Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

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 ...
0 comments this item posted by the management 10/15/2002 09:59:00 AM

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?


Bitch : Lab
Aaronovitch Watch
Brad Delong
The Robert Vienneau blog

Political and philosophical heroes

Subcomandante Marcos
Will Rogers
Boris Vian
The English Svejk

RSS Feed:
This seems to matter to a lot of people

If you liked this "Daniel Davies" website, you might be interested in

"Danux", the web developer
The martial artist (and fan of extremely annoying Flash intros) from Blackburn
The Welsh political journalist
A Scouse computer programmer who collects Soviet cameras
"Danimal", the heavy metal drummer
Canada's finest recorder of radio jingles
More of the same, at the Guardian
A tailor's in Lampeter where Jimmy Carter once bought a hat
An advertising man who has written a novel about dogging (I think we sometimes get each other's email)
An award-winning facilities manager in Dubai
The son of the guitarist from the Kinks Update: he is apparently "balls-out motherfucking shit-dicked exxxstatic" to be included on a Kerrang magazine giveaway CD of Iron Maiden covers, which is nice.
"Fritz Gretel" from the Ramones film "Rock 'n' Roll High School"
The former presenter of the leading politics talk radio show on the Isle of Man, now a business change manager in the Manx government secretary's office
An aquarium curator in Sussex who keeps on scoring home runs like this (this is the first stable link I've found, but he is constantly kicking ass in acquarial terms)

If you didn't like this "Daniel Davies" website, then don't give up on the Daniel Davies industry completely!

An American "Christian Political Analyst" who has the same name as me
A student at Patrick Henry College
these two might be the same guy ...
"Scatter", the deceased Liberian gangster
A naked man stuck in a chimney in Wigan
A thug in Barrow

This blog has been going downhill since ...

August 2002
September 2002
October 2002
November 2002
December 2002
January 2003
February 2003
March 2003
April 2003
May 2003
June 2003
July 2003
August 2003
September 2003
November 2003
December 2003
March 2004
April 2004
May 2004
May 2005
June 2005
July 2005
August 2005
September 2005
October 2005
November 2005
December 2005
January 2006
February 2006
March 2006
April 2006
May 2006
June 2006
July 2006
August 2006
September 2006
October 2006
November 2006
December 2006
January 2007
February 2007
March 2007
April 2007
May 2007
June 2007
July 2007
August 2007
September 2007
October 2007
November 2007
December 2007
January 2008
February 2008
March 2008
April 2008
May 2008
June 2008
July 2008
August 2008
September 2008
October 2008
November 2008
December 2008
January 2009
February 2009
March 2009
April 2009
May 2009
June 2009
July 2009
August 2009
September 2009
October 2009
November 2009
December 2009
January 2010
February 2010
March 2010
April 2010
May 2010
June 2010
July 2010
August 2010
September 2010
October 2010
November 2010
December 2010
January 2011
February 2011
March 2011
April 2011
May 2011
June 2011
July 2011
August 2011
September 2011
October 2011
November 2011
December 2011
January 2012
February 2012
March 2012
April 2012
May 2012
June 2012
July 2012
August 2012
September 2012
October 2012
December 2012
February 2013
April 2013
June 2013
July 2013
August 2013
March 2014
April 2014
August 2014
October 2015
March 2023