Too Much Money

Is affluence the reason for so many of our problems?

It may seem a bit unnatural, but more and more of our social problems and complaints stem from our affluence, not our poverty. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson made that point last week—unintentionally, to be sure—when he announced that obesity now rivals smoking as the largest cause of premature death. The Centers for Disease Control reckons that obesity contributes to about 400,000 deaths annually, just behind tobacco (435,000) and ahead of alcohol (85,000), car accidents (43,000) and guns (29,000). Obesity and its complications—more diabetes and heart disease, for instance—now account for an estimated 9 percent of U.S. health spending. When we were poorer, obesity was not a big problem.

The supposed villains here are fast-food restaurants and food companies that have supersized us to corpulence. There's some truth to this, but the larger and more boring truth is that food's gotten cheaper, and as a result, we consume more of it—and more away from home. In 1950, Americans devoted a fifth of their disposable incomes to food (and less than a fifth of that to eating out). Now food's share is a tenth (and almost half is out). We eat what pleases us, and so why should anyone be surprised that the average American now consumes about 150 pounds of sugar and sweeteners annually, up roughly 20 percent since 1980? The only saving grace is that some of the extra food "is thrown away—otherwise, all Americans would weigh 300 pounds," says Roland Sturm, an obesity expert at the Rand Corp.

It's odd to me that standards of living, ideas about wealth, and societal behaviors all change over time – yet we act like they don't. We are probably better off now than we have ever been, but to listen to the political bickering, you would think this country is on the verge of extinction.