08 July 2005

yet more manufactured crisis

here is an email i fired off this morning.

Dear Professor Krugman,

I'll start off by noting that obesity is not my area of academic expertise -- as indeed it is not yours. I do not believe that the obesity "crisis" in the United States is understandable through economic methodology except to the extent that, as Cutler, Glaser and Shapiro point out, some eating behaviors are not rational.

How shocking.

Also not shocking is the increasing American propensity to assume that all things are rational -- that if people are obese, they must choose to be obese. That fat people are rational free riders in our beautiful and efficient market-based health care system. That industry, because somehow beholden to the market, is virtuous while government is bad. You are right to highlight these fallacies.

Where you are dead wrong is in your failure to think on a larger scale when it comes to the supposed obesity crisis in the United States. I am disappointed that someone who has been so perceptive about so many manufactured crises can be so wholly blind to the fact that this "crisis" goes beyond individual choice, beyond government interventions, and certainly beyond the sector of industry that deals in food. Much like the "War on Terror" or the [scary music here] Coming Social Security Nightmare, the "obesity crisis" is designed to be both insoluble and self-perpetuating.

We have been taught to view fat itself as the crisis. ("Obesity is America's fastest-growing health problem; let's do something about it.") This is wrong: unless one believes that there is or should be some inherent value in *appearing* to be fit, our problem is with the ill health that obesity often engenders. Our misperception of this crisis leads to a lot of (very inefficient!) societal pathology.

For example: we are inclined to blame fat people for being fat, excluding them from the very activities that healthy people, fat and thin, should be taking part in. We applaud ourselves for our ability to discern the malfeasance in a Big Mac, but fail to consider the broader consumer culture, specifically including the diet industry, which rakes in huge amounts of money while (a) spreading the message that fat is inherently bad and (b) failing to make people thinner, let alone healthier.

I could go on -- there are innumerable examples of social mechanisms designed to punish and humiliate fat people while maintaining the physical and social status quo. When you correct these misperceptions in a future column, as I'm sure you will, it might be worthwhile to consider some social policies that actually affect cardiovascular health (and often, though for all intents and purposes incidentally, body weight). These include the provision of adequate preventative health care for all Americans; shutting down the diet industry; making every neighborhood safe and walkable; working towards greater availability of actual food in poor neighborhoods; developing local, sustainable agriculture; and celebrating the physical activity of every body.

Please -- let's not make obese people the welfare queens of this decade. After all, obesity is as much a class issue as it is a health issue. One wonders (idly but perhaps nonetheless enlighteningly) whether it might have been more honest to report the emergence of a "poor and black crisis."

Here is a challenge for you: think of something facing the United States that is a true crisis. Then, if you can identify any aspect of the general increase in fatness that rises to the same level of immediate danger, identify it and think about ways to reverse it. I am not at all convinced that the problem you pointed to in today's column is such a phenomenon.

Amelia Hoover