Monday, October 29, 2007

Sen. Roberts' Logic: Bacon Cheeseburgers Don't Make People Fat, People Make People Fat

The dismal science of economics is governed by a few heaps of sacred cowshit -- Say's "Law" comes to mind -- but also by certain immutable, virtually indisputable, laws. One such principle is that when a product is subsidized, and it becomes cheaper and more plentiful as a result of that subsidy, more people are very likely to buy and consume more of that product.

But one thing I've observed about economic theory is that adherents of the supposed "free market" feel quite free to apply and interpret it according to whim. Right now there's a push to get federal farm policy to stop subsidizing producers of fat- and sugar-laden foods as much, and shift some of that government sugar-daddy action to, you know, fruits, veggies, whole grains and such. All the stuff that's so dull and so goddamned good for us.

And, it's doctors who are helping lead the charge. Nobody in his or her right mind should be ready to accuse them of being hostile to the "free market."

But, we discover, what a rancid affront to the American Heartland! Here was the response from Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.:

"I agree that obesity and health are serious issues in America today. However, blaming the cause on the crops that we grow in Kansas and/or the U.S. farm program is overlooking the personal responsibility we all have in our daily lives and diets."

Ah, yes -- personal responsibility. Republicans are really big on that -- when they're in the mood. And they're always in the mood if the issue involves poor people.


Here, from McClatchy Newspapers, is the crux of this conflict:

If you’re feeling fat these days, blame Congress.

That’s just what the nation’s doctors are doing, saying that federal lawmakers are responsible for the fact that a salad costs so much more than a Big Mac.

Hoping to produce thinner waistlines, many doctors — including the American Medical Association — want Congress to stop subsidizing the production of foods that are high in fat and cholesterol and spend more to promote fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains that are not. ...

The debate is intensifying as the Senate prepares to vote on a new farm bill. On Thursday, the agriculture panel approved a bill that would give a record $2 billion for specialty crops, which include fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and nursery crops. That’s at least four times as much as what Congress provided in the 2002 farm bill.

The 2007 farm bill will determine which food industries get the most help from U.S. taxpayers over the next five years.

"The real scandal in Washington is the farm bill," said Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "Senators take millions from corporations that produce bacon, burgers and other fatty foods. Then Congress buys up these unhealthy products and dumps them on our school lunch program. Companies get rich, and kids get fat."

The effect of the subsidies on prices has been telling:

According to Barnard’s group, agribusiness political action committees have given more than $5 million over the last four election cycles to members of the Senate Agriculture Committee. From 1995 to 2004, nearly three-quarters of farm bill agricultural subsidies for food — more than $51 billion — went to producers of sugar, oil, meat, dairy, alcohol and feed crops used for cattle and other farm animals.

The group said that in 2005 alone, Tyson Foods, the nation’s largest meat producer, received $46.6 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture commodity contracts.

Less than half of 1 percent subsidized fruit and vegetable production, the group said. ...

In September, Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, noted that since 1985, the actual price of fruits and vegetables has increased 40 percent, while the price of sugar and fats has declined 14 percent.

Sen. Roberts seems to be trying to adapt the inane anti-gun-control argument to the Agriculture Department's perennial subsidization of fatty, sugary foods.

Bottom line, senator: Yes, a person has to be willing to eat that double-meat bacon cheeseburger. An underprivileged person can always opt for fresh fruit and veggies, to the extent they can afford them. But when you subsidize meat, cheese, and refined flour, you make it possible for fast-food chains to offer these sinful treats at 99-cents plus tax, and advertise them complete with depictions of minorities -- "Eat like a rock star, for $1." I've seen these ads many times. Are we to assume these have no effect?

Yes, senator -- bacon cheeseburgers, left to sit, won't make a person obese. Maybe the dog will eat them, and he or she will bloat up and eventually die.

But you, and the producers you represent, don't aim for them to sit anywhere except in a lot of people's outsized bellies. Are you going to tell me this doesn't make anyone's self-undoing infinitely easier?

Crossposted at Manifesto Joe.