Physical health and health

The NYT gives us the health facts about margarine and butter. Bottom line: “Margarine generally contains less fat and cholesterol than butter, but it is not ideal.” I’ll say, and not because of it’s trans fats. It’s a fairly short story, but nowhere in it does the author recognize that how they taste might have anything to do with the choice; indeed, the recommendation is to use olive or canola oil. Sure, but to spread on a piece of nice bread? To fry an omelet?

When I was a kid, my mother served margarine (mostly for reasons of cost) on vegetables and fried with it, but put out butter for bread. I realized that her baked potatoes never tasted as good as the ones at school, and began a really elaborate research project, grilling the school cook to find out exactly how she cooked them. Nothing worked; then my mom volunteered to work in the kitchen a few hours a week during a time of budget crisis and learned that the melted fat they poured over the potatoes on your plate was butter – from the government school food program, of course. I can enjoy a Wendy’s baked potato with the high-tech marge they give out, but butter on a spud is just a whole lot better than margarine. Hedonic utility is utility and food is good; good food is better and won’t kill you, but it will help to make life worth living.

I think the implication of the Times story, that diet should be optimized for physical health, is as nuts as the idea that one should ruin one’s health at a young age eating junk. A body is something to wear out at an efficient rate over a lifetime. Why is it obvious to so many people that they should give up all their favorite foods in order to die slowly from things that hurt a lot (cancer, mostly) a few years later, rather than a nice quick cheap coronary?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.