Are Fat People Good for America?

So there's this Wall Street Journal column about how we should be nicer to obese people because Winston Churchill was pretty fat, and he did a good job during World War II, and where would we be without Alexandre Dumas' chubby little fingers and Catherine the Great's heft, and so on. It took me a while to see that the piece was written by Joe Queenan, a satirist, and was not meant (I think?) to be a terribly weighty contribution to the obesity-in-America discussion. But I think it inadvertently raises an important point. Those historical fatties were mostly really rich.


From an historical perspective obesity is a privilege of the rich. Throughout much of history food costs ate (as it were) much deeper into disposable incomes. But food companies have made remarkable strides in the last century mass-producing food that is both very cheap and very fatty. From an economic perspective, cheap food is a good thing. From a health perspective, cheap, fatty food is dangerous since our evolutionary instinct to maximize caloric intake has married our economic instinct to buy cheap. Today our obesity epidemic is especially acute in poor communities. And there's a simple explanation. Take a look at this graph of how butter and soda prices have fallen in the last three decades...


graph fat food.png

...and this graph of national obesity graphed against time spent eating.
timeeatingfat.png

See the six countries with the highest % of population with BMI>30? Four of those countries -- the US, New Zealand, Australia and Canada -- happen to be the four countries with the most McDonald's per capita in the world (the UK is number 9). What does this weight do to our health care system? It's difficult to know for sure, but one study estimates that obesity will cost the US $344 billion in health costs by 2018. Take that number with a grain of salt (and only a small grain of salt, America!) but the bottom line is pretty clear to me. There are negative externalities to our ability to produce cheap, fast, fat food. They are very costly. And we should think seriously about ways to price those negative externalities. So yes, the history books are heavy with portly heroes. And nope, I don't think that's an argument for doing nothing.


Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Business

Just In