In Mao’s Great Leap forward of 1958, and then the Cultural Revolution of 1966 and following, millions suffered persecution and death. Collectivized land led to an extreme livestock shortage.
Those who survived faced famine. Living things in general were disappearing. All forms of oil had vanished. If there was food to be had, it had to be cooked without any oil.
After reading about that, I became very conscious of the oil in my cooking. Not to use any… unthinkable. I’m not even sure how that would work. Ever since then, I’ve never looked at a greasy burger with disdain. Those airport nachos are a blessing. I’ll never sneer at the oily breakfast from Waffle House.
Yet the falling leaves of autumn have again set off the great bourgeois anxiety of our age: the need to lose weight. Everyone is on a diet. By the age of 50, according to Gallup, a third of people have tried half a dozen. It’s nearly impossible to hold a dinner party anymore. You have to provide special meals for every guest in order to comply with detailed dietary instructions.
As the year goes on, the anxiety only gets worse: Halloween candy, Thanksgiving gorging, Christmas pies, cakes, and cookies. The cycles of use, abuse, guilt, and penance are all part of the season, experienced by nearly everyone.
The issue of widening girth won’t go away. In international comparisons, the U.S. wins the competition hands down as the most obese big nation on the planet. It is the ultimate first-world problem, but it is still embarrassing. Human history seen through the largest lens is about the struggle to get enough to eat. That’s not an issue anymore in the U.S.
In some ways, this should not surprise anyone. We are awash in cheap food. The farm life of daily toil is long gone for nearly everyone, but we still think in terms of three meals a day. We go from the bed to the car to the office chair and back again. If we get exercise, we have to manufacture it by joining clubs, scheduling time, joining groups, and the like.
Government is now involved in supposedly fighting the problem. It was once a public policy priority to bring food to the hungry. A chicken in every pot. Now the government is more interested in taking chickens out of the pot.
New York City is on the cutting edge, banning sodas of a certain size and restricting the use of trans fats because the politicians know what is good for us.
There is still a refusal to admit that government itself contributed to the problem with its national diet from 1977, the one that put down the things that everyone today says is the key to staying thin in a sedentary world and pushing the very stuff that experts say make us fat. Government told us to stop eating beef and eggs and start eating more biscuits and pasta. If we did eat meat, it should be drained dry. Shock: We ballooned.
Here is an excerpt from the wonderful film Fat Head (produced as a response to the fast-food hating movie “Supersize Me”). The official government guidelines provided a policy infrastructure that set the stage for the growth in obesity. The war on meat, eggs, and cheese was on, and the boosting of bread and starch began.
Interesting, isn’t it? We were being urged to adopt the diet imposed on the Chinese people during times of famine, yet do it through legislative prodding and hectoring by bureaucrats.
Even today, everyone is happy to blame fast food for all dietary problems. It’s a conspicuous target, but it is not the problem. I’m a huge admirer of McDonald’s as an enterprise (it never stops reinventing itself!) and as a curator of great food. Its hamburgers alone wrap the glories of world trade and market production in a tiny package for us…and sell it for couch change.
The film Fat Head brilliantly fights back against the anti-fast food frenzy with a defense of the freedom to eat what you want and sets out to prove that one can lose weight on fast food. Director Tom Naughton ate normal amounts of food at McDonald’s for 30 days, cutting down on fries and periodically tossing the muffin part of the Egg McMuffin. He also doubled his walking daily. At the end of the experiment, he had lost 12 pounds.
In the course of the film, he shows that everything the government thought was right in the 1970s turned out to be wrong. Politicians had latched onto a fad and codified it into law. Of course, dietary fads come and go every few months as part of the free market’s normal process of trial and error, learning and development. Government stops this process in its tracks with its policies that feign scientific omniscience.
Consider the issue of corn syrup as the great replacement for sugar. Since 1980, this has been the sweetener used in the United States. The decision was purely economic. Sugar became too expensive relative to heavily subsidized American corn. Other drink makers followed. Today you have to look long and hard to find a bottled or fountain drink that doesn’t use some variety of corn syrup, instead of sugar. Some bottlers are taking steps in this direction but at great expense.
How did this happen? Sugar tariffs. The American sugar lobby conspired with the corn lobby to push lawmakers into tipping the scales in favor of their own economic interests. In a free market, sugar would cost far less. As Professor Mark Perry explains:
If sugar quotas were eliminated, and American consumers and business had been able to purchase 100% of their sugar in 2011 at the world price (average of 31.68 cents per pound), instead of the average U.S. price of 56.22 cents, they would have saved about $3.86 billion. In other words, by forcing Americans to pay 56.22 cents for inefficiently produced domestic sugar instead of 31.68 cents for more efficiently produced world sugar, Americans pay an additional 24.54 cents per pound for the 15.76 billion pounds of American sugar produced annually, which translates to $3.86 billion in higher costs for American consumers and businesses.
In other words, you are getting ripped off. The use of corn as a sweetener (and as a gasoline additive, too!) is a result that is being brought about by public policy priorities. It’s not what Coca-Cola would choose to do if the market prevailed, and the proof is as close as your local Mexican grocery that delivers coke with real sugar.
What effects might this have on American diets? As the lead researcher in a 2010 Princeton University study involving rats argued: “Some people have claimed that high-fructose corn syrup is no different than other sweeteners when it comes to weight gain and obesity, but our results make it clear that this just isn’t true, at least under the conditions of our tests.” They found that “excessive consumption of high-fructose corn syrup found in many beverages may be an important factor in the obesity epidemic.”
Bingo. But let’s say that this emerging wisdom is flat-out wrong, that corn syrup makes no great contribution to obesity relative to what real sugar would do. Fine. Why not a level playing field? Why do we have government, on the one hand, boosting a product that contributes to obesity and, on the other, centrally planning our diets with the goal of having us lose weight?
It is a classic case of the problem of all intervention. Government presumes to know what it can’t know. It overrides market preferences. This produces unanticipated consequences. Government steps in again to fix the new problems while creating yet another round of problems that cry out for a solution. The big cost here is freedom itself: the freedom to eat and to trade and to work out our own solutions for our lives based on trade and discovery.
If this pathetic history proves anything, it is that you can’t trust government to tell you what you should or should not put in your pie hole. Yet we inadvertently defer to them every day, even without knowing it.
Stop trusting the government to tell you how to live. Take a step toward living outside the government’s box and join us in the Laissez Faire Club today.
Now, please excuse me while I order up a double-meat Quarter Pounder, dripping with yummy cheese. I’ll defy the politicians with every bite.