Is the recession making us fatter? In the last year, America's obesity rate is up almost 2 percent, according to a Newsweek/Gallup poll. That means 5.5 million more Americans have graduated into obesity in the last 12 months. And really it's so surprise: junk food is so terribly cheap and often delicious.
Big graph. And it makes a pretty big point: That there are rational explanations linking Americans getting poorer and Americans getting fatte. As Dan Mitchell of The Big Money explains, there was a time when having less money meant eating less food. But our modern industrial food system has managed to produce so much cheap, so that having less money sometimes means (per the above graph) a banquet of butter and corn syrup. McDonald's has a dollar menu, and it's absolutely thriving. Whole Foods doesn't, and it's not.
One thing to say about this, as I tiptoe around that rail, is that a junk food tax is really not a terrible idea. I am sympathetic to the more libertarian argument that the government doesn't know what's good for me, but at the same time, it also seems like the industrial food system had created a price structure that doesn't come close to factoring in the externalities of obsesity that can follow from a diet that feasts on the cheapest strands of the graph above.
As my colleague Conor Clarke and Matt Yglesias have pointed out, there are good and bad ways to do this. One commonsense way would be to tax the sinful part of the product. That is, index alcohol taxes to the amount of alcohol in the product, or soda taxes to the amount of corn syrup per serving, or White Castle Chocolate Shakes to...well, that's pure lard, so the size of the cup. The Senate Finance Committee might have the wrong idea, but I still think it's on the right track.
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