Our discussion last week on capital punishment generated a lot of comments that are worth discussing in more detail. Since capital punishment is so controversial, we decided to continue the same subject this week.
First, let me correct a misunderstanding in some of the comments. I never claimed the evidence is anywhere near conclusive that capital punishment has an important deterrent effect. I stated that the evidence from quantitative studies is decidedly mixed, yet I concluded that "the preponderance of evidence does indicate that capital punishment deters". Although the weight of the positive evidence should not be overstated, the frequently stated claim that these studies prove that capital punishment does not deter is clearly false.
My belief in its deterrent effect is partly based on these limited quantitative studies, but also because I believe that most people have a powerful fear of death. David Hume said in discussing suicide that "no man ever threw away life, while it was worth living. For such is our natural horror of death‚Ä¶". Schopenhauer added also in discussing suicide "‚Ä¶as soon as the terrors of life reach a point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put a an end to his life. But the terrors of death offer considerable resistance‚Ä¶".
Nevertheless, the main point of my comment last week was not to try to prove that capital punishment deters murders, but rather to argue against the view that it is "immoral" for the State to take lives through capital punishment even if we assume that the deterrent effect on murders is sizeable. Indeed, I believe that deterrence can be the only reasonable basis for capital punishment. Revenge, retribution, and other arguments sometimes made to justify capital punishment are too subject to government abuse, and have been abused.
Some readers interpreted my views as implying that a major goal of government policy should in general be to save lives. That is not my belief. I am against governments interfering, for example, with the rights of people to overeat even when that causes obesity, disease, and possibly early death because overeaters are primarily "harming" themselves. In my view, people should have the right to do that.
Murder, on the other hand, involves taking the lives of others, and any reasonable discussion has to distinguish such behavior from individuals taking actions that affect only their own lives. In economists' language, murder involves the most severe negative externalities. If we assume for the sake of this discussion that there are two fewer murders for each murderer executed, the State would reduce two of these severe externalities for each murderer that it executes. This issue of the effect of capital punishment on innocent victims has to be confronted by even those most opposed to its use. And I frankly do not see how any reasonable and relevant philosophy could oppose the use of capital punishment under the assumptions of this example.
Admittedly, the argument gets less clear-cut as the number of lives saved per execution falls from two to lower values, say, for example, to one life saved per execution. In this case, I compared the qualities of the life saved and the life taken, to the dismay of some readers. In particular, I wrote that "wouldn‚Äôt the trade-off still be desirable if the life saved is much better than the life taken, which would usually be the case?" I do not see how to avoid making such a comparison. Consider a person with a long criminal record who holds up and kills a victim who led a decent life and left several children and a spouse behind. Suppose it would be possible to save the life of an innocent victim by executing such a criminal. To me it is obvious that saving the lives of such a victim has to count for more than taking the life of such a criminal. To be sure, not all cases are so clear-cut, but I am just trying to establish the principle that a comparison of the qualities of individual lives has to be part of any reasonable social policy.
This argument helps explain why capital punishment should only be used for some murders, and not for theft, robbery, and other lesser crimes. For then the trade off is between taking lives and reducing property theft, and the case in favor of milder punishments is strong. However, severe assaults, including some gruesome rapes, may approach in severity some murders, and might conceivably at times call for capital punishment, although I do not support its use in these cases.
A powerful argument for reserving capital punishment for murders is related to what is called marginal deterrence in the crime and punishment literature. If say perpetrators of assaults were punished with execution, an assaulter would have an incentive to kill the victims in order to reduce the likelihood that he would be discovered. That is a major reason more generally why the severity of punishments should be matched to the severity of crimes. One complication is that capital punishment may make a murderer fight harder to avoid being captured, which could lead to more deaths. That argument has to be weighed in judging the case for capital punishment. While marginal deterrence is important, I believe the resistance of murderers to being captured, possibly at the expense of their own lives, is really indirect evidence that criminals do fear capital punishment.
Some readers asked whether I also favor public executions of convicted murderers, mangling of their bodies, and other methods used in some countries still, and in most countries in the past? I do not because they seem unnecessarily abusive of convicted murderers without any compensating gains. However, I admit I would reconsider this position if it were demonstrated that such added punishments have a large effect in reducing the number of murders. For those who find such a position "barbaric", I would ask how many innocent victims are they willing to tolerate before they might take a more positive position on these additional punishments?
Of course I am worried about the risk of executing innocent persons for murders committed by others. In any policy toward crime, including capital punishment, one has to compare errors of wrongful conviction with errors of failing to convict guilty persons. My support for capital punishment would weaken greatly if the rate of killing innocent persons were as large as that claimed by many. However, I believe along with Posner that the appeal process offers enormous protection not against wrongful conviction but against wrongful execution. And this process has been strengthened enormously with the development of DNA identification. However, lengthy appeals delay the execution of guilty murderers, and that can only lower the deterrent effect of capital punishment.
So to summarize once again my position on this controversial question, I favor capital punishment because and only because I believe it has "sizeable" deterrent effects. I would join the anti-capital punishment side if this view turns out to be wrong, if it were proven that many innocent persons are wrongly executed, or if it is administered in such a racially biased manner as to wrongly convict many black persons, and to be little used against white murderers. But I do not believe that the available evidence strongly supports any of these arguments against the use of capital punishment.
Becker has presented in his post today a compelling restatement of the economic case for capital punishment. I have a few minor disagreements and qualifications, and I will first mention them and then respond to some of the very large number of comments that my last week's posting elicited.
I do not consider revenge an impermissible ground for capital punishment. Revenge has very deep roots in the human psyche. As I have long argued, basing the argument on work by evolutionary psychologists such as Robert Trivers, the threat of revenge must have played an essential role in maintaining order in the "ancestral environment." That is a term that evolutionary biologists use to describe the prehistoric era in which human beings evolved to approximately their current biological state. In that era there were no laws, police, etc., so the indignation that would incite a person to revenge himself upon an aggressor must have had substantial survival value and become "hard wired" in our brains. The wiring remains, and explains some of the indignation that people feel, especially but not only the friends and family members of murder victims, toward the murderer. It seems plausible to me (here modifying what I said in my original posting) that the net increment in utility that they derive from the execution (versus life imprisonment) of the murderer exceeds the net increment in disutility that the murderer derives from being executed rather than imprisoned for life. The strong support for capital punishment in public opinion polls provides limited support for this conjecture.
I do not favor public executions; nor dismemberment or other horrific modes of execution. The incremental deterrent effect might well be nontrivial, but would be outweighed by public revulsion. There is also the danger of brutalization. As Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out, making people squeamish is one of the projects of modernity, and may explain the banning of blood sports as well as the movement away from public and gruesome executions. The idea is that if people become unaccustomed to bloody sights they will be less likely to employ violence in their relations with other people. Still another objection to public and gruesome executions is that they offer murderers an opportunity to die as heroes by showing fortitude.
I agree that marginal deterrence is important and that it generally argues for reserving the heaviest sentences for the most serious crimes. But there are two important qualifications. First, a very heavy sentence may be necessary to deter a minor crime because the likelihood of apprehension is very low. The expected punishment cost of crime is, as a first approximation (ignoring attitude toward risk), the punishment if imposed multiplied by the probability of imposition, so if the probability is very low a compensating increase in punishment is indicated. This does not impair marginal deterrence as long as the crimes are not close substitutes: a heavy fine for litterers will not increase the robbery rate, whereas capital punishment for robbers would increase the murder rate (of robbers' victims)--were it not for my second qualification. Even if murder and robbery were both capital crimes, there would be marginal deterrence because the police would search much harder for a robber who murdered his victim; the more extensive search would compensate, in part anyway, for the loss of the information that the victim could have given the police to identify the robber. Moreover, capital punishment is merely a ceiling; even if robbery were a capital crime, judges and juries would be much less likely to impose the death sentence on a robber who had not killed his victim than on one who had.
Marginal-deterrence theory provides, however, a compelling reason to execute prisoners sentenced to life without parole who murder in prison; the threat of a sentence of imprisonment can have no deterrent effect on them.
Becker mentions the possibility of racial discrimination in execution. Studies done some years ago--I do not know whether they would be descriptive of current practice--revealed the following pattern: murderers of black people were less likely to be executed than murderers of white people. Since blacks were more likely to murder other blacks than to murder whites, this meant that blacks were less rather than more likely to be executed than whites, relative to the respective murder rates of the two races. (Blacks commit murders at a much higher rate than whites.) The explanation offered was that judges and juries tended to set a lower value on black victims of murder than on white ones. From this some observers inferred that capital punishment discriminates against blacks. The inference is incorrect. The proper inference is that murderers of blacks are underpunished.
I turn now to the comments on my posting. A long comment by "ohwilleke" makes a number of interesting points, but they do not support his opposition to capital punishment. He notes first of all that many factors influence the murder rate besides the probability of execution. That is true, but it does not, as he suggests, make it "insanely difficult to make any econometric estimate" that is not "meaningless." Econometrics, which is to say the set of statistical methods used by economists to try to tease out causal factors, enables the particular factor of interest, in this case the probability of execution, to be isolated. The methods are not entirely reliable, which is why neither Becker nor I claim that economists have proved that capital punishment deters; we merely claim that there is significant evidence that it does. I note how many commenters remark correctly that murder rates are higher in the South, even though that is where most executions occur, than in other regions. But that is not an argument that executions do not deter. The higher the background rate of murder, the more severe one expects punishments to be. A high murder rate implies a high expected benefit from murder and so the expected cost of punsihment has to be jacked up to offset that greater benefit.
Ohwilleke's comment claims that the "error rate" in capital punishment is 10 percent. This is incorrect. Not a single person among the 119 that he contends were erroneously sentenced to death was executed. That is a zero error rate.
One commenter asks whether capital punishment "really deter[s] the type of person who actually does the murdering?" Of course if someone in a state that has capital punishment commits the kind of murder that puts him at risk of such punishment, the threat of capital punishment has not deterred. This is the usual situation with criminal punishment. People who commit crimes are people for whom the expected cost of punishment, combined with the other costs of crime, is less than the expected benefit of the crime. The purpose of punishing these people is not to deter them--by committing the crime in the face of threatened punishment they have shown themselves to be undeterrable--but to deter people who, were it not for the expected punishment cost, would commit the crime because its other costs were lower than its expected benefit.
Finally, several comments usefully point out that capital punishment has a secondary deterrent effect: it induces murderers to plead guilty and receive a life sentence.
The recent execution by the State of California of the multiple murderer Stanley "Tookie" Williams has brought renewed controversy to the practice of capital punishment, which has been abolished in about a third of the states and in most of the nations that the United States considers its peers; the European Union will not admit to membership a nation that retains capital punishment.
From an economic standpoint, the principal considerations in evaluating the issue of retaining capital punishment are the incremental deterrent effect of executing murderers, the rate of false positives (that is, execution of the innocent), the cost of capital punishment relative to life imprisonment without parole (the usual alternative nowadays), the utility that retributivists and the friends and family members of the murderer's victim (or in Williams's case victims) derive from execution, and the disutility that fervent opponents of capital punishment, along with relatives and friends of the defendant, experience. The utility comparison seems a standoff, and I will ignore it, although the fact that almost two-thirds of the U.S. population supports the death penalty is some, albeit weak (because it does not measure intensity of preference), evidence bearing on the comparison.
Early empirical analysis by Isaac Ehrlich found a substantial incremental deterrent effect of capital punishment, a finding that coincides with the common sense of the situation: it is exceedingly rare for a defendant who has a choice to prefer being executed to being imprisoned for life. Ehrlich's work was criticized by some economists, but more recent work by economists Hashem Dezhbakhsh, Paul Rubin, and Joanna Shepherd provides strong support for Ehrlich's thesis; these authors found, in a careful econometric analysis, that one execution deters 18 murders. Although this ratio may seem implausible given that the probability of being executed for committing a murder is less than 1 percent (most executions are in southern states--50 of the 59 in 2004--which that year had a total of almost 7,000 murders), the probability is misleading because only a subset of murderers are eligible for execution. Moreover, even a 1 percent or one-half of 1 percent probability of death is hardly trivial; most people would pay a substantial amount of money to eliminate such a probability.
As for the risk of executing an innocent person, this is exceedingly slight, especially when a distinction is made between legal and factual innocence. Some murderers are executed by mistake in the sense that they might have a good legal defense to being sentenced to death, such as having been prevented from offering evidence in mitigation of their crime, such as evidence of having grown up in terrible circumstances that made it difficult for them to resist the temptations of a life of crime. But they are not innocent of murder. The number of people who are executed for a murder they did not commit appears to be vanishingly small.
It is so small, however, in part because of the enormous protraction of capital litigation. The average amount of time that a defendant spends on death row before being executed is about 10 years. If the defendant is innocent, the error is highly likely to be discovered within that period. It would be different if execution followed the appeal of the defendant's sentence by a week. But the delay in execution not only reduces the deterrent effect of execution (though probably only slightly) but also makes capital punishment quite costly, since there is a substantial imprisonment cost on top of the heavy litigation costs of capital cases, with their endless rounds of appellate and postconviction proceedings.
Although it may seem heartless to say so, the concern with mistaken execution seems exaggerated. The number of people executed in all of 2004 was, as I noted, only 59. (The annual number has not exceeded 98 since 1951.) Suppose that were it not for the enormous delays in execution, the number would have been 60, and the additional person executed would have been factually innocent. The number of Americans who die each year in accidents exceeds 100,000; many of these deaths are more painful than death by lethal injection, though they are not as humiliating and usually they are not anticipated, which adds a particular dread to execution. Moreover, for what appears to be a psychological reason (the "availability heuristic"), the death of a single, identified person tends to have greater salience than the death of a much larger number of anonymous persons. As Stalin is reported to have quipped, a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.
But that's psychology; there is an economic argument for speeding up the imposition of the death penalty on convicted murderers eligible for the penalty; the gain in deterrence and reduction in cost are likely to exceed the increase in the very slight probability of executing a factually innocent person. What is more, by allocating more resources to the litigation of capital cases, the error rate could be kept at its present very low level even though delay in execution was reduced.
However, even with the existing, excessive, delay, the recent evidence concerning the deterrent effect of capital punishment provides strong support for resisting the abolition movement.
A final consideration returns me to the case of "Tookie" Williams. The major argument made for clemency was that he had reformed in prison and, more important, had become an influential critic of the type of gang violence in which he had engaged. Should the argument have prevailed? On the one hand, if murderers know that by "reforming" on death row they will have a good shot at clemency, the deterrent effect of the death penalty will be reduced. On the other hand, the type of advocacy in which Williams engaged probably had some social value, and the more likely the advocacy is to earn clemency, the more such advocacy there will be; clemency is the currency in which such activities are compensated and therefore encouraged. Presumably grants of clemency on such a basis should be rare, since there probably are rapidly diminishing social returns to death-row advocacy, along with diminished deterrence as a result of fewer executions. For the more murderers under sentence of death there are who publicly denounce murder and other criminality, the less credibility the denunciations have.
Posner has a good discussion of the various issue related to capital punishment. I will concentrate my comments on deterrence, which is really the crucial issue in the acrimonious debate over capital punishment. I support the use of capital punishment for persons convicted of murder because, and only because, I believe it deters murders. If I did not believe that, I would be opposed because revenge and the other possible motives that are mentioned and discussed by Posner, should not be a basis for public policy.
As Posner indicates, serious empirical research on capital punishment began with Isaac Ehrlich's pioneering paper. Subsequent studies have sometimes found much weaker effects than he found, while others, including a recent one cited by Posner, found a much larger effect than even that found by Ehrlich. The available data are quite limited, however, so one should not base any conclusions solely on the econometric evidence, although I believe that the preponderance of evidence does indicate that capital punishment deters.
Of course, public policy on punishments cannot wait until the evidence is perfect. Even with the limited quantitative evidence available, there are good reasons to believe that capital punishment deters murders. Most people, and murderers in particular, fear death, especially when it follows swiftly and with considerable certainty following the commission of a murder. As Posner indicates, the deterrent effect of capital punishment would be greater if the delays in its implementation were much shortened, and if this punishment was more certain to be used in the appropriate cases. But I agree with Posner that capital punishment has an important deterrent effect even with the way the present system actually operates.
Opponents of capital punishment frequently proclaim that the State has no moral right to take the life of anyone, even a most reprehensible murderer. Yet that is absolutely the wrong conclusion for anyone who believes that capital punishment deters. To show why, suppose that for each murderer executed (instead of say receiving life imprisonment), the number of murders is reduced by three- which is a much lower number than Ehrlich's estimate of the deterrent effect. This implies that for each murderer not given capital punishment, three generally innocent victims would die. This argument means that the government would indirectly be "taking" many lives if it did not use capital punishment. The lives so taken are usually much more worthwhile than that of the murderers who would be spared execution. For this reason, the State has a "moral" obligation to use capital punishment if such punishment significantly reduces the number of murders and saves lives of innocent victims.
Saving three other lives for every person executed seems like a very attractive trade-off. Even two lives saved per execution seem like a persuasive benefit-cost ratio for capital punishment. But let us go further and suppose only one life was saved for each murderer executed. Wouldn‚Äôt the trade-off still be desirable if the life saved is much better than the life taken, which would usually be the case? As the deterrent effect of capital punishment is made smaller, at some point even I would shift to the anti-capital punishment camp. But given the difference between victims and murderers, the deterrent effect would have to be considerable less than one person saved per murderer executed before I would shift positions, although account should also be taken of the considerable expense involved in using capital punishment.
Of course, one wants to be sure that the number of persons wrongly executed for murder is a very small fraction of the total number executed. Posner argues convincingly that the safeguards built into the American system are considerable. They do not prevent any innocent persons from being executed, but they certainly make the risk very low. Capital punishment cannot be used if the goal is never to erroneously execute anyone, but then its deterrent effect is lost completely.
European governments are adamantly opposed to capital punishment, and some Europeans consider the American use of this punishment to be barbaric. But Europeans have generally been "soft" on most crimes during the past half-century. For a long time they could be smug because their crime rates were well below American rates. But during the past twenty years European crime has increased sharply while American rates have fallen-in part because American apprehension and conviction rates have increased considerably. Now some European countries have higher per capita property crime rates than the United States does, although violent crimes are still considerably more common in the United States. At the same time that America was reducing crime greatly in part by greater use of punishments, many European intellectuals continued to argue that not just capital punishments, but punishments in general, do not deter.
To repeat, the capital punishment debate comes down in essentials to a debate over deterrence. I can understand that some people are skeptical about the evidence, although I believe they are wrong both on the evidence and on the common sense of the issue. It is very unpleasant to take someone's life, even a murderer's life, but sometimes highly unpleasant actions are necessary to deter even worse behavior that takes the lives of innocent victims.
I am adding responses to comments on my postings on both parental responsibility and obesity. I apologize that I do not always do this, but my only excuse is time pressure.
I do not know about the Australian system, but it sounds interesting. Australia has been a pioneer in student loans and other ways, so I am not completely surprised to learn that they have been active in providing parental incentives to improve education.
I do believe that parents are mainly responsible to raise their children, but that is why I am willing to offer parents incentives to give their children better opportunities. Pressure can be placed on parents to induce their children to behave better. My view is that poor parents love their children as much as rich ones, but poverty leads to behavior that is disadvantageous to the children's future. Progresa and similar programs try to offset that.
The fact is that Progresa has "worked" at least in the sense of leading to longer school attendance and better grades at school.
Should parents be punished for children's behavior? Absolutely in my judgment since they are ones who can have the greatest influence affecting their behavior. If parents bring children into the world, why does that not carry with it parental responsibility for various forms of their children's behavior?
Let me comment very briefly, and put forward a controversial additional explanation for the growth in obesity. I do believe that more is spent on advertising of goods than of political candidates, but I do not believe goods advertising is at a lower level than political advertising. Just the opposite in many cases!
Farm subsidies are not the main cause of the decline in the price of fat. These subsidies were generally just as high, if not higher, in the '50s and '60s as during the '80s and '90s. However, the total cost of food declined during the past couple of decades, but it did not before that.
One reasons seldom mentioned as a general factor partly behind the rise in obesity is the expectation that new drugs will greatly reduce the adverse consequences of being obese. I am not claiming that many teenagers are conscious of this consideration. However, any one who has observed the development of blood pressure and cholesterol lowering drugs during the past few decades can rationally believe that in twenty years or so still newer drugs that control diabetes and other diseases will be developed. Then for anyone who likes to eat sugary and fat foods, it does not seem so irrational to do so when the consequences will be much less harmful to health than they are at present.
To be sure, if the government will pay for the use of such drugs, obesity imposes costs on others. So becoming obese may not be socially "rational" or efficient, but there seems to be an important element of individual rationality, given the trend in drug development. That conflict between private and social behavior is worth investigating further, although I have seen very little discussion of it.
My ignorance of popular culture has once more been exposed by alert readers of this blog. I had never heard of Chris Farley. I have now looked him up on Google Images. I get it.
Several comments suggest that I ignored the biological basis of obesity. Let me clarify. Of course obesity is a biological phenomenon (though also a social one to the extent that in our society "obesity" carries negative connotations). I meant only that, since human biology changes only very slowly, changes in human biology can't explain the recent increases in obesity. But the biological foundations of obesity do require more emphasis than I gave them. In what evolutionary biologists call the "ancestral environment," a period ending some 20,000 years ago when our biological development reached approximately its current level, a genetic propensity to eat as much high-calorie food as possible had great survival value because the food supply was uncertain, and high-calorie food converts to fat that people can live off for a time if they have no food. When the good supply becomes assured and people become sedentary, they continue wanting to eat high-calorie foods because that is a genetic predisposition. They can avoid becoming fat by eating less than their genes tell them to, as it were, but this--fighting the genes--requires great self-discipline. It is much easier to control one's weight if one is physically active, in effect recreating the conditions of the ancestral environment in the gym or equivalent. But that is costly, especially in time.
Biology plays a further role. Differences in biology between people make it much easier for some people than for others to control their weight, sometimes without any exercise. This blurs the value of thinness as a signal of trustworthiness as a result of having a low discount rate.
Notice, as a curious historical note, that as late as the nineteenth century obesity was taken as a signal of prosperity and attractiveness, and thinness (including of women) was taken as a signal of poverty and ill health. This was because poor people tended to be undernourished and hard working, and tubeculosis and other wasting disseases were disproportionately diseases of the poor. Since food was expensive and leisure a privilege of wealth, being fat was a sign of success and valued accordingly.
I may have been precipitate in suggesting that reducing obesity would not affect aggregate medical costs. What I had in mind is that because on average a very high percentage of one's total lifetime medical costs are incurred in the last few months of life, and because the older one is, the greater on average one's medical needs, the principal financial effect of improving health in youth and middle age may be to increase the elderly population, and of course death can only be postponed, not eliminated. But I am painting with too broad a brush; careful study is required to assess the costs of lifestyle changes that might improve health.
I regret having failed to respond to comments on my last week's posting, on truancy. I recognize the irony; I have been truant. Let me belatedly respond to two particularly important comments.
The first is that the "carrot" approach, as in the Progresa program that Becker mentions, may work much better in underdeveloped countries, for example countries in which many girls are kept out of school by their parents. To take an extreme example, if 50 percent of children are truant, then paying all parents to send their kids to school will have a chance of affecting the attendance of half the children; if only 1 percent are truant, then 99 percent of parents receive a payment that will not affect their behavior because their children are not truant.
Second, a point as important as it is obvious, getting kids into school will confer few if any social benefits unless schooling improves their life prospects, particularly their employment prospects. If there are no jobs for them when they get out, the only effect of giving them schooling may be to radicalize them. It is thus ironic that the French have a program for forcing kids into school, since the job opportunities for graduates are so limited by the country's employment laws.
A report this week from the Institute of Medicine made the front pages of many newspapers and was reported extensively on television. Based on its examination of numerous studies of possible links between TV watching and weight gain, the report attributed a significant part of the increasing obesity among teenagers and young children to television advertising of foods and drinks with high sugar and fat content. It recommended that companies work with scientists and others to reformulate their products and ads. Some persons at the Institute of Medicine went further and raised the prospect of possible Congressional regulation of TV ads oriented toward children, even though, as we will see, the evidence provided by the report is weak and not persuasive.
Before examining this evidence, obesity of children should be placed in perspective. Obesity has increased for most of the past twenty -five years among all groups and at all ages, including the elderly. Presumably, advertising of goods like Big Macs and Coke Cola has less influence over the consumption of adults, particularly that of older men and women. Moreover, obesity has grown in all developed countries, even those with much sharper controls over advertising.
Obesity in the United States and elsewhere started increasing particularly rapidly in the early 1980's. Studies by economists, especially those by Richard Posner and Tomas Philipson, Jesse Shapiro, David Cutler, and Edward Glaeser, and Fernando Wilson sifted through many factors that might be responsible for this accelerated trend toward greater obesity. The two most important factors highlighted by these studies is the lower effective price of fat due to the development of efficient fast food outlets that save on time, and for teenagers a more sedentary use of leisure time due to the growth in time spent with computers, browsing the internet, and playing video games.
There is no doubt that McDonald's and other companies tend to increase their revenues when they raise advertising budgets-otherwise, companies would not be spending as much on advertising. But most of the increase in sales to a company when it advertises more tends to come at the expense of sales by competitors. So if Wendy's raises its advertising, sales by McDonalds and other competitors would tend to fall. To the extent that advertising mainly redistributes customers among competitors, the elimination of advertising of fast foods or sugary beverages through regulation would have relatively little effect on the overall demand for these products.
As far as I could tell from examining the complex report by the Institute of Medicine, it did not include any studies (presumably because none are available) that directly looks at the effects of advertising by fast food and beverage companies on the overall consumption of these goods by teenagers and younger children. Instead, virtually all the studies available to them examine the effects on children's weight of greater or lesser exposure to television.
The problem with such studies, even in the very few that are carefully designed, is that they cannot separate the effect on weight of greater exposure to advertising through watching more television from the effect on the propensity to gain weight from other activities correlated with watching TV, such as more sedentary behavior, or eating popcorn and other snacks while watching. The authors of the report recognize this serious shortcoming in a section on "Recommendations for Future Research", where they say "Even within the domain of television, most of the research that relates television viewing to diet and to diet-related health does not distinguish exposure to food and beverage advertising from exposure to television in general. This lack of relevant research severely constrains the findings that can be drawn about the influence of food and beverage marketing on the diet and diet-related health of American children and youth".
A PhD study in progress by Fernando Wilson at the University of Chicago suggests that this qualification is crucial. He shows that the big increase since 1980 in children's use of time was not toward greater television viewing, for this remained rather constant during the past 25 years-and maybe has declined slightly. What increased by a lot was time spent with computers and videos games at the expense of lesser time spent at sports and other more active activities. Since advertising on computers and video games has been far less important than advertising on television, it is hard to see how the growth in obesity during the past 25 years could be explained at all by advertising toward children, unless TV advertising became much more effective than it had been.
Advertisements clearly influence the demand for different goods, but they also are sensitive to the desires of consumers, including the influence of parents over what is consumed by their children. At the same time that consumers have been gaining a lot of weight, they have become more conscious about eating oats and other high fiber foods, about the vitamins added to different cereals, about the sugar content of foods and beverages, and eating other healthy foods. A study a few years ago by Pauline Ippolito and colleagues at the Federal Trade Commission found that when some parents began to want healthier cereals for their children, companies were quick to respond with new and healthier cereal brands. As soon as they were allowed to do so, they also began to advertise the healthy advantages of oat cereals and other products with high fiber content or with many vitamin supplements.
If children nowadays are heavier because they are less physically active than they used to be, or because their parents find fast food cheap and convenient, it is difficult to see how advertising by food and beverage companies are to blame. And despite the hype the study received, the Institute of Medicine's report on obesity and advertising did not present any convincing evidence that television advertising oriented toward children has been responsible for the increase in children's obesity during the past quarter century.
I agree with everything Becker says, but will add a few points. Not only would banning television advertising of fattening foods on programs oriented to children and teenagers not reduce obesity, but it might increase it. 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.
A more effective measure to reduce youthful obesity might be to ban the sale or service of soft drinks and other high-calorie foods in schools, or even to tax such foods heavily.
Of course such measures are from an economic standpoint justifiable only if the growth in obesity represents a market failure (and even then, only if the costs of the measures are lower than the benefits in correcting such a failure)."Obesity" is a loaded term; it is the name we give to being too fat. It is possible that being fatter than doctors think healthy is optimal, just as it is possible that eating a diet that deviates from what doctors would prescribe for someone who aspires to live to be a hundred is optimal. People trade off health costs for benefits in other currencies; food high in calories tends to be both delicious and cheap. The health effects of overweight are highly publicized. In addition, in our society fat people are generally considered much less attractive than thin people, and there is a considerable premium in the job market for attractive people, partly because coworkers and supervisors obtain utility from associating with attractive people, partly because being attractive enhances self-confidence, self-esteem, and social skills. 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, although 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!
Given all the negatives of overweight, it is difficult to believe that obese people have underestimated the costs of being overweight. But the huge diet industry, and the growing resort of the obese to dangerous abdominal surgery (gastric-bypass or bariatric surgery--"stomach stapling") are contrary evidence. It is much easier to avoid gaining weight than to lose weight, and while some people have an unfortunate biology that creates irresistible cravings for excessive amounts of fat, the obesity problem seems much more widespread. If the cause were biological, the well-documented increase in obesity over the last several decades would be inexplicable.
A factor that the economist Tomas Philipson and I have emphasized is the increasingly sedentary character of activity in both work and the home, as a result of the shift from manufacturing to services and the growth of labor-saving devices in both the workplace and the home. In the old days the average individual, male or female, was in effect "paid" to expend calories, the payment taking the form of pecuniary income for strenuous work in the workplace or nonpecuniary income from household work. Today one has to pay to expend calories by joining a gym or otherwise taking time from work or leisure to exercise. As Becker points out, the trend has affected children and teenagers because of the growing substitution of sedentary leisure activities for athletics. Strikingly, because of concerns over liability, many schools no longer make physical education mandatory.
Still another factor may be that as more and more people become overweight, the stigma of obesity diminishes. When I was a kid, fat kids were rare, and were teased. The more fat kids there are, the more ‚Äúnormative‚Äù their appearance becomes. In addition, if parents are fat, the credibility of their lecturing their children on the importance of remaining thin is undermined, "Do as I say, not as I do," is not a very effective means of persuasion.
Political correctness may even be a factor. Jokes at the expense of fat people used to be a staple of comedy (remember Abbott and Costello?). No more. Political correctness has reduced the use of ridicule to enforce social norms.
All this said, the case for public intervention to reduce obesity is uncertain. The main costs of obesity, in increased illness and disability, are borne by the obese themselves, which greatly weakens the economic case for intervention. True, the obese are able to shift some of their medical and disability costs to others through the Medicaid, Medicare, and social security disability programs, which are subsidized health and disability programs that do not limit benefits to the obese even though the obese experience increased illness and disability as a consequence of their obesity. Yet 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.