Doobies over Butts: More Americans Now Smoke Marijuana Than Cigarettes

Gallup has polled Americans for many decades about their smoking habits. About 40-45% of adults smoked cigarettes from about 1945-1975, but the percentage has dropped steadily since then. A 2022 poll showed a new low of 11% being smokers. Roughly three in 10 nonsmokers say they used to smoke.

On the other hand, marijuana usage has climbed steadily since Gallup first asked about it in 1969. Some 16% of Americans say they currently smoke marijuana, while a total of 48% say they have tried it at some point in their lifetime:

Younger adults (18-34) are much more likely to be current users, but the 55+ crowd tried it nearly as much (44%) as the younger cohorts:

Among all adults, opinion is about evenly split on whether marijuana has a positive or negative effect on society and on people who use it. However, opinion is skewed very positive among those who have actually tried it, and negative among those who have not:

(I can’t resist inserting a consistent anecdotal observation by reliable people I know or know of, that habitual smoking of MJ tends to be highly correlated with passivity / lack of initiative, especially among young men. When one young man I know of told his counselor, “Nothing happens [when I smoke weed]”, the response was, “That’s the problem, nothing happens [because with weed you just chill and don’t do the stuff you need to do].” Of course, correlation says nothing about the direction of causation here).

The big gorilla of substance usage is still alcohol. About 45% of Americans have had an alcoholic drink within the past week, while another 23% say they use it occasionally. Alcohol use has remained relatively constant over the years. The average percentage of Americans who have said they are drinkers since 1939 is 63%, which is close to Gallup’s most recent reading of 67%.

McDouble vs Big Mac: Why Inflation Hits the Bottom Harder

Since they were first introduced as part of the Dollar Menu in 1997, the McDouble and the McChicken have been my go-to choices when I visit Mcdonald’s. It was always hard to justify getting one of the fancier sandwiches like a Big Mac or Quarter Pounder, since they were 4-5x the cost of a McDouble but only about twice the size. This is part of why the McDouble has been called “the greatest food in human history“. But as we’ve seen with the plagues and wars of the 2020s, history doesn’t always progress in the direction you’d hope.

I hadn’t been to a McDonald’s for a while until last weekend, when I was shocked to see the McDouble and McChicken listed at $2.99. This wasn’t at an airport restaurant either, or even in an expensive big city; I stopped in Keene, New Hampshire on a drive home from Vermont. The price is up 200% from the days of the Dollar Menu! Meanwhile, the Big Mac has also got more expensive, but much less dramatically; it was $5.89, compared to the ~$5 I expect. So, 200% price increases at the bottom, vs 18% at the top.

This location may be a bit of an anomaly, but the big picture is clear; a typical McDouble now costs well over $2 in most of the US, while a typical Big Mac is still well under $6. You used to be able to get 4-5 McDoubles for the price of a Big Mac; now you typically get less than 3 and sometimes, as in Keene, less than 2.

What’s going on here? First, the McDouble was always absurdly cheap. Second, prices rise most quickly where demand is inelastic, and demand is less elastic for goods that are cheaper and goods that are more like “necessities” than “luxuries”.

This is why I think the McDouble is worth highlighting- its part of a more general trend of where inflation hits. I’ve noticed this in the grocery store as well; the price of standard ground beef is up much more than grass-fed organic beef, likewise with standard eggs vs free-range organic. How different would the Economist’s Big Mac Index look if it used the McDouble instead?

With falling inflation we may see the end of this necessity vs luxury price compression. But I doubt we’ll ever see the glory of the standard $1 McDouble again.

The New Hampshire McDonalds was disappointing, but Vermont was nice

Birmingham AL Coffee Shop Crawl

There are lots of fun coffee shops in Birmingham. I’m going to limit this list geographically to make it a “crawl” that you could potentially bike around. I’ll list the cute places I know that are between Railroad Park downtown and Samford University south of Birmingham.

Starting at the North end, coffee shops that border Railroad Park:

Red Cat: Website | Instagram | Facebook

Honorable mention to Hero Doughnuts that operates two locations within the Crawl Area and serves great coffee.

Starbucks does operate here, although I assume that’s of less interest in terms of local color.

Moving South to Five Points:

Domestique (operates in multiple locations on the Crawl)

Filter Coffee Parlor: Website | Facebook | Instagram

Moving South, crossing into Homewood:

Caveat: Website | Facebook | Instagram

O’Henry’s (multiple locations)

Santos: Website | Instagram | Facebook

Chocolate America is not a coffee shop but the caffeine levels are high enough to make the Crawl.

It’s just slightly out of the crawl zone to the West, but I can’t leave out:

Seeds: Website | Instagram | Facebook

From the Seeds Instagram

Some Countries Use Too Much Fertilizer, and Some Use Too Little

In a world where China and India continue to build huge, CO2-belching coal power plants, and a world where global supply chains can no longer be taken for granted, you might think that a small, crowded country like the Netherlands would prioritize home-grown food production over concerns about greenhouse gas emissions from a relatively small volume of cow manure. But this is Europe, the land of eco-utopianism, and so you would be wrong.

Cow poop does emit nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas) and ammonia (which can potentially pollute local water if uncontained). In a burst of green virtue,  the Netherlands has, “unveiled a world-leading target to halve emissions of the gasses, as well as other nitrogen compounds that come from fertilizers, by 2030, to tackle their environmental and climate impacts.” This target is expected to result in a 30% reduction in livestock numbers and the closure of many farms. Dutch farmers are not amused, and have vented their ire by dumping hay bales on highways and smearing manure outside the home of the agricultural minister. Protests over green policies hobbling local farmers have spread to Germany and Canada.

All this raised in my mind the question, could we really get along with using much less nitrogen-based fertilizers? I found a great article by Hannah Ritchie on, “Can we reduce fertilizer use without sacrificing food production?”, which provides lush tables and graphs on the subject.

First, it’s estimated that artificial nitrogen fertilizers (where hydrogen, mainly derived from natural gas, is reacted with atmospheric nitrogen at high pressure over catalysts to make ammonia and derivatives) allow the world’s population to be about twice as high is it would be otherwise. Put another way, take away nitrogen fertilizers, and half of us die. So any campaign to massively scale back on fertilizer usage would result in mass starvation. You first…

That said, Ritchie’s article pointed out that some countries such as China seem to be (inefficiently) using much more fertilizer than they need to get similar results, some countries (e.g. America) seem to be about in balance, and some areas (e.g. sub-Saharan Africa) would benefit from using more fertilizer. So globally we could probably use a bit less fertilizer if the profligate countries used (a lot) less, while the deprived countries used a little more.

I’ll conclude with two charts from Ritchie’s article. The first chart shows, for instance, that Brazil uses twice as much fertilizer per hectare or per acre as the U.S, and China uses three times as much, while Ghana uses about a tenth as much.

The second chart shows estimated nitrogen use efficiency (NUE). An NUE of 40%, for instance, shows that 40% of the nitrogen in the fertilizer is converted to nitrogen in the form of crops, while the other 60% of the nitrogen becomes pollutants. In China and India, only about a third of the applied nitrogen is fully utilized, compared to two thirds in places like the U.S. and France. ( Some countries have a very high NUE – greater than 100%. This means they are undersupplying nitrogen, but continue to try to grow more and more crops. Instead of utilizing readily available nutrients, crops have to take nitrogen from the soil. Over time this depletes soils of their nutrients which will be bad for crop production in the long-run).

Trial Updates: Novavax Approved, Potatoes Work

I’m usually the one writing the papers, but I recently did two studies as a participant / guinea pig. Both just released major positive updates.

I joined the Novavax trial in late 2020 to have the chance to get a Covid vaccine sooner; at the time Pfizer had just got emergency approval but wasn’t available to the general public. The smart bio people on Twitter also seemed to think it was likely to be safer, and perhaps more effective, than other Covid vaccines (it delivers relevant proteins directly, rather than using mRNA or a viral vector). The trial results were published over a year ago now, and were in fact excellent:

Results from a Phase 3 clinical trial enrolling 29,960 adult volunteers in the United States and Mexico show that the investigational vaccine known as NVX-CoV2373 demonstrated 90.4% efficacy in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 disease. The candidate showed 100% protection against moderate and severe disease

As usual the FDA dragged its feet, even as other agencies around the world like the European Medical Agency and the World Health Organization approved the US-made Novavax. But last week it finally gave emergency authorization, and yesterday the CDC recommended Novavax. Of course, by now almost everyone who wants a Covid vaccine has one, and this approval is only for adults. But this will be a great option for boosters, as well as for anyone who was genuinely just concerned with the new technologies in the other vaccines (rather than just afraid of needles, or preferring to cut off their nose to spite authority’s face). As the CDC put it:

Protein subunit vaccines package harmless proteins of the COVID-19 virus alongside another ingredient called an adjuvant that helps the immune system respond to the virus in the future. Vaccines using protein subunits have been used for more than 30 years in the United States, beginning with the first licensed hepatitis B vaccine. Other protein subunit vaccines used in the United States today include those to protect against influenza and whooping cough….

Today, we have expanded the options available to adults in the U.S. by recommending another safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. If you have been waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine built on a different technology than those previously available, now is the time to join the millions of Americans who have been vaccinated

I’m glad I was in this trial- I got a Covid vaccine several months before I otherwise could have, I made a few hundred dollars, and I learned a lot. But it would have been much better if they found a way to do fewer blood draws, and if FDA approval had come quicker. I’ve been in a weird gray area with respect to vaccine mandates for the last year; almost everyone ended up accepting my vaccine card, but I never knew if they were going to say “no, you need an FDA approved one”. I ended up getting Pfizer for a booster even though I think it’s a worse vaccine, partly for this reason, and partly because Novavax said they’d only give me the booster if I did another blood draw and I was tired of that.

The all-potato diet trial I wrote about here also released its results this week. This trial was much less formal, much smaller, and had no control group, so the results aren’t a slam-dunk the way Novavax is. But I think they’re still impressive. I lost 8 pounds in the 4-week trial, but it turns out the average participant who did all 4 weeks did even better:

Of the participants who made it four weeks, one lost 0 lbs…. Everyone else lost more than that. The mean amount lost was 10.6 lbs, and the median was 10.0 lbs.

Their summary also explains other costs and benefits of the diet, showing lots of data as well as many quotes from participants, including two from me. They conclude with some fascinating speculation about potential mechanisms from the boring (literally, lower variety makes eating boring so you eat less) to the speculative (low lithium? high potassium? weird lithium-potassium interactions), check it out if you’re interested in why obesity rates keep rising or if you’re considering doing the potato diet.

I’m glad I was in these two trials- what to try next?

Irish Superman: 4 Weeks of Potatoes

Back in May I mentioned that a study was recruiting participants to try a 4-week all-potato diet. What I didn’t say was that I was joining the study, and I finished this week.

I’m glad I did it; I lost 8 pounds and 2 inches of waistline, going from slightly overweight (BMI 26) to just barely not-overweight (BMI 24.9). Here are some of my notes:

Day 5: Energy boost kicked in today. Feel half my age

Day 6: Potato energy going strong. Feel like Irish Superman

Day 15: Almost too much energy, hard to sit down at a computer and work, took a break to play basketball

So like many people who previously tried this, I can add more anecdotal evidence of weight loss (despite eating all the potatoes you want) and energy. I’ll also echo people who said that “hunger feels different” and not as demanding, and that it “resets your tastebuds” so that previously bland foods taste good (I just had a turnip with zero seasoning and it was almost too intense). Now to answer your likely questions:

Q: Did you actually eat nothing but potatoes for 4 weeks?

A: No, but I got reasonably close. I cooked potatoes in avocado oil and added seasonings, I drank coffee and beer, I ate other vegetables, I had some snacks. Overall I estimate I got 75-80% of my calories from potatoes.

Q: Was it hard to stick to? didn’t you get bored?

A: Being hungry or even bored weren’t really issues, all 5 times I slipped up and ate a meal that wasn’t potatoes I’d say it was for social reasons (I was at a party with great food, at a restaurant with someone, et c)

Q: What kinds of meals did you cook?

A: Lots of home fries and roast potatoes using lots of varieties of potato (russet, gold, red, purple, sweet). Mashed potatoes a few times. McCain’s craft beer fries for my birthday.

Q: Aren’t potatoes bad for you? Why didn’t this make you fat?

A: Anything can be bad for you if you deep-fry it, or otherwise smother it with fats or process it to death. This is probably how most potatoes get consumed in America, but they start as nutritious root vegetables.

Q: What about protein? Doesn’t this kill your gains?

A: This was my biggest concern going into the study. Potatoes do have more protein than I thought, enough to live on but probably not enough to make you strong. My lifts did come down a bit, though it’s unclear if that was due to the lack of protein or just the lower calories and weight loss taking some muscle along with the fat. I was eating high-protein yogurt many days to try to mitigate this.

Q: If this is so great, are you going to keep doing it?

A: No, it was great for the first 14-16 days then just ok. Most of the weight loss and energy boost happened in the first half. If I ever do this again I’m going to plan on two weeks, which I think is also what Penn Jillette suggests. I do think I’ll do potatoes for lunch a lot more often than I used to, and pivot this to a “whole foods / not-ultra-processed” diet.

Q: Is there something special about potatoes? Would any single-food diet work as well?

I’m not sure. Some of the benefit likely comes from cutting out variety, so not eating a lot just because “I need to try everything”. Some likely comes from cutting out specific categories of food, like high fat / high sugar / hyper-palatable. I don’t think that just any food would work, probably most whole foods would, but potatoes are cheap and nutritious. The potato diet leading to weight loss is consistent with many, though not all theories of obesity.

Q: Can I still sign up for the study?

A: No:

Signups are now closed, but we plan to do more potato diet studies in the future. If you’re interested in participating in a future potato diet study, you can give us your email at this link and we’ll let you know when we run the next study.

But you can always just do it yourself.

Eat 20 Potatoes a Day…. For Science

Several people have tried eating an all-potato diet for a few weeks and reported losing lots of weight with little hunger or effort. Could this be the best diet out there? Or are we only hearing from the rare success stories, while all the people who tried it and failed stay quiet?

Right now we don’t really know, but the people behind the Slime Mold Time Mold blog are trying to find out:

Tl;dr, we’re looking for people to volunteer to eat nothing but potatoes (and a small amount of oil & seasoning) for at least four weeks, and to share their data so we can do an analysis. You can sign up below.

I was surprised to see that they are the ones running this, since they are best known for the “Chemical Hunger” series arguing that the obesity epidemic is largely driven by environmental contaminants like Lithium. The conclusion of that series noted:

Bestselling nutrition books usually have this part where they tell you what you should do differently to lose weight and stay lean. Many of you are probably looking forward to us making a recommendation like this. We hate to buck the trend, but we don’t think there’s much you can do to keep from becoming obese, and not much you can do to drop pounds if you’re already overweight. 

We gotta emphasize just how pervasive the obesity epidemic really is. Some people do lose lots of weight on occasion, it’s true, but in pretty much every group of people everywhere in the world, obesity rates just go up, up, up. We’ll return to our favorite quote from The Lancet

“Unlike other major causes of preventable death and disability, such as tobacco use, injuries, and infectious diseases, there are no exemplar populations in which the obesity epidemic has been reversed by public health measures.”

That said, they did still offer some advice based on the contaminant theory that is consistent with the potato diet:

1. — The first thing you should consider is eating more whole foods and/or avoiding highly processed foods. This is pretty standard health advice — we think it’s relevant because it seems pretty clear that food products tend to pick up more contaminants with every step of transportation, packaging, and processing, so eating local, unpackaged, and unprocessed foods should reduce your exposure to most contaminants. 

2. — The second thing you can do is try to eat fewer animal products. Vegetarians and vegans do seem to be slightly leaner than average, but the real reason we recommend this is that we expect many contaminants will bioaccumulate, and so it’s likely that whatever the contaminant, animal products will generally contain more than plants will. So this may not help, but it’s a good bet. 

Overall though I think the idea here is to ignore grand theories and take an empirical approach. The potato diet works surprisingly well anecdotally, so lets just see if it can work on a larger scale. Seems worth a try; I’m sure plenty of my ancestors in Ireland and Northern Maine did 4-week mostly-potato diets and lived to tell about it. You can read more and/or sign up here. Let us know how it goes if you actually try it!

Really Stable Prices

Breaking news in America this week: Little Caesars will be raising the price of their Hot-N-Ready Pizzas from $5 to $5.55. Some see this as a sign of the times, just another bit of bad news among all the inflation data lately. But what really surprised me is that this price has been stable they introduced it in 1997. This means that compared to median wages, these pizzas were about 50% cheaper than 1997 (before this price increase). That’s a doubling of America’s Pizza Standard of Living in just 24 years.

Keeping a fixed price is a somewhat rare, but fascinating pricing strategy. It can even become part of the identity of the product. The most famous example was Coca-Cola, which sold a 6.5 ounce bottle for 5 cents from 1886 to 1959. It’s so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page! “Always 5 cents” became a marketing slogan for them. And while we may regard that time period as one of generally low inflation, consumer prices on average more than tripled from 1886 to 1959.

Probably the most famous recent example is Costco’s $1.50 hot dog and soda combo, which has been stable in price since 1985. Rumor has it that the founder of Costco once told the current CEO that he’d kill him if he raised the price of the hot dog. Since 1985, nominal median wages in the US have tripled, meaning that your Costco Hot Dog Standard of Living has also tripled.

The concept of nickel and dime stores and later dollar stores are similar concepts, but they aren’t necessarily selling the exact same products over time. Coca-Cola, Hot-N-Ready pizzas, and Costco hot dogs really are the same product from year-to-year, so these products stand out as amazing examples of price stability during periods of time when most prices were rising in nominal terms (other than new technologies).

What are some other examples of consistently stable prices?

Pumpkin Spice: 15th Century Edition

It’s pumpkin spice season. That means that not only can you get pumpkin spice lattes, but also pumpkin spice Oreos, pumpkin spice Cheerios, and even pumpkin spice oil changes.

The most important thing to know about “pumpkin spice” things is that they don’t actually taste like pumpkin. They taste like the spices that you use to flavor pumpkin pie. (Notable exception: Peter Suderman’s excellent pumpkin spice cocktail syrup, which does contain pumpkin puree.)

Last week economic historian Anton Howes posted a picture of the spice shelf at his grocery store and guessed that this would have been worth millions of dollars in 1600.

Some of the comments pushed back a little. OK, probably not millions but certainly a lot. Howes was alluding to the well-known fact that spices used to be expensive. Very expensive. Spices, along with precious metals, were one of the primary reasons for the global exploration, trade, and colonialism for centuries. Finding and controlling spices was a huge source of wealth.

But how much more expensive were spices in the past? One comment on Howes’ tweet points to an excellent essay by the late economic historian John Munro on the history of spices. And importantly, Munro gives us a nice comparison of the prices of spices in 15th century Europe, including a comparison to typical wages.

As I looked at the list of spices in Munro’s essay, I noticed: these are the pumpkin spices! Cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and mace (from the nutmeg seed, though not exactly the same as nutmeg). He’s even included sugar. That’s all we need to make a pumpkin spice syrup!

Last week in my Thanksgiving prices post I cautioned against looking at any one price or set of prices in isolation. You can’t tell a lot about standards of living by looking at just a few prices, you need to look at all prices. So let me just reiterate here that the following comparison is not a broad claim about living standards, just a fun exercise.

That being said, let’s see how much the prices of spices have fallen.

Continue reading

Happy 400th Thanksgiving from EWED

In 1621 the pilgrims were starving after their communal farming system gave them little incentive to work hard, leading them to rely on the generosity of their native neighbors at the first Thanksgiving. But in the long run they were able to produce their own feasts after switching to a private property system. Economist Ben Powell tells the story briefly here, or you can read the primary source, William Bradford’s Diary here.

It is customary in many families to “give thanks to the hands that prepared this feast” during the Thanksgiving dinner blessing. Perhaps we should also be thankful for the millions of other hands that helped get the dinner to the table: the grocer who sold us the turkey, the truck driver who delivered it to the store, and the farmer who raised it all contributed to our Thanksgiving dinner because our economic system rewards them

Powell calls this “the real lesson of Thanksgiving”, and while I think there are other great angles to the story this is certainly a real lesson of Thanksgiving.