Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Modest -- and Silly! -- Proposal

A certain cardiologist over at the Washington Post has one of the silliest ideas I've read in a long time. Indeed, it's tempting to compare him to Jonathan Swift, author of the original A Modest Proposal, except that it appears that John G. Sotos is completely serious when it comes to his proposal. Food calories, to quote the man, are so endemic as to warrant being called 'pollution' and treated as such. This is the first time I've heard my guacamole burger being equated with the wrapper it comes in, and it's an incredibly inept and inapt comparison.

Sotos believes that the marketplace is the key to treating obesity. If only we make the good-tasting-but-bad-for-you stuff more expensive than the good-for-you-but-blah-tasting stuff then everything will take care of itself. This is to be done through something called "calorie emission allowance" where high calorie foods couldn't be sold unless the companies producing them buy "calorie credits" from producers of low calorie food. Sotos himself isn't sure how things will turn out: "The hope, which should be tested, is that the number of calories eaten would drop, owing to the difficulty of consuming large numbers of calories from low-density foods." In other words, people will vote with their pocketbooks and become miraculously slimmer.

There are a few flaws with this theory and one need not posses a PhD to figure them out. People are paying for prepared foods because they taste good, yes, but also because they are convenient. Nuking a microwave dinner or stopping by a favorite fast-food joint will get someone a dinner that not only tastes good, but that someone else put all the prep work into. In a society where two-income families are often needed just to pay the mortgage (I live in Sunny Southern California where housing prices have not seen reasonable in quite some time and commutes are usually gawdawful), having someone else cook for you is a boon most people are willing to pay for anyway. There are low calorie alternatives even in fast food places, of course, but most of those are more difficult to eat in a moving car and they don't taste as good as their unwholesome brethren unless they're slathered in some sort of dressing or sauce that makes them just as unhealthy. Ditto for the microwaveable dinners -- ye cats, the 'lo cal' alternatives make chewing on cardboard downright attractive -- and we won't go into the hidden ingredients that often make these choices less healthy that their regular counterparts.

Here's a dirty little secret that Sotos doesn't seem to be able to wrap his brain around. Eating healthy is already cheaper than eating unhealthy. For what it would take to support my fast food choices for one day, I can eat for half a week. It won't be very exciting fare and I'll have to cook it myself, but if we're talking economics it's quite doable. Take a bag of pinto beans and a bag of rice, throw in a ham hock for taste (you may want to try something else, but hey, differences like these are what makes the world go around) and there's a dish in my fridge that is low calorie, high nutrition, plentiful, and cheap. Give me a couple of days of 'fast food allowance' and I can throw in fresh fruit and vegetables to round my diet out and stretch my staples further. Three days and I've got the cash for flour, yeast, salt, and sugar -- the primary ingredients in bread.

You see, economics is already in play but in vastly more complicated dances than Sotos and his ilk either comprehend or choose to believe. We're eating high calorie, low nutritional value foods because they're convenient and they taste good. We need this convenience because so many of us have to commute forever and three days to work, and/or once there have to spend another eternity and a half proving our worth to our bosses. Once that's over (and we endure the long slog to get back home) there are mates to reconnect with, children to ferry back and forth to their various projects, homework to go over with said offspring, and, eventually, hopefully, sleep. Our children are minus the jobs but live with a homework load that is purely insane and they are scheduled with various activities to within inches of their lives. The towns we live in have no sidewalks and nowhere to go to anyway, if perchance there happened to a half an hour that wasn't already allocated to some other task. Who has time to cook? Moreover, who has time to teach cooking, or nutrition, or to model the old-fashioned exercise that used to be known as spending time with the family? We have people graduating high school without knowing how to do a simple tax sheet or how to balance a check book -- certainly no one has ever taught them how to prepare a pot roast with root vegetables, or how to choose the ingredients that make a decent and tasty salad. Home Ec is so passe. Society gets its offspring to college with Calculus under its belt and spiderwebs in the pantry. (And for disclosure's sake, I never attended Home Ec. I did, however, have parents who were rabid on imparting survival skills -- both my brother and I can balance check books, cook, do simple clothes mending, and perform common household repairs. In fact my brother is a better cook than I am, but I'm a better welder so it all evens out.)

Given the factors already in play I don't see how raising the price of my butter is going to make me a better or thinner person. Sadly, in Sotos' eyes they amount to the same thing.

No comments: