And it’s called north

There is a restaurant in Providence that means an awful lot to me in a lot of different ways. It’s not a secret, it’s north. The place is long since famous, to whatever degree that means here in wee Rhode Island, and critically acclaimed to the maximum. I’m not treading new ground here, is what I mean, and anyway I’m not here to, god forbid, recommend where a person should go eat.

I keep starting and abandoning writing something about north—it always starts to feel a bit over the top, more earnest than I really mean, so I just give up and I think, it’s just a place you like to eat, you know? And what’s the sense in getting weird with that? But it’s an itch I can’t scratch and as I said there’s something about it all that I don’t know what it is, so here we are. I’m not the only one who feels that way about the place, not even the only one I know.

So what’s the deal?

north opened in 2012, when I was in the middle of living mostly in Toronto but still a lot in Providence, where my partner lived. I was constantly getting seriously worked up about border crossings and immigration rules and sort of still mourning having to have uprooted from Providence in the first place but not getting over it because I was back every other week. It was a tricky time. Lots of people have similar stories after grad school because you’ve got a proper grown-up life in a city and then you have to take a job wherever you get it. But that’s a story for another day.

I don’t remember when I first went to north, but right away it became weirdly tied in to my relationship with the city. I’d go “home” and see my friends and go there with them, the tiny, welcoming, happy place. So it was an important place to keep me sane and grounded when other things were so uncertain and contingent. But beyond that, right from the beginning it was just obviously the best. It sounds so cheap to say that it was fucking delicious but of course it was, and the drinks were great, and it was always maybe going to be exactly what you expected or maybe something weird would be going on. It was the best combination of extremely high quality and extremely loose.

[ Interlude for a requiem for the country ham… how long did it stay on the menu? It looked like a real pain in the ass to prepare but hey we always ordered it because it was damn good while it lasted. Also can we do a requiem here for the booze slushie machine, R.I.P. ]

By 2013 we were evangelizing, which I know because I looked it up in my email just now, and this probably seems like the moment to say I have dragged a lot of people to north over the years and everyone has loved it, so there. They all loved it even after however long waiting for the table, which was one hundred percent an important feature, because I can’t imagine what it would have been like with reservations. Anticipation with a bit of uncertainty.

We’re now I think up to two ways so far that north changed the way I think about stuff. It made me rethink how things taste, because I didn’t know that things could taste like several of the many ways things tasted there. It made me rethink going out to eat, because I saw the value of no reservations and the waiting and the way that everyone being happy to be there elevated everything else.

In 2015 I moved back to Providence full time. I finally got some stability and it was quite a relief. It turned out that I still wanted to go to north all the damn time, so it was never just about the dislocation thing. I’m extremely lucky that I could and can afford to eat there regularly, and that I had friends who wanted to do the same. When we’d want to get together and go somewhere, it was always north. A couple drinks across the street waiting for the table, family style so everyone can eat however much they want and actually share a meal like share a meal, and a tiny space that always felt easygoing. Oh, and the tiny ham biscuits, oh god.

When I travel somewhere I’ve never been before I think about where I want to eat differently now too. I think about it a lot more, for one. And north definitely had a part in that too, because it made me want to find similarly joyful spots on the road. I love seeking out places and north elevated my awareness and, I think, my taste too. I feel like I’m getting a better knack for guessing a place’s vibe from clues and telltale signs and I’m always thinking now about how a hundred structural choices ultimately manifest as a feeling. Maybe with a bit of alchemy. Integrity and daring, trust and talent.

Pause here for the Falling Sakura (when did it show up on the menu? Somewhere around here?), a cocktail so perfect and smart that I am jealous as hell that I didn’t think of it, but how could I when the ingenuity and the work is in the time, as ever the hardest corner to cut, in the ingredient that gives it its name.

I’ve taken seminar speakers and job candidates to north now too. What better way is there to show off weird little Providence than a restaurant that seems so clearly Rhode Island but is just as hard to define? It’s a risk, I suppose, not just in the obvious ways but also because I get so weirdly protective of the place that if I thought they didn’t like it I’d never look at them the same way again. They like it, though, or at least they see the look in my eye.

In 2017 it was me in a period of rest in Providence and north itself that was on the move. The last couple of visits to the old place were especially joyous and if memory serves we even might have taken a couple of photos of ourselves to commemorate the end of a little era. Not the end, of course, of north, which is old and new and still changing all the time at the new location, like seeing your cool friend in a well-tailored grown-up suit for the first time, and not the end of the old space, now big king, which I am as of this moment extremely impatient to try as soon as possible. But a nice little ending of something or other.

By then we’d seen exciting collaborative dinners, whole fried fish heads, countless bowls of dan dan noodles, and every vegetable under the Rhode Island sun elevated to high art. We never got tired of any of it, not a bit. By then we knew—from public stances and statements—that we were supporting a place that cared and shared about the hidden sides of the business, wages, diversity, symbiosis with the community and the supply chain, dialogue with customers. Is it just ex post reasoning to think that maybe we could tell all along?

I guess after all that it’s just my favorite place to eat, but I don’t think that’s a small thing. I’ve been glad it’s there ever since visit number one. I did a bad job just now of explaining myself and I think it might be because I don’t really know. As I said at the top, north is not an establishment short of fans. You may agree by this point that I am worryingly attached to it. I’m choosing for now to be OK with that because it’s fun to celebrate something once in a while and it might as well be something awesome. north has been there for me for nigh on six years now and I’ll be there for it too, damn it.

What economists do: the one model we use

Economics is jargon-heavy, like, well, everything. Economists, I can attest, are especially fond of that academic disease of using their jargon in everyday conversation, a kind of subconscious economic imperialism. Nevertheless, there’s a difference between specialist knowledge (with its public face, jargon) and the concepts on which a body of knowledge is built.

How could we distill economics to its base? This is a slightly different goal than defining the principles of economics; here we want to identify the actual applicable results that derive from the principles and recur again and again in the whole discipline. As a first pass at this problem, let’s look at the model we use in economics. That’s model, singular.

Modern economics is built on the formalized statement of the definition of the subject: some entity has objectives, and limited resources with which to achieve them. These become the objective function and the constraints. Now the entity could be anything: a firm, a person, a government, a group of people.

The objective function might be expressed in math, but it doesn’t have to be. It reflects, obviously, the objectives of the entity, and these could be anything, but will typically have to be a simplified version of what an entity really wants or needs. This is one place where the abstraction from reality might have to be made, although we can imagine, as a thought experiment, the omniscient modeler who is not subject to this particular problem.

The constraints can, again, be put into math but doesn’t have to be. It is the expression of scarcity; constraints can reflect anything that poses a challenge to our entity’s achieving its goal. The abstraction is often necessary here, too: time, money, social convention, technology are just some of the possible constraints.

Now this is really a very simple idea, but all economics uses this as its base. We are concerned with the allocation of scarce resources in the quest to satisfy objectives, and this is the model of that. The math angle comes in to make this model give tangible and quantifiable results; we could make arguments without the math, but using it often helps to make things clear. The challenge for the modeler is to write the model cleverly, making simplifications enough to make the problem understandable, but not too many to make it irrelevant.

Theoretical economists are explicitly writing this model, over and over, and the illustrative economic models we present in teaching students use this model exclusively. Empirical economists use it too, not just writing it down, but in subtle ways: perhaps the empiricist can identify a precise moment or situation in which the constraints on a particular entity’s problem changed, offering them a useful opportunity to see how choices change in the face of the discrete change in conditions.

This model gives rise to the marginalist result. It says that our entity will allocate resources to a particular use while the benefit of doing so exceeds the cost of doing so, and that the point at which the entity stops will be characterized by the balance of cost and benefit at that particular point. If the decision was changed slightly in either direction, the results would be less satisfying, either because the cost would exceed the benefit, or because the benefit would exceed the cost. That might sound complicated, but it is a familiar idea from everyday life.

In the jargon, the result is that marginal benefit equals marginal cost in the solution to this model of an entity facing a resource allocation model. That simply means that from the “solution”, there is no change that would be a better result for the objective function. Not to say that the solution is a perfect prediction or description; the solution is to the model, not the actual problem faced by the entity. Perhaps the loaded meaning of the word solution is a hindrance here. Much debate has been staged over the extent of predictive or descriptive accuracy of this economic model.

Where it gets a bit complicated is at the point where we’re unsatisfied with the objectives or constraints we are using in our models. Benefit and cost are pretty easy to think about when our abstraction acknowledges only money, for example, but what if my entity’s objective function included the wellbeing of others, the environment, the amount of time spent in the sun, the quality of life? These assumptions are not just more difficult to incorporate, they are more difficult to interpret.

Where does all this fit in with the themes I’ve touched on before? The debate about rationality, economic man and realism informs directly the objective function. For example, the behavioral school could be characterized as seeking to come up with a more realistic, tractable objective function. The economics-as-money fallacy crops up in both the objective and constraints, yet how we denominate these things doesn’t change the model one bit. The debate about math in economics informs the language in which the model is presented; non-mathematical economists still use the model, even if they don’t write all these components down as mathematical relationships.

This is the model of economics. Two examples to show what’s going on.

First: how would a subsidy on the wage of low-income workers, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, affect the number of people who work and how much they work? The common treatment of this problem in basic economics is to imagine a person who has a desire for money and for time, and to illustrate the wage subsidy as affecting the constraint, in this case the rate at which our person can earn money by giving up their time to work. We can then ask how this change in the constraint affects the hypothetical best choice of our simple person, and even ask how the person’s relative desire for time and money affect this answer.

Theorists can try to answer this question by investigating the model itself; empiricists might look to the data to try to identify the change in actual choices observed when the subsidy is introduced. [Aside: as it turns out, weird things happen with the EITC during the income range when it’s gradually phased out.]

Second: how would a person choose to react to another person they perceive to be unfair? Our person might have an objective function that includes preference for money and fairness, and their constraint could include the social norms for fairness as well as their money budget. This example is well-studied in experimental economics, where our person can decide to sacrifice some common good in order to punish a person who was greedy.

No matter what field of economics one works in, this is the one model most dominant in all of the work. It is, of course, very flexible (in fact, infinitely flexible, as I argued before), and I have stated it in the most general terms. Nevertheless, when economists argue, it is worth remembering that we all play the same game. It might just be the language, but it is a language that can seem daunting and restrictive to outsiders or students. I don’t believe that is the case: the beauty of this most fundamental model is its simplicity and its malleability. To distill economics into its essence, this is the place to start.

Simple arguments complicated by needless econ-jargon

I’m all for novel arguments, but this one is a classic case of over-complication. The argument belongs to Charles Karelis, and reaches me via this article, called ‘The Sting of Poverty’ (bees feature as an extended metaphor), in the Boston Globe. The topic is relative poverty (in America, implicitly) and why poor people don’t take actions to drag their sorry selves out of poverty. Hold that thought, especially if you see an obvious answer, and let’s go through the Karelis argument, as characterized by the article.

“Compared with the middle class or the wealthy, the poor are disproportionately likely to drop out of school, to have children while in their teens, to abuse drugs, to commit crimes, to not save when extra money comes their way, to not work.

To an economist, this is irrational behavior. It might make sense for a wealthy person to quit his job, or to eschew education or develop a costly drug habit. But a poor person, having little money, would seem to have the strongest incentive to subscribe to the Puritan work ethic, since each dollar earned would be worth more to him than to someone higher on the income scale.”

I don’t think so. For whom is it more costly to do all those naughty, naughty things? For the person with a beautiful job, beautiful house, beautiful spouse or the person with a low wage and low prospects? News: when your labor is worth less money, you have less incentive to work, not the ‘strongest’ incentive to ‘subscribe to the Puritan work ethic.

And while we’re on the subject, ‘to an economist, this is irrational behavior’ is literally offensive to this economist. First of all, please don’t ever use the phrase ‘irrational behavior’. Second, even to the most traditional, boring economist in the room, the motivation for the behavior being described is not difficult to speculate on. I just did, and I didn’t even think that hard.


“It also means, Karelis argues, that at one level economists and poverty experts will have to reconsider scarcity, one of the most basic ideas in economics.

“It’s Econ 101 that’s to blame,” Karelis says. “It’s created this tired, phony debate about what causes poverty.” “

No-one is more depressed about Econ 101 than me, but, yikes, economics is all about scarcity! If there was no scarcity, we can all go home and think about something different instead. I’m always disappointed when someone bashes Econ 101 for the wrong reasons, or bashes some jargon from Econ 101 then uses it anyway.

“The economist’s term for the idea Karelis takes issue with is the law of diminishing marginal utility. In brief, it means the more we have of something, the less any additional unit of that thing means to us. In many cases, Karelis says, diminishing marginal utility certainly does apply: Our seventh ice cream cone will no doubt be less pleasurable than our first. But the logic flips when we are dealing with privation rather than plenty.

If, for example, our car has several dents on it, and then we get one more, we’re far less likely to get that one fixed than if the car was pristine before. If we have a sink full of dishes, the prospect of washing a few of them is much more daunting than if there are only a few in the sink to begin with. Karelis’s name for goods that reduce or salve these sort of burdens is “relievers.””

A couple problems. This is a costs issue again, and the ‘good’ we’re talking about is something like ‘a car with no dents in it’, which you either have or you don’t. Diminishing marginal utility of a non-dent is something too esoteric even for an economist, methinks, and that is not a statement I ever thought I’d write. I’m also struggling very hard not to be facetious about the fact that ‘money’ turns out to be the ‘reliever’. Yes, money is a pretty decent ‘reliever’ of financial hardship!

But then, at last, Karelis actually comes over to the light side:

“Karelis argues that being poor is defined by having to deal with a multitude of problems: One doesn’t have enough money to pay rent or car insurance or credit card bills or day care or sometimes even food. Even if one works hard enough to pay off half of those costs, some fairly imposing ones still remain, which creates a large disincentive to bestir oneself to work at all.

“The core of the problem has not been self-discipline or a lack of opportunity,” Karelis says. “My argument is that the cause of poverty has been poverty.” “

Ah. So it is a cost thing. And there’s one of those simple answers I was holding in my mind from the start: many things conspire to make it difficult for poor people to become rich, not least the fact that the problems pile up. Actually, we call those poverty traps (thanks, Wikipedia!).

What lessons can I take from this exercise? First: don’t mess around talking about people’s motivations and incentives, their ‘utility’ and preferences, when it is not necessary to do so. Maybe it sounds nice and jargon-y, but let’s have a bit of Occam’s Razor and just check if, in fact, it’s just a cost thing. Second: a bee sting or car dent metaphor does not a new economic theory make, especially if your new theory calls for a reconsideration of scarcity(!).

The actual policy prescription Karelis is pushing is to simply give the poor money instead of bending over backwards with possibly more costly benefits-in-kind. The debate there is so involved and long-running that I’m not even going to try to describe it in one sentence, but suffice to say it exists, and of course anyone is welcome to join it. I just wish Karelis didn’t invoke ‘economics’ to make his particular arguments, which are much simpler than they are made out to be, and require no dressing.