The Arithmetic of Abundance

There are quite a few podcasts that I keep an eye on but do not actually subscribe to. One of those is Econtalk, and recently I spotted a couple of things there that looked interesting enough to mark for listening. Rachel Laudan talked to Russ Roberts about the ideas in her book Cuisine and Empire, and as she’s an old cyber-friend and previous guest on my own podcast, I was keen to hear what she had to say.

One of Rachel’s key points is that we now live in an age of abundance. Globally, we grow enough food to give the whole world a decent diet. Sure, there are problems of distribution, but those are problems of politics and economics, not agriculture. We could quibble about that, especially taking a longer-term view, but there’s another problem. How do you control, or even influence, what people choose to eat in this age of abundance? Nudges are all the rage, making the healthier choices easier to make; is that enough to get people to forego, for example, three meats a day? A few hundred thousand years of evolutionary history in which fats, sugars and salt were scarce have left us with little in the way of brakes to apply. Now that those commodities are cheaper than ever, and food processors are smarter than ever, we’re eating more of them than is good for us.

One of the themes that runs through Cuisine and Empire is the way that food is a marker of class and privilege. Right now, a few rich people who have been blinded by the light of a more sustainable diet are making different choices, eating lower on the food chain, eating less. Do we have to wait for economic development to make people so rich that the whole world comes to the same realisation? And when that happens, how will the elites distinguish themselves once again?

It’s a puzzle, for sure. I certainly don’t have answers, although I am convinced that one problem is the way we keep the score. The cost of abundance is paid elsewhere – in health care, environmental damage, animal welfare, human rights.

Which is why the other Econtalk show I listened to had me hopping mad. The host, Russ Roberts, talked about the economics of buy local with his colleague and co-author Don Boudreaux. Two things in particular made me cross.

One was the overuse of reductio ad absurdam as a rhetorical device. Like, if you have a local economy then you have to have a local car manufacturer, and that would make cars so expensive that nobody could afford to buy them anyway. Or, if the Chinese decided to set fire to a nominal $400 million trade deficit with the USA:

Then the goods and services they otherwise could have bought are available to the rest of us, so the value of the remaining dollars rises, so we can now afford to buy those goods and services. Dollars are claims on American assets. If foreigners don’t take advantage of that, it’s a gift to us. Year-round Santa Claus.

Which is true, but in my view that is not an argument against buy local as most people understand it. It’s an argument against a straw man of protectionist, isolationist economics. Against trade, in fact, which was what most of the hour seemed to be dedicated to. And that is not merely a straw man but, as my old friend Nick Humphrey memorably said, a straw man with feet of clay.

Roberts and Boudreaux did briefly touch on buy local as most people, in my experience, understand it, which is in connection with food. Here too, they tried to rubbish the idea by making it silly; what if the farmer from whom you bought your broccoli spends the money on a car, or a fridge made in China?

The really good reason to buy locally, especially for food, is that it may reduce some of the externalities associated with food production and consumption.

And that’s what made me really mad; throughout the discussion these two economists never once directly mentioned externalities, positive or negative. They weren’t even implicit. So the idea that local food might have a lower carbon footprint, reduce other environmental pollution, even, God help us, result in more humane treatment of the workers who produce it, got barely a look in. That’s not to say that all food should be local. I quite agree, for example, that New Zealand lamb shipped to Europe or the US might overall impose lower externalities than local lamb under some circumstances. But if food can be grown locally without too much in the way of inputs, I believe that there is virtue – and economic sense – to preferring it over the same food produced further away.

This is by no means an argument against trade, as Roberts and Boudreaux seem to want it to be. Nor is it an absolutist argument. If you buy local broccoli, you must also buy a locally made car, fridge and hedge-trimmer. If you buy local food, you must buy only local food.

Those are indeed absurd ideas.

However, buying some of your food from local sources brings benefits that their economics doesn’t capture, in environmental pollution, in labour and possibly even in human health. The fact that their economics doesn’t capture those benefits is not a reason to pretend they don’t exist. It’s a reason to change the way economics keeps the score and maybe change the arithmetic of abundance.

RIP Artisan

It is with profound regret that we report the final sad demise of Artisan, a noun recently pressed into service well beyond its capabilities. As a young person, Artisan was to be seen practising its trade, making a variety of products in limited quantities, often using methods learned from its forbears Craftsperson and Handworker. More recently, alas, Artisan succumbed to blandishments of the men in shiny suits and lent its imprimatur to several tawdry enterprises as far flung as mousepads and kitchen mixers.

Artisan, absorbed in hookers and blow, was at no time aware of how its hard-won reputation as a mark of singular quality had been undermined by its unthinking endorsement of these activities. Even at the end, it was to be heard defending the right of all products everywhere to consider themselves handmade, no matter how unlikely that was. Individuality, Artisan was heard to mutter in its cups, was no great shakes anyway.

The end, when it came, came with a whimper: the simple phrase “artisan baked bread” attached to a sandwich package that very obviously contained nothing of the sort.

Artisan is survived – barely – by heirloom, homemade and authentic.

It Must Be Something in the Water

There is, apparently, a huge difference between pizza made in New York and pizza made elsewhere. So I learned on a podcast I listened to this morning, and I confess, I’ve heard the same said of New York bagels. The folk belief is that it must be something in the water. The podcast went on to explain in loving detail how someone conducted a trial of different waters, decanting store-bought waters into plain bottles, numbering the bottles and having his wife switch the numbers. Oooh, double-blind. Science! Then schlepping the whole lot off to a great pizza restaurant to conduct the tasting. And you know what:

As far as pizza goes, use whatever water you want. … Clearly, the small differences that arise naturally in the course of making a good pizza by hand far outweigh the minor differences that water could make.

Which I guess was a disappointment.

My approach would have been very different. I would first want to test the primary claim. Is there, actually, any difference at all between New York pizzas and those made elsewhere? Can people who say there is a difference identify a New York pizza in a line-up?

I’d take the New York pizzaiolo to some location outside New York, somewhere that has recognizably different pizzas. Say, Philadelphia. In a pizza restaurant there I’d ask the New Yorker and the local guy each to make a batch of dough, using Philadelphia ingredients. Then I’d take both of them and their doughs back to New York and have them each make a batch of dough using New York ingredients. Ideally, and I think this would be worth the extra effort, you would choose two restaurants that use the same flour. At this stage, you get super-scientific and have a third pizzaiolo make the pizzas, unaware of which dough is which. That’s the double-blind part. Now comes the super easy part.

Instead of having people rate the pizzas on a 10-point scale for four different qualities, you simply ask lots of people who have previously claimed that New York pizza is different, which is the New York pizza? They don’t even have to think it is better, just different, so you can repeat the experiment in Philadelphia. And if more than eight people get it right, you actually have something worth investigating.

Then we can start talking about what, if anything, is the reason for the difference.

P.s. The photo is from a pizza jaunt we undertook here in Rome back in January 2013.

Recreating Swedish Knäcke

I was in Stockholm for the first time a week or so ago, attending a huge meeting to record material for a client’s podcast. That went well enough, but the truly nice thing was what a wonderful, liveable place Stockhom seems to be. Admittedly we enjoyed better weather than they’ve had for months, but one thing really struck me was the huge diversity of crispbreads, from the very traditional round ones, still with a hole in the middle so you can thread them on a pole for winter storage, to utterly modern things studded with chia seeds. I love them all.

Back home, I had to try and make my own. I wrote up the first effort (second really), even though the results were not all that great, and I am determined to keep trying.

It’ll Be Promotion, Not Marketing

When it comes to publishing stuff online, especially when you’re not doing it for money, some people seem to think that you should create only the things you want to create, that the work you do you do for yourself. And while that’s true, at least to some extent, if it were entirely true, why publish at all? Why not just keep it to yourself, and please only yourself? Because having other people enjoy what you have made, and have it sufficiently valuable to devote some attention to it, is immensely rewarding and validating.

The trick, then, is to bring my stuff to the attention of people, who may decide to pay me with some of that attention, and I am really bad at that. I have a long-standing aversion to anything that smacks of marketing. “If the stuff’s any good, people will find it without me telling them how good it is.” 1 And then, listening to Tim Ferriss on The Longform Podcast I heard him say:

Just because you promote your stuff does not make your material bad. They’re not mutually exclusive.

I paused the playback, got out my notebook and pencil, rewound to make sure I had heard right, and wrote it down.

I’m still not sure I actually believe that in my heart of hearts, but that attitude certainly has not hurt Tim Ferriss, and it makes me want to try a bit more self-promotion.


My various web presences are never going to provide me with anything resembling a living. They are, however, a combination shop window and calling card. They show what I do, and therefore what I could do for a paying client. And just as a shop window is useless when the lights are out, and a calling card does no good sat in my wallet, I need to promote – not market – my web presences.

Exactly how remains unknown, for now. I like email newsletters, and always tell clients to use them, make it easy to sign up, watch the stats, and tweak as you go. But I’m not currently doing as much of that as I should. So that’s probably first.

Then there’s the whole question of web presences. Am I my own brand? Or is each of my different presences a different brand? This has become a more important question recently as I have gone back to working as a freelance. I need to explain what I can do for people, and there are actually quite a lot of different things I do that come under the general heading of communication. So, perhaps they all ought to be visible in one general place online? That is a solution I’m leaning to, although I am not sure exactly how to make it happen.

Enough, for now. I need actually to get going and do something. Actually, that’s a fib; one of my presences has already done something to get started.

  1. And I have a long-standing desire to rid myself of this notion, to whit: Rewarding Good Work, Marketing 101 and It’s Marketing, but Not as I Know It

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