Thursday, September 21, 2006

Some Folk Are Never Satisfied

Back when I was a college student, one of the world's great problems was third world poverty. According to the conventional wisdom, countries such as India could never develop by their own efforts within a market system, as the currently developed countries had done. The only alternatives were central planning plus massive foreign aid—the recommended course for India—or still more central planning ferociously enforced, the course that was supposedly turning the Soviet Union, and would turn China, into modern economies.

Time passed, a handful of small poor countries in Asia became not-poor countries through market processes—further from laissez-faire than I would have recommended, but further still from the prescriptions of the conventional wisdom—and it was noticed that the Soviet Union, despite all its forced sacrifices, was still, for most of its population, a third world country. India and China got the message, shifted away from centralized planning in the direction of markets, and began to get less poor.

Problem solved? Not exactly.

As poor and hungry people get less poor, they get less hungry. With enough food to survive no longer a problem, some of them get fat. Voila—the growth of global obesity. It was brought to my attention by a radio interview with an expert who attributed the problem to increased consumption of vegetable oils and sugars. For some reason he didn't mention the obvious relation between increasing real income and increasing consumption, or that some of the increased calories whose consumption he deplored were being consumed by people who needed them.

Nor is that the only problem. As the Chinese get richer they, naturally enough, want more stuff—consume more raw materials, oil, power. Voila—new worries for those who are afraid we are about to run out of everything, either just before or just after we roast or drown. I have not yet heard any of them wishing aloud that the Chinese and Indians would go back to poverty and starvation, but that seems at least a muted subtext to the complaints.

Some of the concern may be legitimate, although it requires a serious effort to see the problems of too much food as comparable to those of too little. More can be attributed to ideological hostility to capitalism—people unwilling to recognize its striking success in dealing with old problems and so eager to focus on new problems created by that success.

And some is just the human taste for gloom.


Anonymous said...


You may be interested in reading this excellent article by Johan Norberg that deals with those issues you bring up on your post.

Probably one of the best articles I've read in my opinion.

Patrick Sullivan said...

Or, give the pilots guns.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Why in the world would you say that concern for the new problems caused by success in third world development is per se hostility to capitalism? I cannot see the logical connection.

Is the complaint here that those folks should be worried about third world countries that are still suffering from massive food shortages rather than wasting their time fussing over the explosion of obesity in countries like China and India? I guess that's a marginally valid complaint, but I don't see hostility to capitalism in there. I see different priorities.

Anonymous said...

The subset of Americans who actually hate capitalism is comparable to the subset of Americans who hope for the apocalypse. They're loud and disturbing but few in number.

Generally liberals (at least the folks I hang around with) seem pretty happy that India and China are advancing. They see it as progress and quite likely a herald of the end of oppression in China.

Most of us also worry about global warming, but that would be a problem even if India and China were still Third World countries. Their success simply makes the problem a bit more immediate. Perhaps we worry too much, but we're really not out to destroy capitalism.

As for world obesity. All news is bad news. If the world were perfect and flawless but for the existence of hang nails, the news would be all about the worst hang nails of the day.

Anonymous said...

Obesity is a transitory phase. As human being evolution as made us mentally and physically fit for a world where food is scarce. Suddenly, in the course of a second on the evolutionnary scale food becomes extremely cheap and abundant, we don't adapt fast enough and the next thing you know we get fat. This leads to unfitness, you are less likely to mate and more likely to die of heart problems. So biologically we are going to become more resistant to overeating. But the evolution is also cultural, people will learn to restrict their food consumption and pass that learning to their children. Obesity is in fact much like demographic boom in countries gaining access to medical services, it doesn't last.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous asks:

"Why in the world would you say that concern for the new problems caused by success in third world development is per se hostility to capitalism?"

I didn't. On the contrary, I offered three different explanations of which that was one.

Anonymous said...

Not sure exactly what Friedman means by "too much food," but as far as resources go, I think the key is to convince us First-Worlders to get by with less. We could do it without really decreasing our quality of life, as any number of books I haven't yet read can attest. Trends like planned obsolescence make it a hard sell to most Americans, but then, Americans like getting richer, and the fastest way to do that is to spend less of your income...

Mike Lorrey said...

a.b. has it down. Humans evolved to live in a relatively permanent state of slight to severe malnutrition. Beyond just overeating, human beings evolved a hormonal stress function that causes the body to store more calories as fat when living under extended stress, on the assumption that stressful periods are generally followed by periods of starvation.
In our fast paced, ultra competitive capitalist lifestyle, we live under constant and, as we creep closer toward the technological singularity, increasing levels of stress that our bodies wrongly interpret as signs of an impending famine. Family stress makes us fat, political stress makes us fat, etc.

We could therefore blame all these pounds on the political parties and special interest groups for intentionally polarizing the political scene. Things were so much less stressful when a majority of folks were moderates...

Anonymous said...

to mike,

I wouldn't really blame stress... things are what they are. We juste need to adapt, our body is adapting, but culture is also evolving - faster than biology. In other words in a few generations it'll be pretty clear to everyone that you need to watch carefully what you are eating.

Anonymous said...

The human stress response is catabolic, so the notion that obesity is the result of stress does not make physiologic sense. The evolutionary explanation for obesity during periods of abundance is sufficient without stress being a factor. I'm also less optimistic that cultural evolution will control obesity in a few generations. We've been bombarded with idealized images of thinness for 50 years and developed a multi-billion dollar diet industry yet our median BMI keeps increasing. If bariatric surgery becomes as commonplace as circumcision, perhaps we'll solve our obesity problem in our lifetimes.

Michael Roberts said...

Something was bugging me about this one, and I finally placed it.

Is the obesity problem in North America not largely connected with the fast food industry and _cheap foods_ full of fat and starches but low in nutritional value?

It seems to me I've heard that average weight increases with poverty right now. This reminds me of a statistic I ran across a while ago: In mid-19th century London, the poorest needlewomen bought 3 ounces of tea per week, and an ounce of coffee. The richest bought only the 3 ounces of tea.

David Friedman said...

Unnr writes:

"Is the obesity problem in North America not largely connected with the fast food industry and _cheap foods_ full of fat and starches but low in nutritional value?"

I've seen that argument made, but I don't find it very plausible. Food can be both cheap and nutritional--consider lentils for example. And a lack of nutrition tends to result in being thin, not fat.

Insofar as fast food has particular characteristics, I think that mostly reflects the tastes of the customers.

And, of course, most people in the U.S., including most poor people, have stoves, so aren't dependant on purchased fast food.

"It seems to me I've heard that average weight increases with poverty right now."

I found some figures for the U.S. during a Usenet discussion of this. The lowest income group has a slightly higher obesity rate than the middle group, but not much. The highest income group has a noticeably but not hugely lower rate than the middle--perhaps 25% vs 30% or something like that.

Biomed Tim said...

"...a handful of small poor countries in Asia became not-poor countries through market processes—further from laissez-faire than I would have recommended..."

I think the success of South Korea can be attributed to the government intervening in the 60's to reform the banking system and raising its interest rate. Consider the other Asian Tigers and we see similar types of government intervention to promote growth.

Do you think a more laissez-faire approach would've worked better?

Also, regarding obesity, how do you feel about "fat tax"?

Michael Roberts said...

I suppose I can only reply that the cheep-food thing matches my personal experience.

Most of the homeless people near where I live are quite obese in a very unhealthy-looking way.

I'm not *that* poor, buy my access to cooking and refridgeration are spotty at best.

Also, the ounce of coffee thing: poverty is not just a lack of money, it's a lack of means. I know people on my street who would gladly cook lentils if they had the time to stand by the stove, but after working two min-wage jobs, they really only have time to grab something prepared and eat it on the subway. The London Needle-women spent their money on drugs to keep them awake to work longer so they could survive. (Tie in to more recent posts, there)

And non-stop lentils (w/out the eggs :) aren't healthy either -- and will make you fat.

jimbino said...

I think calling the Russia or the Soviet Union a "third-world country" is a contradiction in terms or at least an unnecessary confusion.

The Soviet Union was always a "second-world" country as the US was a "first-world" country by definition.

It would be clearer to refer to countries as "developed," "developing" and "under-developed" in this context.