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Friday, July 08, 2005

Is Krugman taking a shot at Gov. Rell?

A reader from Connecticut Local Politics posted this great op-ed by Paul Krugman about obesity.

I wonder if someone will forward this to Gov. Rell.

"Americans' rapid weight gain may have nothing to do with market failure," the article says. "It may be a rational response to changing technology and prices. ... If consumers willingly trade off increased adiposity for working indoors and spending less time in the kitchen as well as for manageable weight-related health problems, then markets are not failing."

How can medical experts who see obesity as a critical problem deal with an ideological landscape tilted in the direction of doing nothing?

One answer is to focus on the financial costs of obesity, and the fact that many of these costs fall on taxpayers and on the general insurance-buying public, rather than on the obese individuals themselves. (To their credit, the authors of the Amber Waves article do mention this issue, although they play it down.)

It is more important, however, to emphasize that there are situations in which "free to choose" is all wrong - and that this is one of them.

For one thing, the most rapid rise in obesity isn't taking place among adults, who, we hope, can understand the consequences of their decisions. It's taking place among children and adolescents.

And even if children weren't a big part of the problem, only a blind ideologue or an economist could argue with a straight face that Americans were rationally deciding to become obese. In fact, even many economists know better: the most widely cited recent economic analysis of obesity, a 2003 paper by David Cutler, Edward Glaeser and Jesse Shapiro of Harvard University, declares that "at least some food consumption is almost certainly not rational." It goes on to present evidence that even adults have clear problems with self-control.

Above all, we need to put aside our anti-government prejudices and realize that the history of government interventions on behalf of public health, from the construction of sewer systems to the campaign against smoking, is one of consistent, life-enhancing success. Obesity is America's fastest-growing health problem; let's do something about it.