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Obese people have a hard time regulating their own behavior. If there is a bag of M&Ms lying around the house, rest assured they will take a handful each time they walk by. Obese people have low levels of energy. Though it is well known that regular exercise will improve health and energy levels, they have such low energy to begin with that they are “too tired” to exercise. Obese people, realizing that their clothes no longer fit them, can easily head to the local thrift shop or to Walmart and find a myriad of larger clothes sizes oftentimes for just a few dollars – so the cost of remaking a wardrobe to accommodating a large lifestyle are quite small. Obese people now have an easier time claiming disability status, garnering themselves prized parking spaces at the supermarket and elsewhere; and once at these stores, they now have the luxury of motorized carts to help them get around.

What makes the obesity problem particularly tough to tackle is that it generally requires a major overhaul in lifestyle and mentality. And for many folks this is nearly impossible to do. Regular exercise. A change in the way we eat and a change in the way we live. It may even require a change in the types of places you go, the types of people you hang out with and perhaps even the things you read. It’s a big deal, which is probably why we end up seeing so many people lose weight only to gain it back again. With that in mind, check out this mentality:

States are looking for other means to raise money for highway and bridge improvements, including more road tolls, dedicating a portion of sales taxes to transportation and raising state gas taxes. Clibborn, the Washington state lawmaker, has proposed a 10-cent gas hike to help pay for projects, though the effort has been held up by a dispute over how to rebuild the Columbia River bridge connecting Vancouver, Wash., and Portland, Ore.

The thinking here is so bankrupt that not even the Fed or Treasury would bail it out. Take it at its face value. Our bridge infrastructure is horribly underfunded, and we need resources to shore that up. And the only thing our dear leaders can imagine is to ask the question, “Where can we get additional funds from?” Look at almost any article published about crumbling infrastructure and you are sure to see hand-wringing and attacks on we limited -government types (notice that does not necessarily imply small) about infrastructure spending being starved, despite the fact that as a share of GDP it is as high today (higher?) than any time over the past 40 years and it has grown each year at least as much of the real economy has grown). And the only thing our dear leaders seem capable of imagining is what new tax to issue. This is not just bad economics, it demonstrates the ideological attachment to spending that is endemic not to government officials, but to people in general. When your roof starts leaking on your house, is the ONLY thing you think about what extra job you could work? Or do you perhaps consider that eating that fancy dinner at the Next Door Bar & Grill every week may have to take a backseat; or that your hiking boots and backpack can last another season; or that you will have to use the same set of golf clubs for yet another year. Is that unconscionable?

Of course it is not. So why is it that when our roads and bridges are collapsing, we ignore the fact that billions of dollars are being used annually to subsidize the attendance to colleges of above average income students (attention: some recent empirical studies dispute this assertion, such as a famous paper by Hanson and Weisbrod and one more recently by Johnson from UVA) to get majors in Cherokee Poetry Studies and become post-modern activists? Or do we ignore the billions of dollars of subsidies continuing to pour into the major financial institutions in this country. Or the Department of Energy multi-billion dollar loan portfolio? Or the fact that inner city government schools spend upwards of $25,000 per student per year with no discernable impact on their childrens’ lives? Or the trillion dollar annual amount spent directly or indirectly by the military. Or the many billions of dollars spend on disability insurance to people who are not in any real way disabled? And so on. Is it not at all in the mindset of people to look around at every program and reprioritize? Isn’t this what families do? Isn’t this what any reasonably well run business does? Then what exempts our infrastructure people from thinking in this way?

Reading through the article on the collapsing bridges, there are several other observations to make:

  • the article nicely demonstrates that infrastructure spending is now at an all time high (a rarity in articles like this) – so what has happened to this money? Have bridge repair needs increased at the same rates? It simply cannot be possible? How much of the money targeted for “infrastructure: is being funneled into “green energy” and “smart growth”-like initiatives? How many of these dollars are being funneled to light-rail investments that are horribly inefficient and impractical?

  • “They have been left hanging with little maintenance for four decades now,” he said. “There is little political will and less political leadership to commit the tens of billions of dollars needed” to fix them” … OK, but then we are told that the stimulus alone earmarked tens of billions ($27 billion) alone to infrastructure. What the hell happened to that money? And if only a few billion made its way to bridges, who made that decision if in fact we’ve known for 40 years the sorry state of our bridges?

  • Is it possible that the level of safety in our bridges is in effect, correct? Surely that point of view might be taken. Bringing risk down to zero is probably not the right answer, and nowhere are we given probabilities of failure and the costs to reduce risks by a particular amount. What if, for example, when a bridge collapses it will cost with certainty 3 lives. An aggressive estimate of the value of lives in America is about $10 million from birth. Assume these are three newborns. So a bridge collapse is going to cost $30 million in lives lost. Add in $1 billion for the psychic damage we are get each day thinking that this would be one of our own children. What is the chance of a bridge collapse and kill in a year? Is it 0.1%? That’s a horrendous risk as compared to some of the things we think are risky. How much does it make sense to reduce the risk of death by bridge collapse by a large amount, say half this much? Well, if there is a tenth of a percent chance of collapse, that’s about $1.03 million of expected cost each year. If we can reduce this damage by less than this it would seem to be a good deal. Is that information EVER discussed? Doesn’t it matter? What if that same $1.03 million, instead of being spent on a bridge repair, went to the cleaning up of air pollution that saved not 3 lives but 100 lives and myriad illness? Or do people wish to say that there really are no tradeoffs, that the only reason bridges are falling down is because some greedy and stingy people get pleasure at watching them fall down?

  • And finally, a point I refuse to stop making again shines in this piece. One of the most agreed upon functions of government is to take care of “public goods” looking things. Infrastructure like bridges seems to fit into the category of goods that would be underprovided privately. So, what we are seeing again is a bald admitting that one of the most fundamental functions of our government is failing miserably. And there is absolutely no apology for that. There is absolutely no reflection on that fact. And no understanding of the implications of that fact. You may rightly criticize me for criticizing the things that our government is doing, like picking green energy winners. But in case it has not be en abundantly clear from the title of this website, it is because folks refuse to understand that by trying to do EVERY important thing ever, many important things are doomed to fail. And if you care one iota about the basic functions of good governments and societies, like providing a reasonable level of public goods, and getting an appropriate safety net in place (we can argue about that, but we need not for this point), then we should care deeply about waste, corporatism, incompetence, the claiming of EVERYTHING as a “public” good, the guarantee of insurance to all, totally out of control government schools, etc. because they make it nearly impossible for your governments to do the things that it is supposed to be doing and to do them well. This is not an issue of fairness, income inequality or anything like that. The same issues would still be there if the levels of taxation at the top were doubled or more. Any attempts to turn this discussion into a class-exploitation one is totally off the mark. So here we are, in a front page AP News headline admitting to massive government incompetence, and like the naked emperor parading through the street, not a single member of the entourage notices it. That, too, ought to be mourned on this Memorial Day as well.

10 Responses to “The Real Obesity Problem”

  1. jb says:

    Bravo. Exhibit A in the non-existent chapter “Government Failure” in economics textbooks.

  2. PJ says:

    There is always “only” a single solution. Raise additional funds. Politicians and bureaucrats are singularly incapable of managing any situation and following a budget. I suggest that we may need to bring back “tar” and “feathers”, and that incompetence and malfeasance in government need to be punished and eradicated. Unfortunately the “sort of individual” who desires work in the public sector has already had these traits and abilities bred out of them. Passing the buck is “we need a study” or “let’s appoint a commission” …. all sad demonstrations of a lack of ability. What the government needs is a true “hatchet man”. Any takers?

  3. chuck martel says:

    The thinking in at least one state is that increased taxation of an item or activity tends to decrease the amount of that item or activity and actually has the effect of lowering taxes (increasing cigarette taxes seems to encourage smokers to quit and stop buying cigarettes and paying the taxes thereon) or influencing illegal behavior (cigarette smuggling). Political leaders have come to realize that the most reliable and just source of revenue is taxation of necessities not required by the very young or very old. One of the best examples of this, and one that’s now facing a determined tax program, is the sanitary napkin, or Kotex or Tampon or whatever. This product is not needed by the young or old but is mandatory for those in their peak earning years. Lawmakers are considering a $2 per unit tax on this product to fund infrastructure maintenance.

  4. Harry says:

    They are insatiable, once we give them a ticket to the Smorgasbord. The bridges are the six ounce lobster tails and the unemployment benefits are the unlimited slabs of prime rib. I will leave it to Chuck and jb to continue the analogy with the crab cakes, the glazed sliced beef tongue, and the desserts flavored with Napoleon brandy.

    Ever heard any stories of Diamond Jim Brady? A brace of pheasant as an appetizer?

  5. Scott says:

    I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.
    -Thomas Jefferson

    Wonderful article. I find myself compelled to consider how we can provide a larger platform for this work, so that more may hear, most will ignore but do not be discourage because good will advance. Time is of the essence, broader audiences need to be reached. The Unbroken Window could be a very profitable magazine, not to mention a great investment.

    Magazines are relatively cheap to produce & distribute. The free market provides a wide variety of printing options. Especially if the unique selling point of the magazine is the content of the articles. This allows the entrepreneur flexibility in the early production stages.

    It could be a unique advertising platform for products and services that most interest the aggregate demand of the followers of TUW. The potential is truly unlimited.

    We have taken enough cheap shots. We have already lost, yes, but nevertheless we must fight with our everything.

  6. RIT_Rich says:

    I’d have to disagree on one point (the rest of your points I agree with):

    – Infrastructure in the US is not crumbling.

    bridges are not falling, roads are not collapsing etc etc. yes, a bridge did fall. They tend to do that when hit by a truck going 70mph. Also, America has by far the largest infrastructure (roads, rail, utilities etc) system in the world…by a very wide margin…which means that the occurrence is going to be higher even if the probability of failure remains the same (also Americans use their road/rail infrastructure a lot more, raising the likelihood of failure).

    But…US infrastructure, by all objective measures, is second ONLY to Germany among large countries (some small countries like Singapore etc rank higher, but again those are not good examples).

    The rankings of US infrastructure provided by such groups as ASCE are total BS. ASCE of course is a lobby group for civil engineers, and therefore has an interest in giving far lower grades to US infrastructure, thus promoting more infrastructure projects.

    Similarly, big government types have an interest in promoting the notion that infrastructure is crumbling, thus arguing for more spending.

    Also…small government types ALSO have an incentive to promote the view that infrastructure is crumbling, in order to show that government can’t handle even its basic function.

    In my opinion, all these arguments miss the point: there is NO COUNTRY ON EARTH (with the possible exception of Germany, which is far smaller)…that matches the quality of US infrastructure. Not only in access, but in maintenance as well. The conclusion I reach on this is that we do indeed spend far more than necessary, and everyone is interested in spending even more regardless of the reality on the ground.

    • Harry says:

      Great point, Rich. Because I disbelieve nearly everything I hear, and only half of what I see, at least at first, it is not self- evident that our nation’s roads and bridges are crumbling. But I am not an engineer, and I take comments from people from RIT seriously.

      The people who complain of our crumbling infrastructure often have a kennel of thousands of dogs in the hunt, and that is not just Local 1 of the Ironworkers, but also many members of the Business Roundtable. As Wintercow and Bastiat might comment, the idea is to demolish the unbroken bridge and then rebuild it, creating prosperity for all.

      • RIT_Rich says:

        Oh I’m not expert just cause i graduated from RIT. I wasn’t in civil engineering, after all. I’m just basing my opinion on two factors: 1) my own eyes and my extensive travels across the US (where I have yet to find a corner of this country that doesn’t have superb road infrastructure and service…not only from the roads themselves but also auxiliary services such as gas stations, tire places etc.)

        and 2) the World bank (or IMF, I forget) has a ranking scheme for infrastructure (I forget the exact name of the index) which I think is the best one out there for the job. It ranks US road infrastructure very highly, with the only countries ahead of it being small minor countries (like Singapore, Norway etc) and Germany as the only real major country (although Germany is the size of New England, so if you compared New England with Germany for example, New England would probably win out considerably ahead).

        So by objective cross-country rankings, the US is NOT failing in infrastructure. It is only failing in comparison to internal standards set by the ASCE, which is far from an objective disinterested party.

        The end result of government spending on infrastructure ought to be no surprise, I think: The US government over-invests in infrastructure, leading to a situation where perhaps we have TOO MUCH and TOO GOOD infrastructure (especially road). Now this is probably a better thing than having too little, but nonetheless it does mean we need to draw back.

        Of course…no one…will ever come out and make the case for that. Not even CATO and the “libertarians” (because their narrative necessarily is that government fails at doing a good job. But their narrative is not sound, either, I think since it is also almost exclusively based on ASCE reports)

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