by Tomas J. Philipson and Richard A. Posner
Wall Street Journal
July 31, 2010
Whether you're in Manhattan or Montana, a visit to the local shopping mall reveals one painfully obvious fact: Americans are fatter than ever. Obesity-related illnesses and complications are now responsible for nearly one-tenth of the nation's annual health-care costs. It's therefore vital to understand what's behind our country's "obesity plague" and how best to solve this major public-health problem. Health economics can help on both fronts.
The rise in obesity is attributable primarily to changes in the price of consuming, and the cost of expending, calories—changes that are byproducts of otherwise beneficial technological advances. The price of food and thus of calories has long been trending downward because of agricultural innovations that have greatly reduced the time and resources required to go from hungry to full.
The effect on weight has been reinforced by a simultaneous trend, also technology driven, toward reducing the physical exertion involved in work. Productivity gains at work, brought about by automation, have raised incomes and increased the cost of burning calories. When labor is sedentary because of automation, weight can increase even though calorie intake falls, a pattern observed in the post-World War II period.