The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on July 25, 2012
Mayor Bloomberg and the Quest of Immortality

In May 2012 Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, proposed a ban on the sale in public places of large-sized containers (over 16 fluid ounces) of sugar-sweetened drinks. Most soda beverages will be affected. The ban will have to be promulgated by the city’s public health agency, which is controlled by the mayor—so it may be assumed that the ban will become law. It is to be introduced gradually, not to go into full effect until March 2013. In an address announcing this initiative, Bloomberg described it as the city’s response to obesity, described as one of the major health issues facing the nation. He referred to Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign as a worthy antecedent (though, as far as I know, she has not advocated legal prohibitions). There have been some protests against this latest action of what some critics have called “Nanny Bloomberg”, by the beverage industry and some irate libertarians. This rather muted protest is not surprising since the actual impact of the ban will not be felt for some time.
Bloomberg (now aged 70) has been mayor of New York City since 2002, and is currently on his third term (he succeeded in overturning a term-limit law). He has switched party affiliation several times. Apparently he has been successful in improving the financial situation of the city. Before entering politics he had a brilliant career as a financier. In 2012 Forbes magazine estimated his personal wealth at 22 billion dollars, making him one of the richest individuals in the country. Whatever his motives in becoming a politician, greed clearly is not one of them. He refused the mayor’s salary, instead is paid the symbolic fee of one dollar per-annum. He also does not occupy the official residence of Gracie Mansion, and instead resides in his private apartment on the Upper East Side. His co-resident is a woman to whom he is not married—something that he would probably not get away with as mayor in many other American cities. In an international perspective, however, he is in good company—both the current presidents of France and Germany live with similarly non-matrimonial partners. I cannot say whether Bloomberg’s quasi-European lifestyle has anything to do with his idea of New York City as a quasi-European welfare state. He certainly has a very broad notion of the mayor’s responsibility for the wellbeing of citizens in many aspects of their lives—not just as a nanny, but as a fatherly Tsar of All the Boroughs watching over citizens who don’t know what is good for them. I have never met Bloomberg, but it is my impression that excessive modesty is not one of his problems.
A municipal ordinance to enforce a healthy diet obviously raises issues of individual liberty, especially since Bloomberg’s prohibition is likely to be a first step down a very slippery slope. What interests me here is an earlier action by Bloomberg which suggests an enduring pattern: Early in his career as mayor, he instituted a city law banning smoking in all public places, including restaurants and bars. Here too health was given as the reason—not the smokers’ health, but the health of non-smokers, especially employees, supposedly endangered by environmental tobacco smoke. (The smokers, officially designated sinners, presumably deserve any future illness caused by their filthy habit—and in any case they are already being punished here and now by having to smoke out on the street, preferably in freezing weather.) Let me suggest that the by-now victorious war against tobacco has useful lessons about the unfolding war against obesity.
In 1977 I published a short article in Worldview, a long defunct periodical with which I was then associated. The anti-smoking campaign was at a very early stage; I suggested that it was in an age-old tradition of the quest of immortality, first described in the ancient Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic. (Gilgamesh, plunged into grief by the death of a friend, sets out on an arduous journey to discover a plant that can bestow immortality. When he finally finds it, a snake comes and eats it. Gilgamesh sits down and weeps. But that is another story.) The new replication of this ancient fable contains an implicit promise: Refrain from smoking, and you will live forever. It follows, of course, that those who sell tobacco products are killers , which, I further suggested, explained the vehement passion of the anti-smoking activists. An unintended consequence of this article was that I was asked to advise a consortium of tobacco companies on a study of the anti-smoking movement. I did this for about three years, during which time I learned a lot about the politics and social psychology of morally inspired movements. Also, it so happened that I was able to observe from its beginnings an incredibly successful movement. Early on I attended a conference during which an activist uttered a sentence which then sounded quite mad: “The aim of the movement is to make smoking an activity undertaken in private by consenting adults.” This today describes the reality in most developed societies (and an increasing number of developing ones). This raises a very interesting question: How was this success achieved ? Please do not say that the movement had a message that was based on scientifically supported truth. The assertion that smoking is bad for the smoker’s health has indeed been scientifically supported; the assertion that tobacco smoke is bad for non-smoking bystanders is shakier. But I don’t think that this explains much. Most people are not equipped to assess the often complicated and sometimes contested scientific evidence. Even if they defer to alleged experts, the threatened dangers seem remote, and there are other more proximate dangers that one risks by this or that behavior. Let me answer the question of why the anti-smoking movement has been so successful:
The movement was concerned with something that everyone is afraid of—serious illness and early death. Fear is a powerful motivator.  Of course I exaggerated a bit with the Gilgamesh metaphor—the movement did not offer immortality. But, in the words of a statement by the World Health Organization: The purpose of the WHO is that people should die young—as late as possible. Not a bad purpose in and of itself. Furthermore,  lung cancer was the main disease attributed to smoking—and, until the advent of AIDS, cancer was the most feared disease. The movement could then use science to identify smoking as a major cause of the disease—very plausibly for smokers, less so for non-smokers—but data concerning the latter could be (let us say) creatively interpreted. To mobilize fearful people, it is very helpful to have an enemy at hand.  An enemy was easily identified here—the industry with obvious tobacco interests (also known as “the merchants of death”). It helped the movement that tobacco companies initially denied any smoking risks and subsidized research that seemed to support the denial. The movement, in addition to its moral high ground (who could be for lung cancer?), also contained activists with career interests—as public attention veers away from one cause, activists must turn to another cause. But that is not enough. Successful morally inspired movements typically ally themselves with powerful groups motivated by very hard material interests. This has been true throughout history, from the Crusades (poor knights wanted to acquire real estate in the Holy Land), to the Protestant Reformation (German princes were eager to confiscate monastic properties), to the anti-apartheid movement (South African businessmen saw apartheid wrecking the economy). In this instance, the anti-smoking interests included the medical establishment (ever eager to prevent diseases that often cannot be cured, and also eager for new research funds), important branches of government bureaucracy (with an interest in new candidates for regulation), and, last not least, the legal profession. American tort law, coupled with the high costs of litigation, is an open invitation to extortion. I think the case can be made that lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits tipped the anti-smoking movements to its conclusive victory in the United States. The major tobacco companies calculated that even huge settlements were less expensive than endless litigation. They gave up the fight, even contributed to campaigns to curb teenage smoking. Some real or invented victims of smoking (among them states getting compensation for losses they supposedly incurred from the medical care of individual victims) were beneficiaries of these enormous settlements, but the major beneficiaries were tort lawyers.

I would not be misunderstood here: I am not proposing that all moral appeals are cynical strategies of material self-interest. Thus Luther was genuinely concerned with his question of “how to find a gracious God”, but many of the German princes who rallied to his cause had much less theological interests. Thus Harry Oppenheimer, the mining tycoon who was also a committed Christian, opposed apartheid on moral grounds, but it helped a lot when even Afrikaans businessmen concluded that their economic future demanded a radical change of racial policy. No doubt many if not most anti-smoking activists believed from the beginning that their cause saves lives, but it helped greatly when people and institutions with more selfish interests came aboard. There was an additional problem: At least in democratic countries, the anti-smoking movement had to contend with the argument that, if an individual wants to kill himself, that is his own business. Two counter-arguments emerged: The argument from social costs—I kill myself by smoking, but society has to pay for my medical expenses, the care of my surviving dependents, and the loss of my productive contribution. This argument validated the huge sums paid to state governments, despite its rather wobbly logic (it could be argued that my dying early actually saves society from the costs I would incur if I tottered on into senility). Then there was what I would call the argument from innocent bystanders—I may have the right to kill myself, but I don’t have the right to kill those who helplessly inhale my toxic smoker’s breath. It is this argument which was most successful in justifying the tsunami of anti-smoking laws that swept across the world in recent decades. Not surprisingly, children featured prominently in the list of innocent victims. Children have always been the sacred icon of innocence. One additional sociological point may be made here: there is the factor of class. At least in America, the college-educated upper middle class has been most susceptible to the anti-smoking message. Working class people are much more resistant. Thus the smoking issue has become yet another marker of the increasing polarization in the class system that has been noted by many observers of American society: The knowledge elite (aka the “new class”) does not smoke, eats organically grown food, and works out with compulsive regularity, and regards all of this as proof of virtue. The working class continues to puff away, as it gorges itself on hamburgers and slouches on sofas watching lowbrow soap operas. Smokers thus not only defy the health establishment, but the elite whose virtues it reinforces. In an increasingly polarized society, the smoking issue allows the winners and the losers of the class system to despise each other, and to be proud of their respective lifestyles. (In my neck of the wood one could engage in ethnographic field work by having alternate meals in the Harvard Faculty Club and an Irish bar in South Boston.) As usual, the winners have the upper hand in shaping the culture.
Back to the new war against obesity: It is not difficult to predict the trajectory which this project will follow. Very probably it will replicate, step by step, the war against tobacco.  Once again, the basic rationale is the prevention of illness. Heart disease is the illness most closely associated with obesity—not as scary as lung cancer, but scary enough. The scientific validation of the project is clear—obesity is unhealthy. The same interests that supported the anti-smoking crusaders can be mobilized once again—doctors who jump on the prevention bandwagon when their ability to cure is often limited, researchers in need of funding, bureaucrats looking for new behaviors to regulate, activists in search of employment opportunities, and of course, legions of tort lawyers, salivating at the prospect of gargantuan settlements from the food and drinks industry. Pizza Hut and Pepsi Cola may take the place of Philip Morris as public enemies (and defendants in class-action lawsuits). The same arguments will serve to counter libertarian scruples—social costs and innocent bystanders. Children will again be featured in the litany of victims. (Michelle Obama understandably likes to preach in kindergartens and elementary schools.) Finally, class is again involved here: Upper income and higher education is associated with virtuous slimness, while all these fat working-class types waddle from Burger King to the unemployment lines. Just as the Victorian bourgeoisie tried to convert the poor slobs to its table of virtues (alcohol of course was then the most targeted vice), so the new bourgeoisie bombards the lower classes with its temperance crusade. (One might speak of the eternal return of the Salvation Army—George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara would today be reincarnated as a coach with Weight Watchers). It remains to be seen how far this will go before the Great Unwashed remember that, after all, they are (still) allowed to vote.
[Personal disclosure: I gave up smoking years ago. I have never liked the beverages targeted by Mayor Bloomberg. So, as they say in Texas, I have no dog in this fight. However, I have a fierce commitment to individual freedom, and a keen sense of the slippery slope which opens up when even a seemingly modest exercise of this freedom is arbitrarily taken away by government actions.]
Does this have anything to do with religion? I think it does. The quest of immortality is one of the most ancient religious themes.  The health cult, with its mirage of endless youth if not immortality, is a quasi-religion. Its dogma is the obligation to live healthily. Like all religions, the health cult has a catalogue of virtues and a catalogue of vices, with rituals to affirm the former and ostracize the latter. There is also an equivalent of the Saudi Arabian police force dedicated to “the promotion of virtue and the suppression of vice”—an army of therapists, coaches, educators, advice columnists, dieticians, and other moral entrepreneurs. To date (still) they mainly rely on persuasion rather than coercion. Wait a little.
Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.

  • Kris

    As others have theorized, perhaps there is a law of Conservation of Virtuousness. As we have gotten rid of some of the old virtues, we need to find some new ones, which will enable us to feel virtuous (self-virtuous) compared to the heathens. And to tie this in to your contribution, surely being virtuous will grant us Life Eternal!

  • John Barker

    Eat kale and spinach, no cakes or cookies or white bread.Cigars? God forbid. Walk one hour a day with weighted legs. One small glass of wine every other day. Will I live forever or will it just seem that way.

  • Anthony

    Obsession with health (eating, exercising, non smoking, regulated imbibing, herbal medicines, etc.) and being forever young (quest for imagined immortality) are ideas/sentiments enthusiastically ascribed to by many boomers – wonder how many are cognizant of quasi-religious aspects (that may perhaps vicariously serve modern religious function) as highlighted by Peter Berger’s essay.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I have been following the now institutionalized crusade to eradicate perchlorate from drinking water for years. Perchlorate is a molecule of oxygen (4 parts) and chlorine (1 part) that has been industrially used as a fuel booster because it is high in oxygen. It is also been used in fireworks and munitions. It does not cause cancer, is not poisonous, and is not a neurotoxin. It has contaminated groundwater supplies mainly in California from industrial spillage from WWII munitions industries, rocket fuel testing grounds, fireworks manufacturing plants, etc.

    Perchlorate is theoretically believed to block absorption of iodine in the thyroid gland needed for normal development by (you guessed it) unborns, infants, and pregnant mothers. The concern is not merely birth defects but intellectual defects such as mild retardation, slow learners, etc. (that are of concern to the upper middle class).

    Perchlorate is also a natural salt found in nature and has been discovered on the planet Mars. The entire nation of Chile has it in drinking water at levels that would be considered “toxic” in California. But the largest scientific study of perchlorate ever conducted in Chile found no higher incidence of birth or educational defects than the normal unexposed population.

    Decades ago those who were concerned about perchlorate causing birth deficits put iodine into table salt – iodized salt – that was a cheap solution to the problem. That way the lower and working classes got their daily dose of iodine. The upper classes could afford to eat fish that is a natural source of iodine.

    Along comes the perchlorate movement mainly in California where perchlorate occurs at 6 parts per billion in imported drinking water from the Colorado River.

    Entrepreneurial engineering companies “triangulated” with environmental advocates and devised a plan to clean infinitesimal doses of perchlorate from drinking water by industrial methods using treatment plants. Once the Business Class and the Knowledge Class had a common monetary and ideological interest this expensive method of water treatment became irresistible. And it took on the semblance of being “scientific” and treatable by “engineering” methods. The public could feel safer that science and technology would save children from ending up as slow learners or educational under achievers.

    Women’s advocates, usually composed of women doctors, nurses, tort lawyers, and so-called regulatory scientists in academia who would financially benefit from perchlorate regulation, became a political lobby that politicians of either party could not fight except at their own political peril. What politician could risk being accused of inflicting the unborn and infants with educational learning deficits? Perchlorate regulation took on a bureaucratic and political life of its own immune from any real scientific proof that miniscule doses of perchlorate harmed children; or that cheap dietary supplementation of iodine was all that was needed.

    The target group was the poor and working class who presumably smoked and drank beer both of which had no iodine and may have interfered with the glandular endocrine system. Mostly lower income families had slower learners in school. But no study has ever been done to show that communities where there is no perchlorate have any lower levels of mental retardation or slow learners than those with perchlorate in their drinking water. And it is highly unlikely that any such study would ever be funded by government. Curiously, no one ever proposed adding iodine to beer – the more preferred drink of the working class.

    Perchlorate has been found to be an inadvertent byproduct of water treatment by chlorination (and chloramines) in municipal water tanks. But curiously the study that found this has been removed from its online source. It is only BIG PRIVATE INDUSTRY WITH DEEP POCKETS that has been found liable under tort laws and health regulations for perchlorate cleanups. Municipal water departments and governmental wholesale water suppliers have been mostly immune from shakedowns by environmentalists to cleanup water supplies.

    The number of perchlorate “experts” in academia, medicine, and engineering, and environmental science all of whom now depend on such regulation for their livelihoods and professional identities, grew so large that it was impossible to deter. Perchlorate regulate and tort lawsuits have bred many swomen’s occupations and professions.

    Perchlorate regulation has now grown into a multi-billion dollar industry for which there are no demonstrably clear health benefits other than symbolic. Meanwhile Obamacare proposes to eliminate expensive cancer chemotherapy treatments because there is so small a number of patients that it has been shown to benefit. But there is no plan to curtail expensive industrialized perchlorate treatment methods.

    A noted chemist wrote in my local newspaper that the danger to infants of perchlorate in milk or in mother’s milk was chemically nullified by carbohydrates – lactose – that also occurs in milk. Lactose binds with the perchlorate molecule rendering it harmless.

    The religious community has mainly been silent about the moral ambiguities of spending so many financial resources on something that is of no demonstrable health benefit. Those who have spoken up about the ambiguities of perchlorate regulation have often been men who have been viewed as having no moral standing on the issue.

  • C Philips

    Although I did not think of it at the time, I think San Francisco is trying to prove the point about antismoking being a class issue. See “SF Considers Strict Outdoor Smoking Ban – Except For Medical Pot”, at: http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2012/07/19/sf-considers-banning-smoking-at-outdoor-events-except-for-medical-pot/

  • Adam Garfinkle

    Peter, on your main point I agree completely. As you know, one of my hobbies is finding functionally religious behavior in domains most people would never think of in those terms. Indeed, in my presidential platform, which I rewrite every four years, I make the point concerning healthcare that the obsession this society seems to have with extreme and mostly futile (and very expensive) technologically driven care at the very end of life is directly related to the erosion of traditional religious belief in the afterlife, which, whether literally true or not, has had a profound sociological impact on death and dying in its inevitable social context for millennia. This too, in my view, is related to the allure of immortality in the absence of genuine religious conviction concerning it. We have this-worlded the old desire.

    Of course, one is not allowed to say in public that our healthcare crisis has anything to do with factors residing in a deep cultural strata. If you say things like this at professional meetings people think you have recently fallen from a tree and hit your head. It is, nevertheless, true. In my opinion.

    On the ancillary point, about whether what Mayor Bloomberg is up to represents a slippery slope toward the ultimate sovereignty of the nanny state, I used to share your more or less libertarian sensibilities. I am no longer so sure, because the capacity of large retailing- dependent corporations to employ extremely sophisticated marketing techniques, which increasingly make use of the very best that social science has to offer, calls into question the capacity of not just some but of a great many peoples’ ability to form a rational judgment about whether to buy a product or not. When our stock of knowledge, imperfect though it may be, about the health effects of various substances is systematically distorted by the power of money, it is possible to conceive of a consumer protection role for government that does not smack of the secular evangelical meliorism that I hate so much. I have not reached a conclusion about where the balance is or ought to be here, but I no longer believe that government has no legitimate role in this domain.

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  • Kevin Edwards

    Adam Garfinkle, I think you are essentially referring to opposing fraud in your final paragraph, which libertarian sensibilities admit is a valid role of government.

    So, government can require producers to inform consumers about their product, but government cannot prevent purchase by an informed consumer. e.g. occupational licenses would therefore not be required to practice, but you can be required to inform consumers that you do not have a license.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Reply to Adam Garfinkle:
    While I share some of your concerns, as noted in my comment about the vacuous over-regulation of perchlorate in drinking water, government has a tendency to regulate substances and behaviors for mostly symbolic purposes rather than true health benefits. As Dr. Berger points out, as soon as an economic interest is wedded to any health movement it ends up in something almost the opposite of what was intended and gobbles up valuable financial resources that could be applied to really effective health care interventions.

    As I understand it, Obamacare wants to de-fund cancer chemotherapy for anyone 75 years of age or older. This is mainly on the grounds of efficacy – it doesn’t work in many cases and doesn’t extend life that much longer. This is especially true of the monoclonal antibodies such as Avastin and Erbitux that are mostly used as a last resort at the very end of the regimen of chemotherapy.

    A problem with this is which politician is going to tell the adult children of elderly parents they are now deprived of chemotherapy? It seems to me that Obamacare’s command and control — rather than market — approach to rationing health care will just go full circle. Adult children of elderly cancer patients will form advocacy organizations that will lobby for continued chemo and other high tech treatments. So a politicized approach is unlikely to work in the long run in my view.

    As to the issue of cost-effective cancer treatment there is the proposition by Dr. Jules J. Berman, M.D., PhD, in his book “Precancer: The Beginning and the End of Cancer” that the treatment paradigm should shift from prevention (difficult to really know what causes many cancers other than lung cancer from smoking) as well as heroic treatment of metastacized cancers and instead identify and treat precancers (e.g., abdominal polyps, skin tag growths, lesions, and other symptoms of precancer.

    There could be a whole market niche opened up for either precancer treatments or even continuation of conventional chemotherapy — IF — Obamacare does not ban medical caregivers from rendering competitive treatments as they do now when they ban oncologists from administering experimental chemos outside the “preferred standard of care.”

    As Dr. Berger has pointed out in many of his books, most notably in “Sociology Reinterpreted: An Essay on Method and Vocation” and in his “The Homeless Mind,” modernized people tend to have faith that “science or technology will save us.” Even worse is the promise that there is some future treatment or chemical cocktail out there that will make it all go away. There may never be. But such a faith makes us feel good and not give up hope.

    I don’t like monistic systems of anything – from religion to healthcare. Obamacare is monistic and totalitarian-like. What made the old system of health care good was pluralism: the Veteran’s Administration system, non-profit insurance plans, for-profit medical centers, medical co-operatives, etc.

    As Berger has continuously pointed out, modernity is choice not fate. Not having choice – which presumes a voluntary market – is perhaps countermodern, which I don’t believe is the right step to take despite the false promises of modern technology and scientism.

  • David Taylor, MD

    Much of what Prof. Berger offers here strikes me as insightful and is certainly a novel perspective on various health obsessions that afflict Americans.

    However, as a physician who deals with this issue daily, I have a slightly different impression of one facet of this phenomenon. My observation is that my patients want to live a full life span, not to be immortal, and they want to do so without illness or disease. They often report the fantasy of living a healthy, active life well into their 80s, and dying a quick and quiet death in their sleep. Obviously there are a few people who fantasize about something closer to immortality, but the vast majority of the people under my care arrive at, say 75, with chronic illness, arthritis, hips needing replacement, a cancer scare or two (if not an actual diagnosis), declining strength, and just as distressing, friends and family passing away at an increasing rate. Most of the middle-aged men I treat (I’m a cardiologist) are taking 5, 6 or more prescription drugs. Living forever is almost never their dream: living an active life without pain, without the fear of a long, lingering terminal disease, and a quick and painless end, is what they hope for.

    I am reminded, in the midst of this depressing reflection on our painful final years, that a survey of nurses conducted a couple of years ago revealed that the vast majority of them would opt to die of cancer rather than quickly and unexpectedly of heart disease. Their rationale was that advances in pain management and cancer treatment are good enough now that knowing that one has a year more to live or even 6 months, would allow you to wrap up your life, make appropriate good-byes, arrange for matters after your death, etc. Dying unexpectedly leaves unresolved business, issues hanging, conversations unfinished. Made sense to me.

    Major Blumberg’s proposed ban on large soft drinks is part of a complicated set of beliefs about how our health is shaped by the substances we eat and drink, many of those beliefs lacking scientific validity. It’s reached the point that some of my patients are literally afraid to eat a fast-food meal, imagining that a hamburger is a deadly poison – sure I say, if that’s all you eat, for a month. At the other extreme, I remember years ago as medical student seeing a young child that nearly died of malnutrition because it’s parents only fed it fresh fruit – they assumed that fruit was the quintessential healthy food, and were shocked to find that human beings, especially young children, need a lot more than that to be healthy.

    Apologies for the ramble! Thanks for a very interesting column.

  • Steve

    Like Liberalism, Feminism, Environmentalism and all the rest, it is an -ism. Or, to put it more accurately, it is a secular religion: one of the many man-made religions of our eclectic ruling elite. Is there an escape for the common people? Other than the inevitable collapse from within, there is no escape. We gave them permission to rule over us when we gave up on the Man from Galilee.

  • jsmith9999

    “The magistrates of police have very wisely ordered that meat should be a little dearer at Paris during this time, and that the profit should be given to the hospitals. It is an almost insensible tribute paid by luxury and gluttony to indigence; for it is the rich who are not able to keep Lent—the poor fast all the year.”

    ~ the rest is worth reading…

    http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=355&chapter=62743&layout=html&Itemid=27

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  • Eric Gisin

    I’ve been a vegetarian for over 40 years, and over those years I’ve seen the rise of Food religion that I want nothing to do with. Veganism is Buddhism, organic food is vitalism, raw food is paleolithic mythology.

    Fear of pesticides (we used to use arsenic and nicotine) and GM plants is anti-technology paranoia.

    Suggesting the sugar in pop is bad while the same levels in fruit juice is absurd. The main people reason more people are obese is because food is so much cheaper today, and you can live on food that simply needs heating to serve.

  • Mark in Texas

    Part of what makes the war against obesity a particularly interesting moral crusade is the Gary Taubes argument that carbohydrates rather than fat are responsible. By the Taubes analysis, the type of diet advocated by the ruling class i.e. low fat, little or no meat, is exactly the type of diet that encourages calories to be stored as fat even at the cost of depriving muscles and brain of nutrients.

    This sets the stage for a religious war between the low fat and the low carb advocates with both of them promising life to their adherents and degradation and death to the heretics on the other side.

  • Tom Holsinger

    I strongly recommend Jonathan Haidt’s _The Righteous Mind_ here. He explores the “sanctity/degradation” psychological issues underlying this “moral crusade” in some detail.

  • Tom K

    Fundamentalism of any kind will tend to run into conflict with facts. That we need beliefs to make the complexity of life manageable is part of our nature. That is why it is helpful to become self-reflective about the beliefs we rely on and, when they are found wanting, to replace them.

    On the economic argument for food regulation, it hardly seems surprising that there are interests involved which would benefit from a reduction in unhealthy food business practices. It strikes me as a market corrective to food industry interests in selling products designed to maximize profits by externalizing health and social costs. In free markets, one-sided strategies invite compensating feedback. It looks like the fast-food industry has just hit the scale and level of influence at which its business model is facing diminishing returns. It will need to adjust or be legitimately steam-rolled by rising competing interests.

    Nevertheless, the playing field is not level. Interests that promise us longer, healthier lives should in the long run be at an advantage in the reality stakes, as few people actually want the consequences of unhealthy lifestyles and will be attracted by offers that help them to avoid them. Competition in the marketplace of ideas (in which politics and religion participate no less than business), should eventually let the healthiest solutions win.

    In the process, we have no alternative to stop-gapping our ignorance with our beliefs as better solutions emerge, and to the sometimes painful process of undergoing reality checks.