Thursday, May 28, 2009


John Lanchester's recent piece in the New Yorker, Outsmarted, included an account of Richard A. Posner's new book, A Failure of Capitalism, and mentioned that Posner was a contributor to an excellent blog, The Becker-Posner Blog. I check out this blog and find two posts on a proposed tax on sugar-sweetened soft drinks. Posner gives an overview of various difficulties, then says:

Are there better ways of fighting obesity, assuming it is worth fighting? Probably not. [!] Education would probably have very little effect, because almost all people know that being fat has bad consequences and that eating foods rich in sugar and butter and not exercising increase the likelihood of becoming obese. Obesity is concentrated in the lower middle class, which contains a high proportion of people who have very high discount rates, which prevents them from giving significant weight to the future consequences of present behavior.

Children may be ignorant about the costs of obesity and the effects on it of sugar, but because of lack of self-control and children's inability to imagine themselves as middle-aged adults, I doubt that trying to educate them in the dangers of drinking sugar-sweetened beverages would be effective.

A tax on calories, or on high-calorie foods or ingredients, would be difficult to design and administer and would impose welfare losses, without significant offsetting wealth gains, on thin people. A further problem is that fattening foods, including sugar-flavored sodas, have fallen in price over time relative to fruits and vegetables and other healthful foods, so that a tax on calories would be highly regressive.

A modest measure would be to bar the sale or other provision of sugar-flavored sodas and other fattening foods in schools, and the substitution of nutritious low-calorie school lunches for the present fare. In addition, more school time could be allotted to physical education, which in recent years has diminished in most schools. The cost of these measures would be modest and they would have some effect in reducing obesity.

I'm a bit baffled by this. I'm baffled by the 'probably not' - where P says 'probably not' I would say 'almost certainly'. I'm baffled by the examples he uses to back up this pessimism.

I wouldn't have thought any fat child needed much help imagining the costs of obesity; Roald Dahl seems to me to be spot on in his view that children see the fat as natural butts of cruel jokes. (He attributed his success in part to his willingness to consult the tastes of his audience; one was the taste for cruel jokes, another an obsession with food...)

Less time may be allocated to PE than was once the case; part of the problem, though, is that quite a lot of PE is taken up with team sports - that is, the sort of game where the reluctant player divides his/her time between standing about in the outfield and standing in line waiting his/her turn to kick or bat. The less one's inclination for the pastime, the greater the likelihood that one's teammates will place one where one can do least harm to the team (stand where the ball is unlikely to go, kick/bat last, and so on). [This does not, of course, exhaust the number of sports participation in which can easily be reconciled with a minimum of physical activity - any high school graduate can easily multiply examples.] This really isn't much use in forming the habit of regular exercise; most adults who exercise regularly choose something that does not require assembling (as it might be) two softball teams to get off the ground.

I wonder whether this really is so hard to fix. Suppose one offered all children this option: for each hour of PE, a child can choose to substitute two hours on a treadmill / exercise bicycle / other before or after school - in other words, an aerobic activity that can be performed while reading a book or watching TV. The sort of child who likes team sports - who plays games voluntarily outside of school - won't be attracted; the sort of child who hates sport will get an early start on the kind of physical activity that will serve it best as a normally sedentary adult.

[Note that this solution, far from imposing undeserved hardship on the naturally active, makes life much more agreeable for them - they can play sport among themselves, without the demoralizing complement of conscripts.]

With regard to obesity among the lower middle class, I think I had better not comment on its high discounts; it may be that these prevent such persons from much giving weight to future consequences. What I will say, though, is that the business of forming or breaking a habit seems to me, at least, to be a mechanical thing; the likelihood of success depends more on the effectiveness of the mechanism than on the importance of the result.

During the winter of 2004-5 I moved to a sublet a five-minute walk from my 24-hour gym; I went to the gym at least once a day, often twice, because it was very easy to do so, and was down from 61kg (132 pounds) to 50kg (about 110 pounds) within four months. I later moved to an apartment which was, I suppose, a 20-minute walk away, or 10 minutes by bicycle; over the next 2+ years I went less and less often, despite many resolves to do better, spent too much time blogging, put on weight. Last October I moved into an apartment with no internet access which was, I suppose, a 10-minute walk from the gym; I missed perhaps one day a month. In March the gym was forced to close because its landlord had cut off its water (long story); I joined another, 5 minutes away but open a mere 7-11 weekdays, 10-8 (!!!! shame!!!!) on weekends and whenever a public holiday gives them an excuse to close early; I suppose I miss three or four days a month. (I often used to go the old gym at 11pm; sometimes I would wake up at 4 and think, oh, I won't get any work done, might as well go to the gym. Now I wake up at 4 or 5 and the gym won't be open for hours. The sort of person who asks, at this point, why I don't go for a bike ride or a walk or a run in, um, the street is still not understanding: the point of forming a habit is that you then act, not out of a calculation of utility, but out of force of habit.)

Now, the resolution to get more exercise and lose weight is one of the most common New Year's Resolutions, and all kinds of ingenious solutions are offered. But it is by no means the norm for people to sublet their apartment and move to one 5 minutes from their gym. Gyms offer New Year's deals to lure people in, safe in the knowledge that most of these memberships will not be put to use for more than a month or so - but we don't, in fact, see a rash of ads in Craigslist, say, for short-term lets a mere 5 minutes from this or that gym. We also don't see gyms offering special New Year's deals including 24-hour access. We don't see gyms inviting the membership to staff the place on rotation without pay over the graveyard shift so everyone can have 24-hour access. We don't see gyms offering a list of local sublets in the run-up to the New Year. And we also don't normally see people taking out a New Year's sublet because the park / bike path / jogging trail / public pool is just across the street. We just don't. The idea that you should socially engineer your life, that you can shift your project from virtually certain failure to virtually certain success, simply by moving, is not part of the landscape.

So I think I would surmise that people who work during daylight hours, but who do not perform heavy physical labour, are generally at a disadvantage when it comes to offsetting food and alcohol consumption by exercise, and members of the lower middle class are hit more heavily because less likely to be able to afford facilities that make it possible to exercise after dark. Children being the drain on time and money that they are, parents are less likely than other adults to set a good example of the active lifestyle in any case, and I would expect members of the lower middle class to be harder hit. I would also surmise that, the further you go down the socio-economic scale, the higher a barrier is presented by the kind of payment structure favoured by gyms. If walk-ins were widely available, if you could work out anytime, anywhere, for an hour, for the price of a hamburger, we'd see a wider social range of people taking part.

[Asides: 1. An old Doonesbury cartoon comes to mind: Jane Fonda offers free work-outs to migrant labourers, who are neglecting the glutes. 2. Berlin in fact has another series of gyms, McFit, which are open 24 hours, at a membership of 16.90 euros a month.]

So I would agree with Posner that education would be unlikely to help, but I doubt that it follows that nothing can be done. Making YMCAs and YWCAs open 24 hours, if necessary by using volunteers for the graveyard shift, is the kind of thing I would expect to help. If McDonalds USA branched out and established McFits throughout the land I would expect that to help. Gyms sometimes offer a creche on an extremely occasional basis; suppose it were the norm for gyms to offer a full-time creche, perhaps offering free memberships in exchange for staffing of the creche? I would expect that to help.

I should perhaps say, at this point, that I don't actually think that exercise programs are the panacea. I have a friend who has been careful about his diet for decades but loathes exercise because it's so boring. He had an exercise bicycle for a while and read on the bike, but he gave up because it was hard to find the kind of book that was shallow enough to lend itself to reading on a bike. He and his wife recently acquired a dog; X insisted that the dog must interfere with his life in no way. No sooner had the animal arrived than X found himself taking it for walks in Central Park and having a lovely time.

I have now reached the point in this post where I realise that another couple of thousand words are required to do justice to the subject, and so turn to the blogger's best friend, the Drafts Folder. (Would he had blotted a thousand... well, at a guess there are 7 drafts for every published post.) But no no no. This is not the time for perfectionism. At this very moment readers may be kicking themselves, wondering how their New Year's resolution to exercise more, lose weight, be good, failed yet again - this is not the time to withhold.

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