How Much Body Fat?

Denying the Obesity Data

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

I’ll call him “Bill.” He is a good friend, a wise mentor and an all around great guy. I listen carefully when Bill speaks. Recently, we’ve traded a few emails on the general topic of politics, economy and business. What I love about our “conversation,” electronic though it is, is that we are not trying to change the other person’s mind. This is simply discourse with the goal of understanding the other person’s point of view. A search for common ground and values.

Bill is a believer in small government, meaning as small as possible, and then perhaps even smaller still. No intrusion into our private lives. Minimal intrusion into our business lives. I know that he knows that I don’t take things quite that far. I believe that we “get the democracy and the regulations we deserve.” Sadly, a few big bad actors can (and have) spoiled it for the rest of us. Think Enron, WorldCom, Madoff, etc. (By the way, this analogy is not a casual choice. Here’s what’s going on with the obesity conversation right now.) Small businesses often get crushed in the regulations that big business causes by misbehaving. I don’t “blame” government so much as shake my head at how greedy and unpatriotic big corporations can be. So our civil conversation is about exploring the limits we each might set and why. I told Bill that I think of government and all that goes with it (taxes, corruption, regulation, etc.) as though it is body fat. That is, you must have some in order to survive, but you should strive to have as little as possible. The question is, how much is healthy? Should I have 10%, 15%, 5%? Size, shape, age and gender matter too. The same level isn’t healthy for every person. Certainly it can’t be zero, and we know from the data that our population is obese and unhealthy. You’re likely tired of hearing about that fact.

The same is true of our government – it’s obese and unhealthy. But just like going on a diet for my own weight, an effective remedy is a complicated matter. What kind of food? How much do I cut back. If I try to lose weight too quickly I know, from experience, that eventually I’ll just put it back on again. I know exercise is important too. Is a high protein diet the right way to go?

Analogies always fall apart when you take them too far. I might push this one just a bit further. When I’m “sick” I don’t go on a diet to lose weight. I eat what I need and rest in order to regain my health. Then I get back to my exercise and diet to stay healthy. Some of the argument our country is having is about what we need to do first; get healthy or slim down. It’s true we need to do both, but what’s the timing and what’s the diet?

No one diet works for all individuals. No one remedy for our economy is going to make things better across all sectors. For sure there are some common threads. When I’m “back on my feet” after being sick, I know I will have to limit calories. What kind of calories to limit? How much? It’s not rocket science, but what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. What works for aerospace manufacturers won’t be best for farming. You get the picture. It’s complicated and we want to apply simple bromides. Cut taxes? Nope cutting taxes alone doesn’t really work, it’s a cherished myth. Cut regulations? Sure, but where? Most of them are rigged by the lobbyists anyway. Cut spending? Sure, but where and how much. Honest, intelligent and reasonable people differ on where to draw the lines. Just like lobbyists protect their industries, people protect their incomes too. It seems logical to me that any solution will need to be a combination of all the things we “know” we have to do AND it must be a long term solution. We will not right the ship overnight.

I know I’m not going to change Bill’s mind and frankly I don’t want to. I do want us to each have a voice in our democracy. I do want us, all of us, to have a civil discourse and try to understand the other person’s point of view. If we do that, we should be able to figure out a diet that will at least help most of us even as we know it won’t be the “magic bullet” for all of us. Democracy is about compromise. Business leadership is about doing things right so we don’t incite government to regulate. When will we learn? What lessons can we apply to our internal business conversations?