The Fatted Gaffe
Yesterday, the Columbia Daily Tribune‘s publisher, Henry J. Waters III, ran an outstanding editorial about the importance of personal choice and responsibility.
Waters notes that Rep. Craig Bland (D-Kansas City) has long been sponsoring obesity legislation, hoping to promote scholastic nutrition and even set up a state commission to deal specifically with Missouri’s ever-expanding girth. Frankly, I’m partially to blame for the state’s higher obesity statistics. As a bona fide fattie of amplitudinous proportions, I single-handedly nudged the statewide average ever-so-slightly higher than it was before I moved here in mid-2007. The ready availability of excellent Missouri barbecue hasn’t helped matters since.
But here’s the thing: My waistline is not the government’s fault. Not even slightly. And if I’m to exorcize my own edible demons, the solution won’t arrive in the form of political hectoring. I know how to lose weight — I’ve done it before, and one of these days I may just escape the clutches of my La-Z-Boy long enough to do it again. The point is, living a healthier life is no mystery, even for the corpulent; everybody knows how to eat less and exercise, even if they’d rather while away the hours with a can of Pringles in one hand and their TiVo remote in the other (any similarity here to my own life is purely coincidental). Ultimately, it’s a personal choice. Waters recognizes this:
Jawboning in opposition to overeating is fine, but I’m not sure I want to spend public tax dollars. Is anyone in Missouri unaware of the “obesity problem?” Is it an official problem the state should undertake with additional commissions and boards?
The report blames rising food costs, lack of exercise and bigger portions. This makes sense, but where is the correction except in the habits of private eaters?
I’d like to weigh less, sure. But as an economics enthusiast, I believe in the supremacy of revealed preference. The economist David Friedman encapsulated this principle nicely in a brief aside to his price theory textbook:
Economics Joke #1: Two economists walked past a Porsche showroom. One of them pointed at a shiny car in the window and said, “I want that.” “Obviously not,” the other replied.
In economics, preference is revealed through behavior. If the first economist had really wanted that Porsche, he would have bought it, perhaps by giving up other luxuries. Instead, his actions reveal that he’d rather spend his money elsewhere — or, even, that he’d rather spend recreational time strolling with a friend instead of working overtime, or taking a second job, to save up enough money to buy the Porsche.
It’s a joke, so the example is appropriately extreme — but the principle holds. My own actions indicate that I’m more fond of that extra helping of Pad Thai than I am of possessing a wardrobe that couldn’t double as a fleet of pup tents. If I’m going to change, it’s my own responsibility, perhaps with encouragement from friends and family. The government shouldn’t be in a position to intervene at all.