Thursday, May 01, 2008

There's no such thing as a free lunch, which is good if you're trying to lose weight

Now, speaking as someone who is gradually deblobbifying himself, I don’t dispute that it would be better, all other things being equal, if people in America were fitter. Nevertheless, an article at today’s about the financial benefits of eliminating obesity, which compiles figures from various fields and concludes that the U.S. would save $487 billion every year, had some glaring problems that jumped out at me.

The medical costs of obesity-related problems such as diabetes, stroke and heart disease run near $140 billion, or more than 6% of all health-care costs. That ballpark figure was calculated by Joel Cohen, an economic researcher for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, using data from a 1998 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.

There’s a fairly obvious problem here- everyone, without exception, has to die of something. You can extend your life by avoiding one form of death, and that’s great, but eventually you’ll die of something else instead. Unless that something else unexpectedly kills you on the spot – car wreck, murder, aneurysm, meteor strike, whatever- the cause of your death will have monetary medical costs, even if it’s just making you comfortable in the hospital for a few days. More likely, it will cost a great deal more than that- spending years dying of cancer or Alzheimer’s isn’t cheap.

Added to this is the fact that most medical costs are incurred by the elderly. Causality being the stubborn jerk that he is, additional years of life are added to the end of your life, not the beginning or middle, which means more years to develop any number of costly health problems. Frankly, in a lot of specific cases, a healthier weight would probably raise total costs of care. It’s horrible when someone suddenly drops dead of a heart attack at 45, but his lifetime health care expenses will probably be much lower than a slender person who dies at 85.

Lest I seem like a callous monster lusting for Grandma’s blood, let me stress that I do not want people to have reduced lifespans; quite the contrary. But it’s foolish and misleading to present the issue in the way does. I don’t know how much money would really be saved, but there’s no way it’s even close to the full $140 billion.

"Jenny Craig would be very unhappy" if everyone were slim, says Rand's Sturm. And so she would, along with the rest of the $55 billion weight-loss industry. Trimmed-down citizens would be swapping their diet pills for bikinis and their gastric-banding for nose jobs.

This also has a fairly obvious problem- a lot of the money in the diet industry is in diet food. If you’ve been magically turned into a thin person and no longer need diet food, you don’t replace it with nothing, or start subsisting on manna; you replace it with regular food in healthy amounts. I’m sure that would cost less than getting the same daily calories from specialized diet products, but it’s not free.

Even without those extras, the $487 billion reshuffle of the economy would put us on the spot. Exactly how would we spend all this freed-up cash? Optimists sing about improving education or medical research. Others figure we'd fritter away the money.

This is a subtle thing that most people wouldn’t consciously notice, but note how the article simply assumes that if the economy had an extra $487 billion a year- most of it from money saved in the private sector, no less- it should, ideally, go to the government. Letting people keep their own savings to use according to their own preferences would be frittering it away.

Or, let’s make the outrageously improbable assumption that the author wasn’t talking about government spending when she talked about spending it all on “improving education or medical research.” Why would alternate uses constitute frittering away the money? There is an innumerable array of ways that money could improve human life. It’s always irritating to see this sort of implicit contempt for the idea of people using their own money according to their own desires, especially in what is nominally a purely informational column.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yep. The socialists have found the ultimate way to frame the health care debate: talk of health care as if it's a "commons". This way, the public will buy into the notion that certain individual behaviors (ie. obesity, smoking) then constitute a "tragedy" of these commons which requires a central authority to control individual behavior.