Eduardo Porter is an economics reporter for the New York Times, and most recently, the author of American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise. After taking part in a Zócalo Live event that asked “How Has Racism Shaped the American Economy?,” he called into the green room to talk about keeping perspective during quarantine, how to measure happiness, and why everyone should be drinking coffee from a moka pot.
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
I don’t do breakfast. I had coffee. That’s my normal staple, coffee with a little milk.
How do you procrastinate?
Mostly by staring at the computer screen. Twitter, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Financial Times. I also watch old vintage soccer games when there’s something I really don’t want to do that I should be doing.
What’s the best thing you’ve done in quarantine so far?
I’ve learned to not complain—to remember that I’m still drawing a wage, that I’m not sick. When I look at the world, and I feel really, really dark and glum, I can pull myself back and think that my personal experience is not as bad as that of others. So I’ve grown better at tempering my pessimism.
Is there a teacher or a boss who’s influenced you in your life?
I had a really good editor at the Times [Tom Redburn] who retired a few years ago. We would butt heads a ton, but I learned to appreciate enormously his really great intelligence and ability to take the conversation in interesting directions.
What is your favorite city to eat in?
Cities, in general, are fantastic places for eating. All of them—Tokyo, New York, Mexico City … You'd be amazed how well you can eat in Mexico City.
Do you have a least favorite city to eat in?
I lived in London in the early ’90s for a few years. There was a lot of subpar, fairly pricey eating. Now I think that that's changed a lot, because London has expanded immensely. But when I was there, I didn't really love it.
There's a great speculative analysis by Paul Krugman where he suggested that English food is so bad because [modern England] urbanized before refrigeration. And so, as it urbanized and it needed to find a food economy for this large concentration of people, what could you have? You'd have boiled stuff, and tin stuff—stuff that wouldn't go bad.
Is there a statistic about human behavior that you find particularly interesting?
I would say that the notion of what makes us happy, what rewards us as individuals and as a society, and how to measure that. There's still debate going on about that, and the debate will never end. The variety of statistics that we use to try to approximate that, at an individual level and at a societal level, and how they interact, is to me extremely interesting
The most blunt kind of statistic of gross domestic product, which we take to measure in many instances the wellbeing of the society, is one such statistic. It is extremely flawed as a measure of wellbeing of society, but it does tell us some things that are useful.
But you also have other things. You have the measures of subjective wellbeing, for instance: "How satisfied are you with your life on a scale of 1 to 7?" Those things are also flawed measures, because we often don't really know how satisfied we are—but they also contain real information. You can draw interesting, valuable information from this, and even crazier measures, like measures of happiness and joy.
A lot of economists will tell you that we can tell what increases people's wellbeing just by looking at what they choose to do, and say OK, what they choose to do, they presumably like that. But then you have to think, within what constraints are people making these choices? These choices are contingent on a bunch of other things.
So, how do we understand this idea of what the economists call "revealed preference"? How should we read it? How much weight should we put on it? Because this is fed into all sorts of policies, [from] how we invest in roads to how we tweak healthcare systems. So it's really important to understand what the value and what the limit of these different indicators are.
What is the last thing that inspired you?
If I'm answering your question super narrowly about what inspired the last little piece of creative stuff I'm doing, it's always some random conversation. Somebody said something. And you chew on it a little bit, and then you have another conversation. It's all little things.
I'm writing a story now about what's going to happen to urban labor markets in a post-COVID world—if that post-COVID world is a world with a lot more remote work. A lot of the service economy really depends on the people in offices and whatnot, who go out to eat, and take taxis, and so on.
Now what inspired that? Well, I had a conversation for the last story that I wrote—which was about the future of cities—with this economist at Harvard, Ed Glaeser. We were talking about what happened to the cities, and he said, "Well, the most important thing to pay attention to is what's going to happen to the low-wage labor market in cities, because it could be decimated." And I thought, wow, that's a really interesting thought, and I put it in my pocket. And so after I finished that other story, I said, OK, now let's think about this.
You’ve lived all over the world. Is there a particular custom that you think Americans should adopt or that you personally practice in your life?
Drinking coffee from a moka, that Italian coffeemaker with an hourglass form. That is a fabulous custom that I would recommend everybody to have.
More seriously, another custom from countries that I've lived in that I think that the United States should adopt is to build a functioning social safety net. That is my big beef with this country; it has not done that, and it is, therefore, a much weaker society than it could be, because of this aversion to pay for this proposition of collective wellbeing.
That's the thing that drove me to write Poison. My first question was, why did the U.S. build such a crummy society? And that's where I landed.