Thursday, July 14, 2011

Obesity: Part 2

Earlier this year, I wrote a defense of the proposed soda tax and I got some feedback that rather surprised me: largely positive from my liberal friends, and largely negative from my Republican friends.  Frankly, I'm rather surprised that this issue is so partisan, and surprised -- for all the reasons I named in that earlier post -- that Republicans are so against this consumption-based tax.

Sure, childhood obesity is a pet project of Michelle Obama's, but haven't first ladies always championed causes that are supposedly non-controversial? I would've thought that ending American obesity was a no-lose public health project everyone could agree with. As movements to change and monitor the food provided in public schools are growing, I wanted another chance to explain why I, who is if anything a libertarian, really support these efforts.

In my soda tax article, I wrote about how obesity causes a number of public health externalities. Obese people are increasingly more likely to develop Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, etc, etc, etc.  I understand that the libertarian point of view is that everyone has the freedom to choose what they eat and the burden to privately suffer the consequences of that choice. But this argument fails because obesity ends up burdening all of us – the non-obese taxpayers – because we are on the hook to subsidize these medical costs. Obesity is more prevalent among the welfare-eligible than the privately-insured, so their hospital costs and prescription costs are largely covered by – you guessed it – taxpayers.

Buzz, your girlfriend, woof!
So, if we already have the forum of public schools, why not use them as an opportunity to educate students about making healthy food choices to lower health care costs to all of us in the long run? Come on, Republicans, isn't this a better use of public funds than paying striking teachers?  Why not stock public school cafeterias with healthy food, remove sodas from vending machines (hell, remove vending machines), and educate about fat and calories?

I’m not advocating relieving obese people of their own personal responsibility; I’m not saying it’s the government’s job to fix the fat.  I'm also not saying we should put any MORE money towards this problem. But I am saying, the government is currently taking our tax dollars to pay for the externalities of obesity – the negative health effects like Diabetes and other chronic health conditions – with no signs of stopping.  So why not nip the health problem in the bud? Why not use the same money we're already forced to spend on public schools to educate and prevent spending even more money on public health care later? Why not prevent food stamps from purchasing food that has no nutritional value? Why not have healthier public school lunch programs? Why not tax sodas and sugary drinks?

I know the libertarian counter-argument is “it’s not my job to keep your kids skinny." But, as long as we live in a system that imposes taxes on all of us to pay for healthcare, that argument has to fail. Certainly, the big, long-term picture for libertarians is overhauling the entire welfare benefits system. But the smaller, more immediate picture is legislating in a way that reduces the burdens on taxpayers in the existing system! Can't we put aside the principle of the issue for the reality of it: if we change the way children think about food, and more importantly, change what they eat, it will save all us taxpayers the cost of supporting them later.  And what’s more fundamentally libertarian than keeping your own money?

Follow Up (because it's my blog and I'm allowed to): On August 26, 2011, a new study gave these numbers: by 2030, it's predicted that the U.S. obesity rate will rise from 32 percent in 2008 to about 50 percent for men, and from 35 percent to between 45 percent and 52 percent for women. That means if we keep growing at the current rate, over HALF of Americans will be clinically obese in less than 20 years! What this means money-wise:
"In the United States, the cost of treating obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke, would increase $66 billion per year by 2030, and represent a 2.6 percent increase in overall health spending.  Spending on obesity problems alone will increase 13 percent to 16 percent per year if U.S. trends continue."
The report noted that a 1 percent population-wide decrease in body-mass index (just 1.9 pounds for an average 198-pound adult) would prevent more than 2 million cases of diabetes, roughly 1.5 million cases of heart disease and stroke, and 73,000 to 127,000 cancer cases in the United States.

So chew on that.  And then please spit it out.


  1. "[Putting] put aside the principle of the issue for the reality of it" is a slippery slope for Libertarians, no?

  2. Spot on, Anonymous. If you concede on principle that it's ok for government to pay for the health consequences of being obese, you aren't a very good libertarian. The fix is not spending money on trying to teach kids about obesity (Let's face it, throwing more money at public schools hasn't made our kids any smarter or any less likely to have unprotected sex without contraception). The fix is not using "our tax dollars to pay for the externalities of obesity."

  3. This is a pretty good exercise in cognitive dissonance, methinks. How are the externalities of childhood obesity any different in character than the externalities of drug consumption, childhood poverty, or any other problem that can be dealt with through entitlement programs or government subsidies?

  4. Thank you for all of the thoughtful comments, though I do wish people wouldn't post Anonymously. Seriously, a first name is hardly giving me your social security number, but will help later posters who reference your comment.

    I just want to clarify that I don't disagree with Drofnib - in fact, my point bigger point is that tax dollars shouldn't pay for externalities at all. But as long as we DO pay for externalities under our current system, shouldn't we attempt to LESSEN how much we pay? Of course there's a big picture (get rid of taxes, overhaul welfare), but we can't let that blind us to the smaller, more realistically actionable picture (lessen our tax burdens, lower our welfare costs). At some point don't we have to address viable legislative changes, not just ideological theories? And this is coming from the defense of Ayn Rand girl, y'all.

  5. Anonymous #1 is Sean Harrigan: 095-34-2371.
    I couldn't get your website to let me comment through my Google account.

    I think serious and potentially shocking education is key--remember how scary the pictures of genital warts were in sex-ed? But unfortunately it's an uphill battle for honest nutrition education, and school provided food reform when corn syrup lobbyists, et. al, are out in full force.

  6. In my opinion, junk food is the scapegoat in the whole childhood obesity fiasco. Growing up, I drank sugary soda every day, and in school I would routinely get pizza with a side of TastyKakes (like little debbie for anyone not from the Philly area). I was skinny as a rail, because instead of playing video games, I played sports, chased my dog, hit things with sticks and drank from a hose.

    Also, when I grew up, making fun of the fat kid in class was a perfectly acceptable form of social conditioning.

  7. you are not a libertarian. a real libertarian would never advocate using the State apparatus (ie, education, health care) to achieve OUR own goals. a libertarian believes in voluntary activities between consenting parties. a libertarian does not seek to augment even a single power of the State. a libertarian seeks to separate the State from society (ie, we are supposed to have a separation of church and State, libertarians want a separation of economics and State, health and State, and some even want a separation of government and State).

    this kind of stuff really irks true libertarians. we already have to deal with people like Glenn Beck claiming to speak for us and making the public think that we are a bunch of crazy assholes.

    In the past, libertarians used to call themselves "liberals," but we had to begin calling ourselves libertarians to escape from being associated with the Statists who co-opted our name for ourselves. Thanks to Statists like yourself who masquerade as libertarians, we may soon have to change our name again.

  8. Wow, it looks like everyone passionately disagrees with me. I'm going to go get a few Big Macs and think about what went wrong.

  9. AmericanlyYours needs to a) calm down, b) reallocate his uses of the Shift key (either go full e.e. or don't), and c) possibly re-read the article and comment on the obesity discussion part too.

    Scott, I understand where you're coming from, but I have to disagree to a certain extent. Of course, any subject matter of this size (it'd be in the husky department of social discussions) is going to be multi-factorial. However, you must recognize that terrible eating habits is at the core of obesity. And yes, as you mentioned yourself, many of us grew up eating junk constantly, but we also maintained active lifestyles and therefore maintained healthy bodies. The sad part is, most of America does not do that. And, more than likely, you grew up in an upper-middle or upper class family (your grammar and punctuation are not the products of poor schooling), and I have a feeling that your parents weren't fat, at least not when you were growing up. As Alison mentioned, the fattest, I mean biggest group of people that are likely to require life-long health care support from tax payers are the lower classes. There are plenty of studies that show that forming dietary habits early (even as early as in utero) that consist of high amounts of carbohydrates forms an addiction to those types of foods. A carb addiction is a one-way ticket to diabetes, as you know. Also, it's proven that a child who is over-weight in the early years of his life will have much more trouble losing weight later in life than someone who was skinny, then got fat, then tried to lose weight. Essentially, if under-educated people eat terrible diets early in life, the likelihood of them changing their diet to healthy foods (perhaps once they've become educated...if they're lucky enough to get there) is slim. And, even if they do change diets, the ability to lose weight is decreased from normal, making that diet change even less likely to succeed. Our country is full of morbidly obese people, and you can bump into a total moron every five feet on the sidewalk. I don't expect these people to see the light, get educated, get motivated, or get their lazy asses off the couch just because we said we don't want to pay for their medical expenses (they don't want to pay them either). However, if we did what Alison is saying, and at least tried to modify what food they have access to as kids in school, there can only be a decrease in waistlines and an increase in life spans. And yes, I agree with Drofnib, more money to schools hasn't necessarily changed education or sex habits, but it's harder for a kid's body to ignore a healthy meal than it is for his brain to ignore his higher paid teacher.

    And finally, yes, I agree with everyone here that as a libertarian, we generally don't want to encourage increasing government programs nor do we like to spend our hard earned money on lazy drains on society. But, as Alison said, the money's already being spent; just buy healthier things with it, and we'll likely save a ton on the back end when we're not paying for Lap-Bands and Metformin for all our neighbors. We may even have a less-squished airplane ride as a bit of sugar-free icing on the cake.

  10. I am very liberal and disagree with the soda taxes, the scrutiny of McDonald's play parks, etc. There are just some things that cannot be legislated. We as a nation can encourage healthy lifestyles, but that will never supersede the sexiness of the Big Mac. Who predominantly eats this on a daily basis? The poor. So who will get the brunt of the taxes?

    Everything I have read and seen about obesity (I've watched "2 Ton Teenager" a couple of times, right after "Hoarders") claims that heredity and lifestyle choice play the biggest part in this disease. These are un-legislatable (sp) parts of life.

    And yes, we do end up paying for it on the back end.

    Don't serve ketchup as a vegetable in school lunches.
    Don't sell frickin' Coke at schools
    Listen to Michelle Obama and tips for a healthy lifestyle.

    I know, I don't sound very liberal, but ask me about healthcare, education...

  11. If "our country is full of morbidly obese people, and you can bump into a total moron every five feet on the sidewalk," then isn't that an argument for more government on high from the enlightened ones?

    Citizens with or without BAs are smart enough to act based on incentives and consequences. The cheapest government initiative to solve the problem of fat kids is to have fat kids in public schools run sprints every morning in order to eat. No running, no food. Problem solved, and at no cost.

  12. Alison,

    Two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because as a nation we already have screwed-up, freedom-violating laws... does not mean that we should compound the problem by adding more screwed-up, freedom-violating laws.

    A true libertarian would never suggest that we institute a new tax on a particular item in order to penalize those who purchase that item. Using taxation to reward and punish behavior is a social engineering scheme that falls well outside of libertarian ideology.

    Instead of suggesting that we tax sugary soda-pop... you should have suggested that we eliminate the welfare-state. Instead of being part of the solution, your idea only makes you part of the problem.

    I’m sorry Alison, but the views you expressed in this article definitely disqualify you from being a libertarian. The solutions you suggest put you firmly in the statist camp.

  13. Libertarians have to maintain principle over pragmatism ... Statism will eventually destroy freedom by discouraging responsibility and rewarding dependency. The State has no role whatsoever except to protect those freedoms from foreign and domestic enemies.

    I second Drofnib's insights ... if we have to "educate" your children (?), then your children are going to be in shape if they're going to eat on our dime.

  14. TheThrillofKip:

    Do you take principle over pragmatism until it runs you into the ground? Where do you draw the line?

  15. To those who were fortunate enough to be able to eat whatever they want and simply go outside and play sports shouldn't be so quick to judge obsese people. I played four sports in highschool and ate very healthy. I didn't even drink or smoke and guess what? I was still obsese. I may have been less obese than I am now, but nontheless, I was obsese. This is why people need to actually become educated on how weight actually works. Additionally, if the funds are already being used i.e. soda machines and vending machines full of junk food, why is it so problematic to switch out the vending machines with healthier alternatives. The money is going to be spent either way...