Fat is normal, but it still involves choice.

I was impressed by the title of a NZ Herald article today “Fat is normal“.  I was like, yes it is perfectly rational for an individual to put on weight, contrary to what we are often told.  I began to think that if policy wonks would treat the idea of putting on weight sensibly we could avoid weird “anti-fat” policies.

However, then inside the article I saw it was written by a nutritionist – the worst of the prescriptive disciplines in my opinion.  Furthermore, they decided to take an entirely holistic approach to weight gain, removing any individual responsibility and blame the environment.  Namely:

Professor James said that in countries such as Britain and New Zealand, the reason for many people’s obesity was a genetic predisposition in an environment which allowed it to happen with an “out-of-control” food industry and the constant use of cars

What is this.

Like all individual choices, weight gain has several elements:

  1. There are individual preferences, which are determined by genetics, history, and society.
  2. There is the choice set/constraints, which is determined by society and natural endowment.
  3. There is the nature of individual choice – which is determined by the person choosing.

Ultimately, the third element ensures that weight gain IS someones choice.  However, given that it is their choice we know that it is fine – as long as the individual has access to information.

The nutritionist is blaming society as he believes that people are being “forced” to consume by the very nature of the choice set they are being given.  Ok, this is a value judgment – and one I strongly disagree with.  Why?  People still choose to consume, they could physically eat less, exercise more, or change the makeup of their diet – but they don’t.  This implies that people prefer to have a higher weight than incurring the cost to have a lower weight.

Now we have to remember that there is NO social cost from people putting on weight (unless it comes from other policy distortions), and there is no “co-ordination problem” in society involving weight so there is no market failure for us to correct.  Being fat is not a crime, it is not a bad – and trying to “reduced obesity” misses the point of what policy should be doing.

Note:  You will notice I assumed no co-ordination problem.  I would like to hear people try and build up possible co-ordination problems if they have some in mind.  Implicitly, the nutritionists argument relies on a sufficiently strong co-ordination problem to function.

  • EbolaCola

    “Now we have to remember that there is NO social cost from people putting on weight (unless it comes from other policy distortions)”

    ever been on the bus Nolan?

    😉

  • @EbolaCola

    I own a bus pass mate. That is pecunary in my opinion, not relevant for policy. If there was an issue, it may be that the bus company is prevented from making people who take up two seats pay for two seats.

    Ultimately, I’m not sure if things such as “these people take up more room on the bus” or “these individuals take up more room on the street” are externalities I feel comfortable with the government trying to “correct”. After all, people that walk slowly when I need to get to a meeting piss me off as well – but I don’t walk around talking about the “slow walking epidemic” 😉

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  • EbolaCola

    visual pollution?
    😉

  • @EbolaCola

    Same deal.

    Also not a category I’d prefer not to have an externality tax on – after, hot people already have a higher endowment. Tax them in my opinion 😉 … j/k’s

  • What are the “anti-fat” policies?

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  • Max

    Fat is not normal! Do you forget about heart? 🙂

  • How come you are saying that “that there is NO social cost from people putting on weight”, I mean, overweight people tend to be sick more, don’t they ?

  • @Aurelien

    If they are more sick that is there private cost – there is no external cost from it. Now insofar putting on the weight is there choice they should pay for it. Insofar as it is genetic, we as a society may want to transfer funds to them. It is a trade-off.

  • Robbie

    If we lived in the US, then yes, getting sick may be a wholly private cost.

    However given that heart attacks and diabetes are covered by the public health system, if fat people are more likely to get sick, then they impose a cost on society*.

    Also, why don’t we just say that certain behaviours make people ineligible for state assistance. For example, people who smoke more than x cigarettes (pick an arbitrary cutoff for probable long-term damage) are ineligible for publicly-funded treatment for smoking-related illnesses (cancer of the lungs, tongue, throat etc.)?

    As an aside, can we not argue time inconsistency. People that are suffering weight-related complication don’t seem to (or at least it’s not reported) phlegmatically accept their plight as a probabilistic outcome based on their past choices. They’d probably mostly say they would do things differently, even if they weren’t guaranteed to get sick. Perhaps the government is correcting this.

    * There is a direct cost of the treatement and indirect benefit from dying younger, which I admit may actually be a net benefit as with smokers.

  • @Robbie

    “If we lived in the US, then yes, getting sick may be a wholly private cost.”

    This conversation is going on here:

    http://www.tvhe.co.nz/2010/04/26/gst-and-food-why-im-against-exempting-the-tax/

    And that point was alluded to when I said “other policy distortions” (with a link to a fat tax).

    “As an aside, can we not argue time inconsistency. People that are suffering weight-related complication don’t seem to (or at least it’s not reported) phlegmatically accept their plight as a probabilistic outcome based on their past choices. They’d probably mostly say they would do things differently, even if they weren’t guaranteed to get sick. Perhaps the government is correcting this.”

    Yar, we can always use the cop out that is time inconsistency. However, in this case it is still the elements of choice that are causing the problem – it is the fact that the person cannot commit to an optimal path of food consumption that has led them to weight gain they regret.

    In fact, this is the sort of argument that I imagine would ring true to many people. However, when we have a time inconsistency problem the safest way to come up with welfare improving policies is to have “opt-in” schemes where people can commit to a closer to optimal path.

    Now, there seems to be a lot of support groups and the such that can form for such issues – if people aren’t using them, then they are saying that the benefit from solving the time inconsistency problem is less than the small cost involved.

    In this case, we have both private institutions that can allow for a time consistent path AND a possible revealed low benefit from commiting to the time consistent path – hardly a situation where arbitrary govt. policies to target “fat” are likely to improve welfare.