexico, and the highest elected official to ever call for an end to the War on Drugs. Johnson ran for the GOP nomination but never had the chance to pick up steam because he was shut out of the debates. But at the end of the day, if I vote, I can realistically choose between voting for one of the two candidates who have a shot at winning or a candidate in hopes of increasing LP’s federal election funding.

I also think that voting, and democracy in general, have little to do with how “liberal” America is. A ranking of the freest and most democratic countries in the developed world shows a weak correlation. America isn’t too high on the democratic list compared to other developed countries, but also has some of the most permissive speech laws and economic liberties. I’d explain democracy and liberalism as a correlation thing, not a causation thing. America has the laws that it does because of our culture and history, not because we are all huge participants in the great government machine. Proponents of democracy don’t like to talk about ‘illiberal democracies’ like Russia that have formal schemes that resemble democracies but give terrible results.

So, why vote? To get better policy? In my case, Illinois will go easily to Obama. Because I have a moral obligation? Ok, then I’ll vote for a third party candidate that I genuinely am enthusiastic about.

Even Gary Johnson has ideas I disagree with. Hell, if I ran I’d probably disagree with myself. So every candidate is the “lesser of x evils” to the extent that no candidate will ever really be 100% in line with one’s beliefs. So when’s it appropriate to not vote, and when is it appropriate to just vote for one of the major party candidates? We’re not dealing with a Hitler vs. Stalin situation here, but I think most people agree that situation would warrant some sort of non-vote (in addition to a major uprising). So there’s a gray area. My next post, which hopefully will come soon, will deal with whom I would vote for in Barack vs. Mitt.

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.

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