Andrew Biggs, a policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute (former George W. Bush appointee at the Social Security Administration) recently wrote yet another of his doom-and-gloom articles about the long-term fate of Social Security’s retirement system. I too worked at Social Security (as a career employee) but I don’t share his priorities. If Biggs took an afternoon off from AEI’s hushed offices for a subway ride, he’d see why. Amongst the hoi polloi, he’d see lots of fat people – very fat people: workers, tourists and (sadly) kids. If I were Biggs I’d be more worried about this population’s health care costs than whether Social Security will be there for them in thirty years.
Put another way, how many eighty-year-olds have you seen who weigh 300 pounds?
A few months ago, the Gallup Organization estimated the U.S. adult obesity rate at 27.7 percent, the highest since Gallup started tracking obesity rates since it began doing so in 2008.
America has an adult obesity rate (not just overweight but obese) approaching 30 percent. That has an impact on longevity, which is the crux of Biggs’ concerns: that Social Security will not be able to pay out benefits because (he believes) people will live longer.
But are today’s Americans truly fated to live longer?
Mad Men fans know cigarettes were the stress reliever of choice in the sixties. And so it continued through the seventies and eighties until anti-smoking activists made it more difficult and expensive to smoke.
In the United States, Congress banned radio and television ads for cigarettes in 1972, President Reagan signed a law in 1988 banning on smoking on U.S. domestic flights of two hours or less, and in 2003 New York City banned smoking in public places and states started to ramp up their taxes on cigarettes. Smoking declined, and people turned to eating more food instead. This is a classic case of an unintended consequence.
Yes, smoking certainly leads to health problems (lung cancer, duh), but obesity’s consequences are more complex, and generally require longer-term health care.
Plus, if food replaced smoking as a stress reliever, what would replace food? Will we be America the medicated, popping pills to relieve stress and keep us from eating?
Or will we have a more intrusive state akin to a science fiction novel, where everyone is issued a card that limits the amount of fatty foods, junk foods, and carbs they can purchase in a single month?
Legalizing marijuana is no solution either: potheads put that stuff in brownies!
Seriously, our rising obesity rates translate into more people who are likely to develop diabetes – a chronic condition. Obesity also is a major cause of kidney disease according to the CDC, which also estimates about one in six African Americans has signs of kidney disease – an astonishing figure.
Maybe that’s why Warren Buffett increased his investment in DaVita Healthcare Partners last year: it operates a large chain of kidney dialysis centers. It seems Buffett’s not optimistic about First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to change America’s eating habits.
I’m not an actuary, but my guess is in the coming decades Americans might live a bit longer. But if they do, it won’t be by much due to our obesity situation. And that extra bit of longevity likely won’t be enough to trigger major overhauls in the Social Security retirement program.
However, the medical costs related to care of the obese will be significant (just ask Warren Buffett), and the related policy implications far surpass concerns over the robustness of Social Security’s retirement trust fund in 2044.
So go ahead and eat a bag of Cheetos, Mr. Biggs. It may help distract you from your worries over Social Security’s future.
A version of this article first appeared online in The Daily Caller.