This new report is sure to result in a ramping up of coordinated efforts to reduce the obesity “epidemic.” (By the way, I always thought an epidemic was something that was contagious. Does my wife sitting on the couch this evening make me fat?).
Too much in it to go point by point, so let’s focus on just two small ideas. First, this one:
Obesity is responsible for an additional $190 billion a year in healthcare costs, or one-fifth of all healthcare spending, Reuters reported last month, plus billions more in higher health insurance premiums, lost productivity and absenteeism.
So, let insurers charge obese people a lot more. Let employers fire people who are less productive and don’t show up for work. Think about that. In that world, businesses, insurance companies and individuals all make their own choices, they all feel the benefits of their good decisions and the costs of their bad ones and no third parties are affected. But of course, just like the Green Police, today’s wonks infatuated with their own brilliance and addicted (hmmmppphhh) to using coercive power to tell others what to do come rolling out the guns and prisons to do something about the obesity epidemic. So the farm subsidies will continue. The subsidies for obesity research will continue. The push for soda taxes and fat taxes and sidewalk subsidies and urban zoning and educational curriculum standards and mandated gym class and more will continue. In other words, rather than making everyone feel the benefits and costs of their actions, we simply tell people what to do. Instead of obese people facing riskier job security conditions we make it impossible for employers to use weight as a determinant of hiring and continuation. Instead of allowing insurance companies to price by risk (and these are known risks, not some mysterious things) we force them to take all comers at all times regardless of “pre-existing conditions.” And of course you know who the losers are in all of this. And this brings me to my second observation.
Generally when you think about who ends up paying the price when others are profligate, wasteful, short-sighted, etc. it tends to be the rest of the folks who are prudent and forward looking. Consider water users. Some people water lawns, have swimming pools, take very long showers, while others use water for cooking and cleaning and not much else. Now imagine a city water shortage. What typically happens (because, you know, water is a “human right”) is that some czar will come in and tell all users to reduce use by 30%. Of course for those folks watering their concrete sidewalks regularly, this reduction imposes no particular burden. But for people who already took 3 minute showers, let their lawns go wild, and generally were economizing already, a 30% reduction is a big hit.
Without a long lecture on how pricing and subjective value works – the same thing applies to obesity. I tell you what. I am not fat. I do my very best to watch my calorie consumption. I do my very best to eat healthy vegetables. I do my very best to exercise when I can. And I love ice cream. And I love a fizzy Wild Cherry Pepsi when we go out for pizza. And I love my candy on Easter. And so on. I and use the stuff “responsibly.” So guess who the big loser is when these things are banned from drive-thru menus, from fast-food restaurants, are taxed to high holy heaven? That would be me of course. I already drive a car that gets 30+ mpg, we already use less electricity and water than most families our size and we probably eat no more unhealthy foods than typical families like us. So what shall we substitute into when all of that stuff is either made more expensive or rationed further?
So, in the typical pro-freedom defenses against the paternalistic intrusions of nanny-state elitists, the arguments typically start and end with the autonomy of the “irresponsible” and of the firms they do business with. But the Forgotten Man in all of this are those folks (the majority I would remind you) who are neither the businesses nor the targets. I cannot even think of a single area of my life where one aspect or another is not dictated to me in some way by people who do not know me. And folks wonder why I have a deep distrust of most people.