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April 5, 2007 1:51PM

Who’s Afraid of a Little Flab?

Lest anyone get too carried away with the current wave of anti‐​obesity hysterics, Harvard economists David Cutler and Edward Glaeser, along with University of Michigan professor of medicine Allison Rosen, have released a working paper titled “Is the US Population Behaving Healthier?” where they find that Americans are getting healthier in spite of a little extra flab. From the abstract:

Despite substantial increases in obesity in the past three decades, the overall population risk profile is healthier now than it was formerly. For the population aged 25 – 74, the 10 year probability of death fell from 9.8 percent in 1971 – 75 to 8.4 percent in 1999 – 2002. Among the population aged 55 – 74, the 10 year risk of death fell from 25.7 percent to 21.7 percent. The largest contributors to these changes were the reduction in smoking and better control of blood pressure. Increased obesity increased risk, but not by as large a quantitative amount. In the future, however, increased obesity may play a larger role than continued reductions in smoking. We estimate that a continuation of trends over the past three decades to the next three decades might offset about a third of the behavioral improvements witnessed in recent years.

So when you order that second cheeseburger, be sure to ask for a side of ACE inhibitors.

April 5, 2007 12:33PM

The Right’s Love Affair with the Military

My post the other day about whether American society really ought to look more like the U.S. Army has induced a vein-popping, spittle-flying tirade over at Right-Thinking from the Left Coast. Apparently, the point I was trying to make was lost on some.

To recap, Robert Wright argued in the op-ed pages of The New York Times (subscription required) for an America that looked more like the U.S. Army. In that piece, Wright went on at some length pointing out all the wonderful things he found in that institution. Fine, although I certainly know people who spent time in the U.S. Army who saw things a lot differently.

But never mind. The author left out one not-so-inconsequential aspect of the U.S. Army - in fact, the one thing that actually defines the institution. To wit, it's an organization in which people are expected to shut up and do as they are told. And if they don't, they are jailed or even, in some circumstances, shot. And their job is to kill.

Do I think American society ought to look more like that? Uh, no.

Now, how do we get from that -- which should have been obvious to most readers -- to this shrill “you hate the troops” stuff out of Right-Thinking from the Left Coast? My guess is that there are a lot of people on the Right who worship the Pentagon and everything it stands for because they see it as representing the country as a whole. And, well, they love the heck out of their country.

I understand this, but to me, the military has always been less of a mirror image of the country I love than a mirror image of the Post Office I don’t so love – but a Post Office with heavy ordnance. Sure, we need the military to protect ourselves from bad actors abroad, but let’s not lose our perspective. We need construction workers to protect us from big potholes on the road too, but that doesn’t mean I’ll go into a conniption every time I run across someone with a none-too-rosy view of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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April 5, 2007 10:03AM

Czech Government Officially Proposes Flat Tax

Although its prognosis is unclear because of the ruling government’s lack of a firm majority in parliament, the Czech government has unveiled its flat tax. Combined with reductions in social welfare spending, the tax reform could dramatically boost Czech competitiveness and put more pressure on Western Europe’s welfare states. Tax​-news​.com reports:

The Czech government has announced a raft of major tax reform plans, which include a flat tax on personal income, a significant reduction in tax on corporate income, and changes to the value‐​added tax regime. Under the proposals announced by Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, if approved Czech taxpayers will pay a 15% flat tax on their personal income, while companies will see their income tax rate drop to 19% from the current 24% by 2010. At present personal income tax rates vary according to wages, and range from 12% to 32%. The lower rate of value‐​added tax will increase under these reforms to 9% from 5%, but the headline rate will remain unchanged at 19%. …with the tax cuts accompanied by some major cuts in welfare spending, such as unemployment benefits and healthcare, the government is sure to encounter opposition from the left.

April 4, 2007 8:34PM

Dueling Book Titles on Health Care

Shannon Brownlee writes in the New York Times,

Sure, aggressive treatment is reducing mortality and improving the quality of life for some patients. Sometimes it even cures. But for many others, the cancer machine offers only marginal benefits at best, and providers push screening and aggressive treatment in part because they have nothing else to give, but also because it’s profitable. How much of the money we spend on unnecessary or futile cancer treatment might be put to better use searching for real advances?

Her forthcoming book is titled, Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Americans Sicker and Poorer. Meanwhile, Jonathan Cohn writes

Every day, millions of hard‐​working people struggle to find affordable medical treatment for themselves and their families — unable to pay for prescription drugs and regular check‐​ups, let alone for hospital visits. Some of these people end up losing money. Others end up losing something more valuable: Their health or even their lives.

His book title is Sick: The Untold Story of America’s Health Care Crisis – and the People Who Pay the Price.


Europeans probably will love Cohn’s book, which apparently will reinforce their impression that Americans fall down dead in the streets every day because we don’t have enough socialized medicine. Brownlee’s book also apparently will take an anti‐​capitalist slant, blaming evil doctors and hospitals for overtreating patients.


The moral of the story is that whether you are being overtreated or undertreated, it’s the fault of the evil capitalist system. Still, if Cohn and/​or Brownlee want to campaign on a platform of “Your health care stinks. It’s time to replace your health insurance and your doctor with a government programm,” I think they may run into opposition.

April 4, 2007 8:15PM

But We Can Trust the Government, Right?

A common criticism of Social Security choice (and defense of the Social Security status quo) is that there are dishonest actors in private markets who would put people's private account assets at risk of (in the words of the AFL-CIO) "corruption, waste and Enron-ization." These critics argue that society is much better off keeping Social Security in the honest, benevolent hands of Uncle Sam.

What must these critics be thinking about today's NYT above-the-fold article on teacher pension fund shenanigans in New Jersey? The lede says it all:

In 2005, New Jersey put either $551 million, $56 million or nothing into its pension fund for teachers. All three figures appeared in various state documents — though the state now says that the actual amount was zero.

Like many state and local government pension systems, New Jersey's is woefully underfunded compared to the benefits it will have to pay in the future. (This situation will make headlines in the coming years, as state and local governments begin to disclose their pension fund and retirement benefit system shortfalls in accordance with a recent GASB requirement.) In New Jersey's case, the shortfall is more than has been publicly acknowledged, however: "an analysis of its records by The New York Times shows that in many cases, New Jersey has overstated even what it has claimed to be contributing, sometimes by hundreds of millions of dollars."

Talk about the Enronization of retirement benefits...

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