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Monday, July 28, 2008

What planet is Gary Becker from?

This is from Becker's newest blog post regarding government intervention of trans fat etc.:

"The so-called externality (of transfat and the like) results from the fact that greater obesity raises taxes on others because the medical bills of the obese are partly paid by general taxpayers due to subsidized medical care. As Posner points out, this argument may be weak because obese adults die earlier than others and in this way obesity saves medical costs. However, even if true, I am uneasy about such externality arguments."

..."Yet it is hard to justify the word "duped" (regarding being duped by producers into eating unhealthily) when studies show that much of the growth in obesity has been due to the development of cheap fast foods that consumers find tasty, and also to the growth of television, computer games, the Internet, and other attractive activities that are sedentary."

I'm sorry, but I would expect a slightly more thought out argument from someone who won the Nobel prize. It's not that Becker isn't intelligent, it is just that he, like many, has succumbed to the the narrow box of assumption and 200 year old paradigms that economics as a profession tends to subject people to.

1. He talks like tangible medical costs are the only possible externality from mass obesity and bad health (how about family disruptions due to these early deaths, transference to younger generations of bad health habits, the increase in "demand" of advertising bad eating habits in order to give the consumer what they want (increased portion sizes etc), ... I could go on and on and on.

2. How about the general poor quality of life issues that result from unhealthy eating. It's not technically an 'externality,' but how about (to use behavioral econ speak) economic myopia? The argument for government controlled health insurance etc. is that people often make 'irrationally' myopic decisions about their life/health. The argument is no different here.

His whole argument that prices of bad foods are low so it's only "natural" that people's wellbeing is enhanced by eating bad food is QUINTESSENTIAL NON-SENSICAL CLASSICAL ECONOMICS. It stems from assumptions using static models, and viewing people as drones for consumptions where consumption in one thing is no better or worse for society than consumption in another. The ideas that Becker espouses are ludicrous and frankly, while he's entitled to his opinion, some of his comments are downright offensive (and this is coming from someone who is not overweight).

3. Becker talks about the early deaths of obese people as if it's not a bad thing provided it doesn't infringe on the health or overall well - being of others. Somehow I would think the food addict would beg to differ with him on that - I bet they'd prefer to live, given the chance. Becker talks from a purely homo economicus, evolutionary perspective - to a frightening extent.

Am I really the only one here that finds his comments to be a huge disconnect from reality and compassion?

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