Freedom of Choice

We think of pizza by the slice, sometimes a whole pie, so we haven’t noticed how big an industry it has become. But Big Pizza is as big as virtually anything else in our economy – and as political.

A new Bloomberg report notes that while some parts of the food industry have responded to pressure from government agencies and food activists to offer healthier options, the pizza sector has chosen instead to fight back.

Reporting on this in The New York Times, Paul Krugman noted what has become by now a familiar story: “The pizza lobby portrays itself as the defender of personal choice and personal responsibility. It’s up to the consumer, so the argument goes, to decide what he or she wants to eat, and we don’t need a nanny state telling us what to do.”

Yet as more Americans become obese, it has become a public health issue, one that we all end up paying for. Moreover like most things in our country, it has become a focus of partisan politics. Krugman notes that “heavier states tend to vote Republican.” They are well represented in what “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call the “diabetes belt” of counties, mostly in the South, that suffer most from that particular health problem. Not coincidentally, officials from that region have led the pushback against efforts to make school lunches healthier.”

To be sure, kids, being kids, often don’t like their spinach, and they will go hungry until they pass a Pizza Hut on the way home. But that’s just the point of departure for what has become a war, as “major pizza companies have become intensely, aggressively partisan. Pizza Hut gives a remarkable 99 percent of its money to Republicans.” Krugman concludes: “over all, the politics of pizza these days resemble those of, say, coal or tobacco.”

In their book, Nudge, published a few years back, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein proposed an approach to such problems they called “libertarian paternalism.” That is, they suggest, “choice architects” can subtly influence personal choices. One of the examples they offer is the organization of food in school cafeterias. How it is displayed and where it is placed can induce students to pick healthier meals – or cookies, chips and fries. Nothing is forced, but choice architects help us steer a middle course between authoritarian control and random exposure to temptation.

The Pizza Industry works the other side, using advertising and promotions to influence us in the direction of pepperoni, extra cheese, calories and fat because that is where the profits are. In both cases our unconscious is at work, as we end up making choices without really thinking about them.

To be sure, we are not going to choose something we don’t like. Spinach will probably never prevail, at least among kids. But the more we think about anything the more options we end up having, and this is just where those who want to promote health, especially among children, might concentrate their attention. In addition to drugs, we could work on developing options that will help “choice architects” steer kids towards health.

It has to work below the radar. If people feel they are being controlled they will rebel, and the food industries whose profits are at risk will help them fight back. In an environment unfriendly to health, consciousness helps us choose wisely. But typically we let our minds follow the path of least resistance.