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12/21/2006

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Garth Brazelton

Becker says " Rather, they may have an unarticulated awareness that when they reach older ages where heart disease and other diseases are more common, drugs are likely to have been developed that offset the negative consequences of what appears now to be unhealthy diets."

heart disease and other disease are indeed more common in old age - they are also common for younger people who are obese or who eat poorly. I don't think this claim passes the snuff test when our teenagers and people under 30 are getting bigger and bigger - and our health costs are rising because of it. To just brush it off and say that it doesn't matter because people are making efficient decisions seems to me extreemly simplistic.

For many, food is like a drug. Further, it doesn't take long once a person begins the fast-food habit for that persons health to decline in the here and now - not just when they are old. So, while I'm not a huge fan of banning trans fat outright, I think to suggest that people take their lifetime health into account when making decisions about food is a bit academic and not really reality based.

Larry

"Consumer ignorance" should not be a justifiable reason to enact laws forbidding the sale of anything. The consumer protection division of FTC is a useless bureaucracy that spends all its time harassing legitimate businesses, because fly-by-night crooks move too fast for them and trial lawyers keep everyone else in line.

If "consumer ignorance" was a reasonable excuse, why not pass laws against putting money in slot machines? Or donating to The Church of What's Happening Now? Where will it end? Why allow the sale of recorded "music" which is more accurately described as noise? Why allow charges to see Michael Moore films? Why allow the sale of liquor by the glass--do our ignorant consumers need special classes to learn they can get it more cheaply by the bottle? If so, I guess it might be okay, if the government employs the same rationale as it does on everything else--to make a few more jobs for teachers.

Jack

Becker may have been caught short by being on the road, but lacking any strong arguments against the NYC ban he seems to resort to hurling lots of weak ones as well as using Posner's weakest argument (consumer ignorance) as a straw man. But let's take a look at the "informed" vs "ignorant" issue.

Assuming perfect knowledge and 50% of restaurants using transfats it's clear that those meeting for a leisurly lunch over a menu of Nuevo California Cuisine with prices beginning at multiples of the current min wage have all the choice in the world and can and will vote with their feet and expense accounts.

Not so easy for those on the clock and dashing out to a nearby fast food spot or those trying to juggle two sub-median wage jobs and feed the family in between work and PTA or the night school said by some to be the panacea for the lower half of wage earners no longer participating in the benefits of overall productivity gains.

Becker is "fairly sure" that the damage to health is not great, but with transfats amounting to 6% of diets and perhaps more in kids and low income households along with startling increases in obesity, Type II diabetes, autism and allergies wouldn't it be wiser for a great nation of science to take a closer look at what might be the root of these problems and why they are more pronounced here than in Europe? and yet worse in regions of the US where transfat consumption is higest? Or? Shall we furlough the scientists and rely upon "our" mid-ocean corporations to eventually "get" the message, via "The Market?"

Becker asks:

"Does one really want to go down the road of a ban on trans fats when the net gains to consumers are dubious, and probably negative,...."

I'd turn the question around and put the burden on those deciding to experiment on a universal scale with our food supply and health for the "taste benefits?" (or profits?) from chemically adulterating the molecular makeup of vegetable oils? Lacking a fair indication of a new "product" being harmless shouldn't we err on the side of conservatism? or at least, once full scale field trials turn up serious problems, favor the integrity of our food and water supply over "political difficulty?

What's the next bold experiment? To try some taste enhancing by-product of light sweet crude oil and "see if it works?" And hope the side-effects don't show up for a generation or so?

"Top nutritionists at Harvard have stated as follows:

"By our most conservative estimate, replacement of partially hydrogenated fat in the U.S. diet with natural unhydrogenated vegetable oils would prevent approximately 30,000 premature coronary deaths per year, and epidemiologic evidence suggests this number is closer to 100,000 premature deaths annually.""

Hmmm, so over 50 years as many as 5 million of our our family members may have died prematurely or spent their last years living with heart disease for "taste" and profits?

A prediction? This one's got legs and will go national with transfats soon joining Edsels and olive green appliances. Any bets on a few sizable class action law suits? Jack

john

Couldn't we call it the 'just' state, instead of the 'nanny' state. It sounds better somehow.

Jim Moser

Becker underestimates the implications of what he calls the "nanny state." It isn't only that the nanny tells us to not eat transfats, it is the moral hazard that results. I commented to the Posner post on this issue but here's another shot at what I see as the problem.

Imagine each of us investing a certain proportion of our time in human capital to be devoted to preserving life quality/quantity. This might be accomplished by reading the health section of a newspaper, watching television or in daily conversation. This is time that could be spent doing other things that are also valued. We do this because we do value those other things and by preserving the quality and quantity of life we hope to increase our opportunities to enjoy those other pursuits.

What I've just described is an investment in human capital, knowledge that improves future consumption. The time taken away from current consumption represents investments in this human capital.

Now add a nanny state to this thought experiment. This nanny state can be counted on to restrict our choices to what it deems safe activities. How does this affect our decisions to invest in human capital? Some will conclude those investments to be time wasted. Why spend time reading medical journals (or popular press reports of those journals) when that time can be spent consuming more now. After all, we can count on the nanny state to keep reading the journals and prohibiting us from enjoying dangerous activities. Ergo, invest less in human capital so we can consume more now.

Were the problem limited to a single item, transfat in the present case, the outcome probably isn't so important. However, the impact of reducing investments in human capital lessens our ability to make other choices. For example, reading up on transfat issues makes us more aware of cholesterol and more able to evaluate other foods for their health impacts. So that reduction in human capital can have implications beyond the transfat issue. Those implications motivate a need for the nanny state to increase its vigilance.

What I see is a down sloping process, at each step the nanny state asserts limitations for our own good and we respond by further reducing our human capital investments which in turn requires the nanny to increase vigilance. As nanny state intervention displaces investments in human capital, we will be travelling along Hayek's "Road to Serfdom."

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john

Largely self sustaining pioneers on the plains, living in primitive conditions, made a series of decisions, to live interdependently. As they traded off expertise in successive areas of their lives, they became wealthier, but less self sufficient.
As each new tool enters into our lives today, from ipods to Blackberrys, cellphones to laptops, we become with each addition, more efficient at our work. But our lives become a bit more narrow with each new tool, and our ability to take care of ourselves becomes weaker and weaker. Each of us becomes more dependent upon the successes of markets to provide for our daily existence.
As we become more efficient, our need for a nanny increases. SO, while it makes a nice fat target to characterize our society as a nanny state, a nanny state is what we need. We have lost the ability to take care of ourselves.
Period.
Are Ted Kosinski and I the only people who see this?

Mike

As a lawyer, I think Jack is spot on. Not having access to food with transfats is a small price to pay for my opportunity to retire at 40. As Ted and john understand, any American so unfortunate as to be unable to afford to eat at a bistro serving Nuevo California cuisine cannot possibly be expected to brown bag a healthy lunch instead of eating fast food.

Jack

Interesting John and Jim's comments are almost chapters of the same book:

Basically what Jim describes is the industrial revolution and the age of specialization on up into the "information age". Perhaps fifty years ago we discussed the skilled craftsmen of coach building becoming assembly line workers who spent years doing repetitive simple tasks. But that too was a passing era as most of that work is today, relegated to robotics of complex design with just 35 man-hours going into the assembly of an automobile and the "craftsmen" being tool and die makers or computer/robotic technicians.

As each new tool enters our lives and makes us more efficient at our jobs we (should) have options as to how to manage the increased productivity or shorter work week. Not long ago if I was expecting a call important to me I'd be imprisoned in my home, when cordless phones arrived I could be outside, with cell phones I could be atop Alyeska Mountain skiing with my son, as well as being more readily available to answer a call for help from family or friend. New tools are almost always great, and it's up to the user/moron if they want to yak on it through lunch while their companions stare silently off into space.

I don't see interdependency as a down-side of civilization, here in Alaska I see modern tools, including the cellphone as optional aids for living a self-sufficient life, which is really something of an individual productivity race to keep up with the need for water, food, housing and heat, using crude technology and the tools of yesteryear in a challenging environment. If my pipes aren't clogged with transfats I'm free to live a subsistent lifestyle longer and better.

Jim begins with one of these "moral hazard" terms which strikes me as one more product emanating from Karl Rove's Newspeak Labs that has given us "war on terror", supplanted "estate tax" with "death tax" and "axis of evil", despite there being no axis and the three countries mentioned having no exclusive franchise on "evil".

Jim sez:
"This nanny state can be counted on to restrict our choices to what it deems safe activities. How does this affect our decisions to invest in human capital?"

To which I reply that the reason myself and most others are not trying to live a "self-sufficient" life in Alaska or on the prairie is that it is simply too hard to do everything alone and we appreciate other craftsmen building our homes to a Uniform Building Code, crash testing our vehicles for us, and protecting our food and water supply.

Having those tasks done communally frees many of us to do further individual research or annoy others on chat boards? Those with less time to invest, as, curiously? the productivity gains of the last 25 years are not reflected in the pay checks or work week of most and we work longer today than then, can benefit from the wisdom of others, and I think the world is so complex we're all stuck with being expert in a few areas and dependent on others in their areas of expertise.

Please remember that banning transfat is not banning carrots or steaks, but a belated response to the bad idea of chemically adulterating vegetable oil after half a century of damage to our health and perhaps the premature deaths of millions.

BTW on the "cost issue" butter is one of the tastier alternative oils for baking and with dairy products being price supported and butter being a by product of the popular skim milk it may be that increased production and less price support "might" be an outcome of banning transfats though I'd be the last to bet against the rent-seeking ability of the dairy lobby.

Anonymous

Alex; first welcome! And I wish that our "leaders" had done more to help Russia make the transition to private enterprise. With our being in recession at the time there seemed lots of win-win possibilities that were overlooked. The fact of many or your people being poorer today than under the the USSR seems........ unnecessary. We seem to becoming increasingly good at that!

Much of the problem we face today, at HUGE costs and the lives of many, can be traced to both Russia and the US, neglectfully leaving Afghanistan (after bravely duking it out as pawns in some foolish chapter of the cold war) in the poverty stricken post-war disarray that provided fertile fields for the rise of the Taliban and Al Queda. It would seem that just a few single-billions spent at the time to stabilize and open that society to world trade might have saved $100's of billions, perhap trillions today.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Alex and other's faith in abstract "choice" models has me wondering if they really do spend so much time in their ivory towers that they become far too narrowly focused and lose sight of the practical exigencies of life in the real world.

In this "richest" of countries we've 38 million living at or below the poverty level of $10,000/household with their wise choices being that of lowest cost calories and protein with perhaps the luxury of a few lower priced snacks. Above them are say 50 million living at twice the poverty level and at $20,000/household still a hefty emphasis on budgetary concerns and living the same busy lives as those of higher incomes, they're very likely the frequent patrons of the lowest order of fast food emporiums regardless of their knowledge. And, I think everyone who's ever opened an econ text knows that it's likely that a tomato will be lower quality and cost more in the ghetto due to the poor not having transportation to "make their" intelligent choices and so it will be the case for cheap food fried in transfats.

Also, have they given up? or never believed in a functioning democracy? Surely the NYC ban did not come from some faceless bureaucrat having woken up in an especially grumpy or controlling mood; but that the ban instead is a win for a fair number of citizens action groups who've been working on guiding their government for some time, with a result that is better and cheaper than an educational program that might take decades to change behavior and wait for our corporations to respond.

As for homecooked food, Alex, my guess is that our form of democracy will lead the way to corporations getting rid of transfatted oils in most products much faster than would any combination of waiting for "The Market" and educating the populace. (BTW here in the US you'll often find that "education" regarding policy is often NewSpeak for stalling or doing nothing.)

Mike: I'm just not sure how not having access to transfatted grub had anything to do with your retiring at an age when most are just hitting their stride. I'd have thought it had more to do with ABA being the strongest union in America with perhaps the exception of the AMA? coupled with some of the curious traditions of our medical/insurance industry, though I hope that I'm wrong. In any case I do hope you'll comment on some of the discussions of measurement of overall productivity and especially that of the lower income groups whose boats are not being lifted at all by the rising tide and social policies that give doubt to an increasing number of hard working Americans ever being able to retire.

But do you really think the world is made better by allowing "our??" corporations to continue to saturate food meant for human consumption in purposely adulterated oils and leave those unable to afford the bistro the option of a soggy cold sandwich? Jack

MJG

Just wonder if anyone can point me towards the "new evidence [indicating] that requiring child car seats may increase their risk of injury in accidents"?

And also I think one of things Becker makes clear to me is that, as he disagrees with Posner as to whether the costs of the ban outweigh the benefits, so presumably there would be significant disagreement among economists and doctors and the public as a whole. In this case, shouldn't we defer to personal freedoms? Shouldn't the benefit of the doubt be given to the markets that respond to the decisions of real people rather than government burueacrats and alarmist researchers who wish to impose further and further restrictions on our choices in the name of "public health"? We've had such types for decades, and can you say that they've been right more than wrong? That they've caused more good than harm? I don't think so.

Joel Pinheiro

I agree with Prof. Becker.

Many things we eat or drink carry with them risks to our health.
Fat may clog our arteries.
Salt may rise our blood pressure to dangerous levels.
Fish bones may harm our throat.
Solid foods in general may choke us to death.

In fact, every human action is fraught with risk, and it would be delirious to try to, though legislation, ban them.

Many people may not know that salt raises their pressure; and may thus harm their own health by consuming it.
Should salt be banned or its use restricted by law? No.

Most people simply don't care that consuming a tasty food may increase the probability of health problems in the future, provided that this increase is little.
Others do, and thus they'll make the effort not to consume those foods which are potentially harmful to their health.

Now, suppose that a certain edible good is harmful to a person's health, but this knowledge is still restricted to a few people.
In this case, a regular person is not responsible for not having such a knowledge. Therefore, if they eat the good in question and become sick as a result of it, they have good grounds on which to sue the company which sold them the food.

On the other hand, if the person knew about the risk, or if the knowledge about the risk of that food was widespread enough so that ignorance of it is culpable (someone who doesn't know that drinking in excess may harm their health is culpable for this ignorance, given that it is common knowledge), then the person who is harmed by the product has no grounds on which do demand anything from the firm which sold them the product.

No need for law at all. In this way, competition in the food market is not restricted (which means food prices won't rise unnecessarily nor will there be less food supplied) and people are allowed to eat the food that better satisfies their own preferences.

Jack

Alex sez:

.....crisis in Iran, inability to stop nuclear experiment in North Korea, as well as in India some time ago.

Without a consensus on what is better for the world or "core values", one cannot fight for the freedom in the world.

jjjj Trust, understanding and respect would go a long way! As for nuclear proliferation it strikes me that the best and ONLY way is that of the US leading the way to a "build down" to zero. Ban The Bomb!! The "trust" would be a result of every country being open to a variety of inspection teams and its not hard to imagine using the internet as a means of making EVERY citizen of the world an inspector. The means of building nukes and their delivery systems would become international contraband and simply not tolerated at all. Problems? sure. Risks? some but FAR better than continued proliferation and the problems we see today. It seems selfishly foolish of the US to think we can pick an Israel to be trusted with nukes while banning other countries. Cheaters? Simple with the entire world having a core belief that ALL are better off w/o nukies the facilities would face immediate destruction. Simple one rule for all.

The world spent over a Trillion US last year for military; it's pretty easy to think of better ways to spend such resources and hard to think of any gains being made by war for the last half century.

Back to the not-so-trivial matter of food and health:

We'd all agree that education in health and diet is an ideal. But! one problem is that of living in a free society amid a batch of very powerful corporate interests. Our government spends money to educate kids about the harmful effects of smoking. The same government subsidizes tobacco farmers, and, until recently massive ad campaigns aimed directly at making new addicts out of our young people were tax deductible expense. (We've, in theory, banned targeting tobacco ads at the young. Tobacco use is in decline here and the only growth is in exporting them to other nations.)

You mention soft drinks? 25 years ago their machines were not in schools. How they got there was bribing the school administrations with dedicating a dab of the profits for sports activities etc.

There's confusion here on when to use education and when to resort to an outright ban. Salt use? troublesome to some, but a substance of wide use and benefit when properly used, so an educational approach on the effect it has on some with hypertension seems appropriate.

Transfats? troublesome to ALL with no unique, offsetting benefits (taste can and is being maintained by other ingredients) and is in fact a purposeful adulteration of vegetable oil with very harmful side effects. Ban it, transfats got away with entering our food supply in a time when a substitute for buter and lard was needed (WWII) and suspicion of new corporate products was low. Today I doubt they'd have been allowed to launch.

Apologies to the "conservatives" or "libertarians that there is not a simple formula that fits all circumstances. Jack

Michael Dayne

Just another example of government getting involved where it doesn't belong. We don't need government telling restaurants what they can and cannot serve or how they prepare their food (subject to health laws, of course). What we need is government to be honest with us first, fear us, second, and do the job they were elected to do and leave this nonsense to consumers to sort out on their own.

Jack

Off topic:

Jack says: "Trust, understanding and respect would go a long way!"

Alex sez:
But there are a lot of countries in the world with very very poor citizen, who hate U.S., because they are prosperous, aggressive, successful and so on. I do not think that there's a simple way to make such people and countries respect U.S.After war in Iraq, Nuclear problems in Iran and North Korea, U.S. officials seems to understand they cannot solve these problems alone. Two months ago, after another failure of Iran-world community negation, Candolisa Rice said that Russia and other countries should also play a more active role in this process.

Alex, my call is for more mutual trust, respect and understanding with the US leading the way. After WWII when we emerged as the new "Big guy" after the Sun did set on the British Empire our policy makers were careful to act as Big Guys should act, as "first among equals" rather than the dictatorial unilateralist style of the Bush Dynasty that scraps a long term ABM treaty, and goes about issuing ultimatums in the most abrasive public manner. Clinton for example, told NK if they made any offensive moves with nuclear weapons that "your country will cease to exist" but did so behind the scenes and didn't denounce NK as being part of "an evil axis" on the international stage.

As for nuclear proliferation the "Ban the Bomb" movement of the 50's was swamped by civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate, etc. and perhaps the timing was wrong as technology for verifying compliance was not available. Today we are foolish to think we can dictate who will be the new members of the nuclear club, as you mention especially after "Pearl Harboring" Iraq after it had been disarmed. I'd much rather Iran not develop nukes and think it would do them little good, but how can we expect the Middle East to tolerate a policy where Israel is heavily "nuked" and has the backing of the greatest nuclear power as well while Iran and others are asked just to "trust us?"

No.... THE ONLY way out is that of finally Banning The Bomb and all of its means of mfg and rockets for delivery. Once that commitment was agreed to, there would not only be UN inspectors but each country would be required to be open to weapons inspectors from any nation. In addition once the people of the world understood the stakes, nearly ALL could be inspectors with the internet being a great tool for reporting nuclear contraband. Those found cheating? After a swift UN or International resolution they'd have 6 hours of notice to get their people out of the facility before conventional forces erased it. Countries that opted to be closed? as NK? Not acceptable and they'd be dealt with by "whatever it takes". Is their some risk of a "sneak attack?" Probably but FAR lower than the problems and risks of proliferation, or even one nation having The Hammer while its neighbors do not.

The US can not prosper or play its leadership role while being hated and repairing our image will be a top priority of the next President and Congress.

"But nowadays, some economist think that U.S. growth pattern is very fragile, because we do not understand the reasons why -"

jjj: I'd be among those. It's all complex but as you say fragile and unsustainable w/o some serious changes in policy.

Jack

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