Monday 5 March 2018

Jamie Oliver and 'middle-class logic'

Jamie Oliver is on the front of today's Times with some ill advised comments about fat people.

“When you get trapped in the disadvantaged cycle, the concept of middle-class logic doesn’t work. What you see is parents who aren’t even thinking about five fruit and veg a day, they’re thinking about enough food for the day,” he told The Times.

“Willpower is a very unique personal thing . . . We can’t judge our equivalent of logic on theirs because they’re in a different gear, almost in a different country."

Oliver believes everything he is told by his friends in organisations like Action on Sugar and then regurgitates their views to the media, not always very well. In this instance, he is talking about the socio-economic gradient of obesity and the idea is that people on low incomes are so stressed and cash-strapped that they can't help but stuff their faces with crisps and pizza. Victims of circumstance, they inevitably become obese.

Fortunately for them, there is a white knight - St Jamie of Essex - who will rescue them by taxing soft drinks and banning food discounts in supermarkets. The poor plebs are incapable of making decisions for themselves so the government must make their decisions for them.

You can see why the 'public health' lobby likes this argument. They are always looking for ways to sidestep the issue of choice and personal freedom. If being slim depends on having access to what Oliver calls 'middle-class logic', the case for state intervention appears stronger.

The problem with this analysis is not just that it is incredibly patronising but that it doesn't explain why so many rich people are obese and so many poor people are slim. For all the talk about the 'obesogenic' environment and lack of choice, the fact remains that the majority of us (74%) are not obese. Even in the 'most deprived' groups, 68% are not obese. It seems that a very large number of people from every social class is able to exercise willpower and 'logic'.

Indeed, obesity only has a socio-economic gradient among women. As the Health Survey for England shows, there is virtually no relationship between income and obesity for men.

Among women, the relationship is much stronger, but the obesity rate is still 20 per cent for the wealthiest women. If poverty-related factors are the cause of obesity, why are so many rich women obese and why do these factors seem to have no influence on men?

Even if the relationship between poverty and obesity were stronger, it would not necessarily imply a lack of willpower. People on low incomes are more likely to ignore government health advice on a number of issues and George Orwell nailed some of the reasons for this in The Road to Wigan Pier. The decision to prioritise taste and convenience over healthy is not irrational, per se.

More to the point, even if we accept the premise that obesity is caused by poverty, stress and unhappiness, Jamie Oliver is in no position to solve these problems. He is not going to improve the living conditions of working people. Instead, he is going to force his millionaire preferences on them and if they don’t comply, he is going to make them poorer, starting with his regressive sugar tax before moving on to banning food discounts.

This is a classic characteristic of middle class reform movements. They tackle symptoms rather than causes and ultimately punish the people they are supposed to be helping.

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