Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The myth of the rational actor in the marketplace: obesity

Conservatives in Congress believe in limited government and that if left alone, the rational actors in the market will sort things out to create a level playing field for everyone. Seems logical, right? But does that match reality?

The rational actor is the card that is almost always played in debates on the free market. Is the market really free? Not really. We need third party arbiters of transactions to keep transactions fair. They're the banks and transaction processors. Banks include Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Bank of America to name a few familiar names.

Transaction processors also include Visa, MasterCard and Paypal. They provide 3rd party verification of the transaction so that we don't get into a he said-she said fight over who pay how much for what. There are checks and balances between them and us. For the most part these systems work and work well. Sometimes there are problems, but the fees paid for the transactions processed pay for arbitration when things don't go right.

So far, we can see rational actors.

Now close your eyes and recall the last time you were at your favorite supermarket. Your Vons, Albertsons, what-have-you. You're in the checkout line. You see rows and rows of candy, magazines, gadgets and energy drinks. Just in case you missed them before, these items are ready for your consumption. Have you made up your mind yet? Or are you going to pass on all that goodness?

Now look at the people in front of you and the people in front of you. Check out their carts. Economy size bags of Fritos? Check. 24-can packs of Diet Coke? Check. 4 or 5 pounds of red meat? Check. Overweight? Check.

I've seen the match between the shopping cart and the body, and it's fairly consistent. I've seen the giant displays of junk food at the supermarket the week just before the Super Bowl. We are not talking rational here. We are talking super-sized eating for recreation.

No animal on Earth eats for recreation except humans. Animals eat food that regulates intake automatically. They know when they're full and when they've had enough. They know how to conserve energy between meals, too.

Two-thirds of the American population are overweight. One third is obese, with a BMI index of greater than 30. Tell me how rational that is. Worldwide, we make enough food to feed 10 billion people. About half the food we create will go to waste. Why? Because the rest of the world doesn't have enough money to buy it.

Watch any golf or talking heads program on Sunday. You'll ads from Monsanto, ADM and DuPont telling us how they're feeding the world. What they don't say is that they're using genetically modified seeds to do it. Seeds for crops that have insecticide built in, that you can't wash off. Seeds that are almost completely unprofitable for the family farmer to grow because the seeds can't be saved to grow the next crop without breaking the terms of the license for the seeds. Farmers are committing suicide in India because they can't feed their families with money earned from growing these seeds.

Feeding the world, huh?

Top that off with lobbying in the US that makes it almost impossible to pass a federal law that requires the labeling of genetically modified food. Is a misinformed market rational? Can it ever be rational? Just ask states like Vermont, Hawaii and Washington. The states are rebelling, but Monsanto assures us that they will prevail in court. Monsanto actually wants us to remain ignorant of the types of seeds used to grow the food. Why? We won't buy it if we see the label.

Oh, wait. That might be rational.
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