Obesity is not a choice: The cruelty of pseudo-libertarians

5 min read

The late 20th-century revolution of behavioral economics enlightened us to the fundamental ways in which the human brain fails to respond rationally or consistently to information.  We came to a radical new understanding that “free will” isn’t that free.

We also realized that “unregulated markets” are not “free markets”.  First, economists realized that unregulated markets give rise to the ills of monopoly power, barriers to innovation, widening income inequality, volatility, and the ability of a few individuals’ errors to trigger economic cataclysm (e.g., LTCM hedge fund collapse, 2007 mortgage securities crisis).  Second, economists realized that individual consumers — and therefore aggregate groups of consumers known as “markets” — are guided by innate human irrationality. 

Thus, libertarianism died out decades ago among trained economists, becoming a theoretical curiosity in the history of social sciences.  However, as is always the case with scientific discoveries and academic research consensus, there’s a long delay between a discovery in high culture and its gradual diffusion into popular/low culture.  Consequently, “libertarianism” remains trendy among non-economists.  Smug, Ayn Rand-fetishizing pseudo-libertarians rant in favor of “free markets”, ignorant of the settled science that removing governmental oversight often makes markets less efficient.

Let’s take the obesity epidemic as an example.  

Half of American schoolchildren are medically obese.  As they grow up, the adult population is getting more obese, and suffering costly and tragic health consequences like diabetes.  The problem has expanded beyond America to become nearly global.  

Despite the vast population affected, it’s not uncommon to hear skinny and privileged American sanctimoniously and reductively dismiss the obesity issue as one of “individuals making bad choices”.   When two-thirds of the people around you are overweight or obese, a wholesale dismissal of the problem as one of individual moral failure is logically absurd.  The high numbers ought to prompt a thoughtful person to wonder about broad-based root causes.  Similarly, cancer clusters should prompt a search for

Similarly, cancer clusters should prompt a search for toxin sources, overwhelming climate change evidence should prompt sweeping mitigation actions, and election upsets should prompt analysis of what motivated a majority of voters to subvert their own self-interest.  Hand-waving away cancer clusters as statistical fallacies, denying the reality of anthropogenic climate change, branding all Trump voters as bigoted idiots, and asserting that widespread obesity reflects poor choices are logical errors of the same type.  It’s ironic that people who self-righteously wrap themselves in a banner of hyper-rationality and empiricism would make such mistakes – hence the “pseudo” modifier.

What do bioscience, medicine, cognitive science, and economics know today about the root causes of obesity?:

  • Childhood obesity.  Default body size is set in childhood, when one has little agency over food choices.  Adults almost always revert to their childhood body type, regardless of short-term impact of exercise and nutrition programs.  (e.g., Even with infinite financial resources, professionally-optimized nutrition, a relatively non-sedentary job, and strong psychological/social incentives, Oprah Winfrey’s body always reverts to its adolescent, large shape.)
  • Parental obesity.   The size of one’s parents impacts whether you will grow up to be obese yourself (both through overtly control of your childhood nutrition and exercise, and through subconscious transmission of modeled behavior).  
  • Obesity of your friends.  Behavioral economics research shows that, if just one of your friends gains weight, your likelihood of gaining weight goes up.  Even if one of your friend’s friends gains weight, your likelihood of gaining weight goes up. This creates a positive feedback loop outside of your conscious control.
  • Lower metabolic rate, caused by:
    • Changes to our microbiome.   The bacteria colonies inside us that account for a few pounds of an adult human’s body weight are newly suspected as an important factor (requiring more research to pinpoint).
    • Desk jobs.  Sitting is the new smoking.  Most desk jobs don’t yet support the recommended frequent breaks, walking meetings, standing desks and reasonable hours required to keep activity levels high.  Exercise is expensive and relatively inaccessible to low-income people with long-hour sedentary jobs.
    • Time of the month relative to payday.  The metabolic rate of people living paycheck-to-paycheck actually decreases prior to payday, to conserve energy and store fat.  Then, after spending a week in constant, uncomfortable hunger, they are likely to overeat when cash becomes suddenly available.
  • Overeating, caused by:
    • The number of people you eat with.  Kids who eat in larger groups at school ingest more calories than kids who eat in small groups, given the same meal offered.  
    • The size of the plate.  We eat more calories when the same quantity of food is presented to us on a large plate, compared to a small plate.
    • Carbohydrates are the cheapest food (both per calorie and per unit of satiety).  If you’re cash-strapped and hungry, it’s rational to choose bread, ramen and sweets.  Carb binging causes lethargy, food coma, and eventually hyperglycemia and a path to insulin resistance and diabetes.
    • Branding and marketing.  When you walk into a grocery store, you relinquish free will regarding food choices.  Consumer packaged food producers spend huge sums of money and employ brilliant teams of researchers to manipulate your purchase behavior.  You’re subconsciously influenced by color, packaging, shelf position, and price — but those features don’t have any correlation with nutritional value.  Low-nutrition prepared foods have the highest profit margin and are manufactured by the largest companies, who thus have the resources and motivation to get you to buy those products.  
    • Cultural norms.  Studies have been able to isolate the phenomenon that people unconsciously prefer the taste of foods they know are unhealthy.  (e.g., Present two identical cookies, falsely claim one has more butter or sugar, watch people prefer the taste of that one!)  Our unchosen, controlling cultural paradigm actually steers individual preferences away from nutrition.
    • Office policies.  Visibility and accessibility of food drives consumption of more calories.  If your well-meaning office lays out trays of food in meetings and at birthdays, you have little defense against unconsciously consuming more calories than you otherwise would.
    • Lack of data to support nutritious choices.  Consumers don’t often know which food choice is the least nutritious.  A pasta dish can have more sugar than a handful of cookies; a salad can have more carbs than a plate of meat and potatoes.  Package labels don’t have all the right information.  Restaurants aren’t required to share the information.
    • Unclear definition of nutritionally-optimal choice.  Is added sugar the real culprit?  Or total sugar, including natural sugars like in fruits?  Or carbohydrates?  The latest science isn’t yet reflected in nutritional labels, the governmental recommendations are confusing, and good information is drowned out by the noise of pseudo-scientific theories.
    • Bandwidth poverty.  Even if we had the right data about food content, and a clear definition of optimal nutrition decision-making, an individual doesn’t have the time to research and scrutinize every micro-decision made in a day.  That’s precisely why we have consumer protection, food safety and labeling regulations (which need to be vastly improved regarding grocery and restaurant foods).  “Bandwidth poverty” is highest among low-income people, who must make more daily decisions than corporate executives. Wealthy execs can reduce their decision fatigue with capsule wardrobes, personal outsourcing, and punting on many smaller decisions they can afford to not bother optimizing — thus leaving them more mental bandwidth to do things like sift through complex nutritional choices.  Poor people don’t have that luxury.

None of these obesity drivers are under the conscious control individuals. The libertarian myth of perfectly informed consumers making conscious, rational utility-maximizing decisions is almost entirely absent with respect to the obesity issue.  The evidence is overwhelming:  Obesity is not a “choice”.

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