August 30, 2008
The Fat Tax
This past week, the State of Alabama announced a plan to increase monthly health insurance premiums for state employees who are obese. Media coverage questioned this, focusing on the complex nature of obesity, including the genetic predispositions of body type as well as some of the other conditions that will trigger the supplemental expense, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high glucose levels.
Of course it's problematic to punish someone because of a genetic predisposition. There was less discussion, though, about the growing predisposition of the government to legislate against and punish lifestyle choices, and that's the trend that feels most creepy. (That and the unasked question of how much the pharma industry was involved in this development).
We've moved our Victorian morality show from street drugs to smoking to eating, and with the trans-fat legislation on both coasts along with this Alabama initiative we're hitting the offenders at both the dealer and user levels.
The links between obesity and a number of serious health problems have been demonstrated repeatedly. I find the sedentary nature of our technocracy troubling and certainly want a nation full of fit, healthy citizens. But I also believe that people shouldn't walk three-aside on crowded city streets and I'm not petitioning my local government for relief.
I am not a libertarian. I think there are many places where the collective can render superior results for society. But I don't want my government to get in the business of telling someone to eat less or pay. We're supposed to be about choice in this country. Let people do what they want more or less and we'll pay a certain price for it, some more than others, but the alternative is far worse.
Where does it end? A calorie-added tax? An ice cream assessment? How about a gas tax on beans? And why not other behavior choices? Stress is more detrimental to the collective health than obesity. We can use the toll-lane approach and strap transponders to our bodies. When our systolic pressure reading goes a certain percentage above baseline we have to pay a blood-pressure toll to our local police force or first responders.
We can measure the indicators for anger and legislate a tax when we get red-faced. A lack of confidence could be assessable, or passive-aggressive behavior, or addictive tendencies. How about a negative attitude, or excessive contemplation?
Go ahead, laugh. But imagine reading in your newspaper, in the 1950s, an article about the first American suburbs, such as Levittown. Imagine some op-ed lunatic ranting about how in 50 years time this would lead to locked communities that would tell you how high your grass could grow and the exact width of the slats in your picket fence.
Or that your grandchildren living in San Francisco would someday be considered criminals for failing to separate recyclables from trash. You'd just shake your head and turn on Milton Berle.
So check back in ten years and see what they're telling us we can't do then.
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