Ha-Joon Chang (2022)

A book that combines food with economics? Not really.

I’m torn by this book. I enjoyed the food parts, especially the author’s anecdotes about his move to the UK from Korea, and how he’s observed the UK’s food scene change from incredibly insular and conservative to amazingly open and dynamic over the course of a couple of decades. It’s a change I also lived through and remember well.

I also enjoyed the economics. Chang is an eclectic collector of economic theories – all the more surprising because he’s an academic. He has an appropriate degree of scepticism for ideology and single explanation of complex questions, which is refreshing. He skewers some of the common myths, such as the “explanation” that poor countreis stay poor because their people don’t work hard enough, ingoring the massive structural factors in play. He’s equally scathing about the other “explanation” about the free-trade roots of the successes of the US and UK economies, given that they were actually massively protectionist during their main periods of growth. And he makes several policy suggestions for modern economies.

But…. as a book, I don’t think it works at all. The conceit of explaining economics through food remains just that: a conceit that’s not really threaded through the narrative in a meaningful way. The links are often just too tenuous. To give one example, a chapter that leads with anchovies ends up talking about natural-resource extraction economics using the example of bird guano – well, birds eat anchovies, so… Most of the chapters are basically diviided between food and economics with an often desperate attempt to tie them together. The economics is accessible, and a writer who can do that probably doesn’t need a gimmick to structure his work.

3/5. Finished Saturday 20 January, 2024.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)