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The Power of Specialization

By Matthew Yglesias on March 4, 2011 at 4:29 pm

"The Power of Specialization"

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Diane Cardwell has an interesting article about a “coterie of food purists — or Puritans, perhaps” who don’t want to customize the food they sell:

At a pea-sized Lower East Side bistro known for its fries, the admonition is spelled out on a chalkboard: no ketchup. At a popular gastropub in the West Village, customers cannot have the burger with any cheese other than Roquefort. And at Murray’s Bagels in Greenwich Village and Chelsea, the morning crowd can order its bagels topped any number of ways but never — ever! — toasted.

What I don’t understand is why she sees this as some kind of ethical stance, a form of Puritanism. It just seems like specialization. In any line of business you face a tension between the fact that it’s more efficient to specialize but you have more customers if you customize.

David Chang explains it perfectly:

“People just assume that every restaurant should be for everyone — I could understand that if we were in a town with, like, 20 restaurants,” said David Chang, whose mini-empire of Momofuku restaurants is well known for refusing to make substitutions or provide vegetarian options. “Instead of trying to make a menu that’s for everyone, let’s make a menu that works best for what we want to do.”

Adam Smith observed a few hundred years ago that the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. If we had cheap teleporters, the extent of the market would be vast and everything would be hyper-specialized. We don’t have teleporters, but Manhattan’s ultra-density is the next best thing so it’s no surprise there’s an unusually high level of specialization. I think that this, more than Ed Glaeser’s semi-mysterian account, is why denser metropolitan areas are more productive.

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