Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Damien has been arguing with British consumer advocates who say cheap food does not really benefit the poor; he mentions a think-tank report recommending a tax on unhealthy food:

Independent of whether or not that is a good idea ... such ideas are, at the very least, condescending, assuming that the poor do not know any better than to buy "bad" food.... The revealed preference of poor shoppers indicates a preference of "bad" food; why is this a problem at all? If these preferences are bad, why are supermarkets to blame for it? Maybe the poor heavily discount the future, leading them to not think much about the long-term effects of present consumption. Maybe the taste of "bad" food overrides any long-term considerations. Maybe they believe that the hype about obesity is exactly that — hype. Whatever the reason, it is hard to see why such behaviour merits a response — why supermarkets must be compelled to be socially responsible and sell expensive, healthy food to people who clearly don't want it.

I've suggested to Damien that he doesn't give sufficient thought to the social costs of an ill-nourished populace. But on the matter of poverty & nutrition I'd recommend anyone start by reading George Orwell's stunning little book The Road to Wigan Pier (which I know Damien's read too) — especially chapter six. This is obviously too long for me to post in its entirety, & to quote selectively (as I'm about to do) is an injustice to Orwell's investigation, so I encourage my half-dozen readers, if they have any interest in the matter, to pull Wigan Pier from their bookshelves, or else read it online via Project Gutenburg.

Here's an excerpt from chapter six (Orwell is writing about unemployed coal miners in the north of England during the Depression, but his understanding of human nature & human behaviour does not date):

A human being is primarily a bag for putting food into; the other functions and faculties may be more godlike, but in point of time they come afterwards. A man dies and is buried, and all his words and actions are forgotten, but the food he has eaten lives after him in the sound or rotten bones of his children.... So perhaps the really important thing about the unemployed, the really basic thing if you look to the future, is the diet they are living on....

And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't.... When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit "tasty". There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let's have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we'll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don't nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man's opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

The results of all this are visible in a physical degeneracy which you can study directly, by using your eyes, or inferentially, by having a look at the vital statistics. The physical average in the industrial towns is terribly low, lower even than in London. In Sheffield you have the feeling of walking among a population of troglodytes. The miners are splendid men, but they are usually small, and the mere fact that their muscles are toughened by constant work does not mean that their children start life with a better physique. In any case the miners are physically the pick of the population. The most obvious sign of under-nourishment is the badness of everybody's teeth. In Lancashire you would have to look for a long time before you saw a working-class person with good natural teeth. Indeed, you see very few people with natural teeth at all, apart from the children; and even the children's teeth have a frail bluish appearance which means, I suppose, calcium deficiency.

(Naturally, great improvement in public health over the last sixty years means the situation is not so dire; but where Orwell is shocked at the condition of his miners' teeth, we should perhaps be shocked at the heart disease statistics for their children & grandchildren.)

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