David Rothkopf

The greatest threat to the U.S. is the size of our appetites

One cannot help but be moved by the on-going example of the Japanese as they struggle to rebuild. It is not just the country’s dignity or industry. It is something deeper. It is their sense of community. Recently, polls from leading Japanese newspapers have all confirmed that between 60 and 70 percent of Japanese citizens ...


One cannot help but be moved by the on-going example of the Japanese as they struggle to rebuild. It is not just the country’s dignity or industry. It is something deeper. It is their sense of community.

Recently, polls from leading Japanese newspapers have all confirmed that between 60 and 70 percent of Japanese citizens would welcome paying higher taxes to help recover from the quake and the tsunami. Across the country, reports abound of citizens embracing austerity — from the disciplined limitation of their use of power to forswearing the purchase of high-end consumer items for which the Japanese have historically had a highly developed appetite. Japanese political leaders, though still struggling to come together as effectively as the population at large, even make public displays of commitment that are striking (to the degree to which it is hard to imagine American politicians doing the same) such as publicly digging in to meals prepared with produce from the Fukushima region to promote agricultural interests there despite the lingering after-effects of the radiation leaks.

Secretary Clinton’s visit to Japan during which she met with the emperor and his wife, the prime minister and the foreign minister, was a welcome further sign of the active support the Obama Administration has given to Japan in the wake of the crisis. But perhaps the secretary of state missed a chance to broker a deal while she was there. We would offer continued aid in exchange for lessons from the Japanese in public-spiritedness.

Don’t get me wrong. I recognize the Japanese have been even more profligate than the United States in terms of their national government spending. But not only has their debt grown during a period of an extraordinary protracted national slow down, but given our circumstances we would do well to find inspiration wherever we can and thus there is nothing wrong with finding it in the post-disaster nobility and sacrifice of the Japanese people.

Here at home, we have, for example, a debt disaster that none other than the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has characterized as the greatest national security threat the United States faces. Members of Congress scramble to attack one another for their fiscal recklessness. Each political party reveals their true colors by courageously calling for cuts that would most heavily impact their opponent’s political bases. ("We must all sacrifice. And by ‘we’, I mean ‘you.’")

Clearly, as in the Japanese case, a wise nation would do well to seek solutions that are not dependent on government courage. Pols may eat their radioactive vegetables for a photo op but they will continue to steer clear of true hard choices like they would a protracted photographers-not-allowed tour of the insides of one of the Fukushima reactors. The Japanese sacrifice individually because they know it is the only way to rebuild. The same might well be true here.

For example, while the politicians are busy congratulating themselves for their "seriousness" in agreeing to $38 billion in faux-cuts in spending in the face of a $14 trillion deficit (the real savings are more like $350 million), perhaps the public might do its share, Japanese-style.

For example, while the administration and Ryan budgets talk about savings of a few trillion over the next decade, we all know that those numbers will be hard to translate into real legislation. And whatever numbers are agreed to, we also know that the real heavy lifting will be carefully postponed until what is the distant future in political time, perhaps 10 years away or more.

But rather than simply complaining about the posturing, pusillanimity, and hypocrisy of our politicians, perhaps Americans ought to try to take matters into their own hands. To choose just one example, if the biggest problem we face is — as is widely agreed — the rising cost of American health care, perhaps we ought to recognize that even while we wait for the some semblance of a rational health care system in his country we could make a big dent in national spending by actually working on being healthier.

Oh, I know this is radical. But perhaps we should be so quick to condemn the pols and special interests from gorging themselves at the trough of public spending if we continue to gorge ourselves at our own dinner tables and fast food restaurants. Estimates vary but the United States currently spends something between $150 and $200 billion a year on health care costs associated with obesity. That’s not an abstract figure of no relevance to the budget. Total Medicare costs rise from $4700 for people of "normal" weight to $6400 a year for obese people. We spend something like $1400 more for obese people in prescription drugs alone. And obesity is growing at epidemic rates. One study estimated that the costs to the U.S. per year of obesity could shoot up to $344 billion by 2018. That is based on a projection that would have 43 percent of Americans considered obese at that point — which is to say more than 30 pounds above what is considered an appropriate rate. The U.S. obesity rate has doubled to 32 percent since 1980.

So, pick a number. Reduce obesity back to 1980 levels and save $100 billion a year? Three times the recent budget deal. A trillion a decade. Or, avoid the 2018 fate predicted above and double that number? Not all of this is cost to the U.S. government, of course. And the numbers are crude guesstimates. But you get the idea. A huge chunk of the spending we call "entitlements" are actually discretionary. It’s just that they depend on the discretion of individual Americans to eat responsibly … to recognize that their private actions have public consequences and very real costs. In other words, the next time you see a fat guy ladling it down like there is no tomorrow, consider this … he’s not just eating his lunch, he’s eating yours too.

And of course, smokers, who cost the United States $200 billion a year are doing the same. In fact, the U.S. spends $1.8 trillion a year on chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer and obesity and smoking are two of the leading causes of these. So these are not simply matters of personal choice. Smokers and over-eaters are free-riders, they are costing the U.S. trillions we don’t have and they bear, as a result of out-of-control self-indulgence that makes Washington’s behavior look like an accurate reflection of our national character, a large portion of the responsibility for the national security threat cited by Admiral Mullen.

It may just be that one of the best programs we could introduce to fight the deficit is to limit the size of dinner plates in America. And if you don’t think major savings are possible, take a look back at Japan. Their obesity rate is just over 3 percent, one tenth of ours.

There are other ways a greater sense of community could help fight the deficit, of course. Government contractors could not gouge the government and charge the maximum they can get. Corporations and the rich could not go to such lengths to avoid paying taxes. The wealthy could send a clear message that the Bush tax cuts — which would cost the U.S. almost $4 billion if extended for another decade — are a bridge too far and that they can live with paying taxes at the rate they did way back a decade or so ago. Parents could volunteer more at schools to help close funding gaps. The list goes on. The point is that it’s not just the politicians who are responsible for the deficit. There’s plenty each of us can do individually.

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