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12/11/2005

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Ignacio J. Couce

In a free society, the government should be in the business of education not banning substances, which are otherwise legal, and not immediately life threatening neither to the consumers of those substances nor to others in the society. Comparing the failure of the so-called ?war on drugs? to the success of anti-tobacco campaigns would indicate citizens would largely make healthy decisions when they are sufficiently educated on the topic. The government should educate and let people vote with their dollars. Recently McDonald?s has introduced salads to their menu. My guess is they did so in response to changing tastes in the market place and not to government pressure.

Arun Khanna

I think HMOs and medical insurance companies should consider covering basic gym fees. This might prove to be a cost-saving business decision due to reduced claims for minor ailments.

Jeff Engstrom

Remember Chris Farley? Sorry, but your comment on humor shows an area where you might have a blind spot. I prescribe more sedentary activity in front of your television Judge Posner.

Lucia Malla

"If the cause were biological, the well-documented increase in obesity over the last several decades would be inexplicable."

I understood your point-of-view, and would like to add a single perspective for the sake of a more complete discussion: although you say obesity is not biological, the general predisposition seen in humans when exposed to high-fat diet highlights a possible evolutionary trend of the human body to save energy by mantaining excess fat (as adiposity) while awaken instead of transforming it, spending it or entering into hibernation or torpor cycles (as we see in bears and marmots); therefore obesity's cause being in fact... biological. The behavioural component widespread nowadays (watching too much TV, lack of exercise, etc.) is basically the trigger for the whole mechanism that evolved over time, when the value of being fat in the population was much higher and precious (to withstand long and unpredictable starving periods) than today, as you pointed with the overweight negative effect to society. In my opinion, the biological perspective can't be neglected at all, although it cannot be as well analyzed as the single one existent on the planet. Mostly, because it's probably looking into the biological component that we'll be able to find a solution for the whole problem.

This said, I completely agree with your always brilliant economical point-of-view: banning junk food advertisement is not an effective policy. Since short-term response for an evolutionary trend is hard to get and I personally lack the background to discuss it, I would stick for now on an already existing long-term policy: funds for obesity research and obesity-related drug/technology development.

Perseus

Judge Posner writes: "To the extent that, as Becker suggests, such advertising has a much greater effect on brand shares than on aggregate demand for the products, the advertisers as a whole might be better off if forbidden to advertise. With higher profits, and an important form of nonprice competition eliminated, advertisers might compete more on price, resulting in lower prices to consumers and therefore greater competition." (I assume the final sentence should read:"...resulting in lower prices to consumers and therefore greater *demand* [not competition].")

I'm wondering whether that would occur. I can understand how *restricting* the amount of advertising might benefit producers as a whole, but it strikes me as though *forbidding* producers to advertise might result in a decrease in demand by decreasing consumer awareness of the existence of fast food products. In other words, at the current level of advertising, marginal increases in money spent on advertising may very well be a zero-sum game among producers, but the first few bits of advertising may increase total demand. I suppose one would have to calculate the net effects (i.e. first few bits of advertising against less nonprice competition).

Also, there would have to be a total ban on advertising, not just on television advertising because otherwise producers would simply shift their advertising to other, less efficient media such as radio, print, billboards, etc. like the tobacco companies did.

robert

An observation: Judge Posner's comment about the effect of time-saving and labor-saving devices as a cause for the rise in obesity among young people is the same probable rationale for the advent of the so-called "women's/feminist movement". Interestingly, both events occur at approximately the same time, i.e., starting in the 1960's. Both are a response to modern technologies which cause changes in the culture, i.e., the availability of the birth control pill for women and the prominence of television as an inducement to a more sedentary lifestyle. And both dovetail with each other, that is, the two income working household suggest less parental oversight and (coupled with the rise of cheap, easily puchased and tasty, high caloric fast food) a relatively inferior diet. Accepting these premises, could the resulting near-epidemic obesity among young people ever have been avoided?

Josh Doherty

Lucia's comment seems to confuse a key point. Yes, the body does have a biological mechanism to store fat as future energy. However, when exposed to high fat diets that are calorie dense, convenient, and cheap, people consume more calories/gram of food. As a result, the system responds by storing the excess as fat. This is a system that is operating normally but is dealing with an abnormal exposure to calories. As a result, the system is not "awakened," it is placed into overdrive.

Anonymous

i know this contributes nothing to this discussion, but you personally hit a pet peeve of mine: the video games. i am personally not innocent, but everytime i visit my cousins that's all they want to do. we go to the store they want me to buy them more video games. instead, i have adopted a policy to buy them strictly those things that encourage outdoor activities: football, bebee guns. what's even worse is that they have portable game machines and they take them everywhere they go. incidentally, they are headed on obese trajectory as well.
from a policy standpoint, other then parents not feeding the addiction i think robert is probably right -- this probably could not have been avoided.

Clinton Andrews

"The benefits of preventive health can be exaggerated. It increases the percentage of the elderly in the population, and the elderly are very heavy demanders of expensive--and subsidized--health care and pensions." - Posner

You have support for your point regarding the obese from a famous authority: "If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

And seasons greetings to you, too!

Clinton

N.E.Hatfield

The human body operates on a rather simple formula, which is: when caloric expenditure is greater than caloric intake stored fat is used up; when caloric expenditure is less than caloric intake, fat is stored. The obesity problem, is simply a quantity balance problem. In other words, one's caloric intake should match the lifestyle in order for obesity to be avoided. As all doctors seem to point out, "eat less, exercise more!"

It seems ironic that the Media pushes this point, then runs cooking shows that produce all sorts of delectables and ads for all types of foods, both fast and not. Consume! Consume! and consume some more! The more you consume the better you'll feel. And we wonder why there is a growing problem of obesity?

nate

"...a countervailing factor is that employers may distrust the commitment to work of employees who look as if they spend most of their day in the gym"

amen, although the distrust may not be due to fear of excess time in the gym.

nate


One more on the distrusting commitment of employees who are too fit...

This is kind of ironic. Being fit does not take excess time commitment. Rather, I found that it took discipline and restraint more than time in teh gym. Examples: walking up stairs instead of using the elevator, jogging every saturday morning with other people, refraining from fast food, eating (vs. skipping) breakfast, cutting back on desert, coffee with no frills, etc etc etc.

you would think employers would find a way to tape into this discipline and restaint, and prosper (vs. retaliate out of distrust). the retaliation can thing be a discouragement and downer. employers may need more structure and discipline.

Lucia

Well said, Josh!

Matt K

I am know kids spend too much time in front of the TV, but I can't talk. I have gained almost 20 pounds since I began law school. Talk about sitting around and doing nothing. Every one of my friends has gained appreciable weight in law school. We should petition the administration to provide an on-site gym so that we could remain the beautiful people that will get good jobs, thus enhancing the prestige of the law school.

David

I would think that society as a whole gains dramatically if the population is healthier, in productivity, happiness, and a reduction in health care costs. I can see no conceivable reason why the government should not, at the very least, use its bully pulpit to promote a healthy diet and lifestyle. And, I would think that any employer would prefer a healthy workforce, espeically if the employer provides health insurance for its workers. If there are any statistics to the contrary, I would like to see them presented..

nate

1. "If there are any statistics to the contrary, I would like to see them presented.."

Look up unemployment statistics and labor force participation by categories (men and women, older and younger, sexual orientation or preference, ethnic background, etc) and explain the difference. A lot of this is on-line at government sites. Tie it all out and explain all variations across categories. Then tell me that employment is entirely logical and fair. This being said, the U.S. is still a pretty good place (at least for now).

1. "And, I would think that any employer would prefer a healthy workforce, espeically if the employer provides health insurance for its workers"

I am not a health care expert. However, ... "any" employer is a very broad, absolute kind of statement. All I have to do is find 1 employer that does not prefer a healthy workforce, and your thinking is not valid. Is it possible that at least one employer may have puerile or sadistic needs that can be met by employing certain sick people and not others sick people? Consider watching the movie Philadelphia. You may be naive.


2. health insurance - I am not a health care expertare employer health insurance premiums linked

nate

edits:

the second "1." should be a "2."

strike point "2. health insurance -"

matt k.

I disagree Nate, I think what Dave was saying was that any employer who provides health care benefits would want a healthy workforce. I think that is a valid point. It would be a strange business where the benefit of employing sick people while providing health care outweighs the loss that you will have in health care premiums and costs. Of course this post assumes that the health of the workers based on obesity is a real factor in determing health care costs.

Of course you can always say that irrespective of health care costs, employing people more likely to become ill will hurt productivity, increase training costs for replacement employees, and disrupt continuity in the office. All of these things are important to most employers seeking to make money.

nate

matt k

Businesses do go under. Why?

Second, some people at employers make money (gobs of it) while the employer simultaneously does not make money. In some instances, the employer destroys incredible amounts of value for society and the community while certain people at the employer make out like bandits.

Also, employer utility may be derived by more than making money.

nate


"It would be a strange business where the benefit of employing sick people while providing health care outweighs the loss that you will have in health care premiums and costs."

See Krugman in the NYT on GM-

I realize this Krugman reference is a little bit of a stretch and not perfectly related to the discussion at hand. GM may have very high health costs on a per auto basis even thought he work force is very healthy. I am not sure.

Ian

I think that the obesity epidemic is not only the result of a market failure, it also points to a fundamental flaw at the heart of econimic theory. It is assumed in economics that it is valid to trade off any preference against any other (and that the free market is the most efficient and effective mechanism for accomplishing this). But just because preferences _can_ be traded off against each other doesn't mean it makes sense to do so in all cases. Further, life and the free market are biased toward short-term survival and short-term satisfaction of needs and preferences, particularly in individual consumer behavior. Early man (Olduvai Gorge or post-Eden) needed to survive a day at a time on slim pickins before he would survive a year. Alas, we are not rational actors, and there is undoubtedly a Gestalt aspect to the structure of preferences.

Most people know how to lose weight - eat less and exercise more. The diet industry is successful because people know that but can't get themselves to do it. People want either a magic diet pill or a way to bring their behavior into line with their long-term preference for non-obesity that has thus far lost out to their short-term preferences for excess food and inactivity. An economist might say that we have preferences for all three things, and market activity is merely a reflection of the relative strength of these preferences, which happen to be in conflict. But, I suspect if you surveyed obese people and could quantify their preferences, they would generally express a greater conscious preference for non-obesity than the combination of excess food and inactivity. Granted that's conjecture, but I for one think it is true and represents an economic paradox. What do you think?

N.E.Hatfield

Ian, I've always believed in the good/evil-virtue/vice paradox and the nature of human kind. it's really all a question of gluttony, lust, and sloth. And it's so much more pleasureable to be Screwtape.

pj

i think part of it was touched on earlier by Lucia that the way that man has evolved has made it such that our bodies are more naturally inclined to store fat and shed muscle. i dont know; even though we may desire to be fit, if biology is against us, then maybe it isn't econmically rational to allocate resources to obtain this goal. thus, i guess i am arguing that the market reflects subconscious behavior: that it's not economically worth fighting biology.

JS

Whether you agree or disagree, anybody who likes economics and has a sense of humor has to appreciate how awesome this sentence is. Posner is the best!

----------------------------------------------
In addition, thin people should have a significant advantage in competing for jobs involving trust, since thinness signifies self-control and in turn a low discount rate, which should make a worker more concerned with his reputation and therefore more trustworthy...

nate


Becker and Posner are fantastic bloggers. Keep up the good work. I might be a lot more likely to buy a book by one of these two due to the blog. I also might be a lot more educated.

Thank you!

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