Arnold Kling  

Tyler deserts Hayek

Fear of Looking Rich Redux... Mining Mill...

Tyler Cowen writes,

In my view we do have duties to behave more responsibly at the dinner table but the simple admonition "eat less meat" will do.

In this context, "behave more responsibly" means "waste fewer resources and leave more for others." But it is an odd admonition from an economic perspective, and quite contrary to what Hayek would say.

The economic perspective is that all the information you need about the cost of a good is in its price. You don't need to compute an input-output table--hence the utter irrelevance of "food miles."

To argue that you need to "behave more responsibly" is to argue that there is something wrong with prices. If externalities are present (so that carbon-intensive consumption is under-priced, for example), then you need (a) a Pigouvian tax or (b) to be able to work through the input-output table. And I don't trust even research specialists to do (b) accurately.

So what is wrong with price of meat, in Tyler's view? Implicitly, he is saying that meat is too cheap, so we waste it. But I don't see a strong reason to believe that.

Compare this Kling parody of Tyler: we have duties to behave more responsibly at the doctor's office, and we should follow the admonition not to go for every MRI that is recommended.

The parody actually has some economic merit. Because of insurance, many of us face distorted prices in health care, and we waste medical procedures.

I'm not a big fan of meat at all. I'm just getting ready to sit down to a plate of mixed vegetables, and trying to decide whether peanut sauce is a good idea for them. And I understand that I could turn grain into energy more efficiently if I digested it myself than if I got it indirectly by eating a cow or a chicken. But that does not mean that eating meat is irresponsible. Just expensive.

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The author at Rhymes With Cars & Girls in a related article titled It’s In The Price Already writes:
    I liked this post from Arnold Kling at Econlog about whether people need to ‘behave more responsibly’ at the dinner table (e.g. eat less meat): To argue that you need to “behave more responsibly” is to argue that there is somet... [Tracked on August 29, 2008 4:52 PM]
COMMENTS (18 to date)
E. Barandiaran writes:

Relax Arnold. There is nothing wrong with the price of meat. Meat is not cheap. Talk is cheap.

Dan writes:

I'm not certain that meat isn't too cheap to be sustained. I heard but have not been able to verify that it takes roughly 1,000 calories of vegetables to produce 1 calorie of meat. If this is true then you would think in modern society meat would be roughly 1,000 times more expensive than vegetables. Obviously, meat isn't generally even 10 times more expensive than the same amount of vegetable calories. Why is this so? And doesn't it imply that as we have less and less land to grow food, we will shift more and more to vegetables to get our calories?

dWj writes:

Arnold: When I read it, I assumed he believed there was a carbon-based externality, and that he felt "eat less meat" to be as reliable as any rule of thumb as to what your input-output table looks like. I agree it's likely to be complicated, but I think his rule of thumb is probably in general ways correct, in part for reasons he cited in his post.

Dan: As you seem almost to observe, the cost of produce in the supermarket includes all sorts of things other than some generic effort-to-grow-a-calorie. Transportation is a big one, but all kinds of other handling is involved as well -- hand labor, even of non-Americans, is expensive on any relevant relative measure. Meat in the United States eats grains that are much more easily handled by machines than are tomatoes and green peppers. Perhaps it isn't sustainable, and someday meat prices will rise relative to vegetable prices, but since neither meat nor produce is terribly durable, relative prices in the future don't say a whole lot about what relative prices should be now, e.g. whether meat is "too cheap". If you want to say it's too cheap now, look for the market failure making it too cheap, the way Arnold and Tyler are.

Blakeney writes:


I don't often comment here, but this is a subject I feel strongly about. Go with the peanut sauce.

8 writes:

Attack it from the standpoint of subsidized water. Or be Catholic and don't eat meat on Friday, and give it up for Lent. The old school religions are way ahead of these newbies.

Ed writes:

Please don't forget when looking at the plant based vs animal based calorie comparison, animals are often fed byproducts and vegetable matter that is not "fit for human consumption" or that people would otherwise choose not to eat. In turn converting waste into delectable calorie rich food. Yum.

Tyler Cowen writes:

Factory farming and global warming, I would say. I don't think we know how big the externality is, but we do know its direction. Which means less meat. I'm not worried about the vast majority of people overshooting, I might add.

Rolo Tomasi writes:

Excellent advice, eat less meat, the price of meat will fall and Rolo can make more trips to Five Guys. Do you think you can all eat less potatoes as well? There fries are quite yummy.

Greg N writes:

I thought Tyler was making an argument about animal rights and factory farming.

aaron writes:

I don't eat meat for the calories. The calories are a reason I might not eat meat.

Is meat being subsidized, either directly or indirectly (through subsidized grains)? If so, then one could in fact argue that meat is too cheap.

To the extent that meat is easier to get calories from than are fruits and vegetables, then in one perspective, it is not irresponsible to eat meat. Also, our digestive systems are designed for an omnivorous diet, so we in fact need at least some meat to have a healthy diet -- even if it's not really as much as we typically eat in the U.S. nowadays. If we are talking abut meat as part of a healthy diet, and being healthy is part of being responsible, then we probably do eat too much meat.

R. Pointer writes:

I thought Tyler meant all the methane that cows release. That has much worse atmospheric effects than carbon. Plus the cruelty factor, though I love beef.

David Friedman writes:

"Factory farming and global warming, I would say. I don't think we know how big the externality is, but we do know its direction."

You may know the sign of the externality; I don't. Current projections suggest that global warming will raise sea levels by a foot or two and average temperatures by about two degrees C in a century. That's a slow change, so the general presumption against change--that we have sunk costs in things optimized to the current environment--is weak. It's a change with large benefits--lower heating costs over sizable areas, greater agricultural productivity due to more CO2--as well as large costs. How do you sign the sum?

As to factory farming--are you assuming that it is better for an animal not to live at all than to live a very restricted life?

George writes:

Troy wrote:

Also, our digestive systems are designed for an omnivorous diet, so we in fact need at least some meat to have a healthy diet....

"Need"? Empirically false. Some protein, yes. Some fat, yes. But there are plenty of non-animal sources of those.

R. Pointer wrote:

I thought Tyler meant all the methane that cows release. That has much worse atmospheric effects than carbon.

Methane is mostly carbon by weight: it's a carbon atom surrounded by hydrogen atoms. Maybe you meant "carbon dioxide" (a carbon atom between two oxygen atoms)?

Cows release plenty of carbon dioxide, too, by the way. And even some deadly dihydrogen monoxide.

TDL writes:

It is my understanding the Americans don't eat enough meat (whether cow, chicken, etc.) The bulk of the "average" American diet consists of simple carbs. & saturated fats (I believe something like 70%, but I am not certain.) Also, animal protein sources are the most effective means of consuming protein, which should be roughly 40% of our diet.

It's not so much, "eat less meat.", but eat more meat from more sources. I would assume that this would have Dr. Cowen's preferred effect on "global warming".


Rick Stewart writes:

When my food consumption consists of approximately 1 six-billionth of the world's total, I have no responsibility whatsoever to voluntarily modify it for the public good.

Michael Bishop writes:

1. We shouldn't go for every MRI that is recommended if we had good information about which recommendations were overly cautious.

2. There is more than carbon to consider... there is cruelty to animals.

But if you "need a Pigovian tax" to get the market to internalize an externality, but no such tax is imposed, then even an economist may see some scope for "acting responsibly."

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