Concerning fat and fat-headedness

I’m with Jonathan Adler and Ann Althouse: it’s shocking when the tiny bit of governmental advertising designed to encourage us to lead healthier lifestyles is a tenth as dishonest as the huge amount of food-industry advertising that encourages us to lead less healthy lifestyles.

Althouse says she “avoid[s] government propaganda.” I suppose private propaganda is just free enterprise and free speech.

But I don’t see where Alter makes a case that anyone has “politiciz[ed] soda science.” The story doesn’t report on any attempt to pressure scientists to misrepresent their results, or to shape their studies around pre-determined conclusions. This is a case where the health department, having sought scientific advice, decided to skip the footnotes and make an assertion somewhat stronger than the evidence supported.

Kevin Drum is right; the basic assertion that a soda a day equals ten pounds of fat a year isn’t silly on its face. Over the longish term, someone’s weight equilibrium weight is a function of caloric intake and energy expenditure, and an increase of 150 calories per day could sustain about a 10-pound weight gain. A pound of body fat stores about 3500 calories’ worth of energy, and a 12-once Coke has 140 calories. Since 140 * 365 / 3500 = 14.6, so saying that the 10-pound gain could take place over the course of a year is reasonable.

But of course there are lots of potential negative feedbacks (and some positive feedbacks as well), and you’d have to know a lot about the effects of sugared sodas on appetite and activity patterns to make a strong assertion about the effect of drinking water instead of Sprite. Obviously, if the soda calories replaced some other calories, the effect on weight would tend toward zero. And of course individual metabolisms differ, so no assertion will be true of every person.

If the ad had said, “A can of sugary soda has about 150 calories. Adding 150 calories a day to your diet will add about 10 pounds of fat to your waistline,” it would have been reasonably accurate, leaving out all the complexities. At a stretch, the actual version might be defended as an advertising-shorthand version of that almost-true statement.

That said, I’m inclined to be somewhat tougher on the ad than Kevin is, and somewhat tougher on it as an ad from the NYC Health Department than I would be if some private group were running it. What Althouse, from her taxpayer-funded job (just like mine!), denounces as “government propaganda” – attempts by public agencies to communicate with the public – is in fact an essential governmental task. (I look forward to right-wing denunciations of military recruiting ads.) And every time someone learns that a particular official statement was really just a commercial, no more honest than the other commercials, that person’s trust in the entire governmental enterprise takes a small hit. It’s an example of “reputational externality.” (That’s why professional government-haters like Adler and Althouse are so eager to publicize the NYT story: they want us to be entirely at the mercy of commercial advertising, Fox News, and the output of right-wing pseudo-think-tanks, and denouncing “government propaganda” is as important a step toward that goal as denouncing “the liberal media” and “loony-left academics.”)

Compared to the average soft-drink ad, which never mentions that empty calories tends to lead to weight gain or that refined sugars in particular are implicated in the development of metabolic syndrome, the NYC Health Department ad is a model of integrity. But that’s not good enough. We properly hold governments to a higher standard.

Footnote Althouse also needs to go back to eighth grade to study grammar. She is wrong to criticize the add for first saying that drinking sugared sodas makes you “fatter” and then telling viewers not to let that activity make them “fat.”

Uh… you already called us fat when you said drinking soda would make us fatter. The government can’t get the science right. It can’t even get the English usage right.

Neither the comparative nor the superlative form of an adjective implies its absolute form. A person of normal weight is fatter than an anorectic; of three anorectics, the least underweight is the fattest that doesn’t make either of them fat. Althouse is smarter than the average glibertarian; in a contest with two dumber glibertarians she’d be the smartest. But that doesn’t make her … perhaps, in the interests of civility, I should leave the rest of that sentence as an exercise for the reader.

Update Since no one but Kevin Drum seems to have noticed that an earlier version of the post got the relationship between weight and caloric intake wrong, and since Kevin pointed out my error in an email rather than a link, I’ve taken the liberty of rewriting without tracking the changes. Just take it as read that in this one instance my usual omniscience deserted me.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

40 thoughts on “Concerning fat and fat-headedness”

  1. "And every time someone learns that a particular official statement was really just a commercial, no more honest than the other commercials, that person’s trust in the entire governmental enterprise takes a small hit."

    As it should; Don't we WANT the government's public reputation to be an accurate reflection of it's character? Is the problem with an untrustworthy, lying government merely the fact that people think it's dishonest, and everything would be ok if the population was in the dark about being lied to?

  2. Some years ago my middle son, who has always exercised regularly and been quite fit, switched from regular sodas to diet sodas and lost about 15 pounds in a few months.

  3. No, Brett, some of us would like the government to BE more honest, and DESERVE a better reputation. The rest of us vote Republican.

  4. " But that doesn’t make her … perhaps, in the interests of civility, I should leave the rest of that sentence as an exercise for the reader."

    Mark, you don't DO civility here. You are generally interesting, the discussions are intellectually chewy. But – civil – ? It's not what you do.

  5. No, Dave. But irony (sometimes) is.

    Actually, if you compare this space with most of Red Blogistan, we're actually pretty damned civil: no insults directed at the personal appearance, ethnicity, or sexual adequacy of our opponents, and no imputations of national disloyalty.

  6. Whew what a relief. For a moment there you had me thinking that Althouse had written a non-idiotic post. I see I don't actually have to worry about cracks in the ground opening up and swallowing my house, at least not right away.

    Oh, and "Althouse is smarter than the average glibertarian…" is maybe okay as an English lesson, but otherwise?

  7. The ad said drinking a can of soda a day can make you 10 pounds fatter, not that it will make you 10 pounds fatter.

  8. no insults directed at the personal appearance, ethnicity, or sexual adequacy of our opponents, and no imputations of national disloyalty.

    From the previous post:

    As a Jew, I’d like to suggest that he get his circumcision reversed – which I’m told is a very painful procedure – and change his name to Christiansen, to stop being an embarrassment to the tribe. If Goldberg were on fire in the gutter where he belongs, and I had a chance to piss on him to put out the flames, I’d have to flip a coin.

  9. I think the key problem is that, for the moment, we already heavily discount private advertising claims, but do not yet dismiss government claims as quickly. You're right that we don't discount government messages the same way. Though the more government tries to push them, the more likely it is that we will. (See anti-drug ads.)

  10. I didn't read far enough in the previous post. It goes on:

    If, as John Cook did, I wrote a post about punching Goldberg’s ugly face, that would be an act of simulated violence and an invitation to acts of real violence, even if at the end I concluded that you’d be too likely to break the small bones of your hand and not nearly likely enough to reconfigure Goldberg’s nose for him.

    I have no problem with the sentiment or its expression, only with the claim of civility. "No insults directed at the personal appearance…of our opponents" in particular.

  11. "No, Brett, some of us would like the government to BE more honest, and DESERVE a better reputation. The rest of us vote Republican"

    You know, I was initially inclined to snark. Something along the lines of, "Yeah, and I'd like that proverbial pony, too." But, nah, I'll give a substantive response to that.

    Some years ago, my former boss dragged me off to a 'self-realization' seminar by Landmark Forum, an offshoot of Scientology. As you might expect, it involved being locked up in a boring room without breaks or caffeine, being harangued on the need to hit your relatives up for thousands of dollars to give them, on the theory that it would prove you were serious about improving your life. Annoying nonsense on steroids, delivered during sleep deprivation. Really annoying nonsense on stilts, a waste of a good weekend.

    But I did take out of it one really good bit of advice, which goes to show that you can find a diamond in just about any pile of trash, if you look hard enough:

    "If you want something, if you really want it, you have to honestly look at what's needed to achieve it, and do that. If you're not willing to do it, you don't really want it."

    You say you want honest government, which deserves a positive reputation. The problem is, you also want the interstate commerce clause interpreted so as to reach things neither interstate nor commerce. You also want the necessary and proper clause interpreted so as to void the whole concept of enumerated powers. You want a leviathan government under a constitution written 200 years ago for an agrarian state, by people who distrusted government a hell of a lot more than YOU do. And, so, you what an honest government which interprets it's constitution dishonestly.

    Ain't gonna happen. Logically precluded from happening, even.

    Now, if we had a constitution which actually said the things it's currently 'interpreted' to mean, you could have your honest, huge government. Not easily, since power really DOES corrupt, but it would be possible. It would require some amendments to get to there from where we are now, but it could be done, and once it was done, you could staff the judiciary with honest people without their declaring 90% of what you wanted to do unconstitutional. You could elect big government liberals who didn't have to perjure themselves during the oath of office. You could have your honest, big government, because it would be possible to staff it with honest people, once you'd freed them of the necessity of lying all the time.

    And, granted, a lot of these people don't realize they're lying. (OTOH, a lot of them do…) That's the thing about training yourself to consistently tell a lie: It involves coming to believe the lie. But, alas, also involves becoming the sort of person who is capable of believing any lie they find convenient, so that's not at all the same sort of thing as being honest.

    I'll credit that you really do want honest government. Problem is, you've got a hierarchy of things you want. And big government is way above honest government on that scale. And honest government might get in the way of big government. The needed amendments might be slow in coming, might even be rejected, and until they became part of the constitution, your big government would have to be put on hold.

    So, you're going to go on wishing for honest government, but you'll never get it, because you'll always reject it's preconditions. No, you don't really want honest government. You just like to fantasize about it.

  12. Ahh, if only we had a constitution that didn't define corporations as "persons". Oh that's right, we do. We just have a packed court full of wingnut corporate shills who pretend to read the constitution that way and smirk and give us the finger when the vast majority of us say we disagree.

    And speaking of people lying to get into office…well you know who. But nobody ever expects GOPers to tell the truth, do they?

  13. We do have a constitution which doesn't define corporations as persons. Problem is, we also have corporations which are made up of real, living and breathing, people. Which means that you can't deny those people their civil rights just because they've gotten together into a corporation.

    Especially when they've formed corporations in response to laws the government has enacted, making doing many things they're entitled to do legally perilous if they don't incorporate.

    At the time the Constitution was written, there were very few corporations, and those that there were, were more akin to what we'd call today "Port Authorities", and the like: Legally chartered monopolies. Not ordinary businesses. Nobody formed a corporation back then just because they wanted to publish a newspaper, or form a club. Today, even if a single individual wants to run a business, they incorporate.

    We don't let corporations have freedom of speech, freedom to publish, because we think corporations are people. (A legal fiction, and like all legal fictions, not really true.) We do it because the only way to shut up corporations, is to shut up people.

    Indeed, the point of shutting up corporations IS to shut up people.

  14. Swift, go back a little further, and you'll find the Scientology connection. Though perhaps "knockoff" would be more accurate than "offshoot".

  15. Brett, imho the main problem with libertarians is that they are over-cynical of government, and under-cynical of markets. So, they fail to appreciate the enormous good that government does, while under-estimating the enormous bad that unregulated business can do, or that will occur without certain government services.

    One could just as easily make the case that business is just as dishonest as government. Of course, the nice thing about markets is they often self-correct for bad practices. But the nice thing about government is that is democratic, at least in the sense that publicly elected individuals create policy, hold the purse-strings and are accountable.

    Sure, lots could (and does) go wrong with this arrangement. But I'm always struck but how Libertarians give themselves a pass on their Utopian ideals. Government is existentially corrupt, while markets are not. This always reminds me of the Utopian Marxists who are existentially opposed to markets, and have this fantasy about non-corrupt government. You pin them down on specifics, and they get squishy – just wait until the revolution, when everything will *work out*. Ditto for Libertarians: just wait, after we destroy public education, social security, medicare, along with infrastructure, everything will *work out*.

    Is it so hard to just agree that we need a mixed-economy; that markets are better for some things while government is better for others? This seems perfectly reasonable. And instead of wasting our time fighting grand existential battles, we can talk about specific programs and how to best achieve specific goals.

    There's an ad hominem air to much of the right's side of the debate: the character of government is corrupt, so we must always react against it. But this is obviously not always true, so it is a logical fallacy to declare that everything the government does must be corrupt. There are many cases of the government either doing necessary things well, or doing necessary things that markets will not or can not do.

  16. In fact, I would agree that there are things that should be done in the market, and things, (Damn few of them, but they exist…) that should be done in the government. Considering that the common thread of the latter things is that they all require extensive coercion, I think it's best that the market be kept away from them, far away, lest it be corrupted by access to that sort of power. The military being outsourced to Microsoft is something of a nightmare scenario…

    My point for Mark, though, is simply that, so long as we have the constitution we do, written as I remarked, for an agrarian society by people who dramatically disagreed with Mark about the desirable scale of government, big government and dishonest government are inextricably linked. Not because big government can't be honest government. Because big government nominally operating under a small government constitution can't be honest government.

    Big government, honest government, the current constitution. Pick two out of three, and don't delude yourselves you can have all three.

  17. We don’t let corporations have freedom of speech, freedom to publish, because we think corporations are people. (A legal fiction, and like all legal fictions, not really true.) We do it because the only way to shut up corporations, is to shut up people.

    For the umpteenth time, Brett, this is nonsense. Shut up Microsoft and Bill Gates can still say whatever he wants.

    In any case, there is a huge difference between an ordinary business corporation and a voluntary membership association that finds it convenient to organize as a corporation. To treat them the same is like treating motorcycles and airliners the same because both are motorized transportation vehicles. So the Court said, "Gee, there's no way to let Brett and his pals get together and support candidates unless we let General Electric do the same." That makes no sense.

  18. "In any case, there is a huge difference between an ordinary business corporation and a voluntary membership association that finds it convenient to organize as a corporation."

    In that case, why was McCain/Feingold deliberately written to apply to both?

    "Shut up Microsoft and Bill Gates can still say whatever he wants."

    Bill Gates is A FREAKING BILLIONAIRE. He doesn't have to get together with a bunch of people who agree with him to buy airtime, or pay for a full page ad in the paper. Is that your usual metric, for judging laws? "Does it unduly burden Bill Gates?"

  19. Brett, this is off-topic, but Erhard had a whole raft of influences, of which Scientology was only one. He came to believe Hubbard was wrong about basic principles and made clear distinctions between est and Scientology. Ultimately Erhard was put on Scientology's enemies list and endured considerable harassment from the group. As far as I can determine, the relationship between Landmark and Scientology is hostile; the only connection is an indirect one, through Erhard and his early association with Scientology. (I'm not an Erhard fan by any means; I just find him an interesting character. And I have no association with Landmark.)

  20. Of course it's a hostile relationship, they're competing cults. That Erhard decided not to set up his cult as a 'religion' the way Howard did doesn't change where Erhard learned the basics of starting and running a cult. I've read enough about cult induction to have figured what was going on when they didn't allow us time to get a reasonable amount of sleep.

  21. Brett, you're as informed about cult induction as you are about government, which is to say, you're bi-ignorant (at least.) But it would be nice if you were consistently ignorant, rather than changing what you say to respond to disagreement.

    In any case, the argument about Microsoft that you completely ignore, is that I cannot compete against them. Nor can you. Nor can any non-commerical group or association. No matter how I try to organize, there is more money in corporate America, than in private America. And the Supreme Court has OKed this state of affairs as regard to political funding. If you had the intellectual honesty of a burning turd, you would try to understand the arguments and respond to the actual, you know, ARGUMENT, rather than a possibly poorly chosen example.

  22. "Not because big government can’t be honest government. Because big government nominally operating under a small government constitution can’t be honest government."

    So let's look at at three of the biggest government expenditures: social security, medicare and public education. Is it that they are somehow corrupt, or that you just don't like them? And if they are corrupted, how would you either rewrite the constitution to "uncorrupt" them, or how would you have markets provide the same services? (And simply contracting private industry isn't a market solution. Medicare already works mainly through private contracts, social security is a simple cash payment. Public schooling requires public funds – no matter who does it. And I won't bother getting into the weeds of why it isn't any more effective anyway – and certainly as corrupted).

  23. "In any case, the argument about Microsoft that you completely ignore, is that I cannot compete against them. "

    A classic example of Libertarians picking and choosing coercive behavior. Obviously, requiring businesses to serve minorities is coercive, but so is allowing them not to – just in a different way. All of the ways in which unfettered markets limit freedom are routinely ignored…

  24. In that case, why was McCain/Feingold deliberately written to apply to both?

    Is that supposed to be an argument?

  25. While I somehow suspect you'd have an easy time making a cohort of healthy adults gain ten pounds by feeding them a soda a day for a year, it is (as you touch on) not simply a matter of thermodynamics.

    Implying that you'll lose ten pounds in a year by ingesting 150 fewer calories a day is a bit like saying you'll gain 300 waking hours over the course of a year by going to bed at midnight instead of eleven. Strictly speaking it's true, but the number of caveats involved make it nearly meaningless.

  26. An observation, which if you thought seriously about, might make you realize what a bit of misdirection all this complaining about political speech by profit making corporations really is. ADM is the excuse. Your "voluntary membership organizations" were the real target of campaign censorship all along.

  27. Brett,

    I'm not engaging in any misdirection. Be angry at someone else.

    Do I take it you agree there is a meaningful distinction to be made between different types of corporations?

  28. Indeed, there is a meaningful distinction to be made between different types of corporations. Or else there's only be *one* type of corporation. I simply deny that, for purposes of 1st amendment analysis, it is a relevant distinction.

  29. "Althouse is smarter than the average glibertarian; …"

    "I have read Althouse, on and off, for a couple of years, and I’ve never yet seen anything that would cause me or any reasonable and reasonably intelligent person to believe her to be a “professional government-hater”."

    In fact she had a rather public fuss-fight with the libertarians at reason.com a few years ago:

    Grande "Conservative" Blogress Diva Ann Althouse Among the "True Believers" —What Really Happened?

  30. Let's ban junk food! That kills shitloadfs of people.

    You don't think it would ever happen?

    What do you think they were saying about indoor smoking, tobacco, alcohol, etc.?

    Tobacco's already well on it's way to being illegal.

    Just how many vices should be abolished?

    I guess the greater good is all that counts.

    So much for personal privacy, bodily rights, and all that jazz.

    Mark Kleiman: Heartless utilitarian.

  31. Charles, there you go confusing Mark with facts. Why should Mark care about facts, when he has such a wonderful imagination?

  32. As I understand it, the difficulty with soda is the same difficulty with all beverages, of which soda is the most common: for some reason, the body doesn't "count" liquid calories, and still wants its needed calories from solid food. This means that, for many people, calories by soda are almost by definition "excess" calories. Not a big deal if you don't drink a lot of soda or drink diet soda or are a marathon runner or a skinny high school kid with a furiously high metabolism, but kind of condquential for most other people. Feeding juice to toddlers has the same effect, and tends to be the "gateway" to a childhood soda habit.

    As for corporations being composed of individual people — not hardly. "Shareholders" are sometimes people, sometimes trusts, sometimes other corporations, and so on — but the point is — shares are units of ownership interest, and it is the number of shares, not the number of shareholders — that comprises what we call a corporation.

  33. I simply deny that, for purposes of 1st amendment analysis, it is a relevant distinction.

    Of course it's relevant. In a public corporation there is absolutely no reason to think the shareholders share management's political views. Indeed, there is, in many cases, the shareholders don't even know they are shareholders. A restriction on corporate contributions simply prevents corporate managers from using other people's money to help candidates the managers support. Where is the 1st Amendment violation?

  34. Bernard and Phil, you are absolutely right. Another example of organization officers extracting money from unwilling stakeholders to take political positions they oppose is, of course, unions.

  35. Mark —

    I didn't say the ad was "dishonest." I wrote that the story shows that government officials, like corporate executives, will place pressure on scientists to justify advertising or messages that conform to a predetermined message. We readily expect this sort of thing to go on within corporations. That's why, as some have noted above, most people discount corporate messages. One reason to hold government to a higher standard is that many people are not as inherently skeptical of government messages and such messages are not subject to the market discipline that restrains (but does not prevent) fraudulent corporate messages.

    JHA

  36. dave schutz,

    I'm no labor law expert, but I do know your claim about unions is not strictly true. To the extent it is true I sympathize with the complaint.

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