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Thursday, November 30, 2006

 

French Fries Under Fire

In class we have talked about Olson’s theories as they relate to vastly different phenomena. In fact I have found that it is the broad applicability of Olson’s theories that makes them so unique and critical to economic study. Now I put Olson’s theory to work to explain, of all things, the government’s newly waged war on fat. ..yes, fat.

I recently read an article entitled, “Junk Food Jihad: Should We Regulate French Fries Like Cigarettes?” The article can be found at http://www.slate.com/id/2139941/nav/tap1/. In the article, author William Saletan contends that since the war on tobacco is all but won, government health officials need a new “whipping-cream boy.” Even though health officials predict that obesity will soon surpass tobacco use as the number one cause of preventable death, Saletan remains skeptical about the virtue of such a war. He points out that the rationale behind smoking bans was largely based on the injustice of secondhand smoke. However, there is no such thing as secondhand obesity.

In fact most people believe that obesity only affects the individual. But the rising incidence of obesity in the United States will have a huge impact on our economy. Obesity is a precursor to a whole host of debilitating and expensive diseases including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. In his article, Mr. Saletan reports that obesity has caused more than one-fourth of the rise in health care costs since 1987. Obesity also costs millions in lost productivity every year. But the question remains, is telling us what to eat a justifiable use of government’s coercive power?

The fact is that the government has been telling us what to eat since the Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906. Therefore it seems telling us whether or not we can eat trans fats and high fructose corn syrup would just be an extension of the law that is already in place. Although we don’t yet know the full effects of these chemicals on the human body, initial tests are far from encouraging. In fact, high fructose corn syrup interferes with chemical signals in the brain that tell the body it is full. Thus, a person may continue eating to excess because their brain cannot tell them that they are full. Manufactures choose to use these chemicals because they are cheaper than healthier alternatives

So what would Olson say? When I first saw this article I immediately thought about bootleggers and Baptists. The bootleggers in this case are the government health officials that need a cause to justify their positions and increase their funding. The Baptists are the American people who will have to bear the costs of higher medical expenses and lost productivity. By convincing us that obesity is a problem that affects all of us the bootleggers are trying to get public support for what might be yet another unpopular war. After all, people have to eat. And people love to eat their McDonalds and Twinkies – especially kids. And it just so happens that the kids are just what this war is all about.

Mr. Saletan reports that the food industry is being blamed for targeting children. The goal is to hook them while they are young so they will be faithful customers for life. But there is another bad guy in this story: the federal government. Some argue that by “subsidizing pork, sugar, cream, high fructose corn syrup” the government created the problem. But this is not the whole story. The subsidies levied in support of these industries are the result of predation by the industries themselves.

At some point pork and dairy farmers chose to redirect some of their productive capacity towards rent-seeking in an effort to increase their slice of the social pie. In so doing they made the pie smaller for everyone else. A more apt metaphor might be that they replaced mom’s homemade apple pie with an artificially flavored, freeze dried, microwaveable hot pocket. Now after years of growing fat off government subsidies these industries may be in for a fight.

Who will be this war’s “Biggest Loser” is anyone’s guess. But the fact that the government has called Ronald McDonald in for questioning would not surprise Olson. Where ever there are opportunistically minded bootleggers and Baptists willing to jump on the band wagon, there exists the possibility of government’s coercive power being used for seemingly unlikely purposes.

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