American Idle

04/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"I know this has gotten out of hand. I've got to do something about it," said the man who weighed 1000 pounds.

I watched the show in amazement -- not because of the side show nature of it, but the extraordinary statement by the subject: "I know this has gotten out of hand." You didn't think it had gotten out of hand at 300 or 500 or 700 pounds? You had to get to 1000 pounds, unable to get out of bed or through the doorway until the idea of, "I've got to do something about it," occurred to you? He seemed surprised, like it happened so fast. It didn't. It's just that he refused to notice and kept stuffing himself -- until it couldn't be ignored.

As I watched, I wasn't thinking of him as him. I was thinking about how enormous a problem has to get before anyone takes action. Prevention is smart and relatively inexpensive but it's hard to get people to pay attention to something that hasn't happened yet. For many years, people were happy and didn't ask questions about Bernard Madoff's fantasy world until it crashed. Excessive bonuses were given to "the best and the brightest" as the companies they captained fell into financial sinkholes. Indiscriminately granting loans then selling toxic debt made people a fortune until its inevitable collapse took major financial institutions, minor home owners and our economy with it. We remain idle until we had no choice.

"I know this has gotten out of hand":

The jobless rate has exceeded 600,000 for three straight months, the first time that's happened since collection of the data began in 1939. Unemployment is at its highest point in 27 years.
The Federal Reserve reported on March 12th that households lost $5.1 trillion, about 9 percent of their wealth in the last three months of 2008. This was the largest single quarter decline in the 57-year history of recordkeeping by the central bank.

Even the Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, is worried about the security of its $1 trillion dollar investment in American government debt.

Health care costs are far higher in the United States than in any other industrialized nation, whether measured in total dollars spent, as a percentage of the economy, or on a per capita basis.

The American health care system lags behind other sectors of the economy, and behind foreign medical systems, in adopting computers, electronic health records and information-sharing technologies that can greatly increase productivity.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the United States spends $480 billion more each year on medical costs compared to Western European nations that have universal health insurance coverage. The costs are mainly associated with excess administrative costs, inflated prices and poorer quality of care. Although there is no agreement on a solution, experts agree that our health care system is grossly inefficient. These problems significantly increase the cost of medical care and health insurance for employers, workers and affect the financial security of families.

A recent study by Harvard University found that 50 percent of all bankruptcy filings were partly the result of medical expenses. Losing one's home is not just about the subprime mortgage fiasco; approximately 1.5 million families lose their homes to foreclosure every year due to unaffordable medical costs.

Health costs here have been rising significantly faster than the overall economy or personal incomes for more than 40 years. Total spending was $2.4 trillion in 2007, or $7900 per person.
What does all that money buy us? The United States ranks 37th in the World Health Organization's quality index and 29th in life expectancy of industrialized countries.

What about our schools, the place where our future leaders in science, business and government will be coming from? The United States ranks 9th in adult literacy, 12th in reading ability, 19th in Science and 24th in math among all industrialized countries. (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development)

In a Yale University study, the United States ranked 45th in environmental sustainability. Our energy dependence on foreign oil has grown substantially over the past 35 years.

From the levees of Louisiana, to highways, bridges and our broadband capability, the infrastructure of the United States needs serious work to meet the demands of our future.

These issues are not Democratic or Republican. These issues affect all of us. We have become the 1000-pound man trapped in his own house. In order to get the medical care he needed, the side of his house had to be removed, he had to be lifted out with a crane -- in other words, extraordinary means had to be employed.

President Obama has gone from being considered inexperienced and someone who won't be able to get anything done to being criticized for trying to do too much at once. He cannot be accused of being idle. Obama is pushing for massive change in health care, energy, infrastructure and education.

Democrats and Republicans know our economy is in deep trouble, that it needs attention, but failing to pay attention to those other critical areas would not change what have become systemic problems that have deep economic impact. These initiatives are inexorably tied to the long term recovery and strength of our economy. Thinking that they are separate is the same kind of thinking that got us to where we are.

The 1000-pound man didn't get that big overnight, but now that we can no longer avoid it, we've got to do something about it. We Americans cannot afford to be idle.