Why are Americans so fat?

A fairly provocative question, prompted by this having a go at the citizens of that great nation for piling on the pounds, and suggesting that the government tax them for their sin. A quick glance at the title of this weblog reveals that I am hardly a disinterested party to this issue, but there you go. I considered having a go at the latest fad diet (which, pop culture types will be interested to know, was last popular in 1973-4, around the time of the last serious bear market; deep speaks to deep here, as they say, and you don’t have to be a hardcore evolutionary psychologist to note a connection between financial wealth and the emotional relationship with food). But beer is apparently a carbohydrate, so fuck that.

Anyway, the question of why Americans are so fat is one which everyone and his fat wife have had a go at answering. And, surprisingly enough, everyone has come up with the same answer, viz:

Americans are so fat because of some moral failing particular to Americans today, and they would not be so fat if more people agreed with my political views.

I’m paraphrasing, obviously. But it would certainly be bad news for people like these if peddlers of political platitudes had to sign up to the same code of rigorous scientific analysis that these people are meant to follow in making claims about losing weight. In fact, it’s pretty easy to understand why Americans are getting fatter, if you just take account of a few unarguable facts about work, leisure and productivity. You can even do it all without leaving the marginalist paradigm, so those people who are put off by heterodox economics can keep reading.

First of all, let’s think about the activity of eating. First, we can note that it is mainly a leisure-time activity, and it’s an action of consumption rather than production in economic terms. Very few people get paid for eating, and eating food is a processing which has only one output, which nobody is in the business of selling except that conceptual artist whose name I forget. So, let’s draw up a list of substitutes for eating food; other activities which people carry out for pleasure. We have things like:

  • Conversation
  • Reading
  • Sunbathing
  • Sexual intercourse
  • Listening to music
  • etc.

Basically, various other physical and intellectual pleasures. Now, let’s look at a couple of other stylised facts.

Consider this as a stylised fact. for instance; the average leisure time of the average American has not increased at all over the last hundred years. Arguably, it’s shrunk. Now that might have happened for any of a million reasons, but let’s for the moment treat it simply as a social fact. Time, as the newspapers tell us, is a scarce resource.

But, it’s a scarce resource which is in fixed supply. Although the onward rush of technology has made us unimaginably richer in material terms over the last hundred years, we are still only supplied with twenty-four hours in a day, only about eight of which we can really count as being available for use in leisure activities. If you ever think that there’s something funny about those chained-GDP examples which puport to prove that the bottom 1% of current workers enjoy a better standard of living than the millionaires of 1780, then this is part of the reason why; if it had occurred to him to do so, David Ricardo could have buggered off and spent the day playing golf whenever the whim took him, and you can’t.

Now, let’s look at the substitutes for eating listed above. Straight off, we notice that most of them are highly demanding in time, and that the input of time is more or less invariant in order to get a unit of pleasure out of them. A favourite example of Brad DeLong’s of how technology has improved our life is that these days, the poorest of persons in America can easily listen to the world’s greatest virtuoso playing the violin at the touch of a button. Which is true; but another interesting way to look at it is that it takes us exactly as long to listen to a symphony as it took Emperor Franz Joseph, and there’s nothing at all that technology can do to help us with that. Our acts of sexual intercourse take as long as they did for Napoleon (I have no figures on this), it takes as long to have a conversation as it took Doctor Johnson, and the last improvement in our ability to read books (Dr Bruno Furst’s Speed-Reading System) was about fifty years ago.

But … one area where things have improved mightily over the last hundred years is our ability to eat food. Food takes roughly the same time to eat however yummy it is, and the industrialisation of agriculture, whatever it’s done to the environment, has certainly massively increased the amount of food-related pleasure which the average man can extract out of a minute. And given this massive increase in the pleasure productivity of food-eating, is it any wonder that the American population has responded by choosing to spend less time in the comparatively less efficient pursuits of having sex and reading, and more time on stuffing their faces? It’s the simple result of a rational optimisation calculation; to become uglier, stupider and fatter is simply where the comparitive advantage has shifted to.

So, courage, my American friends. If you can fill the unforgiving minute, with sixty seconds worth of sugar and lard …


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