American Refractions
Insatiable: Sizing Up the Corporate-Consumption Complex

We and much of the world now get sick in ways that were rare a century ago. There’s a reason.

Appeared in: Volume 9, Number 4 | Published on: March 3, 2014
Nicholas Freudenberg is distinguished professor of public health at the City University of New York’s School of Public Health and at Hunter College. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book Legal But Lethal: Corporations, Consumption, and Protecting Public Health (Oxford University Press, 2014).
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  • qet

    Please. Just. Stop. People are not the captive will-less victims you make us out to be. Presumably you yourself have managed to escape the clutches of the evil corporate consumption complex. You are not the pawn of McDonald’s, Philip Morris or Seagrams. No, not you. So how did YOU manage to rise above all of this evil corporate corporating, and why can’t I do it without you to dictate the rules? All of the “capitalists being capitalists” statements you present are neither interesting nor relevant, except the bit about evil corporations using litigation to deter critics. I’m with you there and would love to see across-the-board suppression of civil litigation. Now THAT would be a boon and would protect us masses from something we can’t protect ourselves from. Three other things: (1) inventing a new name for plain old self-interested capitalism is not an idea and illuminates nothing (now if your complaint against evil corporations is that they are functionally monopolies, that is another matter and might warrant some action; after all, that, and not nudging nannyism, was the thrust of T. Roosevelt’s trust busting); (2) “most easily modifiable cause is the ascendence of a political and economic system that promotes unhealthy hyperconsumption”–what does this even mean? (that is a rhetorical question; I know perfectly well that it means nothing). What this and the rest of your article boils down to is this: “I and others of like mind cannot persuade people directly to order their lives according to the rationality that we ourselves order our own lives by, therefore we must attack this nonalignment from another direction and directly control the choices people are permitted to rationally decide among.”; (3) Prolongation of a population’s mean lifespan by means of increasingly draconian diktat is a rational end only in the most mechanistic and inorganic of senses. It is anti-Life. You really ought to heed the words of Isaiah Berlin: “For we are more concerned with making people free than making them happy; we would rather they choose badly than not at all.”

    I have to give TAI a demerit for even publishing this article, which more properly belongs in The Atlantic or Mother Jones.

  • Anthony

    Quite a bit to digest (mentally). “Unless we understand and make widely known the specific pathways through which business and political decisions improve or harm health, it will be impossible to challenge successfully the ideology of the corporate consumption complex. That ideology characterizes market decisions as those made entirely by rational individuals, devoid of all social and emotional context, thus allowing the claim that, in effect, no one makes anyone consume a product that is detrimental to his or her health.” Which brings to mind that a poorly informed public is more easily swayed by propaganda and therein may lie one answer to negative consequence of unhealthy consumption.

    At the end of the day, Americans (humans) have allowed themselves to be manipulated by corporate propaganda. And yes, author correctly pinpoints that tens of millions of Americans are over consuming. Essay furthers implies that manufactured “wants” have created health issues long term. But from a psychological perspective, consumers buy things from cravings, whims, confusions, addictions, status, come-ons, etc. Obviously, the problem of irrationality in some instances are facilitated by corporate/societal affluence. In sum and pulling on C. Wright Mills’ cultural apparatus, taken as a whole the essay infers that this enterprise controls the destiny of the health of many distracted humans. A complex problem indeed.

  • Ghosts of Benghazi

    There now, based on Nick’s thesis herein and forthcoming book, I see the Obama administration announcing “the science on corporation malfeasance is settled”, now we have evidence to tax and regulate more aggressively these societal Godzillas! Large corporations, like the 3 branches of US government help maintain balance against outright government takeover of everything. Given the lesser of 2 evils, (in peacetime) l will take corporations over government every time…..

  • rpabate

    I quite agree that with the author that today lifestyle choices are probably the most important determinant of good health and that too many people fall victim to their own weaknesses and shortcomings. However, I am not in favor of the author’s soft authoritarianism, which seems increasingly be morphing into hard authoritarianism.

    First, one person’s consumption is another person’s job. Second, we know how easy it is for government to be captured by special interests. Any move to regulate lifestyle choices will only generate more lobbying money capturing more politicians, which then make it even more difficult for better alternatives to arise organically. Why didn’t the author not once mention our food stamp program, which is being used by almost 50 million recipients. These people are probably those most in need of dietary guidance and yet there is almost no attempt to limit food choices to those food that are most healthy.

  • Andrew Allison

    Unbelievable! Mortality down, longevity up, but the evil corporations are killing us? Isn’t it far more likely that the reason that people get sick in ways that were rare a century ago is that they’re living much longer?

    • dwick_OR

      BINGO! My first thought exactly…

    • Corlyss

      Must be one of the legion of academics suffering from severe Europe envy. I suppose if all the industries he thinks of as vile social pariahs were nationalized, he’d like them better.

      • Andrew Allison

        Nah, it’s just a leftie’s pppos (publish or persish . . .)

  • Anthony

    “The media, major corporate interests, and politicians now constitute a seamless web of interconnections and power designed to perpetuate itself through the relentless manufacture of illusion.” Consumers buy things and businesses spend approximately $400 billion to create and manipulate consumers’ demand but are health outcomes corporate responsibility considering motive (logic of profit maximization).

  • MarqueG

    So many problems in this, starting with numerous debatable premises. To begin with, the opposite of consumption/”hyperconsumption” is not “smart consumption. It’s savings. If you look at our national accounts, public and private, we’re spending money with a history-defying recklessness that will eventually end badly.

    Another is the premise that the low-fat diet is healthy can be entirely disputed, as researchers increasingly are finding. Popular arguments contradicting the low-fat diet abound, ranging from authors like Gary Taubes to Drs. Bernstein, Perlmutter, and Davis — all against corn, grains, sugar, and other refined carbohydrates.

    Furthermore, the Center for Science in the Public Interest is a vegetarian advocacy group, which once publicly advocated for fast food chains to end the use of beef tallow in deep fryers in favor of, um, as it turns out, the much more unhealthy hydrogenated vegetable oils.

    If anything, institutions of government as well as major global corporations all suffer from institutional inertia. They’re so massive that it takes a massive countervailing force to knock them off their trajectories, even when their trajectories have them on a disastrous course. But at least, until Too Big To Fail, corporations could conceivably go bankrupt; in the case of government institutions, there is no such corrective threat to their existence.

    Let’s let the fashionable ideas of the day rise and fall according to their merit, rather than cementing them into place in an eternal set of confounding rules and regulations that restrict the human nature to experiment in search of the best solutions on an individual basis, which Karl Popper pointed out was the best engine of human progress.

  • B-Sabre

    I stopped reading when I got to the part about “…and mass-market weapons like Bushmaster AR-15s and Glocks…”. Let’s take a look at statistics, shall we? From the CDC, the top 10 leading causes of death in the US (2010):

    Heart disease: 597,689
    Cancer: 574,743
    Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 138,080
    Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 129,476
    Accidents (unintentional injuries): 120,859
    Alzheimer’s disease: 83,494
    Diabetes: 69,071
    Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 50,476
    Influenza and Pneumonia: 50,097
    Intentional self-harm (suicide): 38,364

    Note that intentional harm of others (i.e. murder) didn’t crack the top 10 list. In 2010, Firearm homicides in 2010 were about 11,078, which does not differentiate between justified and non-justified (i.e. murder) homicide. And of course there’s no way to measure how many lives were not lost because an armed individual stopped a crime in progress.

  • charris208

    What, no mention of George McGovern? The government dietary guidelines have done much to increase obesity and type II diabetes, both directly through the food pyramid, and indirectly by creating a market for processed food. The food pyramid is upside down, and all because of McGovern’s attachment to a fad diet.

    • Corlyss

      This is news to me. Could you provide some background?

  • Pete

    “To be clear, I am not anti-profit or anti-corporation as a matter of principle.”

    Well, that’s mighty big of you.

    And where did Mead & Company dig this gasbag up from? Ah, I see. City University of New York. Enough said.

    • Corlyss

      Gee! Sure is a clever disguise if he isn’t!

  • rheddles

    What utter tripe. Is some one up for tenure?

  • Breif2

    What seems truly insatiable is the Nanny State Complex, a conglomerate of politicians, functionaries, bureaucrats, professors, activists, “intellectuals”, and other sundry arrogant busybodies who presume to tell the rest of us how to live.

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their consciences.” –C.S. Lewis

  • Curious Mayhem

    This article is a bit of a stretch. A lot of the conditions that people in rich countries are dying of are precisely diseases of the rich, to borrow Tom Lehrer’s old joke: the sort of the diseases you get if you live long enough and don’t die first of infectious diseases. After all, we have to die of something.
    That said, it is true that the developed world’s diets have gravitated toward creating a new class of self-inflicted conditions, like the epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Much of that problem is simply a result of bad policy: we subsidize corn and get corn syrup, corn starch, and so on, coming our of our ears, so to speak. Thus, our diets have high glycemic indexes. Diabetes, obesity, and related conditions are the natural result.
    Just follow Nina Planck’s advice and buy your groceries around the edge of the store: dairy, eggs, meat, fish, fruits, vegetables. If you can manage it, avoid the center aisles, with all the heavily processed stuff.

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