It’s a new school year, time to rethink what we teach!
America’s 2008 financial crisis and its consequences led to long, fierce debates over the past decade about what went wrong in the economy, and how what’s taught in economics classes should change. Among professors, the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) plays a big role, and it’s flagship Curriculum of Open-access Resources in Economics (CORE) textbook has been getting a lot of attention this Fall.
Many ideas from INET and CORE are already woven into my teaching, based on their role in the scholarly literature. For example, I have used the Piketty and Saez data on income distribution ever since they first appeared in journal articles, well before the financial crisis. But N238 differs in many ways from standard introductory economics classes. We just had an email exchange among a few Friedman School faculty about this and I am keen to hear what others think it, so I’ll post a few some notes here in hopes of sparking conversation about what’s taught in this class.
First, the innovations brought by INET and CORE aim are about responding to the 2008 recession with more attention to contemporary macroeconomics, regarding a country’s income level (growth and fluctuations) and income distribution (production, employment). In contrast, the focus of our syllabus is entirely on how economics matters for agriculture, food systems and nutrition. Within nutrition we focus mainly on dietary intake, with two whole weeks on details of consumer behavior that are almost entirely omitted from the CORE textbook.
Second, the definition of economics used by INET and CORE is that economists study income flows. Hence the title of their book is “The Economy“. In contrast, the title of our class and of the background textbook we use is “Economics“. The difference is important because we define economics as a method, not a topic. We use economics to study all aspects of agriculture, food and nutrition, including many aspects of individual behavior and social outcomes that do not involve money. Economics is just one of many ways to study these things, which can also be analyzed from other perspectives such as anthropology, sociology, history, or epidemiology. By the end of each semester in N238, students should have a pretty clear sense of the difference between “the economy” (meaning what’s measured as income) and other things that matter for nutrition and can be studied using economics such as gender bias in time use within households, or consumer response to coupons and vouchers, or the impacts of home gardens on diets.
Third, the target audience for INET and CORE is students who really want to study economics as such. The CORE textbook is written in a rather dense, abstract way that does not aim to reach the casual reader. My aim is to teach in way that doesn’t require a textbook at all. Class slides use updated data, and students who want a text for alternative explanations of basic concepts are encouraged to buy an inexpensive older edition. I also point students to the relevant Khan Academy videos. That solves the textbook pricing problem, and allows us to focus throughout the class on customized material about agriculture, food & nutrition.
So… I am keen to hear from anyone interested in curricular issues. Can you see ways to teach economics more effectively, in this or other classes?
If you took the NUTR 238 final exam last week, you’ll know that this year’s questions involved news clippings from the past month’s food policy news, about SNAP restrictions, trade policy, pesticides and monopolies.
Now that class is over, a great to new way to follow these and other stories is via the Tufts library’s new subscription to an daily newsletter from FERN called AgInsider. You can get the daily headlines via email by signing up at thefern.org (scroll down to see link), and if you have a Tufts login you can see the articles here.
For Tufts affiliates, one useful trick is to have your browser redirect the newsletter links to that library subscription. I use this one: http://einaregilsson.com/redirector, for which the configuration is:
https://thefern.org/ag_insider/* https://thefern-org.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/ag_insider/$1 https://thefern.org/ag_insider/xxx → https://thefern-org.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/ag_insider/xxx Main window (address bar)
Among other newsletters my top choices are: for US food news in general, the brilliant New Food Economy’s Weekly Dish; for US food policy news, Politico’s Morning Agriculture (subscription needed for Pro articles only) and Farm Policy News (was subscription only, now free thanks to Univ. of Illinois); for global food issues, the Chicago Council’s weekly Food for Thought news brief.
And if you actually get away from the screen occasionally, I’ll toss in a plug for the podcast revolution: I don’t have a favorite one on food policy – instead I occasionally listen to stuff about food culture, like Gastropod, Sporkful and the Eater Upsell, lots of academic wonkery with Tyler Cowan or LSE lectures, and find many great episodes about food policy issues on Planet Money. Fiction is good too, with great scripted drama like Bronzeville and Homecoming, and yes, music: my beloved Econotunes, and songs that play with food.
A friend who writes for the Financial Times newspaper just published a terrific essay on recent books about economics, and about the applicability of standard methods like what we use in class to real-world choices and policymaking. To read it you’ll need to make yourself an FT login at their website but it’s well worthwhile:
Our TA Rachel Gilbert also pointed out a great NPR story about a famous line of research in economics: “Does studying economics make you selfish?“. The answer is… maybe. In my experience, the problem of selfish “economists” arises when people learn too little economics, rather than too much. By stopping at the introductory stuff, people may never get to adult stage of what real-life economists actually do to improve social outcomes.
Before I came to Tufts, I taught for 18 years at Purdue. When I left, the grad students asked me to a confessional “last lecture” in which I asked what an ethical economics of food would look like. The full text in context is here:
Of course the Friedman School context is very different from Purdue. A first step towards translation would be to search and replace “agricultural economics” with “food economics” — and then find what else should be updated?
Our fifth annual class potluck this week was terrific. We do love our food!
For this year, we were able to schedule the dinner immediately after introducing the idea of optimization in food choice. The class had just completed a data-analysis exercise using the famous least cost diet problem, looking for combinations of foods that just meet daily nutrient needs at lowest total expense.
In NUTR 238 we do the diet problem by hand using spreadsheets, which reveals an amazing fact about food choice: even well-trained nutritionists armed with all the latest data, when asked to solve this problem, consistently choose foods with much more protein and higher cost than humans’ daily requirements. We cannot resist choosing dietary patterns that meet energy needs with expensive protein instead of fat or carbohydrates, and with too much of some nutrients and too little of others. This demonstrates vividly how and why people don’t just count our way to nutrient adequacy. To explain, predict and improve food choices, we need to understand nutrients and then think beyond them to other objectives and constraints.
Putting theory into practice, just for fun our Econ o’Food potluck this year involved prizes for best dishes that might help meet our nutrient needs in any of four different ways:
(1) Frugally, at lowest monetary cost;
(2) Conveniently, with least time needed to prepare and serve;
(3) Sustainably, with least harm to the environment;
(4) Meaningfully, with the most cultural significance for the community.
After much tasting and deep deliberation they decided which lucky students won their share of the world’s favorite treat. The judges explained how everyone’s dishes succeeded at meeting their diverse goals with such panache that I’m not sure about who actually took home the chocolate… which, I suppose, is the point. We’re just starting week 5 of the semester, and have so much more to discover!
by Sheryl Fox
With the upcoming election, examples of economics in action abound. To illustrate one, I will examine Massachusetts Question 4, a proposition to end marijuana prohibition1, which provides an opportunity to use ideas from the third week of class about markets, trade, and taxes.
To start, we might think of a farmer who typically grows tomatoes. If he decides to take part in providing newly legal marijuana to market, he must grow fewer tomatoes. A PPF curve could have the typical bowed out curve because he already has some infrastructure and expertise that’s good for tomatoes and less good for marijuana.
Despite being illegal, there is of course, a market for marijuana. If it were legalized, what might that do to the supply and demand for it? According to an article in Forbes magazine, the current price of marijuana in Massachusetts is $342 per ounce2. Although hard numbers are hard to come by due to the illegal nature of marijuana use, some estimates put the value of the U.S. market at $10-40 billion3. Taking the average of $25 billion and a Massachusetts population of 6.8 million4 compared to a U.S. population of 325 million people5 this translates to a Massachusetts market of $523 million (this is NOT an actual observation, just a rough estimate based on averages), and 1.5 million ounces of marijuana. This gives us the following supply and demand curve:
Now, let’s imagine that the proposition passes and marijuana is legalized. The demand curve will shift up from D1 to D2 as more people want to legally buy marijuana. We then would expect the price to rise to $410 with suppliers willing to sell 2 million ounces, as seen at E2. But growers will likely quickly adjust to this new income opportunity and supply will increase. In Oregon for instance, the price of an ounce is $204. If growers anywhere in the U.S. can send their products to Massachusetts, the equilibrium might drop to this price, and consumption in Massachusetts would increase as seen at E3.
Not surprisingly, the government would be delighted to collect tax on this new source of revenue as they already do for alcohol and cigarettes, and so might increase the price by 30%, as was done in Colorado. The effect of tax is to reduce both production and consumption, with a higher price and a lower quantity than before the addition of the tax. This new price of $265 of which $61 is tax is reflected in area A, which consists of the deadweight that is consumer surplus loss and area B, which consists of the deadweight that is producer surplus loss. One imagines that the deadweight loss will be quite large at a taxation rate of 30% on a good with presumably elastic demand. But profitable nonetheless for the state coffers!
By the time we get to vote on November 8th, our class will have covered many additional economic tools to take this further. For example, my diagrams so far have just one market. How would having a legal market in Massachusetts be affected by smuggling of marijuana from elsewhere? Also, my diagram doesn’t yet have any externalities from marijuana use. We know that alcohol and opioid use cause a lot of collateral damage. Does marijuana use cause similar harm to users’ children, neighbors, employers or other bystanders? Any quick google search provides interesting reading on the topic of the economics of cannabis legalization6,7,8 all which can be seen through an economic lens.
By Cherie Asgeirsson
Last spring I wanted to have a garden, to grow tomatoes. There is nothing better than a fresh juicy, vine-ripened tomato! I have had a garden at our home in the past, but water is increasingly expensive and restricted, and my home garden plot is more shaded this year due to tree growth. Fortunately, my employer has a large fenced plot for community gardens where residents and employees grow vegetables and flowers. The value of unrestricted free water and full sun was too good to pass up. To add to the attractiveness of the venture, I partnered with one of my coworkers to share the cost and work in the garden. How did this turn out? Read on.
In the past, I had decided not to garden at work. It would have meant staying after hours to weed and water, not to mention the 26-mile commute on weekends. The opportunity cost of time away from my family was too high. Now with a grown family and a gardening partner at work, conditions have changed. As my partner and I got to know other workplace gardeners, we found that some lived locally and were willing to water our plot on the weekends. In exchange, we watered their plots during weekday lunch breaks. My gardening partner wanted to plant squash, cucumbers, watermelons and herbs, while I wanted the tomatoes. The differences among us created gains from trade, and an equilibrium through which each of us could go further towards our goals. Principles of economics were in play!
The garden area at work sits by wooded conservation land. It has a fence around it to keep out rabbits, gophers and woodchucks that have been known to help themselves to crops in years past. We planted crops that had no history of being eaten by the aforementioned creatures. In early June we composted and planted the young plants, surrounding the tomatoes with cages to support their soon-to-be heavy vines. We watered our garden watching the Yellow Gold Cherry; Ensalada and Black Krim tomatoes and other plants grow quickly with abundant sun and water. Blossoms developed, we could taste the fruit to come. Squash and cucumber vines stretched their tendrils out, running over the black weed covering. The basil reached up into the sky. We were on course for a bumper crop, but…
We had plenty of well water to irrigate the garden, and yet this summer’s low rainfall affected us indirectly: animals were desperate for moisture and food. Who knew that deer could scale the five-foot high fence? We noticed many young shoots eaten to the quick. Blossoms were there one day and gone the next! Almost-ripe tomatoes and cucumbers had small bites taken out of them! Local farmers too reported grazing deer—something they have never experienced before.
Although much of our work ended up feeding the deer, I am glad to have done this gardening at work. In the end we harvested enough tomatoes and cucumbers for ourselves and also to trade for raspberries grown by a fellow gardener. And fortunately for our food supplies, the garden was not our sole source of vegetables! We loved time in the garden, enjoyed the tomatoes and other vegetables that survived, traded our crops and nurtured our friendship. Other relationships were forged in the garden, outside of the work arena. The supply and demand for land, water and labor among co-workers and our employer creates a steady stream of satisfied gardeners. The benefits went well beyond the delicious tomatoes we took home, and are why we plan on gardening at work again next year.
by Connie Ray
Economic thinking has helped me understand why it’s so hard to make friends as an introvert. Like everyone else, we introverts crave meaningful relationships, but the very actions necessary to establish friendships require us to behave in ways contrary to our every instinct. Introverts notoriously dread “small talk,” but try jumping from stranger to friend status without a few “Boy, it’s hot out there”s or “How was the traffic getting here”s. Friendships also require initiating, accepting, and following through with social invitations, which means leaving the comfortable cocoon of aloneness. Beginning friendships entails interacting with strangers, which we may know is potentially rewarding, but it drains an introvert’s energy.
The particular story of one friendship I made when I first moved to Southwest Virginia can be nicely explained using economic thinking. I was 6 months pregnant. My husband was starting medical school and was always either in class or studying (I guess they want doctors to be smart and educated or something). Soon after we arrived in Virginia, I met another woman whom I’ll call Sally. Here’s how we became friends:
I: Our goals
I desperately wanted a social outlet, support when the baby arrived, and, above all, a meaningful and comfortable friendship. Enter, Sally. Sally is an extrovert who thrives off of social interaction and derives personal satisfaction from being useful to others. She wanted more friends and opportunities to serve. Our goals were aligned. It could not have been more perfect. Except—
II: Our constraints
As an introvert, my constraints include extreme dislike of small talk, avoidance of phone conversations, and an instinct to avoid the “drain” of being around other people. Sally’s constraint at the time was a flip phone without texting, so her go-to option for contacting people was always a phone call.
III: Our first equilibrium: A failure to communicate
Sally decided she wanted to be my friend. I wanted to be hers. She began regularly calling and leaving me voicemails asking to chat or hang out. She left voicemails, because – of course – I didn’t answer. Normally I would default to a text response, but that wasn’t an option with Sally, so a lot of her calls went unreturned despite my desire to be friends. Put in economic terms, her reliance on voice calls and my need to use texts prevented the market for friendship from functioning. Each of us was optimizing, but our constraints prevented us from getting anywhere near our goals.
IV: A better equilibrium
Sally did not give up on me, and eventually, I overcame my social anxieties and started returning her phone calls. I even accepted and kept social invitations (sometimes). As a result, Sally and I developed a deep friendship that has promoted our mutual satisfaction in a stable and mutually beneficial equilibrium.
V: Can social rules help everyone build more meaningful friendships?
The very nature of socialization is unfriendly terrain to an introvert. Will drew my attention to an article listing ways that employers can make workplaces friendlier to introverts, and it is full of great suggestions. Whether the social scene can do the same, however, is debatable. The invention of texting is an advantage for introverts, as is social media (we can be social while sitting in the comfortable isolation of our own homes). Ultimately, however, it remains an introvert’s responsibility to overcome personal constraints if he/she wants to develop any friendship not totally confined to texting and Facebooking.
I had a lot of fun making the playlist of econosongs, so recently dove into songs about food. It turns out that songs about food are actually about… well, you can guess. Or listen, if you dare:
If you check it out you might notice a few patterns.
Some parts of the playlist are laugh-out-loud funny, like when Spotify’s random sequence gives you a head-full of Milkshake and Cheeseburgers in Paradise.
Hearing Fried Chicken from Nas & Busta Rhymes alongside Colt Ford’s country Tailgate is America at its most sublime, but the playlist also gets right into the culture wars like Ben Folds versus the Fat Boys.
I’ve censored out a few that are just too mean for my blood, such as the Rolling Stones’ nasty old Brown Sugar, but left in songs such as Chocolate Jesus or Cornbread and Butterbeans that I really like.
Mostly, this playlist is just kids like Aaron Carter wanting candy. Add your favorites, and enjoy!
My Goal: Fix Dinner
The promise of Home Chef (and other similar meal kit delivery services) is appealing – everything you need to make a home-cooked meal, from scratch, in 30 minutes, delivered right to your door without a visit to the grocery store. As I reflect on the choices that led to the decision to try Home Chef, the phrase “we can do better than this” comes to mind.
My husband and I both work and both like to cook, but find cooking after work for young, picky eaters exhausting and frustrating. We have several failed attempts at weekly meal planning under our belts, harpooned by: not sticking to the planned meal (him); forgetting to buy ingredients needed for the meals (me); and failure to execute on the plan because of the paralyzing weariness of raising little boys (both.)
We throw together meals at the last minute, or end up eating leftovers or takeout. We also waste an incredible amount of food that we buy with good intent and then let expire. We are dependent on frozen and pantry items (think frozen vegetables, canned sauces, prepared fruit cups.) Our menus have become narrow and not as healthy as this dietitian mom wants.
Home Chef seemed like a good solution. The recipes were simple, I felt confident cooking them and the food was tasty. For two weeks, I was I able to cook three meals a week after I was done with work. My husband seemed very happy. It made me feel really good to cook dinner.
There was just one problem: the packaging of “everyday” and shelf-stable ingredients. As a family of four, they would send two meal kits and I had to double the recipe. It was double the packaging – double everything. They sent EVERY ingredient in exact portions. I would receive two tiny plastic bottles of Sherry Cooking Wine, 8 cloves of garlic and 12 single pats of butter. All the packaging was recyclable, but it was SO much waste.
Each meal costs around $9.00, so I found myself calculating how much I just spent on garlic, sherry cooking wine and butter, already found in my pantry and refrigerator. After two weeks, I discerned that the good feelings created by the cooking were not from the service itself, but from the well-orchestrated preparation. I suspended the service – giving them my feedback – and decided that we would follow the principles of the Home Chef service (good recipes and ingredient prep) and try another attempt at meal planning.
That attempt was short-lived and admittedly we are back at square one. While I regret cancelling the Home Chef service, I also have not clicked the “reorder” button, so the choice was probably optimal.
The Goals of Others: Satisfy the Target Consumer
My husband gets home from work before me and he is a great cook. I’ve gotten into the habit of just letting him cook dinner nearly every day of the week, though it makes me feel guilty. He, obviously, would like to NOT have to cook every night. But, he dutifully comes home and whips up a dinner that is mostly kid-pleasing starch with frozen veggies and a frozen protein. I do the dishes and we call it a day. He seemed happy with the Home Chef recipes and he was supportive of the whole process. He also supported the decision to stop, because he agreed the packaging was over the top and we could mimic the principles if we tried harder.
For the team at Home Chef making decisions on how to produce and package meal kits, we think that to simplify their production they must be producing recipes and kits for a model customer. The archetype they have in mind is a couple with no kids, in a small urban space, who keep very little stock on hand. They don’t cook, or are just learning to cook, and they haven’t built up the pantry that more seasoned cooks might have. Instead of adapting their model to different types of households, they simply use the same meal kits and multiply it times X to accommodate different household sizes.
In my work and when I food shop, I also see more and more that food manufacturer and retailers are building up their offerings in the “almost home cooking” space. Pre-cut ingredients. Prepared spice blends. Meal and salad kits with a recipe. These offerings come at a premium price – just as Home Chef is a premium service. It’s an attractive market because the target consumer is working professionals with disposable income, but not disposable time.
Societal Influences: Conflicting Agendas
There are societal norms at play about the role of working supermoms cooking for their families – I certainly feel that pressure. It’s embarrassing that I’m a mom who can’t get it together to cook dinner…made more embarrassing because I’m a dietitian and actually have studied (and taught!) meal preparation and planning. Nonetheless, this RD mom is waving the flag to say it is REALLY hard to have a dual-career family and make dinner work.
There are also societal norms around working hours in the U.S., which generally fall in the range of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a 40+-hour work week. Somewhere in there we also ask ourselves to exercise, spend quality time with our spouse and kids, volunteer, and practice some basic physical and mental hygiene. If you layer on school activities, childcare scheduling plus evening activities, it’s easy to understand why cooking dinner becomes so hard. When are you supposed to do it? (DISCLOSURE: I’m listening to “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think” on Audible, so I might sing a different tune when I’m done!)
I think there is a model – maybe it’s out there already and I don’t know about it – where a household could use this style of delivery service and commit to a meal plan where they self-purchase a specific basket of staple items that they will reuse in the plan. Then the delivery service would only send the fresh produce, proteins, and unusual items that can confound meal planning. In any case, there is certainly a market for innovation to make all of this easier, and Home Chef and its competitors are just at the beginning of something really transformational.
Maybe this is something I could work on…if I only had the time!
I recently subscribed to Spotify premium, for more music during my daily commute. Their categories and suggestions help solve the paradox of choice for a while, but soon I was looking for more songs about economics, about money and things. Hence this playlist:
It’s public and collaborative, so please add tracks you think others might like. Almost everything in life relates to economics in some way, but for me the high water mark of music about money and things is this lovely pop song from the radio when I lived in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, now available only on YouTube:
The title and refrain is “what’s nice is expensive”. A universal, heartbreaking truth.
If this sounds good to you, please share your favorites on the Spotify playlist or add to my one-song playlist on YouTube!
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