Monday, August 09, 2004
In some respects, Brownell does not seem to have the courage of his collectivist convictions. When I facetiously suggested at the AEI conference that, rather than tax certain foods (which might be eaten by the thin as well as the fat), the government should tax people for each pound over their ideal weight, he objected. Brownell’s complaint was not that such a system would be tyrannical because how much you weigh is your business, not the government’s. Plainly, he doesn’t believe that. Instead, he worried that a weight tax puts too much emphasis on individual responsibility rather than the environment. But if the prices people pay for food are part of the environment that encourages obesity, so is the price they pay for being fat.
Technological improvements in agriculture and processing have made food so cheap that even the poorest people in developed countries can afford to eat more than they need to survive. (Indeed, the poorest Americans are the fattest -- an astonishing reversal of the relationship between wealth and weight that prevailed for most of human history.) Work is much less arduous than it used to be, Philipson notes, so "the price of spending calories has gone up....Exercise has been pushed from labor to leisure." Rather than getting paid to expend calories, we now pay to do so, whether in leisure time or in money spent on health clubs, exercise equipment, and outdoor recreation. Labor-saving devices from the car and the washing machine to the remote control and the networked computer mean that we expend fewer calories away from work as well as on the job. We can choose from an amazing variety of entertainment options, many of them sedentary.
All these developments have contributed to our expanding waistlines, but as Philipson puts it, "We are better off being fatter and richer. I would not want to go back." Given this reality, it’s rather disconcerting to see Brownell and Horgen proclaim, "Fundamental changes are necessary, because fundamental economic factors are central to the obesity epidemic."
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