Playing the cynical game

Last weekend I dipped a toe into the sewers of right-wing talk radio, and listened to a rant by Michael Savage, during which the nationally syndicated commentator suggested that America’s health-care problems could be solved by relocating fat people to “work camps.”

In the course of what began as an attack on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s support for universal health care, he vented his disgust toward “fat women,” and claimed that non-thin Americans didn’t deserve access to health care.

That a shameless demagogue like Savage advocates concentration camps for people with what he considers inappropriate bodies is bad enough (Savage’s parents, it’s worth noting in this context, were Jewish).

What’s worse is that the same sort of ignorant hysteria that fuels Savage’s foaming at the mouth also inspires more respectable, but potentially much more dangerous, suggestions from our political elite.

For instance, at last week’s Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, Barack Obama noted that certain unnamed experts claim we could save Medicare $1 trillion if obesity rates were reduced to 1980 levels. He embraced this assertion for the purpose of illustrating how we can pay for universal health-care relatively easily.

The theory, it seems, is that an ounce of weight loss is worth a pound of Medicare spending.

There’s so much wrong with this that it’s difficult to know where to begin. First, it remains very unclear to what extent, if at all, higher-than-average weight is an independent cause of health problems and their associated costs.

Second, even if it turns out to be true that, in the abstract, “obese” people would be healthier if they lost weight (a theory that, it bears repeating, remains almost completely untested), it certainly doesn’t follow that attempting to lose weight improves health.

Plenty of evidence suggests that losing weight and then regaining it has a negative overall effect on health. Furthermore, many of the things people do when pursuing weight loss, such as using diet drugs, are clearly unhealthy in and of themselves.

All this merely underlines a third point, which is that at present we don’t have the faintest idea how to reduce “obesity” rates to what they were 30 years ago, even assuming this would be worth doing. There is no known method for producing long-term weight loss in statistically significant numbers of people, let alone in a nation of 300 million, one-third of whom are currently categorized as “obese.”

Fourth, even if it were true that we knew how to make people thinner, and that doing so would improve their health, this hardly means such interventions would reduce health-care costs, especially for a program like Medicare.

After all, almost all Medicare expenses go toward health care for the elderly. If making fat people thinner extended life expectancy significantly, then putting America on a successful diet would in all likelihood actually increase Medicare costs.

Obama’s claim is just one example of the dubious assumption that improving public health will produce a net reduction in health-care spending. The reason Medicare costs are skyrocketing is because Americans are living longer and longer, and very old people almost always eventually become very sick people, who are very expensive to care for.

Indeed, those who wish to do their patriotic duty, in fiscal terms, ought to aim to die of massive heart attacks at the precise end of their economically useful lives.

The reality is that a significant portion of the anti-fat hysteria that has gripped the culture over the past decade is driven by a desire to find any plausible excuse for not doing what every other developed nation in the world does: provide basic health care for all citizens.

It’s too bad that a progressive politician like Obama is being drawn into this cynical game.

(Paul F. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)

6 Responses to "Playing the cynical game"

  1. Sandra Price  December 19, 2007 at 6:16 am

    I’m sick of this crap! I was thin until I hit 58 years old and I quit smoking. I was in perfect health and suddenly had a nasty reaction to no nicotine. I had to go on tranquilizers to understand the mess my body was in. I gained so much weight that I joined in a medical fast with a dozen other women.

    More than half the women had their gall bladders removed from the lack of nutritian but I continued to take massive amounts of vitamins. My weight has been a terrible problem for me and my BP went off the chart.

    Here I am at 75 packing on extra pounds and I hate to admit it but I feel wonderful. The federal government should stay the hell out of our eating habits including smoking and drinking. The nanny state is killing us. I swim 2 hours a day and with my extra weight, I know I will not sink! I’m like a marshmallow in a cup of cocoa, floating away on the top.

    If this federal power keeps on, where the hell can the happy fat seniors go to live in peace?

  2. proudfootz  December 19, 2007 at 8:04 am

    Old habits die hard.

    The right-winger’s first response to any complex question is to open yet another concentration camp – that is, if they don’t advocate just shooting people on sight.

    This is a good example of a tempest in a tea-pot which if it has any consequences at all, will probably be of dubious value.

  3. lexiedogmom  December 19, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    Lexie Homewood
    Sandy, you are “priceless”! I so get the quitting smoking followed by weight gain. In 1980, I, too was thin. I was also a smoker. There were countless TV spots proclaiming how bad for health smoking is–so many that I took it as a personal affront whenever one was broadcast. Finally, I quit smoking and gained weight. Now what do the countless TV spots address? Yeah, obesity.

    Maybe this country’s citizens would be better off weighing what we did in 1980, but we’d probably have to take up smoking again to do it.

    My apologies to those of you who were in 8th grade in 1980.

  4. bryan mcclellan  December 19, 2007 at 3:15 pm

    My Mother became overweight after childbirth,nearly obese.Six of us she raised.Fed us,milked the cows every morning and rode the tractor the rest of the time when she wasn’t cooking,cleaning ,butchering or nurturing. 18 hrs x 7 days x 365 per yr. Her weight was not from lack of expenditure of energy.Sausagehead savage and his fat police can kiss my ASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSs

  5. spartacus  December 19, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    I’d been a size 6 my entire life (except when I was pregnant with my son) until I had an accident several years ago which left me disabled. Unfortunately, my doctor sent me to a neurologist who prescribed a medication that sent my weight through the roof: I gained 60 pounds in a matter of months that I was unable to lose and put it on in some places that were rather strange. What makes it even worse is that it didn’t do what he kept claiming it was doing: the accident left me with severe headaches which this stuff did absolutely nothing for, but HE ABSOLUTELY REFUSED TO LISTEN TO ANY OF MY PLEAS FOR A SWITCH OR COMPLAINTS! After years of this, I fired him, and guess what: I not only feel better, but I lost quite a bit of the weight. The problem is, the medication had a number of residual side effects, one of which is constant water weight (and I’m talking about pounds of it), problems with sodium, and a host of others. The other problem is that the usage was an off label one, and the creep was being paid by the drug company for keeping me on this poison. Dateline even did an expose on the dangers of this stuff. My weight shifts dramatically, and I still can’t get rid of it nor can I keep it under control: another documented side effect. I NEVER HAD THAT PROBLEM IN MY LIFE BEFORE! Diet is not the issue. I have never been a sugar eater, nor do I eat lots of processed foods. I eat lots of fruits of veggies. Yet I still have weight in weird places that I still can’t even make a dent in. Angry? You bet. There are a lot of people out there who are heavy due to medications. Some of them are lifesaving and necessary. The quack I saw not only poisoned my system, but in a large part ruined my life. I had always been proud of my small frame (I am also small boned, which makes this even worse), and he took a large part of myself away from me at a time when I had lost just about everything else. The man’s worse than a criminal. He did this without a thought about the wellbeing of his patient, only about the size of his already large purse. What people like Michael Savage need to understand is that there are some people who quite literally have no choice about the way they look, unlike Rush Limbaugh.

    By the way, does this apply to Rush as well?

  6. Wayne K Dolik  December 20, 2007 at 6:15 am

    Here is my take, and by the way I enjoyed all of the comments from our CHB posters.

    Firstly I agree, we should summarily dismiss Doctors whom we disagree with. I have learned this from personal experience. If you have a doctor you disagree with; loose them! It’s your right. This could save your life.

    I wouldn’t worry about weight. Eat good healthy foods and ignore “government idiots” who know what is good for you. Do that and you will probably out live them?

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