Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, has become a food celebrity across the nation. Today he is featured in the Business Section of The Washington Post offering insights into where and what to eat in the nation’s capital. He brings a lot of useful insights to his columns, as well he might, given his vast knowledge of food and his mastery of the basic principles of economics.
In Professor Cowen’s judgment, eaters-out should patrol the restaurants around them with eyes and taste buds searching incessantly for new ventures, new culinary experiences, and the highest-quality food and service. The moment that a restaurant slips, run for the exit and never, ever return. Always assume that a new restaurant, if initially successful, will slip and falter as complacency sets in. Never enter a restaurant frequented by good-looking single women. That restaurant is a magnet for predatory males who view the location as a pick-up center and could not care less about the quality of the food.
What is missing from all this first-rate analysis? Any comprehension that eating establishments are communitarian locations. Individuals and couples – couples are not center-stage in Professor Cowen’s analysis - are rarely food predators in the sense that he defines them. They eat out to meet friends or to be together in a comfortable environment. They relish the welcome that they receive from a friendly host for his long-time customers. The restaurant or bar is a place where they feel comfortable and welcomed, even if the food is not at the cutting-edge of cuisine innovation.
Why do I write this column about food, a subject peripheral to my academic interest? Because the economics that drives Professor Cowen’s analysis is the same economics that sadly alienates many potential readers from an important source of knowledge and information. Of course, economics should focus on individuals as the active principals and agents in a market economy. We have known that since 1776 when Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations. But individuals live in communities, they interect with each other, they trade with each other, yes, on the basis of self-interest, yet also within an environment of trust and sociability.
Leave those elements out, and you present at best only half the story. Surely, you explain why some gourmets drive around the suburbs looking for unknown restaurants in faceless strip malls serving food that they have never before ingested. Surely you understand why single diners move restlessly from restaurant to restaurant, watchful for any sign of slippage while ordering meals recommended by their waiters from menus written in languages that they cannot read.
But such analysis cannot explain why so many happy families crowd in day after day to the Old Country Buffets, to enjoy themselves in comfortable locations, surrounded by other happy families, and welcomed by waiters who recognize them and who pat them on the back as they comment favorably on a new dress , a change of hair style or the fact that the husband has chosen to wear an attractive tie.
Professor Cowen will be aware, as a food maven, that many more people eat out in the long-surviving Country Buffets of this world than in briefly rising DC crescents such as Little Serow, Rasika, and Mintwood Place. If economics is to provide an in depth understanding of the behavior of individuals in their daily lives, it should not focus excessively on the narrowly individualistic traits of the few, at the cost of ignoring the more sociable traits of the many. For it is the many that typically drive market outcomes.
MacDonalds is much more important as an insight into American cuisine than is Keren at Florida Avenue and 18th Street, Washington, DC, an Eritrean restaurant currently under new management. If one forgets that reality, then one can really get lost in the ether when writing about market economies.