What constitues “the political”?

An article in the January 12, 2004 edition of the New York Times got me thinking about an important question: what constitutes “the political?” To say that some problem is appropriate for the realm of public policy is one thing, but that may not mean it is a political problem. There might be political dimensions and consequences to an issue, but that is another matter.

The article, “East Meets West, Adding Pounds to Peril,” by Marc Santora, was the last in a four-part series on diabetes. I did not read the entire series, but this article with an above-the-fold front-page lead caught my eye. It deals with the epidemic of diabetes, in particular among Asian immigrant communities. According to the piece, at the same weight, Asians are 60% more likely to develop Type-2 diabetes than whites.

“And that peril is compounded by recent immigrants’ sudden collision with American culture. Many of them left places where factory and field work was strenuous, televisions were rare and advertising was limited. They may speak little English and have poor access to medical care.”

The article chronicles one family in particular, looking at the exposure of two of the family’s children and what they face in terms of food choices in their neighborhood, at their schools, and through advertising generally.

This problem among recent Asian immigrants is important as a particular issue related to this community to be sure. But this is a small episode within a much larger text about the causes and consequences of Americans’ deteriorating nutrition, especially the explosion of our waistlines. Anybody who saw Supersize Me! came away with the definite impression that there must be some kind of a conspiracy among fast-food companies to simply make us fat. I recall that, after the film was released, a spokesperson for McDonalds said that most Americans do not eat all of their meals at McDonald, and that the experience of the filmmaker was little more than a disingenuous stunt designed solely to make McDonalds look bad.

In these times, we’ve seen the emergence of a movement—a lawsuit movement—as a way to “fight back.” People are beginning to sue fast-food companies, claiming that Pizza Hut, KFC, McDonalds, and Wendys (among others) are responsible for their obesity. Their targeted advertising and cheap food are simply too easy to get. Like tobacco companies, fast food should be held responsible for fast-food addiction.

If lawsuits like this were to be sucessful (for the plaintiffs), what is the ultimate message? Should the government intervene to regulate the fast-food industry? Perhaps they should be forced to make their offerings more nutritious—or at least not as bad for us. Or, is this “problem” entirely a matter of personal choice and responsibility? If someone chooses to eat poorly, and suffers from obesity and the health risks that entails, isn’t that her own fault?

I would like to think about this question in terms of its political dimensions. What role should government play in alleviating this problem? What role have they played in actually constituting the problem in the first place? What is the line between respecting people’s individual tastes and “needs” (fulfilled though a market mechanism) and regulating access to those things that are potentially harmful? Was the message in Supersize Me! that the content of the typical McDonalds should be regulated?

I think that would be going too far. While there might be a problem here, perhaps governmental regulation in this particular case is not the solution. People do need to be better educated, perhaps, about the content of the food they eat—thus, McDonalds and nearly every other fast-food company makes available to its customers some disclosure about the nutritional content of their food. I am not sure if this was a result of legislation, or it making such information available was the result of pressure from other sources (nutrition and health advocates, for example).

Going back to the New York Times article, with regard to children and the epidemic of obesity, I there was an indication of some facts that do point us to instances where “the political” is most decidedly implicated, in creating conditions wherein needs are created and satisfied due to actions undertaken by government itself. The article cites a problem within the New York public school system, but it is by no means limited to New York City—it is nationwide. Due to resource constraints (a fancy way to say “budget cuts,” or, perhaps more pointedly, “public neglect”) many schools have had to eliminate or cut physical education programs (what we used to simply call “gym class”), in some cases to levels that are illegal. While law mandates that kids are supposed to get two hours a week of physical education, this particular school’s kids only get 50 minutes. According to the article, “The sad state of the school gym class is a legacy of the city’s fiscal crisis in the 1970’s, when the budget for physical education was slashed to protect other academic programs. But New York’s plight is not much worse than the rest of the country’s.” It goes on:

“Even as the health authorities pronounced obesity a national epidemic, daily participation in gym classes dropped to 28 percent in 2003 from 42 percent in 1991, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the Bush administration recently proposed cutting Physical Education Program grants to schools by more than one-quarter, to $55 million, though Congress rejected the proposal.”

These same cuts have led many public school systems to turn to “market-based solutions” to meet their budget shortfalls. We’ve all heard about this, and the point was well covered (I believe) in the bestselling Fast Food Nation, which looked into the economic, social and political contexts within which poor nutritional trends have thrived.

In order to meet budgets, school systems turned to the market. Sole-source contracts with soft-drink vendors and companies were rewarded with all kinds of goodies. I recall one story about the installation in every classroom of closed-circuit television—ostensibly for the development of “high-tech” education. But all the programs were peppered with, in this case, ads for Coca-Cola products. Of course, well-placed Coke machines were readily available to fulfill the needs created by the advertisements.

Here we see three instances wherein government not only has created a context for the problem to develop, but also seen to it that solutions by the State would be difficult if not impossible, thus forcing a market-based solution. First, tax cutting has led to budget cutting in public education. Second, school systems have been forced to the market to meet their needs—and those solutions come with a price. Finally—and the article touches upon this, but it has been covered extensively elsewhere, as I believe it was in Fast Food Nation: the long-term impact of government subsidies to corn growers, which has created the cheapest “food” imaginable—high-fructose corn syrup. As the article points out,

“Underwritten by roughly $40 billion in federal subsidies paid to corn growers in the past 10 years alone, it is now so cheap that it has all but replaced cane sugar as the sweetener of choice in processed foods.

“The syrup has been singled out by many health experts as one of the chief culprits in the rise of obesity. Its inexpensiveness, they say, has helped soda producers create the larger portions that have led to overconsumption. It is so versatile, they say, that it now shows up in many foods that would not have been sweetened at all in the past.

“There is wide disagreement among scientists over some studies indicating that high-fructose corn syrup can hinder the body’s ability to process sugar, and can promote faster fat growth than sweeteners derived from cane sugar.

“What no one disputes, however, is that since the advent of the syrup, consumption of all sweeteners has soared; the average American’s intake has increased about 35 percent, according to the Federal Department of Agriculture. And a 2004 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that the rise of Type 2 diabetes since 1980 had closely paralleled the increased use of sweeteners, particularly corn syrup.

“Food industry officials say there is nothing wrong with the syrup as long as people eat it in moderation.”

Again, we see the McDonald’s argument from Supersize Me! The company doesn’t thing that people should be eating at McDonald’s three times a day…it’s all about personal responsibility.

I have most likely gone on far too long on this topic. The point is this: in asking about a problem or issue of public concern, “what constitutes the political?” the problem of poor nutrition in the United States—and its impact on the skyrocketing risk for negative health consequences, such as diabetes—offers some insights. And while we probably won’t get too far in calling for the regulation of corn sweeteners and fast food restaurants, certainly in the case of what we’re doing to our children in a public school setting is cause for alarm.

Citizens need to begin to connect the dots. Of course parents have a role to play in, for example, encouraging their children to eat better. But if what was true “back in the day” holds true today—namely that school meal programs are among the most economical ways for kids to meet their nutritional needs—many parents have little choice that to accept what their kids are getting at school. And the structural factors that lead to this problem—like cash-starved school systems having to contract to turn institutions of learning into marketplaces for captive customers whose “consumer sovereignty” is most certainly ameliorated by their lack of reason and judgment—most certainly limit individual parents’ ability to do anything about it.

This is a public problem, requiring public solutions. In some cases, the “market” does more harm than good. The state, though its power of regulation and fiscal policy, creates spaces for market forces to operate. When they do so to the detriment of the greater good, it’s time to rethink our priorities.

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~ by de cive on January 15, 2006.

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