11.8.04

AN "UGLY TAX" IS NOT AN OPTION. Reason's Nick Gillespie is not impressed with suggestions that corrective taxation be applied to some food stuffs, all in the interest of public health. (That there might be a public interest in keeping the wide bodies hidden is out of bounds for now.)
If history is any guide, it’s safe to assume that a hot topic of political discussion will quickly transform into a hot topic of legislation, ranging from Twinkie taxes to mandatory high school exit exams administered by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness (which one assumes is now part of the Department of Homeland Security). Can the federal Leave No Chubby Child Behind Act be far away in a country in which 15 percent of kids are officially considered "overweight"? The corresponding figure for adults is about 65 percent, which simply pours more fat on this particular political fire.

If being overweight contributes "significantly to our health care costs," the best way to reduce our dangerous dependency on imported stretch fabrics is to make individuals internalize those costs the same way they scarf down the Big Macs and (formerly) supersized fries. That means reducing the publicly funded elements of health care. An added benefit of that would be to deny politicians -- and your taxpaying neighbors -- any right to shape your personal lifestyle.
There is a somewhat longer Jacob Sullum article, also in Reason, on the same topic, arguing
The more important question is why any of this is the government’s business. Granted that obesity is a health issue, why is it a public health issue? The answer from [Yale's Kelly] Brownell and like-minded activists is that the government must rescue consumers -- especially children -- from the environmental forces that make them fat, thereby rescuing taxpayers from the burden of obesity-related medical expenses. They propose to accomplish this mission through a combination of taxes, subsidies, censorship, and regulation. In his book Food Fight (co-authored by Katherine Battle Horgen), Brownell says "profound change is necessary." Among other things, the government must "change the basic economics of food," redesign cities so that "times, places, and incentives for people to be physically active [are] engineered into daily life," "prohibit marketing of products to children," "prohibit snack foods and soft drinks from schools," and "prohibit the operation of businesses selling food within a certain distance of schools." If legislatures fail to go along with this agenda, "litigation may be necessary."

The war on fat is the latest manifestation of a collectivist philosophy that says the government has a duty to protect "public health" by discouraging behavior that might lead to disease or injury. It also reflects an anti-capitalist perspective that views people as helpless automatons manipulated into consuming whatever big corporations choose to produce. The anti-fat crusaders want to manipulate us too, but for our own good. They seek to reshape us by reshaping the world.
There is more economics in weight gain than the simple externality argument. Mr Sullum has part of it.
As economist Tomas Philipson notes, Americans have been getting fatter for at least a century, primarily because of developments that have been tremendously positive on balance. 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.
(Or, as Charlie Sykes put it, "One America does Pilates to keep fit. The other does yard work.") That is not to make light of the higher opportunity costs of exercising, or of eating right. Inas Rashad & Michael Grossman have an essay in The Public Interest (hat tip: Milt's File) titled "The Economics of Obesity" that notes,
Physical exercise has declined since 1980, and that decline is a proximate cause of the increase in body weight. Statisticians Reid Ewing, Tom Schmid, Richard Killingsworth, Amy Zlot, and Stephen Raudenbush have attributed part of the increase in obesity to the degree of urban sprawl, or how conducive a city is to exercise. Urban sprawl is defined as the process through which the spread of development across the landscape outpaces population growth. Those urban areas that offer more transportation choices, are more compact, and have a variety of stores and activity centers within reach have lower rates of obesity. Government spending on roadwork and infrastructure may thus have an influence on the obesity rate by subsidizing sprawl.
Furthermore,
According to our research, as much as two-thirds of the increase in adult obesity since 1980 can be explained by the rapid growth in the per capita number of fast-food restaurants and full-service restaurants, especially the former. It’s not hard to imagine how the explosive growth in these restaurants could fuel the obesity epidemic. Food served in these restaurants has extremely high caloric density, and almost certainly has contributed to obesity. We also found that the very modest growth in the per capita number of fast-food and full-service restaurants accounts in large part for the stability of adult weight in the period from 1960 to 1980, before the first major obesity upswing. During that period, the per capita number of full-service restaurants actually fell. Indications point to restaurant growth as the primary cause of increased obesity after 1980.

What caused this explosive restaurant growth? The principal driver seems to have been the increases in rates of labor force participation by women. As nonwork time for women became increasingly scarce and valuable over the last few decades, time devoted to at-home meal preparation decreased. Families began eating out more often. Indeed, the economists Patricia M. Anderson, Kristin F. Butcher, and Phillip B. Levine find that the rise in average hours worked by mothers can account for as much as one-third of the growth in obesity among children in certain families. In part, the rise in obesity seems to have been an unintended consequence of encouraging women to become more active in the workforce.

We have also unmasked a second and perhaps more surprising culprit in the alarming rise in obesity: the crackdown on smoking via tax increases. Higher cigarette taxes and higher cigarette prices have caused more smokers to quit — but these smokers seem to have begun eating more as a result. According to our research, each 10 percent increase in the real price of cigarettes produces a 2 percent increase in the number of obese people, other things being equal.

Clearly, those who curtail their habit or quit smoking altogether typically gain weight as the appetite-suppressing and metabolism-increasing effects of smoking come to an end. This is no small effect: The inflation-adjusted price of cigarettes has risen by approximately 164 percent since 1980. This large growth resulted in part from four federal excise tax hikes, a number of state tax hikes, and the settlement of the state lawsuits filed against cigarette manufacturers to recover Medicaid funds spent treating diseases related to smoking. The rise in the real price of cigarettes is the second-most important factor next to the growth in restaurants in the trend in the post-1980 obesity trend. We estimate that it accounts for almost 20 percent of the growth in obesity.
This summary is instructive: economists see tradeoffs where policy wonks attempt to find solutions.
Our findings underscore the idea that social action can have unintended consequences: Oftentimes, there is a tradeoff involved in achieving goals that society favors, such as increased food production, more workforce participation by women, and fewer smokers. Lower real food prices have significantly increased living standards. Expanded labor market opportunities for women have increased families’ command of real resources and increased equality of opportunity. Cigarette smoking is still the largest cause of premature death among Americans; pushing smokers to quit will have obvious health benefits. But our results and those of other economists also suggest that these efforts contribute to the rising prevalence of obesity. Whether public policies should be pursued that offset this ignored consequence of previous public policy to discourage smoking, increase market opportunities, and make cheaper food available depends on the costs and benefits of these policies.
Mr Sullum's article ends with another framing of the tradeoff.
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."

Those who insist upon such "fundamental changes" cannot understand why others find the prospect alarming. Brownell thinks his critics are not being constructive if they fault his plan for remaking the world without offering a plan of their own. The same sort of incomprehension was apparent at the AEI conference on obesity, where University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein argued that fat people can impose costs on others only if the government forces taxpayers to pick up the tab for their health care or prevents insurers and employers from discriminating based on weight. Eliminate these distortions, he said, and weight control would be purely a private matter. In that case, a hostile audience member asked him, what are you doing to prevent obesity? Epstein’s answer: "I play basketball."

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