Coronary Capitalism

FRANKFURT – A systematic and broad failure of regulation is the elephant in the room when it comes to reforming today’s Western capitalism. Yes, much has been said about the unhealthy political-regulatory-financial dynamic that led to the global economy’s heart attack in 2008 (initiating what Carmen Reinhart and I call “The Second Great Contraction”). But is the problem unique to the financial industry, or does it exemplify a deeper flaw in Western capitalism?

Consider the food industry, particularly its sometimes-malign influence on nutrition and health. Obesity rates are soaring around the entire world, though, among large countries, the problem is perhaps most severe in the United States. According the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly one-third of US adults are obese (indicated by a body mass index above 30). Even more shockingly, more than one in six children and adolescents are obese, a rate that has tripled since 1980. (Full disclosure: my spouse produces a television and Web show, called kickinkitchen.tv, aimed at combating childhood obesity.)

Of course, the problems of the food industry have been vigorously highlighted by experts on nutrition and health, including Michael Pollan and David Katz, and certainly by many economists as well. And there are numerous other examples, across a wide variety of goods and services, where one could find similar issues. Here, though, I want to focus on the food industry’s link to broader problems with contemporary capitalism (which has certainly facilitated the worldwide obesity explosion), and on why the US political system has devoted remarkably little attention to the issue (though First Lady Michelle Obama has made important efforts to raise awareness).

Obesity affects life expectancy in numerous ways, ranging from cardiovascular disease to some types of cancer. Moreover, obesity – certainly in its morbid manifestations – can affect quality of life. The costs are borne not only by the individual, but also by society – directly, through the health-care system, and indirectly, through lost productivity, for example, and higher transport costs (more jet fuel, larger seats, etc.).