Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Friday, August 7, 2009


In 2002, when Megan McArdle was Jane Galt, McArdle wrote a post about obesity that acknowledged it was bad for your health.

A new study shows that obesity is worse for health than smoking or drinking, raising a person’s healthcare costs by 36% and medication costs by 77%.

I find this interesting for two reasons. First, because, as the article points out, advocates are much less vocal about smoking and drinking than they are about obesity, even though an astounding 61% of Americans are overweight or obese, at least according to this article. I wonder whether this is because they know they'll get shot down if they even try to enact the kind of puritan legislation that has effectively banned smoking in many places, or because obesity is harder to address.

Recently McArdle wrote that while some of her views had changed, she still agreed with the following:

At the moment, it's unclear whether there are any adverse health effects associated with overweight or even mild obesity, and to the extent that there are adverse effects, it is also unclear whether they are a result of the body fat, or a proxy for fitness levels and eating habits

The emphasis on the visible proxy (obesity) is counterproductive in promoting healthier eating and exercise. Health has simply been approximated as a euphemism used by those pursuing society's ever-more-unrealistic expectations about weight. No matter what they say about being healthy, most people exercise to get thinner/more cut. If they don't get thinner, they may give up.

The emphasis on the visible proxy may actually encourage counterproductive behavior. Upper class young women still smoke to stay thin (or go back when they gain post-quitting pounds); people take dangerous diet pills. There is some evidence that weight cycling (yo-yo dieting) leads to higher mortality, either directly, or because it increases your likelihood of becoming morbidly obese.

The difference in observable mortality between people fifteen pounds apart (which seems to be at the edge of sustainable weight loss) is not large enough to merit either the hysterical headlines about America's weight gain, or really even dieting unless you're already afflicted with diabetes and heart disease.

McArdle did this once before that I can remember. In this post she ignores a study she had previously mentioned to make her point. Maybe she read it and forgot about it then and is forgetting again (she's not getting any younger), but we are no longer inclined to give McArdle the benefit of the doubt. The rest of McArdle's post defends fast food corporations against attack, to no one's surprise.

The other reason that I find this interesting is that with the amazing popularity of Fast Food Nation, which in essence accuses the fast food industry of manipulating consumers to make them fat, not to mention quack weight loss nostrums, I think we're going to see more activism on this front. While I haven't read the book, I've read his article in The Atlantic and seen him on television, and his thesis seems to be that our weight problem isn't our fault -- it's the fault of the fast food industry, which manipulates us to eat enormous portions of unhealthy food.

I find it ultimately unconvincing, although as I say, the argument may be more subtle in the book. On television, he tells us that portions get larger and larger -- which is true -- without pointing out that the reason this is so is that consumers like them that way. While I agree that portion size has something to do with our current epidemic of obesity -- people tend to eat what they're given, rather than stopping when they're full -- all those fast food places have smaller portions on the menu. People choose the supersize double-quarterpounder meals.

McArdle is consistent in one area: She believes hunger is a type of addiction, too powerful to overcome.

The anti-fat crusaders will be fighting something even more powerful than nicotine addiction: a billion years of evolution. We crave fat and sugar because in a scarcity environment, they are the most intense source of energy. This is not news to anyone.

But with Fast Food Nation, we've taken the first step towards a public health crusade: offloading the blame from individuals onto corporations.

When I started smoking, cigarettes cost $1.30 a pack. When I quit, almost 3 years ago, they were near $4.00. Now they're $5.00 a pack or more in New York. Unsurprisingly, when you raise the price of something, people demand less of it, which has given the states a nasty surprise as money from the tobacco settlement begins to dry up. This was a major triumph for anti-smoking forces, and was apparently a driving force behind the lawsuits -- forcing behavior changes with a price increase that they never could have gotten legislatively.

This is not the only way in which the anti-tobacco activists have curtailed smoking, of course; by curtailing where we can smoke, they've made it much less attractive to do so. The important point is that successful strategies work on a macro level. Efforts to change individual behavior through advertising, insurance premiums, and the like have been much less effective. And efforts which target businesses start with the declaration that undesirable behavior is the responsibility of someone other than the person engaging in it.

So I think that studies like this, and books like Fast Food Nation, and groups like The Center for Science in the Public Interest (one of the many activist offspring of my beloved beloved Ralph Nader) are paving the way for an assault on the fast food industry as a proxy for our poor eating habits and worse exercise regimes. Perhaps it will make us healthier, although I doubt it. But even if it does, I’m still against this “by any means necessary” approach to changing people’s lives for their own alleged good by stealthily abrogating their freedom of choice.

Two things jump out here; the bizarre fear of government oppression (while ignoring real government oppression) and the belief that eating is a disorder, an addiction, instead of a way to maintain life. It's almost like McArdle sees eating as a sin. She tries veganism and vegetarianism, and gives up more food for Lent. Yet she turns to the fantasy world of 1950s cookbooks.

Whenever I'm a little stressed, I take out my Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook and get lost in 50 years ago. It's the gift I give at every bridal shower, partly because it has some downright hilarious recipes (for hors d'oeuvres, have your guests roast Vienna Sausages over candles!) and passages like these helpful hints:

Harbor pleasant thoughts while working. It will make every task lighter and pleasanter. . .

Every morning before breakfast, comb hair, apply makeup, a dash of cologne, and perhaps some simple earrings. Does wonders for your morale. . .

Notice humorous and interesting incidents to relate at dinnertime, etc. . .

If after follwoing all these rules fro proper rest, excercise, diet, you are still tired and depressed, have a medical check-up and follow doctor's orders.

Helloooo, valium.

But that's not the only reason I love it. The best reason is that it is the single best guide I know to producing comfort food, even for beginniners. I wouldn't follow the instructions for preparing roasted meats (although I did pick up a good technique for stovetop barbeque chicken), but my mother, who's studied with Craig Claiborne and Julia Child, still uses this for most of her baking, from basic bread to airy, homemade cakes. It's perfect for beginners because while most of the recipes are simple, they were written before the advent of cooking oil, margarine, mixes, and other cooking evils that make all food taste like it came out of your high-school cafeteria. From four recipes for macaroni and cheese to our family's special Christmas bread, almost everything is awfully good. How can you not love a cookbook that has a supper dish called Pink Bunny? If you like comfort food, good basic dishes, or just retro stuff, highly recommend it.

For all the sarcasm this image is important to her, so important that she reenacted the scenario for her friends.

Last night, I was invited to a delightful dinner party at Megan McArdle’s house in the esteemed company of political bloggers including Tim Blair, Mickey Kaus (albeit fleetingly), Matt Welch, Roger Simon, Julian Sanchez, Andrew Hofer, Walter Olson, Amy Langfield and others whose names I missed or forgot. (I picked up some good gossip about behind-the-scenes convention prep, most of which I’ll leave it to those covering the beat to blog, but I can’t resist passing on that apparently Fox News and Al Jazeera’s broadcast booths were set up side by side. Don’t say no Republicans have a sense of humor. Also, like the Democratic convention: no wifi!)

The theme of the party was Republicanism, given the convention for which several of the bloggers were in town. In keeping with the theme, Megan (who bills herself as a “libertarian,” which as someone at the party noted is what Republicans call themselves when they’re embarrassed to admit they’re Republicans) did all the cooking and waited on the mostly male assemblage hand and foot — barefoot, at that — and clad in a ’50s-housewife-style blouse and skirt and lace apron, the table decorated with two lilac blooms and a small American flag, and so on. The meal, along the same lines, consisted of glazed chicken, homemade dinner rolls, potato salad, homemade peach pies and, the pièce de résistance, jello salad.

Beautifully prepared and presented and absolutely delicious, it was all meant to be ironic and Republican. But the joke was on Megan: the food took me vividly back to my youth, as it was exactly like what I grew up with my Minnesota-born mother cooking, who is slightly to the left of Michael Moore.

McArdle's not the first conservative to retreat to an imaginary past in which America was free and brave but everyone knew his place and stayed there. It's just as adolescent as her you-can't-force-me-to-do-anything attitude, which ignores the fact that nobody's trying to force her to do anything. But the point is not that McArdle is nuts, the point is that her beliefs are formed by emotional issues, not reason and reality. This is why she ends up making ridiculous claims, like saying that people can't lose weight or that since she would have had WMD, Hussein would have had WMD, or that bankers had learned to eliminate risk and regulate themselves.

This is true of most people to a degree--we are all affected by our past. That is why it is so important to question, demand evidence, use logic and reason. Depending on our emotion-based beliefs instead of reality has hurt our nation beyond repair. Most of all, we have to realize that lack of empathy is also based on emotional issues and absolutely must not be tolerated.


Ken Houghton said...

"The other reason that I find this interesting is that with the amazing popularity of Fast Food Nation, which in essence accuses the fast food industry of manipulating consumers to make them fat..."

Uh, no. Fast food companies do not reveal their nutritional information, and it's that Asymmetrical Information that is at issue. (I knew a Big Mac was not healthy--but ca. 1,000 KCal was rather more than expected.)

But McMegan doesn't care about Asymmetrical Information, I guess.

"When I started smoking, cigarettes cost $1.30 a pack. When I quit, almost 3 years ago, they were near $4.00. Now they're $5.00 a pack or more in New York."

Uh, they were about $7/pack in NYC three years ago; even the generics were closer to $5.50. (And I don't buy, just see them at the Duane Reade checkout counter and newsstands and the like.) Is this just another case where she doesn't bother to do research and her memory is fading?

"Efforts to change individual behavior through advertising, insurance premiums, and the like have been much less effective."

A claim belied by the decline in youth smoking, though true if you're talking only about the AstroTurf Philip Morris et al. sponsored adverts. (It would be rude of me to suggest that those adverts are less effective than, say, those from because the people paying for them have little incentive for them to work. Or that the cost increases in insurance are exactly the type of thing she is arguing against when she decries Community Rating—except that in this case, you can clearly define and identify the behavior, and charge accordingly.

bulbul said...

She believes hunger is a type of addiction, too powerful to overcome.

Precisely. It jumped out at me the first time she wrote on obesity and then when in the rambling response on obesity, she equated appetite with thirst.
And then there's this from '08 (I just can't stop reading her drivel, it's like watching a car wreck in progress):
"Appetite is an evolutionarily wired signal on par with pain; urging obese people to just eat less is like urging someone to tough out root canal surgery without anaesthesia. Every day."

Fast food companies do not reveal their nutritional information
And what about Here in the EU, they even put those figures on the packaging, though that has "EC directive" written all over it.

bulbul said...

Correction: the website is Strangely enough, if you look at the Country drop-down menu, you notice it only contains most EU countries (once again no Malta), bunch of other European countries and Azerbaijan. And a Big Mac is 495 kcal.

Dillon said...

"McArdle is consistent in one area: She believes hunger is a type of addiction, too powerful to overcome."

In your post here, you have a quote from Megan's Jane Galt days where she writes "I've been overweight once in my life since adolescence".

Why would Megan write 'since adolescence'? Was Megan an overweight child, or is this just another example of her poor writing skills?

If she was overweight as a child, that might explain some of her food issues.

(it would be irresponsible not to speculate...)

Susan of Texas said...

I don't understand why she thinks hunger is beyond control. I doubt she's ever been extremely hungry in her life. The only thing I can think of is that whenever McArdle faces a hard choice she tends to deny she has a choice at all. I guess that's so she doesn't have to make a decision. Which would explain why she tends to ignore things until they escalate, like her moving situation or driver's license snafu.

McArdle has said that she was teased a lot for being very tall in high school. It's probably why she lovingly tells everyone that it's a shame she's so tall and thin because it makes others feel bad about themselves. The more McArdle talks about others' inability to lose weight, the more she can talk about her fashionable body type.

bulbul said...


that's just the thing - she never mentions hunger, all the time she's talking about appetite and even equating it with thirst. Like you say, it's weird to claim that hunger (of the rich-easily-fixable-by-a-trip-to-the-fridge-or-mcdonalds variety) is uncontrollable, but to insist same is true of appetite is ... Revealing, at the very least.

Tehanu said...

What strikes me is that her imputation of motive is so often just wrong. Public cigarette smoking wasn't banned because Puritans didn't want people to enjoy themselves; it was banned because secondhand smoke was killing people (especially waiters, etc., stuck for hours in smoky workplaces). The fast food industry doesn't "manipulate customers [in order] to make them fat"; it manipulates them in order to make money for itself. And so on. My guess is, Megan spends so much time manipulating people to get what she wants that she literally cannot believe anybody else acts for any other reason.

Anonymous said...

If you Google "megan mcardle vertigo" the very first link is to someone named rsmccain's blog, and he posts that Megan was puffing on the cancer sticks Camels at that)back in March '08, a good deal less than the three years she claims she's been off of them.

Everything she writes, I mean everything, is a lie.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen here most recent uttern nonsense?

Susan of Texas said...

Yes, anon, and it's just painfully bad.