In Box

Fat Race

Last year's jeans won't fit? Blame the free market.

Along with iPods and Hollywood blockbusters, another American trend is sweeping the world: corpulence. As countries grow wealthier, they're also growing fatter. In China, the obesity rate is increasing by about 40 percent every year, and in Nigeria health officials are worried that it's reaching epidemic proportions.

Economic historian Avner Offer of Oxford University argues that it may be liberal economies themselves that are to blame. In a recent study, he and two co-authors looked at obesity rates of 11 wealthy, developed countries and found striking disparities. Some 30 percent of U.S. citizens and 29 percent of Australians are obese, while fewer than 20 percent of carb-loving French and Italians are overweight.

Why? It's not McDonald's -- though Big Macs are nearly as ubiquitous in France as in California these days. The real culprit, Offer argues, is anxiety about money and jobs. In other words, citizens with more economic stress tend to supersize their fries. This squares with new research published by the American Medical Association on "recession obesity," the tendency of waistlines to grow along with unemployment numbers. Indeed, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 2.4 million people became obese in the United States during the recession of 2007 to 2009, far higher than projected.

So could it be free market capitalism itself that is making us fat?

According to Offer's findings, countries with fewer labor protections and government benefits have an obesity rate 6 percentage points higher than those with more generous welfare states. He doesn't directly address whether Mediterranean diets and more walkable cities are factors in keeping Italians and French skinny, but his research implies that recent cuts in European welfare spending might do the opposite of belt-tightening.

If Offer is right, then government programs to trim fat from American diets could be missing the point entirely. Rather than encouraging children to exercise more and eat better, first lady Michelle Obama's time might be better spent advising her husband on how to create more secure jobs for their parents.

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In Box

Insecurity Council

Is the U.N.'s seat of power a curse?

For small states, election to one of the U.N. Security Council's 10 nonpermanent seats is a unique opportunity to have a major say in the world's largest political debates. It's the diplomatic equivalent of moving up from the minor leagues to the Yankees. And it's not just a political windfall: Studies have shown that temporary Security Council members receive 59 percent more U.S. aid than nonmembers and are 20 percent more likely to get help from the International Monetary Fund during their two-year term and for a couple of years afterward.

But though a stint on the council is good for a country's international standing and bank account, new research by political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith of New York University suggests that it might actually make countries less prosperous and democratic.

Relative to other countries, temporary members of the Security Council see economic growth drop 3.5 percent and score 2 percent lower on the widely used Polity ranking, which measures levels of democracy. They also see press restrictions increase 3.1 points on Freedom House's 100-point scale.

Is the Security Council itself an enemy of democratic capitalism? No, says de Mesquita. "It's that a vote on the council is a very valuable commodity that can be bought." Temporary membership, like newfound oil riches, gives governments a revenue stream they didn't earn and encourages bad habits.

The result is often corruption. When Zaire was a temporary council member in the 1980s, for instance, Mobutu Sese Seko pocketed generous aid packages from the United States, but his country's per capita GDP contracted nearly 5 percent. After Robert Mugabe's government served a council term in the early 1990s, Zimbabwe's per capita GDP fell nearly 4 percent -- and we all know what became of democracy and press freedom there.

The findings add to the increasingly contentious debate over the effectiveness of foreign aid -- while providing grist for U.N. bashers. But as de Mesquita is quick to point out, it would be foolish to blame the council for a problem caused by the great powers that are its permanent members. "What we have to change are the incentives of our governments," he says.

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