Monday, July 11, 2005

The political economics of fat

[Blogging will continue to be scarce here for some time -- but some subjects are too plump and juicy not to indulge.]

Paul Krugman now embraces the cost of fat people as justification for growing a fatter bigger government. (He's unable to maintain a consistent line all the way from Monday through Thursday as to whether this is "for the children" or not, but let's skip that.)

First I'll note that this subject has already been covered here and, from an economic point of view, if fat is a societal problem to be rid of then the best solution is a no-brainer: Just tax fat people and be done with it. Taxing the fat on people, compared to taxing or regulating it in food, is both a heck of a lot more economically efficient and more socially just too. So when Krugman considers a real "fat tax" is when I'll begin taking him seriously on this subject.

Secondly, reading Krugman's columns on this one wonders if his motive isn't just to find some subject (any subject?) regarding which most people still feel good about government -- and, hey, we can start expanding it again from there.
Above all, we need to put aside our anti-government prejudices and realize that the history of government interventions on behalf of public health ... is one of consistent, life-enhancing success.
Quite a claim! Of course, there are some folk around who might disagree with it -- from participants in the Tuskegee Experiment to the members of the Canadian Supreme Court who just recently struck down key provisions of the Canadian national healthcare system as an unconstitutional danger to the citizenry's health. But we won't dwell on this either....
Obesity is America's fastest-growing health problem; let's do something about it.
... except to note that maybe Paul should put aside his pro-government prejudices for a moment, start reading the newspaper he writes for, and remember the government already has done something about the obesity epidemic -- like, help create it!

This was all written about at great length in the NY Times Magazine some while back by Gary Taubes in his now famous (infamous in some circles) story What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?, a few words from which...

... Over the next two decades, however, the scientific evidence supporting [the low-fat diet is healthier] theory remained stubbornly ambiguous.

The case was eventually settled not by new science but by politics. It began in January 1977, when a Senate committee led by George McGovern published its ''Dietary Goals for the United States,'' advising that Americans significantly curb their fat intake to abate an epidemic of ''killer diseases'' supposedly sweeping the country.

It peaked in late 1984, when the National Institutes of Health officially recommended that all Americans over the age of 2 eat less fat. By that time, fat had become ''this greasy killer'' in the memorable words of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the model American breakfast of eggs and bacon was well on its way to becoming a bowl of Special K with low-fat milk, a glass of orange juice and toast, hold the butter -- a dubious feast of refined carbohydrates.

In the intervening years, the N.I.H. spent several hundred million dollars trying to demonstrate a connection between eating fat and getting heart disease and, despite what we might think, it failed. Five major studies revealed no such link. A sixth, however, costing well over $100 million alone, concluded that reducing cholesterol by drug therapy could prevent heart disease.

The N.I.H. administrators then made a leap of faith. Basil Rifkind, who oversaw the relevant trials for the N.I.H., described their logic this way: they had failed to demonstrate at great expense that eating less fat had any health benefits. But if a cholesterol-lowering drug could prevent heart attacks, then a low-fat, cholesterol-lowering diet should do the same. "It's an imperfect world," Rifkind told me. "The data that would be definitive is ungettable, so you do your best with what is available."

Nonetheless, once the N.I.H. signed off on the low-fat doctrine, societal forces took over. The food industry quickly began producing thousands of reduced-fat food products to meet the new recommendations.

Fat was removed from foods like cookies, chips and yogurt. The problem was, it had to be replaced with something as tasty and pleasurable to the palate, which meant some form of sugar, often high-fructose corn syrup....

Helping the cause was what Walter Willett calls the ''huge forces'' of dietitians, health organizations, consumer groups, health reporters and even cookbook writers, all well-intended missionaries of healthful eating....

As a result, the major trends in American diets since the late 70's, according to the U.S.D.A. agricultural economist Judith Putnam, have been a decrease in the percentage of fat calories and a ''greatly increased consumption of carbohydrates.'' To be precise, annual grain consumption has increased almost 60 pounds per person, and caloric sweeteners (primarily high-fructose corn syrup) by 30 pounds. At the same time, we suddenly began consuming more total calories: now up to 400 more each day since the government started recommending low-fat diets.

If these trends are correct, then the obesity epidemic can certainly be explained by Americans' eating more calories than ever -- excess calories, after all, are what causes us to gain weight -- and, specifically, more carbohydrates. The question is why?...

You don't have to agree with Taube's own suggested scientific answer to that question to realize that the US government has already been up to its neck in shaping our current food market, and thus the shape of the nation's bellies, for a generation -- acting in its own usual politically motivated, fully ascientific way.

Krugman fans take note.

The food industry -- far from being run by modern robber barons who extract fat profits from innocent children leaving fat deposits in their stead while invoking laissez-faire against all enlightened liberal objection, as Krugman would have it -- is in fact following exactly the course that Congressional Democrats and the N.I.H. laid out for it 30 years ago. Who was more liberally enlightened than George McGovern?

Yet contrary to the government's emphatic claims of the late 1970s and on, eggs are now touted as a healthy food, various kinds of fat are good for you, you want to get your "good cholesterol" count up ... and even what was being fat itself is now a condition of life-extending good health! While all that sugar that's been injected into diets to replace eggs and beneficial fat and good cholesterol ... yeech!

Bill Clinton apologized for the Tuskegee Experiment. Maybe Krugman should note and apologize for the past actions of Congress's McGovern Committee and the N.I.H. before recommending more (and doubtless better!) of the same?

Take my word for it -- if you want the government to do go down the road of doing something to reduce the fat on people's bodies, then the "fat people tax" is the way to go! Most efficient and most fair, with Congress and all its regulators and bureaucracies kept out of it, averting all the unintended consequences of "food fat regulation" that Krugman inexplicably says aren't given in this article he cited on this very subject, even though you can read them there yourself.

"First do no harm" may be an alien thought in politics, but let's at least try to do as little as possible.