Obesity: The harm in trying…? by mattsteinglass
July 31, 2009, 8:35 pm
Filed under: Health

Here, I pioneer a new blog style: the epistolary. Basically I posted this as a comment on Megan McArdle’s blog and can’t be bothered to translate it into third-person. This blog is all about laziness! Enjoy.


Megan, I’m going to egotistically assume I am the one other blogger you expect to accuse you of blindly endorsing nay-saying, and say: you’re blindly endorsing nay-saying. I am dull and predictable, and no one should read my blog. But more importantly, this whole subject initially came up because you were saying that increased government intervention in the health insurance market would lead to government increasingly telling us what to eat, and, as with the chocolate eclair example, that this was a problem because it entailed a curtailment of freedom.

But now you’re saying that the whole of the problem is that there’s nothing we can do about what people choose to eat. I still feel that you’ve got a really serious logical problem here that you’re just not addressing. If attempts to limit obesity prevalence don’t work, why will increased government responsibility for health care spending raise pressure on the government to waste money on them? If rising obesity doesn’t really entail very much higher rates of morbidity or higher health spending, then why will the government feel pressure to attack obesity to lower morbidity or heath spending? You may be saying that the government will do these things because it’s irrational, but in that case, what does this problem have to do with universal health insurance? The government does all sorts of irrational things, and its irrational campaigns against drugs and sex have proceeded quite aggressively without universal health insurance.

And, finally, if it’s just impossible to control what people eat, then how can there even be any curtailment of freedom here? If government interventions will be limited to TV ad campaigns that don’t work, am I really supposed to treat that as a serious harm worth worrying about? The amount of money is trivial; for citizens, it’s at most an inconvenience, or perhaps a wasteful subsidy of late-night TV comedy material. Weigh this against the cost of even 100,000 people in the US who actually need insurance being unable to obtain it. Which is more important?

Then, you say that it will simply be impossible to achieve any of the more serious measures that advocates argue might lead to reducing obesity, like cutting corn syrup subsidies or building a less car-oriented society. Again, if these measures will not pass, where is the threat to freedom? If they do pass, and work, isn’t that good? What is the harm you’re claiming? You may be saying that people should just not use their votes to get government to intentionally intervene in shaping policy or the built environment towards any particular lifestyle preferences, that this is in itself a curtailment of freedom. But then in the next breath you say that the reason we have a car-based society is because people voted for the governments that built it. And I really get the sense that you think this was okay. Well, people are voting now for governments that want to do something about reducing childhood obesity. Explain to me again what’s wrong with that.


3 Comments so far
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Hmm, you put a lot of different issues in here, and I’m not sure I want to try to engage them all. So I’ll address only paragraph three. Spending money on TV campaigns is probably useless, and probably not super expensive. On the other hand, in the Drug war, the police seize money at will, collaborate with foreign governments to burn down crops, trample over state la, make it far more difficult to buy various products over-the-counter, and make all sorts of zero-tolerance policies. They trample over free-speech rights, hassle people at the borders and fill prisons with non-violent possession offenders. Oh, and they pay for TV ads. And yet none of these have any meaningful effect on drug use.

If the government pursued the Obesity War as zealously as they pursue the Drug War, why would we assume they stop at TV ads? If they follow the same pattern, they’ll make all sorts of substances illegal to create, possess or purchase, regardless of state law. They’ll seize contraband from you at will, and force you to go to court to prove it’s legit. They’ll spend billions on Food Police and work hard to interdict the supply of foreign imports of contraband materials. They’ll throw people in jail for possession. And at the end of the day, all these draconian measures will look really good on TV – the politicians will get to say they’re “Tough on Fat”, and yet, at the end of the day, they will accomplish absolutely Zero.

Am I being overly dramatic? Probably – I doubt they’d actually throw people in jail for possession of a Twinkie. But I find the rest of that scenario quite plausible. It starts out with TV ads, but when they don’t work, they keep “upping the ante” in order to bully us into submission. And it takes 30 years and a generational shift for the rules to be revised.

Comment by jb

Have you seen the CDC slides that graph %obesity per state per year since 1985?

Its quite dazzling. I think it can shift one’s opinion. In the sense that, when you see numbers like that – such huge increases PER YEAR – it starts to seem like efforts that produce even small changes would have measurable benefits.

And the data suggests that impacting the environment can have an impact on eating behavior. Not clear whether this will take us back to the blissful light blue of the 80s, but maybe it can keep us from finding out what color comes after red.

Comment by Joanna

It’s clear that some transportation and agriculture policies have had harmful, if unintended, consequences on the general health of the country. Where is the harm in correcting these policies to reverse their ill effects? Maybe they can be re-engineered to protect those aspects which are beneficial, and eliminate the harmful at the same time.

Whose freedoms would that impinge on? What is it with this status-quo security blanket Megan and Ross seem to need to cling to?

Comment by AC

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