Opinion

Edward Hadas

Obesity and the unhealthy economy

Edward Hadas
Mar 13, 2013 15:11 UTC

Obesity is a matter of free choice – no one forces people to get fat – but few people are happy with the result. In the last few decades, the freedom to eat has too often turned into slavery to the immoderate desire for more.

In the United States, the world leader in obesity, the trend toward higher body weights began more than a century ago. Researchers John Komlos and Marek Brabec show that the average body mass, weight adjusted for height, has moved upward fairly steadily – from too low for optimal health right through optimal to the current too high level. Most visibly, and alarmingly, the gap between the heaviest 30 percent and the rest has widened significantly in the last few decades. There is no end in sight.

The problem of obesity is an adverse side effect of one of the greatest economic liberations ever, the freedom from want of food. Until shortly before 1900, food shortages were nearly always and everywhere a lively possibility, and all too often a grim reality. Now, although inadequate nutrition still blights the lives of more than a billion people in the world, residents of developed economies enjoy food in excess.

This change from shortage to surplus should have provoked a moral analysis. In the old days, the ethics of abundance were almost irrelevant. Moralists chastised gluttony, but for most people necessity imposed moderation, in practice if not in desire. And farmers did not need a course in philosophy to decide to produce as much as they could.

In the new era, physical need is no longer a constraint and unhealthy eating is now an everyday reality. The threat must be countered by individuals, food producers – no longer primarily farmers, but companies with processing plants and factories – and governments. All have failed to live up to the challenge. The result is that food is often not used as it should be, to provide the benefits and pleasures of healthy eating.

Morality and monetary policy

Edward Hadas
Mar 6, 2013 13:22 UTC

Monetary policy these days is complicated, ineffective, and quite possibly immoral. The complexity is inevitable; there is no simple way to ensure that the supply of money and credit is appropriate in a large modern economy. The ineffectiveness is evident: central bankers let that supply grow too fast before the 2008 financial crisis, and have unable to return monetary conditions to normal since then.

The moral lapses may be subtle, but I believe the lack of attention to the common good in the management of interest rates and the monetary system causes three serious problems.

 1) Dangerous freedom

Imagine a world in which anyone can use anything as a currency. This perfect monetary freedom would be a disaster. With strangers, I would only be willing to deal in gold, or some other scarce substance that could be carefully measured, because I would have no way of evaluating verbal or written promises to deal fairly. I might be able to trust members of my social group in economic transactions, but only because our monetary freedom was balanced by strong social constraints; they would be punished if they tried to cheat me.

Salvation through work

Edward Hadas
Feb 27, 2013 14:58 UTC

“It has been computed by some political arithmetician that if every man and woman would work for four hours each day on something useful, that labour would produce sufficient to procure all the necessaries and comforts of life … and the rest of the 24 hours might be leisure and happiness.”

When Benjamin Franklin wrote that in 1790, the American thinker was a few centuries ahead of his time. But the modern economy is so productive that everyone would have far more “comforts” than were available in Franklin’s day, even if the standard working week were shrunk from 40 to 20 hours. The four-hour day, though, isn’t on the horizon. Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, a professor of Leisure Studies at the University of Iowa, explains why not in a fascinating new book, “Free Time, The Forgotten American Dream”.

For more than a century, labour activists continually demanded – and were granted – shorter working hours. By the 1930s, futurologists were sure that the trend would continue. Workers wanted more leisure time, and, thanks to ever more efficient machines, they could have it, while still enjoying steady improvements in the material standard of living.

The menace of financial markets

Edward Hadas
Feb 20, 2013 14:15 UTC

Financial markets are unstable, unhelpful and often immoral. They should be kept under better control.

My disdain will be dismissed by free-market enthusiasts. For them, lively markets where equities, bonds and currencies are sold at publicly disclosed prices are clearly a good thing; they may even be capitalism at its best. Such open markets, they say, both improve economic efficiency and make society more free.

Not so; these markets are economically and morally harmful. Let me be clear. I am not discussing what non-economists usually mean by markets, the generally useful supermarkets and farmers’ markets. Nor am I debating the merits of what economists refer to as the “market” – the real or virtual place where buyers and sellers make transactions. Nor is this a screed against all of finance. Banks and insurers do not need financial markets to gather savings and make loans and investments.

Tradition, novelty and the pope

Edward Hadas
Feb 13, 2013 16:08 UTC

Institutions need to evolve over time. Institutions must rely on their traditions. These two statements may sound irreconcilable, but institutions – companies, hospitals, government agencies, schools, political systems, churches – can only thrive if they manage both to change and to remain true to their principles. In his surprising resignation, Pope Benedict XVI has given an example of the right balance.

Of course, the Catholic Church is special. It is especially large, especially ancient and especially international, as well as theologically presumptuous about its relations with an unseen heavenly power. The Church on earth, however, faces the same challenges as any long-standing organisation. Others can learn from Benedict’s decision to break with a tradition of nearly 600 years.

By Catholic standards, the tradition that popes always die in office was relatively new. There were several resignations during the Church’s first 14 centuries, and long after the last pope stepped down, in 1415, papal non-retirement was not so much a hallowed tradition as a fact of life. Official retirements were rare in all occupations, and almost unheard of among kings, who were considered roughly the secular equivalents of the pope.

The knots of development

Edward Hadas
Feb 6, 2013 15:35 UTC

Why are so many poor countries stuck with huge economic problems? Why, for example, are there so many unemployed young people in Egypt – 41 percent of 19-24 year-olds? The poor state of British housing can help answer these questions. 

By developing world standards, the British housing system works quite well. In Egypt, it takes 77 bureaucratic procedures in 31 offices, and between six and 14 years, to get legal approval for construction of a new house, according to the 2012 doctoral dissertation of Abdel Hamid El Kafrawy of the University of Glasgow. The result: housing is in chronically short supply and 65 percent of the population live in unregistered and untaxed buildings. 

For a rich country, though, the UK does remarkably badly. Construction has been inadequate, at half the modest target rate set by the government in 2007. The relatively few new houses and apartments which are built are mostly relatively small – new American houses have almost three times as much floor space and new French houses have 45 percent more, according to a 2009 study by the British Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. And rental and mortgage payments for these under-sized living quarters take a higher share of income in the UK than almost other developed country. 

Taxes and human nature

Edward Hadas
Jan 30, 2013 14:54 UTC

The tax system could well be the most idiotic, hypocritical and unnecessarily complicated part of modern industrial economies. The system needs to be rebuilt.

In developed economies, as governments have expanded, taxes have increasingly been used as a tool of economic and social policy. The rich are taxed more than the poor for the sake of a vision of social justice: from each according his ability. Depending on the jurisdiction, some good cause or another is favoured: house ownership, marriage, children, charitable contributions, savings. For companies, an almost endless series of exemptions, deductions and definitions are supposed to encourage investment, employment or some other desirable end.

Each tax wrinkle produces its own complex set of rules. Taxpayers’ continuous efforts to minimise payments lead to yet more rules. Each tax jurisdiction has its own system, a diversity which both increases the intricacies of international business and creates opportunities for individuals and companies to place income where it is less highly taxed.

The demographic effect

Edward Hadas
Jan 23, 2013 15:26 UTC

The populations of many countries are declining in a time of peace and prosperity. That unprecedented and basic change in society must indicate something, but what? The experience of Japan, where the trend is most advanced, provides some hints.

Until about 1950, Japan followed the once universal pattern of population increasing along with incomes. Then the birth rate began to decline. By around 1970, the birth dearth began; from then on there have been too few babies to keep the population constant. For the past two decades, roughly 140 children have been born to every 100 women. At that rate, each generation is about a third smaller than the last, although lengthening life expectancies kept the total Japanese population from falling until 2011.

One effect of this demographic transition is undeniable. It has sharply reduced the size of the dynamic core of the economy: the people who are starting their adult life. They bring ambition, flexibility and a strong desire for new housing and amenities. In Japan, this group, the people between 20 and 25 years old, is a quarter smaller now than in 2000, and is set to decline by another 15 percent over the next two decades. Demographic factors are not the only reason Japan’s GDP growth has been slow – 0.6 percent annual rate over the last decade – but they have played a major role.

The then and now of pensions

Edward Hadas
Jan 16, 2013 14:50 UTC

What is the right size for pensions? That question can be approached in two ways: “then” and “now”. Pensions, and other economic arrangements to support elderly people, may be considered repayments for what they did back then, when they were young. Alternatively, these payments may be considered as a share of output right now. In rich countries, the two approaches are in conflict. The “then” logic, which is based on promises made long ago, supports higher pension payments than the “now” logic, which is mindful of rapidly ageing populations. Politicians struggle to find acceptable compromises between the two approaches.

Until 60 or 70 years ago, politicians did not have to worry much because governments played a minimal role in supporting the few people who lived long enough to be unable to earn their keep. The elderly mostly relied on their own families for support. Moralists provided a “then” justification for this obligation: children had a duty to the parents who gave life, the young owed the old more than could ever be repaid for the provision of nurture and wisdom.

Philosophers and religious teachers often claimed that the duty of children to parents was as natural as that of parents to their children. However, many people must have remained unpersuaded. Otherwise, the injunction would not have been repeated so often in such solemn tones.

What Islamic finance can offer

Edward Hadas
Jan 9, 2013 13:53 UTC

The Islamic approach to finance was once the most advanced in the world. The period of pre-eminence ended six or seven centuries ago, but the religion’s fundamental insights into the field could help form a financial system suitable for the 21st century.

From the beginning, Muslim teaching took a religious view of commercial relations and responsibilities. There are a few injunctions in the Koran and far more in the teachings traditionally attributed to Mohammad. I am not an expert, but the basic ideas seem clear enough: merchants should be fair, risks should be moderate and understood, and God condemns all rapacious financial practices.

During the first centuries of Islam, Muslims became great traders, providing an economic bridge between Asia and Europe. Europeans adopted and then further developed the Islamic techniques of providing credit and of sharing responsibilities, risks and rewards. Christian thinkers continued the Islamic debate over what was fair and just, and church authorities copied the Islamic teachers’ practices, ruling on the legitimacy of transactions, and exhorting merchants and investors to restrain their greed.

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