What Are Our Obligations to Each Other?


By one estimate, roughly $243 billion in spending on healthcare in the US is due to obesity.  That money comes from tax dollars and health insurance premiums.  That’s approximately $775 per year for every man, woman and child in the US.  The number is probably a conservative estimate; the real figure could be a lot higher.(1)

Full disclosure:  my weight is up there.  I thought I was under the threshold for obesity, but now in my sixties, I’m shrinking, literally.  I’ve lost an inch in height and that lowers the magic number for being obese.  The calories I can afford to consume each day have dropped as well.

Do those of us who are overweight have the right to impose these extra costs on our friends, neighbors and other taxpayers?

That logic was the basis for introduction of a “fat tax” in Denmark in 2011.(2)

US law is ambiguous.  Common law holds that the right does not exist.  If my apple tree damages the siding on your house, I’m responsible for the cost of repairs.  However, more recent legislation on handicapped access suggests that there is a right to impose costs on others.  I need a wheelchair and I can make you pay for the cost of a ramp so that I can access your town hall or library.

The question of obligation has clear implications for tax policy.  There are those, usually quite wealthy, who say they have no obligations, even though their wealth in built on the labor or people who may be drawing on Food Stamps to make ends meet.  Logically, it makes no sense to condemn welfare programs for individuals while asking for handouts for corporations — yet this is what many do.

The fat issue offers clear incentives for individuals to diet regardless of taxes or cost.  Available data link overweight with diseases ranging from allergies to cancer.  Basically, if you want to feel better, you lose weight, which is what I’m doing now.  I don’t like the idea that I’m imposing extra costs on anyone, but I simply want to be able to breathe more easily.  So, if that’s what I need to do, let’s do it.




(1)Finkelstein, Eric A., et. al.  “Annual Medical Spending Attributable To Obesity: Payer-And Service-Specific Estimates”. Health Affairs, 28, no.5 (2009):w822-w831.  I did a simple, linear estimate based on the 1999 and 2008 figures provided in this article.  The rate of increase shown in their article between 1999 and 2008 is actually less than current estimates of the inflation factor for healthcare costs during that period.
(2) Vadi, Valentina. Public Health in International Law and Arbitration.  Routledge, 2013.

Willful Illiteracy and Politics


How did America sink to the level of politics being demonstrated this year?

According to available data, most people can read.  UNESCO reports a world literacy rate of


6.3%.  Armenia reports a literacy rate of 99.8%.  The developed countries of Western Europe and North America are excluded from these calculations.  The figures serve to make  most of the globe look good at the expense of Africa.

The literacy data is overstated, for a number of reasons:

  • Definitional variations of what qualifies as literacy — both in terms of compentency and in terms of how to count people who are fluent in something other than the “official” language;
  • Use of self-reported rather than objective information — consumers are reluctant to admit that they have trouble either reading or understanding what they read; and
  • Government reluctance to concede to the under-performance  of educational programs.

When stringent standards are applied to the US, the actual literacy rate may fall between 65% and 85%.  Many other countries probably are below that, not just African nations.  The UNESCO data seems errant and pointless.

However, the statistic doesn’t tell the entire story.  Tech manufacturers learned years ago that many people (most American males, certainly) don’t read instruction manuals.  Repairmen would go to customer sites and find the manuals stacked in a corner, still in their shrink wrap.  What’s the difference between someone who can’t read and someone who doesn’t?

How does this affect politics?  Think about it.

  • A person who hears a sound byte on TV may not have the tools to evaluate the truth of what he or she hears.
  • A person who hears a sound byte on TV may not even understand what it means.
  • The reporter and the politician both may lack the knowledge required to think through questions and give thoughtful answers.  So you get softball questions and bland, meaningless responses.  Or worse, you get mudslinging because the participants lack the knowledge to address issues at any level of detail.

There’s no evidence that most politicians or commentators are better than the general public in terms of reading.  Some were.  Theodore Roosevelt was an avid reader (in a number of languages) with a phenomenal ability to recall details of what he had read — and his policies are virtually the opposite of those propounded by the current Republican party.  There’s no one with Roosevelt’s literacy among current political leaders in the US.

Functionally, de facto illiteracy means that public policy isn’t made by politicians and can be immune to electoral events.  By default, policy is made by people with some level of technical knowledge — staffers and bureaucrats who are rarely visible to the public and aren’t elected.

What was the last book you read and how long ago?  Graphic novels don’t count.


  1.  Institut de Statistique de l’UNESCO (ISU), September 2015.
  2. A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st century”, National Center for Educational Statistics, 2006.
  3. Kozol, Jonathan (1985). Illiterate America. New York: New American Library. ISBN 0-452-26203-8.
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literacy_in_the_United_States.

Superficial Analysis of Affluence


No, this isn’t a blog about the current primary elections, the sound bytes used by candidates or the less-than-brilliant reporting by the media.  That’s to obvious and there’s nothing much to learn from that disappointing experience.

No, my focus is on the business press, and why we can get wild divergences from one day to the next.  On Tuesday, the sky is falling.  On Wednesday, the markets are posed for a surge based on (possibly false) economic reports from country X.  I haven’t heard about a reader charging the financial press with a whiplash injury, but in our litigious society, I’m sure its only a matter of time.

One recent example concerns the health of the US consumer.  Who controls the wealth?  One source, Yahoo, talks about Millenials controlling over one-third of income.  Another, Pew, talks about Boomers controlling 70% of disposable income.  Both statements contain some truth, but nether is solid foundation for a business plan.

Why is that?  Simply, a dollar to a Millenial isn’t the same thing as a dollar to a Boomer.

(1) Millennials are mired in the gig economy.  Short term jobs provide  some sense of “freedom,” but also provide no benefits.  There’s no paid vacation and no healthcare.  Millennials also have student loans.  So members of the 20-30 age group face much higher expenses than their predecessors.  Their incomes haven’t grown enough to cover these additional costs.  Money available for discretionary spending is almost non-existent.  Stores focusing on sales to this group have a problem.

(2) 60 year olds have home equity,some money in the make, Social Security and Medicare.  They may not have enough for the length of time they will live, but if not, most don’t know that yet.    Those that can afford to do so are invested in annuity products that guarantee income through their lifetime.

As the tag line used by one invest2ment company in NYC years ago went, wealth is not about how much you earn, its about how much you keep.  Boomers may have lower earned incomes than Millennials, but they may have more money available to spend on what they want.  Recent reductions in inheritance taxes further distort the relationship between earned income and wealth.

Most of the evidence seems to support a focus on older consumers.  Some consumer brands are starting to notice, for example, with the introduction of hair care products for senior women.







The Disconnect Between Marketing and Money


The next time you see an ad for Sprint or Coca Cola or McDonald’s, ask yourself the simple question:  Who is this ad targeting?  Why?

The next time you read financial reports and hear about companies like Abercrombie & Fitch or other stores targeting teens and younger adults struggling, you should think about the same questions:  Who is their market?  Why?

These are very good questions.

These companies are targeting a consumer segment that is declining in both relative size and affluence.  The trend isn’t new, but executives aren’t necessarily tuned into demographics.  Or they are victims of habit and groupthink.  Or they don’t know how to change with the market.  Or they’re chasing faddish marketing technology and missing basics.

 Size:  The charts below show the profile of Americans by age.  The story is simple and obvious.  We’re living longer and there are relatively fewer children and young adults.  Educators understand this, with the growing emphasis in universities on adult education.  Pharmaceutical companies clearly understand this.

However, executives of CPG and technology companies seem to be missing the point. Marketeers are missing the point.  How many older Americans use their cell phones to shop or bank?  How many of them have trouble just manipulating the keys?  (Full disclosure: I’m one of the oldsters.)

(Source:  https://populationpyramid.net/united-states-of-america/2016/)

Wealth:  Older Americans control more than 70% of disposable income in the US.  Period.

Just exactly how are stores  making shopping more comfortable for older consumers?  When was the last time a display designer even considered the challenges older consumers face?

Heck, I’ve had to get down on the floor to get a bottle of white vinegar off a bottom shelf in a Wegmans.  How many 80 year olds would or even could do that?  Many wouldn’t even realize the product was there.

LLBean management are the experts in handling older consumers.  Managers at other stores should visit the store in Freeport to see how its done.

The famous bank robber, Willie Sutton, once told an interviewer that he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is.”

Frankly, that’s how marketers need to think.  If you want to make money, you have to sell to the people who have the money to buy it.  Until the US addresses the problem of the cost of education, the 20-something market is tapped out.  The target market for US resellers and technology companies should be upwards of 50 years of age.