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08/05/2007

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Rob

Nice post.

We've a real problem with obesity.

In fact I recently blogged about this exact thing here: http://tinyurl.com/38zvkm

In short: In May of 2002, the World Health Organization announced a rise in obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Remarkably, this occurred not only in affluent developed nations - but also among developing nations in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean, where malnutrition was once the major dietary issue.

Obesity in the developing world can be seen as a result of a series of changes in diet, physical activity, health and nutrition, collectively known as the ‘nutrition transition.’ As poor countries become more prosperous, they acquire some of the benefits along with some of the problems of industrialized nations. These include obesity.

Since urban areas are much further along in the transition than rural ones, they experience higher rates of obesity. Cities offer a greater range of food choices, generally at lower prices. Urban work often demands less physical exertion than rural work. And as more and more women work away from home, they may be too busy to shop for, prepare and cook healthy meals at home. The fact that more people are moving to the city compounds the problem. In 1900, just 10 percent of the world population inhabited cities. Today, that figure is nearly 50 percent.

Read more here: http://tinyurl.com/2scnhk

Thomas Brownback

Many economic approaches to the obesity issue seem incomplete, because they fail to account for this apparent paradox: obesity rates are higher in affluent nations, and yet, obesity rates are highest among the poor in those nations.

The social multiplier theory and Posner's explanation of the lower weights of the affluent are more helpful than most accounts.

Maybe fast food is an odd sort good that is inaccessible in poor nations, but in wealthy nations, it acts like a Giffen good?

Sant Darwin Assisi's cat

Becker has given good statistics -- if reliable, the obese issue is not as 'large' as it would seem from just walking around on a busy city street and looking at people...from my observations, Professor Becker is accurate in his assessment of the sedentary activities of our youth contributing to a potential early demise ... progress is a double edged sword or there are 2 sides to every coin (for every step forward we take a step back) ... Judge Posner's revealing writing about his circle of peers was surprising ... along with those daily 5 fruits and 4 vegetables, 90 minutes of exercise seems to be required ... thank you for writing about behavior which affects everyone not just the wealthy economic unit ....PS did you see the Virgin Feast (Baltimore, MD) in Washingtonpost.com? ...are people as alcohol and drug dependent as the Woodstock time period?

KipEsquire

What's with the sweeping, bigoted generalization about gay activists? (I will dismiss your impolitic use of the word "homosexual" as a reflection of your advancing age.)

A little more research and a little less vitriol please.

Lee

@KipEsquire: Judge Posner has written a scholarly book on policy regarding sex and sexuality. I frequently recommend it to people as one of the most sensible, readable and informed books on sexuality I know of.

You would probably even find his policy recommendations congenial.

But I shouldn't have to say any of that: the first paragraph of this post is, after all, obviously true. It's a generalization, but it's not bigoted.

Lee

Another thought:

I wonder whether the first paragraph isn't Nietzsche-inspired, intended to make ideologues stop reading and go away.

B

Judge Posner mentions:

‘…expensive alternatives to junk food…’

Those making excuses for irresponsible behavior repeat the claim that urban populations are fat because of the ‘cheap’ option of fast food. But for the price of around two McDonald’s meals, one can go to a wholesale club and buy a fifty pound sack of rice yielding over five hundred servings, or over 80,000 calories (forty man-days worth of caloric intake). My guess is that rice is available free at food banks.

When one feels like splurging, he could add a serving of broccoli, cauliflower, or most other vegetables for about a quarter. You can buy chicken on sale for under a buck a pound to add a healthy protein. Our house routinely eats good, healthy meals for under a dollar a plate. But there’s this thing; we have to cook it, and it can take up to 30 minutes.

It’s easier to plop down five bucks for a number four.

P

"Nobody bothers to compute his body mass, which requires translating one's weight from pounds to kilograms and then dividing by the square of one's height in meters (the normal range for the body mass index so computed is 18 to 24), simple as this computation is."

Well, maybe, but the first google hit for "body mass index" is http://www.nhlbisupport.com/bmi/, which presents a straightforward BMI calculator requiring no user computation at all; just type in height and weight, in "standard" or metric units. A large fraction of people googling on "body mass index" are likely to see this calculator, and one would imagine that among that set are many who are interested in knowing their BMI and will use the calculator.

Joe

@B: Consider the time cost of money. The preparation time could easily exceed $5. For example, if it takes 30 extra minutes longer to prepare dinner than to purchase a hamburger, anyone who's time is worth more than $10/hr would benefit (economically) from purchasing the hamburger.

B

Back at you Joe;

6% of Americans make stuff.
38% of Americans provide services.
5% of Americans are looking for work.
Over half of Americans just consume.

Time value of money calculations don’t apply to most of us. We’re just lazy.

Ryan Bonneville

Jason, that seems like an interesting - and completely misleading - way to read "homosexual". The paper you cite gives the 9.6 number for any sexual activity ever with a man, but only about 4% for the last year. I think counting men who have had one or a few homosexual experiences at some point in their lives and then never again as homosexuals is probably pushing it a little.

And what's the matter with this Kip fellow? There was nothing even slightly anti-gay in the first paragraph and the word "homosexual" is a fine, neutral word.

Joe

@B:
I'm afraid I don't quite follow your link between these statistics and your conclusion. Further, why do you assume that consumers place no price on their time? Suppose a consumer wants to buy an item that is available at N different websites which may have different prices. If the consumer doesn't value time, then the customer would check every site to find the lowest price, even if N is large. If every consumer did this, then there could never be any difference in price between stores, because the lowest price would receive every sale. However, no consumer I know has literally checked every site that sells each item they buy. Hence, we have a wide variety of prices across sites.

nolonger

Maybe Becker should take a break from teaching first year and give Posner a chance.

cgar

The body mass index is fine for most people, but if you have some muscles and are engaged in athletics on a regular basis, it is possible to be above a 24 and still be in terrific shape. I don't mean just look good, but that you are able to pass a number of medical tests. However, I don't know how many people fit this type. It may be a distinction that has little effect on the explanatory power of the model.

Define the terms and control the debate. Why care about the use of the term "homosexual", if there is nothing wrong with it (as Seinfeld would say)? We could debate why "gay" is preferable. Is it because it is a softer term - somewhat similar to using "gender" when "sex" is thought to be too overt? I think Posner, ancient as he is, was saying let's use the right facts whatever they may be. If half the population is h/g that is somewhat different than if 0.1% are. (Probably by the time this comes up he will have profusely apologized for his transgression.)

On the other hand, the gov should get out of the business of measuring race, sexual orientation and all the other divisions that we allow to obsess us. Such measurement only leads to further division.

Jason Malloy

I think counting men who have had one or a few homosexual experiences at some point in their lives and then never again as homosexuals is probably pushing it a little.
Or as I said "...only about 2% of men appear to have a homosexual orientation."

eharder

"fat people were regularly ridiculed by entertainers, and this ridicule helped to keep people thin"

This is insane.

Shefaly

@ Joe: If only those, whose time value of money exceeds a certain rate, buy hamburgers, then more rich people than poor people should be seen going to McDonald's. No? Saves them even more time if the food is cheaper by an order of magnitude than the money they make in that time..

Economic arguments are good to read because in their reductionist approach, they provide respite from the complexity of obesity (which is what I am doing for my PhD) but they do not take away that complexity.

Andrew

I'll start by noting the rather paradoxical problem we seem to have here in America:
Our poor people are too fat. (It seems that literally letting them "eat cake" may not have been such a good idea after all...)

My suggested solutions:

1. Reform health education in High School.

When I was in High School, approximately 99% of our physical education class was focused on playing sports--something most people stop doing after their mid-twenties. Also, our "Health Class" was focused on eating right to avoid things like cancer and diabetes, conditions that teenagers know won't affect them for quite some time. Instead, I think High School Health Education should capitalize on teenagers' obsession with their looks and show them ways to eat right and excercise in a way that makes them both healthier and, more importantly, better looking.

2. Subsidize Healthy Food. (Perhaps through some kind of joint effort with our current farm subsidies.)

3. Research and develop food supplements.

Personally, I drink alot of protein and meal replacement shakes because they are healthy, taste good, and are fast and convieniant. Unfortunatly, they are also very expensive. If someone invented a cheap effective meal replacement shake, it would be a formidable weapon in the battle against obesity.

Joe

@Shefaly
I am simply arguing that preparing food can incur larger costs (via the cost of time) than buying food from a restaurant. So, my real point is that as time gets more valuable, people go to restaurants more often. The way this factored into McDonald's was that I was arguing that even some of the simplest home-cooked meals can exceed the cost of going to McDonald's.

Two things about rich people:

1. The utility of eating at a more expensive restaurant increases as you get rich.

2. The utility of money decreases, but wages increase.

So, we have interesting interactions. The equation as I see it would be:
Let u_A be the utility of eating at restaurant A
Let u_B be the utility of eating at restaurant B
Let t_A be the time of eating at A
Let t_B be the time of eating at B
Let c_A be the cost of food at A
Let c_B be the cost of food at B
Let X be the hourly wage
Let U be the utility function of money
A person will prefer A over B iff
u_A - U(c_A + X*t_A) > u_B - U(c_B + X*t_B)

So, as the utility function returns a lower fraction of its argument (as it does for rich people), the differences in the utility of eating become more dominant. Further, I think rich people are more judging, so the utility differences between the restaurants increase.

Clearly, there is a lot more to it than this, and you are right to say that obesity is a very complex topic. I wasn't making a point about obesity so much as pointing out the need to consider time costs.

Tanya Buva

The average size amongst people has changed dramatically since the 1950's when an average (yes I said average) woman used to be a size 4 and today an average size amongst women is a size 12 at the least. Political correctness has taken a toll on human health. It is, now, deemed politically incorrect to call someone "fat". Becker is right about entertainers ridiculing fat people thus pressuring many to stay thin. Many have interpreted this as a justification for their obesity or mere "fatness". Excuses are plenty to avoid exercise- lack of "good" genes, lack of time to exercise...you name it. Everyone faces scarcity and everyone has 24 hours in a day. No one, regardless of any other meddling criteria, has any more time than the person next to him/her. It is how to arrange you time to exercise, eat right- in every sense that makes a difference.

This is well over due- maybe not, but it could not be addressed enough. Thank you, Becker and Posner for this wonderful blog

Bill

As always, the Onion says it best

http://www.theonion.com/content/video/in_the_know_should_we_be_shaming

Tarik

On Judge Posner's generalization about homosexuality. Having just read other of its writing , I have the feeling that when tackling this subject, Judge Posner seems to say either too much or too little (Am I generalizing?)... The question is, is there any sound (economic perhaps) reason why Judge Posner would be biased toward homosexual people, and be unable to (rationally) explain it.

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