A long dispute in economic theory involves the role of tastes and the sense in which we might distinguish differences in tastes across time or among different people. The main complaint is that attributing differences in behavior to differences in preferences seems at best tautological, and presents not so much an explanation as an obfuscation. In fact, this objection was formalized in one of the most famous papers in modern economics: De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum [There is No Disputing Tastes] by Nobel Prize Winners George Stigler (1982) and Gary Becker (1992), which appeared in the American Economic Review, vol. 67, in 1977. Stigler and Becker argued that a more nuanced formalization of decision constraints could capture all the richness and variety in behavior that had traditionally been chalked up to differences in preferences. They went so far as to propose that much (if not all) of modern economics could be reformulated on the assumption that all tastes are the same.

I have never been a fan of Becker’s work, so I am particularly pleased to be able to present a definitive case where it is more useful to speak of changing tastes than changing constraints. I am also no fan of Mondays at work, which is where this tale begins…

The first day of the week at work is always difficult—I have email to read, meetings to attend, the cloudy after-effects of hangovers to suffer through, and our systems management always performs a hardware audit when we start our computers for the week that adds about 15 minutes to boot-up time. The past few Mondays (Tuesday after Labor Day was effectively a Monday) have been particularly bad. I have been quite busy at work, and it has been the Mondays when I have learned of my new responsibilities and tasks. Three Mondays back, I had a meeting with one of our SVPs, during which I was charged with finishing a painful piece of research within a very short time frame. I was also informed that I would be taking on some management responsibilities. And that I had a new research project to undertake. And that there would be two other tasks of immediate importance that would fall on my shoulders. And… and… and it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Enter Caroline, stage left.

When I finally found my way out of the office, I wandered toward the Rock Bottom Brewery in Bethesda, wanting nothing more than to drown my frustration in a tall, dark glass of foamy oblivion. Normally, I am an ardent admirer of the Stillwater Stout, and I have a weak spot in my soul for a well-crafted Pale Ale, so I generally enjoy imbibing at the Rock Bottom, but enjoyment was not my goal. I wanted something to drink, but I had no desire to enjoy it, so I decided to order something out of the ordinary. I would order the Red.

I was neither happy nor pleasant; I wanted beer and forgetfulness, ale and Lethe, to be left alone and nothing else. Instead, I was greeted at the table by the sweetest smile I have seen in ages. My saucy barmaid made the maintenance of my malaise impossible. She was pretty in all the ways that one could want, she was pleasant and efficient and friendly and bright, and her presence was incredibly warming. Immediately upon ordering the Red I regretted it—nothing but a heady stout could match its intoxicants against hers, and only the Pale would be sweet enough to compete with her. She was wonderful. I passed the hour or so reading Chamfort and averting my eyes when, having wandered from the page timidly in the direction of my lovely, they were invariably met by hers, beaming back her beautiful smile. For the first time since I joined the Mug Club several weeks before, I actually remembered to use my Club card, which records for posterity (and prizes) the quantity of beer that I consume. I had bought one pint; she credited me with six (the maximum allowed in one visit). The receipt said her name was Caroline.

I know it’s odd to read in bars, but I have so little patience for trivial small-talk with strangers, and I have no interest in televised sports, particularly of the American sort, and I know few other people within a thousand miles. This time, however, it seemed to work in my favor. When, after a similarly harrowing Monday (Tuesday, but it was just like a Monday) at work, I returned the next week to the Rock Bottom Brewery, the same saucy barmaid greeted me and offered to get me a Red because she remembered me and remembered what I had ordered the week before. How could I possibly object? I imagine that I was so easy to remember because I was such an anomaly—no one reads in bars, especially when the football’s on. But I found myself reading again, and drinking the Red that I probably wouldn’t have ordered, given my tastes. Somehow, though, the beer was more pleasing to the palate than it had ever been before, and I noticed that the color complemented perfectly my server’s rosy complexion and cherrywood hair.

This past week, when the eternally recurring Monday was once again upon me, I barely managed to make it through the day at work. I was exhausted, and wanted nothing more than to go home and sleep. As I was walking past the Rock Bottom, though, I hesitated. Perhaps she would be working that night? Perhaps her smile would ease the tension and help the sleep come more quickly and more gently? As it turns out, she was working that night, but she was working a different section of the restaurant, so when I took the same table as before, I was greeted by an entirely different waitress, and different, whatever Arby’s says, is not always better. My disappointment, however, was dissipated when she immediately presented me with a Red. Caroline, she said, had seen me come in and had told her that I’m a Red drinker. Caroline, she said, had suggested that I would appreciate the beer. Caroline, of course, was entirely correct. You see, Caroline thinks I’m a Red drinker. So now I am.

NP: The Decemberists, The Soldiering Life