December 29 2011

Blame The Free Market

Julie Gunlock

Well, this is a new one.  The new winning answer to the final question in the game show called “Guess What’s Making Us All Fat?” is the…free market. Well, on the bright side, at least people are getting creative.

The Huffington Post reports that University of Michigan researchers examined 26 wealthy nations and concluded that countries with business-friendly regulations and low tariffs have a higher incidence of obesity than countries with more tightly regulated economies. Countries with capitalistic economies like the U.S., Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK had higher rates of obesity than countries that subsidize small farms like Norway, Japan, and Switzerland.  The researchers ostensibly made this free market = fat conclusion because freer economies make it easier to operate fast food restaurants.  Thus, more fast food equals more fat people.

I don’t need to point out the absurdity of this study.  Even head researcher Roberto De Vogli pointed out that “correlation doesn't mean causation.”  Nor do I need to spend five paragraphs pointing out that the researchers basically compared apples to apples when considering most of these countries all have relatively free economies…say, compared to Venezuela or...oh, China.  But that doesn’t stop this same researcher from enumerating a number of policy proposals to fix this problem. 

"It's simple: you tax junk foods and you subsidize fruits, vegetables and healthy foods," [De Vogli] said. "People need to have options, but if they're in an environment where most of the options are unhealthy options, then they don't have many choices."

For a researcher, De Vogli sure has missed a lot of research on the efficacy of taxes and food subsidies.  But let’s take a moment to test De Vogli’s theory about the free market by taking a look at one food system that is decidedly not free market—America’s federal school lunch program.  This program feeds over 30 million children multiple meals a day (in some areas of the country children can get three meals every day!).  The program is designed to help lower income children meet their daily nutritional needs. Yet, it is this very demographic (poor children) that are have the highest rates to obesity.

Over several decades, Congress has tried to do exactly what De Vogli suggests—add in more fruits, vegetables and healthy food and limit unhealthy options.  What has been the result?  Massive food waste and obese children (as we’ve already witnessed in the L.A. County school system). 

The real problem in this country is that the market isn’t free enough.  Disastrous federally run school lunch programs should be privatized.  At the very least, individual school districts should be free of federal nannies so that they can develop feeding programs that best suit their school’s demographics. 

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