I adore student publications. Journalism students are guileless, honest, earnest, and unfiltered. Editorial staff of university newspapers maintain relaxed standards, allowing writers to pepper stories with hyperbole and opinion. Neophyte authors, often wrestling with course work and the social life of an undergraduate have little time or patience to write thoroughly researched pieces, so each story in any given student publication has the potential to be a nice little snapshot of off-the-cuff reasoning we might expect from the ordinary pedestrian thinker. Those of us on the Isle of Euvoluntaria can benefit greatly from avidly reading student newspapers, as almost nowhere else can you find such a dense matrix of naive moral reasoning, insufficient cost/benefit accounting and quick interventionist assumptions.
With this in mind, I make it a habit to pick up student newspapers wherever I might. Over the Memorial Day weekend, I was on a campus not my own and I grabbed the local university paper, festooned with an image of french fried potatoes and featuring infographic-type forecasts of the extent of the pending American obesity crisis along with estimates of the looming costs. I found myself somewhat pleasantly surprised when I found no call for an expansion of the role of the FDA anywhere in the article, but I was a bit dismayed when no clear distinction made between private and public costs. I suppose you can't always get what you want, after all.
The piece did get me thinking about the rabbit hole of agricultural (supply) and nutritional (demand) intervention though. I'm receptive to the suggestion that eating is non-euvoluntary. I am less receptive to the idea that this necessarily implies that Archer Daniels Midland should qualify for special tax consideration or that the USDA should mail off $20B worth of tax-funded checks to agribusiness every year under the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008. I am similarly unconvinced that SNAP should be a program at all. There are several excellent papers in peer-reviewed journals detailing arguments in support of a Basic Minimum Income in lieu of specialized, in-kind transfer programs. Administrative costs of food stamp programs and the tendency for bureaucratic metastasis and sclerosis is unavoidable. Part of the analytical challenge is that we don't really have an easy way of identifying the partial contribution of the joint and several aspects of food production and delivery to the growing problem of bigbuttination in our nation.
The unfortunate econometric conundrum here is one of covariance. As nations have become wealthy, crop yields have risen, corporate agriculture has devised new, cheaper ways to ship calories from the field to your table and governments have taken increasingly activist roles in diverting the sluice boxes (grain elevators?) of corn flow along every step of the way. Because food tends toward being a hodgepodge of global commodities, distortions in the US markets affect consumers abroad. Even relatively food-isolationist nations like Japan still respond in equilibrium to advances in shipping and handling, distribution, and preparation. Add to that genetic heterogeneity and a technology-drive rise in sedentary lifestyles, and I fear that there may be no good way to isolate a specific treatment effect on any one dimension alone. More succinctly, we don't know exactly why people are getting fatter and more people are getting fat.
This implies that policy recommendations may not be as obvious as we might like. If the problem is that kids are playing Call of Duty four hours a day rather than smacking a baseball around, that's one thing. If the problem is that they're getting Twinkies at school rather than apples, that's another. If it's a moral hazard problem brought on by an expectation of third-party health care payments, well, there's yet another sand castle to kick. Any new intervention is likely to bring with it new hazards, new distortions and new rents to seek. I might suggest that as a first step, good policy might be to eliminate or ease some of the existing distortions. Sure, nutrition isn't euvoluntary, but I really have a hard time swallowing the suggestion that the BATNA is really quite as bad as doomsayers insist. Farmers will face pressure to enhance efficiency and households may have to take a closer look at how they allocate budgets. Perhaps that is an awful fate for some, but slow, painful degeneration waiting on a transplant kidney is no walk in the park either.
GMU professor Russ Roberts is fond of reminding people that capitalism is a system of profit and loss: the profits encourage entrepreneurship and risk-taking; the losses encourage prudence and circumspection. There are many aspects of the US food delivery system that encourage gluttony, but few provide the incentives for temperance. Why not at least stop doing harm first before meddling yet deeper into the crock pots of the chubby American diner?