I Want My Cake and Freedom, Too

I read a story today that talked about a financial and moral conundrum that a Seattle school district was facing. Several years ago, the school made a decision to replace the junk food and soda in the vending machines with healthier options. This was lauded at the time as a positive move in the fight against childhood obesity, and despite the protests of the Frito Lays and Coca Colas of the world they were successful in making this change. Fast forward three short years, and the school district is reconsidering their move and pondering whether Twinkies, Doritos and Mountain Dew should be made readily accessible again. The reason? Well, three years ago the vending machines were generating more than $200,000 in revenue for the school district. This year the total is $17,000.

But it's sooooo delicious. I'll start my diet tomorrow.

So now the school district is faced with a dilemma. Do you stay the course and keep true to your commitment to the children or do you buckle to financial pressure and do what you can to provide the best education to the children? I bring this up because I am a big proponent for better nutritional education for our youth, and I personally would prefer not to have junk food available to kids. They are kids and therefore will often not make good choices. We as a society dictate the freedoms that kids have, many of which are based on reaching a certain age, so there is a precedent there. But we are also a country based on freedom, and as the cracks in the armor appeared for this Washington school district, the vultures started circling and declaring that removing the junk food was an infringement on the freedom of choice for the kids and the freedom of commerce for the companies that want to market their fat-laced diabetes time bombs to a new crop of consumers. It got me to thinking: “Can you be selective with freedom?” My opinion is no you can’t, but you sure as hell can make people accountable for their freedom.

America is fat and getting fatter. One misconception that some people have is that when a person becomes obese that they are only hurting themselves. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It is estimated that 9% of all medical costs – or $147 billion dollars – is spent on obesity-related conditions in America. That cost is shared by all Americans, obese or not. What I find amazing is the absolute lack of accountability in penalizing people for this when getting health insurance. I’ve been lucky to have employer-provided medical insurance for 24 years now, and at every single place I’ve worked I’ve been given options for which plan I want to enroll in, and that choice coupled with the following choices dictated my expense: Employee, Employee+1, Employee+Family. There was no place on the form to ask me if I was morbidly obese, a smoker, a drug user or a test pilot. In other words, all people were created equal. Now, life insurance is a different animal, but let’s just stick to medical insurance. As I’ve progressed through my various employers I’ve seen my medical premiums increase in 23 of the 24 years I’ve had insurance. The one exception was this year, when my employer made the generous gesture of absorbing the increase in costs and leaving my contribution unchanged.

While obesity cannot be solely blamed for the increase in premiums, I recall vividly a woman at a former employer in tears talking to our HR manager during open enrollment. The employee was about 5’2” tall and weighed at least 200 pounds. She was upset that the monthly costs for health care were increasing and that the prescription co-pay was also going up, and she was going to have to pay a lot more for her six prescriptions. I couldn’t help but think that I was the one getting screwed because I was on no medication and probably hadn’t seen the doctor in the past year. My premiums were going up because of her, and she couldn’t see past her own needs to recognize that nobody younger than 50 should be on 6 different medications.

Right now I am required by the State of California to have automobile insurance, but I am not required to have medical coverage. At least not yet. So I am obligated to protect others from footing the bill if I should damage them or their property by driving carelessly. However, I can pop into an emergency room at any time to get treated without any coverage because I can’t be turned away. That wouldn’t be right. So who pays the bill? Taxpayers pay the bill, and folks with medical coverage pay the bill. So what about those that have medical coverage? If I have two tickets on my record (which I do), my car insurance rates go up. But if I were to put on 40 pounds next year (which I won’t), my rates stay the same? Why? Because the obese will claim discrimination if we charge them more? What’s their incentive to lose weight then? They will be healthier? That doesn’t work; fried foods are too goddamn delicious. The fact that we don’t penalize people that voluntarily erode their health through poor habits and force healthy people to subsidize them through higher costs is deplorable. But as a country that’s what we do. I’ve never been late with a credit card payment, yet my rates have gone up. It’s the same principle.

Another option is to take away the food. Doing that would penalize people who want to enjoy it in moderation. Take it away from the obese, and you are discriminating and depriving Americans of freedom. That would never fly. So what we end up with is a system that won’t restrict freedom but won’t penalize those who make bad decisions. Imagine sending your child to a preschool that followed this model. You have a little bastard on your hands in six months. Now imagine telling a 46 year old father of two that is 30 pounds overweight and smokes that his medical coverage will cost 25% more than another person who maintains a good BMI, exercises a few times a week and can climb a flight of stairs without taking a break. Somehow we’ve coddled this person to the point where he is not only not ashamed to make a stink but feels entitled to. He’s received the equivalent of a handout for a good portion of his life and now believes it’s the status quo.

The people on the school board in Seattle are going to try and rationalize their decision as best they can. Ultimately they won’t have to deal with the consequences because most of the kids will get really fat after they leave grade school. These kids will grow up with junk food, get fat and see other fat people in growing numbers. This new perception of normalcy will affect their expectations and will give them the opinion that they are entitled to the same medical care costs as everyone else. But they aren’t. If 67% of America is overweight or obese as is reported, then they are no longer the exception. Progressive employers offer incentives to employees who embody a healthy lifestyle. I worked for one such employer; my healthy actions netted me a discount of $50, or roughly less than 1% of my annual premiums.

Personal freedoms are easily restricted when it presents a danger to others. I am not allowed to drive 100mph down the freeway because it’s dangerous to others on the road. Smokers protested in droves when they were told they couldn’t smoke in bars. They actually said that going to a bar implied that you were OK with second hand smoke. Not only did they lose that fight but were then told that they couldn’t smoke in public parks and around the front of some buildings. In my neighborhood, I can’t paint my house just any color I choose, and I can’t have a satellite dish with a larger than six-foot diameter – although technology has improved to the point where there’s no longer a danger of that happening.

What about the laws that are proposed banning cell phone conversations in a moving vehicle? If I can’t talk on the phone, can I talk to the person next to me? Can I tell my kids to shut the hell up and stop hitting each other? Where’s the ruling on that one? There’s a law in California that requires motorcycle riders to wear a helmet. When you think about it, that law only exists to protect the rider, so why do we require someone to wear the helmet? I’ve always thought that I didn’t care if a motorcycle rider wore a helmet but if he/she didn’t and plowed into my car that I shouldn’t be responsible for any medical bills.

A few weeks ago, an eight-year-old child who weighs 200 pounds was removed from his parents’ custody for his own protection when it was decided that they weren’t doing enough to keep him at a healthy weight. What if he weighed 180? 160? The problem I have with this is that his parents are free to eat themselves into a diabetic coma. They can weigh 400 pounds if they choose and still pay the same rates for their medical insurance as me. But for some reason they must exercise better dietary control over their child lest he be removed from their custody. I frankly find the fact that this child got that heavy to be inexcusable, but what I struggle with is defining where the line is. Because we have to have lines. We must define what is allowed and what isn’t because otherwise we have a creeping grey area. The American people do not do well with the grey area, each person defines it with a selfishly motivated slant and then expects the rest of the country to see things through their eyes.

I guess what it boils down to is that Americans love freedom, it’s what makes this country amazing. But freedom is often misunderstood to mean “what I want at your expense.” I think you should be able to eat what you want, but I don’t want to pay for your medical bills. I think you should be able to feel the wind whip through your hair as you cruise on your Harley, but I don’t want to be sued when you do a Gary Busey and crack your skull on my bumper. I think you should be able to talk on your cell phone while you drive, but I think that if you kill two people in a freeway pile-up that you caused while texting, you should spend the rest of your life in jail. I think that you should have the right to smoke in a restaurant, but only if I can spontaneously urinate on your entrée and then saddle you with my dinner bill. I think you should be able to exercise all of your freedoms as long as you are willing to pay the price for what your freedoms do to others.

Freedom isn’t free, or so the saying goes. Your personal expression of freedom should never come at the expense of others, and equality is often misunderstood to mean, “I get as much for myself as the rest of you get combined.” I’m not a member of the military, but I believe that they get “it” better than civilians, that in order to gain and protect freedom you sometimes have to sacrifice your personal freedoms. It wasn’t three months after 9/11 before I heard people again complaining about security lines at the airport. We had already forgotten that some delays were going to be necessary in order to ensure the safety of a larger collective.

So let’s celebrate our freedom, but also understand that we are responsible for how we express our freedoms and we are responsible for the consequences of that behavior. In 2011 if you don’t know the dangers of smoking, you are an idiot. You should know that the McDonald’s coffee is hot and the burgers will make you fat. Fat and out of shape means you will die sooner. Unprotected sex leads to kids and venereal disease. Fast driving and texting lead to horrific crashes. TV rots your brain, loud music makes you deaf. Drinking alcohol will not give you better decision-making abilities. Divorce your spouse before you cheat on your spouse. None of this is rocket science, yet so many people will act surprised when some of these things ruin what they believe is their God-given freedom to do what they want free of consequences.

So eat that extra slice of cake and stop billing your dialysis directly to freedom because somehow that shit ends up in my mailbox. Consider this my way of exercising my freedom of speech.