physical fitness and the economy


In my life, I have been an athlete, a fitness model, and a personal trainer. Now, I am just an over-the-hill ex-all-of-those-things, but an awareness of fitness still colors the way I look at everything that I think about. And lately, I have been thinking about the economy.

So let me tell you some insights that physical fitness gives me about how we should think about the economy, and the budget, and the deficit.

When a person is overweight, he (or she) tends to think that “skinny” is the same as “in shape”, but it is not. A body can be out-of-balance in two different ways: you can be fat or you can be scrawny. Taken to the extreme, both obesity and starvation are unhealthy. And for those motivated by vanity: both are unattractive. The ideal healthy attractive body is not “skinny” per se, but has nice firm rounded muscles. The ideal healthy body looks neither “gaunt” nor “flabby”, but looks fit and strong and in-shape.

If you are overweight, you can’t get an attractive in-shape body by dieting alone. It’s absolutely not possible. I know guys who are 130 pounds and feel like they are “fat” because they look in the mirror and don’t see a 6-pack. So they refuse to eat, but out of laziness they also don’t exercise. And although they are told it over and over again, they refuse to believe the simple fact: you cannot “diet” your way to a 6-pack. It absolutely cannot happen. If all you do is cut back on the food you eat, you will look in the mirror and see a flat, flabby tummy until the day that you drop dead from malnutrition.

That image—which is sad and funny and pathetic and ironic all at the same time—is a very real situation for a large number of looks-obsessed young men. It is also an exact parallel to the “cut spending only” approach to fixing the deficit.

Our budget has been in deficit every single year consecutively since Clinton left office. It has been out of balance. Like a fat person thinking that “thin” is the same as “healthy”, we therefore have decided that the only important measurement of the health of the economy is the size of the deficit. And like the fat person who thinks he can diet his way from fat to “in shape”, the politicians think they can simply cut spending and get a healthy economy.

That’s not what our economy will become. Our economy will be the skinny guy with the flabby stomach who is wondering why he doesn’t have a six-pack when all he eats is 1 cheeseburger a day.

The analogy actually goes even further. When you take in too few calories, you may lose weight but you also lose energy. When you lose energy, you have less motivation to exercise. So you begin to feed a self-sustaining cycle: a starving person moves less, so needs fewer calories, so eats fewer calories, and becomes more tired. Eventually wasting away. If all you do is cut spending, your deficit will go down. But government jobs will go away, bridges will crumble, services will be discontinued. The government will be able to do less because it will have less energy. It will be losing weight, sure: but it will be losing muscle, in the process. It will not be healthy, it will merely be skinny.

What kind of government do you want? Do you want a skinny, wasting-away government that doesn’t have the energy to do anything at all? Or do you want a healthy, vibrant, in-shape government that isn’t out-of-balance, but has the strength and power to get things done?

If you want a healthy government, then you have to approach it like a healthy body: you have to have a mixture of diet AND exercise. You have to eat enough calories to be active and do the things that build up muscle and keep you (i.e. society) healthy. Police, education, libraries, schools: these are what make a society healthy. These are the “muscles” that allow the culture to be strong. You have to feed them, and exercise them, to keep them.

Otherwise the government is destined to be the starving boy (or girl) who looks in the mirror and wonders, “Why do I still feel fat”?