Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, May 06, 2017

The Good Satiety

In passing in the Slate Star Codex review of The Hungry Brain, Scott Alexander (which I think is a pseudonym, not really sure) paraphrases the book's central claim as follows: modern food is hyperpalatable and causes obesity "because capitalism is an optimization process that designs foods to be as rewarding as possible, so however many different factors there are, every single one of them will be present in your bag of Doritos." I know very little about nutritional science, so I can't actually take a position on this claim, but I think it is a good springboard to a general discussion of the ills of the United States today.

The claim here is that the brain has a remarkably good "satiety" mechanism that (for most humans, for most of history) keeps people at a healthy weight. The way this works is that the brain simply turns off people's appetite when they have eaten an amount of food that is consistent with a healthy "set point" for their weight. The problem is that this mechanism can be bypassed or corrupted by repeated exposure to "hyperpalatable" food, leading to unhealthy "set points" that the brain then defends by making people hungry, making it agonizingly difficult to lose weight. In essence, the same dynamic that made it so easy to maintain a healthy weight in past centuries is now turned against us.

Again, I have no insight into any of this, but I think it's intuitively plausible, and I think roughly the same thing has happened across a lot of dimensions, Capitalism relentlessly ferrets out every conceivable way to induce people to part with their money, and the result is a kind of minefield of psychological tricks designed to bypass or corrupt the brain's normal decision-making processes. Thus people are parted from their money in all kinds of ways.

The other important aspect of capitalism is that its intersection with democratic politics tends to produce lenient policies that don't protect people from themselves. In other words, if there is money to be made, politicians will (eventually, and with exceptions) tend to allow the profits to be made, even at the expense of the welfare of their constituents. Or at the very least, a political movement that strives to protect people from themselves must be ever-vigilant, because it will be susceptible to constant attack and undermining maneuvers. (I will admit that tobacco is a striking counter-example, and although the public health victory was gradual, it appears to be permanent, at least within U.S. borders.)

The most obvious example, I think, is gambling. Once upon a time in the United States you could gamble in only a few limited circumstances. You could have a friendly card game. You could go to a racetrack or dogtrack (though there were only a handful of these). You could go to Las Vegas or, if you were affluent enough, somewhere like Monaco. That was about it. For people whose brains lead them to gamble more than is healthy (or more than they would choose in the abstract), this was a moderately protective system that kept their money in their pockets.

Now gambling is everywhere. This is a function of the capitalistic tendencies I described above, plus the fact that gambling laws are mostly controlled by states and reservations. So there was a classic race to the bottom, and now practically everyone in the U.S. is subject to psychological attack. Many resist it successfully; many others succumb, and some of them form part of the miserable underclass that is currently troubling our conscience and roiling our politics.

Gambling is a particularly stark example, but I think it is representative of a whole host of human activities that are doing essentially the same thing to our people. We are obese, we are unmotivated, we are depressed, we are addicted to drugs, alcohol, unhealthy food, television, video games, and pornography.

Note two things about the list I just rolled out. First of all, shoot, a fellow could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff. Which is to say, a lot of things are problematic precisely because they are so pleasurable, and so there are no easy answers for public policy.

Second, and relatedly, a lot of people can navigate their way through this minefield with little difficulty, or at manageable costs. These people stand to gain a lot from modern capitalism. And to my mind, this is a plausible (partial) explanation for our exploding inequality. Capitalism drags down a certain fraction of the population and immiserates it. Meanwhile a small class of intelligent, ambitious people unshackled by addiction are able to navigate the system nimbly, forming a wealthy and powerful upper crust balanced precariously above a chaotic ocean of despair.

I'll have a lot more to say about this, but for now perhaps I've rambled enough. I'll just note that I think it is to be expected that blame will be misallocated. Few are equipped to point the finger at compulsive behavior when this amounts to a partial indictment of those who are suffering. And as noted above, there are no easy answers. Prohibition is a distasteful or impossible solution, and whatever mild protections we build are likely to be eroded by the constant efforts of the profiteers. It is a true conundrum and I believe it will define our struggles for the foreseeable future.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah. I think this is a big deal. This is partially why I don’t use any social media or corporate repackaging of friendship networks.
Hyper palatable food may destroy our metabolic set points and ruin our, health, but it can sure be delicious. That’s at least a plausibly acceptable trade. But letting something like Facebook damage our capacity for friendship and human interaction in a similar way seems horrifying.


Along a separate line of reply, the marketing of addictive products also interacts problematically with our notions of equality. If 90% of people will not develop gambling problems, and 10% will, then there are no good equal solutions. Banning gambling will needless oppress 90% of the people. That’s not sustainable in a democracy. Legalizing it and making it readily available, will send 10% on the road to ruin. That’s politically sustainable, but morally problematic. Ideally, you would want it to be legal for the people who won’t have problems and then banned for the people who would. But then there goes your commitment to equality.

8:44 AM  
Blogger James said...

The sad thing is that a lot of hyperpalatable food is complete garbage. I agree there is hyperpalatable food that is at least plausibly worth it.

I think there are some decent solutions to the gambling problem in particular. Some jurisdictions use a process where you can put your name on a list of people who are not permitted to gamble. You can freely remove your name from the list, but there is a waiting period of several days, so it's not something you can do impulsively. This is by no means a perfect solution but it seems like a pretty good one.

I also think it was much better when gambling was legal in only a handful of places. You could still gamble, but only periodically (unless you happened to live in Las Vegas), and presumably people treated it as a special treat, the kind of thing you might do for a bachelor party or during a vacation. Now it's basically everywhere, and people gamble all the time.

I agree it's an equality problem. However, I think there is probably a spectrum, I don't think nearly 90% of people are unscathed by these issues, or even any particular one of them. In fact that probably merits another post.

10:07 AM  

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