Obesity On The Interstate

On Saturday and Sunday, Kish and I drove home from Maine.  It was a long trip, so we broke it up into two days.  The distance wasn’t a problem for me, though, because I just enjoy driving, listening to the radio, and seeing the countryside pass by.

northway-exit1We rolled along interstate highways in Massachusetts, upstate New York (where we got ridiculously gouged paying tolls on the New York Turnpike), and then Pennsylvania and Ohio.  Because we were on the NY Turnpike, we used the service plazas to fill up, and we visited rest areas on the non-toll roads.  As we stopped from time to time and I passed fellow travelers, I slowly realized something:

My God!  We are a country of porkers!

Look, I recognize that the crowd you see on the interstate highway system in the Eastern time zone isn’t a random statistical sample of the United States as a whole.  I know you can’t extrapolate from the people I happened to see, by chance, as I stopped to fill up or hit the men’s restroom.  But after a while the number of seriously obese people I was seeing at every stop became so obvious that it just couldn’t be ignored.  And I’m not talking about people who are a few pounds above their ideal, either.  I’m talking about people that move with the slow waddle characteristic of the grossly overweight, men with colossal beer guts, women who are huffing and puffing just walking from their cars to a roadside restroom, and people who look like they are ready to burst out of their clothes.

I’m not saying this to be funny, or provocative.  It really was disturbing, and depressing.  There obviously are a lot of morbidly obese people in this country, and if you want to see them just drive a while on the interstate highway system.  When you think about the back problems, and diabetes, and joint problems, and heart disease, and high blood pressure, and other health conditions associated with obesity, you realize that the weight problems of so many people have to be a large contributor to the exploding health care costs in the United States.  Is it any wonder that we can’t control health care costs, when so many people can’t control their own urges and their own weight?

Government By Referendum

Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has shocked the world and rocked the stock markets.  Any American who has a 401(k) retirement account has felt the ripple effects — which shows that, Brexit or not, the world remains a pretty interconnected place.  (Incidentally, is anyone else tired of hearing the word “Brexit”?  It’s such a clumsy, awkward construct for a really significant issue.)

In the wake of the Brexit vote, the Washington Post carried an interesting article questioning whether a popular referendum was the best way to decide whether Great Britain should remain in the EU.  The article noted, for example, that some voters regretted their votes as mistakes and that some of the promises made in the weeks leading up to the vote turned out to be false.  The Post article has been mocked by some people as suggesting that the Post, and the liberal elites, harbor deep anti-democratic impulses and an innate fear of an active, engaged electorate.

That’s not quite fair.  There has long been a vigorous debate about precisely how governments should be structured to allow people to exercise their democratic rights.  Those who remember their civics class will remember that the American Constitution was the product of a lively debate in which the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, were adopted to provide checks on what the will of the majority could inflict on the minority. Determining public policy by popular referendum became commonplace only in the 20th century — and my guess is that, in many states, the shackles and unintended consequences imposed by broad, often poorly worded “propositions” often end up being regretted by many of the voters who supported them in the first place.

This is not to stake out a position on whether the decision to exit the EU was good or bad for Great Britain, only to note that it’s entirely legitimate to question whether a complicated issue, having so many ramifications that can’t be fully captured by electoral sloganeering, is something that should be resolved by a popular referendum.  I imagine the American Founding Fathers would have had a very vigorous debate about that question.