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Friday, May 09, 2008

Tragedy of the Commoners

Some talk on a list recently of proposed laws requiring chain restaurants to label caloric content of their food. My mostly-free-market friends are against the idea. Conversely, I am lamenting they are only requiring labeling of calories instead of just adopting the same standards applied to grocers. (I would like to see transfat content labeled, for starters.) This is a very paternal outlook, surely offensive to many of you (and probably to a younger me). My explanation follows. As always, comments welcome.

"And if a restaurant doesn't want to post their caloric quantities, go to a different one and express to the management on why you will not be coming back. If enough patrons did this being a somewhat intelligent business owner would certainly post the contents of the food or risk going out of business! If gov't is relied upon isn't that just more tax dollars going to pay for someone where the consumers can really do it themselves?"

Human nature completely defies this approach. Most people, until such time as evolution significantly updates the human mind (read: never--other things will happen first), are more subject to marketing dollars than to reason. (I could go on at length for why people are this way, but suffice it to say imo it is core to our design, not a passing trend.)

People like you guys arguing over how it ought to work rationally completely misses the reality that the vast vast majority of the population is not rational and will never do what they "should". Instead, they will do what they're programmed to do. And right now, the main forces--the programmers--are commercial interests and to a much lesser extent governments. Most of these are not primarily concerned with consumer welfare. Sometimes interests coincide, sometimes they conflict.

Battles do not happen between consumers and corporations, they happen between these corporate/governmental entities, with the consumers as the mostly-obedient game pieces.

Occasionally there are things like Supersize Me, which is like a toddler coming up and knocking over a couple of your game pieces. Costly, but neither enduring nor usually decisive. Sometimes it can give your (corporate or government) opponents an opening for a new strategy, though.

The tragedy of the commons* is a real issue with a population that is, unfortunately, all too analogous to a pasture.

If there is any "free market" fix here, it is in figuring out how to profit wildly and directly from improving people's health. This cannot rely, however, on the premise that people care or understand what is good for them. People care about feeling good, avoiding pain, getting sex and love and security, and not thinking about dying. Their connection to all of these things is pretty shallow (extended or abstract reasoning doesn't usually enter the picture -- think: photo of attractive people on a can makes people drink what's in the can). Given this substrate to work with, a free market fix is pretty tough, especially when you are in competition with a herd of giants who will view you as their enemy. Consumer Reports is the only notable example of a successful player in that field that I am aware of.

The only other solution is to change the playing field with laws, or to remove the profitability requirement by funding with tax dollars. Either of those is fraught with problems. Govts tend to do things stupidly at best, and often are covertly tweaking their plays to benefit one or more of the corporate teams anyway... And tax dollars, what's left over after egregious friction losses, will never be a real match for corporate advertising budgets.

So, no good solutions to offer here, except to say that, while I agree with the distaste of it, the "best" real, workable, pragmatic, actually-might-do-something solution in many cases like this is a well made law or two. Much as I hate the idea.

Addendum, May 11:

A small but central point wasn't made clearly enough above as it had been made already in the conversation preceding that particular note:

Many of these positive changes would lose a restaurant more customers than they would gain them if made voluntarily (that is, if they were the only ones to do it). Laws forcing these changes across the board effectively level the playing field again, and in many cases allow restaurants to implement changes they would like (ethically) to implement, but couldn't normally because the less ethical niche is more profitable and thus evolutionarily more fit in the unfettered corporate survival arena.

This is why it's a tragedy of the commons. The shepherds don't want the pasture to die, but nor can they rely upon the next guy's self-restraint. And when the pasture in question is the population itself, private ownership of the pasture (the free market solution to the tragedy of the commons) is... problematic. :)

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com