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Is 'fat tax' fair to Medicaid recipients?

April 10, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND

For those who haven’t noticed, there are two nanny states in this nation, one Democrat and one Republican. The Democrats want to nanny the rich, while the Republicans want to nanny the poor. And indeed, it’s the Party of Limited Government that is now sticking its nose into the refrigerators of the poor.

A proposal by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, would tax poor, fat people $50 if they fail to adhere to a medically approved weight-loss plan, along with taxing tobacco use.

“This noodle-headed idea,” wrote Dr. Art Caplan, “comes from the same governor and legislature that last year decided the way to balance the budget was to rescind coverage for Arizonans waiting for organ transplants. Not new cases, mind you, but people to whom coverage had been promised. Now, in its wake, comes a ‘sin tax’ for the smoking, trouser-splitting poor.”

The tax affects only the poor, since it only applies to Medicaid recipients. Rich fatsoes can continue to glom free of charge. At just about every level, it appears to be cruel, heartless, unfair and discriminatory.

But it might not be wrong.

It is an admittedly inelegant solution to the problematic, tri-legged stool of food, money and obesity. And true, there is some merit in the critics’ complaints.

For those who truly believe in limited government, this is the Arizona plan’s failing: It’s an intrusion into private lifestyles. For those who aren’t particularly bothered about government intrusion, the failing is this: If you’re going to have a fat tax, it should apply to the whole population, not just an unlucky few.

Weight is also an imperfect measuring stick of health and fitness. Plenty of weightlifters would be considered “morbidly obese” by the government. And any number of “overweight” people could run three times around the block and still be able to beat the living snot out of some pencil-necked politician.

But in the purest sense, even the people who are outraged by Brewer’s plan might agree that she has a point in that the poor habits of some affect the pocketbooks of many.

And these critics might agree that people will have better lives if their hearts do not have to spend their existence in overdrive.

So if she has the right idea, might there be a better means to see it through? There is, and as a Republican she should like it — concentrate on the supply side, not the demand. Pay attention to the supply of food that is making people fat.

The most disgusting people in Congress right at the moment are the handful of wealthy Tea Party members who have collectively accepted millions of taxpayer dollars in government farm subsidies, while insisting that everyone else in America should make do with less.

For example, self-described Tea Party “patriot” U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher alone has soaked the taxpayers for $3 million over the last 15 years. With patriots like this, small wonder the deficit continues to spiral.

And small wonder we can’t offer poor people a decent diet.

Since 1995, America has spent $75 billion for subsidies on corn. Corn, of course, is what they use to fatten hogs and cattle. It is also quite effective at fattening people.

So, because of government subsidies, the cheapest product in the supermarket aisle is also the most fattening. In a perverse way, taxpayers are paying Arizona poor people to get fat — and now, perhaps, the Arizona government will be asking for some of that tax money back.

Call me a genius if you must, but wouldn’t it be more efficient to eliminate the subsidies and let natural, healthier foods compete in price with corn-saturated processed foods?

It makes more sense from a financial standpoint. Believe you me, at $50 a pop, it’s going to take a lot of fat people to make up for one $3 million congressional hypocrite. If the deficit matters, this shouldn’t even be a matter of debate.

It makes more sense from a health standpoint. From fast-food burgers to soda pop, the foods that depend on high doses of corn are artificially cheaper because of government subsidies. Of course, leveling the playing field still does not guarantee people will make healthier choices. But you do wonder what would happen if a can of tuna cost the same as a box of macaroni and cheese.

And it makes more sense from a policy standpoint. Yes, grocery bills would go up. But, as Brewer would tell you, medical bills would go down. And the wealthy men and women of ample carriage carry the same financial burden as the poor in the grocery store.

If nothing else, the GOP should see this as an effort in self-preservation. Because if it keeps subsidizing corn and angering fat people at the same time, its constituency could eventually shrink to unsustainable proportions.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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