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!
My economics research is mostly about undernutrition in Africa and Asia, but I am also keen to learn about nutrition in the US, and maybe help improve policies closer to home. Recently I had the opportunity to collaborate with Sue Roberts and others on a question that’s puzzled me for some time: why do we so often leave restaurants feeling regretful that we ate too much?
Restaurants provide a steadily rising share of food consumption in the US and around the world, so making restaurant food healthier is increasingly important for overall diet quality. The study from Sue Roberts’ group showed that, whatever one thinks of the ingredients and nutritional composition, all kinds of restaurants usually bring much too much food to the table. The headline was that 92 percent of measured servings exceeded recommended calorie requirements for a single meal.
People generally eat what’s served, and people don’t fully compensate by eating less at later meals. Large portion sizes therefore play a causal role in over-eating. Our paper documented how big portion sizes actually are, and made the case for asking restaurants as well as diners to take responsibility for the problem by offering smaller portions.
Our paper appeared recently in JAND, and pushed by a well-written press release it added one more study to the daily blizzard of nutrition news, like this Time.com article + video. Friedman’s Marissa Donovan did a particularly nice piece for the wonderful Friedman Sprout website, here: http://friedmansprout.com/2016/03/01/non-chain-restaurants-tip-the-scales.
In reporting her article, Marissa asked me a few questions about the study — here is my full response to Marissa’s enquiry:
Hi Marissa – sorry for very slow response, I was traveling in Ethiopia and am writing this on the flight back. If you’re still working on the story, here are some answers:
- What was a surprising finding of the study?
What was most surprising to me about this study is that no one had done it before. I think pretty much anyone who ever eats out has seen how large portion sizes are, even in independent restaurants. But nutrition researchers took this to be inevitable, so not worth measuring — like everyone else, dieticians just knew that restaurants were dangerous for your waistline. With menu labeling comes the possibility of actually controlling portion sizes, so it’s finally worthwhile to actually measure and publish the data. Measuring something is a key first step towards improving it.
The one small result that’s surprising but not really a finding is that see few differences among types of restaurant. We do find that one virtue of Mediterranean (in this case, Greek) restaurants is smaller serving sizes, but the study was not powered to detect differences among neighborhoods and price points. If we had funds to collect and test many more samples, I expect we’d find that meal sizes are larger in restaurants that serve low- and middle-income people. That’s certainly my experience from eating in all kinds of restaurants around the US, but it would take a lot of sample meals to detect a statistically significant difference since the variation among dishes is so large.
- What do these findings mean for restaurant goers?
I often see diners advised to commit themselves, before they see or smell the meal, to taking home half of what they will be served. Making the decision early gives power to your far-sighted self. The key is to make these decisions before you’re hungry, and especially before your appetite is revved up by an oversized dish. But it’s very difficult to actually follow this advice, mainly because packing up and taking food home is such an awkward step. In practice, I think it’s much smarter just to choose menu items that will come in small enough sizes for you to be comfortable eating the whole thing. Use your far-sighted self to identify restaurants that offer delicious foods in portions suitable for your body size and activity level, then praise them for it on Yelp and Tripadvisor.
- How do the findings of this study change advice you would give to consumers (if at all)?
The standard recommendation is to stay away from restaurants and cook at home instead. This helps you control portion size, and also the mix of ingredients. But you can exercise some of that control in the restaurant by only ordering dishes whose composition and size are both OK. I am confident that restaurants will eventually find ways to offer all kinds of food in appropriate portion sizes, and with appropriate ingredient ratios. Until then, we just need choose restaurants that serve at least one good main dish in a reasonably-sized portion that fits our needs.
- What changes should be made on a policy level based on these findings?
I think many small steps will be involved. Like so many policy problems, there’s no one magic bullet. Making restaurant meals healthier will involve a lot of local steps, like municipal ordinances and state laws. Massachusetts regulations pioneered how to make restaurants healthier for people with food allergies and we can now do the same for nutrition and portion size. There is also room for many voluntary steps by individuals, including food writers and restaurant reviewers as well as restaurants, groups and associations.
A key first step is to understand that serving excessively large meals causes overeating and diet-related disease. This may sound obvious but it’s not, since many people believe that overeating when served a big meal is just the diner’s fault. A next step is transparency, with menu labeling so customers can know ahead of time how big each dish will actually be. Then there’s right-sizing, through various steps to help restaurants serve more dishes in sizes that fit everyone not just their largest and hungriest customers. Ultimately, I think segregating menus to have some “healthy” or “diet” foods that are served in small portions will be a thing of the past. Almost all menu items can be served in appropriate sizes.
One specific idea to accelerate the transition to transparency and right-sizing many dishes is for local ordinances and state laws to give restaurant diners the right to order a partial portion at partial price. As explained in the paper, we know that restaurants would not like doing that. If such an ordinance were actually passed, most would reduce the default size of their largest dishes for which many customers ask to exercise this right, to avoid having to actually serve too many partial portions at partial prices. They could then adjust other aspects of the menu so that those who decide that they want to eat more can order additional side dishes. The problem of excessively large portion sizes can be solved. A first step is just to realize that it is a problem, to measure what’s served and think carefully about what customers really want.
I hope that’s helpful!
All the best,
This year we had prizes for the best dish in each of five categories, aiming to be as nutritious and delicious as possible while pursuing any one (or more) of the following widely shared goals:
- least monetary cost,
- least preparation time,
- least environmental impact,
- most local or seasonal, or
- most personally meaningful.
From the photo you can see our table of delights. The sourdough rolls on the right won the meaningfulness prize for Kathleen Nay (back row), for a gorgeous story about the sourdough starter that she and her husband began when they were married. Wow.
Sean Cash and Parke Wilde brought their best gastronomic game to the judging, with shoutouts for all the great food ideas of the night. We all ate and drank so well — with an extra jolt for happy winners like Sam Hoeffler, whose prize was a fresh shipment of my personal favorite consumable: coffee, brought home last weekend from Ethiopia.
Lots of fun, thank you all!
Twitter (click photo for full profile)
- My mother's immigrant-welcome group got profiled in our local newspaper. It's great work that usually goes unnoti… https://t.co/vUp5SipcUe about 4 days ago
- The @RoyalEconSoc response to EU research funders' #Plan_S for #OpenAccess is spot on, echoing views from Latin Ame… https://t.co/SYoPqNYWhR about 1 week ago
- Politico – US food & ag policy
- Ag2nut – international nutrition
- Chicago Council – global food & ag
- Keith Good – US farm policy
- New Food Economy – US focused
- Food Safety News
- Danielle Nierenberg’s Food Tank
- Gro Intel – deep dives into data
- FERN’s ag insider news
- Boston Network for Intl. Dev.
- Econofact – US economic policy
- Rudd Center – obesity policy
- David Allison – obesity research
- Parke Wilde – food policy
- Marc Bellemare – ag & food econ
- Chris Blattman – dev econ
- Jayson Lusk – ag & food econ
- Diane Coyle – economics books
- Marion Nestle – food politics
- Tamar Haspel – food & ag
- World Bank – impact evaluation
- BITSS – research methods
- Econofact – US econ policy
- Susan Dynarski – education policy
- USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) data
- NCCOR – all US food-health data
- World Bank data
- FAO Statistics (FAOSTAT)
- UNICEF statistics
- WHO – child heights and weights
- UN system data
- Famine Early Warning (FEWSNET)
- The dataverse
- IHSN – household surveys
- IPUMS – accessible data (incl. IDHS)
- Euromonitor – branded foods (library subscription)