Friday, November 03, 2006

Friday Food Politics: Economist vs. Pollan Edition

Given my utter obsession with alliteration as a stylistic device, I'm going to make food politics my blogging focus on Fridays. The news cycles may not cooperate properly in the long term, but for now this is the plan.

In Slate, Tyler Cowen (George Mason University economist, veteran blogger, and ethnic food lover) critiques Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Cowen's main point:

"He [Pollan] focuses on what is before his eyes but neglects the macro perspective of the economist. He wants to make the costs of various foods transparent, but this is an unattainable ideal, given the interconnectedness of markets. Often the best ways to solve environmental problems are invisible and not available to the consumer in the supermarket aisle. We can tax or regulate offending activities, such as fertilizer runoff or the bad treatment of animals. But we cannot always tell how much environmental evil any given foodstuff contains."
As a self-proclaimed "small-l libertarian" (at least that's what my facebook profile says), I'm generally in favor of correcting market externalities (like pollution) with taxes or similar instruments. (See Greg Mankiw's blog for lots of recent discussion on Pigovian taxes.)

However, I'm not convinced that people would actually make the switch to eating local or humanely raised food even if they had to pay for the associated pollution of industrial food. The added cost wouldn't be that much. (If you had to pay for the congestion you cause when driving to the supermarket, it might be a different story.) And some people also just have bad taste. Pollan's argument is at heart aesthetic, and for someone who likes food it is pretty persuasive.

There's an interesting podcast with Megan McArdle, the guy who founded chowhound, and a behavioral economist/psychologist that I'll need to write more about sometime. They're basically arguing over why people eat chain food. The chowhound guy doesn't get why people eat at the Olive Garden when there are so many great cheap ethnic restaurants around. McArdle argues that people like convenience and don't want to take risks. I personally think it's an information problem that is being solved by review sites like chowhound and by bloggers like yours truly. But more on that another day.

Other commentary on the Cowen article by Megan from Sacramento ("my
absolutist stance is that no one should live in a place that cannot feed its people year round") and megnut (Cowen "raises some interesting points").

UPDATE: Cowen comments on the Tim Harford article I linked to above. Key quote: "
When it comes to the social cost of food, one estimate is that congestion and accidents account for two-thirds of that sum. So maybe you should walk or bike more, but eat what you want, from where you want."

No comments: