Wednesday, August 26, 2009

ON OBESITY AND PUNISHMENT (AND BEER)

We don’t veer “off topic” too often here at Hedonist Beer Jive. Normally this blog digs somewhat self-referentially and often obsessively into the beers I’ve been drinking, and leaves it pretty much there. So I say with a caveat and an apology that this post, which has been boiling up inside of me the past couple of weeks, has little to do with beer. Oh sure, it does to the extent that beer, among many other foods & beverages, can make one fat when taken in at excess, and is demonized beyond its alcohol content by segments of society bent on ensuring that American caloric intake meets their inane, subjective standards. Yet this is actually a story of American individual freedoms on a collision course with the nanny state, under the guise of “improving health care” and “fairness”.

Let me just cut to the chase. Fifteen years ago, when we were all debating government involvement in suing tobacco companies out of existence & using the demonization of cigarette smokers as a way of confiscating more taxes, there was a common joke in play. It went something like this, “Pretty soon they’re going to be taxing Coca-Cola and Big Macs”. Many variations of the joke went around, and it all seemed so preposterous, except to those of us who saw the direction the nanny state was turning, See, they had this powerful argument that’s won over a ton of otherwise smart people. This argument is starting to be stated forthrightly and without apology (most recently in an article in the NY Times Magazine from 2 Sundays ago), and it terrifies me (most accurately, it pisses me off like you wouldn’t believe). This argument, which I’m sure you know by heart now, says that

1. Fat people, because of their slothful ways, have higher health care costs; therefore,
2. All of us must pay higher health care premiums, due to the costs of taking care of fat people; therefore,
3. Fat people need to be taxed at higher rates as punishment, either directly, or indirectly by taxing soda, fast food, and other contributors to their lazy, slovenly, fattie ways

A few words to those of you who see logic in this argument – an argument which, I’m sure you’ve figured out, I totally abhor. First of all, we all make choices and do things in our daily lives that, in the long run, impose indirect costs upon others. In the course of a given month, I myself might, for example, trample upon the grounds of a public park; file for disability; file for unemployment; go to the hospital to have my appendix taken out; inadvertently litter; get pulled over for speeding; forget to recycle or compost; etc etc and on and on. That’s just the way life is. Each of those examples, all of which are very real and/or possible for every single one of us, will either impose a public cost (the government picks up the tab for those activities with publicly-paid tax dollars) or social costs (general costs increase for everyone because of something I did or didn’t do). An obese person’s decision to eat a Big Mac, a basket of chili cheese fries or a trans-fat loaded tray of Oreos will generally, when spread equally among the millions of us within the populace, be balanced out over time by things I myself did.

Much more importantly, this new attitude of smug do-gooders is about as un-American as it gets. Without standing on a soapbox and calling up the ghosts of our founding fathers (I’m tempted!), let me just say that this country was founded on the notion of individual choice and responsibility, and the freedom to determine the limits of responsibility for yourself. In other words, your freedoms can go as far as possible, as long as they don’t infringe upon mine. Your freedom to punch at the air ends at the microns of air between your fist and my face, but until you get to that point, please, punch away. Your decision to eat a carton of ice cream in one sitting – or to drink two bombers of IPA in one night (both of which I’ve happily done) – imposes zero direct costs on my freedoms, and therefore I wholly and without qualification support your right to do so.

Finally - and man I could go on ranting for days on this topic – I posit that the demonization of fat people has even more to do with revulsion and fear than it does with wanting to raise taxes to pay for boondoggle health care programs (though both figure strongly in the argument, only one is articulated). The obese suffer from lower wages, social ostracization, sexual ostracization, angry stares, lack of mobility, and yes – shorter lives. You think we could cut them a break and let them figure out how to combat that (or not) themselves? Isn’t it more important to protect our freedom to put whatever we want into our bodies, no matter the dubious nutritional value, than to point the finger at the fat guy and call him the one who made your health care premium higher this year?

I’m happily willing to pay a higher premium so that the slippery slope from cigarettes to soda doesn’t then envelop my Belgian beers, high-fat Italian pasta dinners and slices of cheesecake a few years from now. I’ve mitigated the obesity concern my own way – by taking up running, by eating healthy foods most of the time, and by limiting my alcohol consumption, daily Hedonist Beer Jive reviews to the contrary. That’s my personal choice, and believe me, there are times when I’d rather not run, eat whatever the hell I want and drink myself into oblivion. I’m glad we live in a country where I can go down either path and dozens of others, but I admit, I am increasingly fearful for the future. I leave you with a poem, which I believe is from the 1940s:

First they came for the cigarettes, and I did not speak up because I didn’t smoke
Then they came for the donuts, and I did not speak up because I don’t like sweets
Then they came for the Gatorade, and I did not speak up because I'm kinda allergic to it and I hate that green flavor (gross!)
Then they came for the Imperial Belgian-style IPAs, and by that time there was no one to speak for me

11 comments:

1009 said...

I dunno, man. I don't think I'd like anyone to be punching the air microns from my face. It might not actually be hitting me, but I'm not really comfortable with it anyhow.

Vince said...

I think you're on to something here, Jay. It's really up to the people to protest (with their dollars) food manufacturers' widespread use of processed ingredients like hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup that have been introduced to our food supply over the last 70 years. There's already been a backlash against "trans fats", the end result of using hydrogenated oils, but not as big of a movement against substitute sugars.

I do believe, however, that cigarettes cannot be lumped in with these other items because of the unique attributes of cigarette smoke. Having personally suffered from bronchitis as a child directly as a result of exposure to OTHER people's smoking I do support all of the restrictions placed on smokers over the years, which have also further increased the awareness of its harmful effects. I support people's right to smoke, and even to not be excessively taxed in order to do it, as long as it does not infringe upon my own freedoms - in this case, the right to breathe cigarette smoke-free air.

Chris said...

Jay, this is one of your best posts.

Hans said...

I am not fat and I am healthy and do lots of exercise such as running and mountain biking. In the course of that I sprained an ankle and fractured my shoulder among other things. So one could argue that very active should pay a higher premium. I also ride a motorcycle. Again, I have heard arguments that epople who do skydiving and other risky activities should pay more.
I guess to sum it up one could make an argument for almost any group to pay more and hence one is back to treating everybody evenly. Also we already have enough out of pocket expenses, so in a sense the individual is already paying.

J.Rhode said...

Strange context for a poem originally written by German anti Hitler Pastor Niemoller. Poem originally decried the inexcusable inability of German intellectuals to speak out against the atrocities that were occurring in their midst.

"First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a socialist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me."

Jay said...

J - I'm glad you got the source, but it sounds like you missed the irony a bit.

J.Rhode said...

Before you know it, all fat people, smokers, and beer drinkers will be corralled in ghettos in order to process them for the camps?

Really?

Jay said...

Seriously? You're that humorless? Was the absurdity of my dumb Gatorade line not enough for you to understand the marginal attempt at humor? God help you if you're actually offended, which it appears you might be.

Anonymous said...

Jay, I loved your poem!

Yours,

Mahmoud (Ahmadinejad)

sean said...

I thought it was funny. And I got the serious undertones of your post without thinking that fat, beer drinking smokers would be hereded into camps.

doomgloom said...

You're all gluttons! You must be punished! 50 lashes!

But Jesus said: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Jesus is pro-obesity! Stone him!