Sunday ET: Indian food works OK in college cafeteria, says Tyler Cowen

An economist at George Mason University and author of An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, Tyler Cowen discusses food subsidies and the pleasures of rice and beans.

By Stephen J Dubner & Steven Levitt

Any advice on choosing the best food when eating at a college cafeteria?

Actually, college would be a good time to start a diet. But if you’re not prepared to do that, look for items that can sit and stew for a long time. Indian food works okay in such contexts, as do stews, as the name suggests. Stay away from anything requiring flash frying or immediate, short-term contact with heat. The vegetables won’t be great, but often they aren’t great (in the US) anyway, so now is the time to fill up on them. The opportunity cost of eating bad-tasting but nutritious food is especially low in these circumstances.

I can’t imagine people who aren’t recent immigrants, crunchy granola types, or hippies living in the middle of nowhere, subsisting on beans and rice when there are fast-food places all around us. A bacon cheeseburger and small order of fries off a value menu, versus a bowl of rice and beans at mom’s kitchen table? The bacon cheeseburger wins, no contest.

Rice and beans actually tastes much better, especially if you add pureed ancho chilies to the mix, or put a little bacon on top — or better yet, both. It’s also cheaper than McDonald’s and better for you. More people should give it a try.

I just read The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Wal-Mart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table by Tracie McMillan, which investigates how food is handled in the US. She worked with Mexicans in the fields picking tomatoes and peaches. She was paid about $20 a day. All that backbreaking labour and you only get enough for you and a friend to get a cookie and a large coffee at Starbucks.
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And yet a lot of those Mexicans send money back home. We should marvel at their fortitude. By no means are all of those individuals miserable. In Mexico it’s common for these workers to earn $1 or $2 a day, and many of them can’t even afford a doctor for their children. They consider it a privilege to have a chance to work in the US at higher-paying jobs. The $20 a day is quite a high estimate. The going rate for illegal immigrants these days — depending on the region — is often $10 an hour or more.

Your book discusses how easy it was to incorporate vegetables into a meal while only shopping at an Asian market in northern Virginia. And in an “EconTalk” podcast this spring you discussed how much more enjoyable vegetables are when properly spiced or served with spicy food. What Asian spices are you using to make the vegetables something to look forward to?

I’m trying, but I still can’t bring myself to say that the best part of a meal is the bok choy, and not the steak.

The bok choy doesn’t have to be the best part of the meal and indeed it isn’t. It only has to be good enough to eat! If you’re eating dumplings with soy sauce and chili oil, the meal will taste much better with some greens. In fact, I’d say they’re virtually essential for such a meal, and many Chinese people would agree. It’s about the whole package tying together. Not every part of a meal can be the best part.
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Let’s say the billions of dollars in US subsidies for corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, dairy and other agricultural products were gradually reduced to nothing over the next 10 years. What do you think the impact would be on food? Would prices rise? Would flavour improve, along with our health?

Eliminating agricultural subsidies would improve the federal budget and America’s long-term fiscal outlook. There is no reason not to do it. That said, sometimes foodies overemphasise how much those subsidies skew the world of food. Many of the bad sides of our corporate food world would still remain, or be virtually as prominent — only now customers would have to pay for them. We would still have too much corn syrup in our diets, too many fruits and vegetables without much taste, and too much processed food.
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Some agricultural subsidies make food more expensive, such as when they are combined with price floors. Other subsidies make food cheaper, or lead to a distribution of surplus abroad, which keeps food out of the home market but boosts the amount of aid. The overall effects of agricultural subsidies on food prices are quite complex.

What restaurant or type of food would you and the libertarian economists Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises enjoy for lunch? Why?

Rothbard was quite a conservative eater, but he loved the Bavarian culture of the Baroque. Von Mises grew up in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So I would suggest that we all sit down for a meal of Wiener schnitzel.

(Stephen J Dubner & Steven Levitt are the authors of Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics)
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