July 18 2012

Big Government Won't Solve the Problem of Big Americans

Julie Gunlock

Economist Michael Marlow has a thought-provoking opinion piece in the Orange County register explaining why government programs won’t solve America’s obesity problem.  First, he takes down the popular and very condescending meme that fat people don’t understand the health risks associated with obesity.

This is a silly objection on its face – even children understand that a regular diet of ice cream and pizza is not good for your health. But there's also data to support this notion: A 2008 study in the American Journal of Health concluded that overweight Americans' own mortality predictions were "reasonably close" to those generated from actual life tables for U.S. adults.

Marlow’s able to back his excellent point up with hard data in citing the 2008 study, yet I understand his point from a more personal standpoint.  My children love cookies, ice cream, popsicles, my home-made baked goods, chips, popcorn and candy but they understand that these items are not part of our normal diet. My children view these food items as a reward or as an occasional treat.  

Why do my children view food this way?  Because I taught them to view food in that way.  I taught them to also appreciate baby carrots and broccoli and roasted cauliflower and string beans and peanut butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread (with the crusts attached) and blueberries and strawberries and all sorts of other foods of which the health scolds would approve. That doesn’t make me super mom; that makes me normal mom because teaching kids about proper nutrition is a normal part of parenting.  My children might eat a lot of noodles and buttered bread but they also understand that they need to eat fruits and vegetables, especially if they want to get a treat now and then. 

My children will carry these lessons with them for the rest of their lives.  Hopefully, they’ll always view cookies and cake and French fries as an occasional treat, but if not and they choose a less healthy diet, they will still understand that this is a choice—a choice that carries with it certain consequences—like being obese and less healthy. 

Marlow goes on to address the utter ridiculousness of public health officials suggesting Americans don't have sufficient incentives to deal with their own obesity issues by pointing out the “multibillion-dollar market for diet books, health foods, weight-loss centers and surgeries, exercise equipment and athletic clubs – clear evidence that people are concerned over their weight.”  But this doesn’t matter to government officials who are determined to increase the size of government in order to solve the problem even though, as Marlow states, these “government-imposed solutions like "fat taxes" have a less-than-stellar track record of getting results.”

For instance, economists have recently demonstrated that even an enormous 58 percent tax on soda would drop the average body mass index by only 0.16 points – a trivial effect since obesity is defined as a BMI of at least 30. People who consume a lot of soda simply pay the higher taxes, substitute into lower-priced soda, or take advantage of bulk discounted purchases. (As is always the case with excise taxes like these, the poor shoulder a relatively heavier burden.)

The hard truth is that governments have no special expertise in solving obesity, and no public mandate to do so. Contrast this with the dynamic market for weight-loss products, which encourages the best strategies, eliminate the failures, and consistently offers new and better alternatives. Demands for real solutions prompt supply by eager entrepreneurs with products that no government bureaucrat could ever imagine.

In the mind of public health paternalists, solutions that allow individuals to address their unique needs are given short shrift as interventions come one-size-fits-all. But the evidence suggests that real solutions begin at the level of individuals and end with market solutions, without falling into the trap of blaming business or society for our problems.

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