Are Fat People Good for America?

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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.


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

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