In Praise of Participation, Blog 5

By Lance Tapley
The Anti-Fan Blogger

I was having lunch with a doctor who’s an expert on our national epidemic of diabetes. I was shocked when he told me that by 2050 a third of the population is expected to be diabetic. “And it’s a very expensive disease,” he added.

We’ve probably all seen the recent headlines about how obesity, a primary cause of diabetes, is expected to afflict half the population by 2030. The United States is on a course toward enormous physical, mental, and financial suffering.

So far, we have done nothing effective to change course. As I pointed out in Blog No. 4, exhortation and health education don’t appear to work.

So what can be done? I asked my friend.

“Tax bad foods and subsidize good foods,” he replied. This was the best idea, he said, that he and his colleagues had come up with.

An excellent idea. And it could be done. We raised taxes on tobacco, and its high price has helped reduce cigarette smoking, smoking-related diseases, and their medical costs.

But for reform-minded people to take on the tobacco industry — an effort that took decades to result in only partial success — is a much smaller task than to take on the food, beverage, corporate farming, and a good deal of the advertising industry. That’s a politically daunting set of opponents.

Turning to burning off calories instead of putting them on, what about the solution to the obesity epidemic of rebuilding our transportation system to entice people to walk more?

In other words, have people use cars less. Sheldon Jacobson, a University of Illinois researcher, published a study in 2011 that correlated “in the 99 percent range” the growth of vehicle use with the growth of obesity.

Jacobson, a computer scientist, told his university’s news bureau: “I am not convinced that tactical interventions like taking soda machines out of schools and adding 15 minutes of recess time will have an enduring impact. I do believe we need to re-think how we live as a society and effect policy changes that strategically focus on the root problems, not just the symptoms.”

For sure, automobile use is a root problem. But reducing it significantly is also a pretty politically ambitious goal to focus on. Reformers would be taking on the auto industry and its related corporate forces, including the oil industry.

In order to combine walking with compatible, faster means of getting around, we’d have to redesign and rebuild much of America’s infrastructure. The cost would be enormous to build enough rail lines, trains, trams, buses, sidewalks, rain shelters, bike paths, and much more. We’re talking about a new built environment.

Here’s another solution that focuses on a root problem: reduce poverty, since obesity is heavily correlated with it (as are crime and many other social ills). But I won’t go into how politically and economically challenging the reduction of poverty would be. Let’s just mention that the poverty rate has been rising.

And let’s be clear: I’m in favor of all of the above. But maybe we should start with a reform that is less monumental. As a revolutionary option that isn’t politically and economically enormous, what are we left with?

My answer: a national Revolutionary Physical Education (Revolutionary PE) program. Putting it provocatively — and summarizing my previous blog — people need to be forced to exercise and ingrain healthy exercise habits, and the only place we can do these things, aside from the military, is in school.

The hours spent now in PE in schools and the minutes spent in PE classes in vigorous activity — unfortunately, they’re almost jokes. The benefits, however, of five-days-a-week, one-hour-a-day, very vigorous exercise over 13 years, from kindergarten through the twelfth grade, would be no joke. Research indicates that, for many people, exercising a lot while young bestows lifelong health benefits, including lifelong fitness habits.

As I’ve previously discussed, there would be objections. But the only important one is: Where’s the money going to come from? Implicit in this question is another: Wouldn’t funding for Revolutionary PE classes subtract from a school’s (and parents’) devotion to competitive sports: football, basketball, baseball, hockey, and the like?

School team sports — benefitting a few — long ago won the fiscal tug of war against PE and intramural sports — benefitting the many. Given the mass emotional loyalty to teams that has swollen over the decades, won’t the nation’s 16,000 school districts balk at financing both sports teams and excellent PE?

Yes, they will. That’s why financing for Revolutionary PE shouldn’t be asked of local officials. When towns and cities run into revenue problems, they first put the knife into physical education, art, and music. On the flip side, “cutting out football” is a threat school officials use to get citizens to accept a tax increase.

Team sports, Revolutionary PE, and other community fitness enrichments could be financed locally if towns, cities, and counties had truly progressive taxation, including the elimination of corporate tax breaks.

But here’s typically what happens at the municipal level: This year, to fill a budget gap, my city council, after many years of giving property-tax breaks to every big-box national corporation that put its hand out, closed the public park at a lake where people who don’t own a summer cottage could go to swim — the only such place within dozens of miles of the city.

It’s not that corporate executives and wealthy people would necessarily object to more money being spent to make our (and their) kids healthy. It’s just that they don’t want to pay the higher taxes necessary to accomplish that goal. And some non-wealthy people have the same attitude.

Shortsightedness and ideological blindness among American politicians aren’t limited to the municipal level. State funding for Revolutionary PE would be similarly constrained. Most legislatures are too heavily under the thumb of corporate lobbyists and the now-notorious One Percent (or even Five Percent) to raise the money to ramp up physical education. All over the country, state support for school PE is weak.

Even in a bad economy with poor tax collections, in my home state of Maine the current legislature and governor — demonstrating their priorities with great clarity — cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy. To fill in the revenue shortfall, among other service cutbacks they took millions from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, created by the 1998 national tobacco settlement. Along with other consequences, this move reduced obesity-prevention efforts, and school health coordinators are being eliminated.

The federal government is the only funding source able to transcend that kind of narrow-mindedness — at least, sometimes. Many progressive reforms, such as educational and environmental reforms, have depended on federal leadership and financing. Private foundations often help by funding studies and pilot projects to figure out the details of what needs to be done, and they could do this with Revolutionary PE.

I have used the word “progressive,” but the reform I’m advocating is financially conservative. Given our country’s skyrocketing health-care costs, the creation of a healthier population is about as cost-saving a measure as can be conceived.

I have more to come: How much money will Revolutionary PE need? How would that sum compare to other federal appropriations? From a strictly financial viewpoint, what would be the cost-benefit calculation? What could be the specific tax source or sources? In addition to an appropriation, what policy mandates are needed? Who would support this good cause? Who would oppose it?

Finally, very politically, how could a Revolutionary PE appropriation pass Congress and be signed by the president? Stay tuned to this blog.

Lance Tapley is a guest blogger for League of Fans and a freelance writer based in Maine.


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