A rather more gentle treatment of Mark Bittman’s misunderstandings:

Bittman’s observation is correct, and first principles are an excellent start to the process of logical deduction. But it is also an appalling place to end the process of thinking. True, we don’t all have to stand on the shoulders of giants and reach further and higher than the pebbled seashore, but those previous generations of billions did contain some bright people who did think about the problems of the human condition. Some of them even came up with interesting answers.

The economist looks at Bittman’s statement and notes that healthcare is a luxury good – as our real incomes rise we spend more of our incomes upon it. Food is an inferior good – as incomes rise a smaller portion of total income is spent upon it. As our incomes rise, the portions that we spend on different things change. This is the same insight as Maslow’s Pyramid that denotes the hierarchy of human desires. As we satisfy our desires on the lower level of the pyramid, we allocate more of our rising income to the upper levels of the pyramid. This is what those definitions of luxury goods and inferior goods mean.

11 thoughts on “Elsewhere”

  1. A guy i was housesharing in New England, told me one day right, we’re packing in this job and going across america. I said nope, not enough dosh. He said i’ve worked it out we need enough for our greyhound ticket and then we can live on 3 dollars a day/ i.e 3 hamburgers, and water’s basically free, just ask for it in McDs or if they say no go to the lav. I couldn’t argue that was probably enough to sustain life but still declined, and a week later off he went. Of course if i’d had Mr Bittman’s book to hand i might have done a better job of dissuading him. I wonder if he’s still alive.

  2. Rather fascinatingly, I was once on a geology field trip with a lad whose diet consisted of:

    slices of Mother’s Pride bread, without anything on them in the way of butter, marge or anything else,
    milk, reconstituted from powder,
    Mr Kipling’s apple pies,
    Curly Wurlys,

    and a good quantity of lager.

    Amazingly, he didn’t even have spots.

    I think that it would be possible to live on a diet of 3 US burgers a day (for a while), because they have protein (yes, I know that’s unbelievable), fats, carbohydrates, and with raw lettuce, tomato, onion and a slice of dill pickle, probably a quantity of vitamins as well, I think that the complaint is rather that they are too nutritious if eaten by the dozen, especially if what passes in America for cheese is added. Anyway, isn’t tomato ketchup one of your ‘five a day’?

    I think that PoWs in Changi or on the Burma railway would have been rather pleased to have been offered that diet!

  3. There was a newspaper article some years ago about a teenager who survived entirely on a diet of raspberry jam sandwiches. He was a Scot so I assume he’d used plenty of butter.

  4. “I think that it would be possible to live on a diet of 3 US burgers a day (for a while)”
    Yep,i did realise at the time he was right about that, it was just that i’d want to do a bit more than just eat. A bit like Tim’s explanations about the global poverty of 2 dollars a day, not just going on food, but going on everything. I stayed on for a few more weeks, saved up, and then instead of east west, i did north south seaboard.

    “I think that PoWs in Changi or on the Burma railway” Yes but even Colditz guys would have got far less protein.

  5. “Food is an inferior good – as incomes rise a smaller portion of total income is spent upon it.”

    Just to be picky, that doesn’t make it “inferior” – just a normal good with an income elasticity below 1. But the general point is still sound. You could use the same argument to say that cheaper food made people spend more money on haircuts.

  6. Hallowed Be,

    The Lonely Planet “{continent} on a Shoestring” series has a helpful warning in the introduction, which says something like “Would you rather see this continent over 12 months on a shoestring, or eight months in relative comfort?”

  7. Conversely, the last iteration of socialism declared not to be real, that of Venezuela, necessitated the invention of an entirely new economic indicator, the number of calories someone working fulltime for minimum or median wage (as, in the event, the two were interchangeable) could afford buying them as cheaply as possible. In 2012 it was 57000, probably about 20 times what a manual worker needs to get by; enough money, in other words, to get many calories in more expensive forms allowing for a balanced diet and some left over. By 2018, the figure was under 900. That is literally starvation rations.


  8. I read somewhere that a diet of only bananas, boiled eggs and water could sustain you for a few years until lack of some exotic trace elements kicked in. Is this true? dearieme? DocBud?

    (Not a danger of over-eating unless you’re cool hand Luke)

  9. philip said:
    “I read somewhere that a diet of only bananas, boiled eggs and water could sustain you”

    Beef and beer was the one I have heard (not to be cheap, but to be simple)

  10. n pints of Guinness and a glass of orange juice (for the vitamins) was the apocryphal sustainable daily diet I remember being told.

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