Tag Archives: Food and Drink

Are The Trendy Shallow?

A lot of the press on Tyler’s new book has focused on his suggestion to avoid restaurants with pretty women:

Beware the Beautiful, Laughing Women

When I’m out looking for food, and I come across a restaurant where the patrons are laughing and smiling and appear very sociable, I become wary. … Many restaurants, especially in downtown urban areas, fill seats—and charge high prices—by creating social scenes for drinking, dating, and carousing. They’re not using the food to draw in their customers. The food in most of these places is “not bad,” because the restaurant needs to maintain a trendy image. … I also start to worry if many women in a restaurant are beautiful in a trendy or stylish way. The point is not that beautiful women have bad taste in food. Instead, the problem is that they will attract a lot of men to the restaurant, whether or not the place serves excellent food. And that allows the restaurant to cut back on the quality of the food. … When you enter a restaurant, you don’t want to see expressions of disgust on the diners’ faces, but you do want to see a certain seriousness of purpose. … This review on Zagat.com says it all:

One of my favorite places in DC—awesome lounge, great decor, and food is delicious.

At least they got the order straight and put the food last. (more)

Matt thought he disagreed, but Tyler clarified. It seems to me that people focus on this issue because it is a veiled insult. Chuck Rudd says it more directly:

Initially, I rebelled against Cowen’s implication that men have unrefined palates or that they just don’t care about food quality. I don’t want to make some sort of gender issue out of it, but his argument implies that these trend-seeking women’s palates are unrefined as well. (more)

Notice that the claim is that places with more pretty women cut back on food quality, but not on decor, location, or service quality. So it isn’t that places just generically slack off when they are more popular. It must instead be that pretty trendy people, compared to other people, can less distinguish or less care about food quality, relative to other types of quality. And since food quality seems harder to observe that decor, service, etc. quality, the implication is that pretty trendy people are more shallow, i.e., less discerning about or interested in harder to observe qualities.

Sounds plausible, though, since I don’t get many offers to hang out with pretty trendy people, I don’t have first hand evidence one way or the other. I’m open to chances to collect evidence though. You know, in case any of you pretty trendy people have a slot open …

Note that Tyler probably got more attention for a veiled insult than if he had insulted directly. Homo hypocritus delights in indirectly jockeying for status and support.

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The Costs Of Savoring

Life has many pleasures, like tasty food, soft sheets, the smell of spring, sunlight through leaves, the touch of skin, the sound of a sweet song, etc. And the quality of these experiences vary with the quality of inputs — how much one pays for good food, sheets, etc., and how much one studies which inputs give the best value per price.

But honestly, for me the biggest factor influencing how much pleasure I get from these experiences is how much I pay attention. I can get great pleasure out of most foods if I simply stop for a moment and focus all my attention on that food as I eat it. The pleasure of food in a medium budget meal savored is more than from a top budget meal when distracted thinking or talking, etc. Similarly, a pleasant office window view doesn’t offer nearly as much pleasure when one is focused on a computer screen.

Yet knowing this, I do not actually spend that much time savoring my food, caressing my sheets, or gazing out my office window. I am often happily in my own head thinking, or focused on what other folks are saying. I mostly prefer those mental pleasures to food, etc. While I could learn more about what foods are tastiest, or what window treatments will make my room sparkle, I usually prefer to invest that time learning about what ideas are interesting, important, and neglected.

I also notice an internal reluctance to savor things that others I know consider to be of only moderate quality. By judging those things good enough to open myself to them, to let their feelings rule me for a moment, it feels like I am accepting a lower status position. After all, if I were higher status, I would insist on only being pleased by higher quality inputs. This may be part of why I prefer intellectual pleasures, since I have invested enough there, building on high innate skills, to be able to honestly say that my inputs are of a high quality, relative to inputs available to others.

Time is my key resource. With more time I can better savor my experiences, which usually offers me more pleasure than buying expensive inputs, or researching where to get good inputs cheap. Even if I don’t savor as often as I could, for fear of lowering my status. Money is mainly useful to me as a way to buy more time, and inputs into the intellectual pleasures which are my main focus. I love to savor the sweet taste of an insight acquired, and explained. Like right now – aaah. :)

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Farm vs Pet Medicine

We now spend a huge fraction of income on medicine. Today the US spends ~18% of GDP on medicine, while in 1940 we spent ~4%. Why the huge increase?

A supply explanation is that doctors have invented lots of new useful treatments. A demand explanation, in contrast, is that we want more medicine as we get richer, either because we care more about health, or about showing that we care.

One way to distinguish supply vs. demand explanations is to look at farm vs. pet animal medicine. Both kinds of animal medicine are treated similarly by most supply changes – new medical treatments help both kinds of animals. But most demand changes treat them differently – farm animals today aren’t that much more valuable than they were long ago, but we treat our pets as if they were far more valuable.

While I can’t find good historical data, what I do find suggests we’ve seen a huge switch in animal medicine, from a focus on food animals to a focus on pets. On recent pet med spending increases:

The average household in the U.S. spent $655 on routine doctor and surgical visits for dogs last year, up 47% from a decade ago, according to the American Pet Products Association. Expenditures for cats soared 73% over the same time frame—on pace with human health-care cost increases. Expenditures for people in the U.S. were up 76.7% between 1999 and 2009, according to the U. S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. (more)

On vets long ago:

Very early veterinarians were mainly concerned with the care of livestock and horses and mules. … Prior to World War II, very few people would consider paying more than a token amount for the medical care of their pets any more than the average person today would consider taking an injured chipmunk to the vet. (more)

On the focus of US vets in 2011:

Food animal exclusive 1.8%; Food animal predominant 6.0%; Mixed animal 6.8%; Companion animal predominant 9.7%; Companion animal exclusive 67.2%; Equine 6.0%. (more)

Thus much, perhaps most, of the rise in animal med spending is a demand effect. More careful data analysis might give a more precise estimate.

Now pets probably live to be older than farm animals, so a supply shock mainly relevant for older animals might explain an increase of pet med relative to farm animal med. But that seems pretty unlikely to be the main thing going on here.

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Japan’s Fat Tax

This has been going on for three years, yet I just learned of it:

In 2008, Japan’s Ministry of Health passed the ‘metabo’ law and declared war against obesity. …

Japanese people are normally envied for their lean physiques. In fact, the OECD ranks them, with only 3% population obesity, one of the least obese developed countries. … Comparing the time periods 1976-1980 and 1996-2000, prevalence of obese boys and girls increased from 6.1% and 7.1% to 11.1% and 10.2%. …

The law mandates that local governments and employers add a waist measurement test to the annual mandatory check up of 40-75 year olds. For men and women who fail the test and exceed the maximum allowed waist length of 33.5 and 35.4 inches, they are required to attend a combination of counseling sessions, monitoring through phone and email correspondence, and motivational support. …

Employers or local government … are required to ensure a minimum of 65% participation, with an overall goal to cut the country’s obesity rates by 25% by year 2015. Failure to meet these goals results in fines of almost 10% of current health payments. (more)

Even before Japanese lawmakers set the waistline limits last year, the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) amended its recommended guidelines for the Japanese. The new IDF standard is 90 centimeters (35.4 inches) for men and 80 centimeters (31.5 inches) for women. But the Japanese government has yet to modify its limits. (more; HT Melanie Meng Xue)

Two interesting patterns:

  1. Japanese waist limits are stricter on men, yet since men are taller health-based rules would be stricter on women.
  2. The thinnest rich nation (Japan) passed a big law to make itself thinner just as the biggest medical spending nation (USA) debated a big law (Obamacare) ensuring it would spend more on medicine.

My tentative explanations:

  1. Most societies find it easier to disrespect/mistreat/etc. low status men than low status women.
  2. National policy is more about reaffirming and supporting symbols of national pride than about addressing national needs. The USA is proud of its medicine and Japan is proud of its thinness.

Note that that if you want to regulate health it makes far more sense to regulate weight than medicine, since weight is far more related to health than medicine.

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Alcohol As Placebo

A week ago I had dinner with a respected drug policy expert who disapproves of drug legalization because he sees big negative externalities from alcohol use, and expects legalizing other drugs to make that worse. Which makes some sense. But the picture changes once one realizes that alcohol’s disruptive effects are mostly in our heads:

We Brits believe that alcohol has magical powers – that it causes us to shed our inhibitions and become aggressive, promiscuous, disorderly and even violent.

But we are wrong. In high doses, alcohol impairs our reaction times, muscle control, co-ordination, short-term memory, perceptual field, cognitive abilities and ability to speak clearly. But it does not cause us selectively to break specific social rules. It does not cause us to say, “Oi, what you lookin’ at?” and start punching each other. Nor does it cause us to say, “Hey babe, fancy a shag?” and start groping each other.

The effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol. There is enormous cross-cultural variation in the way people behave when they drink alcohol. … In … the vast majority of cultures, … drinking is not associated with these undesirable behaviours … Alcohol is just a morally neutral, normal, integral part of ordinary, everyday life – about on a par with, say, coffee or tea. …

This variation cannot be attributed to different levels of consumption. … Instead the variation is clearly related to different cultural beliefs about alcohol. … This basic fact has been proved time and again … in carefully controlled scientific experiments – double-blind, placebos and all. To put it very simply, the experiments show that when people think they are drinking alcohol, they behave according to their cultural beliefs about the behavioural effects of alcohol. …

Those who most strongly believe that alcohol causes aggression are the most likely to become aggressive when they think that they have consumed alcohol. … These experiments show that even when people are very drunk, if they are given an incentive (either financial reward or even just social approval) they are perfectly capable of remaining in complete control of their behaviour – of behaving as though they were totally sober. …

If I were given total power, I could very easily engineer a nation in which coffee would become a huge social problem. … I would restrict access to coffee, thus immediately giving it highly desirable forbidden-fruit status. Then I would issue lots of dire warnings about the dangerously disinhibiting effects of coffee. I would make sure everyone knew that even a mere three cups (six “units”) of coffee “can lead to anti-social, aggressive and violent behaviour”, and sexual promiscuity, thus instantly giving young people a powerful motive to binge-drink double espressos, and a perfect excuse to behave very badly after doing so. (more; HT Rob Wiblin)

Sometimes we want to behave well, and be around others who behave well, and sometimes we want to behave “badly,” and behave around others who behave badly. We also sometimes want to (often hypocritically) signal our disapproval of bad behavior, and pay costs to “do something” about it.

Our culture has coordinated to support all of these options, by coordinating to see alcohol and other “drugs” as inducing bad behavior. Clever eh? While we can signal our disapproval of bad behavior by opposing drugs, including their legalization, it is far less clear how much such actions actually reduce bad behavior. If we completely eliminated the symbolic items by which we now we identify situations where bad behavior is expected and tolerated, I expect we would quickly pick substitute symbols, and continue on with bad behavior. Because the fact is, much as we often want to signal disapproval of bad behavior, we nearly as often really enjoy behaving “badly.”

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Learn From A&P

Law and policy matters for innovation. Sometimes it matters by promoting innovation, and someday I hope we’ll have better intellectual property rights to better promote innovation. But today, and for much of history, law and policy has mattered mostly by hindering innovation. For example:

In a new book, Levinson explains how local mom-and-pop stores — with their limited selections, high prices and nonstandard packaging — paved the way for national chains like the A&P to swoop in and dominate the grocery industry. … “People get misty-eyed at the thought of the independent store — maybe it had some unique product, maybe we had more choices than we have today — but the truth was exactly the opposite.” ….

A&P … opened its first small grocery store in 1912. Unlike traditional mom-and-pop stores, the A&P had no telephone, no credit lines and no delivery options. They also had lower prices. .. “It stocked only items that were fast-sellers. … It had limited hours. It had a single employee. … Within eight years, this approach turned their company into the largest retailer in the world.” … Controlling both the retail store and the supply chain gave the A&P a huge advantage over corner grocery stores because the A&P could run the factories at a lower cost. In addition, the A&P started to bypass wholesalers and go directly to distributors for various products. …

Competitors were not happy. Efforts to limit chain stores grew in the 1920s, when states and localities began passing laws designed to help independent merchants. … “Now, you’ve got these gigantic companies like A&P dominating retailing and wholesaling and not leaving a chance for the average guy. That was the basis of the complaint.”

State laws were passed to force manufacturers to sell to all stores at the same price and to tax merchants with multiple stores in a case. An antitrust suit was also filed against the A&P, claiming that it had become a food monopoly because it controlled all aspects of manufacturing, retailing and wholesaling. But the movement lost steam in the late 1930s, when the economy started to pick up. (more)

A&P introduced major innovations, and was punished for it by the regulatory system. For now, law and policy can most help innovation by getting more out of the way. Whether it will actually do so, however, is far from obvious.

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Nutrition Labels

Requiring food nutrition labels doesn’t get people to eat healthier:

A study of New York City’s pioneering law on posting calories in restaurant chains … tracked customers at four fast-food chains — McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken — in poor neighborhoods of New York City where there are high rates of obesity.  It found that about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards. About 28 percent of those who noticed them said the information had influenced their ordering, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result.  But when the researchers checked receipts afterward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect, in July 2008. (more)

A new study involving the Taco Time fast-food chain in Washington State.  Researchers found that adding calorie counts to restaurant menus had no impact on diners’ choices.  Similar studies in New York City have recently reported conflicting results; some surveys showed that menu labeling led to fewer calories purchased, but others found no difference in meal selection. Researchers are not discouraged by the results, however, noting that providing nutritional and calorie information on menus may still benefit consumers indirectly.  As more local authorities mandate such changes, food vendors are pre-emptively modifying their menus to both lighten existing options and add healthier foods.  (Time 1/31/11, p17)

So the reason to require food nutrition labels is to scare producers into offering healthier food, with the implicit threat that if producers don’t fall into line stricter regulations will soon follow? Really? Seems to me this is more driven by a public opinion unwilling to update on the evidence. Ordinary people think labels should help, so support label laws, and the rest of the policy and political process just falls into line.

Added 31Jan:  A new paper says calorie posting at Starbucks reduced average calories per transaction by 6%.

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Beware Fruits, Veggies?

Time in ’09:

Christopher Ruhm … examined statewide mortality fluctuations in the U.S. between 1972 and 1991 and found that a 1% rise in a state’s unemployment rate led to a 0.6% decrease in total mortality. … In a review of such studies … Stephen Bezruchka … suggests the results could be explained by declines in smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and overeating during recessions as people look for ways to save money.

NBER today:

A higher risk of unemployment is associated with reduced consumption of fruits and vegetables and increased consumption of “unhealthy” foods such as snacks and fast food. … Among individuals predicted to be at highest risk of being unemployed, a one percentage point increase in the resident state’s unemployment rate is associated with … a 2-4% reduction in the frequency of fruits and vegetables consumption, and an 8% reduction in the consumption of salad.

Either we can cross “eat healthier” off the list of possible ways unemployment helps health, or maybe fruits and veggies aren’t as healthy, and fast food as unhealthy, as we suppose.

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Rome As Semi-Foragers

It seems that an “almost” industrial revolution happened around 500BC. For example, this graph of estimated world population shows a population jump then similar to the start of the ~1800 jump. Also, consider this brief history of the Roman Empire:

~5 century BC: Roman civilization is a strong patriarchy, fathers … have absolute authority over the family.
~1 century BC: … Material wealth is astounding, … Romans enjoy the arts … democracy, commerce, science, human rights, animal rights, children rights and women become emancipated. No-fault divorce is enacted, and quickly becomes popular by the end of the century.
~1-2 century AD: … Men refuse to marry and the government tries to revive marriage with a “bachelor tax”, to no avail. … Roman women show little interest in raising their own children and frequently use nannies. The wealth and power of women grows very fast, while men become increasingly demotivated and engage in prostitution and vice. Prostitution and homosexuality become widespread.
~3-4 century AD: … Roman population declines due to below-replacement birth-rate. Vice and massive corruption are rampant. (more; HT Roissy)

Yes this exaggerates, but the key point remains: a sudden burst in productivity and wealth lead to big cultural changes that made the Greek-Roman world and its cultural descendants more forager-like than the rest of the farmer world. These changes helped clear the way for big cultural changes of the industrial revolution.

These cultural changes included not more political egalitarianism, but also more forager like attitudes toward alchohol and mating:

Historically, we find a correlation between the shift from polygyny to monogamy and the growth of alcohol consumption. Cross-culturally we also find that monogamous societies consume more alcohol than polygynous societies in the preindustrial world. … Studies find a positive relationship between alcohol use on the one hand and a more promiscuous and high-risk sexual behavior on the other hand. … The Greek and Roman empires … were the only (and first) to introduce formal monogamy. … Hunting tribes drink more than agricultural and settled tribes. … Hunting tribes … have more monogamous marriage arrangements than agricultural tribes. …

The emergence of socially imposed formal monogamy in Greece coincides with (a) the growth of “chattel slavery” (where men can have sex with female slaves) and (b) the extension of political rights. … The industrial revolution played a key role in the shift from formal to effective monogamy and in the sharp increase of alcohol consumption (more; HT Tyler)

This roughly fits my simple story: forager to farmer and back to forager with industry. The key is to see monogomous marraige as an intermediate form between low-commitment feeling-based forager mating, and wives-as-property-for-live farmer polygamy. Let me explain.

Forager work and mating is more intuitive, less institutional. Mates stay together mainly because they feel like it; there is more an open compeition to seduce mates, and there’s a lot of sneaking around. Foragers drink alchohol when they can, and spontaneous feelings count for more relative to formal commitments. The attitude is more that if you can’t hold her interest, you don’t deserve to keep her. Men show off abilities to obtain resources mainly to signal attractive qualities; most resources acquired must be shared with the rest of the band.

Farmers, in contrast, don’t share much, and are far more unequal in the resources they control, by which they can more directly “buy” wives. Farmer wives so bought are supposed to be committed to their husbands even when they don’t feel like it. Marriage was less about mutal attraction and more about building households and clans. Husbands worry about cheating wives, and so try to limit access and temptations, which includes alchohol. Musicians and artists are also suspect if they excite wives’ passions, which might lead to cheating.

When empires like Greece and Rome achieved sustained periods of prosperity, their elites reverted to more forager-like ways. They had more drinking and art, more egalitarian politics, fertility fell, and [non-slave] mating became more egalitarian and about feelings. If a bit of alchohol was enough to get your wife cheat to on you, well maybe you didn’t deserve her. The Greek-Roman move from polygamy to monogamy was a move in the direction of more forager-like feeling-based mating, though it retained farmer-like lifelong commitment.

The Greeks and Romans became models for Europe when industry made it rich again. In our era, fertility has fallen far, divorce and out-of-wedlock births are common, and alchohol, drugs, and sneaking about are more tolerated. Women need men less for their resources, and choose them more on other grounds. Dropping the lifelong commitment element of marriage, and often the expectation of any sort of marriage commitment, we have moved even further away from farmer wives-as-lifelong-property and toward forager “promiscuity.”

Added: Razib Khan and Jason elaborate.

Added 1Feb: A new study says that in places where marriages are more arranged by parents, there is more mate-guarding. Discouraging alcohol seems a reasonable mate-guarding strategy.

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Meat Philosophy

[We] surveyed several hundred philosophers and non-philosophers on their opinions about various moral issues; we also asked survey respondents to describe their own behavior on those same issues. … The biggest divergences in moral opinion concerned our question about “regularly eating the meat of mammals such as beef and pork”. 60% of ethics professor respondents rated mammal-meat consumption as morally bad, compared to 45% of non-ethicist philosophers and just 19% of non-philosophers. Opinion also divided by gender and age. … Fully 81% of female philosophers born in 1960 or later said it was morally bad to regularly eat the meat of mammals. To put this degree of consensus in perspective, … only 82% of philosophers endorsed non-skeptical realism about the existence of an external world. …

38% of [young female philosophers] reported having eaten the meat of a mammal at their previous evening meal — a rate not statistically different from the 39% reported rate among respondents overall. … Similarly, despite the difference in normative view, there was no statistically detectable difference in the mean age of respondents who said they had eaten the meat of a mammal at their previous evening’s meal. … 78% of those who reported that they never eat mammal meat said eating mammal meat is bad, compared to 32% of those who reported sometimes eating meat. However, it seems that among non-vegetarians there is little if any relationship between normative ethical view and actual meat consumption. (more; HT Stefano Bertolo)

So why, among all the moral issues on which one could be hypocritical, and people which could be hypocritical, is the observed worst case young female philosophers on eating meat?

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