Fat People Need to Eat More

Executive summary: if you're fat, eat more. If you smoke, smoke more. You're doing your part to save civilization.

It's always astounding how a superficial analysis of complex problems can fail in substantial ways, including in ways that seem blow common sense out of the water. For example, death penalty opponents have long pointed out that putting someone to death in the United States is far more expensive then keeping them in prison for the rest of their life[1]. It doesn't seem logical, but even a brief willingness to look at the numbers verifies it.

In a similar vein, I was astonished in college when one of my economic classes taught about a computer model of long-term economic scenarios which examined what would happen if we eliminated pollution, eliminated disease, eliminated war, instituted population control, etc. Regrettably, my economic texts are back in the US, so I can't find the study, but the overall conclusion was that such elimination would be disastrous to the world economy. Why? Because old people would live longer relative to young people. They would get sick less often (eliminating disease and pollution), would die less often (war), or there would simply be fewer young people (population control).

In these scenarios with an ever-growing elderly society, more young people would be required to support the growing elderly population. Since we wouldn't have enough young people, economies would struggle and potentially collapse. Raising the retirement age wouldn't help. The average healthy 75 year old simply cannot perform at the same level as the average 25 year old, either physically or mentally.

The pessimistic results shocked us, but it was difficult to see a clear way out. Even the desperately needed population control flies in the face of countries trying to maintain growth economies (which is a hint that the current world economic model is not viable in the long run).

Which leads me to a fascinating study[2] funded by the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports[3]. This study was analyzing the long-term financial impact of obesity. They also threw smokers into the mix. What they found, not surprisingly, is that individual health care costs for a smoker or obese person are higher than for healthy people. However, their life expectancies are short enough that long term health costs are lower than for healthy people. Specifically, from their findings:

Until age 56 y, annual health expenditure was highest for obese people. At older ages, smokers incurred higher costs. Because of differences in life expectancy, however, lifetime health expenditure was highest among healthy-living people and lowest for smokers. Obese individuals held an intermediate position. Alternative values of epidemiologic parameters and cost definitions did not alter these conclusions.

So what does all of this mean? Well, it could mean that since obese people and smokers have more medical problems while alive, they'll contribute less economically then others. However, it could mean that they'll live through their economically productive years and conveniently die before becoming economically unproductive. If that's true, then pushing morality aside, it could easily be in society's best interest to encourage obesity and smoking.

Any wonder why economics is often referred to as "the dismal science"? It's also worth noting that just because being unhealthy might (I can't stress that word enough) have hidden benefits to society, it's little consolation to the 50-year old mom dying of lung cancer.

If we want to take all of this to its logical conclusion, we might mistakenly conclude that a "Logan's Run" scenario where "mandatory retirement age" means killing people off when they become an economic drain actually helps to curtail many of the disaster scenarios we currently face, but this omits (as economics is wont to do) the human factor. There would be an instant uprising, throwing the murderers out of power and bringing us back, once again, to business as usual. But if we quietly step down on certain public health campaigns, we've an inefficient way of potentially achieving a similar result. What a nightmare scenario.

Anyone got a light?

(Of course, just to remind you that simplistic analyses don't do complex problems justice ...)

1. This is easy to research and has the knock-off effect of diverting financial resources from crime prevention.

2. I was tipped off to this by my friend Piers Cawley's wonderful blog post Fat is an economic issue.

3. The authors assert that "the funder did not have any role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript."
  • Current Mood: pessimistic pessimistic
The answer lies in medical science becoming sufficiently advanced to stem the physical and mental symptoms of aging, so that a 75-year-old CAN be as productive as a 25-year-old.

I suspect it'll happen eventually... if the economic collapse doesn't happen first!
The sick, sad part of all of this is that, at least here in the US, your previous home, the Right Wing THRIVES on economic theory. But economic theory acts as if it is in a vacuum and there's no society surrounding it. Human suffering is usually considered bad by society. Therefore, we collectively group up and have government force its hand at an attempt to relieve it. The Right, supposedly Christian and compassionate, clings to the ideals of neoconservative politics, which actually fuel their paranoias, problems, and fears. RW-Christians are afraid of not being number one--they're afraid of losing out to Muslims; solution? A pro-life stance. The Right believe that the individual is the basis of the economy; the solution? Low government involvement/starving of government. The Right believe that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps; the solution? Tax breaks for the wealthy (?).

Results: The pro-life stance increases human population, especially in America. Disproportionately poor, these new people increase poverty, suffering, and crime due to sheer desperation. This, of course, is punctuated by the 1/100,000 'boot-strap cases' that get played out on the news. The 'individualism' of the economic theory flies in the face of 'family values', and they can't understand why the place is going down in flames? The influx of American population contributes to an increase in energy needs, of which the ideal of globalisation has made petroleum inexpensive. That feeds the 'scary Muslim' coffers and funds attacks on ideological foes (American RW-Christians... they're not bombing Unitarians, you know...). Oh, and the wealthy just got a tax break out of the deal by shipping the jobs to the oil rigs in the Middle East. "Thanks, see ya!"

All of this is a circular, asstastic argument. It makes me a bit grumpy, but it really makes me want to just stop thinking theory because it doesn't work.

Edited at 2008-07-14 04:23 pm (UTC)
The really annoying bit is that the right wing thrives on their economic theories and pretend that no one else has a valid point of view.
I'm learning that ideologies and people lying to themselves are huge problems we're facing as a collective group of people. Ideologies fragment people into smaller and smaller groups, which creates enmity (for no real reason other than the ideology). I was just subject to it above.

Lying to yourself is a cause of issues and panic and guilt. It becomes habitual, and like with any other lie, you have to create more lies to cover up the old ones.

Group these together and you have lying ideologies that require more lies to support the ideology. That's the colossal clusterfuck. And that's what is running, ruining, etc. the country, world, ecology, environment, society, and yes, even economy!

After reading this, I think you may be interested in a book I just discovered called, "The fattening of America" about how the (perhaps former) robust economy makes us fat.