Monday, March 01, 2010

Guacamole and overhead bins 

This story is hilarious, and it reminds me of something I saw on the airplane last week. After years of faithfulness to Northwest (often undeserved except that they flew to St. Cloud airport and thus I had free airport parking and short drive times), I was willing to be moved by price on the trip to Vegas last week, even if I'm not paying the full price of the ticket myself. Orbitz kicked up a low combination air-plus-hotel package at the conference hotel which used Frontier Airlines. I had never flown them before, with their reputation of being cheap and being, well, cheap. But since Delta had badly underperformed for me recently I thought at least I could save some money while being treated like merde. So I booked the ticket.

I can say it was an OK experience. Particularly given my recent trips with Delta, the seats were the same, the delays not too out of line (someone apparently "soiled" a carpet in the aisle, so they needed an extra 45 minutes to clean it) and the service passable. I would fly them again.

But there was one interesting part of the gateside experience. You are quite hassled about bringing bags on the plane, but we know that there's a tragedy of the commons problem there too (like Donald Marron's story linked above with guacamole) so you are limited in how much to take. But Frontier tries to get you down to just one bag that will go under the seat, where my legs like to go instead. So two or three times they ask for your bags, which go with all the other bags to the claims area when you land rather than picked up in skyway. This I do not like because I don't like waiting in baggage claim, and there's a greater likelihood (I think -- how do I know?) that it gets lost. So I decline.

After seating first class and their loyalty program fliers, they then invite those who only have a bag to go under the seat to board next. Basically you're mini-royalty. And at least on casual inspection, I think more people responded to the incentive to get on the plane before those like me who insisted on using the overhead bins. This did not upset me at all -- I am benefited by having their bags not compete for space with mine, and if letting them on first is the cost of this, so be it. And it appears that Frontier had found a margin along which it could change people's behavior.

Perhaps it would work -- I will let you have all the chips you want first, if you don't touch the guacamole. But maybe not because it's guac and guac is good.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Campuses and food 

One more day of grading then I'm done. In the meanwhile, two blogs I haven't visited in a while are back up and putting out good things:
  1. I haven't visited the National Association of Scholars blog in awhile and after reading there have decided they need to be in the RSS reader. Let me in particular encourage those of you with high school juniors and seniors to consider putting this list of questions in your pocket. If you want to be non-confrontational or a bit sarcastic (your voice will make all the difference here), try "Do you have a tunnel of oppression?" or "What family planning services do you provide?" Or, if you like the more in-your-face approach, you could ask "Is this a right to carry campus?" (Mitch, I expect you to do this next year.) If you don't have such a college-ready student, give a read to what's going on at Macalester.
  2. My colleague Ming Lo travels each summer, and each summer he blogs (then goes dormant for about ten months, a shame.) Ming and I both love Anthony Bourdain, and as a single, younger guy Ming is able to visit some pricier restaurants that Littlest's scholarship fund will not permit. From Las Vegas, He writes about Bouchon:
    Bouchon has a wonderful selection of fresh seafood. James and I love oysters, and we got a handful. For the main course, the other two picked the daily special pork tenderloin. I opted for the bistro favorite, steak-frites. Unlike an American steak house, French bistros do not offer different cuts. Primier cuts are usually offered at restaurants, a more formal eatery than bistros. But this is why certain cuisine is more highly regarded in terms of skill--how to make less desirable ingredients into great food. The steak at Bouchon was not too tender, more like a flank steak. The problem with lean and chewy meat is that it lacks either the taste (from the fat, like rib-eye) or the tenderness. But the chefs at Bouchon managed to make it as tender as possible while keeping the juice inside. Of course, the sauteed onion (almost mashed, in butter and red wine) definitely helped to enhance the experience.
    I'm not sure if Ming is misspelling or inventing with the word "primier", but works for me either way. Vegetarian moi gives most bistros a miss, but if you're a fan of the Paris cafe scene, this sounds like one more example of how Vegas recreates every other part of the world, which is the point of Ming's post.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Competition in cities: supply or demand 

One of my rules in traveling is a food variation of the "when in Rome..." aphorism: While in Albuquerque, I did not try to eat anything other than New Mexican cuisine. I had three great meals (those are links to the three restaurants) and a couple of darn good ones. Sometimes you get lucky -- there was a little bistro run by a French couple that made an omelet the way I remember Parisian omelets. OTOH, I went to a more American upscale restaurant and found the food mediocre (I'll quickly add that the service was the best of any of the places I went to.) The bread at the French bistro was apparently popular, given the traffic I saw buying it, but what I had was only OK. So where the competition was greatest -- the market for the local cuisine -- the food was best.

Tyler Cowen writing from Portugal says the rest of the restaurant market steers away from anything un-Portuguese. "The biggest mistake here is to try to replicate the kind of seafood meal you might enjoy in the U.S." Works for me, not least of which because I don't like seafood. When I decide to eat American overseas, it's usually because I hanker for something from home. When that happens, I'd rather find a Pizza Hut than Jose's Cafe Americaine.

So I wonder if it's really demand as Joseph Epstein writes in the WSJ today.

Demand has a lot to do with it. By this I don't mean demand as in the old economists' formula of supply and demand. What I mean is that New Yorkers are, and always have been, more demanding than any other Americans when it comes to what they eat. Years ago, when I worked in New York, I used occasionally to grab a quick lunch at a luncheonette, as they were then called, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 15th Street. The place had no tables, only a long counter, so that one could hear other people's orders. I recall vividly the extraordinary specificity of customers' requests.

"I want a sardine sandwich, on rye, lightly toasted, with a very thin slice of onion -- last time the slice was a little too thick -- with a gentle rinse of lemon between the onion and the sardines. Pickle on a separate plate."

New Yorkers tend to order food as if they are spoiled children dining in their mothers' kitchens. They demand excellent service, which includes accommodation for their idiosyncrasies (that pickle on the separate plate). If they do not get what they want, they howl, return food, do not return to the restaurant, and verbally torch the place. If you open a restaurant in New York, you had better be good, or you will soon be gone.

There is something to demanding customers, certainly -- this reminds me of comments about the Chicago Cubs or the Golden State Warriors sucking because their fans are easily pleased -- but New York food is good because you have options, and a way to keep the other options nearby. Unlike the other cities Epstein names, New York restaurants are near each other; you can easily go from one to the next if a restaurant disappoints you. In Albuquerque, we were at the mercy of hosts and hostesses who fortunately showed us a good time, but there are several options in Old Town that you could pick from. In Santa Fe, that nearness of restaurants is similar to New York's.

I have sometimes violated the rule (a famous weekend in Yerevan, Armenia, where I went to a Russian and an Indian restaurant on consecutive nights and missed Barbeque Street) but usually feel the choice was a bad one. When in Rome, eat Italian!

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

What I wouldn't give for more educated churches 

An article in this morning's local paper describes three bits of "food for thought" being discussed at a local church.
One in 10 U.S. households experiences hunger.

A basic North American meal travels 1,500 miles to get to your dinner table.

Research shows that hungry children are more anxious and depressed and less likely to do well in school.

Food and its connection to the community will be the topic of a new study series at a St. Cloud church known for examining complex issues.

�Food for Thought� begins Sunday at First United Methodist Church. It�s open to the public.

This is the fourth study series hosted by the church. Past series have focused on Islam, Christian identity and war.
Let's take those three points separately; they don't hold up well to actual thought:
  1. One in 10 hungry is one of those bits of alarmist garbage you read on liberal websites. Its origins are a USDA report that Robert Rector debunked fifteen months ago.
    In 2006, around two-thirds of food insecure households experienced �low food security,� meaning that these households managed to avoid any disruption or reduction in food intake throughout the year but were forced by financial pressures to reduce �variety in their diets� or rely on a �few basic foods� at various times in the year. According to the USDA, the remaining one-third of food insecure households (around 4 percent of all households) experienced �very low food security,� meaning that at least once in the year their actual intake of food was reduced due to a lack of funds for food purchase. At the extreme, about 1.4 percent of all adults in the U.S. went an entire day without eating at least once during 2006 due to lack of funds for food.
    1.4% went an entire day -- this is known by some of us as fasting. If you were a high school wrestler, you may have experienced "very low food security".

  2. How far your meal travels is not an issue as far as hunger is concerned. In fact, the ability of food to travel is a blessing of our modern trading system. That item in and of itself should be an indication that you are talking greenism through the kitchen door and are trying to end the process that has made the world so much wealthier. If we restrict food trade, we're reducing the very "variety in their diets" that is being used to bloat the number of people hungry!

  3. With those two put out of the way, the third point is that hungry kids do less well in school and are more anxious and depressed. True enough, but that tells us nothing of whether this is a problem. Kids forced to listen to soft jazz on the school intercom all day are probably anxious and depressed too, but luckily schools don't do that.
I am often bombarded with such messages in churches (I was raised Methodist, and such messages is only one reason I am no longer.) Whenever I question the pastor or the lay leaders about why they think such things are true, they trot out points like these three without any critical thought whatsoever. On the list of places I wish I could spend more time teaching economics, a seminary would be pretty high in priority. Even in very conservative Protestant denominations (I have very little experience with non-denominational churches, so I won't infer about them) the level of understanding of basic economic principles is parlous. We want people to trade with each other. We want people to eat, but we also want them to trade with each other. Places that trade with each other are less likely to war with each other. Give trade and peace a chance!

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Monday, November 10, 2008

A note on recession on restaurants 

Janet has written that she doesn't think a recession is happening. I will say I disagree, and you can see several posts below that make that point. However, there has not been an official call of a recession, and until there is you can have this debate -- I just think Janet is in a very small minority here. As CNN noted on Friday, to Janet's point, there's a big difference between the low- and high-end restaurants. I have no idea which places Janet and her husband went to. I had thought the high-end Ruth's Chris type places would survive this thing, and that only the mid-range places like Red Robin or CPK would get hurt. It might move up the ladder, though. Places that rely on lunch business from workers are also going to get hurt. Speaking of which, off to Panera.
Update by Janet, Nov. 10, 5:22: I know King is an economist, a very good one. He's the guru and analyst - I go by what I see, so we will differ. For the record, the four restaurants were: Perkins, Champps, Red Lobster and The Lexington - the first three are mid-range; the last one, top.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Tipping and inflation 

My colleague Orn Bodvarsson is quoted in a WSJ article on tipping.
Orn Bodvarsson, an economics professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota who has researched tipping, says tipping encourages special service. Thus, employers like retailers and airlines that want uniform service often ban or discourage tipping. "If people are handing out better tips, it encourages some people to get better service than others," he says.

OK, I can understand that. So why don't we tip doctors, since medicine is an area in which specialized service can make a huge difference? One reason, says Dr. Bodvarsson, is that "you don't know how well the medical doctor has performed the service until later."

Then there are jobs where tipping has only taken hold in recent years. Take people working at a takeout counter. Tipping used to be rare. Now the tip jar is pretty standard, though many customers ignore it.

Dr. Bodvarsson theorizes it's because wages in many of these jobs haven't kept up with inflation. In essence, the employer, rather than raising salaries, is allowing customers to pay compensation directly to workers.
Much of Orn's research can be found here. I have an alternative explanation for tipping at takeout windows: Part of my tip to a server is solving a principal-agent issue between the server and the cook. (#1 son is a cook; his #1 problem at previous jobs wasn't the chef or manager but crabby waitstaff. Currently he has the nicest waitstaff I've ever met.) We get more out of take-out windows now, and so more agency issues.

However, about the doctor: The Mongolian BBQ place in town has two tipping opportunities: There's a jar by the end of the line when you receive your grilled food, and another for the server (who has brought drinks, cleared plates and upsold you a dessert you shouldn't have ordered.) I tip both folks -- usually a buck or two for the grill guy, another buck or two for the server. Yet I don't know how good the food is when I tip the grill guy, because I haven't tasted it yet! So why am I tipping him?

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Egg probes 

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Federal prosecutors have opened separate criminal probes into possible price-fixing by major egg producers and California tomato processors, the latest in a series of U.S. investigations of alleged collusion in food and agriculture.

The investigations, which have not been previously reported, add to concerns that beyond the rising cost of fuel and feed, a hidden factor may be driving food prices higher: collusion among farmers, food processors or exporters.

...The Justice Department wouldn't disclose how it believes processors manipulated the prices of egg products. There's no indication that the department is looking into the larger market for fresh eggs, where prices have increased more than 40% in a year.

But producers of fresh eggs have coordinated their efforts to raise prices, according to industry participants and a Wall Street Journal review of industry documents.

Fresh-egg farmers acted together through a series of export shipments, organized by United Egg Producers, an industry cartel whose 250-plus members include virtually all of the nation's big egg producers. By removing a small fraction of eggs that would have been bound for U.S. sales and arranging instead for their export, United Egg helped tighten domestic supply and drive up the price of eggs across the country, according to newsletters and other documents that United Egg sent to its members.

After three years without significant exports, United Egg shipped nearly 100 container loads, or 24 million dozen fresh eggs, to Europe and the Middle East at the end of 2006 and early 2007, industry participants say. Each member was required to provide a share of the sale, prorated by flock size. The orders were sold at below the prevailing U.S. price for fresh eggs, United Egg said.

Two Minnesota producers are included in the investigation.

Golden Oval Eggs and Michael Foods � noted in filings with the SEC this spring that they had been subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney�s Office in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The subpoenas requested documents for the period between Jan. 1, 2002 through March 27, 2008 relating �primarily to the pricing, marketing, and sales of our egg products,� both companies wrote in their 10-Q filings.
Farmers have always had scope to engage in coordination of marketing through a series of antitrust exemptions. Interesting that the Bush Administration is choosing to test how far those exemptions go.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Cheeseburgers and candy bars 

I meant to blog this yesterday, forgot, but Mark Perry reminded me. The question is: Can you break the buck and still call it a Dollar Menu? (Second link for WSJ subscribers; see Mark's link if you're not.)
McDonald's Corp. is testing modifications to its popular $1 double cheeseburger, and higher prices for the sandwich, as it prepares to change its Dollar Menu by next year.

In an interview, Don Thompson, president of McDonald's U.S. business, said the company has tested ways to make the burger less expensive to make. Some restaurants are selling it with one slice of cheese instead of two, and billing it as a "double hamburger with cheese." Others are offering a double hamburger without cheese. Some are selling the traditional double cheeseburger at prices ranging from $1.09 to $1.19.

...Launched in 2003, the Dollar Menu has been a key driver of sales at McDonald's 14,000 U.S. restaurants and has helped it ride out dips in consumer spending. But recently, franchisees have complained that the menu has brought too much unprofitable traffic into their restaurants.

The biggest question for the eight-item menu is what to do with the double cheeseburger, considered its anchor. High dairy prices have pushed up the cost of cheese, and McDonald's predicts more pressure because its beef costs will be higher this year. Mr. Thompson said if McDonald's moves the double cheeseburger off that menu, there would still be some type of $1 burger.

Shrinking the cheese, burger and/or bun -- which is the item that has risen most in price percentage-wise, though the second slice of cheese is the best chance to have McDonalds adopt the candy bar inflation strategy of hiding its price increase. 14% of McDonalds sales receipts come from Dollar Menu purchases (and a lot more of its traffic, assuming those purchasing from the Dollar Menu have a smaller ticket than those that do not.) Following Don Lloyd's argument, the value of the second slice of cheese is probably pretty small, and the transaction cost of creating smaller burgers and buns relatively large, so dumping the second slice seems the most rational strategy. But at some point in the past the value of the second slice to the consumer was greater than its cost to McDonalds (otherwise Mickey D's been wasting money and you've been consuming wasteful calories!) so how does a 6.6% increase in cheese prices move us over the line? Do we believe that?

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Reserve my table 

One of my pleasures in life is a TV that pretty much is my own. This is because of sports; I watch them pretty constantly, and when there's nothing good on there's Law and Order (or, in the summer, Burn Notice, the second season opening of which last night was a little less than hoped for.) That's pretty much all I watch. But many of us in the department are foodies, and both #1 Son and my sister are chefs (I use the term liberally with respect to #1, but a father must have his pride.) So food shows are viewed as well. I don't like the contest shows except for Iron Chef (not ICAmerica, which is a poor substitute.) But I confess a supreme love for Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, a combo travel-cooking show that blends my two favorite things -- travel to strange places, eat good food wherever.

He blogs from time to time, and today added a new place to the list of places I want to travel: Colombia.
In a world where the bad guys seem to win with a relentless regularity, and where even the presumed good guys appear, usually, to be their own worst enemies, it's really gratifying to see things get so dramatically better somewhere--especially a place where at one time, it really and truly looked hopeless. It is inspiring, when you've gotten used to the notion that some problems probably won't ever be fixed in your lifetime, to see some of the very worst kind of seemingly insurmountable problems so quickly and effectively improve. When you see a real change in the conditions and in the human hearts of a place where just a few short years ago, one neighbor couldn't walk twenty yards over without risking death from another, where drug cartels recruited their murderous young footsoldiers by the hundreds, where even the police feared to tread--it makes one hopeful again--about the whole world.

Colombia. Vacation Wonderland? Yes. Absolutely. ...

What you might not know about Colombia is that it's beautiful. That the food is really good--with the same kind of fantastic mix of African, European and indigenous influences that makes Brazilian cuisine so interesting and vibrant. That they actually like Americans down there.

It was against this backdrop of bubbly goodwill, that I watched Ingrid Betancourt and her fellow hostages freed from captivity a couple of weeks ago--in what appears to be yet another in a series of spectacular and effective strikes against the FARC, a particularly unlovely bunch of hardcore commie/narco-terrorist kidnapper/"guerillas" who've been getting knocked back on their heels in recent years.

On one hand, the government seems to be killing and capturing bad guys with skill and vigor. On the other hand, the local government in Medellin (for instance) has been improving transportation and social services for the working poor--and throwing an incredible FORTY percent of total budget at education. It looks and feels like a working combination.
My passport has no stamps from any Latin American country; Spanish is the one Romance language I have no experience with, and it seems lots of other people travel there; I like places off the beaten path like, say, Mongolia. But most of those places are where, as Tony says, "the presumed good guys appear, usually, to be their own worst enemies." What did it take for Colombia to get so good so fast? Perhaps some of it is Plan Colombia, the controversial strategy between the US and successive Colombian governments to eradicate coca fields. But more of it has been, undoubtedly, the hope of Colombians to participate in a stable trade arrangement with the US and others in FTA. That country's turnaround would be further strengthened by support from the next administration. One candidate traveled to Colombia this month, the other has no such plans. Where the candidates stand on free trade is important not only to the United States, but to its neighbors. And that might make them like us in more places than Colombia.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

More trade, more wine! 

My friend Omer Gokcekus is a very curious economist (and I mean that insofar as he plays in more areas of economics than I do, and that he joined me in an Indian restaurant in Yerevan, Armenia one night -- now that's curious!). He also writes interesting articles, but I don't think he sent me this one before:
Our findings show that globalization has benefited the American wine drinker. We find that there is an overall decrease in the real price of a shopping cart of all 100 wines from year to year. For instance, the real price (in 1988 prices) for the basket of the entire Top 100 list was $4,313 in 1988; $3,132 in 1993; $2,533 in 1999; and $2,421 in 2004. That is nearly a 44% decrease in prices from 1988 to 2004. At the same time, there was no significant change in the quality of the wines on the Top 100 list...

Our econometric analyses show that the decreasing wine price over the past 17 years can be explained by the loss of shares of the Old World countries: Replacing a French wine with a U.S. wine lowers the average real price by 1.0%; an Australian wine by 1.1%; and a wine from non-incumbent countries by 1.5%. To put it differently, replacing an Old World wine (French, Italian, etc.) with a New World wine (US, Australia etc.) lowers the average real price by 1%. Replacing an Old World wine with a New-New World wine (Chile, South Africa etc.) lowers the average real price by 2.5%. The increased presence of newcomers puts significant downward pressure on prices.
h/t: Marginal Revolution. His paper on corruption due in my book this fall will be a highlight.

UPDATE: #1 is a local cook at a number of places, most recently he's been cooking at a local bistro that wants to sell good wine and food. I was invited to stop for coffee yesterday and walked in instead on a wine salesman pouring some samples of his latest ideas. Wines from Spain and Australia -- one of the latter an incredible shiraz -- and only one Old World of the nine we sampled. (Nine, by the way, is too many, but that's another post.) How little time has passed since these wines were almost impossible to get.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

The second law of supply, or, food's too important to leave to government 

The same people who wanted you to use biofuels now are telling you they are bad. The worldwide shortage of food because of demand for a substitute leads to rising prices and, because in the short run you can't grow more rice, runs on rice supplies here and abroad.

I make part of my lecture on supply and demand a "second law of supply". Big shifts in supply or demand will lead to large initial changes in price. Elasticities are always greater in the long-run than the short, as some fixed prices become variable and some investment opportunities take time to build. When Ed Morrissey says,
Perhaps turning food into transportation fuel would make sense if massive amounts of grain spoiled every year from a lack of demand...
he's only half right. All surpluses are eliminated by falling prices, and all shortages are eliminated by rising prices, in a free market. The grain will spoil for one year, and then we grow less grain.

'Tis from this logic that the theory of cobweb cycles grew in the 1940s. Cobweb cycles make sense as a theory for the movement of corn prices if two conditions apply: There's a significant lag between the decision to produce and the delivery of the product (true for most agricultural products) and supply decisions are based on current prices. Of course, corn has a futures market. At the time of this writing, the spot price for corn was $5.77 but the price for delivery in December 08 is $6.07. That price is driving the decision to plant X acres as corn, valued in comparison to the prices of soybeans, wheat, and whatever else you might grow on that land. What happens after about June 15 to that market doesn't matter so much, as most corn is already in the ground by then in the Northern Hemisphere.

It is also interesting to note that, while the price of corn futures rises steadily, the price of ethanol futures declines as we go to more distant dates on the contract. The rising price of corn induces more corn into the market, which creates more ethanol and reduces its price. Prices adjust in the long run back towards the initial price. Far better than the Terror for allocating goods and services.

Ed continues:
Farmers love the higher prices that come from the new demand to fill gas tanks, but higher prices have consequences for poorer nations that have just begun to be felt. Morally speaking, shouldn�t we feed people before we feed cars?
Esther Duflo is also arguing that we need price insurance for the world's poor.
The traditional method used by developing country governments � maintaining large stockpiles of grain by buying when the price is low and selling when the price is high � has its share of problems. In India, it was said that at some point that there were enough bags of rice in those storage facilities to go to the moon and back. The losses in storage and to corruption were important. Alternatively, the governments can manipulate prices using taxes and subsidies. Or perhaps it is time to be creative and make the international financial services actually work for the poor: governments could provide price insurance for the poor (in the form of transfers to some when price are high, and others when price are low). Countries that are neither net sellers nor net buyers could do this internally, and countries that are either net sellers or net buyers should be able to sell this insurance on the world market.
But isn't this what speculators do? We have seen what public insurance in financial markets does: We get too-big-to-fail. We get political pressure overriding contracts and even the law, letting banks and brokerage houses skirt financial regulation because it would be too disruptive to let them fail. Should we trust those same mechanisms with our food?

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Why �News�papers Have Lost Former Subscribers Like Us 

Hunger Stalks Millions of Poor Americans blares the headline in the Financial Times of London. The article itself, however, turns out to be a combination of rank speculation and advocacy journalism for more welfare spending, triggered by pending congressional consideration of the farm bill.

The real story behind the farm bill, of course, is this astonishing observation by Ronald Bailey:
The amount of food being burned because of government mandates and subsidies for biofuels would feed nearly 450 million people. [My paraphrase]
That�s right, folks. We could feed every person on the entire North American continent with the food we burn because of well-intentioned but foolish government intervention in agricultural markets.

Over at National Review Online, Deroy Murdock notes the resulting Global Food Riots: Made in Washington, DC occurring in such places as Haiti, Mexico, Egypt, Pakistan and the Ivory Coast. His excellent article pulls together a wide range of relevant factual information on the biofuels mess, linked to the sources.

Contrast the opening sentences of the FT story:
An escalating global food crisis could bring the problem of hunger home to the US and other developed countries. Millions of poor Americans risk going hungry if food prices continue to rise and food agencies struggle to cope with rising costs, dwindling resources and a huge increase in demand. Already more and more poor people in the US are turning to charity and government assistance as they struggle with rising food costs and soaring fuel bills.
The only factual information here is that the US has a social safety net, consisting of a variety of government programs and private charities that help poor people with food, fuel bills and similar problems. Food prices are up, and the social safety net appears to be doing what it is supposed to do. The rest is speculation.

All of the remainder of the FT article consists of quotes from �campaigners� who seek �to broaden eligibility for food stamps and increase emergency food provision�: the California Women Infants and Children Program Association, the Food Research and Action Center, the Cleveland Food Bank, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, America�s Second Harvest, and Martha�s Table.

It is neither news nor interesting analyis that such organizations want more of our tax dollars devoted to their government rent-seeking activities.

We used to subscribe to the Financial Times, the Economist, Scientific American and National Geographic, all of which once consistently published excellent material with analysis based on well-sourced facts. We watched with dismay as each began to devote more and more of their limited resources to shallow advocacy pieces like this. We canceled our subscriptions, one by one, with regret.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Globalization and food 

My colleague Ming Lo has been posting while traveling to Hong Kong and Macau, and reports on a food court in HK:
Culture that represents modernity inspires people in the rest of the world to follow its path. Sadly, these disciples have often chosen to copy the superficial quality of the modern leaders. There may be twenty factors that contributed to the success of the United States. MTV and baggy pants are not one of them. To understand and to learn the true ingredients of success is hard. To buy the lifestyle of citizens of the modern world is relatively easy. Such is the unification of the low culture, an unnessary yet inevitable product of economic globalization.

The last frontier that is resisting this process is cuisine. History and geography has dictated what we prefer to put into our mouth. True, MacDonald and Pizza Hut have evaded much of the space in the second world (Europe) and the third world (the rest). But in most cases, they only add to the existing heterogeneity.

Today, in a upscaled mall in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong, I ate in a food court that featured Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Italian cuisine. And mind you, this is not a unique phenomenon, not a single observation point. No matter how alike we dress, food is where people disagree.
I think there's less disagreement than Ming believes. As I mentioned in a comment, there are many kinds of such places around the world, often placed by emigres to these places (my favorite being the Vietnamese family who had fled to America, and then were lured by their daughter to set up a Viet-Thai restaurant in Budapest because they loved that city.) People don't disagree about food, they value heterogeneity.

Indeed, in travel and at home what we value is what we are served. Sometimes we want food fast, or we want to experience "typical American life". When I ate at a Pizza Hut in Cairo I would see many average Egyptians there. When I ate in the food court at the Hyatt, the Egyptians there were mostly of upper income levels. Prices matched this. When I travel in business or first class, the type of service I get from international airlines differs greatly from that which I get from local. American business flyers want space for their laptops; they work on the plane. So perhaps the quality of the service isn't that big a deal. When in Europe or particularly Asia, the travelers more often read and relax, so service quality has a higher value.
Markets are efficient at providing to each group that which they value more. Prices adjust -- I have always wanted to know on what price scale they measured these bundles of food eaten around the world -- and diets adapt. But we value means to extremes, and we value both heterogeneity and consistency. These are improved as we trade more.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Actually, I get this 

Angus is really upset about Mike Huckabee's restaurant choices. What kind of guy wants to go Olive Garden or T.G.I.Friday's when he's eating in Manhattan on someone else's dime?

I can answer that: In my five years as a vegan who travels (in the first half of the nineties) I had a list in my head of restaurant chains and what they had that I could eat on my diet. Now I'm sure there are hundreds of restaurants that have better menus than the OG, but suppose I am sitting down to interview in one and scan the menu and find they do not have anything on it that is vegan. I am also trying to project myself in the interview as a guy who's a little aw-shucks, not pretentious, not a pain in the posterior. Do I want to take time reviewing some options the chef MIGHT cook for my fussy self?

Not that I'm a fan of the Huckster, but I can understand why he might look for a chain restaurant while traveling.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Starvation in a land of plenty 

I recall (can't find the story right now) that there was once a poll in the new Russia of 1992 or 1993. The question was whether you would rather have shops with goods that you didn't have enough money to buy, or would rather have money but nothing in the shops to buy. Of course, the former won handily -- getting money was something you controlled, goods in the shops was something you had no control over.

Venezuelans are getting both and neither, simultaneously.
President Hugo Chavez's government is trying to cope with shortages of some foods, and the lines at state-run "Megamercal" street markets show many Venezuelans are willing to wait for hours to snap up a handful of products they seldom find in supermarkets.

"You have to get in line and you have to be lucky," said Maria Fernandez, a 64-year-old housewife who was trying to buy milk and chicken on Sunday.

The lines for basic foods at subsidized prices are paradoxical for an oil-rich nation that in many ways is a land of plenty. Shopping malls are bustling, new car sales are booming and privately owned supermarkets are stocked with American potato chips, French wines and Swiss Gruyere cheese.

Yet other foods covered by price controls � eggs, chicken � periodically are hard to find in supermarkets. Fresh milk has become a luxury, and even baby formula is scarcer nowadays.

The shortages are prompting some Venezuelans to question Chavez's economic policies while he campaigns for constitutional changes that, if approved in a Dec. 2 referendum, would let him run for re-election indefinitely.
Perhaps ol Hugo could look at what good price controls have done for Zimbabwe.

The government says it now has to import leg of pork "because local suppliers declined to participate." This is, they say, political. So too is starvation.

(h/t: Angus at KPC)

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Why wouldn't this be true? 

This makes perfect sense to me:
According to Chinese Restaurant News, there are nearly 41,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, three times the number of McDonalds franchise units, and more than the number of McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King franchises combined!
If you run a franchised outfit, in order to make profits you have to limit entry. Franchisers will make money by providing exclusivity, so of course the number of Chinese restaurants will be larger.

Mrs. S and I were driving out to LA once, and laid up for the night at a half-decent hotel outside Ogalalla, NE. One of the tricks of traveling as vegetarians in America is to know where all the Indian and Chinese restaurants are. We ate at this place, which looked pretty iffy from the outside. I recall the food being only so-so, no better than most St. Cloud Chinese, but given the options in western Nebraska...

You wonder how that place ended up there.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Another victim of ethanol 

Your Thanksgiving dinner:
The rising cost of oil and other utilities, combined with an explosion in the cost of corn feed, has increased the cost of raising a turkey by as much 35 percent and costing the industry more than a half-billion dollars.

Those increases haven't gone unnoticed in MetroWest.

"Oh, yeah, big time," Gerard Farms owner Mike Gerard said yesterday when asked if he has seen an increase in feed costs. "I'm paying 20 percent more for turkey this year than I paid last year."

Naturally, that increase has led to customers seeing higher prices.

Last year, Gerard said, the price of a roasted turkey with stuffing and gravy at the Framingham farm was $3.19 per pound. This year, it's jumped to $3.39. The price for fresh, uncooked turkey has increased even more, from $2.29 last year to $2.59 today.

For a 15-pound bird, which should serve about 10 people, that adds up to an increase of only between $3 to $4.50 a turkey.

...With many growers switching to the more profitable corn for ethanol, turkey farmers are trying to cope with a one-two punch of increasing corn prices and decreased soybean production.

According to some estimates, the higher prices translate to about an 8 cent increase per pound, per turkey, or about a 35 percent increase in the cost of raising just one bird.

The decline in soy production has also hurt us vegetarians. Tofurkey is made of course with soybeans, so that price is also rising. The roast itself was $10-$12 for a26 ounce piece with stuffing included five years ago. You seldom see them under $20 nowadays.

This just another part of what John LaPlante calls The Dark Side of Ethanol.

(h/t: Mark Perry, who suggests you hedge your food bill with ADM purchases.)

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Hurry up and eat 

Mark Steckbeck answers the reasons why restaurants play loud music and run the air conditioning down to 60 degrees.
A restaurant ties two goods together and then charges you one price. You pay for the food and they give you a free place to sit down and eat. (It makes you wonder where the D.O. J.'s Antitrust Division is since Microsoft.) The restaurant makes only so much money from each table of patrons and relies on continuous turnover to keep the money coming in.

So the goal of the restaurant is to make you just comfortable enough that you enjoy the restaurant but not enough to keep you hanging around.
This of course ties in to my Panera discussion from Wednesday -- where, I'm happy to report, the restaurant has gone back to discounting the coffee for those with travel mugs. The net price change for coffee, bagel and cream cheese with your own mug is now about 12% vs. 28% before.

Steckbeck suggests trying to prove his point by saying to the server who asks if you need anything else "Yes, some peace and quiet. We're going to visit awhile." My mother-in-law used to go out to Perkins with three other older women, buy coffee and a roll and have a long chat. The manager eventually brought out an egg timer. They never returned.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

From my cold, dead hands 

I draw the line at popcorn.

A fondness for microwave buttered popcorn may have led a 53-year-old Colorado man to develop a serious lung condition that until now has been found only in people working in popcorn plants.

Lung specialists and even a top industry official say the case, the first of its kind, raises serious concerns about the safety of microwave butter-flavored popcorn. ...

Exposure to synthetic butter in food production and flavoring plants has been linked to hundreds of cases of workers whose lungs have been damaged or destroyed. Diacetyl is found naturally in milk, cheese, butter and other products.

Heated diacetyl becomes a vapor and, when inhaled over a long period of time, seems to lead the small airways in the lungs to become swollen and scarred. Sufferers can breathe in deeply, but they have difficulty exhaling. The severe form of the disease is called bronchiolitis obliterans or �popcorn workers� lung,� which can be fatal.

Dr. Cecile Rose, director of the occupational disease clinical programs at National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, said that she first saw the Colorado man in February after another doctor could not figure out what was causing his distress. Dr. Rose described the case in a recent letter to government agencies.

A furniture salesman, the man was becoming increasingly short of breath. He had never smoked and was overweight. His illness had been diagnosed as hypersensitivity pneumonitis, an inflammation of the lungs usually caused by chronic exposure to bacteria, mold or dust. Farmers and bird enthusiasts are frequent sufferers.

But nothing in the Colorado man�s history suggested that he was breathing in excessive amounts of mold or bird droppings, Dr. Rose said. She has consulted to flavorings manufacturers for years about �popcorn workers� lung,� and said that something about the man�s tests appeared similar to those of the workers.

�I said to him, �This is a very weird question, but bear with me. But are you around a lot of popcorn?� � Dr. Rose asked. �His jaw dropped and he said, �How could you possibly know that about me? I am Mr. Popcorn. I love popcorn.� �

The man told Dr. Rose that he had eaten microwave popcorn at least twice a day for more than 10 years.

I was recently diagnosed with an ulcer in my esophagus, which has put me out of commission a few times from blogging or speaking, but has been treated well with medicine (so far). I have had to cut back to one of those mini-bags and move up my popcorn to earlier in the evening. But take it away from me, after I've consumed one (not two) bags at least as long as Mr. Popcorn here? I travel; I know how to sneak the stuff in my suitcase; I will not be denied.


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

I'm not the least bit surprised 

Most economists wouldn't be by this story (from WSJ, subscribers' link)

While it's true that a frozen lasagna dish is usually faster to make than homemade lasagna, researchers from the University of California-Los Angeles wanted to find out how convenience foods are used in the real world. After they videotaped family cooking habits, the researchers saw that convenience foods weren't used as a time-saving substitute for the same dish made from scratch. Instead packaged foods offered a way for families to eat more elaborate meals than they would normally have time to prepare.

When families did cook from scratch, they ate simpler fare -- like one-pot meals or stir-fry. In the end, dinner took about a half-hour to an hour to prepare, whether it was made from scratch or with convenience foods, according to the research, which was published in the July issue of the British Food Journal and funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a nonprofit group that funds science, economic and other research.

Says anthropology researcher Margaret Beck from the Center on Everyday Lives of Families at UCLA, "When people use convenience foods, they are ramping up expectations for how elaborate a dinner should be."

...The study showed that meals with little or no convenience foods took 26 to 93 minutes to prepare. Meals that used a lot of convenience foods took 25 to 73 minutes to prepare. While convenience foods were time-savers on very elaborate meals, overall, there was no statistically significant difference in total preparation time.

One difference that emerged was "hands on" time -- the amount of time people spent slicing, dicing and stirring foods. Using convenience foods shaved about 10 minutes of hands-on time, but it didn't make any difference in how quickly the food got to the table.

The anthropologists assume that what you want to consume is time or a particular dish. What you are really purchasing, though, is a meal and family time. A more elaborate meal allows more time to talk; it keeps the kids at the table. And ten minutes without hands on the food is ten minutes to talk, play with your children, start your email, or what have you.

There is no reason why convenience food should be a substitute rather than a complement to food prepared from scratch.

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