I have some thoughts about the coincidence of debates about income inequality and obesity. I present no quantitative correlation about the two, but only that both seem to figure prominently in the news of recent years. At least in my experience, they seem to gain more public attention today than when I was younger. Although this is likely a large part due to my becoming more interested in social issues as I get older, I’m curious about whether there may be a connection, a common variable that ties them together.
Of the two, I think the rise in rates of obesity (as measured by BMI) has better quantitative support.
As an aside, I tend to disagree that the BMI break-points are meaningful: BMI-overweight is not overweight and BMI-obese is not obese. Also, I tend to suspect the health concerns about being overweight or low-end obesity. I am not a medical professional and the professionals assure us there is significant risks for these categories. I defer to their expertise and accept their advice in spite of my doubts.
It is easier to be convinced that the distribution of BMI for the population has shifted toward the upper end since my youth. I also understand that this has been true across many nations including those much less affluent than USA. For this discussion, though I’m considering only this trend within this country. People today seem to have higher BMI measures today than they might have had if they lived a half-century earlier. I’ll take that as my first assumption.
Income inequality is harder to quantify. In my casual reading on the subject, I have seen conflicting claims about how much there is, and how severe it is. Personally, I recognize a personal bias in envying the incomes of others (even when I had an income), in particular I envied the incomes of working couples whose combined two salaries compared with my one salary. Also, I’ve lived long enough to experience events where someone who is now earning well was previously someone I considered a peer in terms of earning potential. My experience is not unique for someone in their mid-50s. These observations bias me toward more sympathy for the arguments that income inequality is increasing and is a bad thing.
I argued previously that a lot of the debate about Income Inequality is a debate with the rich on one side and the very rich on the other. Rich people argue persuasively that they are middle-class victims of a much higher paid minority. In that earlier argument, I suggested that the rich are competing for a very limited pool of luxury goods such as exclusive invitations, exotic locations, or rare commodities. The extremely rich are hoarding these luxury goods making those goods inaccessible to the rich. For non-luxury goods, there does not seem to be as much competition. I have as good of access to grocery store produce as they do, and I am not (yet) complaining about affording them.
I do recognize inequality in gross assets. I will never be able to afford the newly constructed house on a neighboring lot. That house has at least 4 times as much floor space as my place, and is a modern construction and design compared to my older home designed for more modest living. Other than the feeling that the new house dramatically changes the character of the neighborhood of modest homes, I do not feel a sense of envy for equality. I don’t want a house that size and luxury. Eventually I will sell my house and whoever will buy it will probably not share my ambivalence: they will feel a need to compete for luxury status. Inevitably, the modest-homes of the neighborhood will all be replaced with larger ones.
By the way, I am not really talking about mansions, the new houses are not at all unusual in many suburban developments marketed to middle class buyers. It is just that this style of house are appearing in redevelopments in an urban setting that originally offered more modest housing.
My observation remains that Income Equality is really an argument about access to luxury rather than about access to a comfortable living. As of now, I don’t see the extremely rich as being a threat to my access to a comfortable life, although I am very aware that they are making it increasingly difficult for me to access luxuries. Personally, I don’t care.
Another mystery to me about income inequality is why the argument is about income. To me, affording that large neighboring house requires wealth not income. When I observe inequality, I’m observing wealth, not income. Wealth to me is savings. Savings is a product of historic earnings or asset appreciation, not a matter of current income.
Very wealthy people may not need any income. The inequality can not be that they are making more money. They can still hoard luxury goods without earning any income. They have wealth.
From my perspective, I always imagined that the highest goal is to not need an income at all. I do not aspire to a huge income because that still requires me to devote my time to whoever is giving me the income.
If my life had been more successful, my dream would be to be writing this from some mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean with the nearest neighbor a half mile away. To enjoy that luxury, I would not want to be burdened with having to work for some income.
I am not representative of most of my fellow citizens. In particular, I have a much higher respect for savings and a much higher disgust for debt than most other people. More common, in my opinion, is to embrace debt as a means to realize a good life.
I have not met my new neighbor in the new house, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they acquired the house with a loan for 80% of the value of that house. They may even be comfortable paying interest-only payments. In contrast, I would prefer to pay cash for that place, or pay off any loan within just a couple years.
I see wealth as what I own free of debt. Despite my aversion to the contrary, my experience tells me that embracing debt is a good strategy for a more comfortable life. It is just that my own experience has not convinced me to change my attitude about debt.
I contrast my perspective with the more common concept of wealth in terms of being able to afford the debt payments. I suspect this is why I have a hard time complaining about income inequality. To me, the real complaint is wealth inequality. My aversion to debt prevents me from equating income to wealth.
The better advice (at least in the period I lived) is to embrace debt to the maximum extent possible for what the present income can support. This advice converts wealth into income. You are as wealthy as whatever debt your income can support. In this case, wealth is limited by income. Income equality equates to wealth inequality when debt makes wealth (or at least its appearance) possible.
The subject of this post is the connection between modern complaints of both increased obesity rates and increased income inequality. I think there is a common hidden variable that connects the two. That common connection is consumption inequality.
As I mentioned in my inequality post, the bulk of the published arguments about inequality appear to concern competition for limited luxury goods. The core inequality rich people complaining about the hoarding of luxuries by the very rich. The rich people use their influence in an attempt to enlist the wider population whose basic comforts are readily accessible.
Someone earning 1000 times more income is not preventing me from enjoying a decent meal. To make the argument that income inequality affects me, I need to be convinced to want something that is of more limited supply, something that is out of my reach. I need to want that bigger house in the better neighborhood, or I need to want finer foods prepared by culinary master chefs. I need to want to eat out every night and at the finest restaurants.
Once I am convinced that I want to be rich, then I join the debate about income inequality taking the side of the rich against the very rich. I become even more valuable in the argument because my frustrations are even much larger than the rich. I complain about the very rich not because the very rich are hoarding the highest luxuries, but because I am unable to even be rich in the first place to want such luxuries.
Most people are not in a position to obtain million dollar jumbo-mortgages in order to join the ranks of the rich. Nor are they going to be getting their daily meals at five-star restaurants. But there remains within our culture an ideal to enjoy a wealthy lifestyle. Being able to meet basic needs is not enough.
In my lifetime, we had previously had an argument about the excesses of consumerism. I don’t hear as much complaint about that any more. My recollection of the consumerism complaint concerned how it encouraged excessive consumption, usually of durable goods (like appliances) or semi-durable goods (such as clothing). Excessive consumption was a bad thing. Now that I mention it, this debate must have had an influence on me. It may help explain my being content with a more minimalist lifestyle.
I do not doubt the old arguments against consumerism persist to this day, but those debates do not catch my attention now nearly as much as the debates about income inequality or obesity.
One of the observations about obesity is the irony that obesity rates increases as affluence decreases. A popular explanation is that it takes money to avoid obesity, as if our natural fate is to be obese unless we have money. The arguments suggest that richer people have more free time and money to spend on exercise gyms, and they eat finer foods that are less fattening.
I am not convinced of that. Many so-called obese people have active jobs that involve more daily exercise than the typical office worker with sedentary job duties and lengthy commutes. Also, it is my impression that the rich enjoy meals with calories that make up for any calories lost in their gym sessions.
I offer a separate explanation involving the perception of income inequality. I think the debate about income inequality is really about consumption inequality. I can’t believe most people care about the portions of incomes that are completely reinvested in businesses or stocks. They care mostly about visible displays of income through consumption.
There is a difference between having wealth and experiencing wealth. Some very wealthy people live modest lives. Many others are more interested in experiencing wealth instead of just having it. I mentioned already ways to experience wealthy through property or expensive activities. Sometimes we call these as displaying wealth, or showing off as a form of establishing status.
An equal or even more powerful motivation is the self-satisfaction that comes from experiencing wealth. There is an enjoyment in experiencing something that is difficult to attain or exceeds what is absolutely necessary. A house for example needs only to provide shelter and basic comforts, but experiencing wealth means having abundant space and dedicated rooms for different functions, many of which are not absolutely essential for a house. Again, it may be a pleasure to show this space off to others, but there must be some significant pleasure obtained from private enjoyment of the space, as most of the time the house is occupied solely by the owners.
I am suggesting that there is a culture that prizes the experience of wealth. People want to experience wealth even when that experience requires large debts. All as is fine as long as the income can support the debt. This is how income inequality becomes wealth inequality. But the root is neither about income nor about wealth. It is about experiencing wealth. It is about consumption. Wealth in the form of long term investments in forms that offer no immediate enjoyment is not relevant to this need. Enjoying wealth means wealth contributes to the present experience.
Thus I reason that complaints about income inequality are really about a special form of wealth inequality. The root of the complaint is the inequality in ability to experience wealth. We set up for class conflict because of a sense of unequal access to wealthy experiences. At the same time, we set up a culture that emphasizes the value of wealthy experiences. That culture is consumerism.
It is hard to tell which came first. Maybe consumerism came first to set up the ideal of wealthy experience and that set up the possibility of frustration for not being able to have as much access to that experience as others. We then seek to limit income equality with the goal of more equality to access to the good life.
The current debate about income inequality (especially with its potential to service more debt) may be just a repackaging of the older debate about consumerism. The name changed because consumerism was an argument against excessive consumerism while income inequality is an argument for more equitable access to wealth-enhanced experiences. Apparently the opposing argument for consumerism won and now the argument is about how equitably consumerism should be shared.
Our current culture prizes access to wealthy experiences.
Most people will not have incomes to incur very large debts to afford large houses or elaborate vacations. These people will still seek to enjoy a wealthy experience with the resources they have available. Even at lower incomes, there may be barely affordable debts to have a slightly nicer home, but that is unlikely enough to experience wealth. People want to experience something they can recognize as a form of wealth. They want this experience to occur as frequently as possible, just like wealthy people can enjoy their wealth on a daily basis.
One way to experience wealth is through food.
Especially for adults, it does not take much food or variety to satisfy the daily nutritional needs. In some poorer locations, physical laborer’s meal may consist of some soup and bread. It does not take too much to replace the calories lost from the labor. Anything more than that will be a luxury.
Long before I was thinking of this inequality argument, I have been amazed at what seems to be the relatively recent fascination with gourmet foods. There is tremendous interest in culinary arts, cookbooks, TV celebrity chefs, and shared exotic recipes.
Many of these recipes produce large quantities. The recipes may not even work right unless the quantities are large enough. Also, many of these culinary creations are best enjoyed when consumed immediately. Overnight refrigeration and reheating will degrade the experience either in visual presentation or in the taste. Even if that were acceptable, the goal is to have something entirely different the next day. The result is that the meal needs to be eaten immediately and when shared among generally smaller families, everyone has to eat a larger portion.
The fascination is not limited to a single meal, but instead every meal of the day is an opportunity to produce a culinary experience. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, desert each has their signature opportunities for wealthy experiences. The drive for wealthy experiences through eating involves variety and novelty. As mentioned above creating these dishes can lead to larger portion sizes. The drive to novelty also leads to creations involving more ingredients including calorie rich ingredients needed to fill out the experience. For example, a beignet needs the finishing touch of being covered in powered sugar to complete the presentation.
With the internet, we have easier access to clever recipes and with high resolution pictures of finished dishes that are both beautiful and appetizing. We also have access to high quality videos showing the step by step instructions. We are encouraged to try it ourselves. There are so many options, we could make a different one every night and not repeat anything for a year.
These are recipes that are accessible to many people. Most require ingredients that are not hard to obtain. The main limitation is access to time to prepare the meal, but this less of a limitation if one of the partners is not employed. It does not take much wealth to experience wealth by having nice meals.
If time is a constraint, an alternative way to experience a wealth is to have larger portions of simpler creations. A plate that is piled high with something simple like spaghetti and meat sauce can substitute for an elegant creation for the purpose of experiencing wealth. Quantity substitutes for quality. The end result is still a feeling of satisfaction of experiencing something that seems wealthy.
It is pretty hard to escape this culture that promotes wealthy eating through bountiful or calorie rich foods.
Ironically, I found that it is easier to escape the quantity by going to richer restaurants or grocers that put a premium on small portions. Many of the finer meals serve each item on a small plate that still seems far too large for the portion. Part of the appeal of presentation is more plate than food. In contrast, less expensive restaurants serve larger plates more completely covered with food.
Even when going to the grocery store, it is hard to find items that would make a minimum serving for one individual. Stores of course cater to their customers. What they put out on shelves get bought. Over the past many years, the portions seem to get larger, and I suspect because they are catering to some popular cooking trend that needs to work with larger items. It is hard to find small potions that I would prefer. Consequently, it is hard to avoid making a meal for 2-3 times more people than mouths that need feeding. These get purchased. The fancier recipe is followed. The limited dinner party will eat the entire creation. The goal is to experience wealth frequently through the experience of dining. By accident, the result is ingesting more calories.
I noted before that the inequality of consumption is more about the desire to experience wealth than a desire to show off wealth. For houses or cars, its easy to confuse the two concepts. Big houses and fancy cars catch people’s attention even if that is not the intention. Coincidentally, the experience of wealth through eating creates larger bodies. I am not sure if that not also the intent. I have encountered exhortations that I should put on some more weight for example. Perhaps displaying larger body sizes has a benefit of provoking the observation that one must be eating well (in terms of wealth if not health). I would tend to think it is an unintended consequence of the more basic need to enjoy the experience of wealthy eating.
We observe more obesity in lower income people and a higher prevalence of obesity in less affluent communities. They may not be actively concerned about the debate of income inequality (of the very rich having more than the rich), but they are sharing in the same culture that prizes experiences of wealth. The very rich satisfy that need with their wealth. The merely rich satisfy that need through income-supported debts. Many of the rest find satisfaction of this need through their food in elaborate creations or in bountiful quantities (if not both).
If we were to outgrow this phases of glorifying wealthy experiences we may simultaneously reduce the complaints of income inequality (when income is used primarily for investments), and reduce the obesity consequence of experiencing wealth through eating. My idle thought of the day.