Monday, March 12, 2012

We're here! We're gluttons! Get used to it!

Over at Megan McArdle’s place, she’s on a leave of absence for some as-yet-unnamed project. In her stead, Katherine Mangu-Ward picks up one of Megan’s common refrains about Americans and obesity:
Fat people know they’re fat. They know why they’re fat. And they know that being fat kinda sucks.

This may seem obvious, but think about how many anti-obesity initiatives — federal, state, and local–are aimed at promoting the message that being obese or overweight has terrible consequences and/or warning grazers and gorgers off specific food choices.

Two new papers from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo economist Michael L. Marlow take on this weird gap between the problem government anti-obesity efforts seem to be trying to solve and problems that actually exist. Obesity is an expensive, sticky problem, no doubt about that. But Americans themselves aren’t deluded on that point. The fat=bad message has been sent and received, thank you very much.

Yet government interventions like menu labeling requirements, public awareness campaigns about the dangers of sugary soda, zoning regulations to limit the prevalence of fast food restaurants, programs to eliminate “food deserts” and bring supermarkets to poor neighborhoods are multiplying. They fail, writes Marlow in a Mercatus Center working paper out this month, because they are little more than taxpayer-funded sermons to the chubby, chubby choir.

One of Megan’s constant points is that for most people, weight is almost destined by genetics to stay within a certain range. Try to stay outside that range very long, and you have to rely on near-superhuman willpower. And it’s an argument that probably holds a certain amount of weight in an evolutionary biology world. If food is constantly scarce, there’s really no genetic basis to select for overeating or not, as everyone is forced by scarcity and constant activity to remain slim. But in the abundance of modern America, that external scarcity doesn’t exist. Calories are cheap and plentiful, to the point that obesity is a major problem for America’s poor — not something you see in most countries.

I’ve had to fight this battle personally for the last decade, as my weight has risen and fallen. Now, I’m unlucky in the sense that I think my “natural” weight puts me in the overweight category of BMI, but perhaps lucky in the fact that even when I’ve been in the obese category, I don’t look gargantuan. At 6’5″, my body can hide a lot of weight.

Since high school, my weight has fluctuated anywhere from 210 to 275 pounds. I don’t put much stock in BMI, because the best shape I’ve been in my life — exiting high school after 7 years of regular martial arts training — I was 225 lbs. That’s a BMI of 26.7, squarely “overweight”… And I was nothing of the sort. I dropped through college as I shed muscle mass to about 210 leaving college (still at the BMI number of 25), and then got a job where I made enough money to afford a lot more food & beer. Since then, I’ve been up to 260+, down to 230, up to 275, and now down to 240 (and dropping).

How have I reached those weights? Well, it’s not because I didn’t know what I was ingesting. It’s because I didn’t care. I know some people (like my sister-in-law) for whom food isn’t really a driver of life. I don’t understand those people. I love food. I really love beer. And when I say food & beer, I’m not talking about mixed field green salads and Michelob Ultra… I’m talking about deep dish pizza and double IPA. I want to eat, and I want to eat a lot. My name is Brad, and I am a glutton.

Right now, I’m trying to take that weight off. And I’m doing so by the simplest method — counting calories. A few weeks back, I had out-of-town coworkers over for pizza & beer, and overindulged a bit. The next day, when getting into a political debate with one of my coworkers over the drug war, he mentioned that overeating was like an addiction, and how it must carry so much guilt along with it. I interrupted — the previous day I had basically skipped breakfast & lunch to prepare for the evening, and that pizza & beer (& wings & garlic knots… MMMMM!!!!) evening was 3400 calories, one meal being itself 1200 over my new daily allotment. And I had to tell him that there was no guilt involved. I can eat that much and feel normal, not guilty. In fact, it’s the calorie restriction that feels unnatural — every day I’m hungry and dreaming of food. It’s not a fun way to live!

I know I’ve been at unhealthy weights. When I’ve been at the upper end of the range, I haven’t needed government to tell me that I was trending towards unhealthy & disgusting; I have a wife. Government hasn’t done much to make me thinner, either. While I appreciate the fact that so many restaurants here in CA now have to post calorie counts on menus, it’s not like this information was hard to find before. And the calorie counts wouldn’t make any difference to my behavior _unless I already wanted to lose weight_. It’s purely convenience. My brother-in-law is roughly the size I was when I was at my heaviest, and has no desire to change right now — the fact that California mandates restaurants post this information doesn’t change his behavior at all (as it doesn’t change most peoples’ behavior).

Why are so many Americans fat? Because we like to eat — and we can afford to do so. Willpower is hard — we haven’t needed it for most of human history, when food was scarce. And food is delicious. I like salad, but few things are as satisfying as an italian beef sandwich and some nice salty french fries. On the “Right”, we often suggest that everything would be great about socialism except for the fact that it runs absolutely contrary to human nature. As a result, every government that’s tried socialism has failed in spectacular fashion. Well, everything’s great about dieting except that it runs absolutely contrary to human nature. Is it any wonder that government attempts to make us thin have failed?


The real meaning of "Toxic Substances Control Act modernization"

The Shift from Science-Based Standards to Over-Precaution

Republicans, Democrats, industry representatives, and environmentalists all say they agree that it is time to “modernize” the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA—pronounced “tosca”), the federal law that regulates chemicals not covered under other federal laws. Some say the law needs an overhaul because it is too weak and has accomplished little, while others maintain that modest changes to facilitate greater data collection and chemical testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could improve implementation. Both views suggest that reforms should grant the EPA greater powers to advance public health.

In reality, changes to TSCA are highly unlikely to have any measurable positive effect on public health, given the scant evidence that the trace-level chemicals that TSCA regulates have any significant health impacts. Rather, a stronger TSCA law may harm human well being by leading to bans on many valuable products, undermining innovation, and diverting resources from valuable enterprises to meet burdensome regulatory mandates.

TSCA’s one commendable attribute is that it imposes a reasonable risk-based standard, one that applies many regulatory accountability standards, including some covered in President Obama’s executive order on regulatory reform. It allows the EPA to regulate when a chemical poses an “unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment.” If the EPA finds that a chemical does in fact pose such an unreasonable risk, it may prohibit its use, impose regulations limiting its use, mandate recordkeeping, set disposal regulations, require posted warnings related to its use, and other requirements. It states further that the agency must apply such restrictions “to the extent necessary to protect adequately against such risk using the least burdensome requirements.”

This is a rational and solid risk-based standard that is unique within U.S. environmental law. It directs the EPA to focus on scientifically robust, well-designed studies. It also demands that the agency consider both cost-benefit considerations and potentially adverse outcomes of its regulatory actions. Citizens should demand at least as much before any governmental body issues regulations that undermine the freedoms necessary for society to progress and innovate.

Yet TSCA reform proposals all strike at the heart of this standard, calling instead for a hazard-based, precautionary approach. Some would model the new rule after the “reasonable certainty of no harm” standard set in the Food Quality Protection Act, which has produced a host of unnecessary bans and regulations on valuable products that are used to help ensure affordable food production and control of dangerous pests.

Additional data mandates under TSCA are also unnecessary and dangerous. Contrary to many claims, the EPA has managed to use the law to impose thousands of regulations, collect substantial data under both mandatory and voluntary programs, and demand testing of chemicals. Still, the EPA and environmentalists would like greater power to collect “new” data on a number of chemicals that have already been studied extensively by private companies, government agencies, and research bodies around the world. The EPA is unlikely to discover damning information regarding chemicals that have been used for decades without indication of adverse health concerns. Instead, mandates for additional study will simply divert research dollars away from more valuable research and development efforts.

TSCA’s actual failures stem from cases where the EPA has succeeded in taking regulatory actions under the law. The agency has been able to use the law to impose some needless regulations related to lead-based paint, polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxin, and other substances. Obama administration efforts to revitalize the law indicate that the EPA can use the law to impose a host of new regulations as well as make symbolic statements about chemicals to adversely impact their use in the U.S. marketplace—even without congressional authorization.

“Modernization” will most likely empower the agency to take these programs in an even more arbitrary and capricious direction, undermining freedom, innovation, and economic growth in exchange for no measurable public health benefits.


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