Obesity and wealth Sunday, Aug 30 2009 

In some places, especially those stricken with poverty, obesity is a symbol of wealth. While the poor toil away usually with extreme malnutrition and starvation, the wealthy class is free to consume endlessly. This over-consumption promotes obesity. Usually, therefore, the obese in these locations are associated with wealth.

With the United State’s amazing prosperity, one is not so surprised to learn that the U.S. is the fattest nation with the highest obesity rates. We can afford copious amounts of food. Technology has enabled us to live sedentary lifestyles. Advances in medicine have allowed obese people to survive longer. Today, somewhere around 26% of the U.S. population is obese, with many more being overweight (but not obese). With one in four Americans being obese, there are tremendous economic implications, not only for the individual in question but also for the nation as a whole. The literature on obesity, particularly as it relates to economics, is immense and nuanced, and I cannot even begin to deal with it all.

Obesity is on the rise worldwide. It seems as the wealth grows across the globe, people all over are becoming obese. After all, the United States is the most obese nation. Likewise, one should expect the wealthiest states to be the most obese. However, that is not the case. Mississippi, which has the highest rate of obesity at 32.5% is also the poorest state with a GDP per capita of $28,541. The second most poorest state, West Virginia, with a GDP per capita of $29,385 has the third highest rate of obesity. When analyzing the data, one finds a trend that shows a negative relationship between GDP per capita and obesity rates:

obese

(Data on state-level GDP per capita (2007) was provided by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Data on obesity rates was provided by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.)

This data suggests poor people are obese at higher rates than wealthy people. My analysis is rudimentary, but there is plenty of other research to support this claim. One reason may be because poor people have less choices than their wealthy counterparts. Poor people, for example, find it more difficult to afford gym memberships. They may also be unable to find as much time in their schedules to exercise. Additionally, nutritiously lacking foods filled with plenty of calories from sugars and fats tend to be cheaper than healthier foods. Research by Adam Drewnowski of the University of Washington helps explain why this is. Simply: Thank the government. U.S. subsidies have been promoting the overproduction of certain agricultural products such as corn, soybeans, and wheat. This is happening while other fresh produce and fruits are being left to the wayside. This is why you can walk into a grocery store and find that one dollar will buy you 1,200 calories from unhealthy foods like cookies and chips but only 250 calories from carrots. This is why the real price of vegetables and fruits has increased 40% between 1985 and 2000, while the price for soft drinks (which use a high amount of subsidized corn syrup) have declined 23% (sugar, too, receives large amount of government support).

The issue isn’t so simple though. While the U.S. has the highest rate of obesity, the second highest rate of obesity in the world is found in Mexico, which is a substantially poorer than the U.S. On the other hand, places like South Korea and Japan, which are relatively rich and developed nations, have among the lowest rates of obesity. Quite clearly, there are other factors at play that should be considered.

Libertarian talking head? Saturday, Aug 29 2009 

Glenn Beck is a radio and television host who has a show named after him on FOX News. Unfortunately, this guy calls himself a libertarian and even more unfortunate is that some libertarians use him as their talking head. This guy has said some pretty very stupid stuff and is more of an entertainer than anything else. And what exactly is he rambling on about anyway?

I’m guessing it has to do with this. According to the latest count, a total of 46 advertisers have pulled out of the Glenn Beck program on FOX News, including UPS which has pulled all of its advertisements off the whole FOX News network. Why? Part of it is due to an organization called Color of Change and their efforts to stop Beck’s “race baiting.”

Here’s what Beck said in late July of 2009: “This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy over and over and over again who has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture … this guy is, I believe, a racist.” Of course, you must never mind the fact that President Obama has selected many white people to serve high-ranking positions within his government, not the least of which include Joe Biden as the Vice President, Hillary Clinton as the Secretary of State, or Rahm Emanuel as the White House Chief of Staff, Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, Ben Bernanke as Chairman of the Fed, Leon Panetta as the director of the CIA, Janet Napolitano as the Secretary of Homeland Security, Kathleen Sebelius as the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tim Geithner as the Secretary of the Treasury, and the list goes on and on. These are some of the most important jobs in country, all run by white people. And Obama selected them. Of course, you should also forget that President Obama is just as white as he is black (and was raised by his white grandparents). Still, though, he hates white people and the white culture.

Instead of apologizing for his diarrhea of the mouth, Beck defended his comments, saying, “I am not willing to bow before the king, I will never bow before the king. In America, we do not have kings.” Thanks for enlightening us, Beck, but that’s a straw man if I ever saw one. He also said he has the right to free speech (yet another straw man). No one denies this. No one has said he doesn’t have the right to say this. But the right to free speech goes both ways, including my right to criticize his idiocy that is promoted by FOX News. And, incidentally, it includes an advertiser’s right to not advertise on your show. What better manifestation of free market principles?

P.S. Beck, even though you’ve been taking days to come up with this, it’s spelled “OLIGARCHY“!

“Economic miracle” Sunday, Aug 23 2009 

I have a few things I want to talk about, but this is probably the most important. I want to talk about economic liberalization and what’s called “globalization” and what kind of effects it has on ordinary Americans.

The first thing I would like to point out is that, despite the talk about how free markets have paved the way for America’s success as an economic juggernaut, America is not a market economy and never has been. America’s success has been a result of gross violations of market principles. The closest things approximating market economies are poverty-stricken, underdeveloped nations whose colonizers ram it down their throats. (This is, of course, referred to as “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor,” which I have discussed here.) If America were a market economy, we, like them, would be seeking our comparative advantage.

This did not stop a wave of economic liberalization policies taking place some 30 years ago. With it, we have seen what is today being called globalization (which, by the way, incorporates very little of Adam Smith’s ideas). These movements have most closely been linked to Milton Friedman and his advocacy for economic liberalism. These policies have been defended, like most changes to liberalization have been around the world, on grounds of what’s usually dubbed an “economic miracle.” GDP rises, corporate profits soar, etc. All looks well. But what kind of effect is it having on the ordinary American? Like in other nations where liberalization is promoted (e.g. Chile under Pinochet, Brazil, Egypt, etc.), the masses approach pauperization and toil away while the wealthiest benefit handsomely. That is, the observed increase in wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority of individuals. Some refer to this as “the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.” Let’s look at it in more detail.

An in-depth look at this issue was provided in a 1999 study by Chuck Collins, Betsy Leondar-Wright, and Holly Sklar. What they find is that most people have lost wealth, despite the economic boom in the 1990s. Write the authors, “Between 1983 and 1995, the inflation-adjusted net worth of the top 1 percent swelled by 17 percent. The bottom 40 percent of households lost an astounding 80 percent.”

Through efforts to liberalize the economy, people’s wages have decreased and working hours have increased. At one time, Americans worked the fewest hours of any developed nation—what one would expect in the wealthiest nation. Today, we are among the most worked of any developed nation. King Banaian, professor and chairman of the economics department at SCSU, asks how wages could decrease and hours increase during a period of great corporate profits. If we look at the period between 2003 and 2007, which saw a high increase in productivity, real median wages stagnated. Some refer to this as the gap between productivity and wages. Even when we include benefits, real median compensation has been stagnant (e.g. -1.1% for the median wage earner). If we look at the average weekly earnings between 1964 and 2004, we see that real wages have been decreasing. The answer to Dr. Banaian’s question: income is not shared equally. This is referred to income disparity or economic inequality. So, despite increasing corporate profits and increased productivity, the gains have only been realized for a few, very wealthy individuals.

Dr. Banaian doesn’t like the use of median wages, though. When measuring wages for the typical American, I do believe median is better. Dr. Lee explains why here. When measuring income, the U.S. Census Bureau prefers to use median income over average (mean) income because it “provides a more accurate representation.” Unfortunately, I don’t have the data on historical mean wages. The only thing I found was this graph, which shows a marked decrease in real average wages during a period referred to as the era of liberalization and globalization. Likewise, data provided by the government shows that real before-tax household incomes have been fairly stagnant since 1989, except for the highest percentiles of earners. This is precisely what one would expect given the information provided above.

FOX News vs. Geography Sunday, Aug 16 2009 

U.S. OUT OF EGYPT!
NO BLOOD FOR PYRAMIDS!

foxy

Wait a minute… are we really liberating Egypt or is this just another one of FOX News’ alternate realities where facts don’t matter? Some comic relief either way.

Corporate interests and the media Wednesday, Aug 12 2009 

As some might be aware, I am not a fan of corporate media. A while ago I wrote about whether the media are biased. The short answer: yes. The media are biased, but probably not because of the reasons you’ve heard touted by far-rightists who bemoan what they see as a leftist bias in the media. A popular way they try to prove this is to look at the voting habits of those who go into journalism, but this proves absolutely nothing about actual output. (It’s akin to saying “the workers on the factory floor decide what the car industry produces,” says Justin Lewis.) Instead, it is more helpful to look at the institutional structure of the media to understand its bias. Borrowing from the propaganda model developed by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, the three most important aspects to look at are ownership, funding, and sources. And what we find is that the media represent center to center-right views that are favorable to corporate interests.

Just a few days ago, I made a post about Bill Maher’s criticism of corporatism and the corporatization of certain social institutions, including the media. As discussed in my last post about the media, the news media are increasingly being controlled by fewer and fewer large multinational corporations such as General Electric, News Corporation, Viacom, Time Warner, etc. (See work done by Ben Bagdikian for more on that.) People often criticize big business and its influence on the news media; in reality, they are one in the same.

Recently, there’s been a good example. The New York Times published an astonishing article just a day earlier about corporate interests and its influence on the media. Never mind that its author, Brian Stelter, completely ignores the pertinent issues that make the story so astonishing.

Essentially, “at an off-the-record summit meeting for” CEOs, Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation, and Jeffrey Immelt, chairman of General Electric, came to agreement that the feud between MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and FOX News’ Bill O’Reilly should end. (Note that G.E. is the parent corporation of MSNBC and that News Corp is the parent corporation of FOX News.) For those unfamiliar, Olbermann hosts an 8 P.M. broadcast on MSNBC from which he often launches scathing attacks against O’Reilly and FOX News’ lies. O’Reilly, who also hosts an 8 P.M. broadcast but on FOX News, is a frequent critic of G.E. and their dealings in Iran. The NYT points out that both Immelt and Murdoch agreed this feud was creating “real consequences” and hurting “their parent corporations.” Mind you, this feud boosted the ratings for both MSNBC and FOX News. The real problem was that it was not serving News Corporation’s or G.E.’s corporate interests.

The result has been that Olbermann no longer launches his attacks against O’Reilly or FOX News, and that O’Reilly no longer criticizes G.E or its dealings. Corporate interests have been served, voilĂ . It had to be done through censorship, but who cares?

Like I stated in my last post about media bias, you should first ask yourself whether the media are free. And by this I mean whether their institutional structure allows for free expression of opinion. That Olbermann might be a member of the Democratic Party or that O’Reilly might be a member of the Republican Party is completely irrelevant if the media are not free. If they’re being censored by their corporate parents, we cannot honestly discuss journalists’ ideologies. The media, as Dr. Herman points out, “represent elite interests,” not public interest.

Does Bill Maher have a point? Saturday, Aug 1 2009 

Recently, Bill Maher has written an article for The Huffington Post decrying some aspects of capitalism. Bill Maher is a comedian, movie maker (Religulous), writer, host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher (though he’s probably better known for hosting Politically Incorrect), and a social commentator. Though he describes himself as a libertarian, some people have doubted this and have called him a liberal. I wouldn’t say I agree with everything Maher says, but there are some pertinent things I do agree with him on.

In this recent article, Maher argues, “Not everything in America has to make a profit. It used to be that there were some services and institutions so vital to our nation that they were exempt from market pressures. Some things we just didn’t do for money.” He criticizes war profiteers, the prison-industrial complex, corporate media (which I’ve discussed here), and for-profit health care. Maher asks, “When did the profit motive become the only reason to do anything? When did that become the new patriotism?”

I think Maher may be more or less correct: the only obligation a corporation is supposed to have is to maximize self-interest (i.e. maximize profits). This is the argument that is made by free marketers such as Milton Friedman and is based on the moral theory of ethical egoism. They call this the moral economy, which I’ve criticized a bit on this blog. If the only obligation, moral or otherwise, that a corporation has is it to itself (i.e. shareholder profits), then we’re likely to end up with decidedly immoral business practices (which we hear about on the news on a daily basis). Now, there is nothing that says corporations must operate within this egoist context since they are socially constructed, but absent any change in this model then there is reason to worry about the corporatization of things like war, news, or medicine.

Should some things simply not be done for profit? Should corporations have some obligations to other stakeholders in addition to their shareholders? Are there some moral obligations that individuals and corporations have that take precedence over maximizing profits? These are questions that should be answered if we are to take seriously the issue of corporatism and the corporatization of particular social functions and institutions.