A Laid-Back Notion of Risk

I was listening to a programme on French radio about whether the government should intervene to prohibit investigation related to genetically modified food when I came across this piece about obesity in the US. Food and the way we eat it seem to constitute an important part of our cultural identity. Do we have a distinctive European attitude to food, or are the North European cultures more like the US, and the Southern Europeans in a class of their own?

On the other hand when I accepted the idea of Americans as ‘risk takers’, it wasn’t exactly the risk of being a cigarette-smoking, six-pack-drinking, couch potatoe that I had in mind. But then again maybe we are not so different, since most of the Parisians I get to speak to these days go on less about ‘je t’aime, moi non plus’ and more about ‘boulot, metro et bobo’.

The U.S. government has announced the results of the nation’s latest checkup, and there’s both a silver lining and a cloud. First, the good news: Americans are living longer than they ever have before and the disparity between blacks and whites is narrowing. Now, the bad news: We’re living longer with chronic diseases like diabetes. Between 1997 and 2002, the number of Americans diagnosed with this disease shot up 27 percent. These are just some of the statistics from the report Health, United States, 2003, an annual summary of the nation’s health from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services………….

In 2001, average life expectancy hit an all-time high of 77.2 years, adding two years since 1990. Women’s life expectancy increased one year to 79.8 years, while men’s increased two years to 74.4 years………

And the nation is getting fatter. Almost one in three (31 percent) of the population is now obese, double the rate in 1976-1980. Two-thirds of adults aged 20 to 74 were overweight or obese in 1999-2000.

Among children, the prevalence of those overweight more than doubled, from 7 to 15 percent, between 1976-1980 and 1999-2000. Among adolescents, the rate more than tripled, from 5 to 16 percent.

Americans also proved themselves to be sedentary: 38 percent of female high school students and 24 percent of male students did not do the recommended amounts of exercise in 2001. Twelve percent of adult women and 7 percent of men over 18 were inactive during their usual daily activity. The problem got worse as people got older. Nearly one fifth of men 65 and over and more than one-quarter of women 65 and over were inactive.

Not surprisingly, all of this presages the skyrocketing diabetes rate. In 2002, 6.5 percent of American adults were diagnosed with diabetes, versus 5.1 percent in 1997. The health care associated with the disease has also increased.

“One in five hospitalizations now has a diagnosis of diabetes associated with it,” Bernstein says. “It’s notable, given that hospitalization many times indicates that the proper ambulatory care wasn’t provided.”

“People don’t seem to be getting the message about diet and exercise as much as we had hoped they would,” Bernstein adds. “As people get older and have the opportunity to live longer and take advantage of all the great new innovations in medical care, they also have to take into account that they’re responsible for some aspect of their own health care.”
Source: HealthCentral.com

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Political issues and tagged , , , , , by Edward Hugh. Bookmark the permalink.

About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

28 thoughts on “A Laid-Back Notion of Risk

  1. Edward,

    wasn’t it “boulot, metro, dodo”?

    I suppose there is still something disctinct about (southern) European ways to enjoy good food. But it’s more about choice, in my opinion. I remember some market research concerning the development of the French “snack” market, done in 1997: Conclusion: the deconstruction of traditional eating habits continues rapidly along with more fluid work- and lifestyles. But the good thing is: choice! Working in the London city, it was very unusual to have a real meal and a real break for lunch. It was Pret-a-Manger at the desk for pretty much everyone. In Paris, even in the financial industry, you can choose to have a real meal and a real lunchbreak…

    As far as risk taking is concerned, I wonder if a BIGMAC will one day carry a warning sign: Danger, consumption of this product may cause obesity. 😉

  2. ?bobo? Shouldn’t that be “dodo”? IIRC bobo is french baby-talk for harm, dodo for sleep.

    as for risk-taking, well I do not feel the picture is right: the way the USA wage war looks very risk-avoiding to me. They prefer to spend money, more than most States of the EU, more than the sum of them all in fact.


  3. “boulot, metro, dodo”?

    Touch? Tobias (i gracies Antoni), this time you caught me re-writing the French language.

    “Danger, consumption of this product may cause obesity”

    Yes, I do think this is where we may be going. I have a feeling that this may be the ‘next big issue’. During the BSE scare we already had British ministers eating them in front of the cameras, maybe one day we will get to see working lunches in the oval office accompanied by double rations of cheesburgers and giant coke, just to show ‘we won’t be pushed around by those sissy health freaks’.

    ‘very risk-avoiding to me’

    Not if your a foot soldier (what is that nice British term, a ‘grunt’) on the ground in the Sunni triangle it isn’t.

  4. “‘very risk-avoiding to me’

    Not if your a foot soldier (what is that nice British term, a ‘grunt’) on the ground in the Sunni triangle it isn’t.”

    If you’re a foot soldier, you are not probably a well situated USA citizen, as the composition of the troops is quite different from the one of the whole population. When you’re at the bottom of the society, the level of risk you’ve usually to confront is much higher. And if it were not for this war, the level of casualties in the US Army would be quite lower. After all who in their right mind would wage war on the USA?

    As an aside, I remember reading that in their first weeks after the capture of Baghdad the British donned a much lighter protection than the US troops. Using berets in place of helmets IIRC.


  5. “As an aside, I remember reading that in their first weeks after the capture of Baghdad the British donned a much lighter protection than the US troops. Using berets in place of helmets IIRC.”

    Which was a foolhardy decision on their part. More than one soldier’s life has been subsequently lost for no reason because of this very bit of bravado. I think the Americans have it right – if you can afford it, it is always better to spend the extra money than to put the lives of your soldiers at greater risk than necessary.

    As for the social composition of the US armed forces, I know for a fact that things aren’t all that different in the UK, at least amongst the non-officer class. The British armed forces are whiter than the population as a whole (which is starting to change), but the “grunts” still tend to be drawn overwhelmingly from the poorest classes (which isn’t surprising, given the pay scale); amongst the officer class, Britain differs from the American situation in that the landed aristocracy continues to send quite a few of its’ sons into the services.

  6. We are talkin’ about risk aversion. The USA people is no less risk averse than the Europeans. Simply thing that are risky here are not so there. The age distribution should have something to do too. That’s the reason the USA Constitution sets a minimal age for the presidential eligibility: 35 years.


  7. Ah, yes. It didn’t take long for a website run by anti-American bigots to trot out the American obesity angle. A nation recognizes a health problem, and European bigots react with undisguised glee, eagerly drawing all sorts of socio-economic conclusions, and adding that to their arsenal of “criticism”.

    As to Europeans being risk-averse, there is another name for it: cowardice. And Europe certainly has exhibited a lot of that in the past 10 years. But why take risks on the international stage, when you can freeload off of another country’s efforts?

  8. Just came across this:

    “According to a New York Times/CBS survey, not only does a majority of the population disapprove of his handling of the economy – which has been plagued by slow growth and stubbornly high unemployment – for the first time a majority, albeit a slender one of 45 to 44 per cent, does not like his handling of foreign policy. Fifty-six per cent feel the country is “on the wrong track” while 53 per cent doubt whether the Iraq war has been worth the cost.” – from: http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/story.jsp?story=449817

    Obviously, most Americans are more rational than many in Europe give them credit for.

  9. “anti-American bigots to trot out the American obesity angle”

    Come, come Marrku.I don’t think you’ll find too many bigots knocking around this site, and anti-American, well that’s not my take on the situation. I mean not having too much respect for the intellectual capacities of GWB doesn’t make one anti-American I hope. (In fact one thing which confuses me completely is why in a society which is not based on an ‘ethnos’ you need to use the emotional love-hate register at all about ‘patria’. Surely whether you want to be a US citizen or not should be a pragmatic decision, depending on your choices and preferences. I was actually born with British and US citizenhip as my father – a returning immigrant – was still a US citizen when I was born in the UK. I decided to be British, although now I feel myself to be a citizen of no country and of all of them).

    The question I was implicitly asking is what can we learn from the US experience. The point is not to laugh (or at least only a little at those ‘experts’ in the human condition who you tend to find knockin-around the white house) but to see how we can avoid the health problems associated with the industrialisation of diet(I would be making the same point about child asthma and allergies incidentally). You are the society who has gone farthest and hardest into the industrialisation of food, and since we seem to be coming up behind we may be able to learn something from your mistakes, and as Tobbias says choose.

    You in the US seem to have a lifestyle problem. You’re too sedendtary. Robert Gordon has recently been explaining the productivity benefits of having WalMart-type retailing away from the city centre (in fact he claimed that this was the key productivity difference between the US and Europe, and Brad Delong has also more-or-less endorsed this idea), but maybe the European model with walking and public transport has ‘health externalities’ which need to be costed-in. Further if, in order to work those extra hours, you have less time for preparing food, maybe we need to look at what this means. It’s just a thought, but dialogue and learning is a two-way process. Or are you saying what I was suggesting, that only ‘cowards’ don’t agree to eat their fair share of ‘junk food’, and that those Americans who refuse to do so are in fact ‘unpatriotic’.

  10. “As to Europeans being risk-averse, there is another name for it: cowardice.”

    But Americans who are concerned about their state of physical fitness (e.g. the President, and the possible future governor of California, not to mention the tens of millions of other Americans who work out and watch what they eat) are gutsy, pioneering heroes.

  11. @Edward Hug:

    > Robert Gordon has recently been explaining the productivity benefits of having WalMart-type retailing away from the city centre (in fact he claimed that this was the key productivity difference between the US and Europe, and Brad Delong has also more-or-less endorsed this idea),

    Could you please tell me where to find the statements of R. Gordeon and B.Delong?
    Many Thanks!

  12. Florian:

    Gordon has a full NBER paper


    and an FT article quoted by Brad here:


    Brad later used the Gordon take on this in a fascinating post entitled fast food journalism:


    The key FT Gordon quote:

    “The new stores are the “big boxes” such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Best Buy, large new buildings set up on greenfield sites at interstate highway junctions, in suburbs and, increasingly, in inner cities. As these new stores reap the rewards of their size, openness and accessibility and drive smaller stores out of business, they bolster the average productivity of the US retail sector as a whole.

    While countries differ, Europe has many ways of stifling modern retailing, from green belts and land-use restrictions to laws that prevent companies from lowering their prices. These make life difficult for new, more efficient retailers in order to protect small, traditional merchants. This is one of many cultural chasms across the Atlantic. Many Europeans could not care less about retail productivity and instead are adamant that Europe must avoid the US’s unregulated land use and starvation of public transport, which have produced its overly dispersed, energy-wasting metropolitan areas.”

  13. Edward:

    “I don’t think you’ll find too many bigots knocking around this site, and anti-American”

    Perhaps the worst form of bigotry, is blind bigotry.

    In either case, as to Europeans’ general tendency towards cowardice, for once it would be nice to see Europeans take bold initiative on some front without waiting for Americans to take the lead, – say, for example, by dropping all agricultural subsidies, and transforming Africa into a thriving breadbasket.

    But we all know that wouldn’t happen, since it would entail great socio-economic upheaval and adjustment – something Europeans wouldn’t have the courage to deal with.

  14. Patricia Hewitt, Britain’s Trade and Industry minister, has complained often about the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which “currently pays out $2 a day for every cow in Europe. Yet more than a billion people around the world live on half that amount.” – as can be seen from one of her recent speech templates at: http://www.dti.gov.uk/ministers/speeches/hewitt050903.html

    Reform of the CAP has been a central plank in Britain’s EU policy for years, which is yet another example of how deeply flawed most generalisations about Europeans are.

  15. Quite a coincidence that you come up with this issue right now.
    My newspaper (NRC-handelsblad) had an extended article last saterday on the growing problem of obesity in the Netherlands.
    It claimed that the causes are well-known but the cures ar hard to find. ‘Should the food-industry produce lollipops with taste and/or nutritients of broccoli?”
    Very sad: Looking for technial solutions for social problems. When it concerns adults one can say that for the great majority of the obese people it’s simply their own choice. If the society at large is not to suffer from this choices it should suffice if the premium of health-insurances was related to lyfestyle. Being a very healthy person myself I don’t mind paying for people who are blessed with lower health but I do have a problem paying for the diseases of people who choose to take high risks with their own health.
    When it comes to children however in my opinion society should protect them for parental neglect. Stuff your child with unhealthy and to much food is a form of child-abuse and should be dealt with from that perspective.
    @Markku: I really don’t know what to think of your contribution. The post is on the risk of unhealthy food. Europeans who avoid this risk are cowards…?
    Looks like if you are testing the self-control of the people at a fistful. How many provocations and insults should we ignore before we pass your test?

  16. As for te road accidents statistics, it is not really something to hold against the US, since the variable most associated with road deaths is population density (more accidents in the countryside than in towns…)

    Unilateral dropping of agricultural subsidies would benefit only US Agriculture, not African producers nor European consumers. So, what would be the point?

    Finally, the EU is now taking a greater risk than the US has ever faced economically, i.e. the integration of the still much poorer Eastern Europe. That will cause great socio-economic change.

  17. “As for te road accidents statistics, it is not really something to hold against the US, since the variable most associated with road deaths is population density (more accidents in the countryside than in towns…)”

    Curious that, in Britain, the accident rate in urban areas is higher.

  18. While this is my personal observation about obesity in the U.S. (and thus I can’t vouch for scientific accuracy, etc.) but for American women, weight seems to be an indicator of social class.

    At the bottom, it is possible to be poor and fat. It is even likely as nutrient-poor, but calorie-rich food is cheaper (calorie for calorie) than fresh fruits and vegetables. which means that more food needs to be injested to meet the body’s nutrient requirements. Preparing fresh food is more time-consuming than unwrapping and heating the pre-packaged stuff, or ordering fast food. And not least, there’s stress-induced eating.

    Stress-induced eating is probably a factor in some cases in the middle- and upper-classes, but they tend to be more health-conscious, and have the time, means, and inclination to do something about it (by dieting, joining Weight Watchers(tm), taking exercise classes, or joining a health club, etc.).

    For men, there’s less pressure to be ‘in shape’, frex, there’s three men (including me) in my water fitness class versus 1-2 dozen women…the men who take these classes tend to be heart attack/stroke survivors ordered there by their doctors.

    It’s very easy to be sedentary in the car-oriented suburbs of the U.S.A, you’re always in your car because commerce is zoned away from residential areas so there’s little incentive to incidental exercise by walking somewhere…there’s just nothing within reasonable walking distance.

    (note: exercize doesn’t do much to burn off calories, but it does help maintain health and avoid diabetic complications. my father-in-law’s entire strategy for managing his diabetes risk, successfully thus far, consists of exercizing regularly).

    To bring this back to a European focus; I saw some of the same zoning/car issues in France in the post-WWII-constructed areas, so I wonder how long that Europe-vs-U.S. advantage will hold.

  19. There is a recently published book (Greg Critsser’s Fatland: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World) that deals with the issues discussed here. Critser’s conclusion is that it took a very unusual set of circumstances to create America’s obesity explosion: Suburbanization, the mushrooming fast-food/snack food industry and their fat-inducing supersize meals and value-meals, weakening of social institutions that encouraged weight control, increased sedentary activity (TV, video-games), steep fall in food prices, massive immigration of undernourished immigrants (who tend to over-stuff their kids!) and as Patrick noted, the advantages in price/convenience of fatty foods for the poor.

    The unusual set of circumstances that created the ‘fat boom’ of 1980-2000 in the US is unlikely to be reproduced anywhere else. However, since many of the factors involved were simply pioneered in the US and will spread to other countries, obesity is likely to increase in other countries, including EU countries; but not to the level of the US.

  20. Frans: actually, I was specifically referring to Edward Hugh’s earlier reference to Americans’ general tendency to be risk-takers, in all aspects of life, including economic and political life, – not in their eating habits.

    The fact remains that Europeans’ aversion to risk in, say, foreign policy, has another name for it: cowardice. A good example would be the infamous lack of initiative Dutch soldiers showed in Srebrenica, where they wound up aiding and abetting the slaughter of 7000 Muslims. More courageous leadership would have ignored directives from up high, stepped up to the plate, and said no.

    Europeans, in giving up initiative to the United States, in being too careful before taking action, in waiting for another country to take the risks – and thereby freeloading from the resulting data stream – winds up generating a culture of sedentary cowardice.

    As to insults, well, cowards deserve insults. Try to practice some courage, and you won’t be insulted. And, oh, by the way, I don’t think it is very courageous to stand up to the United States, – everybody else is doing it, as it is the easiest thing to do (even Americans do it). But how about trying to stand up to the Serbians, before they started killing Muslims? How about standing up to militant Muslims in your own country? How about standing up to your own farmers, and encourage the dissolution of CAP subsidies?

    It is high time Europe showed some initiative on its own. Yet this requires a great shift in thinking. To put it succinctly, Europeans have to recognize their own cowardice, and make a willful decision to practice courage.

  21. Just for the record, here’s another view of American society, from an American:

    “There’s an underlying ideological drive that overrides pragmatism. The American people want government to fix the things they can’t fix themselves. The American people are basically individualists. They like each other; they’re very charitable and generous; they’re bound together in a hundred different ways — they’re not a big-government country. They’re not socialists. But they recognize there are things they can’t fix, like healthcare, or education–public education.

    And this administration comes in with an ideology that blocks its ability to see, articulate, and resolve those problems. It’s an ideology that’s a sharpened sort of right-wing Republican party ideology. It has no real intellectual base to it. It’s just the ideology of a party.”

    This is the America that I respect, the pragmatic one, not the one that’s driven itself mad with a crazy ideology. The quote comes from Wes Clark taking to Josh Micah Marshall. The whole interview is well worth a read.


  22. @Markku: Thank you for our reaction.
    Although I despise the politicians responsible for this black page in Dutch history still I feel ashamed about Srebrenica.
    Even the way the government under social-democrat Wim Kok resigned 7 years later in response to the scientific report on the issue was shameful. They had some point in giving part of the blame to the French (refusal to give air-support) but the way they tried to spread responsibility over all of the UN was another example of cowardice behavior indeed. A highly decorated partymember of Kok shortly after Srebrenica was heading a commission investigating what had happened. The ministry of defense in fact had destroyed evidence of atrocities. In just a couple of weeks the “investigations” of this mr Kemenade were finished. An absolute disgrace. My reaction on the scientific report was that it would have been a much better signal to throw this Kemenade out of the party then resigning as government with elections already coming up in a few weeks!
    My problem with your “culture of cowardice” is that you tend to extend your (right) accusations to all 400000000 Europeans; including the ones that fight this culture.
    With my limited resources I do “stand up to militant Muslims in my own country? I do stand up to our own farmers, and encourage the dissolution of CAP subsidies” (take a look at this http://www.fransgroenendijk.nl/comments.php?id=P122_0_1_0 for example) but I don’t like it if I have to “prove” my courage.
    I am not a typical Dutchman nor a typical European. They don’t exist.

  23. “And this administration comes in with an ideology that blocks its ability to see, articulate, and resolve those problems. It’s an ideology that’s a sharpened sort of right-wing Republican party ideology. It has no real intellectual base to it. It’s just the ideology of a party.”

    Wow. Ignorance. Why should I be shocked? It’s easier to completely dismiss something you don’t understand than to attempt to figure out the reasoning behind why someone believes something.

  24. Linden: Agreed. Yet your further elaboration would have been interesting to hear.

  25. “someone believes something”

    Trying to find a reason to believe. But not this way. There has to be an empirical test. Now give it to me.

    Meantime I’m riding with Clark.

  26. “your further elaboration would have been interesting to hear.”

    OK I’ll do a post on this. It will probably be about why Schwartzenegger and Clark seem different to professional politicians. Europeans like to laugh, but Americans may have a point.

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