The New Frontiers
In Candide, Voltaire, the famous Enlightenment thinker, aims his sardonic wit at the strictures and excesses of the 18th century aristocracy. Describing a baroness, he writes, “the Baron’s lady weighed about three hundred and fifty pounds, and was therefore a person of great consideration, and she did the honors of the house with a dignity that commanded still greater respect.” Historically, in societies where scarcity was the norm, obesity signaled prosperity. But just as the modern age swept away the nobles, it also changed our ideas about body size.
The Haber process vastly expanded the world’s food supply, and, in the West, made famine a thing of the past. Abundance triggered a shift in body image. Skinniness became the ideal. Fatness demonstrated gluttony and a lack of self-control. When the field of medicine emerged, it became clear that obesity was unhealthy, leading to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and a range of other ailments.
The argument that the plight of the poor is non-existent because many in the underclass happen to be obese is entirely specious, ignoring two critical facts: Obesity is a form of malnutrition and the rich are no longer fat.
According to statistics released in 2009 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Manhattan, the wealthiest section of the state, has New York’s lowest proportion of people who are obese or overweight, 42 percent, compared to 62 percent in the Bronx, home to one of the poorest Congressional districts in the country. On the CDC’s health indicators, the Bronx lagged far behind Manhattan.
Obesity is not a choice, but something poor and minority people are forced into because they live in food deserts, where establishments such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken dominate and Whole Foods is nowhere to be found. Indeed, there is not a single supermarket in the city of Detroit. But even if there were a grocery, one has to ask whether poor minorities could afford to shop there. It is cheaper to feed a family on processed food than on lean meats and fresh produce, thanks to government subsidies to farmers, $17 billion of which from 1995 to 2010 has gone to making corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and soy oils, a statistic reported last year by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. In contrast, only $262 million was spent to encourage the cultivation of apples over the same period.
In recent years, some have shown incredible courage in advancing policies to combat obesity, our own mayor, Michael Bloomberg, among them. Ending smoking in restaurants and bars, prohibiting trans-fats, and requiring businesses to post calorie counts, the mayor has furthered the cause of public health more than any other politician has in recent memory. Now, his proposal to ban sugary drinks greater than 16 ounces in size has come under fire. First off, a 20- ounce bottle of soda is disgusting when you think about it; it is a slow-acting poison.
Second, to those who say Bloomberg is overreaching, I would point out that the Constitution gives states and municipalities police powers, i.e. the authority to regulate the health, safety, and morals of their citizens. To those who prattle on about freedom, I would ask, “Who has to bear the cost of health care for obesity-related diseases and drops in productivity?”
On top of Bloomberg’s measures, public health experts have suggested a change in farm subsidies to favor the production of more fresh fruits and vegetables and policies that would move those items to food deserts around America. But this is not sufficient. If one is to address obesity, one must also tackle poverty; they are inextricably linked.
Concentrations of poverty beget more poverty and a variety of social ills, including obesity. It is not good enough to set up farmers’ markets in the ghettoes; we have to get people out of the ghettoes. Simply put, we have to integrate American society, a goal that has long been liberalism’s white whale. We need to bus schoolchildren from poor neighborhoods to rich neighborhoods, from minority neighborhoods to white neighborhoods, and vice-versa. We need to build affordable housing in the suburbs as well as the urban centers.
And this project should be financed by taxes on the country’s top earners. This is not class warfare; it is social justice. This is not about envy; it is about freedom, about creating a democracy of opportunity.
As Franklin Roosevelt observed more than 75 years ago, “Liberty requires opportunity to make a living – a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.” The fragmentation of the United States along racial and class lines is a dangerous phenomenon that has to be resisted forcefully, else we find ourselves, with a minor tweak, in Voltaire’s time again.