…because I’m an economist and a mom–that’s why!

A Statistic in Need of a Baseline: A Trillion-Calorie Reduction?

May 19th, 2010 . by economistmom


I have complained before of the Obama Administration’s use of a “policy extended” rather than current-law budget baseline against which to evaluate the costs of their budgetary proposals.  Measured against the CBO-official, current-law baseline, the President’s proposals add nearly $4 trillion to the ten-year deficit–increasing the deficit from $6.0 trillion to $9.8 trillion, or more than 60 percent.  Measured against the Obama Administration’s “policy extended” baseline where all the Bush tax cuts are extended permanently (and entirely deficit financed, of course), the Administration shows they reduce the ten-year deficit by over $2 trillion–decreasing the deficit from $10.6 trillion to $8.5 trillion, or nearly 20 percent.

Baselines matter.  And not just to budget geeks or other people who care about budget rules and the pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) standard (with many exemptions, of course).  But they matter to ordinary people, too, to provide perspective on what exactly is being changed and how large or small the change is (and how good or bad).

That’s why when I read this story in the Washington Post on Tuesday about the First Lady’s fight against childhood obesity and getting food manufacturers to commit to reducing the calorie content of their foods, I heard myself screaming:  “but what is the baseline?!… and is this big or small, and good or bad?!”  I mean, what the heck does a trillion or a trillion and a half calories mean?… Key points from the article, that yet do not help me understand how significant this is (emphasis added):

In a direct response to Michelle Obama’s declared war on childhood obesity, an alliance of major food manufacturers on Monday pledged to introduce new, more healthful options, cut portion sizes and trim calories in existing products.

The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a coalition including Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Foods and PepsiCo, will slash 1 trillion calories by the end of 2012 and 1.5 trillion calories by the end of 2015. The 16 members make 20-25 percent of food consumed in the United States…

Missing from the announcement were any specifics on the new products or cuts that will be made to existing items. But White House officials stressed that the companies will be held accountable. Each year, their progress will be assessed by the Partnership for a Healthier America, a nonpartisan organization for which the first lady serves as honorary chair. If any one of the companies doesn’t meet its target, all of the companies will be held responsible, White House sources said. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improve Americans’ health, also will track the effort’s impact on childhood obesity. A first report is tentatively slated for 2013.

“What the White House is doing is consistent and relentless,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University and a frequent critic of the food industry. “The food companies are having their feet held to the fire for making kids fat. That’s awkward. And it is not good for business.”

Eliminating 1.5 trillion calories sounds like a lot. But can it help turn the tide on obesity?

A spokesman for the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation was unable to put the number in context. Instead, he said the number is designed to eliminate the “energy gap” — the number of calories consumed that are not expended through physical activity. Recent research estimates that gap is approximately 100 calories per day per person, and less for teenagers and children.

Hmmm…. sounds like the First Lady is trying to eliminate the “unsustainable” part of calories (the “energy gap”) just like her husband’s trying to eliminate–with the help of his fiscal commission, that is–the “unsustainable” part of the budget deficit (the part that exceeds growth in the economy).  ;)

But I still find myself asking (like any well-conditioned budget policy analyst would) “a trillion-calorie reduction relative to what?–and spread over how many foods or people?–and over what kinds of people?”…  How do we evaluate the success of this calorie-reduction portion of the overall campaign to reduce childhood obesity?

11 Responses to “A Statistic in Need of a Baseline: A Trillion-Calorie Reduction?”

  1. comment number 1 by: Economists Do It With Models

    And this is all without even considering the complication that what are reported as calories on food labeling are actually kilocalories from an energy perspective, so all of the estimates could even be off by a factor of 1000 from what people think they mean. :)

  2. comment number 2 by: npm

    Lessee: around 300 million people in the US, at around 2000 calories a day, times 365 = 219 trillion calories a year. If the companies make a quarter of that, that’s around 50 trillion calories. So we’re talking on the order of 2 percent, or on the order of 0.5 percent of total calories if there is no feedback.

    On the other hand, 1 trillion/300 million = 3000 calories a year. 3500 calories = a pound of fat, and reducing the average weight of the population by 1 pound would be a nontrivial accomplishment. Whether this action would have that result - who knows?

    (And yes, to the previous commenter, I’m using the standard nutritional definition of calories, which are scientifically a kilocalorie. I don’t know anyone who is confused by this in context.)

  3. comment number 3 by: SteveinCH

    Well and the quite funny part of this that isn’t even in the baseline is what it means. Surely the companies aren’t going to take responsibility for reducing caloric intake. Rather, they are going to reduce the caloric content of their foods. So, I’ll reduce the calories per serving of cornflakes from 90 to 88. That doesn’t mean that the number of cornflakes eaten won’t go up to offset.

    In many categories, the average calories per product consumed have come down (think hot dogs for an easy example–20 years ago, there were no turkey dogs or light dogs, so the average dog has fewer calories). While this has occurred the average number of calories consumed by an American has increased.

    So the companies have succeeded in fulfilling the their objective while failing to meet the administration’s and will likely continue to do so.

  4. comment number 4 by: AMTbuff

    Baselines matter? I disagree. Waistlines matter!

  5. comment number 5 by: Joshua Uy

    1.5 trillion calories (as previously stated above) is around 430 million lbs of fat (if all those calories get turned into fat). There are about 77 million people under the age of 20. So assuming this was spread evenly over the population less than 20, you’re looking at 5 lbs per person. But what is more likely to happen is that the benefit will be very unevenly distributed over the population. Who knows if this intervention will have any appreciable benefit for the target population (at risk and currently obese). It may. I hope it does.

    Then there’s the lack of physical activity……

  6. comment number 6 by: SteveinCH

    You’re missing the point. The companies don’t control calories consumed, they control calories per serving. They can meet the goal without any fewer calories being consumed in aggregate.

  7. comment number 7 by: Matt Franko

    “that is–the “unsustainable” part of the budget deficit (the part that exceeds growth in the economy). ”

    Is this Concord’s/Peterson’s current position on “sustainability” or just your personal view as blogger here?


  8. comment number 8 by: B Davis

    Matt Franko wrote:

    “that is–the “unsustainable” part of the budget deficit (the part that exceeds growth in the economy). ”

    Is this Concord’s/Peterson’s current position on “sustainability” or just your personal view as blogger here?

    I can’t speak for Concord, Peterson, or Diane but I’ve been reading up on the sustainability question recently and can give one interpretation. Some take “sustainability” to mean keeping the debt to GDP ratio stable. Using this definition, there is a relationship that must hold between the average interest rate paid on the debt, the GDP growth rate, the debt, and the primary balance (equal to revenues minus outlay, excluding interest costs). Using i, r, D, and P to represent those four items, the necessary relationship can be represented as follows:

    P = (i - r) * D

    If the interest rate is greater than GDP growth, then there needs to be a primary surplus to maintain this stability. If the reverse is true, then there can be a primary deficit. The formula gives the size of the necessary surplus or allowable deficit. Using this definition, there is reason to think U.S. government finances will come under a great deal of pressure over the next several decades. You can read more on all of this at this link.

  9. comment number 9 by: Matt Franko

    B Davis,
    Thanks, how do you compute the GDP growth rate in your equation?


  10. comment number 10 by: B Davis

    Matt Franko wrote:

    Thanks, how do you compute the GDP growth rate in your equation?

    If you’re looking at the graph and table at this link, I calculate the GDP growth rate via the following formula:

    100 * (new_GDP - old_GDP) / old_GDP

    All of the numbers in the table and formula are nominal values, not corrected for inflation. In the formula, however, I just use the factor which, when multiplied by the old nominal value, gives the new nominal value. That just equals (new_GDP / old_GDP).

    Let me know if you see any issues with the formula or explanation. I noticed that there are some similar formulas on page 56 of the IMF’s Fiscal Monitor but I haven’t had a chance to take a close look at them.

  11. comment number 11 by: Josh Uy

    I suppose that’s true. That’s why I get a supersize fries with my diet coke.