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Observations on the relationship between government, business, and wicked problems

Sunday, June 24th, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

Politics – the role of government, and our views about that role – have a critical influence in wicked problems. It is common to view politics as artificial and somehow extraneous to our work. Yet in the context of nutrition, health and wellness, poverty, and so on, understanding how these forces work is fundamental to changing behavior.

Consider: according to the NCHS, 35.7% of the adults in the United States are obese.

Why? How? How can we fix it?

Based on that finding, our country would, theoretically, change policies to control the types of food that are consumed or produced, to mandate changes in physical education for students, to add warnings to sodas (like the warnings on cigarettes), and so-on. But did you know that the definition of “obesity” is simply a body mass index (BMI) of greater than 30? Most of us have no idea what a BMI is. It’s a measure of your weight in pounds, divided by your height in inches (squared), times 703. If that seems fairly arbitrary, it’s because it is: it was developed in 1840, and hasn’t changed since. NPR describes “10 reasons why the BMI is bogus”. Kate Harding offers pictures to illustrate what BMI means in real people, arguing that BMI lumps people who are obviously fit into the “obese” category, while Medical News Today claims that we’re probably underestimating obesity in the US.

High-fructose corn syrup causes weight gain, and is now linked to both autism and ADHD. Michal Pollan describes that “Corn is the sweetener in the soda. It’s in the corn-fed beef Big Mac patty, and in the high-fructose syrup in the bun, and in the secret sauce. Slim Jims are full of corn syrup, dextrose, cornstarch, and a great many additives. The “four different fuels” in a Lunchables meal, are all essentially corn-based. The chicken nugget—including feed for the chicken, fillers, binders, coating, and dipping sauce—is all corn. The french fries are made from potatoes, but odds are they’re fried in corn oil, the source of 50 percent of their calories. Even the salads at McDonald’s are full of high-fructose corn syrup and thickeners made from corn.”

Some doctors are lobbying to change how we calculate obesity to use waist-to-height ratio, a better indicator of actual health risks. And others are demanding that we readjust our century-old focus on corn subsidies, part of the the farm income stabilization, which are incenting the use of these ingredients in the foods described above.

Who would oppose such changes, in the face of scientific evidence?

According to Reuters, the “side with the fattest wallets.” The food and beverage lobby spent 140M in 2009-2011 – more than they spent in 1998-2008 combined. As the Reuters article describes, these lobbyists drive their message directly to the top: “On July 12, White House visitor logs show a who’s who of food company chief executives and lobbyists visited the White House. The group met with Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s senior adviser, and Melody Barnes, then director of the president’s Domestic Policy Council. Among the group at the meeting: CEOs of Nestle USA, Kellogg, General Mills, and top executives at Walt Disney, Time Warner, and Viacom, owner of the Nickelodeon children’s channel — companies with some of the biggest financial stakes in marketing to children. Those companies have a combined market value of more than $350 billion.”

And when you peek behind the curtain, you see Janice Fields – president of McDonalds USA – is also on the board of Monsanto Company. You learn that John Chidsey, formerly CEO of Burger King, is a Director at HealthSouth, the US’s largest owner and operator of inpatient rehabilitative hospitals. Janet Hill, Director of Wendy’s, is also the director of Dean Foods, which owns Robinson Dairy, Borden, Country Fresh, Mayfield Dairy, and pretty much every other dairy manufacturer in the US. Daniel Bryant is the Senior Vice President of Global Public Policy and Government Affairs for PepsiCo, and is on the board of directors for the largest lobbying group in the US, the “United States Chamber of Commerce”. Donald Correll is on the board of directors there, too, and is also a director at HealthSouth. Patricia Woertz is the CEO of Archer Daniels Midland, an agriculture processor. She also sits on the board of directors at Procter & Gamble, and sat on the US President’s Export Council.

The connections between the producers, distributors, and politicians are clear, and personal influence plays a major role in setting policy direction. In a wicked problem, behavior change comes through multiple approaches, all engaging at once. Some of these come from product and service design and advanced technology. Many of them come from advertising and cultural voice. And a huge amount of them come through the influence of a very small number of people, manifested as lobby-led policy decisions. To fire on all cylinders, social entrepreneurs likely need to understand and drive all of these forces.

If you haven’t played with the online tool They Rule, check it out here: it offers a great interactive visualization of those who are pulling the strings.

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