Chips, Dips, and Red Ink

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unfunded liability of Medicare and Social Security is in the range
of $45 trillion. By 2008, it will be over $51 trillion. (See
Table 1 at the bottom of this testimony
.) Most of this shortfall
— 86% — is Medicare-related. Congress is doing nothing
to deal with this looming crisis. The Bush Administration pushed
through a huge prescription benefit law, which will speed up the
fiscal erosion process.

as a people, we are eating our way to national bankruptcy.

holiday season is the time to consider this problem. Call it a pre-emptive
attack against January’s guilt.


recently re-ran a show that it first broadcast on PBS in April,
2004: "Diet Wars."
It surveyed the various popular weight-loss diets, which are in
conflict: Atkins, Pritikin, South Beach, Weight Watchers, the U.S.
government’s food group pyramid, and a few others. They all have
one thing in common: most fat people do not stick with them. According
to one of the physicians interviewed, a Pritikin man, between 80%
and 95% of people who lose weight gain it back in five years. So,
Pareto’s 20-80 law rules in weight-loss, too. The statistical range
of those who keep the weight off is between 20% and 20% of 20% (4%).

narrator of the show was also the central figure. He had been a
child actor on "Leave It to Beaver." He was putting on
weight. His wife had been nagging him to change his eating habits
for years. At the time the taping began, he was age 55, 5-11, and
210 pounds. A physician told him he was borderline obese. Well,
he was not waist-line obese. You would not have noticed him in a
crowd. There was only a trace of belly on him.

leads me to a preliminary conclusion: nutritionists are making it
up as they go along. They don’t know. When I was a child, physicians
had no training in nutrition. They ignored the subject. When I was
in my twenties, they were dead set against the health food industry.
They were insistent that the Shute brothers, the two Canadian physicians/nutritionists,
were all wrong about vitamin E vs. heart disease. Today they recommend
E, but none of them seems to remember
the Shutes and the war against them.
In short, physicians get
caught up in fads, just like millions of other Americans do. Fads
come and go.

of the experts interviewed insisted that there is an epidemic of
obesity among Americans. (This phrase has become a rhetorical epidemic.)
She said that increased weight "is associated with" — note:
she did not say "causes" — heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
She warned that this epidemic will overwhelm the health care delivery
system. I have no doubt that she is correct. The American health-care
system is increasingly funded by, and regulated by, the U.S. government.
It is slowly turning into something resembling the Post Office.

is going to overwhelm the system is extended old age. Americans — victims
of a pandemic — are living far longer than ever before. Degenerative
diseases rather than pneumonia are killing us. Unlike pneumonia,
which would come without warning and kill an old person within a
few days, degenerative diseases cost a fortune to treat over long
periods of time. The government has promised to pick up the tab.
That means you and I will write the checks. Anyway, you will. At
my age, I’m planning to be the middleman between you, the government,
and my physician.

ago, the late Redd Foxx made a sagacious observation: "I feel
sorry for all those health food people. Someday, they will be lying
in a hospital bed, dying of nothing." His point was on target:
something is going to kill us. It’s not that we willingly "give
up the ghost." Something kills us: a fall, a disease, an auto
accident, re-runs of That
70s Show

raises three statistically inevitable political questions: (1) Will
the onslaught against all of us by microbes, known and unknown,
bankrupt the government? (2) Will it instead produce a political
transformation that saves the government’s budget by requiring oldsters
to die at home in their beds at their families’ expense? (3) First
one, then the other?

is reactionary. It changes only when change is forced on it, either
by voters or special-interest groups. So, for as long as the post-64
voting bloc gets out the vote in statistically significant numbers,
Congress is not going to change Medicare. But, at some point, in
a fiscal crisis, the other voting blocs will unite, show up at the
polls, and send Granny home to her bed to die. It will take a very
severe fiscal crisis to produce this transformation. I may not live
to see it. I hope I do.

are eating our way to national bankruptcy. Those who eat, drink,
and are merry, for tomorrow Medicare picks up the tab, are going
to be sorely tried.


medical refrain today is this: "America is suffering from an
epidemic of obesity." The experts don’t want to put the blame
where the blame is: the enormous productivity of capitalism. Americans
have a lot of money, and food is cheap. The restraining factor of
economic scarcity, which kept most people slim from the dawn of
the human race, is being rolled back. We can afford to eat what
we like, and what we like is not good for a lot of us.

you want a symbol of this, think of Wal-Mart’s masked smiley face.
He is rolling back prices. But that round face is a tip-off. This
guy is fat. Why, that’s not Don Diego behind the mask. It’s Sergeant

biggest profit in groceries is in the packaged, processed foods.
Here’s the rule: "If it’s in a brightly colored package, it’s
going to make you fat." In the supermarket, stick with the
food that is uncovered — fruits, vegetables — or packaged in undistinguished
plastic or cardboard: meats, dairy products, eggs.

away from the aisles with food types listed on overhead signs. These
aisles will kill you.

the State protect us? Hardly. The public schools make a bundle of
money from the sale of soft drinks. They refuse to remove the soda
pop dispensers. The government’s number-one agency in our lives,
kindergarten through graduate school, has put cash flow above service
to the people. Somehow, I am not surprised.

problem is, the foods that are best for us are bland, common, and
very price competitive — low profit margins per sale. The tasty foods
are fattening. So it has always been. But in eras gone by, people
were not productive enough and therefore rich enough, to indulge
their tastes. Henry VIII was, but that was because he was the king.

we eat like kings. We are beginning to look like them, too.

3, 2004

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit

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