I’ve been in Washington for three weeks now. Spending time with Howard Dean’s internet campaign manager (Joe Trippi) last week has been one of the highlights and I’ll write more about that soon… A lo-light was a two-and-a-half hour plane trip to Texas. I was sat next to a very large American lady who needed a good very proportion of my seat space for her own considerable bulk. America has a real obesity problem. A recent report put the annual medical costs at $75billion. Surveys have suggested the UK costs of obesity are at least £2bn pa – and rising.
One conservative American Governor – Mike Huckabee – has made the problem of excessive consumption a personal and political priority. Governor Huckabee (of Arkansas) lost over 100lbs over the course of a year in his own war against flab (see above).
Huckabee has also instituted a state-wide programme to cut obesity rates. This is what he told yesterday’s New York Times (subscription required):
"I don’t want to be the sugar sheriff. I don’t want to be the grease police. That’s not my job. But when I look at our state budget, and I see that every year our Medicaid budget is increasing by 9 to 10 percent, and I look at state employees’ health plans and I see that those costs are escalating at double digits and twice the rate of inflation — as a fiscal manager, I have not only the right but frankly also the responsibility to see what can we do to improve this bottom-line cost."
Obesity is another very good example of how increasing demand for government is putting an ever higher floor under the size of our increasingly bloated government. Small government fundamentalists object to any government programmes that, for example, attempt to tackle obesity or promote healthy marriages. Calls for such modest programmes are drowned out by reactionary cries of ‘Nanny state! Nanny state!’
But modest investment in preventative programmes (ideally delivered by third sector organisations) can save the taxpayer a lot of money in future years. David Cameron appears to grasp this. In his recent ‘Nation of the Second Chance’ speech he said the following:
"The average taxpayer now contributes at least £570 every year to the direct costs of family breakdown, but only 21p is spent on trying to save troubled relationships. Paltry sums are invested in helping couples build healthy relationships in the first place. Harry Benson of Bristol Community Family Trust… runs superb relationship courses in ante-natal clinics, civil registrars and prisons. Everyone should be given the best opportunities to form stable, healthy relationships and, especially where children are planned, to develop happy, healthy marriages."
The road to a smaller state lies in healthier marriages, less obesity and more drug rehabilitation (among other things). It is essential that small government conservatives find ways of delivering such social goods…