Opinion

The Great Debate

Why the surge in obesity?

Editor’s note: This post is republished from the author’s blog.

The Weight of the Nation is a four-part series on obesity in America by HBO Films and the Institute of Medicine, with assistance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It’s been showing on HBO and can be viewed online. Each of the four parts is well done and informative.

Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more. For a person 6 feet tall, that means a weight of more than 220 pounds. For someone 5’6″, the threshold is 185 pounds. People who are obese tend to earn less and are more likely to be depressed. They are at greater risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer, and they tend to die younger. The CDC estimates the direct and indirect medical care costs of obesity to be $150 billion a year, about 1% of our GDP.

The chart below, which appears several times in The Weight of the Nation, shows the trend in obesity among American adults since 1960, the first year for which we have good data. The data are from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). They are collected from actual measurements of people’s height and weight, rather than from phone interviews, so they’re quite reliable. After holding constant at about 15% in the 1960s and 1970s, the adult obesity rate shot up beginning in the 1980s, reaching 35% in the mid-2000s.

What caused the surge in obesity? The standard explanation is too much eating and too little physical activity, and The Weight of the Nation sticks with this story. But it shouldn’t, because the evidence suggests one of these two hypothesized culprits has been far more important than the other.

Here is the trend in eating, measured as average calories in the food supply (adjusted for loss and spoilage) according to data from the Department of Agriculture. This chart too is from The Weight of the Nation. The timing of change matches that for obesity; the level is flat through the 1970s and then rises sharply beginning in the 1980s. An alternative series, measuring energy consumption per capita, goes back to 1950 (see figure 6, chart F here); it too shows little or no change until 1980, and then a sharp jump. The rise in food consumption correlates closely with the rise in obesity.

from MacroScope:

Is U.S. economic patriotism hurting?

Any Americans believing that their country is being bought up by the Chinese might want to pay heed to a new report from the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment. It says that China is a minimal player in terms of foreign direct investment in the United States and that Washington should in fact be doing a lot  more to get it to gear up its buying.

To start with, look at the magic number.  In 2010, the last year for which numbers are available, only 0.25 percent of FDI into the Untied States came from China.  Switzerland, Britain,  Japan, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands,  Canada were all far bigger. In the U.S. Department of Commerce's report on the year, China, numbers were so small they were lumped into a category simply called  "others".

This is not enough, the Vale Columbia report says. Given China's burgeoning economic role across the globe, America can benefit from a lot:

from Susan Glasser:

America’s biggest growth industry: declinism

By Susan Glasser
The opinions expressed are her own.

The Amerislump is upon us.

Conservative agitator Pat Buchanan’s new book says America might not survive until 2025; it’s called “The Suicide of a Superpower.” Even less alarmist observers are suddenly sounding a lot like Buchanan, as economists now predict that China may surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy a lot sooner than we thought, and important conferences are convened to deal with what Fareed Zakaria memorably dubbed “the post-American world.”

Over at Foreign Policy, my colleague Joshua Keating (coiner of the “Amerislump” phrase) has taken to tracking all the gloom-and-doom punditry under the heading “Decline Watch” on our website—and not a day goes by without a classic example, from the poverty-stricken new muppet on Sesame Street who doesn’t have enough to eat, to the supposed cocaine slump on Wall Street and the new government initiative to attract Chinese shoppers here — so they can buy Made in China goods, but at the cheap prices caused by our undervalued dollar.

The zeitgeist about America is so bleak that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even begins her speeches these days being forced to remind audiences that the U.S. economy is still the world’s largest and its workers by far the most productive. Clinton, no declinist, invariably does her best to convince us that America is not retreating from the world at a time of national angst. Or at least that it should not.

America still needs to engage the world

This is a response to Nader Mousavizadeh’s latest Reuters column,  “A smaller America could be a stronger America.”

By David Miliband
The opinions expressed are his own.

Nader’s statistics pointedly and appropriately speak to a dysfunctional political dynamic of short term promises without long term responsibilities in the U.S.  It is also striking (and worrying) that both sides of American political debate are determined to persuade voters that they won’t be too concerned by the rest of the world.

But the U.S. is doomed NOT to become the Netherlands!  U.S. GDP per head is ten times the Chinese level.   Its universities still dominate in key areas.  Its conventional military might is overwhelming.  Its entanglement with the global system – notably in economics, but today that is inseparable from politics – means that it needs a “global posture.”  So does every country, large or small.

from MacroScope:

The IMF to turn on the rich

The latest International Monetary Fund meeting ended with emerging market powers getting a pledge from the organisation for stronger and "more even-handed" scrutiny of what is going on in large advanced economies.

As Reuters correspondents Lesley Wroughton and Emily Kaiser report here, the decision is a response to long-running frustrations among emerging economies, which reckon the Fund has  not been tough enough on its biggest shareholders, led by the United States.

The move reflects a number of things. First, it shows the growing clout of emerging economies within international institutions. The G-20, for example, is arguably now more influential than the old , richer G7. Secondly, it graphically underlines the current world-turned-upside-down state of the global economy, in which profligate rich economies are struggling to keep above water while supposedly poorer and less-developed ones enjoy solid growth and relatively stable finances. This graph makes the point:

from MacroScope:

What are the risks to growth?

Mike Dicks, chief economist and blogger at Barclays Wealth, has identified what he sees as the three biggest problems facing the global economy, and conveniently found that they are linked with three separate regions.

First, there is the risk that U.S., t consumers won't increase spending. Dicks notes that the increase in U.S. consumption has been "extremely moderate" and far less than after previous recessions. His firm has lowered is U.S. GDP forecast for 2011 to 2.7 percent from a bit over 3 percent.

Next comes the euro zone. While the wealth manager is not looking for any immediate collapse in EMU, Dicks reckons that without the ability to devalue, Greece and other struggling countries won't see any great improvement in competitiveness. Germany, in the meantime, has sped up plans to cut its own deficit.  It leaves the Barclays Wealth's euro zone GDP forecast at just 1 percent for next year.

from MacroScope:

Spend Save Man Woman

Far from being lauded as a virtue, China's high savings rate has been blamed for the economic imbalances underlying the global financial crisis. The criticism being that the Chinese spend too little and rely too much on exporting to Western consumers.

The IMF and World Bank have long called for Beijing to ramp up social spending so its citizens will feel less need to save for a rainy day and instead consume more.

But in their intriguingly named paper,  'A Sexually Unbalanced Model of Current Account Imbalances', New York-based researchers Du Qingyuan and Wei Shang-Jin suggest China's gender imbalance could also be a significant factor in the persistence of its high savings rate. spendsavemanwoman

Euro woes increase risk of trade wars

Europe won’t just be exporting deflation to the rest of the world, it will export serious trade tensions as well: first between the United States and China, and, possibly, eventually between Europe and the United States.

The austerity required to get Greece and other weak euro zone nations’ budgets in shape will exert a powerful deflationary force, as many countries which formerly imported more than they exported will be forced to cut back.

As well, the euro has dropped very sharply. Germany’s quixotic campaign against speculators — banning naked short selling against government debt and government credit default swaps — gave the euro its latest shove downward, but the trend has been strong for months. The euro is now about 15 percent below where it started the year against the dollar, making U.S. exports less competitive and adding to pressure on the United States to be the world’s foie gras goose: being force-fed everyone else’s exports while its own unemployment rate remains high.

Goodbye America, Hello China? Think again

For the growing number of Americans who see China heading for inevitable global dominance, nudging aside the United States, a brief walk down memory lane helps put long-term predictions into perspective.

Not so long ago, Japan was seen as the next (economic) number 1. American executives studied the 14 management principles of The Toyota Way, developed by the automobile manufacturer that grew into the world’s biggest car maker and is now recalling millions of defective vehicles.

Between the mid-1980s and early 1990s, books with titles such as Trading Places – How We Are Giving Our Future to Japan and How to Reclaim It (by Clyde Prestowitz) were required reading in Washington. Learned panelists expounded on the wondrous efficiency of “Japan Inc.”

American nightmare: Al Qaeda at home

berndforblog- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -

It has been a recurring nightmare of American counter-terrorist officials for years — growing numbers of home-grown al Qaeda recruits drawn from the Muslim-American community, plus blue-eyed, blond-haired would-be suicide bombers travelling on American passports.

That notion clashes with the widely-held belief that Muslims in the United States are not nearly as prone to being seduced by Al Qaeda propaganda as their co-religionists in Europe. But a series of recent terrorism cases involving American citizens have challenged old assumptions and thrown question marks over a host of surveys meant to show the American Muslim communities’ resistance to radicalization.

Incidents spiked in 2009 and included the arrest of five U.S. citizens in Pakistan, where they allegedly tried to link up with extremists, and the arrest of Daniel Boyd, a white convert to Islam who was accused of plotting to attack soldiers at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. Early in the year, Bryant Vinas, a Hispanic American convert, pleaded guilty to having trained with al Qaeda in Pakistan.

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