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Default Shrimpin' in America (and the rest of the world)

September 18th, 2007, 11:31
Before you read any further, I'd like you to participate in a little experiment.

Think about the following question a moment, write your answer in the reply, and then write which cultural group you're from at any degree of precision you're comfortable with — American, European, Asian, French, Nebraskan, whatever.

"People today eat much more shrimp than twenty years ago. Why?"
OK, here's the story.

I recently came across a column by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the authors of "Freakonomics." They asked this question of a bunch of people. They weren't actually interested in the specifics of the reply, but whether the reply was "supply-based" or "demand-based."

A "demand-based" answer would be something like "People eat more shrimp because of health education — they've realized that too much meat isn't good for you and have substituted shrimp" or "Many vegetarians have decided to eat fish and seafood in addition to veggies" or "People are more comfortable with trying out foods they're not used to."

"Supply-based" answers are like "The Chinese have invented a newer, more efficient way of fishing for shrimp, so there's much more on the market" or "Improvements in logistics have made it possible to import flash-frozen fresh shrimp from Bangladesh and bring it to the corner store" and so on.

Dubner and Levitt discovered that most people they asked came up with demand-based answers, with trained economists coming up slightly more frequently with supply-based ones. They surmised that people naturally think in terms of demand, while supply is harder to understand and you need training to do it.

I got interested and put this question to a bunch of people around me — Europeans mostly. None of them had any formal education in economics. All in all, I asked perhaps ten people, none of whom had read the column.

Guess what? I got 100% supply-based answers. Every. Single. One.

I found this rather surprising, and it got me thinking.

(1) Could this disparity reflect a cultural difference between Americans and Europeans? That is, could Americans be culturally condition to think in terms of demand while Europeans in terms of supply? If so, what would explain this difference?

(2) If this does reflect a genuine cultural difference, could this difference be an explanatory factor in many of the more obvious differences between the two continents? For example, the American economy is more dynamic than the European one and Americans are more likely to move in pursuit of work or opportunities than Europeans. What impact would this difference have on the economic, political, and social choices people make? What are the advantages and drawbacks of each attitude? What could be done to reinforce the advantages and mitigate the drawbacks?

The column in question is here: […shrimponomics/ ].

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Join Date: Oct 2006
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