How to Save the Global Economy: Get Healthy, Get Wealthy

Not all of our economic problems are strictly economic in nature. Consider the interlocking crises in unemployment, health (often caused by lack of exercise and too much food), and education. These conditions exacerbate one another: The unemployed lack the funds to take good care of their health, people with bad health may have trouble keeping ...

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Not all of our economic problems are strictly economic in nature.

Consider the interlocking crises in unemployment, health (often caused by lack of exercise and too much food), and education. These conditions exacerbate one another: The unemployed lack the funds to take good care of their health, people with bad health may have trouble keeping a job or staying in school, and inadequate education limits people's employment options and may limit their understanding of how to maintain their health.

Economists speak the language of interest rates, currency wars, and infrastructure investment. But what if we invested in people instead? Bad health costs billions of dollars; preventive care and behavior change could cut that in half -- and restore or retain health for millions of people as well.

Not all of our economic problems are strictly economic in nature.

Consider the interlocking crises in unemployment, health (often caused by lack of exercise and too much food), and education. These conditions exacerbate one another: The unemployed lack the funds to take good care of their health, people with bad health may have trouble keeping a job or staying in school, and inadequate education limits people’s employment options and may limit their understanding of how to maintain their health.

Economists speak the language of interest rates, currency wars, and infrastructure investment. But what if we invested in people instead? Bad health costs billions of dollars; preventive care and behavior change could cut that in half — and restore or retain health for millions of people as well.

One challenge is that health is not just a question of knowledge; it’s a set of behaviors you need to be motivated to engage in and tempations you need to avoid. That’s actually an opportunity, though, because the best motivational tool is other people. That is, keeping people healthy is in fact a potential occupation for thousands of people, and one that is more productive and rewarding than medical care after the damage is done.

Accordingly, one idea is to launch a broad retraining program for the unemployed, focusing on health and health care. Those with formal education or professional experience could be trained as teachers of academic or vocational subjects, while those without such credentials or inclinations could become gym teachers and healthy-living counselors.

How to do this politically? Not by launching a giant public-works program, but by offering such training through unemployment offices and vocational services and integrating them into unemployment benefits programs. In other words: Instead of just handing job-seekers checks each month, teach them how to take better care of themselves and others.

Better yet, we need not rely wholly on government programs. For example, I am an investor in a for-profit company called Omada Health that runs online counseling programs for people who have just been diagnosed as pre-diabetic. Modeled on programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, it relies on a counselor to manage five to 10 groups of 10 people each. Existing counselors may select new counselors for training from among the members (especially those who are un- or underemployed), because they get to see how group members interact with one another.

America’s health-care crisis — which few would argue has been "solved" by the recent reforms — is not just the result of high costs for new therapies and treatments for disease (though that’s part of it) or even misaligned incentives (payment for care rather than outcomes); it’s also a result of the proliferation of noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes, that are caused or at least aggravated by individuals’ own behavior. This means that educating people and changing their habits are big parts of the solution.

What can governments do? In some ways, there’s very little, other than all the in-the-box things everyone already knows about, such as paying for preventive health care, paying for outcomes, and so on.

In the end, the best government entities to address these questions (in the United States, at least) will be city and occasionally state governments. They operate at the right level for engagement in everyday living, whereas national government intervention can be polarizing and intrusive. These measures include everything from modifying building codes to favor stairs over elevators (while providing elevators for the disabled) to overhauling school lunches to provide healthy food and sponsoring green markets.

Ultimately, it will be up to us to take better care of ourselves. After all, it’s everyday choices that make people sick: doughnuts over apples, driving over walking. We might as well make the right choices easier.

Esther Dyson is editor of Release 1.0, the technology industry newsletter published by CNET Networks.

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