LBJ, Eggs and the Power of the Presidency

This post is not about President-Elect Donald Trump. At least, not directly. This is a post that has been in my brain for months now, and it may be more relevant now than ever.

LBJ was an interesting President. His push for the Great Society left us with a significant number of the federal programs and regulation that we still have today—and those programs are still often hotly debated. He was a “big government” politician, and he was successful in executing on his vision. That much of his legacy is tied to the Vietnam War is warranted, but clouds some of this other accomplishments. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

47344195_sIn 1966, President Johnson decided that the price of eggs was too high. He was actively manipulating the economy by directly appealing to industry leaders to control things like the supply of goods or the prices of goods. But in the spring of 1966, he decided that the price of eggs was too high. (I can’t remember why he cared specifically about the price of eggs. I’d look it up, but I don’t think it matters.) His advisors and the Department of Agriculture told him that there really wasn’t anything that they could do. Americans loved their eggs.

So President Johnson got creative.

There had been a recent study that would have otherwise been published in medical journals and mostly forgotten about, but Johnson encouraged the Surgeon General to release the results in a different way. That study found that eggs are high in cholesterol, and that high cholesterol is not healthy.

Media outlets played their role perfectly, if unknowingly, and spread the story far and wide. Eggs were bad for you! Eggs are unhealthy! The demand for eggs dropped immediately and substantially, and the price of eggs dropped with it.

The takeaways from this story are this:

  • The President of the United States has influence and power, and sometimes chooses to use it in really weird ways.
  • The media manipulates us and is itself manipulated.
  • Sometimes it is not enough to look critically at information and think, “Is this true?” Sometimes you also have to think, “Does this matter?”
  • Words and actions have long-term consequences.

Every time I think about eggs or cholesterol, I can’t help but think about politics and LBJ. And now I hope this story haunts you the way it haunts me. You’re welcome. 😉