More (and Much More Solid) Evidence on Soda Taxes

A few weeks ago, I had a post about the effect of soda taxes on consumer behavior. In that post, I discussed an article by Tamar Haspel in the Washington Post for which I had been interviewed after looking at some European data showing that soda taxes had little to no statistical or economic impact on soda sales. At the time, I wished I’d had more time to investigate the question more deeply. As it turns out, someone else did so:

The typical analysis on the effectiveness of soda taxes relies on price elasticity estimates from static demand models, which ignores consumers’ inventory behaviors and their persistent tastes. This article provides estimates of the relevant price elasticities based on a dynamic demand model that better addresses potential intertemporal substitution and unobservable persistent heterogeneous tastes. It finds that static analyses overestimate the long-run own-price elasticity of regular soda by 60.8%, leading to overestimated consumption reduction of sugar-sweetened soft drinks by up to 57.9% in some cases. Results indicate that soda taxes will raise revenue but are unlikely to substantially impact soda consumption.

This is from an article by Emily Yucai Wang, an assistant professor of resources economics at UMass Amherst, in the very serious RAND Journal of Economics. Just as I found/discussed/speculated/posited for the Washington Post, soda taxes appear to have no effect on consumption. What is more important here is that the author looks at storage, which is an important component of the consumption of soda, and which can have important dynamic effects—after all, soda can be stored for very long periods of time, unlike most staple crops in developing countries.

Poutine: What It Is, and What It Isn’t

Let me take a moment to talk about something extremely serious for once on this blog.

Yesterday morning, a good friend shared the following tweet with me:

Now, most of you probably know that I am French Canadian. And most of you probably know that poutine is a French Canadian dish.

As someone who discovered poutine growing up–I remember tasting it for the first time when camping with my maternal grandparents when I was five and my grandfather offered me a bit of his–and has consumed all kinds of it (as recently as last weekend while in Montreal for a wedding), I told my friend who sent me the above tweet that this was typical of Americans trying to make poutine and inevitably screwing up the dish–often voluntarily so.

That is something I have been asking people when I tell them that I am French Canadian and they almost inevitably tell me that such-and-such place in town serves poutine: “Do they serve real poutine, or a fancy American version thereof?”

Poutine is a simple dish, you see. It should really only consist of three ingredients–French fries, cheese, and gravy.

Even when American restaurants do just that, they manage to screw it up. The cheese has to be fresh cheddar cheese curds (luckily, they make and sell those in Western Wisconsin, very close to where I live in the Twin Cities). The gravy has to have that unique flavor that is pretty much only found in Canada (a fish and chips joint close to my house has an almost perfect poutine… except for the awful gravy; here is what one should ideally use for their gravy).

Worse is when American restaurants completely screw up (what they irreverently call) poutine by heaping tons of unnecessary ingredients onto the dish. Foie gras on poutine? Sacrilege.* Ground meat in the gravy? Blasphemy! A French onion soup poutine? BURN THE WITCH!

This is what real poutine should look like:

Poutine

Pretty simple, eh? And no trace of foie gras or ground meat or Gruyère or any of those fancypants ingredients.

All joking aside, what I wanted to highlight is this obsession–a seemingly distinctly American obsession–to want to fancify and academicize what isn’t fancy to begin with. Much like how jazz improvisation is now taught as a major at accredited four-year colleges, food is one of those things that hipster American chefs seem to be unable to leave alone–when I lived in North Carolina, the hipster chef obsession seemed to be with making either mac and cheese or Carolina barbecue as complicated as possible.

But some things should not be tinkered with. Could it be that I am becoming a traditionalist? Maybe. I don’t know. But I certainly have a better understanding now of how, beyond the obvious rent-seeking reasons, in some regions of France and Italy, certain people want there to be a strict definition of certain food offerings. I would be only half joking if I said that maybe it’s time for an official UNESCO definition of what poutine is–and what it isn’t.

* To be fair, this is something I’ve had in Montreal at Au Pied de Cochon, but the point still stands: Even that wasn’t really poutine.