Monday, November 09, 2009

You Are What You Eat

We went to see the new movie Precious over the weekend, and it got us to thinking about the calorie posting initiated last year by the Department of Health-you know, the policy that proved to have absolutely no impact on the way fast food customers eat.

Precious is about an abused and overweight Harlem teen, and when we see what the girl has to go through just to maintain her sanity and survive, it underscores, in our view, the futility of those policy makers who think that they can regulate folks into having healthier lives. Eating for many-but particularly for low income people who have any so many different stressors in their lives-is about emotional reassurance; and until these folks are able to have a better environment to live in, they will continue to use food for more than just pure sustenance.

Which brings us to the calorie posting experiment-the subject of an interesting article over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal. The article summarizes the failed experiment-and points to other reasons for its failure:

"Only half of the customers said they noticed the caloric information, and only about 15% said they used the information. But the researchers' most striking finding was that customers actually ordered more caloric items after the law went into effect than before, despite the fact that nine out of ten customers who reported using the information said they made healthier choices as a result of the law. This disconnect can partly be explained by response bias in which people tell surveyors what they think the surveyors want to hear.

But the problem may also be more complex. It's possible that people who are less educated may actually think they are eating more healthily than they are notwithstanding the calorie numbers staring them in the face. Calories as a measure of food intake (or more precisely, energy consumption and output) may be as foreign to them as the metric system is to many Americans."

Quite true, and this was another reason why we had originally thought that this entire experiment was a crock-and another unnecessary mandate on local business at a time when they are struggling mightily to survive. But here's a real nugget of truth: "The lawmakers who enacted the calorie posting regulations succumbed to the fallacy that everyone thinks like them. They probably reasoned that because they would make healthier choices if presented with nutritional information, everyone else would as well. But maybe what consumers actually want is a delicious meal at a low price."

Or maybe, they have too many other pressing life concerns to worry about the contents of their meals-food that is also making them feel better at the same time. So, as the WSJ piece makes clear, there's sometimes an underlying rationality to the irrationality of peoples' choices: "While information is important, even fully informed people won't always act as lawmakers think they should, especially if it's economically irrational. Any public health legislation won't significantly change people's behavior unless it 1) provides proper incentives for people to put their long-term well-being above temporary gratification and 2) takes into account the economic rationality of people's behavior. Unfortunately, many lawmakers refuse to swallow this inconvenient truth, preferring the taste of their Kool-Aid."

Maybe in the third Bloomberg term, there will be more attention paid to alleviating the suffering of the folks-you know, good jobs with living wages. And less time trying to re-make peoples' lives in the image of the leisure class. When government tries to go beyond its legitimate scope of action, it not only meddles needlessly in the lives of its citizens, it fails to address the real problems that it does have the ability to alleviate.