Monday, March 15, 2004

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That cursed affluence

Robert Samuelson's latest Newsweek column argues that America's obesity "crisis" is an ailment of affluence. The interesting grafs:

The supposed villains here are fast-food restaurants and food companies that have supersized us to corpulence. There's some truth to this, but the larger and more boring truth is that food's gotten cheaper, and as a result, we consume more of it—and more away from home. In 1950, Americans devoted a fifth of their disposable incomes to food (and less than a fifth of that to eating out). Now food's share is a tenth (and almost half is out). We eat what pleases us, and so why should anyone be surprised that the average American now consumes about 150 pounds of sugar and sweeteners annually, up roughly 20 percent since 1980? The only saving grace is that some of the extra food "is thrown away—otherwise, all Americans would weigh 300 pounds," says Roland Sturm, an obesity expert at the Rand Corp....

Getting wealthier spawns other complaints. One is the "time squeeze"—the sense that we're more harried than ever. We all know this is true; we're tugged by jobs, family, PTA and soccer. Actually, it's not true. People go to work later in life and retire earlier. Housework has declined. One survey found that in 1999 only 14 percent of wives did more than four hours of daily housework; the figure was 43 percent in 1977 and 87 percent in 1924. Even when jobs and housework are combined, total work hours for women and men have dropped.

Read the entire piece.

posted by Dan on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM


Heh. Two observations: First, I find it interesting that many in the government-school establishment have flocked to the anti-obesity crusade. Interesting because one of the major reasons children don't get as much exercise as they used to is, well, they're forced to sit still in a school building for eight hours a day. With many educators calling for longer school days and years, I wonder if anyone thought to ask what the impact on obesity might be?

Second, I work in antitrust policy, and the other day I was chatting with a colleague about the quetion, "does antitrust promote obesity?" I said this jokingly because one of the largest antitrust cases of the past decade has been against corn syrup manufacturers. The gist of the case is that prices were increased due to some illicit corn syrup cartel activity. Assuming that's true, is it really a good idea to force the price of corn syrup lower given its use in junk food? Could scheming anti-obesity lawyers sue scheming antitrust lawyers for conspiring to make food even more fattening?

posted by: Skip OIiva on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]

"an ailment of affluence"

also known as "affluenza"


posted by: brook davidsen on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]

Affluence causes obesity?!? Try again. Eating well and healthily in the US is a function of either time or money, or both. There is a link between obesity and income in this country, but it's in the opposite direction (i.e. a negative relationship). This is obvious to anybody who arrives on America's shores for the first time.

posted by: oneangryslav on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]

Whoa! It's after 1:00 am! Dinner was seven hours ago. I'm gonna go make a sandwich and sleep on it. Morning comes early enough and I have to find a new gardener, get the garage door opener fixed, layout the tasks for the housekeeper, then get down to the gym so my personal trainer can try to work off some of this excess weight! I'm supposed to increase the treadmill speed and up the incline. I'll bet I can really ramp it up if I wear some skates...

posted by: germ on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]

Belmont Club had an interesting take: "The victory of the Socialist Party in Spain and its probable withdrawal from an active alliance with the United States in the Global War on Terror is a decisive victory for the forces of freedom everywhere -- although this is not immediately apparent."

posted by: Sissy Willis on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]

Our national corpulence is one of those unforeseen consequences of good intentions gone awry: The advice outlined in the US Agriculture Department's Food Guide Pyramid has changed Americans' eating habits, though not in the way it was intended. The Agriculture Department hoped that if people ate more whole grains and other carbohydrates, they would reduce their consumption of fats.

"It's all about feeling satisfied"

posted by: Sissy Willis on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]

Skip is definitely onto something here, though I would argue that the legal industry's true crime here is to have sued on behalf of so many "victims" of exercise-related injuries over the past few decades that people are afraid of letting kids play a game of touch football or pickup basketball on their property!

Our "lifestyle" choices are making our kids fat: parents are older (face it, 40 year olds generally are less able to run around after active youngsters than 20-somethings), they're tired at the end of a long day at work and the temptation to "grab something on the way home"--something they'll be sure to eat, is irresistable. No one even knows what their kids have eaten during the day--usually it's crap too, because school lunches are abominations (politics combined with cheapness make for food-like substances, not nutrition).

My kids are lean bordering on skinny, but I spend hours every week playing with them in the backyard and carting them to practices. I fix almost all our meals and am diligent about what I buy (and, yes, it costs a fortune).

So many factors go into this obesity epidemic. It actually makes me feel sorry for Mickey D's.

posted by: Kelli on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]

David Gelernter has pointed out that in 1939 even full time American employees often went hungry. Common sense dictates that people will abuse anything if the price is ridiculously low. Unfortunately, the mediocre John Kenneth Galbraith converted a lot of people into believing that the allegedly evil corporations create advertising campaigns to essentially force the public to do stupid things. The fault supposedly is always the capitalist system.

posted by: David Thomson on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]

Backup one level. Why is Corn Syrup so cheap? Is it because we've gotten better at refining corn into Syrup in the last 40 years? Possibly. Is it because Farming has gotten more efficient and we produce more corn per acre now than we did 40 years ago? Probably. Is it because government subsidies on corn and other agriculture have created a glut of produce that we need to do SOMETHING with?

I don't remember the article now, but I've seen this as the nugget of obesity. When the government stepped in to prop up agriculture they created a market of abundance and new 'value added' agricultureal products, one of those being Corn Syrup. If we didn't produce so much corn then the cost of Corn Syrup would go up, along with quite a few other products.

I'm not entirely sure of the specifics, but to me it seems that the force to change the price of calories needs to be applied at the root of the problem, agriculture, rather than 'in the pipe' so to speak.

This comes from an Iowan who's community is built on Agriculture and Tractors. If we're serious about increasing the cost of calories we need to address the issue at the source. I may be pretty liberal, but I can see a market solution to the obesity problem.

posted by: Gary on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]

One of the most important reasons for the obesity epidemic is that the role of homemaker has been effectively abolished. I recently quit a full-time job to go to school full-time while my husband works full-time to support us. I assumed the duties of a full-time old-fashioned homemaker as a way to help out my husband. I committed to cooking meals at home as a way to save money on one income. Well-prepared, well-balanced meals with lots of fruits and vegetables take a great deal of time to prepare. No one can devote that kind of time into a good diet if both adults in the house are working full-time, can't be done. Our diet has improved greatly, we are eating better, enjoying it more and losing weight. Abolishing the role of the homemaker has also contributed to a failure to adequately supervise teenagers and children, leading to all sorts of social problems from drugs, to crime in general and unwanted pregnancies.

Homemakers did something important, they were held in contempt and they dissappeared, the obestiy epidemic is just one part of the problems that arose as a result.

posted by: Athena1040 on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]


Right on! Maybe Gary can help us come up with a market based solution for the homemaking crisis.

A couple of years back, I was having dinner with friends, all of us the parents of small children, all working half to full time. I floated this idea and it went over well, but like so many big ideas went nowhere. What if we had a "sabbatical" system for parents, whereby for a given group of families (two or three) one parent stayed home for six months, then the duties rotated. I could easily keep two families with school aged kids going: cooking, cleaning, afterschool pickups. Especially if I knew that come spring, someone else would be stepping in and I wouldn't have to do it forever.

Time to think outside the box, people (I know, it'll never happen).

posted by: Kelli on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]

Picking up on Athena's point, if school administrators are genuinely concerned about obesity, they could try reintroducing home economics into the curriculum. Teach the kids how to cook and maybe that will help them to eat better.

posted by: Skip Oliva on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]

A good way to think about the obesity epidemic is to think about market and non-market time as well as the cost of food.

In our market time (work) we are much less active than we were 10, 25, 50, or 100 years ago. The level of activity at work is inversely correlated with body mass index. If you sit around at work you're more likely to be fat.

As society has gotten richer, our non-market ("leisure") time has become more valuable as well. The opportunity cost of preparing a nutritious dinner is higher now than it was in the past. The food that is cheapest in terms of time is not nutritious.

However, in America there are now people who are wealthy enough that they can afford to spend time and money on health. We work out in the mornings, we avoid junk food, we pay specialty stores for nutritious take-out dinners.

This is why the graph of body mass index and income is an inverted U or horseshoe shaped line. The very poor (rare in the US but common in Africa) are malnurished and thin. As income rises, people can afford more food and have more options with their leisure time making fast-food more attractive; the results are readily apparent with a trip to the Super Walmart. As income rises further, people have immediate needs taken care of and can worry about their health and (as Virginia Postrel has pointed out) appearance. They spend time and money on being thin.

posted by: Ted on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]


I think you exhibit too much "supply-side" emphasis. We may have overproduced corn syrup, but the increased use of it is more likely driven by demand. Sweet-tasting foods sell - whether that's a good or bad thing is probably less relevant.

I take issue with Samuelson's assertion that we actually work less - killing the assumption that longer work days drive our temptations for fast foods. He uses statistics covering the life-span of an average worker, but it's the daily grind that causes the schedule-crunch.

(OK - I see this has been partially addressed by TED, but I'm posting anyhow.)

posted by: wishIwuz2 on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]


"Abolishing the role of the homemaker has also contributed to a failure to adequately supervise teenagers and children, leading to all sorts of social problems from drugs, to crime in general and unwanted pregnancies."

Latest statistics show that the teenage pregnancy rate is the lowest ever since it's been compiled. It actually peaked in the late 50's, shortly before the Pill became widely available.

That said, I have no problem with anyone who chooses to be a homemaker, just as I have no problem with those who choose otherwise, as long as they take care of their responsibilities. While we should be open to the possibility that Moms with careers might not be the best thing for kids, neither should it be considered a foregone conclusion.

posted by: fyodor on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]

I disagree, the increased production of corn syrup isn't because of an increase in demand, it's because of an increase in production of the base input (corn) The production increase is a subsidized one, from the direct payments to farmers, to tax breaks for companies that provide 'Value added' corn products, to tax loop-holes for large corn refiners like ADM, and Conagra.

Corn and corn based products have become cheaper over the last 40 years through a combination of improved technology and government subsidies. Without the decreese in cost of corn, and the related products that it inputs to (beef for example) there wouldn't be such a increase in portion size, and diversity of product.

Simply put, the corn refiners are looking for ways to get rid of the base input. That can be Corn Sweetners, Ethanol, finishing feed for cattle, any number of value added products. They need to move the product. Unless you're an Iowan, there's a limit to how much straight corn anyone'e willing the eat. So corn is turned into Value Added products that are mostly bad for you. The base input being so cheap the Value Adds are also cheap, resulting in many products that can appeal to more consumers.

There is something to be said for the line of logic saying, "Stop stuffing your face." Is that a realistic goal, considering how much goes into advertizing for these new Value Add products that people are bombarded with on a daily basis? Personally I think not.

We've got a schism here between the USDA that supports farmers and the refiners, and the FDA which is concerned with the health of the nation. They're two government agencies that are at odds. The USDA wants to sell you more beef, more corn, more sweetners, while the FDA wants you to consume less to reduce the burdon on the National Health System.

Ultimately I think we're both right. Healthy weight in people is achieved with a propper diet/exercise regieme. The government could help by encourageing exercise promoting initiatives as well as cutting subsidies for the base input into out calorie factories. The problem is getting a unified effort to forward these goals. As long as USDA is about selling more ag products I think that the supply side of the equasion is going to tip the scales.

posted by: Gary on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]

I'll concur that it takes time to get exercise and eat right. I walk to work, but I still have to add more aerobic and other exercise to get enough exercise. Many of my co-workers live very far away and have no time for exercise since they spend so much time commuting.

Many communities are impossible to walk in: my mother lives a mere half-mile from a shopping mall, but with no sidewalks and a major highway to cross, it's too dangerous to walk there. We need to make it easier for adults and children both to get out and move around.
- H

posted by: H on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]

Anyone been to the grocery store lately? Look in the shopping carts and see the quantity of canned / frozen, pre-processed food-like stuffs in the majority's baskets. And this qualifies as the "healthy" component. Forget the sodas, desserts, sugary breakfast foods, fried chips, etc.

Next look at the attire, the faces. Listen to the grammar and conversation. Then back to the cart contents. Across socio-economic strata you will find two consistencies - a girth of fat lard hanging from a skeletal frame ill-suited to its bulk & the same profile of crap passing itself off as part of a nutritionally balenced daily consumption.

If affluence is the root, or even contributing, cause of obesity in this country then we've all "arrived" living off the golden pap.

Hmph. Affluence my big fat ass!

posted by: Jon on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]

Perhaps you mean an ailment of aliment.

posted by: rilkefan on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]

The largest landmine producer in America is in my hometown. The lawsuit against McDonald's is front page news, but I've never heard of a lawsuit against a product intended to do serious bodily harm. Can we therefore conclude hamburgers are more dangerous than landmines?

Let's replace all the mines in the DMZ with happy meals. Our adversaries will be so bloated and lethargic from the sugar and carbs that they'll never attack. If we toss in a few million gameboys, we've effectively neutralized the enemy, and stimulated--er--supersized our economy.

posted by: steve on 03.15.04 at 12:41 AM [permalink]

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