My video post about the Food Cops sparked an online debate with someone who says he doesn’t want MeMe Roth policing our food, but still believes she made some valid points. Specifically, he agrees that:
- Obesity should not become socially acceptable because that does indeed make it socially contagious, and 60% of Americans are already overweight.
- If you ruin your own health, it’s not just your business because everyone else pays the cost.
There’s so much wrong with those two little opinions, I hardly know where to begin. But I must, so I will.
(NOTE: We’re discussing public policy here, so this post is at least as much about politics and economics as it is about diet and health. Those of you who don’t care for my libertarian politics … you’ve been warned.)
Let’s start with the easy one: 60% of Americans are overweight! That figure is, of course, based on the Body Mass Index, which classifies pretty much everyone with thick bones or decent muscles as overweight, regardless of how fat they are. To be considered “normal,” you must actually be thin, as opposed to merely not fat.
The usual comeback is something like “I don’t see a lot of people walking around who look like bodybuilders.” Neither do I. But I see plenty of men built like, say, George Clooney, who is on the lean side and not particularly muscular. He’s also overweight according to the BMI standard.
Despite the artificially low threshold, as I noted in an earlier post, only 38% of American adults are more than 10 pounds above “normal.” I don’t know what percentage of Americans are actually fat, but it’s not even close to 60%.
But waaaaaaaait … aren’t more people really and truly fat now than a generation ago? Yes, obviously. Which brings us to the second point: social acceptability and social “contagion” have nothing to do with it.
MeMe Roth likes to point out that obesity tends to cluster around marriages and social groups. Gee whiz, it must be socially contagious — they’re catching the “it’s okay to be fat” attitude from each other! See, it’s not just a personal choice (as MeMe often says) … we have to shame you into losing weight to protect your innocent friends and family.
That’s utter hogwash. Guess what? Alcoholism clusters around families and social groups. Nerdiness clusters around families and social groups. Obama-worship clusters around families and social groups. See, here’s the wacky alternate theory: people tend to marry and hang around with people who share their values and like them for who they are. I hung out with the nerds in high school. Why? Because I was one of them. I fit in. I didn’t catch nerdiness from one of them by borrowing a contaminated slide-rule.
Whether it’s becoming acceptable or not — and I don’t believe it is — most obese people hate being fat. They’ve tried over and over to lose weight, but failed because of all the bad advice they’ve been given; they’ve failed because their hormones are screwed up, so they’re not in a state of energy balance unless they’re fat. They’re not going to magically succeed at losing weight because naturally-skinny “I’ve never even been on a diet” MeMe Roth finally shames them into it. They’ll just be fat and ashamed. (You think being 20 pounds overweight is unhealthy? Try developing an eating disorder … then tell me how healthy you feel.)
By the same token, they’re not going to become fatter just because we accept them for who they are — which is what anyone with an ounce of compassion would do in the first place. And yet, here’s what my debate opponent believes:
Are big is beautiful magazines, clothes etc not a way of spreading acceptance for obesity? Obesity IS socially accepted in America. I mean for God sakes, the US is the 3rd fattest country in the world with more than 60% of its citizens being overweight, how can it be socially unacceptable when the majority is fat?
Oh, horrors! We’ve got magazines and clothing manufacturers telling people who can’t become thin that they’re actually beautiful. We mustn’t have that … they should go through life feeling ugly and unacceptable because they don’t meet MeMe Roth’s standards. Good lord, that attitude is so callous and stupid, it’s beyond comprehension. And by the way, a lot of big people are beautiful. I thought Jordin Sparks, one of MeMe’s “bad role models,” was lovely.
Now, the truth is, there are people who could probably lose weight but don’t care to. So what? The United States is a melting pot, and some cultures have different attitudes about body size. (As Eric Oliver pointed out in our interview, the “thin is beautiful” and “thin is virtuous” attitudes are somewhat of a holdover from our Puritan heritage.)
Some people also operate under a different value system. I’d rather be healthy than eat french fries and ice cream and pizza, even though they’re delicious. But other people would rather live large, suck up all the pleasure they can, and to hell with the consequences. And guess what? That’s okay, too. How they live their lives is their business … not mine, or yours, or MeMe’s.
I’m guessing at this point at least a few of you are mentally protesting: But then we all have to pay for it! Or as my debate opponent put it:
It’s her business when she has to pay for the cost of obesity. So when Mr LardAss decides to buy another burger its his choice, but when he gets sick because of it, its no longer his choice IF his choice now affects other peoples economy. Or do you want to pay for treatment of lung cancer patients who smoked for 40 years despite the warnings?
(Burgers make you sick? I’ll have to just let that one go. This is already going to be a long post.)
So, do we really want to venture into “but we all pay the cost!” territory? Fine, let’s go. You bring the flashlight, I’ll bring the snacks.
First off, as Nick Gillespie pointed out on Stossel, the MeMe Roths of the world are attacking the wrong end of the problem. If your bad habits impose costs on others because of socialized medicine, then the problem is with socialized medicine. Coercing us into all supporting each other is not actually a proper role for the federal government. But that’s where we’re at, so let’s take it from there:
If anything you do (or don’t do) that imposes a cost on society is my business, then pretty much your whole life is my business. It’s my business if you don’t attend college — you’re more likely to be unemployed later in life, and that will cost me, by gosh. It’s my business if you play football — you could get badly hurt and run up some big bills. It’s my business if you don’t exercise — people who exercise are healthier on average than people who don’t, regardless of body size.
It’s also my business if you drink, smoke, jet-ski, skateboard, surf, spelunk, hike in the wilderness, gamble in Vegas, piss off your boss and get fired, visit friends in dangerous neighborhoods, or have kids. After all, if my neighbor has four kids and I have two, he’ll cost the public school system $216,000 more than I will, while also receiving two extra tax deductions. Waaaaaaah! He’s having a negative impact on my economy! It’s not just his business anymore; we’re all paying for those kids.
Uh … but no, we’re not all paying. In the United States, the top 1% of income-earners pay 40% of the income taxes. The top 10% of income-earners pay 70% of the income taxes. But of course, incomes taxes aren’t the whole story — there are payroll taxes and Medicare taxes that are flatter, so let’s re-adjust: for all federal taxes combined, the top 1% pay 28% of the taxes, the top 10% pay 55% of the taxes, and the top 20% pay 70% of the taxes. (The bottom 50% pay close to nothing.)
In other words, if you’re not in the top 10% for income, it’s unlikely you’re subsidizing anyone’s life. If you’re not in the top 20%, it’s far more likely that you’re being subsidized.
So, fat people cost “society” a lot of money? If you’re not in the group Uncle Sam considers “rich,” then get over it. You’re not the one paying. (My best friend is paying, but he would never tell other people how to live. That’s one of the many reasons we’re best friends … people with similar values hanging around together and all that. Or it’s just socially contagious.)
But so far, we’re still assuming people with bad health habits are costing our beloved government extra money. That’s not always the case, either. Let’s take my debate opponent’s example of the guy who smoked for 40 years. (I’m using today’s figures, but they would hold up over time … unless inflation-adjusted taxes and spending go down. Yeah, right.)
So, Mr. Socially Irresponsible Stupid Smoker (a.k.a. Mr. Siss) puffs away on a pack and half per day for 40 years, then gets lung cancer, and we all pay for it through Medicare. Let’s see how that works out:
The average cost to Medicare of treating a lung-cancer patient is just under $40,000. (Wow, that is rather a lot.) But in 40 years, Mr. Siss will pay $50,000 in cigarette taxes. Then again, more than half of that is state tax, so he does cost the federal treasury a lot more than a non-smoker, right?
Wrong. Because believe it not, everyone who doesn’t die in an accident will eventually get sick and die anyway. Many of them rack up big Medicare bills on the way out. My 95-year-old non-smoking, naturally thin grandmother has probably cost Medicare more than she and my grandfather ever paid in taxes in their entire lives.
So ultra-healthy MeMe Roth doesn’t smoke and therefore doesn’t get lung cancer at age 65. Instead, she gets pancreatic cancer or colon cancer at age 85. She’ll still receive Medicare treatment, at a cost of around $25,000.
Meanwhile, because Mr. Siss is a smoker, his lifespan will be (on average) 10 years shorter than a non-smoker’s. That means he’ll collect about $140,000 less than average in Social Security payments. If MeMe Roth lives 10 years longer than average because she’s so skinny and healthy and doesn’t eat at McDonald’s, she’ll collect $140,000 more than average in Social Security payments. So here’s the final tally on the federal side of the ledger:
Mr. Socially Irresponsible Stupid Smoker:
Cigarette Taxes: $22,000
Social Security vs. Average: $140,000
Mr. Socially Irresponsible Stupid Smoker saved the federal government $122,000 compared to someone who never smoked, had an average lifespan and never had a single Medicare procedure.
Social Security vs. Average: (-$140,000)
MeMe Roth cost the federal government an extra $165,000 compared to someone who lived an average lifespan and never had a single Medicare procedure. If MeMe doesn’t get cancer in her old age and never requires a Medicare procedure, she’ll cost the federal government an extra $140,000 … just by living ten years longer than average.
Since the cost to society makes it everyone’s problem, I think there’s only one possible conclusion we can reach here: We must all demand that MeMe Roth take up smoking immediately. I’m sick and tired of paying the bills for those selfish, skinny non-smokers.
See how stupid it gets when you decide other people’s lives are your business?