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Fat, Smoking, and Stupid Is No Way to Go Through Life

I’m distorting, of course, the lengendary admonition of the evil Dean Wormer to the (seemingly) fat loser Delta pledge Flounder in the classic film Animal House.

I had to add  “smoking” and delete “drunk” from the original quote, because they weren’t particularly judgmental about smoking in 1962.  That is, alcohol abuse and not smoking was associated with being a loser back in those less enlightened days.  Smoking, in fact, doesn’t get in the way much of being a good student or a productive citizen. Alcohol abuse was the main culprit for the self-destructive (if witty and somehow enlightened) behavior of the Delta guys. (The Sixties’ vibe of the film was most clear in the postscripts that assured us that the Deltas all turned out to be, despite being expelled for very good reasons, huge successes, while the Omegas who stayed in school all met deservedly bad ends.)

(More digression:  The best thing about the film is the motto of Faber College: “Knowledge is good.”  Nobody could for a moment defend that Platonic faith on the campus, least of all the one professor we get to know a little.)

Back to the story:  Cigarettes, used as directed, will very probably shave years off your lifespan.  And the biggest loser these days is someone who make the huge error of short-sighted indifference to “risk factors.”  That may be why, as I also learned on BIG THINK,  studies show smokers can’t get dates these days.  (I’m not at all sure that’s true:  A not negligible percentage of Berry College students smoke, and the lookers among them still seem to be doing okay.) Smoking is certainly less sexy than ever.

Animal House came to mind when I read the excellent BIG THINKER David Berreby’s post on the trinity of evildoing for our sophisticates todayobesity, smoking, and not saving for retirement.

The study Dave cites (by a Chinese guy touting, in effect, the superiority of his language) connecting differences in syntax among various languages as a key to variations in prudence about the future is completely implausible to me.

Here’s one reason:  Americans pretty much speak English.  But there are huge variations in behavior among Americans on the obesity, smoking, and savings fronts.  As I said before, the most recent studies (by Charles Murray, David Brooks, and others) connect those differences to class or, better, tribe.  Americans, Brooks says, are divided into an upper and a lower tribe.

The upper tribe is more prudent than ever:  Its members are thin, fit, don’t smoke, and save their money.  It used to be weight didn’t correlate with class much at all.  Lots of rich guys used to be fat and smoke;  they were in every respect, as we learn from Mad Men and many movies, not particularly health conscious.  It even used to be that men were much more attracted to women with considerable body fat as a sign of prosperity and even health.  Now body fat is more unerotic than ever because it calls death to mind in neon letters.

Meanwhile, I’ve said before, the lower tribe is still plagued with smoking and a genuine obesity epidemic. Its members have steadily gotten worse (until maybe very recently) when it comes to saving.  Some people would say that consumerist materialism or the welfare state are to blame.  Others would talk about the instability of familes and the growing number of single parents.  Others still would say with considerable evidence that families have to work more hours than ever to make ends meet.  Our high-tech, globalized economy has caused wage stagnation, with a contributing factor being women flooding the workforce.  Wage increases have lagged behind productivity increases and the cost of living.  It’s easy to add, of course, a lot about the decliinng quality of the education available to the ordinary guy’s kids.

There is also the tendency to connect these vices with the lower tribe’s desperate attachment to guns, God, and sundry forms of oppressive and superstitious fundamentalism.

What’s interesting to me is why BIG THINK writers and readers (reflecting, as they do, the upper-tribe consensus) are so judgmental about the obesity, smoking, and lack of savings of others.  Those judgments seem contrary to the libertarian drift in the way they talk about morality generally.

Maybe they care that they’re fellow Americans are making erroneous choices when it comes to their health, happiness, and security.  Maybe they care about these behavioral threats to personal productivity and so our nation’s future prosperity.

Or maybe they’re afraid that those they’ll end up having to pay for the consequences of the “bad choices” of those screw-ups.

If the members of the lower tribe don’t start getting more prudent when it comes to their future security or retirement, for example, they’ll become so impoverished in their old age that we’ll be stuck with taking them on as dependents.  With the general movement from defined benefits to defined contributions, the ordinary working stiff is no longer guaranteed a pension but only the opportunity to save his own money for his old, unproductive years.  So he better save a lot, and he’d better manage his funds wisely. 

If he (or she, of course) continues to smoke and stuff his (or her) face with refined carbs, of course, we can have the solace of hoping that his (or her) money lasting as long as he (or she) does won’t be such a big problem after all.


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