On his RSS feed, Paul Krugman’s photo of gourmet mushy peas is accompanied by the tagline “What has happened to English food?”
It reminded me that his old essay “Supply, Demand, and English Food” is one of the great short pieces on economic history. But the short version of the story is that English food has gotten better over time. And so has American food. Part of this you can just see in the range of options available to a diner in 2011. Here in Minneapolis within the relatively small downtown area I’ve managed to eat some decent Indian food, some Korean BBQ tacos, a great bowl of Pho, and a tasty pizza. These were not cuisines widely available in mid-sized American cities a few decades ago. That kind of rise of “ethnic food” has helped raise quality directly (by being tasty), has helped raise quality indirectly (by providing competition), and in addition the simple fact that a wider range of choices is available constitutes a quality improvement all on its own.
This kind of change in quality is something that the price index data used to compute inflation doesn’t really record. But it makes a different in people’s lives. Something that’s important, though, is that these quality improvement impact different people very differently. For some people, the fact that mid-sized American cities now offer a wide range of ethnic dining options is a meaningful improvement in quality of life. But to the best of my knowledge my grandparents down in Boca Raton have never had a bowl of Pho and don’t intend to start. In their subjective experience, if anything the quality of dining options has declined as the sort of red checkered tablecloth Italian-American restaurants they enjoy have become less available.