It's easy to dismiss New York City Mayor Bloomberg's latest nanny state hiccup as the control-freak antics of a powerful man --but that would be missing the point. Bloomberg did not come up with the idea of banning sodas during a spa session on his private island. His implementation of it may be more overtly obnoxious, but the idea that there is a national health crisis that can only be solved by getting people to stop eating sugary foods, is ubiquitous among national experts on telling people what to do.
In 2007, a conference on obesity was held at George Washington University, sponsored by the Stop Obesity Alliance and the Obesity Association. The Stop Obesity Alliance may sound like a silly afterthought of a group, but its steering committee members include AHIP, the trade group for the health insurance industry; AMGA, the trade association for health care groups; SEIU, one of the largest unions in the country; and NBGH, a business health group representing major companies like Apple, FedEx, Kellogg, Unilever and Walmart.
It was no wonder then that nearly every Democratic and Republican candidate running for office either showed up in person, or sent a proxy to explain how their administration was going to fight obesity.
"The next president must commit to fighting America's obesity problem and possess the experience to win the fight," Governor Bill Richardson said, and vowed to make fighting obesity one of his top priorities.
You might be laughing, but don't. The obesity epidemic buzzword has penetrated every major company, as well as every level of government and academia. That translates into a policy bulldozer with private-public partnerships that will control every aspect of your life.
When think-tanks convince corporations that they're losing money because of obesity, the trade associations of the corporations invite politicians down to explain what they're going to do about it. Health insurance companies have crunched the numbers and decided that they can save billions if the government manages to make people lose weight. Corporations that employ a lot of people and pay for their health insurance think that they can save a fortune on health insurance if employee obesity is cut. They have their own employee incentives, but mostly they want the government to do something about it.
To understand the genesis of Bloomberg's lunacy, you have to go back to groups like the Stop Obesity Alliance. And it's not the only such group. There's the Campaign to End Obesity, whose board includes executives from major health companies and non-profits, including Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Humana. Every time you hear another talking head going on about the dangers of obesity to America, he's repeating talking points lifted from "F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future", a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the country's largest health care foundation, which doles out 400 million dollars a year in grants. Its primary focus these days is obesity.
"F as in Fat" includes extensive material on government legislation, everything from soda taxes to menu labeling to "complete streets programs", which New Yorkers will recognize as the mess of bike lanes that squeeze out cars; what they don't know is that it is used to fight obesity. HR 1780: The Safe and Complete Streets Act is a congressional bill that would turn every city into the same nightmare of snarled traffic and no parking. But even without it, grants will be doled out to cities to implement bike lanes to fight obesity.
Around the same time that policy advisers for presidential candidates were telling the Stop Obesity Alliance what they would do about fat people, there were warnings in the U.K. that obesity would bankrupt the NHS, and Australia's Labor Party vowed to tackle the "national obesity crisis" as a study claimed that 95 percent of Australians were "unfit". The hysteria had gone worldwide.
Once you define a problem, then you convene groups to find a solution. The source of Bloomberg's soda war was a report by the New York City Obesity Task Force, which claimed, among other things, that obesity disproportionately affects minorities and that it is an environmental disease. Among a wide range of initiatives, it called for a cap on the size of sodas that can be sold in restaurants. But that's small potatoes compared to its Active Design Guidelines, which involve restructuring the landscape of the city in a way that will force people to engage in more physical activity. Among other things that means forcing buildings to be designed in a way that will compel people to use staircases.
It's not just about the power; it's also about the numbers. Government health care means that everyone is a government customer, buying a product that can't be paid for, and that requires constant cost-cutting efforts.
The current bottleneck is obesity. Get rid of the fat people and government health care will work fine. After the fat people, it will be the old people. The last of the smokers. After that, a bid to keep people with genetic diseases from reproducing. There's no end to this sort of thing because the system is inherently broken and is trying to fix itself by fixing the people.
The obesity epidemic is a convoluted way of saying that the problem with government health care is the people. But that's not the problem. Obesity may not be healthy, but if we ban sodas and force everyone to exercise in the yard before work, the numbers still won't balance. Because the real problem with government health care is government. It's a classic case of the problem trying to treat the problem. Every new gimmick only adds to the bloat. The war against obesity will end up devouring whatever health care savings are gained from reducing obesity.
It's easy to blame individual obesity rather than collectivist obesity, and so we are treated to the obscene spectacle of a system that can't stop wasting billions and trillions of dollars, peering into everyone’s soda cup, because down the road they may lose weight and that may lower the cost of covering their health care.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in grant money flows from private foundations to obesity researchers, from national to local governments, from local governments to consultants and from health insurance companies to obesity alliances. Offices are renovated, executives are installed, papers are authored, charts are drawn up, presentations are given, conferences are convened, policy is made, and people's lives are made miserable by this army of public-private overlords obsessed with their ounces.
Money that could genuinely be used to help people is being spent on an administrative infrastructure in a national policy campaign against human biology. King Xerxes ordering that the sea be whipped showed more reason and sanity than a global obesity hysteria over the inevitable outcome of a society with sedentary jobs and plentiful food. Not to mention hordes of immigrants from cultures in which obesity is considered to be a good thing.
Government can't make people thin, but people can make government thin. And studies have shown that slimming down government prevents tyranny, oppression and inspectors measuring your soda cup with a ruler. A healthy society may have fat people, but it has skinny government. It is not a nation tasked with a war on weight, but a nation of free people of all sizes.
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