The cost of a doughnut’s ‘lost pleasure’ is something you can afford to pay

January 22, 2015

KRISPY KREME DOUGHNUTS GO INTO PRODUCTION AT NEW STORE AT HARRODS IN LONDON.

Recently, the FDA took the process of turning everything in life into profit and loss to an absurd level. A series of FDA regulations that go into effect this year require that chain restaurants, grocery store chains selling prepared food, large vending machine operators, movie theaters and amusement parks all display calorie counts on their menus. Within that document is an estimate that this caloric information will cause consumers to “suffer” up to $5.27 billion in “lost pleasure” over 20 years by virtue of fewer french fries and other fattening favorites. Assuming a U.S. population of about 320 million, this means that we are each going to lose about $18,000 worth of pleasure over the next 20 years. For those of us who don’t usually think of the price of happiness in dollars, that seems like many quanta of sorrow.

Do those “priceless moments” really have a quantifiable value? Before you decide to buy more cookies because it costs too much to leave them on the shelves, let’s look at the math.

Economists typically use a “consumer surplus analysis” to determine the price of joy. This is a “What would you do for a Klondike Bar?” calculation based on the difference between what you are willing to pay for something (value) versus its actual price (cost). If you go to the movies and purchase a large popcorn with butter (about 1640 calories) for $6 at your neighborhood movie theater but your best offer would have been as high as $10, then you had a $4 consumer surplus at the lower price. Had you not purchased the popcorn you would have suffered a $4 “loss of pleasure” (with no correction made for indigestion or the cost of removing any butter stains from your clothing).

Of course the food industry only loses out from decreased consumption of fattening foods at the moment someone decides not to buy them. From the consumer side analyses of costs and benefit extend well beyond the moment when we decide whether or not to eat a cronut (about 1,300 calories).

Where are the dollars of self-satisfaction from noticing that you can climb the subway stairs without getting out of breath? If you consume the calories, where is the “consumer regret” correction for when you get up the next morning saying, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” and realize that you would gladly have spent twice as much if only you could have avoided the second piece of chocolate cake or that last drink? A recent evaluation of the applicability of consumer surplus calculations to tobacco warnings was similarly criticized on the grounds that most smokers would like to quit and therefore the so-called price of pleasure lost should really be considered a benefit.

This is not a recommendation for anhedonic austerity. To be sure, pleasure has great value and no one has any obligation to read or do anything else with the nutrition information that will be provided under these regulations. Of course we hope that everyone will eat better and that food providers will respond to the demand by increasing availability of more healthful consumables. An FDA spokesperson said that a financial assessment of lost pleasure “increases the quality and objective analysis of estimated benefits.” Pleasure is, by definition, subjective and, no matter how you slice it, I can’t see that saving money not spent on junk food and improving my health is a financial loss  — especially since I feel good after I do it.

So what is the price of pleasure? It might be worth leaving out the dollars and cents and just listening to the words of the 19th century American poet William Cullen Bryant (for whom Bryant Park in New York City is named), “A single pleasure costs the soul a thousand tears.”

 

PHOTO: Krispy Kreme doughnuts go into production at the opening of the store at Harrods in London, Oct. 3, 2003. REUTERS/ David Bebber

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Now if they could calculate how much lost pleasure the average american sustains in dealing with governmnt!

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