Should Public Policy Promote Better Habits?

(CREDIT: BLEIBEL; Lebanon/CartoonArts International/The New York Times Syndicate) (Image: BLEIBEL; Lebanon / CartoonArts International / The New York Times Syndicate)Emily Badger at The Washington Post recently told us that urban sprawl is bad for our health. So are movie theater concession counters, reported Vox’s Sarah Kliff, which is why two Democratic lawmakers, Senator Tom Harkin, of Iowa, and Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro want to include popcorn under the rules requiring calorie disclosure. (At the risk of sounding whiny, they aren’t exactly “coming after” your popcorn; you’d be free to buy it, it’s just that the cinema would have to tell you how many calories you’re about to consume.)

In other words, neoclassical economics is all wrong.

O.K., that’s an overstatement. But both concerns about the health effects of urban layouts and attempts to deter certain kinds of consumption are basically about the failings of rationality as a model of human behavior. People should get enough exercise – they will, in general, be happier if they do – but they tend not to get exercise if they live in an environment where it’s easy to drive everywhere and not as easy to walk. People should also limit their caloric intake – again, they’ll be happier if they do – but they have a hard time resisting those giant tubs of popcorn.

I can personally attest to the importance of these environmental effects. These days, I walk around with a pedometer on my wrist – hey, I’m 61, and it’s now or never – and it’s obvious just how much more natural it is to get exercise when I’m in New York than when I’m in Princeton, N.J. Choosing to walk just a couple times rather than take the subway fairly easily gets me to 15,000 steps in the city, while even with a morning run it can be hard to break 10,000 in the suburbs. Also, the nanny-state legacy of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with calories displayed on practically everything in New York, does help curb my vices (greasy breakfast sandwiches!).

The interesting and difficult question is how, and whether, these kinds of behavioral issues should be reflected in policy. There are some conventional externality arguments for promoting walkable development – less pollution, etc. But can we – should we – also favor walkability and density because it promotes good habits? How far should regulation of fast food go? Etc., etc.

Also, isn’t it interesting that these days big-city residents, on average, lead more “natural” lives, being outside and getting around on their own two feet, than “real Americans” who live in small cities and towns?

Now, time to finish my Mark Bittman-approved unsweetened oatmeal and not, repeat not, get a breakfast sandwich.