27 April 2014

Discover Your Inner Economist by Tyler Cowen [2007]

I picked this up because I heard Tyler Cowen talking about it on an old episode of Econtalk, my favourite podcast.  Cowen blogs at Marginal Revolution, which is always worth reading.

I think this was one of the first popular books on behavioural economics.  At any rate, it differentiates itself from many of the others by the fact that the author's personality very clearly informs all of the analysis.  I liked this very much, because Cowen represents the sort of intellectually curious polymathy that I consider at the zenith of the sort of broad liberal arts education I experienced.

The book contains lots of practical guidance on getting the most out of one's cultural (and culinary) life.  One of Cowen's key messages is that it is not necessary to be wealthy to be a cultural or culinary billionaire.

Becoming a cultural billionaire

There is a lot of useful guidance on getting the most out of the arts.  One of Cowen's best ideas is that we free ourselves from the artificial obligation of 'completism'.  In doing so, we give ourselves permission to put down books unfinished, to walk out of movies that bore us, and to visit selectively individual paintings in galleries.  

Becoming a culinary billionaire

Cowen finds a correlation between quality of national cuisine and income inequality - basically, the greater the income inequality, the better the culinary outcomes.  Following on from this, if you are in a country with relatively low income inequality (a country with a low gini coefficient), you will eat best in ethnic restaurants from 'high gini' countries. To support this, Cowen even prints a table showing the most favoured ethnic restaurants to visit when travelling in certain European countries:

Algerian or Tunisian
Turkish, Greek or Balkan
Pakistani or Indian
Indonesian or Surinamese
Chinese, Caribbean, Eastern European
Argentinian Steakhouse
Indian, Pakistani or Persian

I was reminded of the fact that the best Korean restaurants in London are not in the centre but in the very ordinary suburb of New Malden, which has the largest Korean population in Europe.  The rents are relatively low, which allows fabulous very ordinary-looking Korean restaurants such as Jee Cee Neh (great review here) to be sustained by local (Korean) customers.  Repeat business from informed customers together with high concentration of competitors keeps prices low and quality high.
A really good book which made me want to go and study at George Mason University, where Cowen is a professor and which seems to generate a lot of interesting ideas.

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