But, if the overweight are living longer than the normal weight, where is the justification for public intervention to control our weight? Indeed, a study published last year in the Journal of Health Economics showed that health care expenditures are lower among overweight as compared to normal-weight men.
It is true that the extremely obese die sooner and pay higher medical costs than the non-obese. Surely, then the extremely obese enrolled in Medicare and Medicaid provide sufficient justification for government intervention – right? A recent paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives points out that these extra costs are really just transfers among people in an insurance pool – not a deadweight loss to society.
A few years ago when I broke my leg playing basketball, no one accused me of imposing costs on others when I used my health insurance to pay the costs. They rightly understood that the costs were paid out of a pool designed to cover precisely such risks. If the problem is that some people are riskier than others (or are acting riskier because they are insured), the proper solution is to price those risks into the cost of insurance, and yet the government has hamstrung the ability of insurance companies (public and private alike) to do just that.
Obesity has been roundly demonized. Rarely is it acknowledged that rising weight is an outcome of a historical process that should be welcomed with open arms. My grandparents lived, for much of their lives, without plumbing or air conditioning, doing back-breaking labor in the hot sun to pay the bills. They didn't, for much of their lives, have TV, microwave popcorn, canned biscuits, or, when they had a car, power steering. Yes, I might have to work a little harder to fit my skinny jeans than Grandpa ever did. At least I am fortunate enough to live in a world where my wife doesn’t have to spend half her day cooking and cleaning to feed the family. I reflect on these matters while I speed off to work in my air-conditioned, automatic Chevy, sipping a caramel-skinny-latte preparing for a day of toil at the keyboard in my well-insulated office, scanning Twitter and You-Tube for the latest updates of the day. Somehow I think I can muster the courage to hit the gym on the way home.