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The Skinny on Fat

April 25th, 2006 by dk

Our community is building a consensus around combatting obesity. One by one, we are standing up and putting our foot down. If, when you stand, you can’t see your foot being put down, then you know where the problem begins.

Dr. David Katz is coming to Eugene’s Hult Center on Friday, May 5 at 11 AM for a free lecture entitled “The Rational Unfattening of America.” Refreshments will not be served.

Adult Americans should retain the right to make their own menu choices, and parents should be the final authority over what their children eat. But that doesn’t mean the community can’t have a role to play. Obesity is not only a private health concern; it is also a public health issue.

Heart disease, diabetes, and emphysema strike the overweight more frequently. Increased health insurance costs, lost productivity at work, and early deaths of loved ones affect us less directly. In the past decade, tourist boats, airplanes, and elevators have had to recalibrate allowable capacities to reflect the average American’s larger size.

Many parents can now talk to their children about birth control without shame, but what about girth control? Unlike many other social issues, America’s eating habits are refreshingly tangible, immediate, measurable. Eat more food; put on pounds. Obesity is the issue we can all get our arms around.

Conservatives trust individuals; liberals trust groups. Liberals like nuance because it’s more inclusive. Conservatives prefer expedience, so keep it simple. Both groups want to do the right thing — but half consider that a statement of morals, the other half are talking about ethics. This is why Democrats make better ex-Presidents. Their duty spins outward to do the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time. Conservatives write better memoirs because they first keep the home fires burning; “charity starts at home.”

Duty is central to both groups, but is duty’s spin centripetal or centrifugal?

Because popular language doesn’t capture this distinction, each side finds themselves talking past the other. Each wonders why the other side doesn’t understand — why they “refuse to listen” — so they exaggerate and caricature those who “don’t get it.” Hence, our polarized nation of thumb-suckers and knuckleheads.

The 1960s was a time when the national urge was liberal, to fix social problems with taxes and expanded government. Reagan turned that around — government was no longer the solution, but the problem.

Obesity is a unique opportunity. It bridges the gap between the group and the individual, but clearly begins with the individual. But liberals can’t use their favorite starting point (social justice, a.k.a. ethics) to make their point to the other side. Instead, they must frame it in the best way to show conservatives themselves: discipline, self-control, individual choice.

Children and adults alike have been given unfettered free choice in food options. Free enterprise has mostly been free to give consumers what they want. How has that been working out? Are individuals making good choices? If not, why not?

Once the issue is framed as a moral one, (only) then can government have a role that won’t be resented. First providing information, then rewarding good behavior, then punishing those who make it harder for those who seek rewards. Government can be seen as empowering, not enabling.

An “inside-out” model of good government can be applied to anything: driving SUVs, mandatory gunlocks, school funding, deficit spending, whatever. All Americans want to do the right thing. Often they also agree what the eventual desired outcome is. They only disagree on where to begin.

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