My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
August 24, 2003


I have always believed that people should accept personal responsibility for the consequences of their actions, but I'm still a bit skeptical when "personal responsibility" suddenly becomes a major issue on the political talk shows. Almost always, if you look hard enough, you will see in the distant background some executives saying, "Who, me? Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."

The thing is, we don't make our personal decisions in a vacuum. A lot of people spend a great deal of time and money hoping to influence our decisions. After all, if we all made the kinds of decisions most of us know we should make, we would eat less, drink less, buy houses and cars we could afford, put more money into savings -- and our economy would come to a stand-still. Which is why businesses and the advertising industry hire psychologists to figure out how to sneak the desire for their products past people's rational minds.

In 2000, 19.8 percent of American adults were found to be obese. That's an increase of 61 percent since 1991. Is this really the pure result of individual personal choice, millions of people knowedgeably making the choice to pig out, waistlines be damned?

Or might it have something to do with the increase in portion sizes in the past twenty years -- many food and beverage portion sizes are now two to five times larger then when many of us first started consuming them. (Those of us who were raised by mothers who told us to clean our plates, because there were children starving in China, tend to finish what's placed in front of us.) Might it have to do with the way that restaurants and packaged foods advertise on the basis of how large the portions are? In the Hungry Man ads for their pound and a half size meals, the man who eats sensibly is a wimpy little guy who gets blown away when a kid blows out birthday candles.

Why do the French, who are known for a diet rich in fat, remain so disgustingly svelte? Only 7 percent of them are obese. Are they making better personal decisions, or might it have something to do with the fact that portion sizes in French restaurants are 25 percent smaller than those in comparable American restaurants? Might it have something to do with the fact that individual portions of packaged foods sold in France -- candy bars, soft drinks, cartons of yogurt -- are much smaller than the same products sold in America?

An alarming percentage of American children are obese as well. Might that have anything at all to do with the fact that children's television shows relentlessly market candy, sweetened cereals and fast-food restaurants? Or that soft drink companies and fast food restaurants pay schools for the right to market their products in the halls and cafeterias? Or the fact that children have even fewer mental defenses against the lures of advertising than adults do and cannot ethically be targeted by advertisers at all?

So we get all the blame and they're off the hook? Doesn't seem fair to me. Pay attention to that man behind the curtain.

We Americans are frequently condemned for our disgracefully low savings rate, and for a personal bankruptcy rate that's been climbing since the early 1980s. The average American carries over $8,000 in credit card debt, and even college students average over $2,300 in credit card debt.

Of course that means a lot of people are making bad decisions, and we do need to learn from our mistakes. And yet, who is it that makes credit card offers to the poorest of financial prospects, like my son who was getting credit card offers when he was ten and his annual income was $250 in allowance? Who is it that allows people to pay only ten percent of the total monthly bill and charges what used to be called usurious rates for the remainder? Who is it that advertises the wonders of paying with credit cards, with nary a mention that the credit card companies fully expect you to pay that money back? Who is it that profits from our individual stupid decisions, and even encourages them?

Pay attention to that man behind the curtain.

Like so many others, my mother chose to smoke, a decision that shortened a beautiful life. She always agreed that it was her personal decision. Nobody made her do it, and she enjoyed it right up to the moment when she went to the hospital where she died. But she began smoking when the ads told her that smoking was a good and healthy way to lose weight. She continued smoking even after the first surgeon general's report, because the cigarette companies insisted their research showed no cause and effect relationship between smoking and lung cancer and heart disease. She admitted it was an addiction that she couldn't give up, though my father (who later died of lung cancer) successfully gave up the habit -- twenty times, in fact. Neither of them lived to learn that tobacco companies cooked the books on the research, hiding what they knew, and actually spiked the nicotine content to make cigarettes more addictive. I think they would have felt they'd been had, and that smoking had not been entirely their personal choice after all.

Pay attention to that man behind the curtain.

One of the recent talk show topics has been sky-high malpractice insurance rates that have led obstetricians and other high risk specialists to quit practicing medicine. Is it not a wondrous thing that the culprits have been found by conservatives to be greedy plaintiffs and lawyers, and by liberals to be disastrously incompetent doctors? Is it not miraculous that the insurers, and their rate-setting policies, have somehow disappeared from the equation? And yet, if insurers did what their business was originally created to do, spread risks evenly, there might not be any crisis in the first place. If insurers averaged the costs of all malpractice suits and settlements and divided them evenly by the number of doctors in practice, no individual doctor's premiums would be unduly burdensome.

The other agents mysteriously absent from this discussion are the state medical boards which are supposed to protect the public from truly dangerous physicians. The Bradford distribution applies here: a small percentage of doctors accounts for most of the medical catastrophes. If the state medical boards were held liable for their failures to discipline their incompetent practitioners, the medical malpractice crisis might also diminish.

We need to make the men behind the curtain accountable, those people who don't want us to notice that they are not only profiting from our bad decisions but doing everything in their power to encourage us to override our rational minds.

That's what all those silly lawsuits against corporations are about, you know. Suing McDonald's for your obesity when you chose to eat there two or three times a day for years? Outrageous. Suing tobacco companies for your lung cancer when you chose to smoke? Absurd. Suing casinos because you chose to gamble and lost your home, your family, and your life savings? Preposterous. You did it with your little hatchet; you made the choice and you get to live with it.

True enough. But the lawsuits are about not letting these companies evade their portion of the responsibility. The blame must by rights be shared with the man behind the curtain.

These lawsuits may be repugnant, but they're the only tool we are left with when legislators refuse to force corporations to operate, AS THEIR CHARTERS REQUIRE, in the public interest.

Even for executives who wish to behave responsibly, it's hard to make ethical decisions, because according to current thinking, their only imperative is to make as much money as possible for shareholders. Behaving responsibly puts them at a competitive disadvantage with those who don't. Restaurants that choose not to compete on portion size risk losing customers to the companies that do; banks that choose to offer credit cards only to good credit risks will end up with fewer customers (albeit fewer defaulters); companies that pay good wages to their workers risk losing out to companies that can offer lower prices by exploiting cheap child labor in Asia; companies that safely dispose of toxic wastes risk losing business to companies that save money by dumping the wastes in our rivers.

That's why executives who would like to be responsible should welcome regulation. Properly understood, it can be a tool that forces everybody to play by the same ethical rules, and punishes those who break them.

If that should ever happen, if companies no longer competed to trick us into overruling our brains, we could then cheerfully go back to taking the sole responsibility for our really bad choices. Until then, though, don't let them off the hook. Pay very close attention to that man behind the curtain

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NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.

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