Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Food and Unintended Consequences

I've been on the road for a while and yesterday I was playing "catch up" on e-mails, phone messages, etc. Consequently I've been away from blogging. But something I heard (and read about to some extent) last week caught my attention and I made a note to blog.

I believe the trans-fat ban that passed in New York City is an interesting example of "unintended consequences". My thinking is that this action is not surprising given that we have pushed health care costs to third party systems (whether private or public sector). It has long been a dictum in many circles that power follows the money. I believe even Milton Friedman talked about abdicating payment responsibility for various things (including health care) because it could ultimately result in the third party having some say over other choices that impinge on their responsibility to pay.

In the case of the trans-fat ban, we are looking at government imposing a life-style choice on individuals. Part of the logic rests on the fact that government provides (pays for) health care services. The thinking then follows the "golden rule": they who have the gold make the rules. I suspect that was not an intended consequence of the movement toward third-party payment systems for health care.

On a secondary note, a colleague of mine also pointed out an interesting and somewhat parallel article in the December 7 issue of The Economist. The article deals with the power of the consumer to affect global change, particularly by buying organically produced food. But part of the article questions whether or not the choice really has a positive effect. Specifically, since organically produced foods may be less productive than foods produced with the help of "technology", we could see lower crop yields. These lower crop yields may require that we turn more untilled land to food production in order to feed the same number of people. It could also require the expenditure of more energy to plant, till, harvest, etc. Again, my guess is that this is not a consequence that is intended by those who would have us eat healthy.

While I'm not an expert in these areas, I thought the whole discussion of food choice would be an interesting discussion starter for unintended consequences in policy making. What do you think?

Posted by TSchilling at December 12, 2006 3:52 PM

Considering unintended consequences is a particularly interesting aspect of the economic way of thinking. The trans-fat ban and buying organic are good examples of institutions and/or consumers making choices which they believe to be in the best interest of individuals or of the planet without regard to long-term consequences of those decisions.

Posted by: Dawn Conner at December 12, 2006 4:19 PM

It is interesting that although many decisions are made with good intentions, unintended consequences are not always anticipated. This may be due in part because decisions are made from a social science perspective of what is good for the planet without regard for the economic way of thinking. The examples of potential unintended and negative consequences of organic farming or buying fair trade coffee point out the need to incorporate the economic way of thinking in our decision-making process.

Posted by: Dawn Conner at December 14, 2006 12:29 PM

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