Friday, January 11, 2008

Someone took in these pants

Eric Finkelstein and Laurie Zuckerman's Fattening of America looks at American obesity from the economic perspective. That is to say, what incentives have made us eat poorly and get less exercise than is needed to stay fit. The incentive approach is often valuable as it lowers the heat in political arguments, and it has some value here as well.

Food in America is cheap, really cheap. While in the 50s, food expenditure was a fifth of total income, it is now just 10%. This is because the prices have fallen dramatically, often for lower quality food. Just over 40% of food expenditures are eaten away from home, which also contributes to overeating.

This would all be well and good if we were a nation of ditch diggers who burned 5000 calories a day, but sadly many of us only get out of the chair to eat the free food left in the company kitchen. Labor saving devices have proliferated to the extent that it is hard to find ways to exercise.

All of this is well and good, but it is also well-covered, often more in-depth as in Fast Food Nation and the Omnivore's Dilemma. We don't learn a lot more about why we have become such a weight challenged nation in this book. There is more value in the discussion about what to do about. As a committed free marketer, perhaps it is not surprising that Finkelstein's answer is not much of anything.

The book argues that the costs of obesity are overstated, they are counterbalanced by the economy that supports the obese and that any attempt to reduce obesity rates would eradicate any savings. Instead, the economy should focus on providing incentives to be thin rather than fat, creating more parks for example. For kids, it is less market driven, about providing more information to kids. I would have liked to see more policy recommendations about incentives. It is not easy, so more discussion would have been valuable.

Finkelstein has a blog, and a website, where you can get a good sense of his argumentation. This post in particular is useful.

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