Philipson and Posner on the Causes of Obesity

The University of Chicago’s Tomas Philipson and Judge Richard Posner had an interesting op-ed in yesterday’s WSJ on the economic and technological factors that have led to high rates of obesity in the U.S.  A taste:

The rise in obesity is attributable primarily to changes in the price of consuming, and the cost of expending, calories—changes that are byproducts of otherwise beneficial technological advances. The price of food and thus of calories has long been trending downward because of agricultural innovations that have greatly reduced the time and resources required to go from hungry to full.

The effect on weight has been reinforced by a simultaneous trend, also technology driven, toward reducing the physical exertion involved in work. Productivity gains at work, brought about by automation, have raised incomes and increased the cost of burning calories. When labor is sedentary because of automation, weight can increase even though calorie intake falls, a pattern observed in the post-World War II period. . . .

Food is unlikely to become relatively more costly or work more strenuous. But average incomes should continue to rise. And within countries wealthier individuals are on average less obese because they have a greater incentive to invest in health. But rich countries have more obesity than poor ones, because the technologies that make them rich make food cheap and work increasingly sedentary.

What to do?  Philipson and Posner are skeptical of public education programs or other governmental interventions:

Government programs aimed at reducing obesity have had limited success. They emphasize educating people in the dangers of obesity and in means of avoiding it. But knowledge of proper diet and the importance of exercise has risen together with weight, indicating that lack of knowledge is not the major cause of obesity—it’s the lack of strong enough incentives. The private market offers an abundance of weight-management programs, but their long-run effects on weight are small and public programs are unlikely to do better.

Taxing fattening foods has its advocates, but they tend to overlook the fact that consumers can overeat otherwise healthy foods, and that taxes are regressive because they raise the food budget of poor individuals who do not overeat. It would be desirable, but infeasible, to tax just overconsumption of food.

Does this mean were condemned to have high obesity rates?  Not necessarily.  Philipson and Posner think that medical innovation could solve the problem, through anti-obesity drugs and other medical interventions.  I’m skeptical, but I hope they’re right.  I’d much rather pop a pill than give up great food!