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My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is about trying to evolve, rather than ordain,
solution to obesity
Sometimes we find it easy to identify a problem and
impossible to think of a solution. Obesity is a good example.
Almost everybody agrees that it is a growing burden on health
systems and that it requires urgent attention from policy makers.
But almost everybody also agrees that no policy for reducing
obesity is working.
Some 32% of adult American men and 35% of women are clinically
obese. The proportion hasn't swelled in recent years, but it hasn't
shrunk either, a study of 2008 data suggests. School posters,
virally marketed videos, healthy-eating classes, mandatory swimming
lessons, minimum school-recess times, celebrity chefs in charge of
school-meal recipes, bicycle lanes, junk-food ad bans,
calorie-content labels, hectoring physicians, birthday-cake bans,
monetary rewards for weight loss-they've all been tried, and
they've all largely failed.
Maybe we need to stop trying to devise top-down answers and
instead encourage bottom-up ones to evolve through individual
choice. Or so argue two Canadian academics, Neil Seeman and Patrick
Luciani, in a new book called "XXL: Obesity and the Limits of
Shame." After all, as Friedrich Hayek pointed out, the true genius
of markets is that they discover things. Perhaps the answer to
obesity is to spend money not on the producers (of gyms, diets,
surgery, vegetables) but on the consumers.
Drawing a direct analogy with the effect of vouchers in the
education system, Messrs. Seeman and Luciani suggest
"healthy-living vouchers" that could be redeemed from different
(certified) places-gyms, diet classes, vegetable sellers and more.
Education vouchers, they point out, are generally disliked by rich
whites as being bad for poor blacks-and generally liked by poor
blacks. A bottom-up solution empowers people better than top-down
So instead of spending large sums on ads to shame us into better
eating habits, spend the money on vouchers handed out to the
overweight and let them find whatever provider of goods or services
best meets their particular dieting needs. After all, the root
causes of obesity are multifarious and new ones are being added all
the time-such as diet sodas, gut bacteria, genes, sleep apnea,
leptin levels, medication, depression, poverty and peer pressure.
So the solutions need to be multipronged, too. What works for you
may not work for me.
Messrs. Seeman and Luciani's suggestions will annoy both the
left and the right. Market forces are anathema to the top-down
thinking of many on the left, and handing money to the
"undeserving" is anathema to many on the right. But the very fact
that their idea defies conventional wisdom suggests that it is a
As an evangelist for rational optimism, I am sometimes accused
of overlooking the things that are getting worse, and obesity, I
acknowledge, is one such dismal trend. So is traffic congestion-and
they are both the products of plenty.
But they are exceptions that neatly prove my rule. In a recent
television discussion about world hunger, we found ourselves
talking about obesity, and I reflected on what a remarkable human
achievement it is to have nearly seven billion people on the planet
and more of them overweight than malnourished.
In due course, the obesity problem will be solved, I suspect.
The ultra-rich have already solved it. Most of them are very thin
these days, quite unlike in ancient times. That's because they can
afford the solutions that work for them, from low-carb diets to
If economic growth continues to spread, as it has over the past
two centuries, most people will be ultra-rich by today's standards
within two generations, and slim figures will also spread. Still,
it would be nice to find a way for people to lose weight without
having to wait for them to get rich first.