Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Obesity and the Public Interest

I am teaching a course on Coursera called "Principles of Obesity Economics" which is a mini-version of the online course that I typically teach at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health each summer that is called "Obesity Economics".  The course has only been going for a day, but the preparation for it has actually demonstrated that as far as the "production of education" is concerned, there are interesting economies of scope from needing to prepare materials that are not interchangeable but that can be used with some variation in multiple settings.  But that is not the main point I want to make today.

When I typed in "Obesity Economics" as a search in google, I saw that several things with which my teaching is concerned and a blog entry at The Economist magazine.   In this entry, the author, discusses why American politics and culture makes it unlikely (in the author's opinion) that the United States will do anything that makes a serious impact on obesity in the next several decades.

That is an interesting conclusion in light of how much this gets talked about all the time.

The author concludes that the focus on individual rights to make decisions in their own self-interest and to focus only on their self-interest leads to high levels of obesity.  That is an interesting interpretation.  I am not sure I agree that this is the exact answer, but it is worth thinking about whether, from an economic perspective, there is reason to think that this might actually be the case.

Individual self-interest means that individuals maximize their own utility.  No one that I know wants to be obese.  Some people are more willing to accept it than others.  But does that necessarily mean that obesity should increase as much as it does.  That would suppose that people make poor decisions. Or that people don't have enough information to make decisions.  Or that people are given wrong information to make decisions.    Or that people don't look forward enough when making decisions.  Each of these might involve a government intervention.  Very little would necessarily need to be changed in terms of leaving individuals witha high degree of free choice of what they want to eat and when and how they want to use their energy and when.  Perhaps we could think a little harder about regulating business.  And perhaps that is truly the issue. Perhaps we do not need to be regulating or incentivizing individual behavior (although for all of America's focus on individual rights we still tend to think that we should not have to pay all of our own medical care costs so the responsibilities that come along with those rights don't necessarily seem to be taken as strongly). Perhaps we should regulate business more.  Although that does not seem to be a large part of American culture either.  And that may be the just as important a rate limiting factor to achieving goals having to do with weight control in the United States.

We would still have to justify it with a compelling public need or an example of a market failure, but the point of whom to target and how carefully to target them would seem to remain an open question.  


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