Edible Economics: A Christmas Cracker of a book

December 14, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Ok, it’s a bit late, but if you’re stumped for a Christmas present for an intellectually curious friend or relative, I’ve got a top recommendation. Ha-Joon Chang’s latest book, Edible Economics, is a (Christmas) cracker.

Full disclosure: Ha-Joon is an old and good friend. Since we first met in the late 1990s, when he was writing Kicking Away the Ladder, one of the joys of my professional life has been watching him flower as a writer and public intellectual, reaching millions of people with his books on the need to rethink economics and through his profound challenges to neoliberal orthodoxy (structural adjustment, trade liberalization, privatization, intellectual property rights), playing a significant part in influencing numerous governments and decision makers towards a more intelligent approach to economic policy.

Along the way, his writing has got better and better, culminating in this latest work, which is a lot of fun. Edible Economics combines his passion for economics with his passion for food – Ha-Joon is a serious and eclectic foodie. I’ve long since given up trying to pick the restaurant when we go out for a meal.

Each chapter tells the story of a different foodstuff, revelling in nerdy historical ‘rabbit holes’ of each. From there, Ha-Joon segues into a more serious point about economics. Via acorn-eating pigs, how carrots became orange, the role of spices in creating modern capitalism, it’s an epicure’s guide to the modern world and how to improve it.

The chapters are grouped into five sections: Overcoming Prejudices (Acorn, Okra, Coconut); Becoming More Productive (Anchovy, Prawns, Noodles, Carrots); Doing Better Globally (beef, bananas, Coca-Cola); Living Together (Rye, Chicken, Chilli) and Thinking About the Future (lime, spices, strawberries, chocolate). I make an undignified cameo appearance in the chilli chapter, having a meltdown in a Szechuan restaurant in Euston……

Here’s some excerpts from his conclusion, which neatly sums up his long-term mission.

‘When it comes to food, we all work out our own ways to source ingredients (often with constrained budgets), combine and cook them, and come up with new ideas (whether it is tweaking your mother’s recipe or adapting some dish that you came across on Instagram). It should be the same with economics. You don’t need other people to tell you how to learn, critically reflect upon, and use economics. You are all perfectly capable of figuring it out for yourself.

However, as someone who has studied and practised economics for four decades, I think I can offer a few pieces of dietary advice.

First, a varied diet is important. In the book, I have tried to present different perspectives in economics. Often they have different opinions about the same thing (on, say, inequality). Sometimes one perspective lets you see things that others are blind to (for example, the feminist perspective on care work). At other times, different perspectives are complementary to each other (as in the case of positive and negative perspectives on multinational corporations). Appreciating different perspectives in economics, like eating a range of different food items and different types of cuisine, not only makes your economic diet richer but more balanced and healthier.

Second, you should be open-minded about trying new things. I’ve overcome my pre-conception that a carrot is purely an ingredient for savoury dishes and come to love carrot cake. Conversely, even if you only have known the tomato as a savoury ingredient – in pasta sauces, in salads, in stews – you should try at least once to eat it as a ‘fruit’ (it is, after all, a fruit), dipped in sugar, as Koreans do. Really, if the Brits, once the world champion of food conservatism, can become some of the most open-minded eaters in the world, you can do the same with economics. Even just to know your pet economic theories better and fully understand their strengths and weaknesses, you should learn about other economic theories.

Third, as many of us do with food, you should check the provenance of the ‘ingredients’ that you are using to ‘cook’ with. Even though most professional economists would like the rest of the world to believe that what they practise is a science, like physics or chemistry, based on indisputable assumptions and objective facts, economic analyses are often based on myths, ‘facts’ that are technically correct but misleadingly formulated, or taken-for-granted assumptions that are questionable or even blatantly wrong. When the analysis is based on such low-quality ingredients, the resulting economic ‘dish’ is at best devoid of nutrients and at worst harmful.

The best example of myth in economics is the distorted historiography that tells us that Britain and then the US became the world’s economic hegemons because of their free-trade, free-market policies – when they were the countries that most aggressively used protectionism in order to develop their national industries. The exclusion of unpaid care work from GDP is an example that shows that even ‘factual’ things like output statistics can lead to misleading conclusions if they capture only part of the reality or capture it in a biased way. A good example of the last category would be the common assumption that poor countries are poor because their people don’t work hard, which diverts our attention from analysing and reforming the structural factors that make those people poor.

Research can be a tough gig

So, you need to be diligent in ‘fact-checking’ and, more importantly, in finding out on what theoretical bases the ‘facts’ have been created. If you use falsehood and biased representation of reality in your economic analysis, you cannot get good results, however good your economic theory may be. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say in America.

Fourth, you should use your imagination. The best cooks (and I don’t just mean famous chefs) are people who have rich imaginations. They are the ones who are able to see that some ‘sacred’ ingredients should be ditched to improve – or even re-invent – a well-known dish. These cooks bring back forgotten ingredients and repurpose well-known ones. Good cooks, above all, have the imagination to defy culinary conventions and combine different culinary traditions.

Likewise, good economists – and I don’t mean just academic economists but policy-makers, social activists, and informed citizens – are those who can do the economic equivalent of ‘imaginative’ cooking. They are people who can ditch sacred ingredients (such as ‘economic ‘freedom’), repurpose existing ingredients (think what the social democrats have done with the ‘anti-socialist’ welfare state), and revive forgotten ingredients (as we could do with the prize system for invention). They are the ones that are not swayed by fads while being able to understand why such fads exist and what we can learn from them (like the ideas of jobless future or post-industrial knowledge economy). Moreover, the best economists should be, like the best of the cooks, able to combine different theories to have a more balanced view. They understand both the power and the limitations of the market, while knowing that entrepreneurs are the most successful when supported and suitably regulated by the state. They should be willing to combine individualist theories and socialist (or, more broadly, collectivist) theories – and augment them with theories of human capabilities – in order to come up with a more rounded view.

We must all find our own ways to understand (and change) our economy and, with it, the world in which we live and share, in the same way in which we all have to figure out our own ways to eat better – for our own individual health and wallets, for those who are producing food, for those who are not eating enough and/or nutritiously, and, increasingly, for the planet.’

Lovely. As a friend and fan, I’m not even remotely objective, but if you want to check out some other reviews, here’s the Guardian, Kirkus, an interview in The Observer and launching the book at the RSA

December 14, 2022
Duncan Green